Ancient Roman Religion and the rise of Christianinty

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Essential Question

How does ancient Roman religion and the rise of Christianinty affect the world we live in today?

Summary of research

Ancient Romans derived their polytheistic religion mainly from spirits known as numina, and from the ancient Greeks. Many of the greatest ancient monuments were built in favor of the gods, as a way of pleasing them. In the 1st century AD, Christianity was introduced to the Roman Empire. The religion was outlawed until 313 AD when emperor Constantine came to power and established Christianity as the leading religion of the empire. From then on Christianity spread with the empire. It was due to the fact that the Roman Empire encompassed such a significant portion of the ancient world that Christianity was dispersed to the extent that it is today. After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the new empires kept Christianity as their religion.

Ancient Roman Religion

The divinity of the emperor and the cult surrounding him were a very important part of religion in the Roman Empire. In an effort to enhance political loyalty among the populace, they called subjects to participate in the cult and revere the emperors as gods. The Roman religion in the empire tended more and more to center on the imperial house. Especially in the eastern half of the empire imperial cults grew very popular, and the cult complex became one of the focal points of life in the Roman cities. As such it was one of the major agents of romanization. As the Roman Empire expanded, and included people from a variety of cultures, more and more gods were incorporated into the Roman religion. The legions brought home cults originating from Egypt, Britain, Iberia, Germany, India and Persia.

Decline of Roman Religion and the rise of Christianity

St. Peter and St. Paul introduced Christianity to the Romans, after Jesus was believed to have died sometime between c. 30-33 AD. Christian missionaries traveled across the empire, steadily winning converts and establishing Christian communities. After the Great Fire of Rome in July 64, Emperor Nero accused the Christians as convenient scapegoats who were later persecuted and martyred. From that point on, Roman official policy towards Christianity tended towards persecution. The Roman authorities suspected Christians of disloyalty to the Emperor and of committing various crimes against humanity and nature. Persecution recurred especially at times of civic tensions and reach their worst under Diocletian. Constantine I ended the persecutions by establishing religious freedom through the Edict of Milan in 313. He later convened the historic First Council of Nicaea in 325, a year after ending the civil war of 324 and emerging as the victor in the war of succession. This First Council of Nicaea was formed to oppose Arius who had challenged the deity of Jesus Christ. The result was the branding of Arianism as a heresy. Catholic Christianity, as opposed to other religious groups, became the official state religion of the Roman empire on February 27, 380 through an edict issued by Emperor Theodosius I in Thessalonica and published in Constantinople. All cults, save Christianity, were prohibited in 391 by another edict of Theodosius I. Destruction of temples began immediately. When the Western Roman Empire ended with the abdication of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476, Christianity survived it, with the Bishop of Rome as the dominant religious figure.

Although Christianity was already introduced and was being practiced in parts of the Roman Empire, it wasn't until Constantine became emperor in 324 AD that Christianity became the leading religion in the Roman Empire. After his death his two sons, Constantius II and Constans, took over control of the empire. Like his father, Constans was also a Christian and In 341, he decreed that all pre-Christian Graeco Roman worship and sacrifice should cease. Those who still tried to practice ancient Graeco-Roman polytheism were threatened with the death penalty.


Roman polytheism was the religion of the Etruscans, Romans, and most of their subjects. The Romans originally followed a rural animistic tradition, in which many spirits were each responsible for specific, limited aspects of the cosmos and human activities, such as ploughing. The early Romans referred to these as numina. Another aspect of this animistic belief was ancestor, or genius, worship, with each family honoring their own dead by their own rites. Rome had a strong belief in gods. When they took over Greece, they inherited the Greek gods but fused them with their Roman counterparts. Based heavily in Greek and Etruscan mythology, Roman religion came to encompass and absorb hundreds of other religions, developing a rich and complex mythology. In addition, an Imperial cult supplemented the pantheon with Julius Caesar and some of the emperors. Eventually, Christianity came to replace the older pantheon as the state religion of Rome, and the original Roman religion faded, though many aspects of its hierarchy remain ingrained in Christian ritual and in Western traditions.


Religion was very important to the Romans. Within the Roman Empire, Christianity was banned and Christians were punished for many years. Feeding Christians to the lions was seen as entertainment in Ancient Rome. The message of Christianity was spread around the Roman Empire by St. Paul who founded Christian churches in Asia Minor and Greece. Eventually, he took his teachings to Rome itself. The early converts to Christianity in Ancient Rome faced many difficulties. The first converts were usually the poor and slaves as they had a great deal to gain from the Christians being successful. If they were caught, they faced death for failing to worship the emperor. It was not uncommon for emperors to turn the people against the Christians when Rome was faced with difficulties. In AD 64, part of Rome was burned down. The Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and the people turned on them. Arrests and executions followed. The dangers faced by the Christians in Rome meant that they had to meet in secret. They usually used underground tombs as these were literally out of sight. Rome had a large number of poor people within its population and Christianity continued to grow. In AD 313, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and for the first time, they were allowed to openly worship. Churches were quickly built not just in Rome but throughout the empire. In AD 391, the worship of other gods was made illegal.


