Roman religion

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The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (built at the end of the 1st century BC or beginning of the 1st century AD) has the hallmarks of the Roman “standard temple”: open staircase, high podium, spacious portico.

The Roman religion , whose history dates back to the early 1st millennium BC. Can be traced back to BC , belongs like the vast majority of ancient religions to the polytheistic folk and tribal religions.

The practice of the Roman religion as a binding state cult of the Roman Empire ended in the 4th century with the imperial edicts of tolerance in favor of Christianity and the later prohibition of all non-Christian religions (except Judaism) in 380 and 393 respectively . Century .

Religious studies classification

Comparative religious studies differentiate orthopraxe from orthodox religions. Orthopractic religions (“getting it right”), to which the Roman religion belongs as a polytheistic folk and tribal religion, are based on the do-ut-des principle (“I give so that you give”), that is, there is a contractual agreement between gods and humans. In return for their cultic veneration, the gods grant people help and assistance and maintain natural and public order. The important thing is not what the person believes in the practice of the cult, but that the cult is properly performed. A cultic act can e.g. B. consist in the offering of a sacrifice, therefore one speaks of a "sacrificial religion".

On the other hand, in an orthodox religion ("believe correctly") the focus is on belief or confession (denominational religion). Correct belief promises divine salvation in the hereafter. Faith in Christ z. B. therefore supposedly leads to the salvation of the soul (more pointedly: to the immortality of the soul) of the human being. Cults and ritual acts were largely devalued by the Christian apostle Paul , while Christianity discredited polytheistic religions as " pagan ".

Religion in everyday life

The divine and human worlds of the ancient Romans were not fundamentally separated - as in a monotheistic religion with a transcendent god - instead the Roman population saw their gods as real existing in their surroundings, they could be thought of as "deified natural phenomena". Jupiter z. B. could be experienced as a deified thunderstorm and was therefore real. The world of the Romans was shaped by great gods like Jupiter or Mars , the mighty protector of the people and the empire in war and peace, as well as by small gods who lived in trees, streams or springs or, perhaps better, were one with them . The gods revealed themselves in their actions (esse in actu), they intervened in the concrete lifeworld of people. Paying intensive and careful attention to the gods in their omnipresence was “a decisive pillar of the Roman self-view and the collective attitude to life.” This created a close interweaving of each individual and of the social collective with the world of the gods.


That numen

House altar in Herculaneum , before 79 AD

The polytheistic Roman religion with its phenomenological view of nature and its striving to preserve the pax deorum (the divinely prescribed peaceful order) originally lacked - unlike the Greek religion, from which it differed greatly - an anthropomorphic pantheon in which the Deities were experienced in actual human form. The unapproachable, in the real sense “shy” deities of Rome also remained shadowy because they had no original or only poorly developed Roman mythology of their own . Although the Romans also understood their deities personally and with their own will, the deity as such often took a back seat to the divine act of will. The real power concept numen (pl. Numina ), which means something like divine activity, had a central meaning for the essence of the Roman religion ; he has been since the 2nd century BC. Occupied. The divine or numinous will could express itself in all living beings as well as natural and social processes and actions, so that the Roman world of a multitude of abstract numina - often terms of the Roman world of values: aequitas ("uniformity"), concordia ("unity") , honos (“honor”), libertas (“freedom”), mens (“spirit”), salus (“salvation”), spes (“hope”), virtus (“virtue”) - was ruled as function gods who ruled the Taking people to duty in terms of cult and social law. The developments that religion went through during its existence did not fundamentally change the significantly Roman, non-personal view of the transcendent and the inner attitude of the Romans to their religio . Even after the far-reaching monotheistic transformations of late antiquity , the divine effect in the term numen was able to remain in the foreground before the divine figure.

The religio

With the term religio, the Romans connected the word religere on the one hand (note something as before); the derivation of religare (reunite), which on the other hand seems possible , has been found especially in the Christian environment since the imperial era . In the second case , religio means the personal bond of man to a transcendent power (“ God ”), in the first case the conscientious observance of the traditional cultic customs that establish the relationship between the human and the “holy” sphere. The external intercourse with the gods had the mutual character of the do ut des ("I give so that you give"): One fulfilled one's ritual duties punctually and did something for the gods so that they - themselves not above the norms, but bound to this - offered a consideration. Without this resulting in a lack of inwardness of religion, the understanding of religio prevailed in pre-Christian times as the sum of the common cult practices that bound people and gods as it were.

Coin of the emperor Herennius Etruscus with the sacrificial implements of the pietas cult, before 251 AD.

Terms such as pietas (dutiful behavior towards gods and people out of an inner drive) had a meaning in the pagan world that cannot be equated with that in the Christian understanding ( piety ). The legendary progenitor Aeneas , who, on his flight from the burning Troy, carried the statuettes of the household gods ( penates ) and the father on his back and led the son by the hand, and therefore led the epithet, was considered exemplary of the Roman being and its pietas pius since Virgil's Aeneid adhered firmly. The fides , one of the earliest and most important Roman numina , meant loyalty and faith in a contractual relationship; the use of the word by the Christians in the sense of faith as a basic trust relying on God (i.e. the conviction of the salvation revelation of Jesus) had no equivalent in the Roman religion. This did not manifest itself in a dogmatic conception of God and a coherent theology , but precisely because of this lack of complex diversity it satisfied the spiritual needs of its followers, who in turn were able to dispose of overlapping religious entities in a polytheistic environment.

