Temple of Diana. Merida
Temple of Diana. Merida
Temple of Hercules Victor. 120 BC. Rome
Temple of Hercules Victor. 120 BC. Rome

The older Romans worshiped the numina, forces of nature that reside in things, beings and nature. At first they did not have human representation but later some of the divinities are outlined, among them the most outstanding were:

-The capitoline triad, composed of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. They had a temple in the Capitol.

Mars, the god of war.

Janus, the god of the doors, the beginnings and the endings. In honor of this deity of two faces was dedicated the first month of the year, January.

Venus, the goddess of the gardens.

Vesta, the goddess of domestic fire.

In the private or family cult, the head of the family known as pater familias, was responsible for the rites, generally focused on the domestic deities, the lares or gods of the house, and the penates or gods of the pantry.

In the wealthy homes, there was a corner of the atrium for the lararium, a niche for family worship of the ancestors, with figurines and imagines maiorum, which were portraits that were at first the funeral masks and were exhibited during the funerals.

On the other hand, other divinities called manes, were the souls of the dead. The deceased were transformed into shadows or ghosts and became gods of the kingdom of death. There was a sacred grave, the mundus, which was uncovered three months a year and allowed the deceased to return to the earth. In addition to these deities, each individual worshiped their personal genius.

Temple of Nimes (Maison-Carrée). Nimes
Temple of Nimes (Maison-Carrée). Nimes

Public religion led to the establishment of the Roman State, due to the principle of adapting the actions of the nation to the sovereign designs of Jupiter, with the vocation to implant in the world the wishes of a god who defended justice, law, loyalty, etc. In the Latin world it was considered that arbitrated in the litigation between cities, guaranteed the pacts and borders, and everything related to the relations between the different ethnic groups.

Everything could happen as long as the gods or Jupiter, the most important of all, desired it. The cosmos is a dynamic equilibrium, reflected in the pact between gods and men, pax deorum, where all Roman cultural actions tend to their maintenance, recovery when the pact seems broken, or the establishment of a new one when circumstances indicate it. The favour of the gods or of Jupiter was needed in the decisions of the state and for all this, expert fortune-tellers were used to find out the divine will:

-The haruspices: they read in the viscera of the sacrificed victims.

-The priests quindecimviri sacris faciundis: they read in the Sibylline books, Libri Sibillini, a compilation of oracles of Greek origin.

-The augurs: directly interpreted the desires of Jupiter, were the most important and were constituted in a priestly college. They studied the celestial signs and the flight of the birds.

The divinatory art had its origin in Etruria, a region located to the north of the Italic peninsula, which was one of the most religious peoples of Antiquity and whose rites, which marked the relationship between gods and humans, strongly marked its personality.

During the Republic the Greek gods were assimilated, and the old divinities were better defined. The main gods of the Roman pantheon were the following:

Bronze representing a liver. Used for divination by Etruscan haruspices
Bronze representing a liver. Used for divination by Etruscan haruspices
Goddess Venus. 2nd century BC
Goddess Venus. 2nd century BC
GodsGreek EquivalentFunctions
JupiterZeusKing of men and gods, he is the most powerful
JunoHera Marriage protector; Jupiter's wife
MinervaAthena Goddess of the arts, sciences, wisdom and war; daughter of Jupiter
ApolloApollo God of music, poetry, auguries and sunlight
NeptunePoseidonGod of the sea
MarsAresGod of War
VenusAphroditeGoddess of beauty and love; was born from sea foam
MercuryHermes Messenger of the gods, protector of commerce and travel
VulcanHephaestusGod of the fire
CeresDemeterGoddess of agriculture
DianaArtemis Goddess hunter, protector of the forests; Apollo's twin sister


Temple of Poseidon (Greek archaic era). Paestum
Temple of Poseidon (Greek archaic era). Paestum
Temple of Fortuna Virilis. Rome
Temple of Fortuna Virilis. Rome

Mention should be made of a number of aspects in which Roman law and state religion are mixed:

-The responsible of the Law, both human and divine, were the pontiffs, who constituted the Collegium pontificum, a priestly college that was the highest authority on religious issues, presided over by the Pontifex Maximus, or Pontifex Maximus, and from whose activity the jurisprudence was born .

-From the pontifical school emerged the septemviri epulones, which relieved the pontiffs in the direction of the epulae Iovis, which were sacred banquets in which through food, also sacred, with the most distinguished representatives of the city, Jupiter came into direct contact.

Emperor Elagabalus
Emperor Elagabalus

Aggregates to the Collegium pontificum were:

-The rex sacrorum: in republican times carried out the sacred tasks that in the monarchical period were typical of kings.

-The flamines: there were three majors and twelve minors. They were priests who dedicated themselves to the worship of a god. The deity was added to the name of the flamen, e.g. the Flamen martialis was the priest dedicated to the cult of Mars.

-The vestals: priestesses of the goddess Vesta, virgin guardians of the perennial fire and other symbols of the state.

-In addition there were four brotherhoods: arvals, salii, luperci (the activities of these three were held in periodic celebrations) and fetials (executed the rites of war and alliance). These brotherhoods worked in substitution of the Roman people, pro populo Romano.

At the beginning of the imperial period, the beliefs of the Romans had moved away from the ancient rites and the old cults, which continued to function more by tradition than by true belief of the people. Some atheism had taken root. In any case, with Augustus, a new religious tradition began, the deification of the emperor, who received the majority support of the population, and at his side also deified his family and by extension the goddess Roma. Therefore, it can be affirmed that this process of deification was both religious and political.

The cults of emperors such as Vespasian or Elagabalus were exaggerated. Other later emperors looked for a god for all the Empire, like Aurelian with Sol Invictus or Unconquered Sun, or much later Julian the Apostate with Helios.

Regardless of the specific religious beliefs of each individual, the Romans believed in the immortality of the soul and most believed that the hells were in the bowels of the earth. Some thought that the souls of the dead would take revenge on the living if they were forgotten and waited for the offerings in the form of food to survive in the afterlife. The majority, like the Greeks, believed in the payment of the mite to the boatman of Hades in order to cross the river of death.

Over time a philosophical and religious sensibility develops, and the mystical inclinations of the time favor the expansion of the idea that an ascetic life is a path for the salvation of the soul. Given the religious freedom that exists in Rome, Eastern religions are favored at this juncture, and cults such as Isis and Osiris (from Egypt) or Mitra (from Persia and India) gain many followers, as does the classic to the Great Mother or Magna Mater (of Phrygia) that had already been implanted for several centuries, having the honor of having a temple on the Capitoline Hill already converted the goddess in Cybele.

This spiritual emptiness in which the Roman society was had left a gap prepared to receive a new faith, which would end up embracing the State as the official religion until its last days. In spite of the serious persecutions that it suffered from its beginnings, the time of the pagan cults touched its end giving way to Christianity.

In the year 394 AD Emperor Theodosius in the battle of Frigid ​​defeated Flavius Eugene, who had wanted to reinstate the old religion. Although in the rural world it lasted longer, this date is considered as the end of the gods of the ancient world.

Mausoleum of Hadrian
Mausoleum of Hadrian

Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina