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Preserving Sacred Traditions: Household Gods in Ancient Rome

A pillar of both private and public life, the ancient Romans lifestyle was inextricably bound with worship of the gods and goddesses in the form of prayer, offerings, and celebration. The Roman pantheon, a group of officially recognized gods and goddesses, was vast. Each deity was attributed to various aspects of life and nature, with major and minor divinities overseeing human life in great detail. The ancient Romans believed that all human action was guided by an expert deity, and worked diligently to maintain their relationship with the gods. The relationship between a person and the gods took the form of a sacred contract based on reciprocity; if the ancient Roman observed the proper rituals of worship, the god was likely to reward the behavior. Therefore, they believed that if they honored and appeased the gods with offerings, rituals, and religious observance, then the gods would grant them favor and protection. Conversely, if the person failed to perform the rites, the god would become angry and perhaps exact punishment. The Romans called this relationship do ut des, meaning “I give to you, so you may give back to me” (Carnagie, 2016). Worship of the gods began with household deities; They were believed to safeguard and protect the Roman family and their home, ensuring their well-being and prosperity. These deities were worshipped regularly, largely in private devotion, and their role in religious rituals were intimately tied to the social and cultural fabric of Roman society. The Romans also made many offerings to the gods and goddesses, typically in the form of food and drink to nurture their relationship. The rituals of Roman religion, deeply rooted in the belief that the gods are actively involved in the happenings of everyday life, served as a unifying force that shaped the daily routines of the people.


Prayer

Prayer was the most commonly practiced form of worship in ancient Roman religion. As people believed that all human actions could be influenced by the gods, it was important for them to show their devotion and respect for the gods through the ritual of prayer. Religious worship was not only one of the traditional pillars of Roman life as a means of showing reverence, it was a relationship that provided guidance and comfort for the individual in his or her everyday life (Nardo, 2002). For this reason, Romans paid daily worship to deities responsible for activities of the daily routine and household through prayer. Much like prayers of the modern day, they sought for good health, fortune, personal prosperity, and protection, as well as personal favor or assistance (Greco-Roman Religion and Philosophy, 2007). So as not to offend the gods, the use of formulas and strict procedures was essential. There were traditionally accepted forms of addressing gods or making requests, and if the person praying made a mistake, they had to start over from the beginning (Nardo, 2002b). The most common stance during prayer was to stand upright, turned toward the face of heaven, and raise their arms towards the sky with their palms turned upward (Carnegie, 2016). If an individual wanted to talk to one of the gods of the underworld, they might stomp or point their hands towards the ground in order to get their attention. It was essential to adhere to proper rituals of prayer; if any error was made in recitation then the individual must begin again, as the gods would only favor those who accurately observe religious rituals. Daily prayers gave routine to the lives of ancient Romans, and no significant decisions would be taken in life without first consulting the deities. Even more important than the act of prayer, were offerings to the gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon.


Figure 1: Pictorial Representation of ancient Roman Hearth (n.d.).

Votive Offerings

Prayers were often accompanied by physical offerings or sacrifices as acts of devotion. These offerings ranged from simple libations (pouring of liquids) to more elaborate sacrifices of animals and occasionally humans (Carnegie, 2016). The Romans believed that such offerings pleased the gods and strengthened the effectiveness of prayers. One very common form of sacrifice involved the fulfillment of a vow. A person, or the state, privately vowed to give a god a gift, but was only obligated to fulfill the vow if the god granted the request of the person or state (Nardo, 2002b). Sacrifices made in fulfillment of vows are known as votive offerings, and they typically ranged from simple everyday objects to elaborate, lavish gifts. Common votive offerings included sculptures, paintings, small figurines, jewelry, expensive perfumes, coins, altars or plaques that are related to the specific god from whom the individual is seeking divine intervention (Moulton, 1998). The objects could be made from various materials, including terracotta, bronze, silver, gold, or even precious gemstones. There were a number of reasons one might offer material goods to a deity. A merchant, for example, might promise to dedicate a statue of Neptune, the god of the sea, if he allows for the safe arrival of a ship (Streuding, 2014). Individuals in need of divine healing might dedicate a small clay body part or figurine to a healing sanctuary, hoping for a cure. Soldiers may leave weapons as offerings to Mars, the god of war and agricultural protection, seeking victory in battle (Moulton, 1998). Other reasons included obeying a request made by a god or goddess in a dream, or celebrating major life events such as birth, marriage, or death. Votive offerings, however, were not exclusively about gaining divine favor or fulfilling personal desire; it was part of the reciprocal relationship between the worshippers and the gods. The offerings were left at temples, shrines, or altars, and were often accompanied by prayer. Given in private and public religious sanctuaries, votive offerings symbolized gratitude, devotion, and a sense of obligation toward the deities who were thought to provide protection, guidance, and prosperity to the Roman people.