Cult forms

Cult formalism

From the point of view of many researchers, the Roman cult practice resembles magical acts: If the rules and formulas were adhered to exactly and without errors, the gods were compelled to show their benevolence to people. Rituals therefore formed part of almost all activities in Rome; During the imperial era, there were fixed dates for 45 state festivals alone. Although the rituals were repeatedly assigned new meaning, the extremely strict adherence to the traditional rites was, as a typical peculiarity of orthopractic religions, also a characteristic of the Roman religion and resulted in a barely overlooked abundance of commands and prohibitions for all areas of the cult. Even the slightest deviations from the traditional holy procedure forced it to be repeated in order not to provoke divine anger.

The meticulous rules for sacrificing animals - one of the most important cult acts of the Roman religion - are listed here as an example of the “attention to detail” of a ritual. The sacrificial animals, mostly domestic animals such as sheep, pigs or cattle, were differentiated according to sex, age, skin color, whether they were neutered or not, were still suckled (lactentes) or not (maiores). Two-year-old animals (then called bidentes : "two-toothed") were considered particularly suitable . Different types of wood were prescribed for the sacrificial fire for different animals; a. lucky trees (arbores felices) and ominous trees (arbores infelices). The chosen animal was festively decorated and led to the altar in a solemn procession. To the accompaniment of flute music, the sacrificial lord pulled the toga over his head, then repeated the sometimes complicated formula of the offering exactly. Then he smeared the animal's forehead with salt and meal (mola salsa) and ran the knife across the animal's back from neck to tail, after which the killing took place. The examination of the animal's entrails, which in turn had to conform to certain rules in their form, decided on the question of whether the god had accepted the sacrifice, i.e. whether the sacrifice was valid or had to be repeated.

Such ritual regulations were kept in the libri Sibyllini ; they were only allowed to be viewed under exceptional circumstances and after a Senate resolution , otherwise their content was considered secret. The emphasis on the taboo over the communicative aspects of a religion bound to places, objects and actions corresponded to a religiosity whose magical justification played an extremely important role.

Ancient prayer posture with arms outstretched and palms facing forward. - Wall painting from the Catacomb of
Calixtus , Rome, early 4th century AD

In addition to the animal sacrifice, often understood as a holy meal with the gods, to which field crops and drinks were offered (in the case of domestic offerings, vegetarian offerings predominated), prayer was one of the most important cultic expressions, but also public procession on the occasion of victory celebrations and divination through the interpretation of divine signs. Weapon sacrifices also played a role, in which stolen items of equipment were deposited on the altar (e.g. the spolia opima of the enemy general for Jupiter ). Whether 228 BC BC and 216 BC BC, after heavy defeats in the war with Carthage , human sacrifices actually took place in Rome , is controversial.

The lustratio , the solemn circular walk around a place, cattle or even a military unit placed them under the protection of the gods. Although the protective ( apotropaic ) function of this magical act was probably the original, the atoning-cleansing ( cathartic ) function sometimes came to the fore. Some lustrations became public processions ( armilustrium , tubilustrium , equirria ); the great cleansing and protection sacrifice of the people took place every five years under the name lustrum . Special cult acts were also the supplicatio (public petition) and the gratulatio (thanksgiving).

Finally, the divinatio , the prophecy or interpretation of the gods' signs, played a considerable cultic role. The development of a free prophecy that could compete with the political leadership did not take place in Rome. The examination of the will of the gods was basically incumbent on the state, which had it carried out by competent seers ( haruspices , augures ) according to an intricate set of rules. The official divinatio took place in the form of the intestinal inspection (especially the liver inspection ), the bird's eye view , the lightning observation, the oracle of the dead and the interpretation of other omens ( prodigia , ostenta , omina , monstra ), in which every extraordinary phenomenon of everyday life or in nature as divine Expression of will counted. The haruspices , who were always of Etruscan origin until the imperial era , prophesied the future, the augures obtained divine approval for a project that was only planned. Important state acts could only be carried out ex auspicato .

A number of criticisms were made of the seers, but they maintained their popular admiration (there were also a large number of traveling prophets in addition to the state haruspices ) until the end of antiquity .

Public and private cults

In addition to the state-organized and state-sponsoring cults (sacra publica), there were countless local, corporate and private cults (sacra privata), each of which was mutually tolerated. The cult acts of other ethnic groups were also accepted. This went so far that the Roman masters believed in the existence of the gods of subjugated peoples. The cultic worship of their gods was considered necessary, with the effect that religious tensions among the ethnic groups within the Roman Empire hardly arose.

Public Cults

Relief from a destroyed triumphal arch: Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180 AD), in his capacity as Pontifex Maximus and Triumphator capite velato (with ritually covered head),
makes a public sacrifice in front of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol . Most likely it is the sacrifice that marked the end of a triumph for centuries . The most important cult personnel surrounding the emperor are clearly recognizable: a flute player whose music is supposed to drown out disturbing background noises, a priest with a cap who speaks the appropriate formula to the sacrificing emperor, a sacrificial servant who hands him a casket with incense and a Another servant who will then kill the bull with the ax.

The public cult was not of greater importance than the private one, but could - for example through the priestly stipulations of the calendar - have an integrative effect. According to later tradition, the center of the public Roman religion was already at the turn of the 6th to the 5th century BC. For the triad of gods Iuppiter Optimus Maximus , Iuno and Minerva built great temples on the Capitol , the Capitolium of Rome . The most important solemn acts took place here.

It is true that the individual believer in the Roman - as incidentally also in the Greek - religion basically did not need a priest to communicate with the gods. Public cults, however, arose very early; a well-organized and self-complementing state priesthood supervised it and communed with the gods in the name of communion.

