The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Apart from the gods, who were glorified by the state, every Roman household worshipped spirits.

They believed that spirits protected the family, home and even the trees and rivers. These spirits were worshipped regularly.

Early Roman religion

The religion of ancient Rome dated back many centuries and over time it grew increasingly diverse. As different cultures settled in what would later become Italy, each brought their own gods and forms of worship. This made the religion of ancient Rome polytheistic, in that they worshipped many gods. They also worshipped spirits.

Spirits of the rivers and trees

Rivers, trees, fields and buildings each had their own spirit, or numen. Worshipping more than one numen, or numina, was a part of early Roman culture.

Household spirits

Every Roman household also had its own protective spirits. For instance, Vesta was the goddess of the fireplace. Even food cupboards had their own spirits, called penates.

Family spirits

Families also had a protective spirit, called a lar. Each family had a larium, or shrine, to this spirit, often kept in the atrium or courtyard. The head of the family – the paterfamilias – was responsible for making regular sacrifices to honor the family’s spirit and make sure that it continued to watch over them.

Dinnertime offerings

Families also asked for the blessings of the spirits before any special family event. A portion of every meal was thrown into the fire as an offering. Household slaves were also expected to worship the same spirits as their owners.

Like most of the ancient world, Romans believed that spirits gathered around crossroads. It was therefore common to find a small shrine, or compita, set up wherever paths or roads met. These would have four altars to honor the spirits in each direction.

Festival of the Crossroads

This practice was honored in the Festival of the Crossroads, called the Compitalia. On this feast day, families would hang woolen dolls and balls at the nearest compita. Each doll represented a member of the family, while each ball represented a slave.

It isn’t clear why they did this. Perhaps they hoped that the spirits would spare each person represented by the woolen offerings, or maybe they believed that the power of the spirits would strengthen each person represented there.

In any case, spirit worship was just one part of Roman religion. The Roman state had its own gods and, like the spirits, these were the product of diverse cultures and ancient beliefs.

Where to next:
Religion in Ancient Rome – Roman Worship
Life in Roman Times – Home Life

Related Links:

Religion   Religion
Worship   Worship
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


Social Order

Life in Roman Times


Enemies and Rebels

- Mythology
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- Jews in Roman Times
- Early Christians
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The Roman Empire - In The First Century