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Ancient Rome: Religion

File:Juno Sospita Lanuvium.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Religion played an important role in everyday life in Ancient Rome, with altars in every home and a packed calendar of religious festivals. The Romans mostly followed a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods and goddesses. Read through the resources below to learn more.

Marble statue of Pan

Villa gardens and peristyles (courtyards) were filled with images of Dionysos and woodland creatures from his entourage. Pan, the goat god, appears here in his usual form as a shaggy-haired, bearded man with the legs, horns, and tail of a goat. His back is bent under the weight of a vessel or wineskin once held on his left shoulder. The statue was probably designed as part of a fountain complex with water gushing from the now-missing container.

Marble disk with a herm of Dionysus in relief

Bearded Dionysos with wreath of grape leaves. In Roman houses such decorative discs were attached to the wall or suspended between the columns of a colonnade.

Marble pediment of a funerary altar

This fragment of an altar is from a commemorative monument in which identifying inscriptions would have appeared on the shaft below the three portrait busts. Since that part of the altar is now missing, the relationship between the figures is not known. The woman at the center, whose hairstyle suggests a date in the early second century A.D., is the main focus of attention and so is thought to be the mother of the two men, who look respectfully toward her. It may be that they died first, and their grieving mother, who is presented in a more lifelike pose, was left to set up this monument.

Marble plaque with funerary inscription

The inscription records the death of a woman called Lollia Genialis and says that the plaque was set up by her mother, Lollia Sameramis, who describes herself as infelicissima (most unfortunate). Such superlatives appear frequently in funerary inscriptions and provide insight into personal emotions such as the deep sense of loss felt by grieving parents.

Marble head of a deity

The wreath with pomegranates suggests that this head represents a deity, such as Ceres, who was associated with the generative powers of nature.

Head of Christ or Zeus

That this head could either be Zeus or Christ demonstrates how Romans incorporated multiple belief systems into their religious practices, owing to the size of their empire.

Marble funerary altar of Cominia Tyche

This woman's name is known from the inscription below the portrait which reads: "To the spirits of the dead. To the most saintly Cominia Tyche, his most chaste and loving wife, [from] Lucius Annius Festus. [She] died at the age of twenty-seven years, eleven months, twenty-eight days. Also for himself and for his descendants." This cippus, or grave altar, is known to have been in a house near the Roman forum in the sixteenth century. It entered the collection of Cardinal Francesco Barberini during the seventeenth century. The jug and patera (libation dish) on the monument's sides allude to the common practice in antiquity of pouring liquids as an act of commemoration, in this instance recalling the modern tradition of placing flowers at the graveside.

Apart from the arresting portrait with Cominia's massive hairdo of a late Flavian or early Trajanic style, the funerary altar is remarkable for the details that the inscriptions provides about her age and character, and sense of loss expressed by her husband. In giving her exact age at death in terms of months and days as well as years, it implies that her date of birth had been recorded and was known to her grieving husband.

Bronze statuette of a priest sacrificing

He holds and incense box in his left hand.

Marble portrait of a man from a funerary relief

This head from a funerary relief probably represents a freedman, or former slave, who achieved prosperity after obtaining his freedom. Such reliefs showing busts of family members within a window-like frame were often set into the outer wall of a family's funerary building.

Marble statue of Aphrodite, the so-called Venus Genetrix

Copy of a Greek bronze statue of the late 5th century B.C. attributed to Kallimachos

This goddess wears a sleeveless, ungirt chiton of thin clinging material that reveals every curve of her body. Her pose—between standing and walking—was developed by the sculptor Polykleitos in the mid-fifth century B.C. She originally lifted one edge of her himation (cloak) with her right hand and probably held an apple in the other.

Marble mask of Pan

The remains of two horns set in the bristling hair identify this bearded mask as that of Pan, the rustic goat god, who was venerated all over the Greek and Roman world as an uncivilized power of nature. His cult originated among the herdsmen of Arcadia, a wild mountainous region of Greece, but by the time this decorative mask was produced, Pan had become primarily a denizen of private villas, where on wall paintings and in garden sculpture, he disported with Dionysus and his band of satyrs and maenads.