The state priests ( sacerdotes ) included individual priests ( flamines , rex sacrorum , vestales ), the colleges of priests ( pontifices , augures , tresviri epulones and the duoviri sacris faciundis ) and the cults ( fetiales , salii , luperci , arvales fratres , Titii sodales ). In the Roman pontifical religion, the rex presumably exercised the highest priestly functions during the monarchy , during the republic probably the pontiff Maximus , who was partly elected by the people and partly co-opted for life , and since Augustus the emperor.

The priests were of the greatest importance to the public, as they had a wide range of duties: They separated the dies fasti (days with jurisdiction), dies nefasti (days without jurisdiction) and dies comitiales (days of popular assemblies), established the calendar (see also: day characters in the Roman calendar ), decided on the basis of the signs interpreted by the seers about the legal validity of decisions of the public organs or could dismiss officials on the basis of religious misconduct. The important role of the cult proves to be in the long-running exclusivity of the highest priest sites for patricians to which the plebeians allegedly with the creation of a separate Cerestempels at the foot of plebeian Aventine responded where the Aventine Triad deities Ceres, Liber and Libera venerated and thus a counterpart to the patrician Capitoline Triassic was created. One thing is certain: for a long time, assuming public priesthood was one of the most important tasks of members of the nobility .

The domestic political connection between politics and religion was very close, but it was also expressed in terms of foreign policy, as in the religious alliances of the Italic - Latin cults for Diana , Fortuna or Mater Matuta with their own temples, which were supposedly built as early as the 6th century BC Were built. The inclusion of the Sabine god Sancus in the cult of the Roman Dius Fidius represented the attempt to win the neighboring people over to the concerns of Rome. The incorporation of foreign deities through integration into one's own world of gods ( interpretatio Romana ) was a particularly significant expression of the pragmatic approach of the Romans to religious questions. Another element of political ritual acts was the exoratio (request, reconciliation), by means of which the deity of an enemy was to be lured away and henceforth to grant its favor to Rome; this happened, for example, with the city goddess of Veji , who was installed in Rome as Juno Regina , with the Latin gods of war Castor and Pollux , who allegedly died in the middle of the battle of Regillus lacus around 496 BC. Were called by the Roman general to convert, or in the prayer of Scipio minor to the Punic gods after the conquest of Carthage in 146 BC. Chr.

The apotheosis of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138–161 AD) and the emperor's wife Faustina . - Relief of the honorary column of Antoninus Pius, Rome.
Stone tablet from the 2nd century, which was attached to an aedicula ( lares Augusti ) in the vicus Angusculanus .

With the beginning of the Principate , an additional form of public cult developed, which over time was to take on a state-supporting role: the ruler's or imperial cult . Its concrete beginnings can be found in the recording of the murdered Julius Caesar in 42 BC. BC as Divus Iulius among the state gods of Rome with his own flamen and temple ( aedes divi Iulii , built 29 BC). The historicity of ancient Roman (4th century) triumphs under Etruscan influence with godlike honors for the victorious ruler (painting the face with red paint as with Jupiter ) is very questionable and was without a direct connection to the late republic. The Greek cult of rulers , which was bestowed on victorious Roman generals , had a real influence ; The idea of ​​the hero as an intermediate stage from man to god is also of Greek origin, whose best-known example was Heracles , who as Hercules as early as 317 BC. Had received a cult in Rome.

Emperor Augustus rejected his worship as a god in the Italian heartland (but at least his name appeared in the cult song of the salii ), but allowed it together with those of the Dea Roma in the provinces. In Rome, the genius of Augustus was added to the lares compitales (patron gods of the city districts), who were renamed lares Augusti . Augustus, who as Caesar's adopted son already bore the title Divi filius , was officially elevated to Divus after his death , like every emperor after Claudius , Vespasianus and Titus who did not succumb to the damnatio memoriae ; this so-called apotheosis was a specifically Roman phenomenon of the ruler's cult. It has been handed down that some emperors ( Caligula , Domitian , Commodus ) allowed themselves to be venerated as gods or manifestations of gods during their lifetime, but this only became the rule during the reign of Aurelian (270–275 AD).

The empire-wide practice of the imperial cult became an act of loyalty to the regent and was therefore the reason for the conflict with the monotheistic religions of the Jews and Christians . The consecratio (deification) of the emperors by the pagan senate remained (albeit in a slightly different form) until Theodosius I , the imperial cult was replaced as a religious act since Constantine the great by a homage in which the Christians could also participate. Sacred elements of the imperial cult passed into the ceremonies of Christian royal courts; and the divine has roots in ancient ruler cult.

Private cults

Mockery of the Christian superstitio : The crucified one wears a donkey's head - a common idea among Romans - underneath it is written in Greek: "Alexamenos worships God" - graffito, Rome, approx. 2nd century AD.
Lararium (house altar) in the house of the Vettii, Pompeii , before 79 AD. On the side of the genius of the family stands the dancing couple of the lares with drinking horns, including a snake as an image of the genius who fills the house.
Small bronze statuettes of the gods that were placed in the lararium (1st to 3rd century AD, Roman Museum Vienna)

Sources depicting public religion in particular give little insight into the private religiosity of the Romans, which, at least during the republic, was hardly controlled.

Typical places of worship were the hearth and the house shrines, deities of the private sphere were u. a. genius (responsible for the creative and procreative power, especially of the host ) and the female equivalent iuno (for birth, marriage and care). The lares watched over the house and paths, the penates z. B. on supplies. (Of course, all three terms also occur in the state sector.)

Responsible for performing the rites was primarily the pater familias , the master of the Roman family. However, the public authorities also played an important role in the private sphere, as the priests had the task of ensuring that ritual acts were carried out correctly (control of burial rites and burial services, measurement of mourning times). The Romans, with their sense of the practical, regulated the cults of the dead under public law through a large amount of legal literature on the subject matter and the related questions of inheritance law.

