Religion in the Roman World

Module code: AH2041 

  • How did Romans conceptualise their own religion (and those of non-Romans)?
  • How were rituals like sacrifice, augury, divination, processions and dedications carried out?
  • How did religion overlap with politics under the Republic and Principate?
  • Was there such a thing as private or personal religion in ancient Rome?

It is impossible to understand Roman history, politics, art, entertainment or literature without also understanding the significant role of religion within their society. Romans viewed themselves as having outshone all other nations in terms of their piety and dedication to the correct interpretation and performance of religious rituals and traditions, and considered this the secret to their success as a state and as an Empire. Discussions of Roman religion tend to focus on lavish, large-scale rituals performed by the state which present something of an idealised picture of religious life, but religion permeated all levels of society, from the individual, to the familia, to the local street or community, and to the Empire as whole, finding different but complementary forms of expression in each case. Religion was also susceptible to outside influence and at times the state demonstrated a willingness to incorporate, or at least ignore, foreign elements within its religious framework, provided they were compatible with their values. Where religious practices were deemed to be unacceptable, however, Rome could show extreme ruthlessness in its suppression of customs it deemed dangerous, immoral or criminal. This module will introduce students to a wide range of subjects connected with the field of Roman religion, as well as considering how modern assumptions about what a religion 'should be', or what it is supposedly for, can cloud our attempts to understand Rome's own customs, myths and rituals.

Topics covered

  • Defining Roman religion
  • The role of sacrifice
  • Religion and the Roman calendar
  • Household religion
  • Sacred space and buildings
  • Key festivals
  • War rituals and the Roman Triumph
  • Persecution and 'unacceptable' religion
  • Worshipping the Emperor