Household Deities

The worship of Roman private life centered around the home. Every Roman had an interest in maintaining pax deorum, meaning peace with the gods, which required daily attention to the images of the guardian gods of the home (“Religion”, 2001). Romans worshiped and performed rituals for several gods of the household, who preserved the health and well-being of members within the home and were involved in all household rituals and activities. To protect and cultivate the relationship between the gods and the people of Rome, every household had an altar dedicated to the Penates and the Lares, the guardian gods of the home (“Gods of the Roman People", 2001). Each day the family would pray to them at a small shrine in the home called a lararium, led by the eldest man of the family (“Religion”, 2001). The Penates were a group of gods who protected the hearth, and greatly reflected the communal responsibilities and food sharing that had been an essential part of Roman life and religion since its origins. Once a meal was prepared and set on the table, a portion of each piece of food was placed on a plate and carried to the fire, offered up in sacrifice to the Penates along with sacred wine (“Gods of the Roman People”, 2001). Flour and salt were thrown into the cooking fires each day to maintain pax deorum with the household gods, and any food that fell to the floor during a meal was burned at the lararium as an offering. The Penates were associated with the health and well-being of the Roman family, and gradually came to be worshiped as the collective, protective deities of the whole house. The Lares were another group of tutelary deities of the family, who served as the guardians of the plot of land belonging to a household. (“Religion”, 2001). At the crossroads where the allotted land of the home meets that of another family’s, called the compitium, each family constructed a small shrine on their respective properties as an offering to the Lares (“Gods of the Roman People", 2001). Although they served different purposes, the Penates and the Lares were often worshiped together at the lararium.



Figure 2: Fresco painting at the Lararium shrine from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii (n.d.).

The most powerful of the gods was Janus, the god of beginnings, gates, and transitions, who presided over every entrance and departure. As doors and passageways look in two directions, Janus is portrayed to reflect the nature of this duality. He had two faces; one which looked to the past, and one which looked to the future (“Gods of the Roman People”, 2001). As the keeper of the gates of heaven, he was responsible for the protection of the divine and earthly realms, holding access to the other gods. He is also closely associated with triumphal arches, which, as monumental gateways, provided a physical manifestation of transitions and served as gateways to commemorate momentous victories, which would signify the transition from war to peace. His role as the protector of doorways and gates made Janus an essential deity for ensuring the safety and well-being of a household. As a place of transition, the doorway of a Roman home was a sacred boundary that required the particular attention of a god for protection (“Greco-Roman Religion and Philosophy”, 2007). Janus was able to look into the house and keep watch outside of it, just as he did triumphal arches and the gates of heaven. When entering or leaving the home, Romans would often make offerings or prayers to Janus, seeking his protection for themselves and their loved ones (Carnegie, 2016). Janus was invoked in prayer daily, and had to be called to first, as he guarded the gates of heaven and held access to both the promised land and other gods. This ritual was particularly important during important life events such as births, marriages, or the beginning of a new year. It was believed that the god could help facilitate smooth transitions between different phases of life, ensuring that the household members would have a successful journey. Janus had a close relationship with Vesta, goddess of the hearth; while he watched over the entrance of the home, she guarded its innermost area (“Gods of the Roman People, 2001). Vesta was symbolized by fire, which was considered to be the source of life. The hearth, or fireplace, became a symbol of sanctity and security of the Roman home and family life, which Vesta is representative of (“Vesta”, 1998). She also represents cleanliness and purity, which was necessary for the preparation of meals. The hearth fire of a Roman home was not only essential for cooking food and heating water, but also provided comfort to the home as a gathering place for sharing of food between families and their deities. It was also situated close to the penus, or the food storage cupboard in the home that was protected by the Penates. For this reason, Vesta and the Penates deities were closely linked. Like all other household gods, Vesta was honored daily through prayer and offerings; as prayer must open with Janus, they must close with Vesta, as she guarded the innermost area of the home.