The spirits of the deceased were an eminently important subject. Feasts of the dead reinforced the ties with the deceased family members ( parentalia ) and also contained the defensive fear of ghosts ( lemuria ). The late antique categorization of lemures as a name for the spirits of the recently deceased, lares as good spirits of the dead, larvae as evil (due to neglect of the cult) and manes as neutral is a subsequent construction, the names change from author to author. The common formula DM can be found on Roman gravestones , i.e. H. dis manibus (the souls of the dead).

The assumption that spirits were active everywhere, often demons, remained very much alive throughout antiquity; sorcery was a matter of course and was practiced in a very everyday way. There were an endless number of customs in intercourse with the transcendent; trust in human and animal miraculous powers could take extreme forms. The so-called "popular belief" in particular showed the great necessity of their religion for the Romans and the various forms in which they communicated with the higher powers. Archaeological evidence of popular belief is the evidence of consecration and votive offerings for healing and recovery, but also of the smooth transition to medicine and public belief in gods (healing god Aesculapius ).

Superstition (superstitio)

The border between sacra publica and sacra privata should have been quite porous. However, if the religious practices of the "common people" were too much in conflict with the public practice of religion, they were not infrequently disparaged by scholars as a superstitio (superstition, delusional belief or exaggerated belief in gods), which was in contrast to religio . Linguistically, the superstitio was interpreted as a transgression of state beliefs or as a remnant of an original, primitive popular belief.

The term got its pejorative meaning with the emergence of consciousness-destroying cult forms from the Hellenistic Orient, the Bacchanalia as one of the first of them were at the beginning of the 2nd century BC. Banned ( Bacchanalia scandal ). As a superstitio , a cult that had failed according to ancient Roman thought and action, so that Christianity was one too.

Roman religion in Roman literature

Some Roman writers, who are still widely read today, maintained a thoroughly critical relationship with religion. Particularly irritating are the testimonies of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) As an "augur" he was on the one hand a priest of high religious status, who from what and how the birds pecked from a measured field, hints for should deliver the right decisions. On the other hand, he doubted the existence of the gods, but recommended maintaining the cultic services because of their integrative, state and society supportive function. Besides, if the gods do exist, it would be good to have sacrificed to them.

Publius Ovidus Naso (43 BC – 17 AD), known simply as Ovid, describes the gods in an explicitly negative way in his Metamorphoses. Ovid did not present the divine work as bringing salvation, but as destructive and destructive. The harmless hunter Actaeon, for example, who happens to see the hunting goddess Diana naked while bathing, is transformed into a deer and torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs. Ovid opposed the traditional belief in myths with a rationalistic view of the world and man.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (1-65 AD) adhered to the stoic, fateful philosophy. Everything is predetermined, religious ritual acts of people and the divine service in return for the provision of salvation are automated or programmed, so in particular people are not free in their actions, which can therefore neither be wrong nor right.


Early Period and Monarchy (8th to 6th Century BC)

Landscape scenery with holy tree; Wall painting from the Villa of Agrippa Postumus in Pompeii , before 79 AD

The legend names the first king of Rome, Romulus , as the creator of the Roman religion, the second, Numa Pompilius , as the one of the Roman divine service, in which he is said to have established or ordered cults and priesthoods. Numa is also ascribed a ban on setting up images of the gods, which is reminiscent of their primarily numinous roots. For the Roman religion, its embedding in an Italic-Etruscan-Hellenistic environment and a process of change and continuity based on it is constitutive. The actual origins of the Roman religion, as far as they can be deduced from written sources and archaeological findings, lie in the vegetation cults of a still suburban society. Since the Romans were initially a people of arable farmers, just like the other Indo-European groups settling in Italy, a large part of the religious activities of the people was aimed at the flourishing of crops and cattle. These actions can be traced back to the predeistic layers of primeval magic . Evil had to be kept away from houses, stables and the field. Magical rites, sacrificial acts and various forms of prayer served this purpose. Before sowing z. B. the god Jupiter received a food and drink offering. Even the oldest known calendar, which according to the legend was also introduced by Numa, contained the central festivals based on the rural year ( saturnalia , cerialia , lupercalia , parilia ). Mars , worshiped as the main god by many Italian peoples and also by the early Romans, allocated the land and assumed such apotropaic- agrarian functions; In addition to his function as the god of war (for which he was later equated with the Greek Ares ), he was more related to the prosperity of cattle, the harvest blessing and poor harvests. In his work de agricultura, Cato maior quotes prayers to him for productive agriculture. Mars has been associated with fertility cults and deities (such as Ops , with whom it was co-worshiped). Together with Iuppiter, the common patron god of the Latins, and Quirinus , also a god of war, he formed a trinity that dominated religious life in early Roman times, to which the three high priests sacrificed. The gods of the peasant sphere also included Saturnus , Tellus , Flora , Liber , Consus , Pomona , Faunus , Silvanus , Terminus .

Early Republic (6th to 4th centuries BC)

The Roman religion changed since the end of the 6th century BC. When it acquired a more urban character under Etruscan influence. The city gods included Palatua , Portunus , Vesta , Janus , Fides , Aius Locutius , Moneta and Tiberinus . The original, open places of worship (locus sacer sine tecto) and sanctuaries such as springs, groves or caves were replaced by altars (first made of piled pieces of lawn, later made of stone), then temples . A number of previously private cults were carried out publicly and in particular the triad Mars-Iuppiter-Quirinus was replaced by a new Iuppiter-Juno-Minerva, with Iuppiter Optimus Maximus ("the best and greatest") assuming the role of Rome's protective deity; the magistrates now sacrificed to him when he took office. The inclusion of Minerva as the deity of handicraft and art in the Triassic corresponded to the more differentiated social conditions. The Etruscan influence also included more elaborate funeral and funeral rites as well as divinatio (fortune-telling).

