Greco-Roman Religions might be considered “the competition” of early Christianity, but this is not a fair description of how religions functioned in the first century.

A Guardian lares

First, in the first century, religion was rarely a choice. A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade. A person living in the Roman world would not even think in terms of “converting” from one god to another, since gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical.  If one was going to sea, one appeased sea gods. In fact, the idea of choosing to worship a particular god was the attraction of the mystery cult. One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.

“The family cult was also the natural point of departure for the veneration of the dead and of graves…At the end of the year, during the Parentalia (13-21 February) the dead of the household were collectively honored as divi parentu…. Food, salt, and wine were carried to the graves, which were decorated with flowers and wreaths. It is noteworthy that the Romans never transformed the cult of the di parentes into a cult of divine ancestors of the clan.” (Gladigow, 811)

Despite this, religious practice in the Roman could be personal. For example, the custom of honoring a sacred image by touching one’s hand to one’s lips (adorandi gratia manum labris admovere) not only in a temple but even when passing by a temple (ANRW 2/16/1: 579-80). But even this devotion was not required, there was no “proper liturgical practice.” This practice developed as an expression of gratitude alongside the generally obligatory sacra privata and sacra publica.

Prayers were a part of Roman religious practice. Some may sit at the feet of an image in prayer, telling their troubles to the god or goddess:

Propertius 2.28.46 I bind myself with a sacred verse against this wish: I write: ‘By Jupiter, the Mighty, the girl is saved’: having taken such pains, she herself can sit at your feet, and, sitting there, tell you all her troubles. (Translated by A. S. Kline).

Family prayers were more likely made to household gods rather than powerful gods like Zeus. For example, families would offering prayers of thanks to Penates, the god of the storeroom, for providing daily meals. The spirits of family ancestors (lares) could be honored at meals as well.

  • Janus: God of doorways
  • Forculus: protector of doors
  • Limentinus: guardian of the threshold
  • Cardea: goddess of the hinges
  • Vesta: goddess of the hearth
  • Potina: goddess of children’s drinks
  • Sentia: goddess of children’s mental development
  • Orbona: the goddess who granted new children to parents who had become childless

Christianity entered a world already full of gods and goddesses and announces the one and only God who created all things has acted on behalf of all humans through Jesus his son. Although based on its Jewish roots, Christianity was a radical view and therefore generated suspicion and anger.


Bibliography: Burkhard Gladigow, “Roman Religion,” ABD 5:809.