Festivals for Household Deities

Worship rituals for these gods weren't solely private, they were also widely celebrated as public religious festivals or ceremonies. The ancient Romans celebrated these numerous festivals, or feriae, throughout the year, many of which were also dedicated to household deities, and included various rituals, processions, and offerings that were integral to both private and public religious practices (Nardo, 2002a). Festivals were pivotal to Roman worship, having served as occasions for the community to come together in honor of the gods and reinforce their religious and social bonds. The Roman belief was that failing to celebrate the festival, or to celebrate in an improper manner, would provoke the anger of the god or goddess involved. If the ritual was performed inaccurately, the deity would not accept the sacrifice and the ritual would have to be performed all over again to forestall dire consequences. The days for the festivals were assigned by the pontifex maximus, or the high priest of Rome, though they tended to fall on the same day each year (“Greco-Roman Philosophy”, 2007). In many of the public festivals, priests conducted rituals outside the temples while a congregation of citizens watched, and gave offerings to the patron god or goddess of the sanctuary.



Figure 3: Depiction of an Ancient Roman Festival (n.d.).

The Compitalia festival, most often taking place in the first few days of January, takes its name from the Latin compitium for crossroads and is dedicated to the Lares (“Gods of the Roman People”, 2001). When the hard labor of farming and agricultural work of fall and early winter had finished, the neighbors joined together for celebration. The night before the festival, altars would be decorated and Romans hung up effigies, or woolen dolls, for each free member of the family, and a woolen ball for each slave (Michels, 1990). These were used with the hope that the anger of the spirits would be directed at the dolls rather than people. The following day the Romans would bring offerings to the gods, play games, and take the day off. Even slaves who worked the land would receive an extra measure of wine for their work (“Gods of the Roman People”, 2001). The festival of the goddess Vesta, the Vestalia, was also a significant public holiday in the Roman calendar, taking place on June 9th of every year. On this day, the temple of Vesta, which was located in the Roman Forum and typically closed to the public, was opened to all married women, who would enter barefoot and bring forth simple offerings of food (Michels, 1990). On June 15th, the temple would close again, at which time it would have been cleaned and purified. In the temple of Vesta was a sacred fire, which is believed to have been brought to Rome by Aeneas, the mythical legend whose descendants were believed to have founded the city (“Vesta”, 1998). In the epic The Aeneid, Aeneas is a Trojan prince who survived the fall of Troy during the Trojan War and embarked on a perilous journey where he was chosen by the gods to establish a new city, which would eventually become Rome. Aeneas was said to carry the sacred fire from the ruined city of Troy, ensuring its survival. This act symbolized the continuity between the fall of Troy and the eternal existence of the Roman state, connecting the mythical past to the present. It was believed that by preserving the sacred fire, the Romans maintained a direct connection with the divine and ensured the gods' favor and protection. As long as the fire burned, Rome would flourish and be protected by the gods. The significance of the legend in the context of Roman worship lies in its emphasis on tradition, continuity, and the divine origins of Rome. The perpetually burning sacred fire represented an unbroken link between the gods, the founding of Rome, and the daily lives of the Roman people. The story of Aeneas and the fire in the Temple of Vesta reinforced the idea that Rome was a chosen city, sanctioned by the gods, and blessed with divine protection. This belief was deeply ingrained in Roman religious practices and helped to build a sense of unity and identity among the people.