The punished Cupid. Roman art liked to portray the Greek gods and myths in everyday, more natural scenes. - Wall painting from Pompeii , before 79 AD.

In the 5th century BC After the common Italian and Etruscan influences over southern Italy, a formation through Greek customs and religious beliefs followed, which gradually made Roman mythology act like a reflection of Greek; End of the 3rd century BC The world of gods had solidified itself in a system where every Roman deity was equated with a Greek: The twelve dei consentes Iuppiter - Zeus , Juno - Hera , Minerva - Athene , Mars - Ares , Neptunus - Poseidon , Diana - Artemis , Vulcanus - Hephaestus , Mercurius - Hermes , Vesta - Hestia , Ceres - Demeter , Apollo - Apollon , Venus - Aphrodite , as well as Pluto - Hades , Bacchus - Dionysus , Aesculapius - Asklepios , Proserpina - Persephone etc.

Middle and late republic (3rd to 1st centuries BC)

Initiation into a mystery cult through ritual whipping and dance of a bacchante . - Wall painting from the Mystery Villa in Pompeii , before 79 AD

The view that, thanks to the extent and the preservation of their religio, they towered above the other peoples was deeply rooted in the Romans, who spoke of themselves as "the most religious of all men". Nevertheless, with the advance of Rome into the eastern Mediterranean from the 3rd century BC Eastern and Hellenistic religions noticeable in Rome. In Rome, the fertility goddess of Asia Minor Cybele was known as Magna Mater (Great Mother) through the transfer of her cult stone from the monumental shrine of Pessinus from 204 BC. At home, where she was seen as the patroness of the Trojan ancestors and also equated with the mother goddess Rhea . The success of the oriental mystery and healing cults (not infrequently with gender-separated rites) was related to an increasing need for a personal relationship with the revered God and for individual salvation, which traditional customs could not satisfy. In the educated circles, under the influence of Greek philosophy, especially the Stoa , an intellectual religiosity with pantheistic and atheistic inclinations, also with a belief in stars and fate, found its supporters; they kept their distance from the mystery cults until the 1st century AD.

Early Principate (27 BC to 96 AD)

Solemn state procession of the imperial family. - Northern relief of the Ara Pacis Augusteae (Altar of the Augustan Peace), Rome, 9 BC Chr.

Augustus countered the rationalization phenomena of the late republic during his reign with the promotion of the myth as part of the Roman cult practice and a restoration policy: revival of the priestly colleges and cult associations, building of temples, creation of new numina ( pax , felicitas , iustitia , providentia , securitas ); the attempt to become the center of religious life by him in the year 2 BC. After a short time, Augustus gave up on postponing the temple dedicated to Mars Ultor (of Mars who "avenged" the murder of his adoptive father Caesar) on the Augustus Forum. The Capitoline triad remained decisive for the Roman religion, but the imperial cult , which was linked to the ruler's cult of Hellenism without being its direct continuation, met the new religious need for personalized worship. The cult basically began with the recognition of Augustus' outstanding auctoritas , which Augustus explicitly named as the justification for his claim to power, and it steadily gained in importance (transition to charismatic rule). Since the boundary between the human and the divine was less insurmountable for Greeks and Romans than for other cultures, the emperors, as well as particularly powerful Roman politicians in the past, were able to receive cultic honors in order to express a hierarchical relationship of loyalty. But in the east in particular, people sometimes went beyond this. Famous are the miracles attributed to Emperor Vespasian , which are related to New Testament stories about the miraculous healings of Jesus, but represent rather isolated cases in the context of the imperial cult. On the threshold of the 3rd century, the imperial cult took on some forms of an oriental god-kingship . The imperial cult, which was particularly cultivated in the army, not only served to demonstrate loyalty to the ruler, but also aroused true religious awe among the people, at least according to some researchers (this point is, however, controversial); eventually it became a supporting element of the state.

High Imperial Era (2nd to 3rd centuries AD)

Christ with the attributes of Sol Invictus : rearing horses, fluttering cloak and halo; Mosaic from the necropolis under St. Peter's in Rome, 3rd / 4th centuries. Century AD

Since the imperial era at the latest, the syncretistic tendencies towards religious salvation movements that existed in the west of the empire began to intensify. A soteriological interest was evident in all social classes after an east-west migration across the Reich and at the latest since the Antonine epoch ; the Flavian emperors cultivated Isis and Serapis . During the 2nd century, the veneration of Apollonios of Tyana , who was said to have had numerous miracles and an ascension to heaven, enjoyed growing popularity throughout the empire, which reached its peak among the Severans. Especially in the army, with its troops mixed from all parts of the empire, numerous special cults spread, of which that of the allegedly (?) Persian Mithras gained the greatest importance; Emperor Commodus (181–192 AD) was initiated into his mysteries. During a phase of political instability in the 3rd century AD, several emperors tried to revive the unity of the state by reviving traditional religion. The emperors Decius and Valerian demanded that all residents of the empire practice the cult of the gods (sacrificial edict of Emperor Decius 251 AD).

After 260 AD, the affixing of private dedicatory inscriptions for the usual gods and cults largely dried up within a generation. However, since much fewer inscriptions were placed in the second half of the 3rd century than before, it is disputed whether this actually allows conclusions to be drawn about a changed attitude towards traditional religion. Because, according to their coins, the emperors seem to have promised themselves advantages from referring to both new and old gods.

