This entry contains three subentries: Imperial Religion; Mystery Cults; and Public Religion.

Imperial Religion

Rome’s civic, or civil, religion was a bedrock of the Roman res publica (commonwealth). When Augustus (r. 29 B.C.E.–14 C.E.), therefore, undertook to rebuild Rome in every way—and his famous dictum that he found her as a city made of bricks and left her as one of marble (Suetonius, Aug. 28) is both reality and metaphor—religious practices, cults, and buildings perforce were an essential element of his program. The Latin term for “restoration,” restituere, in fact points to the material evidence with which this encyclopedia is primarily concerned: as a result of frequent fires and other mishaps sacred buildings were constantly being rebuilt, and restituit (“he restored”), preceded by the name of the patron, was a standard part of the prominent inscription on the building. And it meant not stone-by-stone restoration but an updated, modernized version built on old foundations. Restoration, then, incorporated change, which is certainly true of the Augustan reign in all ways. Traditionalism was blended with innovation; even Tacitus, who considered Augustus a mixed blessing at best, has Tiberius praise him, with specific reference to religion, for “accommodating certain relics of rude antiquity to the modern spirit” (Ann. 4.16).

Within the limits of surviving evidence from Roman antiquity, the Augustan period is one of the best documented. Archaeology has contributed substantially to the overall picture; at the same time, the material remains need to be complemented with the relevant literary and epigraphic sources. Inscriptions, in fact, have been another focus of archaeological activity and, starting with Augustus, experienced a boom in the empire, becoming a mass medium of both written and visual communication. Visual communication in the widest range—including art, architecture, inscriptions, and urban design—was a hallmark of the Augustan reign, and sacred buildings played a highly visible role in that spectrum.

They were meant to do so: in the largest extant Roman inscription, Augustus’s Res Gestae (a list of his accomplishments as emperor), he prominently lists the many temples he constructed and summarily refers to 82 that he restored. Clad in the white marble from the new quarries at Luni (Carrara), the former in particular became markers in a revamped cityscape; the latter signified his commitment to reversing the decay of religion that its dilapidating structures palpably expressed. Singled out are a few of the new cynosures, all of which had specific characteristics and messages:

  • 1. Augustus completed Julius Caesar’s (d. 44 B.C.E.) Forum with its Temple of Venus Genetrix (i.e., ancestress of both the Julian family/dynasty and the Roman people) and linked it to his own Forum, superintended by the Temple of Mars Ultor (i.e., the Avenger, Mars also was the ancestor of the line of Romulus). The original commemoration was the revenge taken on Caesar’s murderers at Philippi in 43 B.C.E.; it was supplemented by the “revenge” on the Parthians, who had been forced to surrender, in 20 B.C.E., the military standards they had captured when they defeated a Roman army in 53 B.C.E. It took decades to build both temple and forum, and they stood out by the use of colored marble from various parts of the Roman Empire. The builders departed from Vitruvius’s mandate that temples to Mars should be built in the plain Doric order; instead, they chose the much more elaborate Corinthian style. Further, the inner sanctum (cella) appropriated the colored splendor of the east. These appropriations and others spoke to Rome as the center of a cosmopolitan oikumenē (“the inhabited world,” denoting, since Alexander, the coexistence of peoples and cultures); religious pluralism was one of its most prominent aspects.
  • 2. Augustus put his own stamp on the Palatine, where he resided, giving it a religious importance almost equal to that of the Capitoline, the traditional center of Roman identity and locus of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. To the existing shrines, which included his restoration of that of the Magna Mater from Troy, he added the splendid Temple of Apollo, a deity with whom sources link him frequently; Palatine Apollo was a god of both victory and the arts. The emperor’s habitat thus was purposely integrated into a divine environment—another lieu de mémoire (place of memory), the small (and well-maintained) Hut of Romulus, Rome’s founder, who was subsequently deified, also figures here—and the association was enhanced yet again when Augustus, upon becoming pontifex maximus (high priest or head of a religion) in 12 B.C.E., did not move to the “priest’s residence in the Forum but made part of his residence into a shrine of Vesta.
  • 3. Similar overtones of eventual divinity resonated in the Pantheon built by Marcus Agrippa. It lacked the dome of the later building that replaced it (built in the early decades of the second century C.E.), but a statue of Augustus—whose name connoted someone “more than human, for all the most honored and sacred things are called augusta” (Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 53.16.8)—was placed in the vestibule: he would be ready to join the company of “all gods,” from whom the building took its name.
  • 4. The process was deliberate and had begun when, as Octavian, he squeezed the small Temple of the Divine Julius (Caesar) into the cluttered Roman Forum. It served as reminder, too, that his adoptive son was divi filius, son of the divine.
  • 5. Accordingly, on one of the most emblematic monuments of the period, the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae), which, like the Pantheon, was constructed in the Campus Martius, Augustus is shown as a pious sacrificant in the company, on various sides of the enclosure, of both humans and gods. The Augustan peace rested on the abiding involvement of the gods and with the gods. Religion was ubiquitous, not only in Rome but also in Italy and the provinces; and so are its archaeological witnesses.

The Cult of the Roman Emperor.

A phenomenon that has attracted much attention is the imperial cult. From the literary sources alone it is clear that it was polymorphous, and the archaeological evidence fully bears that out. The Augustan administration in Rome was involved only in the approval of four provincewide cults, such as that at Ephesus for Divus Julius and the goddess Roma (for Roman citizens) and for himself and Roma at Pergamum (for “Hellenes”); under Tiberius (r. 14–37 C.E.), a cult was added at Smyrna. The overwhelming majority of cults, however, were local and comprised a broad spectrum of appellations and functions of the “god.” His role as savior, for instance, was not tied to any eschatology but rooted in his euergetism (as it had been in the preceding Hellenistic ruler cults) and guaranteeing the stability of this world. The concept of “god” in the Greco–Roman world was far from uniform, but it is clear that the divine emperor was not considered “one of the gods” and certainly not at the Olympian level.

The extant architectural and other material evidence confirms this picture. Two kinds of dynamic are operative here. On the one hand, the temples or shrines of the divine emperor rarely were single, freestanding edifices that aimed to outshine the rest. More frequently, his cult sites and dedications to him were embedded and intertwined with those of other deities. Especially in the many cases where he shared a temple with another deity, great care was taken not to represent him as the traditional gods’ equal; both the architectural configuration and the statuary of the cult images would define him as subordinate. Similarly, the sacrificial animals chosen for him would be different from those for other gods. The aim clearly was to associate him with the other gods while maintaining some degree of separation. How exactly that would work in practice was a matter of great variety. In many places, recovered inscriptions testify to joint dedications of the imperial gods (Theoi Sebastoi) with others, such as Asclepius (Pergamum, Ephesus, and Spain), Jupiter and Zeus (Spain and Pisidia), Zeus Eleutherios (Egypt), or simply “all the other gods and goddesses” (Eresos [on Lesbos]). Another variant is found in North Africa: at Thuburbo Maius the Capitolium was dedicated to its traditional deities—Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva—and, conjointly, to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus; another shading that is found, for instance, at Dougga is the dedication of the Capitolium to the usual triad “for the well-being of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.” Here, as in the imperial cult in general, the fine line between homage and worship was constantly being redefined.

