Cultus Deorum - Definitions (Roman Republic)

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Essential Terminology and Concepts

Every religion has its own particular terminology and concepts. The ancient Roman religion is no different. Although this religion uses many words that are familiar vocabulary, many of the meanings have been altered over the last millennia. Therefore, understanding the Roman concepts behind words is of critical importance in the study and practice of the Roman religion. Below you will find some fundamental terms and concepts which need to be understood prior to any study of ancient Roman theology, ceremonies, rituals, prayer or sacrifice.

Religio Romana (Also referred to as the Cultus Deorum Romanorum)

This defines the collective religious practices, signs, ideas, and traditions of the ancient Roman people and those practicing these traditions today. This represents not one single form of practice but a set of related beliefs and practices. There is no central dogma for these customs. Instead various beliefs regarding the Gods and Goddesses are respected, explored and celebrated. These customs evolved over time throughout the centuries but share a common historical origin based upon the traditions of worship among the early ancestors of the Roman people. The Roman Republic classifies the historical origins of modern practices to the time period between 735 BCE and 382 CE.


The Religio Romana is a polytheistic religion. It acknowledges that the universe is filled with spiritual powers which can be manifested as Gods and Goddess of an untold number. The deities observed by any individual or community can differ. The Gods and Goddesses of a community are viewed as intimate associates of that given group or individual. Followers of the Religio Romana believe all Gods and Goddesses coexist in harmony. Some deities can be known by different names or by different qualities by different groups or people. The honoring of new deities is welcomed as part of the spiritual evolution of the religion. The Religio Romana is not expansionistic; instead it absorbs and readily adapts religious ideas to achieve a greater understanding of the universe. The only requirement for religious innovation is that all Gods and Goddesses are treated with respect and appropriate reverence. In acknowledging this natural evolution a greater spiritual understanding can be achieved by followers of the Religio Romana.


The ancient Roman term religion (religio) has a different meaning than it holds today. The term religion to a Roman defines the process by which one forms a relationship with the Gods. The term does not represent the actual relationship which is formed; instead it represents the means by which the relationship develops. In this way, religion is the expected etiquette observed while building a relationship with the Gods and Goddesses. A religious Roman is expected to cultivate a relationship with the Gods in a correct manner. This can be through performing rituals and prayers in the correct manner and by honoring the deities with the respect and admiration they disserve.


The ancient Roman term for superstition represents the opposite of religio. This term describes behavior which incorrectly describes the nature of the Gods and Goddesses as evil, jealous, tyrannical or harmful. Thus, superstitio ideas tend to be based on concepts which are meant to spare one from divine wrath. Therefore, ideas and acts which are superstitio cause inappropriate fear of the Gods. Thus, calling upon the divine powers to cause harm to others, or to reveal future events and for other abuses is regarded as superstitio. Consequently, fortune tellers, astrologers, curses and other such things are superstitio. The Religio Romana condemns superstitio as it perverts realization of the true nature of the Gods and Goddesses. The Religio Romana views the deities as universally virtuous and good. The Gods do not wish to enslave or harm morals. The Gods can offer support to mortals, and through religio we strive to build relationships which welcome the Gods into our lives. A deity may choose to withdraw support or not assist a mortal, but they do not actively cause or wish harm upon mortals. Therefore, ideas which are superstitio are in direct conflict with the general understanding of deities as understood by the Religio Romana. Generally, superstitio is regarded as disrespectful and offensive to the Gods and Goddesses.


The Roman use of the term sacred (sacer) is different from today. For Romans the process of making something scared is not performed by a God or Goddess. Instead, making something sacred is performed by mortals. Mortals choose to make an object scared in order to present it to a God or Goddess. In this way, the process of labeling an object as scared is the means by which a mortal labels an object as becoming property of the Gods. Therefore, the deities are not sacred, and conversely no object is divine. During public worship priests and magistrates are granted the support of the community to label objects as scared and to present these objects to the Gods. During private or domestic ceremonies any individual can label an object as scared on behalf of themselves or their family. Labeling an object as sacred is routine practice during sacrifices. Any object offered to the Gods and Goddess during a sacrifice becomes sacred and therefore property of the divine. Occasionally, a divine power can directly label an object as sacred. This is performed through a divine sign. During ancient times, this was often in the form of unusual natural phenomena.


The Roman use of the term profane indicates something which is not sacred. Therefore, profanus is the opposite of sacer. Objects which are profane belong to mortals. Importantly, objects which are labeled as sacred can be relabelled as profane and vice versa. This is common during sacrifices. Often when a food was sacrificed this item would become sacred upon being offered to the Gods. After this offering is made some or all of the offering could then reclaimed as profane and consumed by the worshippers.


The Roman term for holy indicates anything that has divine approval and protection yet is not the property of the Gods. Those things that are sacred (property of the Gods) were usually also sanctus. Conversely, not everything that was sanctus was necessarily regarded sacred. In many cases something or someone was regarded as sanctus without being sacred or the property of the Gods. For example, a place, person or object regarded as special to a God, such as priests, magistrates, laws and treaties were all regarded as sanctus but not sacred. When sanctus is violated, be it by people, places or things, it is greatly offensive to the Gods and Goddesses.