Coin of the Emperor Tacitus , 275/276 AD. The portrait of the emperor shows the radiant crown based on
Sol invictus , the reverse the winged goddess Victoria .

The "orientalization" of traditional Roman religiosity reached its climax in the 3rd century AD: around 220 AD, Emperor Elagabal , the sun god of the city of Homs , who was worshiped in the form of a meteorite , tried to make the highest imperial god ; his assassination in 222 prevented this. The elevation of Sol invictus (the undefeated sun god) to the supreme imperial god by Emperor Aurelian in the year 274 AD also corresponded to a general henotheistic tendency. The Mithras, now identified with Sol, therefore became a main target of the competing Christianity , which by the end of the 2nd century AD based on a very good organizational structure in almost all provinces of the empire (but especially in Asia Minor) and had become an unmistakable religious minority at the latest by the beginning of the 4th century AD.

Late antiquity (4th to 6th centuries AD)

This column base, erected under Diocletian , from the tetrarch monument in the Roman Forum from the year 303 AD shows a traditional Roman sacrifice.
This ivory diptych with the inscription SYMMACHORVM depicts a priestess of Bacchus making a bloodless sacrifice around AD 390 .
Patriarch Theophilos of Alexandria stands triumphantly on the Serapeum, which was destroyed in 391 AD . Illustration from a chronicle of the early 5th century

Diocletian, who is considered the first late antique emperor, called himself Iovius and thus demonstratively placed himself under the protection of Jupiter . Under his rule, the traditional cults as well as the Sol Invictus Mithras were again strongly promoted. This led to measures against the two religions that appeared to be incompatible with polytheism: Manichaeism and Christianity. In contrast to most other religions and syncretism, Christianity's growing claim to exclusivity led to a denial of the imperial cult and thus of Roman authority, from which the periodic persecution of Christians had resulted early on .

The failure of the last great and bloody persecution of Christians under Diocletian from the year 303 AD (whereby Christian churches were destroyed, Christians were removed from the imperial service and there were several executions) made it clear that Christianity should not be violently destroyed or executed. could no longer be seriously pushed back. The emperors Galerius and, above all, Constantine the Great drew the appropriate lessons : The Edict of Tolerance of Galerius in 311 AD and the Milan Agreement in 313 AD Constantine and Licinius allowed the free practice of all religions , including Christian ones. Constantine even promoted the church and bishops and had his children raised in the Christian faith ( Constantine Turn ). Since Christianity had always preached monarchy as a form of government willed by God, the potential was now also recognized to re-legitimize the always precarious empire religiously. The brief reign of Emperor Julian (361–363 AD), on the other hand, meant only a short-term favoring of the old faith under Neoplatonic auspices.

The Christian faith only knew temporary tolerance towards traditional gods. Latest Emperor Gratian put (probably 382) the office of Pontifex maximus from 380 n. Chr. Declared Emperor Theodosius I. The Trinitarian Christianity (in fact) as the state religion and forbade 391/392 n. Chr. The exercise of all pagan cults. Initially, however, there were hardly any attempts by the state to actually implement this ban across the board; official measures against the Old Believers remained the exception. However, until the early Middle Ages, pagan temples were destroyed by monks and “holy men” who had banded together, abandoned temples were converted into Christian buildings (usually after a long period of non-use) and influential personalities were sometimes persecuted as secret pagans. Private houses were searched with the aim of destroying non-Christian religious objects, especially books (the background is disputed).

The period around 400 is often viewed as a high point in the “religious wars” between Christianity and pagan beliefs. However, the background is often not very clear. In recent research it is controversial whether Christians and pagans were as hostile to each other at the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries as is often assumed. Most recently, Alan Cameron argued in a comprehensive study that in the late fourth century these opposites were not always as sharply pronounced as is often assumed; It is, for example, incorrect that the cultivation of classical education for Christians was allegedly of no greater importance and, on the other hand, convinced Pagane to do so as an expression of their religious convictions. Pagan literature was continued to be read by Christians and, thanks to the copying activities of early medieval monks, at least parts of it were preserved. Christianity occupied the field of pagan cults by adopting certain customs or festivals from them in the syncretic tradition (for example, December 25th from Sol invictus).

The decisive push in the Christianization of the official and educational institutions already occurred in the period between the 360s and 380s. The nonetheless persistent vitality of paganism, even if after 400 it was only practiced by an ever smaller minority, was reflected in the dispute over the Victoria altar set up by Augustus in the Senate , which became a symbol of the old faith; Altar and statue were removed several times during protests between AD 357 and 394, but were also brought back again (see dispute over the Victoria Altar ). In Rome around 400 there was apparently a small group of old-believing senators who feared a radical break with the past and wanted to preserve the ancient legacy as a return to the pagan legacy of Rome. Since the beginning of the 5th century, however, these senators have also increasingly converted to Christianity - whether out of conviction, out of opportunism or because of sanctions. Nevertheless, it would take several generations before Christianity was firmly anchored in all strata of the population and all regions. Remnants of paganism remained in the east at the universities of Athens and Alexandria , as well as in Italy and Gaul, especially in rural regions, beyond the reach of the authorities. The transfer of the term paganus (already erroneously declared as "country dweller" in antiquity) to the pagans arose from this fact. Occasionally, smaller pagan temples were built in the 5th century. It was not until 494 AD that Pope Gelasius I managed to have the lupercalia, the last publicly tolerated remnant of the ancient Roman cult, repealed. Gregor von Tours reports that around 570 AD, Diana was still sacrificed in the area around Trier . As recently as 599 AD, Pope Gregory the Great gave orders to force the numerous pagans of Sardinia to convert to Christianity:

If you find that they are unwilling to change their behavior, we command that you pursue them with the greatest zeal. If they are not free, they punish them with beatings and torture in order to force them to reform. But if they are free people, they are to be brought to the insight by the strictest imprisonment, how it is appropriate, so that those who refuse to accept the words of redemption, which can save them from the dangers of death, through physical agony, the desired healthy faith.

