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The public cults are those dedicated to the big gods by a city or an Estate, so that in some sense they are very linked to the politics.  From a social point of view, Rome was the Romans’ home, so that they had also domestic goddess in a national scale; so, Romulus and Remus were considered the Romans’ Lares and the Penates publici were the Estate Penates that watched for the food supply of the whole city.  At first the religious centre of Rome was situated in the Capitolium hill.

Due to the infinity of divinities and due to the need of appealing to them in some moments in their lives, the Romans had many rites and ceremonies and along the annual calendar all these rites had a determined day, a festivity and a game when they were celebrated.  With this celebrations the Romans tried for obtaining the favourable will of a specific deity; this fact is evident in the agricultural tasks, where the farmer had to obtain successively the will of Sterculinus –“who manure the lands with dung”-, Vervactor –“the first ploughing of the land”-, Redarator –“the second ploughing of the land”-, Sator –“the sower”-, Occator –“who rakes the land”-, etc., where, no doubt, every divinity is a personification of the agricultural tasks.


Statues of Castor and Polux, the twins gods tutelary of Rome, in the Piazza dei Campidoglio, the ancient Capitolium.  (Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 27/12/2004)




However, among the Roman divinities all of them had not the same rank or the same importance as others, among other reasons, because some divinities had a larger scope than others: Janus was the light, Mars the vegetation and afterwards the war, Jupiter was the sky and the atmospheric phenomena, etc.  These high deities used to be represented with some kinds of symbols: for example, Mars was represented with a sword.

The Romans grouped also together their protecting divinities; there were the triads; the first triad was formed by Jupiter, Mars and Janus, although afterwards Janus was substituted by Quinirus –after then identified with Romulus-; for its cult three men were designed as priests and guarantors, the three Flamines.  However, in the VI century b. C., under the Etruscan domination, this triad was substituted by another triad venerated in the Capitolium hill, where the Etruscans built the first big temple in Rome dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus; the triad was formed by Jupiter, Juno and Minerva and it became the classical Capitoline Triad that lasted as such along the history of Rome


Reconstruction of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the Capitolium, from CONNOLLY, Peter y DODGE, Hazel: La Ciudad Antigua.  La vida en la Atenas y Roma clásicas, Madrid, 1998




The ancient Roman gods, called indigetes –“properly indigenous”- in opposite to the novensides –“the new gods from other nations”- were the following:




Statue of Minerva.   Museo Nazionale Romano.

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 31/12/2004)



goddess of the fountains and afterwards of the divination



goddess of the fruits from the land



god of the cattle



goddess of the flowers



god of the light that opens the doors -ianua-; his temple was always open in wartime



goddess of the marriage



god of the sky and the thunder; he was taken as testimony in a oath



god of the vineyard



god of the vegetation and afterwards of the war



goddess of the inteligence



god and afterwards goddess of the pastures and the shepherds



goddess of the fruit and the trees



god identified first with Marte and after then with Romulus



god of the sown land and the crops

Tellus o Terra mater 


goddess of the Earth and the cornfields



god of the seasons and the trade



goddess of the homefire and the house



god of the fire




The cult place was the temple –templum-; in origin a temple was a rectangular square for observation that an augur –a priest that predicted the future- traced in the sky –inauguratio- with his curved stick –lituus-, where he wrote the flight of the birds; if they flied on the right –dexter-, the omen and the prediction were favourable, but, if they flied on the left –sinister-, the omen and the prediction were unfavourable; afterwards the word temple passed to be used for the part of the sky that dominated the sacred enclosure in Rome –pomerium- in whose centre the augures usually made their activities; finally, the temple was the residence of the gods.  The Roman temples basically consisted on a room or cell –cella- where the image of the god was preserved; the cult and the ceremonies took place outside the temple, in the open air, around an altar –altaria, if it was a high divinity, and ara, if it was a minor divinity-.  At first, the temples had a rectangular shape and small size, because people did not enter inside them, only the priests.  However, some temples were not rectangular, but round, like the temple of Vesta in Rome.  Besides the temples, the Romans built also aediculum (in pl. aedicula) –similar to our chapels- , where there were only a exterior statue, or sacellum (pl. sacella) –small temples with an altar-; they considered reserved to the gods also sacred woods –lucus, (in pl. luci)-, springs –fons (pl. fontes)-, etc.


Roman temple: the Pantheon, dedicated to all gods, built in the age of Augustus by Agrippa and restored in the age of Hadrian.  (Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 27/12/2004)




In their public cults the Romans were very strict, so that they accomplished them scrupulously and, if it happened some omission, some negligence or some mistake, they started again the rite, the ceremony or the pray from the from the beginning.

When the Romans made their rites, they used to covered their heads and to look at to the East; then, in an imploring attitude, touching the altar or the statue of a god, they repeated the formulas, prays and canticles that the correspondent priest read previously.  They finished their prays with an adoratio –a kiss that was thrown with the left hand (oscula facere)- or with a supplicatio –a prostration-.  They made also promises to the gods –vota facere, suscipere or concipere- according to their wealth; so, some rich people built temples dedicated to some divinities, offered some sacrifices or presents and celebrated games.

After the prayers and the promises the sacrifices took place; those who offered the sacrifice had to be purified having a bath and to be dressed with white clothes.  The sacrifices could be bloody –with bloodshed- or bloodless –without bloodshed-.  The animals that were sacrificed –victima, if they had a big size, or hostia, if they had a small size- must have been pure, they were decorated with bands –vittae- and their horns were painted in gold colour; their were driven by sacred servants –popae- with a rope without pulling them, because it was necessary to simulate that they went to the sacrifice voluntarily.  Before the sacrifice a cake made of flour, honey and salt –mola salsa- by the Vestales was put on the animals, they were sprayed with wine that the priest and the people present tasted before –libatio-.  Then, the priest ordered to the victimarius –the man who killed the sacrifice- to beat with an axe or to thrust a knife in the neck of the animals.  Afterwards the haruspices –priests that predicted the future looking at the entrails of the sacrificed animals- looked at the entrails, especially the liver, which were burnt in the altar, if they are in good conditions.  In a first age there were human sacrifices too.


Statue of the emperor Octavius Augustus dressed as a Pontifex Maximus with covered head.   Museo Nazionale Romano.  (Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 31/12/2004)




The games were spectacles dedicated to the divinities; Romulus dedicated the Consualia games to the god Consus, when the kidnapping of the Sabine women took place.  Tarquinius the Ancient ordered to built the Circus Maximus and established the annual games –ludi Romani-.

As an exception, when some calamity or some inexplicable event happened, the Romans made religious ceremonies: they could make a purification –lustratio- that consisted on a procession –pompa-, walking around the object that must be purified three times and making a suovetaurilia, i. e., sacrificing a pig –sus-, a sheep –ovis- and a bull –taurus-; they could make also lectisternia –banquets dedicated to some divinities whose images or symbols were sat down to table and food was offered to them as if they were a guest.

In the imperial age Rome had more than 80 temples that in the main were rebuilt, remodelled and decorated under the empire of Augustus.


Round temple dedicated to Hercules Victorious in the Forum Holitorium in Rome.  

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 27/12/2004)







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- ESPINÓS, Josefa et alii, Así vivían los romanos, Madrid, 1987

- HACQUARD, Georges: Guía de la Roma Antigua, Madrid, 2003

- PAOLI, Ugo Enrico: URBS.  La vida en la Roma Antigua, Barcelona, 1990