From an archaeological perspective, the freestanding temples and altars are, of course, the easiest to identify. They include the round tholos on the Athenian Acropolis, which again illustrates an important aspect of the whole phenomenon: the cult was part of civic life, though not its center—there were many other cults that engaged the minds and devotion of the populace. Again, this could vary: the Athenian Acropolis certainly was a prominent spot, but the small tholos was, of course, overshadowed by the Parthenon and Erechtheum. In Ephesus, by contrast, the site for the imperial cult was the upper agora, the administrative seat of the city’s social organization. Another interesting case (of many) is Petra, where the small temple has been reasonably identified as an imperial cult temple on the basis of rare building material that was used (i.e., white marble). Much more grandiose was the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, constructed ca. 20–60 C.E., a complex dedicated to Aphrodite and the Julio-Claudian emperors. It was not an enclosed sanctuary but functioned as an avenue to the city—the sacred and the civic intermingled, as they did so often. That combination was illustrated further by the relief sculptures of the two long galleries framing the central space: Roman emperors, gods, mythological figures, and representations of peoples conquered by Rome form an ensemble.

The imperial cult migrated to the west and again was practiced in diverse ways and with diverse emphases. The altars at Cologne and Lyon, established by directive from Rome, were markers of loyalty and military strength; here, numismatics plays a role in archaeological reconstruction because the evidence for the pictorial configuration for the Lyon altar comes solely from coins, and the translation of buildings into so small a medium inevitably led to streamlining and omitting some features. Spain in particular is remarkable for the number and variety of buildings for the divine emperors, some conjoined with Rome; the last emperor who was deified in Rome was Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180 C.E.), but that was far from the end of the imperial cult in the provinces where the Christian emperors adapted it for themselves.

Whereas local aristocrats were in charge of the imperial cult in the east, it became the stepping stone in the west to greater civic participation by an increasingly influential segment of society, the freedmen. Here, archaeology and epigraphy have played a large part in determining their role: they are mentioned but once in the literary sources, but some 2,500 inscriptions provide ample testimony and so do their buildings, the social halls in which these associations (collegia) gathered. The phenomenon once more illustrates the limits of what is meant by “religion” in the Roman context: the Augustales, as they were called, were Rotarians rather than priests. But as in the case of the freedmen, functionaries of the cult of the crossroads Lares in the city, their official recognition provided a vital element of shared participation and stability throughout the empire.

First to Fourth Century C.E.

The religious landscape of the Roman Empire was one of diversity and pluralism. Tolerance prevailed, not in the activist sense the modern term connotes but more in the manner of laissez-faire: the Romans were military imperialists but not cultural imperialists. That atmosphere also explains the seemingly proverbial exception, that is, the scattered and mostly local persecutions of Christians. Their insistent absolutism to be the only true religion was deeply antithetical to the existing order; non-Christians could easily imagine that a Christian takeover would spell the end of pluralism and tolerance, an assumption that was proven correct soon enough; and they tried to eradicate the problem. Christianity ultimately became the religion of the empire, and the concept of a Reichsreligion has, therefore, been retrojected on the pre-Christian empire. But such a religion did not exist; instead, the archaeological remains attest the coexistence of the Roman state religion (with its priesthoods and sacral laws) with cults and deities from all regions of the empire. Many made their way into Rome; more than ever, the cosmopolis was a tangible, material reflection of the oikumenē; and hybridization became a standard feature in religious life, especially in the provinces, parallel to the architecture, for instance, of both civic and sacred buildings.

Rome did not export its cults, but when Roman colonies were founded, whose population initially consisted mostly of Roman citizens like veterans, their institutions were modeled closely on those of Rome, including the state religion. A famous example is the charter of Urso (modern Osuna) in Spain, which was inscribed on bronze tablets (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 6087) and dates from the Flavian period; archaeological remains from the city also attest its Roman character. The same institutions, of course, continued in Rome itself; and so did the construction of new temples and the rebuilding of older ones. Hadrian (r. 117–138 C.E.) stands out for building the largest and most magnificent temple in Rome, the double temple of Venus and Roma, and for stimulating a building boom in the provinces, including the completion of the largest temple in Athens, that of Olympian Zeus. Unsurprisingly, some emperors favored their hometowns or regions; Septimius Severus’s (r. 193–211 C.E.) massive building program at Leptis Magna included a huge basilica where the pilasters framing each apse were decorated with reliefs illustrating scenes from the lives of the city’s patron gods, Hercules/Melquart and Dionysus/Shadrap/Liber Pater. This is one example of many of the fusion and diffusion of cults and divinities. Here, archaeology has been particularly helpful in dispelling the stereotyped notion of “Oriental” cults.

The cosmologies of cults such as that of Magna Mater, Jupiter Dolichenus, and Mithras remain speculative. Archaeological finds, including cult imagery, open up varied possibilities but do not provide conclusive answers; for Isis, there is more literary evidence, though it again goes only so far. Archaeological evidence, however, is much more probative at the level of sanctuary dedications. The resulting picture is that of unexpected (in terms of traditional notions) inclusiveness. The sanctuary of Magna Mater at Ostia, for instance, included the Temple of Bellona and statues of Pan, Dionysus, Venus, and perhaps Ceres. Similarly, the sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus on the Aventine borrowed elements of the Capitoline triad—his female partner was called simply Juno Regina—and a statue of Apollo was set up “on the order of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus.” In addition, there were some Mithraic reliefs and images related to Isis and Sarapis. As for Mithraic shrines, the Walbrook sanctuary in London, for instance, housed images of Olympian gods such as Minerva and Mercury in addition to the Egyptian Sarapis, assorted mother goddesses, and, of course, Mithras.

It is useful to correlate this kind of coexistence with a phenomenon, again based on archaeological finds, that is found in some of the provinces, in this case Roman Gaul. The problem there is complicated by the fact that the artifacts in question often have been separated from their archaeological and, concomitantly, historical context. Isolated in this manner, reliefs showing a combination of native and Roman gods were readily proclaimed as examples of syncretism and tolerance, if not washed over by the problematic term “romanization.” A paradigm is the so-called Pillar of the Boatmen, now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, where various detached pieces show a combination of native and Roman deities; a statue of Roman Jupiter is likely to have stood at the top of the pillar. Clearly, the intent is hierarchical: the Roman state god presides over the others. Typical of the Roman Empire, there was no uniform matrix; there are plenty of places in Gaul alone where the native gods are defined as secondary even if, or because, they could be given Roman forms. Differentiations are in order and cover a wide spectrum. In the context of the oikumenē (hence “ecumenical”), Romans would often interpret native gods as equivalents of Roman gods (interpretatio Romana), but that is not the same as syncretism or fusion. It is better to view the survival of the native gods, and the coexistence with Roman gods on the relevant monuments and artifacts, as no more than what can actually be seen: as new religious combinations. This provided a flexible and, just as important, evolving system for integration rather than a systematic theology.

Empirewide Cults.

Religion in the empire proceeded under pluralistic conditions. A thorough exploration of the evidence is obviated by the marked preference of archaeological work at urban sites even though most of the population was rural, living in pagi (country districts), hence the later equation of these pagani with “pagans.” The legacy of nineteenth-century archaeology and its mandate to fill great museums with glittering remains of the Greco–Roman world has not much changed despite some notable advances. One needs to imagine the Roman Empire, therefore, as filled with diverse religious practices in many humble venues that were not marked by imposing edifices. Votive religion, for instance, continued strongly, especially with the ever-present threats to health and survival; and its practices were later melded with the Christian cults of the saints.

Attention to the Roman and combinational cults in the towns and cities, therefore, proceeds almost by default; and the same can be said of other empirewide cults, such as those of Mithras and Isis, which does not lessen their importance.


Isis, in fact, is paradigmatic of the imperial culture’s penchant for flexibility, evolution, and multicultural adaptation. Richard Gordon has briefly adverted to some of the archaeological evidence for the cult of Isis in the east. This is to supplement his discussion: the salient point is that the geographic reach of her cult was coextensive with the empire and that Isis, so far offering merely a refuge for initiates, had a large role, attested by numerous inscriptions, as protectress of the imperial house and the Roman people. She thus became the kinder, gentler companion of the cult of the emperor. In Italy her importance is attested by numerous survivals; Pompeii stands out because her (small) temple was one of the first buildings to be restored after the earthquake of 63 C.E. There is also ample evidence from central and eastern Europe. Of special interest are excavations in Mainz, Germany, that salvaged a joint sanctuary to Isis and Magna Mater dating to the Flavian period. A substantial number of military brick stamps suggest that this was an officially established cult rather than a private one. Accordingly, one of the inscriptions hails Isis Panthea as protecting the Roman people and Senate, the imperial house, and the army.