In Ostrom , the last ancient Roman rites were banned late 7th century as pagan, having already 537 the last officially tolerated pagan shrine at Philae was closed. Around the same time, Emperor Justinian ordered that every child must be baptized; Apostasy from Christianity was now a capital crime . In Syria, where there had even been revolts of the supporters of the Greco-Syrian religions in the late 6th century, the Arab conquerors also encountered “pagans” locally after 636, for example in Harran and Baalbek .

See also



  1. a b c d Peter Kuhlmann: Literature and religion in ancient Rome . In: Yearbook of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences . tape 2 , 2012, p. 274-280 .
  2. a b Bernhard Linke : Ancient Religion . De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2014.
  3. verum caeleste numen […] adegerat in immensum se extollentem credentemque, quod viso statim obsessi omnes metu exanimati supplices venirent in preces. "( Ammianus Marcellinus : Res gestae 19,1,4 , German:" However, a divine power [...] had driven him to limitless arrogance and to believe that the besieged all immediately lost courage at the sight of fear and on their knees would come pleading. ")
  4. a b qui autem omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter retractarent et tamquam relegerent, sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo. ”( Cicero : De natura deorum 2.72 , German:“ But those who conscientiously administer everything that belongs to the cult of the gods as before and observe, as it were, are called religious according to the word 'religere'. ”)
  5. est enim religio vera, qua se uni Deo anima, unde se peccato velut abruperat, reconciliatione religat. ”( Augustine : De quantitate animae, 36,80 , German:“ The true religion is that through which the soul reunites in reconciliation with the one God from whom it has, so to speak, torn itself away through sin. ” )
  6. Dorothea Rohde: Adoration of the gods in the imperial era. Religious diversity in the Roman Empire . In: M. Bernhard, B. Onken (Ed.): Ways to Rome . Schwalbach / Ts. 2013, p. 117-134 .
  7. si deus si dea est cui populus civitasque carthaginiensis est in tutela, teque maxime, unbekannt qui urbis huius populique tutelam recepisti, precor venerorque veniamque a vobis peto ut vos populum civitatemque carthaginiensem deseratis, loca releatemque his sacque euratis, loca templa sacque eu populo civitatique metum formidinem oblivionem iniciatis, proditique Romam ad me meosque veniatis, nostraque vobis loca templa sacra urbs acceptior probatiorque sit, mihique populoque Romano militibusque meis praepositi sitis ut sciamus intelligamus. si ita feceritis, voveo vobis templa ludosque facturum. ”( Macrobius : Saturnalia 3,9,6 , German:“ Whether the people and land of the Carthaginians are under the protection of a god or a goddess, I ask and call you in the first place, who has taken over the protection of this city and this people I swear to you that you leave the people and the city of Carthage, and leave the sacred places and temples behind you and move away from them, and that you pour fear and terror and oblivion upon this people and that you vote favorably come to Rome to me and mine and that our holy places and temples and city are more pleasant and dear to you and that you will be a recognizable protection for me, the Roman people and my soldiers. If you do that, I promise you temples and festivities. ")
  8. ^ AE 1906, 79
  9. Nam, ut quidam, somniastis caput asinum esse deum nostrum. ”( Tertullianus : Apologetica 16,1 , German:“ Because like certain other authors you rant about the fact that a donkey's head is our God. ”)
  10. sanguinem quoque gladiatorum bibunt, ut viventibus poculis, comitiales [morbi], quod spectare facientes in eadem harena feras quoque horror est. at, Hercule, illi ex homine ipso sorbere efficacissimum putant calidum spirantemque et vivam ipsam animam ex osculo vulnerum, cum plagis omnino ne ferarum quidem admoveri ora mos sit humanus. alii medullas crurum quaerunt et cerebrum infantium. ”( Pliny the Elder : Naturalis historia 28,2 , German:“ Epileptics also drink the blood of gladiators like from living cups, which is appalling when we see wild animals doing this in the same arena. And yet, by Hercules, they believe to suck a highly effective essence from the human being and even the spirit of life from the open wounds, when it is not even considered human to approach the mouth of animal wounds. Still others demand the marrow of leg bones and children's brains. " )
  11. " religio deos colit, superstitio violat " ( Seneca : De clementia 2,5,1 , German: "religio worships the gods, superstitio hurts them.")
  12. Nam etsi a Numa concepta est curiositas superstitiosa, nondum tamen aut simulacris aut templis res divina apud Romanos constabat. Frugi religio et pauperes ritus et nulla Capitolia certantia ad caelum, sed temeraria de cespite altaria, et vasa adhuc Samia, et nidor ex illis, et deus ipse nusquam. Nondum enim tunc ingenia Graecorum atque Tuscorum fängeris simulacris urbem inundaverant. "( Tertullianus : Apologetica 25,12-13 , German:" For even if that superstitious, embarrassing religious order arose in Numa's spirit, the religious cult still had no images of gods and temples. The worship of God was meager, the rites poor, there were No capitals yet competitively striving towards heaven, but only improvised altars made of turf and clay vessels; the sacrificial steam was little and the god himself was nowhere to be seen. For the Greek and Etruscan artists had not yet flooded Rome to make images of gods. " )
