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 original Roman concepts behind words is of critical importance while studying and practicing 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.
Index of Imortrant Terms & Concepts
IMPORTANT TERMS AND CONCEPTS
This term defines the collective religious practices, signs, ideas, and traditions of the ancient Roman people and those practicing these traditions today. This term represents no one single form of practice but a set of related beliefs and practices. The Religio Romana is a collection of unique cults that together form a mosaic loosely united under a community that views itself as Roman, and shares some fundamental ideas on the general nature of the Gods. There is no central dogma for these customs. Instead, various beliefs regarding the Gods and Goddesses are respected, explored and celebrated within individual cults and between cults. These customs evolved over time throughout the centuries but share a common historical origin based upon the traditions among the early ancestors of the Roman people. The Roman Republic classifies the historical origins of modern practices to the time period between 753 BCE (the founding of Rome) and 382 CE (removal of the altar of Victoria from the Roman Senate).
The nature of the modern practice of the Religio Romana is based upon historical facts and beliefs. However, it also acknowledges that the continuity of the tradition of the Religio Romana was broken in the decades after 382 CE. No longer was the knowledge of the Gods transmitted between parents and child over the generations. No longer were the cults of Rome maintained, priesthoods disappeared. Knowledge was lost through the discontinuity of the oral tradition, and the loss of written and other material records. Therefore, the state of the Religio Romana cannot be restored today on a one-to-one basis with that which existed in Rome prior to 382 CE. Nevertheless, compared to many other ancient religions that suffered a similar fate, the existing historical record for the Religio Romana is excellent, probably the most complete record from antiquity. We certainly do not know everything as it was practiced by our ancestors, but we do know enough that to master only the academic aspects of the Religio Romana represents a lifetime of study. Therefore, a historical tradition is beginning to be restored, and with an ever-quickening place since 1998, with the creation of the first societies focused upon this goal.
The Religio Romana of today takes what we know about the past and applies this understanding to meet the needs of the present day. We seek to restore a tradition that would be recognizable to those who practiced the ancient Religio Romana prior to 382 CE. Yet, it is unavoidable that the modern Religio Romana will be different from the past. Where knowledge gaps exist in the historical record we mindfully fill in the blanks while still considering the historical background and context. To do so, we research related traditions from other cultures, reflect upon the Gods, and search for signs from the Gods. These were approaches used by ancient Romans to understand the Religio Romana, and we continue to use such methods today.
History shows that the Religio Romana always was evolving. How the Religio Romana existed in the time of kings, is different from how it existed in the middle republic, and different still from how it existed in the imperial age. There are constant and related themes over time, but the Religio Romana was not a static tradition. It evolved over centuries in a careful and thoughtful manner. The modern Religio Romana is yet another step in this ongoing evolutionary process.
Humanity has progressed over the last 1600 years. This is good. We seek to restore a tradition that incorporates the advancements made over time as mindfully as possible. To make the Religio Romana a true living religion in the modern sense requires such careful evolution. In doing so we can better connect those alive today with the benevolent Gods and Goddesses of ancient Rome and help meet the needs of a challenging and ever-evolving 21st-century world.
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 honouring 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.
Therefore, the term “Religio Romana” is a modern construct as it uses the word Religio is a manner that is modern rather than traditional. Thus, the more traditional term for the ancient Roman Religion is “Cultus Deorum Romanorum” or cults of the Roman deities.
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 after 382 CE. 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 in a derogatory manner to describe those who still honoured the old Gods and Goddesses. Today this is a common word that has lost much of its pejorative 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 and the Gods. Additionally, this word does not accurately reflect the full nature and history of the Religio Romana. It is also misrepresenting the Religio Romana as the term “pagan” has become associated with spiritual concepts such as Wicca and Occultism that are not related to the Religio Romana.
Instead of saying “pagan” we encourage the use of Religio Romana or Cultus Deorum Romanorum or Polytheistic Reconstructionism.