As Panthea, Isis absorbed just about all Greek and Roman female deities, notably Venus, Ceres, and Fortuna. It is no coincidence that her major sanctuary in Rome (some 10 other temples to her are attested in the capital), a massive complex codedicated to Sarapis, stood in the immediate vicinity of the Pantheon and was not closed off. The large number of artifacts traced to the site ran the gamut from Egyptian imports to acculturation, such as the dedication by one of her temple keepers to Dis Manibus, the Roman gods of the underworld. As evidenced at other sites, too, Isis paralleled Roman imperial civilization by being cosmopolitan and ecumenical, on the one hand, and displaying a distinct identity, in this case her Egyptian rituals, on the other. It is this combination, among other factors, that explains her widespread popularity.


Archaeology has made substantive contributions to a fuller understanding of this cult and, especially, its followers. That knowledge, of course, goes only so far in light of the absence of Mithraic writings; and despite increasingly sophisticated scholarship on the possible meanings of its cosmogony and imagery, reliable conclusions remain elusive, as befits a mystery cult. One benefit of ongoing archaeological work, however, has been to reorient scholarly interest to what happened on the ground rather than in heaven. Martin Vermaseren’s extended projects led to the publication of many mithraea, especially in the frontier provinces of the empire, confirming the notion that this was a cult for the soldiers and that most of its shrines had a vaulted configuration, often underground (“the cave”), with the iconic image of Mithras slaying the bull (tauroctony) looming over the rituals in a cramped space. Further, the much publicized mithraea beneath San Clemente in Rome and at Santa Maria Capua Vetere became paradigms because of their accessibility to modern visitors. Much of this is a construct, just like the supposed Persian “origins” of the cult in the west.

Instead, excavations, especially at Ostia, which has the largest concentration of archaeological remains for the cult (some 17), throw a different light on the phenomenon. Mithraic venues were generally incorporated into existing houses. They provided a place for cult dinners, and the immediate parallel is the many associations (collegia) in Ostia and elsewhere that served clienteles such as guilds or burial associations. Many members were slaves and former slaves, generally on a lower rung than the Augustales. With this comes the usual inclusiveness not only of nonmithraic deities but also of the standard interior decor of the period (mostly second century C.E. at Ostia). The former include dedications to Silvanus, who was prominently connected at Ostia with the imperial cult and some civic guilds. The picture that emerges is not one of escapism, focusing on the next world, but on social connectivity. Like other cults in the empire, Mithraism could cover a wide range of practices and adaptations to local and changing circumstances.



  • Arslan, Ermanno A., and Palazzo reale di Milano. Iside: Il mito, il mistero, la magia. Milan: Electa, 1997. Superb exhibition catalog with outstanding illustrations.
  • Brodd, Jeffrey, and Jonathan Reed, eds. Rome and Religion: A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult. Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. Discusses the imperial cult from a variety of perspectives, including the archaeological evidence.
  • Cancik, H., and Jörg Rüpke, eds. Die Religion des Imperium Romanum. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009. Critical discussion by many contributors of the concept of an imperial religion (rather than religions).
  • Fishwick, Duncan. The Imperial Cult in the Latin West. 3 vols. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1987–2005. Comprehensive survey of all attested sites, the evolution of the cult, and the priesthoods.
  • Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Holistic study of the main aspects of Augustan culture, including a chapter on religion.
  • North, John A., and Simon R. F. Price, eds. The Religious History of the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. A useful collection of previously published essays by international contributors. Particularly noteworthy, in terms of the uses of archaeological and artistic evidence, are the contributions by William Van Andringa on Roman Gaul and Simon Price, “Homogeneity and Diversity in the Religions of Rome.”
  • Price, S. R. F. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986. A standard work.
  • Takacs, Sarolta A. Isis and Serapis in the Roman World. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1995. Good collection and discussion of the evidence, especially from the western part of the empire.
  • Vermaseren, Martin. Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis Mithriacae. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1956. A still useful collection that provided the impetus for the excavation and publication of mithraea in the West.
  • Vidman, Ladislav. Isis und Serapis bei den Griechen und Römern. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1970. Especially useful for the epigraphic evidence.
  • White, L. Michael. “The Changing Face of Mithraism at Ostia.” In Contested Spaces: Houses and Temples in Roman Antiquity and the New Testament, edited by David L. Balch and Annette Weissenrieder, pp. 435–492. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2012.
  • Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. Authoritative analysis of Augustus’s deployment of art and architecture with considerable discussion of their religious functions.

Karl Galinsky

Mystery Cults

Although the term had existed earlier, it was mainly the Protestant Religionsgeschichtliche Schule inspired by Wilhelm Bousset at Göttingen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that developed the notion of “mystery religion” (German Mysterienreligionen). The concept was intended to pull together materials from the ancient Near East with the various Greco–Roman cults termed mysteria, of which the most familiar, and in a sense best-attested, were the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis but which were believed, largely though by no means exclusively on the basis of Early Christian apologetic, to have been widespread in many other cults, particularly those of Dionysus, Phrygian Cybele, and Egyptian Isis. The aim of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule being to detach New-Testament studies from an exclusive focus upon the Judaic heritage of early Christianity, it naturally sought to link the occasional appearances of the word mysterion in the New Testament (28 occurrences, especially Rom 11:25, 16:25; 1 Cor 4:1; Mark 4:11; Eph 3:3) with these supposed historical phenomena. A parallel development in France, associated with Jean Réville and Ernest Renan but brilliantly elaborated by the Franco–Belgian scholar Franz Cumont in 1906, focused on the role—now negative, now positive—of “Oriental religions” (synonyms were “Oriental cults” and “Oriental mysteries”) in the decay of a mythical entity named “Roman traditional religion,” known to be dry as dust and purely formalistic.

The interwar period saw numerous efforts, particularly by Raffaele Pettazzoni, to develop a historicoanthropological model of mystery religions. These came to be included in a category, “salvation religions” (religions de salut), that acquired a real existence in the teaching of the history of religions; the concept of initiation, taken to involve a decisive shift in religious status, played a significant supplementary role here. There developed what may be called a vulgate of scholarly assumptions, still quite widespread in some fields and national traditions, which included the belief that “mysteries” were typologically similar, offered a specific type of “deeper” religious experience, had a significant ethical content, were primarily oriented toward postmortem and eschatological expectations, and, by exposing the hollowness of civic religion, prepared the way for the “success” of Christianity.

It is above all since the 1980s that all of these positions, depending as they do on an infrastructure of factoids, have come under pressure. This was partly due to the great increase in the scale and reliability of relevant archaeological and epigraphic information brought about by Maarten J. Vermaseren’s series Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain (1961–1990), whose original intention was to confirm Cumont’s scenario but which ended up by showing just how limited the documentary evidence for mysteries in the “Oriental cults” was; the work of Giulia Sfameni Gasparro on the cult of Cybele and Attis was of decisive importance here. The idea that the “Oriental cults” were primarily or predominantly “mystery cults,” the central claim of Cumont’s scenario, had to be abandoned. A related development was the realization that epigraphic documentation has its own history so that the supposed “decline of paganism” turned out to be largely due to the decline of epigraphic culture in the third century C.E. At the same time, thanks not least to progressive archaeological discovery, the continuing vitality of investment in civic and local religion, in both the Greek- and the Latin-speaking parts of the Mediterranean world, was vigorously underscored.

