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Throughout the history of Rome, from the monarchy to the late empire, religion had played a great role in it's society and was involved in almost every aspect of the life of the Roman citizen. It was common for each house to have it's own patron god/gods and ,on special occasions, the head of the house would make a sacrifice to the personal gods of the family. Also, great festivals were usually held in honor of certain gods and would include spectacles like chariot races and Gladiatorial fights.
The Phases of Roman Religion
The religious practices of the ancient Romans are best remembered with grand temples, great festivals and Christian persecution to the final acceptance of Christianity within the Roman empire over the traditional pagan religions. The Roman religious practices can be divided into three phases which span from the founding of the city to the fall of the empire.
The First Phase (753 BC to 500 BC) - The first phase of Roman religion dated from the founding of the city to the early republic. This phase occurred before the Roman civilization had really adopted the Greek ways and so the religious practices of this time consisted of only three gods and these gods were known as the Archaic Triad. The gods of the archaic Triad were Jupiter (Jove) ,Mars and Quirinus. These gods had their Greek counterparts and would later be identified with them. Jupiter was the supreme master god and so he was associated with Zeus of Greek mythology. Ares was the god of power and war and so he was associated with his Greek counterpart, Ares and Quirinus was the god of the Roman people in general and he had no Greek counterpart. Mars was valued and worshipped more by the conquering and warlike Romans than Ares was to the Greeks and ,as a result, he had The Fields of Mars named after him. The Fields of Mars was located outside of Rome and it is where the soldiers would train.
The Second Phase (500 BC to 313 AD) - Before the end of the 6th century BC Greek influence had begun to affect Roman religion and this resulted in the transformation from the Archaic Triad to the more Greek influenced Captioline triad. In this triad the gods Mars and Quirinus were replaced by Juno and Minerva. As time went on ,during the second phase, the Romans adopted more variations and the number of Roman deities grew as ,like the Greek counterparts, they had a god for almost every aspect of society.
Following is a short list of some of the more well known Roman gods and their Greek counterparts:
Heavens and Earth
Females and Marriage
Spirit of Love
House and Home
Party, Wine, and Bad Behavior
Medicine and Poetry
Messenger of the gods
During the later part of the Republic and throughout most of the pagan empire, the Romans deified ( or made gods of) people who were well loved or committed great deeds during their life. People were usually deified after their death and the deification was most always done by the senate. With the assination (and later deification) of Julius Caesar, it became popular for the senate to reward dead emperors ,who had served well in life, with deification. A humorous note to this involves the death of the emperor Vespasian in which he said ,just before he died, " I feel I am becoming a god." Upon deification an emperor usually had temples built in his honor and a cult of followers.
Also, during this period the Vestal Virgins were a major part of Roman religious practices. The Vestal Virgins were a sacred group of women whose duty it was to keep the sacred fire of Vesta burning at all times. The Vestal Virgins were required to take a vow of chastity upon entering the cult and the breaking of these vows was an offense punishable by a painful death. These revered women were so highly regarded by the Roman populace that they were given seats of honor in public places ,like the arena, when the regular woman was always put in less nobel areas.
The Third Phase (313 AD to 476 AD) - By the early empire ,in the first century AD, the traditional form of Roman religion was beginning to show signs of breaking up. Causes for this breakup could be attributed to the swarms of new religious beliefs that were sweeping through the Roman empire and the fact that most of these theologies promised peace after death to the destitute and uneducated majority of the Roman populace. The most notable of these new religions was Christianity ,which had found it's roots in the rebellious Roman territory of Judea.
"And so it Came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augstus that whole world should be taxed"
These famous lines of the Christian Bible describe the first mention of a Roman Emperor and would be remembered throughout history with the birth of Jesus Christ ,the symbol of christianity. Though his life was short and he was crucified at an extremely young age, Jesus developed a cult following due to his presumed miracles and of his preaching of eternal peace and everlasting life. His crucifixion resulted in the spreading of his faith throughout the Roman empire and in the beginning of the end of traditional Roman religion. Ironically enough it was the Romanization of Europe that allowed the Christian faith to easily spread. By the death of Christ, the whole Roman empire was connected with well constructed roads and inns which allowed the prophets to spread their message easily and safely.
During the first decades preceding Christ's death, Christians were tolerated but not really liked by the general population of the Roman empire due to their refusal to acknowledge the emperor as a living god. This act of defiance was considered heresy by the state .The real mass persecution of the Christian people came during the reign of the emperor Nero who needed a scapegoat on whom to blame the great fire during his reign. He chose the Christians because they were only a new group and did not have the total acceptance of the Roman people. These persecutions were horrible and involved all sorts of barbaric tortures which included the victim being fed to the lions, crucified or being used as a human torch. These same persecutions which were meant to discourage christianity actually helped it to grow because it was believed that the Christians died for their religion (became Martyrs) which made them look even more nobel to the people.
Because of this persecution, many early Christians were forced to worship in the Roman Catacombs which was one of the few places they would be safe. The catacombs were sacred to the Romans because their dead were buried there and it was forbidden for them to kill anyone within their walls. It is also true that the crucifix was not always the symbol of Christianity but ,in fact, it started out as a Pagan Roman symbol. The fish was the identifying symbol among the early Christians and they identified with each other through that way.
The beginning of the third phase and of the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire occurred in 312 BC, upon the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. It is said that he had a vision from the Christian god before a monumental battle in which he was told that he would have victory if he painted the sign of Christianity on the shields of his men. He did what was told of him and was victorious and converted the empire to Christianity.
As soon as Christianity had taken a major hold in the empire and Christian communities developed, the early Christians decided that they needed a form of government to bind all the communities together. The Bishop was the head of all the Christian communities in certain districts called dioceses or sees. Under the bishops there were the priests who were specially set aside for church work and to help the priests were men called deacons. This system of church government developed under the Roman Empire is still in the same basic form used today.
In Pagan Rome, the Pontifex Maximus was the head priest who was in charge of all religious affairs of the state. In Christian Rome, the head Christian priest adopted the title and would be later known by history by that name. The high Pontiff ,or Pope, became an important figurehead next to the emperor and he was given a big role in the making of descisions. Near the end of the Western empire, when the imperial capital had been moved from Rome to Constantanople by Constantine, the pope (or bishop) was the only important man left in Rome and so assumed a position of power and responsibility. In 445 AD it was decreed that the Bishop in Rome had supremacy over the whole church.
Even though the Roman empire did fall less than 200 years after it adopted Christianity, the beliefs that Jesus inspired rose from the ashes and flourished. From the Roman empire, the church inherited much and Christianity had adapted the Roman form of government and the Roman idea of unity. It is because of these Roman ideals that Christianity survived through the ages to become the strongest religion in the world.