Were the Romans Religious?

The Romans were strongly religious. They worshiped a variety of Gods and believed that, at times, their gods interacted with humans. They never went into battle without first taking auguries to see if the battle would be favorable to them. They built temples everywhere, and rich Romans would sponsor a temple to whichever god he favored-Mars, Fides, Fortuna, Venus, etc.
One time during the First Punic War (263–241 B.C.) between Rome and Carthage, the Consul Publius Claudius Pulcher was about to begin a naval battle against the Carthaginians. When he took the auspices the sacred chickens not only refused to eat, they wouldn’t even come out of their cage. The Consul said, “If the chickens won’t eat, maybe they’ll drink!” and he threw them into the sea. He went on to lose 90 of his 130 ships.
During the Second Punic War, 218–202 B.C. Publius Cornelius Scipio wanted to capture the Carthaginian stronghold of New Carthage in Spain. The city had high walls around it, but in the section abutting the lagoon the walls were only about two meters high. He noticed that at low tide it was possible to wade through the lagoon. He told his men that the God Neptune would make it possible to capture the city. Observing the tides, he sent five hundred legionaries with ladders to assault the walls at low tide. The Carthaginians were not expecting an assault from that side of the city and they easily overcame any resistance and crossed the city to the main gate and opened it to Scipio’s troops who easily took the city.

Livy gives another example of Scipio’s religiosity. Upon embarking on his invasion of Africa in 204 B.C. Scipio threw sacrificial entrails into the sea and intoned this prayer: “Ye gods and goddesses who preside over the seas and lands I pray and entreat you that whatever things have been, are now or shall be performed during my command, may turn out prosperously to myself, the state, and the commons of Rome, to the allies and the Latin Confederacy and to all who follow my party, and that of the Roman people, my command and auspices by land, on sea and on rivers. That you will lend your favorable aid to all those measures and promote them happily, that you would bring these and me again to our homes safe and unhurt, victorious over our vanquished enemies, decorated with spoils, loaded with booty and triumphant. That you would grant us the opportunity of taking revenge against our adversaries and put it in the power of myself and the Roman people to make the Carthaginian state feel those signal severities which they endeavored to inflict upon our state.”
As you can see, the Roman religion was very attuned to war and conquest. The Romans were constantly at war, but every war had to be approved as just, and fetial priests had to perform appropriate rituals before the war could be undertaken. These same priests also had to officiate over the making of peace at the end of a war.

The Romans had a strong aversion to blasphemy. If a Vestal Virgin was found to have violated her oath of chastity she was walled into a chamber with a jug of water and a loaf of bread.

When Augustus came to power, he began the practice of apotheosing their rulers, beginning with Julius Caesar. Eventually most emperors became “gods” after they died, with temples built to them and rituals enacted. Upon his death bed, the Emperor Vespasian joked “I think I’m becoming a god!”

As to whether Augustus was personally religious. it is difficult to say, but he certainly didn’t want the Romans to think otherwise, and he fulfilled the religious obligations of his office.

The most cynical quotation I know of from a Roman came from Seneca the Younger, who said that the common people believed religion to be true, the wise believed it to be false, and the rulers believed it to be useful.

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