Regarding the content of mysteries, the decisive publication was that of Walter Burkert (1987), who, while still from a modern perspective underwriting much of the traditional story, downplayed eschatology in favor of a this-worldly orientation (sôteria, salus, meaning “health,” “well-being,” “prosperity”), differentiated between substantially different types of cult, and stressed their instrumental aspect by comparing them to the practice of making votive offerings. No one could have sought a specific religious identity in such experiences, which could be repeated as often as one liked and in any cult; such identity was formed rather in associations with a primarily religious focus. In the same year, Jonathan Z. Smith effectively undermined the notion that there was a specific category of Near-Eastern deities that died and were then revived, to which Osiris and Attis belonged.

The Greek word myein connotes admission to restricted knowledge or insight; teletai are any sort of nonstandard rites. Mystery experience has come to be understood largely in social terms, as a mark of distinction and seriousness (see Apuleius, Apol. 55). The “discursive turn” has prompted a more sophisticated understanding of descriptions of mystery experience to be found in texts of the Second Sophistic (e.g., Plutarch, frag. 178, Sandbach). Finally, the entire discussion of large-scale religious change in the Roman Empire has shifted decisively away from mystery cults to the issues of symbolic communication, its media and its (political) control, types of discursivity on religious themes, the diversity of individual practice and sense making, and the gradual disengagement of religion from other social practices as an undertaking sui generis—the Latin word religio could be used by the second century C.E. at least in some contexts to mean something like English “religion.” Insofar as these issues dominate the research agenda, neither category, “mystery cults” or “oriental religions,” has much to offer.

One of Burkert’s main points was that there are at least three distinguishable types of mystery cults in the Classical and Greco–Roman worlds: 1. The civic type, best represented by the Eleusinian mysteries, were organized annually by the Athenian state and involved a public procession from the city to the village of Eleusis, some 15 miles (24.1 km) away, but well attested elsewhere, such as the mysteries of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace, of the Kabeiroi at Thebes, or of Demeter at Andania in Messene. Since in the Classical period several dozens, if not hundreds, of young people of both sexes were initiated annually at Eleusis, the only condition being the ability to offer a piglet as a sacrifice, and the performance of the mystery, at least in the first stage, was witnessed by them all collectively, it is clear that no personal revelation or shift of individual religious status was involved. The “knowledge” vouchsafed was not discursive; the injunction against divulging the content was also an admission that, on being put into words, its significance would rapidly shrink. The promise to an audience of dozens of enjoying a better postmortem fate than noninitiates (i.e., all non-Athenians) can have made only a slight impression—they were, after all, young—and is anyway only ever listed last among the promised benefits of health and prosperity. 2. Diagnosis of daimonic attack or personal (or inherited) sinfulness and appropriate rituals of purification, which might include postmortem protection and well-being, were offered by, usually itinerant, religious specialists (Greek manteis). Such figures competed with other types of “salvation discourse,” such as school medicine and philosophy (depreciatory caricatures are to be found in Hippocrates, Morb. sacr. §1 Grensemann, and Plato, Rep. 364b–365a). The best-known documentary evidence for this type of practitioner are the Orphic–Bacchic gold lamellae from around the margins of the Greek world (mainly IVa–IIIa). A text on a gold lamella (late IVa/early IIIa) found in a marble ash urn at Pherai/Thessaly (an address to Persephone in the underworld) suggests the way in which such specialists could simultaneously mobilize a variety of divine figures in order to increase the value of the promise: “Send me to (the) dining groups of (the) initiates (mystô<n> thiasous): I possess the rites (orgia) of Bacchus and the rites (telê = teletai) of Demeter Chthonia and of the Mother of the mountains” (SEG 55 [2005], no. 612, with literature.). 3. More or less stable cult associations (Greek thiasoi, synodoi, koina; Latin collegia, corpora) were organized both at the civic level and by private religious entrepreneurs—what may be called, with Max Weber, “mystagogues”—who used their financial resources to rent, furnish, maintain, and sometimes even build accommodation for their association (a good example is the association of the Dionysiastai in Peiraeus/Attica: IG II2 1326 = Jaccottet, 2003, 2: no.2 = Kloppenborg, Ascough, and Harland, 2011–2013, 1: no. 36, 176/5 B.C.E.). Members undertook to pay an entrance fee, often in kind (food or wine but also money), and a monthly contribution to the common meals. Such requirements, which assume a largely monetarized urban economy and considerable freely disposable income, effectively excluded the great majority of the population, those who worked on the land, whether slaves or free peasants, and urban day laborers. Whether or not the members, or some of the members, of such an association called themselves mystai (initiates) was evidently of secondary importance: the great majority of associations, even professional ones, had some religious connection, but probably only a minority was primarily religious. At any rate, the word mystêria is not a technical term or diagnostic of a specific content but invokes rather the prestige of Eleusis as a reference point; teletai and orgia occur even more frequently in the sense of privately or locally organized rituals. Since they depended so heavily on the religious philanthropy of individual patrons or managers, such associations had variable life expectancies. The only enduring institutionalized mysteries were those closely linked to local civic cult.The long-term effect of this view has been to emphasize the degree to which mystery cults were integrated into civic or, more broadly, social life, some being mainly familial (i.e., including private slave households, notably the imperial household on the Palatine), others based on the friends and associates of an individual organizer (a “mystagogue”), yet others with links to the civic elites and the imperial cult, and others still working within networks such as the Dionysiac artists in Asia Minor or the provincial toll-collection agencies. The Egyptian cults in particular benefited from repeated imperial patronage, notably under the Flavians, Hadrian, and the Severans. Motifs and ideas were cheerfully borrowed from one cult to another. The central institution of these associations was not “initiation,” however, but the shared meal, itself taken over from the ordinary postsacrificial meals held in dining rooms attached to the public temples of civic cults. This realization has led to an emphasis upon associations, focused upon shared meals, as the major common ground between pagan and early Christian institutions. One of the earliest scholars to relate this development to a selection of the archaeological evidence for mystery cults, the Jewish synagogue, and early Christian communities was White. A complementary emphasis has been laid on the possibilities offered by the intensive study of archaeological small finds for studying ritual behavior.There is no satisfactory way of organizing the epigraphic and archaeological material on mysteries, particularly in the context of the argument that the term does not correspond in the Greco–Roman world to an identifiable institutional reality, to a unified religious experience, or to a coherent set of eschatological promises. The solution adopted here is to present some of the material associated with three major cults only. The emphasis is on the eastern Mediterranean, where Jesus believers were to be found in several cities and even villages in the first two centuries C.E. In Palestine itself, there is no record of the cult of Isis or Cybele at Aelia Capitolina (the Roman colonia of Jerusalem); Dionysus, however, was reputed to have founded the hellenized city of Scythopolis/Nysa/Beth-Shean and appears on the local coinage; the only two known mithraea are at Caesarea Maritima and in a small side room of the temple of Baal-Shamin at Sî. There is no epigraphic record of mystai at all; the Mithraic inscriptions at Sî are in Latin.

Civic Mysteries.

Civic mysteries are associated in Asia Minor particularly with the cults of Demeter and Dionysus. In Smyrna, for example, there was a public cult of “the great thesmophoric city-preserving deity Demeter” and her daughter Korê (Persephone) (IK Smyrna 655; 727; 7263-5), which was organized by a synodos of mystai on behalf of the council and people; theologoi from good families had the duty of providing the mystai with everything they needed during the festival and of reciting some version of the myth of the rape of Persephone and the distress of Demeter. Afterward they received public thanks in the form of a crown and/or a statue, paid for (as usual) by their families. There was likewise a synodos of the mystai of the other “city-preserving god,” Dionysus Bre(i)seus, at times linked with the Dionysiac technitai (guild of actors). At Ephesus too there were mystai both of Demeter (Dêmêtriastai) and of Dionysus (Dionysou Phleô mystai), and similar pairings are known from other cities, such as Amyzon. Other deities too were worshipped in this manner: at Thyateira/Lydia, for example, there were civic mysteries of Artemis, involving public sacrifice and feasting paid for by the priestess and her family; at Kadyanda, as in other cities, local civic games were celebrated in honor of Isis and Sarapis, ancestral gods.

