Sources for Roman Religion

Each of these passages illustrates some aspect of ancient Roman religion. Summarize what happens in the passage. Then consider some reasons why this is happening. What is the intent of this action? What does this passage suggest about the religious beliefs of the ancient Romans.

 1. Ovid. Fasti 5.429-444
When midnight has come and brought silence for sleep and you, ye dogs and painted birds, lie still, the man who remembers the ancient rite and fears the gods arises. His two feet bear no knots, and he makes a sign by closing his thumb between his fingers, so that no thin ghost may meet him on his silent way. He washes his hands clean in the water of a spring, then turns and first takes black beans. Turning his face, he tosses them behind, and while he does so he cries, "These beans I cast away; with them I ransom me and mine." Nine times he repeats this, and does not look behind; the ghost is thought to follow him unseen and gather the beans. Once more he touches water; he clashes Temesan bronze and asks that the ghost may leave his house. When at last he has repeated nine times, "Go forth, I ghosts of my fathers!" he looks back and feels that his duty has been properly done.

2. Dessau, Inscriptiones Selectae 8751
On this tablet, I, Malcio, nail the eyes, fingers, arms, nails, hair, head, feet, thigh, belly, rump, navel, chest, breast, neck, mouth, cheeks, lips, chin, forehead, eyebrows, shoulder blades, shoulders, nerves, bones, marrow, leg, penis, money, wealth, and health of Nico. Click here and here for some photographs of such curse tablets (defixio).

3. Fabius Pictor ap. Gellius, Noctes Atticae 10.15
It is tabooed (religio) for the Flamen Dialis (priest of Jupiter) to be carried on a horse, or to see a company of men girt up--that is, an army with its weapons; for this reason the Flamen Dialis is rarely elected consul, since wars are put in the consuls' hands. It is never right for this flamen to swear an oath. He must not wear a ring, unless it be broken and not a complete circle. Fire must not be taken from his house (the Flaminia) unless it be sanctified). If a man in bonds enters his house, he must be set free and his chains must be lifted through the skylight to the roof and then dropped out into the street. The Flamen must not have a knot in his headdress or his girdle, or anywhere else. If anyone on his way to be whipped falls in supplication at the Flamen's feet, it is an offense requiring expiation for him to be whipped on that day.

4. CIL XI.4766
Let no one violate this place. Let no one carry or cart away what belongs to the place. Let no one approach except on the day when the annual ceremony takes place. . . If anyone violates it, let him give an ox to Jupiter in expiation. If anyone violates it deliberately, let him give an ox to Jupiter in expiation and be fined 300 asses. (NOTE: The bronze as (plural asses) was the smallest unit of Roman currency.)

5. Livy XXII.10.2 (A collective vow of the Roman people during the Punic Wars)
If the state of the Romans, the Quirites, be safe, as I wish it to be safe, in these wars for the next five years . . . it will give as a gift and a donation that whatever the spring brings forth from the herds of swine, sheep, goats, or cattle which are not dedicated to the service of the gods shall be dedicated to Jupiter, on the day which the Senate and the people shall decree.

6. Expiation of Iguvium, a town in Umbria (tablet VI.A)
O Jupiter Grabovius, if in this offering [anything] is amiss, or neglected, or omitted or [fraudulently] held back, or at fault, or if in thine offering there be any blemish, whether seen or unseen, O Jupiter Grabovius, expiate the Fisian city, the town of Iguvium, the full citizens, the sacred rites, slaves, cattle, the fruits of the field, expiate. Be kind, be gracious with thy favor to the Fisian city, the town of Iguvium, the name of the city, the name of the town. O Jupiter Grabovius, preserve the Fisian city, preserve the town of Iguvium; full citizens, sacred rites, slaves, cattle, fruits of the field, preserve.

7. Cato, De Re Rustica ("On Rustic Matters") 134
Before you start the harvest, you should make a preliminary sacrifice of a pig as follows: To Ceres sacrifice a sow, the mate of a boar, before these grains are stored: spelt, wheat, barley, beans, oilseed. Begin by offering the incense and wine to Janus, Jupiter, and Juno. Before you slaughter the sow, make a little pile of wafers for Janus with these words, "O Father Janus, by bringing together these wafers I make a good prayer, that you may be favorable and propitious to me, my children, my house, and my household, being propitiated* by the cake. Afterward give wine to Janus thus, "O Father Janus, as I have made a good prayer to you by brining together wafers, now be propitiated to the same end by this sacrificial wine." Afterward to Jupiter thus, "O Jupiter, be propitiated by the cake. Be propitiated by the sacrificial wine." Afterward slaughter the preliminary sacrificial pig. When its entrails have been laid open, bring together the wafers for Janus, and propitiate him again, as you did before. Give wine again to Janus and give wine to Jupiter, as it was given when you brought the wafers and offered the cake. Afterward give the entrails and wine to Ceres.

(*The word here translated as "propitiated" probably actually means "strengthened".)

8. Varro ap. St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei (On the City of God) IV.31
For more than 170 years the ancient Romans worshiped the gods without images. . . . Those who first introduced them for the use of the people took away fear from their fellow-citizens, but added error.

This material was placed on the web by Professor Thomas J. Sienkewicz for his students at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois). If you have any questions, you can contact him at toms@monm.edu.

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