The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Roman worship was divided into the public and the private. Families would honor their household spirits while Rome had colleges of official priests to ensure that its actions met with divine approval.

Roman religion involved cult worship. Approval from the gods did not depend on a person’s behavior, but on accurate observance of religious rituals. Each god needed an image – usually a statue or relief in stone or bronze – and an altar or temple at which to offer prayers and sacrifices.

Quid pro quo

Requests and prayers were presented to gods as a trade: if the god did what was requested (the nuncupatio), then the worshipper promised to do a particular thing in return (the solutio). This trade was binding. To persuade the gods to favor the requests, a worshipper might make offerings of food or wine, or would carry out a ritual sacrifice of an animal before eating it.

The Romans believed that their gods or spirits were actively involved in their daily lives. As a result, sacred meals were held in their name during certain religious festivals. It was believed that the god actually took part in the meal: a place was set for him at the table, invitations were issued in his name, and a portion of the food served was set aside for him to enjoy.

Public worship

The public side of religion was more organized and more formal than the private. At home, the paterfamilias – head of the family – performed religious rituals for the household. Beyond the home, gods were worshipped by the state, which employed colleges of highly trained priests and priestesses.

Roman priests

The two most important colleges for priests were the augures and the collegium pontificum. Augures were priests who had been elected for life. Only they had the authority to read and interpret signs from the gods.

Although they could not predict the future, augures would discover whether the gods were happy with a particular plan, such as a battle. To do this, they would watch natural phenomena, such as lightning or birds in flight. Specialists (called haruspices) were also employed to read the entrails of sacrificed animals.

Collegium pontificum

The collegium pontificum had four branches. The pontifices were by far the most important priests and controlled state religion. During the time of Julius Caesar, there were 16 of these priests, half of which were patrician, with the other half plebeian.

The pontifices determined festival dates, assisted the emperor in his religious duties, and determined which days were legal for conducting business. They were headed by the pontifex maximus (chief priest) who, from Augustus onwards, was always the emperor.

The king of sacred things

The rex sacrorum, meaning “king of sacred things” was a patrician appointed for life and was barred from holding any other public office. Along with his wife, the regina sacrorum, he performed sacrifices on behalf of the state.

The flamines were minor priests and had responsibility to a particular god. Although there were originally just 15 flamines, over time more were added to serve emperors who had been deified.

The vestal virgins

Finally, the vestal virgins lived at the Temple of Vesta in Rome. Vesta was the native Roman goddess of the fireplace and the six virgins tended the sacred fire, baked sacred salt cakes (mola salsa) and oversaw the care of sacred objects in the temple.

Young girls from some of Rome’s best families were chosen to be virgins by the pontifex maximus. Starting between the ages of six and ten, they had to serve for 30 years, but most continued to help out even after they had left. They were also expected to remain virgins and faced a severe penalty if it was discovered they had had sex – they were buried alive.

Where to next:
Religion in Ancient Rome – Augustus
The Social Order in Ancient Rome – Emperors and Patricians

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The Roman Empire - In The First Century