Civic mystery cults of Demeter (and Dionysus) are also known from Stratonicea/Caria; by far the most prominent civic mysteries there, however, were attached to the cult of Zeus Panamara: a series of inscriptions attests to the public service of prominent local benefactors (euergetes), including the staging of these mysteries, which, as in most such cases, no doubt, involved paying for public feasts for citizens and free inhabitants as well as distributions of oil and money. At Stratonicea, “staging the mysteries” was thus a public function to be discharged annually by individuals selected from the euergetic class. In all these cases, the mystai constituted a group of privileged citizens drawn from the leading families and their supporters.

Religious Associations.

The second class of mysteries, bestowed by individual, usually itinerant, charismatics, seems to have disappeared in the early Hellenistic period, once the economic and social effects of Alexander’s conquest of the Achaemenid Empire made themselves felt. Increasingly, such figures settled and acquired a stable following, a synodos/thiasos/eranos, whose rules varied widely regarding concern for purity and ethical behavior. Some of these groups survived the death of the mystagogue, but most did not. Almost any deity, and many heroes, might be the focus of such groups; the major attraction of Dionysus, Mên, Sabazius, the Egyptian deities, Cybele, Mithras, and Jupiter Dolichenus for these religious entrepreneurs (mainly men but also a wealthy few women, such as Agrippinilla, whose household Dionysiac association at Torre Nova had 400 members) was that they offered an adaptable set of basic ideas or inspirations, founded upon a mythical repertoire and a limited iconography, which could be extended in any desirable direction. In the cases of Cybele, whose cult had been part of the official Roman calendar since 204 B.C.E., and of Isis and Sarapis, granted public cults at Rome early in the reign of Vespasian, successful entrepreneurs could hope to persuade the city council to advance their divinity to civic status; in many cases, the appearance of the Egyptian deities on local coins, especially in second-century B.C.E. Asia Minor, is the sole evidence for a cult of these deities, public or private. Here, there is space only to consider very briefly some of the material relating to Dionysus, Isis/Sarapis, and Mithras.


There is no book-length treatment of the archaeological evidence for Dionysiac associations under the empire; the most important discussion, however, devoted to a comparison between Miletus and Pergamum, has emphasized the sheer variety of architectural/organizational ideas and the rituals they imply, even within and between these two sites in Asia Minor. The point can be extended across the board: the ubiquity and suggestivity of Dionysiac imagery, combined with the central place of the symposium, centered upon wine drinking, in elite culture, inspired patrons and mystagogues to use their fantasy about names, design, and functionality. One theme was the natural cave, evoking Dionysus’s childhood but also an idealized Nature: an important series of inscriptions from Kallatis/Black Sea suggests that the cult of Dionysus Patrôos/Baccheus/Daryllios adapted a natural cave for its meetings. An “ever-green cave” (aeithales spêlaion) created for the mystai of Dionysus Baccheus by a doctor, Timokleides, on Thasos was linked to a nymphaeum with running water as well as a dining room (oikos) and was probably artificial. A nymphaeum was also installed at the shrine of Dionysus at Kalindoia/Mygdonia (SEG 42:587, 70 C.E.). The meetings of the Iobacchic association at Athens, one of whose patrons was the magnate Herodes Atticus, were centered on banquets and the symposium, though they also staged little plays featuring Dionysus, Palaemon (son of Ino, the wet nurse of Dionysus), Aphrodite, Prôteurhythmos (“first musician”), and Korê (Persephone) (IG II2 1368 = Syll3 1109, 178 C.E.). The “Podiumsaal” at Pergamum was likewise designed to hold a fair number of relatively wealthy banqueters at separate klinai. Floor mosaics elsewhere, for example, in the shrine of Dionysus on the island of Melos, also suggest a central role of the common meal and symposium.


There has been an explosion of archaeological work on the Egyptian cults. The density of the worship of the Egyptian deities, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, can be followed in an original archaeological atlas (Bricault, 2001). The inscriptions contain a mass of detailed evidence relating to cult statues, priestly and associate functions, ritual equipment, clothing, and votive offerings. The relation between archaeology and cult practice, public and private, is treated in a well-illustrated survey with complete ground plans (Kleibl, 2009).

Although the cults often spread to the coastal cities of Asia Minor in the Hellenistic period under Ptolemaic influence, most of the recoverable monumentalization dates from the empire. The diversity of models is once again striking. At Kyme, for example, the temple was of standard Greek type but beside it stood a large room for common meals. The Iseum at Priene, another early foundation, stood on a terrace overlooking the city and consisted of a walled temenos (sacred enclosure), without a conventional temple building, focused on a large open-air altar accessed by means of a perron. To the west of the altar was a series of rooms for dining and other purposes. The Sarapieion at Miletus, a late foundation, was of conventional Greek design with virtually no Egyptianizing effects; at Ephesus, by contrast, the temple, with a water cistern beneath, was located directly beside the agora and surrounded on three sides by a courtyard occupied by rooms of different sizes, some of which must have been for personnel and others for dining. At Messene, a huge Π-shaped underground water cistern enclosed the temple area. The three Hellenistic sarapieia at Delos (mainly Sarapieion C) have produced between them almost 300 inscriptions, while the island authorities in late IIa (second century B.C.E.) drew up detailed inventories of votive offerings owned by the Egyptian cults, together with their value, an indication of their local prestige. Little is known of the largest (public) temple at Rome, the Iseum Campense, except its water installations and Egyptianized decoration.

It is in the case of the Egyptian deities that the undifferentiated notion of mystery cult is especially inappropriate: only five inscriptions in the entire corpus refer to mystai, including two in Asia Minor and two in Italy, none earlier than the late Ip. This number can be increased by a dozen if the Latin sacra, especially by itself in the genitive plural (sacrorum), is translated as “mysteries.” The earliest versions of the much-adapted Isiac aretalogies make no reference to mysteries. It seems that the use of the term in Isiac cult was a response to wider trends around the turn of the first and second centuries B.C.E. (I/IIp); before that, the ordinary word for members of Isiac associations was therapeutai, “worshippers.” The evocation of three different mystery experiences in Apuleius (Metam. book 11) is to be seen as one of several attempts in IIp, in the context of the Second Sophistic and the Greek novel, convincingly to convey the emotional aspect of ritual experience. Stimulated by the Middle-Platonic revival of Plato’s evocation of the Eleusinian mysteries, it thus has a generic, not a documentary, truth.


By contrast with Dionysus and Isis/Sarapis, the cult of Mithras was nowhere (except at Trapezus and possibly Amorium in Asia Minor) granted civic status but remained always a private “mystagogic” enterprise. Here again, however, the term “initiate” hardly occurs—the cult is termed a “mystery” only by Neoplatonist and Christian sources. Mithraea vary greatly in their design and ornamentation, but all, as with other buildings occupied by associations, combine in a single space the three features of Greco–Roman temples that in civic cult were traditionally kept separate: a house for the divine image, an altar for sacrifices, and a dining room. The image of Mithras killing the bull was placed directly beside the lateral podia, where the worshippers reclined to share meals; the centrality of dining in the life of these associations is clear from the standard layout as a biclinium, a dining area for two groups of men facing one another across a central aisle. Specially commissioned ceramic ware, hardly known in other cults, is typical for the cult. Despite some attention to the varieties of religious experience implied by architectural features, there exists no study specifically devoted to the relation between architecture, iconography, and ritual function; the different designs of the cult niche are potentially of great interest in this connection. As in the case of Dionysiac associations, some effort was made to use natural caves or to relate the temple to such caves but also to the cosmos, understood as an intricately ordered system—it is only in the cult of Mithras, linked to the sun, that mystagogues regularly invoked the geocentric model of the universe.