  13. Mars pater, te precor quaesoque, ut sies volens propitius mihi domo familiaeque nostrae quoius rei ergo agrum terram fundumque meum suovitaurilia circumagi iussi; uti tu morbos visos invisosque, viduertatem vastitudinemque, calamitates intemperiasque prohibessis defendas averruncesque, utique to fruges, frumenta. vineta virgultaque grandire beneque evenire siris, pastores pecuaque salva servassis duisque bonam salutem valetudinemque mihi domo familiaeque nostrae. ”( Cato maior : De agricultura 141,2–3 , German:“ Father Mars, I plead with you that you will be benevolent and kind to me, my house and our community, which is why I care about my corridor, my land and my property I let pig, sheep and bull sacrifices drift around, so that you can keep away, ward off and avert visible and invisible epidemics, orphanage and devastation, calamity and storms; and that you let the crops, grain, vineyards and orchards grow and flourish, Keep shepherds and flocks healthy and give good salvation and good health to me, my house and our house association. ")
  14. pietate ac religione atque hac una sapientia, quod deorum numine omnia regi gubernarique perspeximus, omnis gentis nationesque superavimus. "( Cicero : De haruspicum responsio 19 , German:" We have overcome all countries and peoples through pietas and religio and this one wisdom with which we have understood that everything is ruled and directed by the will of the gods. ")
  15. operae pretium est […] visere templa deorum, quae nostri maiores, religiosissumi mortales, fecere. ”( Sallustius : De coniuratione Catilinae 12 , German:“ It is worth the effort to take a close look at the temples of God that our ancestors, the most devout of mortals, created. ”)
  16. ^ Pontifex maximus, augur, XV virum sacris faciundis, VII virum epulonum, frater arvalis, sodalis Titius, fetialis fui. […] Duo et octoginta templa deum in urbe consul sextum ex auctoritate senatus refeci nullo praetermisso quod eo tempore refici debebat. ”( Augustus : Monumentum Ancyranum 7.20 , German:“ Pontifex maximus, Augur, one of the college of fifteen and one of the college of seven, I was an Arval brother, a fellow Titus and a fetiale. […] I left 82 temples in my sixth consulate by order of the Senate without leaving out one that had to be restored at the time. ")
  17. Per eos mensis quibus Vespasianus Alexandriae statos aestivis flatibus dies et certa maris opperiebatur, multa miracula evenere, quis caelestis favor et quaedam in Vespasianum inclinatio numinum ostenderetur: e plebe Alexandrina quidam oculorum tabe notus cae genua, exposculorum tabe notus genua eius dei, quem dedita superstitionibus gens ante alios colit; precabaturque principem ut genas et oculorum orbis dignaretur respergere oris excremento. alius manum aeger eodem deo auctore ut pede ac vestigio Caesaris calcaretur orabat. […] Igitur Vespasianus cuncta fortunae suae patere ratus nec quicquam ultra incredibile, laeto ipse vultu, erecta quae adstabat multitudine, iussa exequitur. statim conversa ad usum manus, ac caeco reluxit dies. ”( Tacitus : Historiae 4,81 , German:“ During the months in which Vespasian waited in Alexandria for the recurring summer winds and calm at sea, many miracles happened which were supposed to show the heavenly favor and the affection of the divine powers towards Vespasian: One from the people of Alexandria, known that their eyesight has waned, throws themselves at their feet, desperately demanding healing for their blindness, and at the instruction of Sarapis, whom this people, devoted to excessive faith, worships before all others The ruler suggests that he graciously moistened his cheeks and eyeballs with his saliva. Another with a sick hand, on the advice of the same God, asks that Caesar step on him with the sole of his foot. […] And so, believing that his happiness Everything was accessible and nothing unbelievable, Vespasian said with a cheerful expression in front of the eager crowd standing by as requested. ”Immediately the hand was usable, and the blind man the day shone again. ")
  18. General information on Sol and with further literature cf. Steven E. Hijmans: The Sun which did not rise in the East: the Cult of Sol Invictus in the Light of Non-Literary Evidence . In: Babesch. Bulletin Antieke Beschaving 71 (1996), pp. 115-150.
  19. Cf. for example Tertullian ad. Scapul. 2.
  20. Robert Malcolm Errington : Christian accounts of the Religious Legislation of Theodosius I . In: Klio 79 (1997), pp. 398-443.
  21. Cf. Karl Leo Noethlichs : Heidenverendung. In: RAC 13 (1986), col. 1149-1190.
  22. ^ Alan Cameron: The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford / New York 2011, summarized on p. 783 ff .; ibid. p. 801: "There was no pagan revival in the West, no pagan party, no pagan literary circles, no pagan patronage of the classics, no pagan propaganda in art or literature ..."
  23. Christian doctrinal opinions that differed from the general doctrine were also vigorously opposed by the Roman Imperial Church (see Nestorianism , Arianism , Miaphysitism ), which led to conflicted theological discussions and also political tensions in the empire. When Western Rome fell apart in the 5th century, several Christian barbaric-Roman "successor empires " formed, while the Eastern Empire transformed into an almost completely Graecised Byzantine Empire in the course of Islamic expansion in the 7th century .
  24. Peter Gemeinhardt: The Latin Christianity and the ancient pagan education . Tübingen 2007, p. 137 f.
  25. See Joanna Rądkowska, Steven Sidebotham: The Late Roman Harbor Temple of Berenike. In: PAM 22, 2010, p. 209 ff.
  26. Gregor, Epist. 9, 204.
  27. Greg. Door. Hist. 8, 15.
  28. General information on Christianization and the associated change: Peter Brown : The Rise of Western Christendom . 2. actual and revised Edition, Blackwell, Oxford 2003.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on March 30, 2006 .