Roman religious thought is characterized by the syncretic thinking of the Roman people. They had little imagination and largely assumed the Greek gods with new names. Zeus, for example, is Jupiter in Rome. The three key gods of Rome, Jupiter, Minerva and Juno, were honored as early as 500 B.C. with a temple in Rome.

  • Jupiter was a city / state-god, Iuppiter Capitolinus. Consuls were required to sacrifice upon entering office. When a young man first wore his toga virilis (toga of manhood) he sacrificed to Jupiter. The ludi Romani were devoted to him and the triumphal parade of a victorious general led to Iuppiter Capitolinus.
  • Minerva developed from a Sabine goddess, although she is roughly equivalent to Athena. She was a virgin goddess who became the patroness of crafts, warriors, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, and the inventor of music.
  • Juno is Hera of Greek mythology, the wife and sister of Zeus. In early March she was honor with the festival of Matronalia, something of a mother’s day in which woman received gifts from husbands and daughters, and were to prepare the household meal.

Religion was administer by a collegia consisting of priests, although the priesthood was not a professional class. They were, however, the chief experts in matters of the gods. Religion in Rome was a matter of state, particularly in religious observance.

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

There are a number of important differences between Greco-Roman religions and modern religious practice. First, Religions in the Roman world were not usually exclusive. A person could devote himself to a particular god while recognizing other gods existed, or even worship various gods as needs arose.

Second, by the time of the Roman Empire, the identification of gods tended to reduce their numbers. Babylon and Egypt, for example, worship a wider variety of gods. The Greco-Roman trend was to reduce gods, blending multiple gods into a single deity. So, for example, all the “father gods” became Zeus. Although this seems like a trend toward monotheism, rarely would a Greek or Roman think in terms of a single god to the exclusion of all others.

Third, the Roman period tended to deify virtues, benefits, or abstract ideas, such as salvation (Salus) or liberty (Libertas), Luck (Tyche) and Fate (Moira). Even in Judaism, where monotheism was assumed, the angelic world was developed similar to the minor deity of the Greco-Roman world.

Fourth, the power of fate was very important in the early Empire. The idea of fate is critical to Stocism and was worshiped as a deity (Moira). Some religions developed, however, that claimed to have power over fate (Asclepius, Isis, Sarapis, for example). Since events were understood as somewhat “fixed” by fate, a belief in astrology became prominent. Astrology was rather technical, employing astronomy and mathematics.

Finally, morality was not closely tied to religion. Philosophy dealt with ethical matters, religion with the cultic ceremony. For example, there were few Greco-Roman writers who dealt with the religious problem of sin.

Once again, Christianity looks considerably different than most other religions in the Greco-Roman world. Although there were similarities to some mystery religions, the early Christians developed out of their Jewish foundations a distinctly different kind of religion in the Roman world.

Bibliography: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds to the New Testament, 173-176.