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Richard L. Gordon

Public Religion

Discussions of Roman religion often focus on public religion, the religion of the state that was visible on a regular basis at temples and altars sprinkled throughout the city. Romans performed religious actions in a number of different contexts: in public as citizens but also in their homes as members of a family and sometimes even on their own. For the Romans these activities formed a continuum of religious behavior, but the surviving evidence, mostly limited to small household shrines and the occasional ex-voto dedication or inscription, makes it difficult to speak with confidence about what might be called private religion. Certainly, such practices are less visible in the twenty-first century and would also have been less visible in antiquity, while the sacra publica, or public rites, left their mark imprinted into the physical fabric of the city and the cultural fabric of the community. The following remarks thus focus on these visible manifestations both in the city of Rome and in nearby parts of Italy during the Republic and early Empire (roughly 500 B.C.E. to 100 C.E.).

Public religion in Rome was very much a religion of place: Roman rituals were, and needed to be, performed in specific places around the city in order to protect the city. Some places had been considered sacred from time immemorial, while others gained their status over the years; but each location had its specific ritual that needed to be performed on that spot and at a specified time of the year. This principle finds its best articulation in the speech that the historian Livy puts in the mouth of the Roman general Camillus in 390 B.C.E. In response to suggestions that the Romans might simply abandon a city recently destroyed by the Gauls and move to nearby Veii, Camillus declares:

"there is no spot in [our City] which is not full of religio and the gods; the festive sacrifices have appointed places no less than they have appointed days.…Perhaps someone might suggest that we can either perform these rites at Veii or send our priests to perform them here. But neither of these things can be done without a violation of the ceremony…in the case of the feast of Jupiter, where else but on the Capitol can the couch of Jupiter be prepared? (Livy 5.52)"

The sense that religion permeated almost every element of both space and time for the inhabitants of Rome is shown clearly by the surviving monuments of the city. One cult site in the Forum, the spot where the so-called Lapis Niger (black stone) was found, apparently originated in the seventh century B.C.E. and remained in use throughout the Republic. This site, often connected with the Vulcanal, was discussed by the Romans as a place of sacred significance; even Julius Caesar, in his reorganization of the Forum following his decisive victory over Pompey in 49 B.C.E., took care to create a superstructure that would protect the sanctity of the spot. Similar sacred spots existed elsewhere in the Forum and the city, and as new temples were constructed throughout the urban environment, a Roman would have experienced the sense of being surrounded by the presence of the gods. By the end of the third century B.C.E., Rome possessed no fewer than three temples to both Jupiter and Juno, two temples for Hercules and Venus, and temples for Ceres, Apollo, Mars, Janus, Bellona, and a host of other divinities. These ever-present cult sites enabled the Romans to believe themselves the most religious of all people and to ascribe their military success to their superior cultivation of the gods.

Not only was Roman space filled with constant reminders of public religion, but such reminders filled Roman time as well. On the day of a temple’s founding, its dies natalis, a procession would make its way to the temple, where a public sacrifice would take place; and other days might similarly be occupied with festivals or other religious activities. For instance, the Ludi Romani held in honor of Jupiter occupied one-half of the month of September, while April saw the celebration of the Parilia, which apparently began as a ritual to ensure a good harvest in the coming year and by the Late Republic had transformed into a celebration of the founding of Rome. The entire apparatus of the calendar was overseen by the college of pontiffs, while other priestly colleges had charge of the interpretation of omens from the gods (the augurs and the haruspices) or were responsible for consulting the Sibylline Books in the face of a crisis and when directed by the Senate (the Xviri sacris faciundis). These colleges, comprised of members of the ruling elite, played a role in nearly every public action undertaken by state officials. Just as one could scarcely move about Rome without encountering a visible reminder of Roman religion, so there was scarcely a day that passed in the city without some form of public religious activity.

Foreign Cultures and Roman Religion.

While Roman authors liked to imagine an early phase of Roman religion at which their practice was unsullied by foreign (especially Greek) influence, the archaeological evidence demonstrates conclusively that Rome was open to absorbing cultural elements from a very early date. The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Best and Greatest) on the Capitoline hill reveals this point clearly. This structure, which during the Republic (509–31 B.C.E.) functioned as the most important temple of the Roman state, was also one of the oldest temples in the city. Its construction dated back to the late sixth century B.C.E., and it displays numerous architectural affinities with temples of the Etruscans, Rome’s neighbors and erstwhile opponents to the north. The temple with its triple cella was set on a podium with a strong frontal axis, unlike Greek temples set on a platform with columns that ran around all four sides; further, the pediment was decorated with terra-cotta antefixes in a style paralleled in Etruria. There is little doubt that the architectural inspiration for this temple came from the north, and Etruscan elements continued to find their way into Roman religion throughout the Republic.

Lest it be thought that only foreign elements from Rome’s neighbors found a place in Rome, archaeological finds have revealed the presence of Greek culture as well. Excavations at the church of S. Omobono in Rome have uncovered significant quantities of imported Greek pottery dating back to the earliest days of Rome. While it is possible that these vases made their way to Rome via Italian intermediaries, direct Greek influence upon central Italy is confirmed by an archaic inscription in Roman letters dating to the sixth or fifth century B.C.E. that reads “Castorei Podlouqueique qurois.” The word qurois, a clear attempt at transliterating the Greek word kourois (youths), indicates direct Greek influence on the cult of Castor and Pollux in central Italy; in Rome the cult is attested in the early fifth century B.C.E. The archaeological evidence thus lays bare the openness of Rome and Roman religion to foreign elements from the very earliest days of the Republic, a phenomenon that continued into the next phase of Rome’s existence.

Religion and Roman Identity.

Roman public religion can be seen as a critical means through which Roman identity was expressed, and the introduction of new cults to Rome, especially for foreign divinities, exemplifies key elements of how the Romans defined their sense of Romanness. The great bulk of the new temples resulted from a response to a crisis, most often a vow made by a general in the field, and thus provided scope for an individual to parade both piety to the gods and virtus (manliness) to the Roman people. Roman temples thus served literally as monumenta, which means not only reminders of the past but also examples for the future. The temple of Lares Permarini, dedicated in 179 B.C.E., provides a good example, for the historian Livy recorded an inscription affixed to the temple that described the circumstances of the temple’s construction:

"When Lucius the son of Marcus Aemilius went out to battle to put an end to a great war and to subdue kings . . . the fleet of Antiochus, ever before invincible, was defeated, shattered and put to flight between Ephesus, Samos and Chios, before the very eyes of Antiochus and of his whole army, his cavalry and elephants. On that day forty-two ships of war were captured there, with all their crews. (Livy 40.52)"

The temple thus recalled a specific moment from Rome’s past and the role played by a specific Roman but also pointed to success in war as a primary Roman attribute. Returning to this temple every year on the anniversary of its founding kept that memory in front of the Roman people, just as the celebrations of other rituals throughout the year fostered a similar sense of Roman identity. The viewer would be constantly reminded of the role of the gods in the success of the Roman state and of the Romans who helped build the state. It was thus possible for both Romans and visitors to the city to “read” a part of the history of Rome and understand what it meant to be Roman.