The ancient Roman term for superstition represents the opposite of religio. This term describes behaviour 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 good, benevolent and free 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. What is misinterpreted as harm is either a component of a greater divine plan or the result of the neutral withdrawal of the Gods enabling the effects of random chaos to be made manifest.
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. The Gods are perfectly virtuous and have free will. Therefore, ideas which are superstitio are in direct conflict with this 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 sacred is not performed by a God or Goddess. Instead, making something sacred is performed by mortals. Mortals choose to label an object as sacred in order to present it to a God or Goddess. Therefore, that which is sacer becomes identified as the 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 sacred and to present these objects to the Gods on behalf of a community. During private or domestic ceremonies any individual can label an object as sacer on behalf of themselves or their family.
Labelling an object as sacer is a routine practice during sacrifices. Any object offered to the Gods and Goddess during a sacrifice becomes sacred and therefore offered up as the property of the divine before it is sacrificed. Occasionally, and exceptionally, a divine power can directly mark an object as sacred without the involvement of mortals. 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 sacer. Therefore, profanus is the opposite of sacer. Objects which are profane are identified as belonging to mortals. Most objects are profanus. Importantly, objects which are labelled as sacer can be relabelled as profane and vice versa. This is common during sacrifices. Often when a portion of 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 would then reclaimed as profane and consumed by the worshippers in a feast.
The Roman term for holy (sanctus) indicates anything that has divine approval and protection yet is not the property of the Gods.
Those things that are sacer (property of the Gods) were usually also sanctus. A sacrifice that is offered to the Gods is made sacer and also becomes sanctus. Conversely, not everything that was sanctus (receiving divine endorsement or protection) was necessarily regarded as sacer. Therefore, a profanus object can also be sanctus. For example, a place, person or object regarded as special to a God, such as priests, magistrates, laws, groves and treaties were all regarded as sanctus but were often also profanus (the property of mortals).
When sanctus is violated, be it by people, places or things, it is greatly offensive to the Gods and Goddesses and is impious.
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. It also reflects awareness and respectful relationship with the order and hierarchy within the universe which is reflected upon our material world and in our interactions with the Gods. 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 (genius / iuno).
Likewise, before a ritual honouring 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 honour they are due. It also involves neglecting ones social responsibilities or damaging the property of others. It reflects not acknowledging the natural order and hierarchy within the universe. Impietas creates chaos, breaks relationships, spawns disorder, reduces the meaning and value of life, and generates misery. 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 by innocent accident. Imprudens is absolved through performing two actions, the first being reparation for the error and the second being a 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 simply forgotten or absolved away by the Gods. The Religio Romana is not built upon absolute notions of sin, damnation, and redemption. Instead, the magnitude of impietas versus pietas throughout a life lived is what is accounted for by the divine. One should strive to always change their ways away from impietas 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. The past is not changed. Tomorrow is where change can occur.
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 and it related to ideas around pietas. Libertas is shown 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 willing client when engaging in the full spectrum of relationships encountered in life. A father or mother is a loving patron to their children. The child is a respectful client who honours their parents. The magistrate is an honoured 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 honour of another party, such client-patron associations may be voluntarily and honourably discontinued, by mortals and the divine alike.
Liberty in this way is held to the heighest 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, such as 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 activity 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, carry out, or help explain that which is being spoken during a ceremony. Therefore, a ceremony cannot be completed without ritus or action.
A ceremony is the primary means of religious communication between mortals and the divine.
Cerimonia usually involves spoken words and are almost 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 centred on the concept of orthopraxy. This means the 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 honour and care towards the deities. This stands in contrast to modern traditions based on orthodoxy, or “correct ideas” over action.
In the Religio Romana, one has the libertas to believe what they believe. But like going to a job interview, or visiting an elder relative, there is expected etiquette in action to observed when communicating with the Gods. This action is of critical importance in the Religio Romana. This is a tradition of correct actions, with theological beliefs mostly determined by each individual in accordance with their life, preferred cults and experiences with the Gods.
Therefore, any ceremony performed with error is restarted from the beginning until performed without error. This shows pietas and the correct respect for the divine. Similarly, most ceremonies include a planned 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 in basic structure and intent.