The sacred fire of Vesta was maintained by a group of women known as the Vestal Virgins, who were chosen as young girls, and spent most of their lives in dedication to the temple. The safety of Rome was considered to be bound to this fire, and if it went out, the people believed it would bring great destruction to their city. In the event that this happened, the vestal responsible was beaten by the pontifex maximus, who supervised the Vestal Virgins (“Vesta”, 1998). Only on the first day of March, the ancient New Year’s Day, under careful ritual precautions, the fire was allowed to go out and then renewed (“Gods of the Roman People”, 2001). The Vestal Virgins were also responsible for maintaining proper rituals of prayer, including the preparation of the mola sala, a mixture of grain and salt that is sprinkled on a sacrificial victim (most frequently an animal) before they were offered to a deity (Michels, 1990). It was important in Roman culture that the sanctuary of Vesta was not called her "temple", but was instead referred to as the “house” or "atrium” of Vesta. A temple was an inaugurated space, where public business or auspices could be conducted by patricians and political leaders of society. Vesta, however, was a virgin, as were her Vestals, and their sacred space was a domain of purity. For this reason, it was referred to as her home, and men could not enter as it was believed their presence would violate the goddess and her Vestals' status of chastity (“Gods of the Roman People”, 2001).The practices of worship during the Vestalia were of utmost importance to the Romans; if they observed proper ritual, Vesta would protect the city, just as she did for the private home.


There were many other festivals concerning familial affairs, including the Parentalia, the Lupercalia, and the Saturnalia. During the Parentalia in February the members of a family would bring offerings of flowers, corn meal, and wine to the graves of their family’s dead (“Religion”, 2001). Occurring on February 15th, the Lupercalia festival included rituals where young men would flick women with a whip to encourage fertility (Michels, 1990). During the Saturnalia, which was celebrated for seven days from December 17 to 23rd, the whole family relaxed and children did not attend school. Gifts were exchanged, and people generally enjoyed themselves with food and drink (“Greco-Roman Religion and Philosophy”, 2007). The rites of passage, or larger cycles of life that included birth, marriage, anniversaries, and death, were also marked by religious observances. To celebrate these rites of passage, the Romans gave offerings to the gods in hopes of good fortune. Each of these important events involved the household gods (“Religion”, 2001). The number of religious festivals was small in the early empire, but in time, so many religious holidays had been adopted that there were more festivals and celebrations than workdays in the year.


Figure 4: The Sacrifice of the Vestal (Marchesini, c. early 1700s).

Rituals of Roman worship held great significance not only for the relationship between the gods, goddesses, and ancient Roman society, but also for the understanding of their culture, beliefs, and religious practices. Most significant were the rituals in celebration of the gods of the household; they were worshiped privately as protectors of the individual home, but also in public celebration as guardians of the state. The Roman people meticulously adhered to a variety of customs to celebrate these deities in private life and as public festivals, and believed that by correctly performing such practices of worship, they would maintain the favor of the gods and ensure prosperity. Worship of the household gods was practiced routinely and permeated every sector of ancient Roman life. Prayer and sacrifice played an essential role in rituals of worship, as no deity was appeased without offerings made by individuals or communities in need of divine assistance. By offering prayers, sacrifices, and performing specific ceremonial rites, the Romans believed they were fulfilling their part of a reciprocal relationship with the gods, who would, in return, grant them blessings and protection.


Bibliographical References

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Michels, A. K. (1990). Roman Festivals January—March. The Classical Outlook, 68(2), 44–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43936713 [Accessed September 7th, 2023].

Nardo, D. (2002a). Festivals. In The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome (pp. 110-111). Greenhaven Press. https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.bpl.org/apps/doc/CX3028100403/WHIC?u=mlin_b_bpublic&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=93c8bd7c [Accessed September 6th, 2023].

Nardo, D. (2002b). Worship. In The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome (pp. 122-124). Greenhaven Press. https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.bpl.org/apps/doc/CX3028100462/WHIC?u=mlin_b_bpublic&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=5ca23e2e [Accessed September 4th, 2023].

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