At the same time, however, the process by which new temples were constructed in Rome underlined both the ultimate senatorial control over Roman religion and the habitual cooperation between the senate and individual actors. In order for these temples to become part of the Roman religious system, the senate had to give its assent, which of course it regularly did. The surviving remains of Republican temples in Rome illustrate how this cooperative relationship worked in practice. Perhaps the best example can be drawn from the temples of the Largo Argentina, four temples dating from the third to the first centuries B.C.E. The temples are preserved primarily by their foundations, and much remains unknown about them, including the identity of the divinities to whom they were dedicated. The relatively small size of these temples (the largest is approximately 75 by 120 ft [22.9 by 36.6 m]) serves as a reminder that even as the Romans viewed these buildings as important monuments, most of the visible temples of the Roman street were not monuments in the modern sense of the term, grand edifices like the Parthenon in Athens or the later temple of Mars Ultor in Rome.

Equally noteworthy, however, is the close proximity within which the temples existed; no more than 20 ft (6.1 m) separates one temple from the next. Nor is this situation unusual: less than half a mile (0.8 km) away, three other temples of the same period, usually identified as those to Spes (Hope), Juno Sospita, and Janus, display the same characteristics. These temples are approximately the same size as those in the Largo Argentina and again stand cheek by jowl along what was then (and remains) a major thoroughfare. While each temple honored a specific divinity, and by association the Roman who had vowed the temple, it also formed part of an urban ensemble, with no one temple (or individual) being presented as more important than another. These temples thus reinforced the sense of cooperation among the Roman aristocrats while also reminding all the inhabitants of Rome of the role of the gods.


From the fourth through the second centuries B.C.E. Rome developed from a small city on the banks of the Tiber River to an empire that dominated the Mediterranean basin, and this expansion wrought changes in every fabric of Roman society. At the most basic level the population and size of the city expanded, and the amount of wealth increased even more dramatically. Because of the close relationship between religion and politics at Rome, the impact of these developments was felt intensely in the religious sphere as well as elsewhere in Roman society.

Perhaps most obvious to the inhabitants of Rome, the expansion of hegemony brought with it an expansion in the Roman pantheon as new temples to new gods were erected throughout the city. Virtually up to the end of the fourth century B.C.E., the Romans had imported only a small number of divinities, mostly (though not exclusively) from other towns in Italy. The pace of adoption increased rapidly beginning in the third century B.C.E., and increased contact with the Greek world meant that many of these divinities came directly from Greece or other overseas locations. The Roman response is noteworthy, for the notion of expanding the pantheon in response to the expansion of territory is not a necessary one or typical of the ancient world. For instance, the Babylonians brought the worship of their own god Marduk into conquered lands rather than adopting foreign worship; even the Athenians, who did introduce new gods into Athens, did so on a much more limited basis than Rome and never, as far as is known, from a defeated enemy. The Romans, however, displayed an unusual willingness to expand their pantheon, just as they displayed a willingness to extend citizenship to others. As so often, Roman religion mirrors Roman politics: the incorporation of foreign divinities reveals the willingness to extend the Roman community beyond the mere walls of the city.

The Impact of Expansion on Roman Identity.

The willingness of the Romans to incorporate foreign elements within their community and their religious system was not without its challenges; negotiating the balance between the inclusion of foreign elements and the maintenance of a clear sense of Roman identity required constant attention. The cult of the Magna Mater, introduced in 205 B.C.E. when the aniconic black stone representing the Magna Mater was brought from Asia Minor and installed in the temple of Victory in Rome, provides a good example. Despite the unusual and Eastern elements of the original cult, the cult in Rome makes significant use of Roman practice. The temple was built on the Palatine hill, the part of the city considered by Roman tradition to have been the site of the original settlement by Romulus; and if the temple foundations on that hill have been correctly identified as belonging to the Magna Mater, the architecture conformed to the Roman tradition: modest in size with a strong frontal appearance. Similar negotiations can be seen in other temples of the second century B.C.E.; marble began to make its way into use as a building material, first for the roof and eventually for the entire temple, beginning with the temple of Jupiter Stator in 146 B.C.E. Yet these temples continued to employ the Roman style of architecture. Greek elements might be increasingly employed in Roman religion, but as in the earlier period it appears that the Romans were determined to employ these elements according to their own wishes and needs.

The connection of religion to Roman identity can be seen outside the city as well: the archaeological work at the site of Practica di Mare offers clues in this direction. Practica di Mare is usually identified as ancient Lavinium, the site founded, according to Roman tradition, by Aeneas after he fled the sack of Troy with the remnants of the Trojan people; his son Iulus in turn founded Alba Longa, and Romulus and Remus eventually were born from his line. Excavations at Practica di Mare have revealed a series of altars in a row, indicating in all likelihood a federal sanctuary; but more interesting, the excavators uncovered what has been identified as a heroon: a small tumulus (60 ft [18.3 m] in diameter) covering a burial dated in its original phase to the seventh century B.C.E. However, the tomb was renovated in the fourth century B.C.E. and became the object of cult practice: a porch was installed and set off from the exterior of the tumulus, with votive offerings found in an inner chamber. The tomb is frequently identified as a heroon of Aeneas since it is known that Aeneas was worshipped under the name Pater Indiges in Lavinium. It is also known that by the end of the fourth century B.C.E. Lavinium had come to be associated with the Penates, the household gods of Troy supposedly rescued by Aeneas from Troy; and this period is precisely when the Romans began to adopt the Trojan legend, as a means both of entering into the Hellenistic world and of distinguishing themselves clearly from the Greeks. It is thus tempting to see the renovations at the heroon as part of this process, forging a firmer link or even creating a link, through religious practice. Whatever the case with the heroon itself, during the Late Republic Roman magistrates continued to journey to Lavinium to make sacrifices to the Penates at the beginning of every year, a clear assertion of the importance of Lavinium to the Romans.

A New Visibility in the Late Republic.

The period of the Late Republic (133–31 B.C.E.) brought new challenges to the Roman state, with concomitant changes in the religious landscape. As Roman generals engaged in an increasingly strenuous struggle for power, new temples began to appear in ways that placed much greater emphasis on the individual than on the community. When Pompey the Great (106–48 B.C.E.) erected a temple to Venus the Bringer of Victory, the temple was but a small part of a much larger set of buildings that included the first stone theater in Rome and gardens modeled after those of the Hellenistic kings through which Romans could stroll, noting the various kings whom Pompey had brought to their knees. Beginning the very year after Pompey’s temple was dedicated, Julius Caesar began construction of his own complex, known as the Forum Julium, complete with porticos and shops and dominated at one end by his temple to Venus. Originally this temple was to be dedicated to Venus Victrix in competition with Pompey, but Pompey had been defeated by the time the temple was completed, so Caesar eventually dedicated the temple to Venus Genetrix, ancestress of the Roman people. In so doing Caesar set the course for the imperial period as the first emperor Augustus constructed his temple of Mars Ultor inside his Forum and moved the location of prominent ceremonies, such as the departure of Roman generals for their campaigns, to this site. Other emperors—Claudius, Vespasian, Nerva, and most famously Trajan—followed suit. Public religion under the Empire very much revolved around the figure of the emperor and his family, and the imperial fora are merely a visible reminder of that fact in the landscape.

If the impact of the imperial fora was somewhat limited by the location of these edifices in the center of Rome and the fact that they were primarily directed at the elite classes, the existence of altars in every neighborhood carried this focus throughout Rome. In 7 B.C.E., Augustus reorganized the Compitalia, formerly a neighborhood festival primarily celebrated by the lower classes, creating more structured organizations, where freedmen (freed slaves) served as the priests in charge of sacrifices to the Lares Augusti, the household divinities of Augustus. Altars for these sacrifices appeared in every ward of the city; 20 of the 265 altars have survived. These altars display many of the themes prominent in other aspects of Augustan visual art: laurel trees symbolizing victory, magistrates working harmoniously to perform sacrifices, the piety of Roman leaders. Augustus thus transformed a ceremony that had once served to bind a local community together into a festival that fostered the connection of the lower classes directly to him as the safeguard of the Roman state. The altars offer another testimonial of the changes in Roman public religion from the Republic to Empire.