The term piety to Romans means more than just observing the Religio Romana. Pietas means having correct relations with family, friends, the greater community, in addition to the Gods and Goddesses. In modern times the notion of morality is closely related to the ancient concept of pietas. Having piety means understanding and fulfilling one's social obligations to both mortals and the divine. Similarly, the Gods are regarded as naturally pious. The deities do not harm, they assist mortals and communities and coexist with other divine powers in harmony. Related to pietas is purity. Purity can be both physical and spiritual. One is regarded as spiritually impure after a death in the family, tragedy, or after an improper ritual. When one is impure they are expected to observe a period of mourning, if appropriate, or to undergo a ritual asking for assistance from the Gods to purify one’s spirit. Likewise, before a ritual honoring the Gods an individual symbolically washes their hands as a gesture of purifying the body physically and spiritually.


The opposite of pietas. Impious actions involved denying family, friends, community members and deities the respect and honor they are due. It also involves neglecting ones social responsibilities or damaging the property of others. There are two categories of impietas. The first is imprudens, the second is imprudens dolo malo.

Imprudens is impietas performed without malicious intent. Examples of this might be forgetting to pay back a friend, or improperly performing a sacrifice. Imprudens is absolved through performing two actions, the first being reparation for the error and the second being sacrifice to the Gods.

Alternatively, Imprudens dolo malo involves acts of impietas which are intentional and with malicious aims. There is no divine reparation of these acts. Those who have performed acts of imprudens dolo malo should not expect such acts to be forgotten of absolved away by the Gods. Instead, they strive to change their ways and demonstrate such change through continuous acts of pietas and overall virtue over the course of a lifetime. By this means they can demonstrate to mortals and the divine alike recognition and restitution of past errors and a willingness to avoid impietas in the future.


One element which unifies almost all concepts around the Religio Romana is the idea of libertas or liberty. To a Roman this means respect for the natural order. This comes in various forms. One should respect and honor the domestic order and members of one’s family. Similarly, one should respect and honor the civic order of one’s community. Lastly, one should respect and honor the supernatural order of the divine. This means relations between the individual and their family, their community and their Gods should be one based on rationality and respect and not on fear or involuntary demands. Therefore, one should strive to be both a voluntary patron and a client when engaging in these relationships. A father or mother is a loving patron to their children. The child is a respectful client who honors their parents. The magistrate is an honored patron to their community; the citizen is a respectful and dutiful client in return. Likewise, the Gods are divine patrons to the community, family and individual. The community, family and individual is a pious client who helps foster a thriving and pious relationship with the divine. These relationships make up the natural order. All of these relationships are voluntary to various degrees and all are good intentioned. If such relationships do not respect liberty or the honor of other party, such client-patron associations may be voluntarily discontinued. Liberty in this way is held to the height regard within the Religio Romana.


A ritus or rite, is a Roman means of religious communication with the divine. A ritual is performed with actions, be this gestures, or movements involving other people or objects. Ritus does not include the spoken content of a ceremony. Instead, ritus involves the actual performance of physical action within the context of a ceremony. These actions communicate to the Gods and to devotee at a higher level than spoken words alone. Often the actions performed as ritus fulfill or carry out that which is being spoken during a ceremony. Therefore, a ceremony cannot be completed without ritus.


A ceremony is another means of religious communication between mortals and the divine. Cerimonia usually involves spoken words and are always accompanied by actions known as ritus. A ceremony can have multiple meanings. In ancient Rome ceremonies often took on new or multiple meanings over time. The importance of these meanings can vary between individual or community. However, the content of the ceremony and the manner in which it is conducted is largely static and unchanging regardless of differing meanings. The Religio Romana is strongly centered on the concept of orthopraxy. This means correct performance of ceremonial formulas is of utmost importance and an essential aspect of demonstrating reverence for the Gods and Goddesses. In this respect concentration on the correct performance of ceremonies demonstrates honor and care towards the deities. Therefore, any ceremony performed with error was restarted from the beginning until performed without error. Furthermore, most ceremonies include an apology to the deities for any unintended and unnoticed errors in the ceremonial formula. Ceremonies performed in public are occasionally elaborate in nature. Comparatively, ceremonies provided in the private home are often simpler. Yet the basic overall formulaic components of both public and private ceremonies are largely similar.


This is a term with modern origins, it was not used by ancient Romans. This is a slang term that became popular in the last centuries of the Roman Empire. It comes from the term paganus. This roughly translates into the term “country peasant” and was derogatory in that it implied backwardness or ignorance. This term was used to describe those who honored the old Gods and Goddesses. Today this is a common word that has lost much of its derogatory meaning among followers of polytheistic religions. Despite this, the Roman Republic discourages the use of this term. This is because the word “pagan” was originally used in an insulting manner towards our spiritual ancestors. Additionally, this word does not accurately reflect the full nature and history of the Religio Romana.