Bronze statuette of the goddess Fortuna

Fortuna is the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Tyche. She holds a ship’s rudder and a cornucopia. On her head she wears a diadem with a modius on top.

Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ

The sarcophagus was carved about the time when Christianity was first recognized as a legal faith within the Roman Empire. The two legendary scenes of the Miracle of Saint Peter Drawing Water from a Rock in His Jail Cell and Saint Peter’s Arrest in Rome, crisply carved in powerful, deep relief at the left, are among the earliest surviving images depicting Peter’s special relationship with Rome. When the sarcophagus was identified in 1879, only the lower legs, with scenes from the life of Christ on the right, survived (see image). Incorrect identification of the figures led to inaccurate restoration of the upper portion of the scenes carved in low relief.

Originally, four scenes from Christ’s life decorated the sarcophagus: the Entry into Jerusalem, the Cure of the Man Born Blind, the Multiplication of the Loaves, and the Raising of Lazarus. In the modern restoration, the Cure of the Man Born Blind was omitted, with the man’s feet used instead for the small, frightened child in the Entry into Jerusalem. Roughly carved in low relief on the ends are two Old Testament scenes foretelling mankind’s salvation by Christ: Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace and Adam and Eve after the Fall by the Tree of Knowledge.

Lead votive plaque

The plaque contains a complex iconography of divine figures and symbols, probably to be associated with Thracian or Dacian beliefs of the Lower Danube region. Presiding over the whole scene is Sol Invictus (the invicible sun-god) in a quadriga (four-horse chariot). His cult originated in the Near East and gained increasing influence under imperial patronage during the third century A.D. The state worship of Sol was only supplanted by Constantine's adoption of Christianity in A.D. 312.

Marble relief fragment with the head of Mars

Mars was one of the more important gods of the Roman pantheon. Numerous temples, shrines, and altars were dedicated to him in Rome and throughout the Empire. As the god of war, he had many of the same attributes as the Greek god Ares, but he was also closely associated with the imperial cult, since the emperor's power and popularity depended heavily on the army and its military successes. Mars was therefore often depicted on monuments celebrating imperial victories, notably on triumphal arches, a distinctively Roman type of public building. This fragment presumably comes from one such monument, perhaps even from the now lost Portico of Septimius Severus in Rome. Mars is represented in the canonical guise of an older, bearded man wearing a Corinthian helmet tipped back on his head.

Silver statuette of Venus

The Roman goddess Venus was early assimilated to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Her cult remained very popular throughout the Roman period, and many votive bronze statuettes have survived. Examples in silver, however, are rare, and this is an unusually large one, modeled on Hellenistic prototypes. Venus holds an apple in her left hand, a reference to her victory in the legendary beauty contest with Juno (Hera) and Minerva (Athena) that was judged by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy.

Silver votive plaque

Similar votives, made of thin sheets of silver, cut and impressed to look like leaves or feathers, are known from many different provinces of the Roman Empire. They were pinned up in temples or shrines as votives to a variety of deities, who are usually named in a dedication. This example, however, is uninscribed, but the seated god can be identified as Pluto, God of the Underworld, because he is accompanied by the three-headed guard dog Cerberus.

Bronze plaque of Mithras slaying the bull

The cult of Mithras was very popular throughout the Roman Empire and was followed especially by soldiers. It was one of several eastern cults that spread rapidly as a result of the pax Romana (Roman peace); others included the worship of Jupiter Dolichenus, Manichaeism and, of course, Christianity. Shrines dedicated to Mithras have been found at sites as far apart as Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain and Dura Europos on the River Euphrates in Syria. This plaque may well have decorated the wall of such a Mithraeum (place of worship). Busts of Sol (the Sun) and Luna (the Moon) watch over the ritual scene of Mithras slaying the bull, aided by a dog, snake, and scorpion.