Roman Religion outside Rome.

So far this article has been concerned with public religion in the city of Rome itself, and during the Republic this focus is entirely appropriate, for Roman religion concerned itself in this period with Rome itself. But the compitales help to show a different route for the Empire: structures and ceremonies could now focus on the emperor and his family rather than the city itself, and this development begins to make itself seen in Italy and the western provinces. To be sure, sanctuaries closely connected with the city of Rome had existed in parts of Italy during the Republican period: Capitolia, or imitations of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline hill, are known as early as the second century B.C.E. in Italy, such as the one at Cosa. Their numbers increase in the Late Republic and early Empire, ranging in locations from near (Rome’s port city of Ostia) to far (Spain, North Africa, and elsewhere). The religious connections of cities in Italy with Rome deepen in the Late Republic and early Imperial period in other ways as well. In the period from approximately 50 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. a number of carved stone calendars, or fasti, listing the Roman festivals appear in cities scattered throughout Latium and Italy; those of Praeneste and Antium are the most known. These calendars attest the interest of those living outside the city of Rome in the Roman ritual calendar at precisely the time when Rome was shifting from Republic to Empire.

These calendars also attest the degree to which the imperial family came to hold a prominent place in the religious life of Rome. On the calendars dating after Augustus assumed power, dates of importance to the imperial family—birthdays, anniversaries of significant victories or the assumption of offices—are noted alongside more traditional Roman festivals. These calendars thus also hint at how the rituals and sanctuaries that comprise what is known as “the imperial cult” began to assume a more prominent role in the Empire.

Imperial Cult.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Roman public religion outside Rome during the early Imperial period are sanctuaries related to the imperial family that mark the landscape not just of Italy but of Roman cities throughout the Mediterranean. Most of the early emperors worked assiduously to avoid cults to living members of the imperial family in Rome, but outside Rome the restrictions were looser. For instance, while Augustus promoted the worship of his genius and lares in Rome, cult sites to Roma and Augustus appeared in provinces all over the empire in the first decades of his rule. Sometimes these were placed deliberately by the imperial family; for instance, in 12 B.C.E. Drusus, the stepson of Augustus in command in Gaul, established an altar to Rome and Augustus in Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France), which served as the focal point for the Gallic peoples to demonstrate their allegiance on an annual basis to Rome. At other times and places, the request to worship the emperor or a member of his family might come from the local elite, perhaps in search of a way to proactively demonstrate their loyalty and win the favor of the Roman emperor, while in many other cases—indeed, in the majority of instances—it is impossible to know for certain from where the impetus for an imperial sanctuary came. But the result was that shrines to the imperial family soon dotted the landscape from Spain to Asia Minor, from Egypt to Gaul.

The Emperor as Sacrificer in Chief.

The imperial presence made itself felt in other ways as well. One manifestation was the widespread presence of scenes depicting the Roman emperor sacrificing on behalf of the inhabitants of the empire. One striking example of this representation comes from the statue known as the Via Labicana Augustus, depicting Augustus with the hem of his toga pulled over his head. While this pose is usually said to be the typical iconography for the Pontifex Maximus, it has been suggested that these statues are better understood as reminding the inhabitants of the empire of the role of the empire in maintaining proper relations with the gods and so ensuring their safety. This theme was reinforced through sculptural friezes depicting sacrifices, often with the emperor himself depicted. The Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) provides one such example from Rome, but the theme might even be depicted by a minor figure or a client of Rome: in 9/8 B.C.E. the praefectus (leading magistrate) of several northern Italian Celtic tribes erected an arch on which he depicted a suovetaurilia, one of the most characteristic Roman sacrifices, involving a bull, a sheep, and a pig. Public religion clearly imprinted its mark not just on the landscape of the Roman Empire but in the imagination of the inhabitants of that vast territory as well.



  • Barton, Ian M. “Capitoline Temples in Italy and the Provinces (Especially Africa).” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, edited by Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, pt. 2, vol. 12.1, pp. 259–342. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1982. Still the most comprehensive treatment of Capitolia in the Roman Empire.
  • Beard, Mary. “The Roman and the Foreign: The Cult of the ‘Great Mother’ in Imperial Rome.” In Shamanism, History, and the State, edited by Nicholas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey, pp. 164–190. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. A fascinating exploration of the cult of the Magna Mater using anthropological theory to shed light on its oddities.
  • Beard, Mary, and John A. North, eds. Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. The final three essays by Richard Gordon in this collection focusing on priesthood in the ancient world detail the role of the emperor as priest.
  • Beard, Mary, John A. North, and S. R. F. Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. This text, one volume of sources and one volume of a historical narrative, has become the standard in the field, despite its occasionally idiosyncratic interpretations.
  • Ceccarelli, L., and E. Marroni. Repertorio dei santuari del Lazio. Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider Editore, 2011. A recent catalog of the places of worship in Latium, with special attention to the votive deposits found at each site.
  • Cornell, Tim. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000–264 bc. London: Routledge, 1995. The most in-depth recent survey of early and mid-Republican Rome, this book offers thoughtful reconstruction based on a wide variety of evidence, though certainty about this period remains elusive.
  • Degrassi, Attilio. Inscriptiones Italiae. Vol. 13: Fasti et eulogia, fasc. II—Fasti any Numani et Iuliani. Rome: Liberia dell Stato, 1963. The publication of the texts of the inscribed stone calendars, with commentary by a master epigrapher. Text and commentary in Latin and generally only in major research libraries.
  • Fishwick, Duncan. The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. 2 vols. Études préliminaires aux religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain 145–148. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1987–2005. The go-to source for information and documents relating to the imperial cult in the western Roman Empire.
  • Galinsky, K. Aeneas, Sicily, and Rome. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. This book traces the links between the historical Romans and the Trojan myth, utilizing the evidence to show when and how such links were forged.
  • Gros, Pierre. “Les cultes des Caesares et leur significance dans l’espace urbain des villes julio-claudiennes.” In L’Espace sacrificiel dans les civilisations Mediterraneennes de l’antiquite, edited by Roland Etienne and Marie-Thérèse Le Dinahet, pp. 179–186. Lyon, France: Bibliothèque Salomon-Reinach, 1991. This article discusses the imperial cult and its impact on the urban landscape of cities during the first decades of the Roman Empire.
  • Holloway, R. Ross. The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. A good synthetic survey of the variety of archaeological evidence from the archaic period in both Rome and the surrounding areas.
  • Lott, John Bert. The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004. An incisive study of the role of neighborhoods in establishing the Augustan regime, including an analysis of the compital cults.
  • Orlin, Eric M. Temples, Religion, and Politics in the Roman Republic. Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava 164. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997. Discusses the process by which new temples came to be in the city of Rome and the importance of that process for understanding the Roman state.
  • Richardson, Lawrence. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. An excellent alphabetical treatment of the various monuments of ancient Rome, including many details of construction and references to both primary and secondary literature.
  • Stamper, John W. The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Excellent survey of the available evidence for the appearance of temples in the Roman world.
  • Terrenato, N., P. Brocato, G. Caruso, et al. “The S. Omobono Sanctuary in Rome: Assessing Eighty Years of Fieldwork and Exploring Perspectives for the Future.” Internet Archaeology 31, March 2012. Helpful review of this complicated and controversial archaeological site, with references to earlier work and information on the most recent discoveries.
  • Weinstock, Stefan. Divus Julius. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Classic treatment of the career of Julius Caesar and his aims, particularly in regard to the religious sphere.

Eric Orlin