Under the empire, the Saturnalia was celebrated for seven days, from December 17 to 23, during the period in which the winter solstice occurred. All business was suspended, slaves were given temporary freedom, gifts were exchanged, and merriment prevailed. The Lupercalia was an ancient festival originally honoring Lupercus, a pastoral god of the Italians. The festival was celebrated on February 15 at the cave of the Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where the legendary founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus, were supposed to have been nursed by a wolf. Among the Roman legends connected with them is that of Faustulus, a shepherd who was supposed to have discovered the twins in the wolf's den and to have taken them to his home, in which they were brought up by his wife, Acca Larentia. The Equiria, a festival in honor of Mars, was celebrated on February 27 and March 14, traditionally the time of year when new military campaigns were prepared. Horse races in the Campus Martius notably marked the celebration.


List of Ancient Roman Pantheon Gods and Goddesses:

Apollo - god of the arts (esp. poetry and music)

Ceres - goddess of agriculture and fertility

Diana - goddess of the hunt and protector of children

Juno - goddess of marriage; wife of Jupiter

Jupiter - god of the sky; ruler of the other Roman pantheon gods

Mars - god of war

Mercury - god of merchants; messenger of the gods

Minerva - goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts

Neptune - god of the sea and earthquakes

Venus - goddess of love and beauty

Vulcan - god of smiths and metal-workers


List of ancient Roman numen gods and goddesses:

Bellona - goddess of war

Bona Dea - this "good goddess" was worshipped by women only

Cardea - goddess who possessed power over doorways

Cloacina - goddess who watched over the construction and preservation of sewers

Consus - god of fertility

Cupid - god of love

Dis (Dis Pater) - god of the Underworld

Discordia - goddess of discord or strife

Faunus - god of the fields and shepherds

Felicitas - goddess of good luck

Fides - goddess of honesty

Flora - goddess of "all that flourishes"; revered especially by courtesans

Fortuna - goddess of chance

Glaucus - god of the sea

Janus - god of gates; lent his name to the first month of the year

Lares - gods of the household; they were spirits of dead ancestors who protected the family

Liber - god of fertility

Libitina - goddess who watched over funerals

Lucina - goddess of childbirth

Manes - spirits of the dead

Nerio - minor goddess who was the wife of Mars

Ops - goddess of the harvest

Pales - goddess who watched over pastures

Penates - gods who presided over the welfare of the family

Pomona - goddess of fruits and fertility

Portunus - god of harbors

Priapus - god of fertility

Proserpina - goddess of the Underworld

Quirinus - god of war

Saturn - god of agriculture

Silvanus - god of nature and the woods

Tellus - goddess of the earth

Terminus - god of boundaries

Vertumnus - god who had the power to change his shape

Vesta - goddess of home and hearth

Victoria - goddess of Victory

Analysis and Conclusion

Ancient Roman religion contributed in many ways to the modern world, some more significant than others. Many modern companies and corporations have derived there names from ancient Roman gods and goddesses. Most of the planets in our solar system are named after Roman gods and goddesses as well. Ancient Roman religion was the inspiration for countless ancient wars and even more colausal structures. With these religion-inspired wars, Roman culture and law was spread throughout the ancient world. When Christianity was introduced to ancient Rome in the 1st century AD it was heavily surpressed and those who practiced it were prosecuted and beaten in public. It wasn's until the 4th century AD that Constanitine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Once Christianity became the leading religion, it was the one being spread around the world. This religion influenced many empires that came about after the Roman Empire collapsed. It is a result of the Roman Empire's great size that so much of Europe, and the countries they found, practice Christianity.

Although the Roman Empires system of conquering a new land and incorporating its religion into their own worked for many centuries, the religion of Christianity would not fit into Roman mythology. As a result, and after nearly three centuries, Christianity finally won over the Roman Empire and became the leading religion.


Blackwell, Christopher. Blackwell, Amy. <u>Mythology for Dummies</u>. New York: Hungry Minds Inc., 2002

Di Pasquale, Giovanni. Bardi, Matilde. <u>Ancient Rome</u>. Ohio: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Hinds, Kathryn. <u>The Ancient Romans</u>. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1997.

Nardo, Don. <u>Greek and Romon Mythology</u>. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998

Nelson, Eric. <u>The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Roman Empire</u>. Indianapolis: Peguin Group Inc., 2002

"Religion in Ancient Rome"

"Roman Christianity"

"The Roman Empire and early Christianity"

"Roman Gods and Godesses"

"Roman Mythology"

"Roman Mythology"

"Roman Mythology"

"Roman Religion"

"Roman Religion"

"Rome and Christianity"