During the roughly 12 centuries of Ancient Roman civilisation, religion developed from a home-grown, pantheistic animism, which was incorporated into the early institutions of the city.
As the Republic and Empire moved forward, Roman religion absorbed the Greek pantheon, included foreign cults and adopted the practice of Emperor worship, before finally embracing Christianity in the final years of the Empire.
Though by some standards deeply religious, Ancient Romans approached spirituality and faith in a different manner to most modern believers. Throughout its history, the concept of numen, an all pervasive divinity or spirituality, pervades Roman religious philosophy.
However, like many pagan faiths, success in life was equated with having a good relationship with the gods. Maintaining this incorporated both mystical prayer and business-like sacrifices in exchange for material benefit.
The deities of Rome
Roman gods fulfilled different functions corresponding to various aspects of life. There were many gods in Latium, the region in Italy where Rome was founded, some of which were Italic, Etruscan and Sabine.
In Roman belief, immortal gods ruled the heaven, Earth and the underworld.
As Roman territory grew, its pantheon expanded to include the gods and cults of newly conquered and contacted peoples, so long as they fit in with Roman culture. For instance, Roman exposure to Hellenic culture via Greek presence in Italy and later Roman conquest of the city-states of Macedonia and Greece caused the Romans to adopt many Greek myths as well as combine Greek deities with its own corresponding gods.
The major gods of Ancient Roman religion
Gods and goddesses were grouped in various ways. The Di Selecti were considered the 20 main gods, while the Di Consentes comprised the 12 principal deities at the heart of the Roman Pantheon. Though taken from the Greeks, the grouping of 12 gods has pre Hellenic origins, probably in the religions of Lycian and Hittite, both Anatolian peoples.
The gilt statues of the 12 adorned Rome’s central forum. The six gods and six goddesses were sometimes arranged in male-female couples: Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta and Mercury-Ceres.
The Di Consentes, with their Greek counterparts in parenthesis:
1. Jupiter (Zeus)
King of the gods; son of Saturn, brother to Neptune, Pluto and Juno (also her husband); god of sky and thunder; patron god of Rome
2. Juno (Hera)
Queen of the gods; wife and sister of Jupiter, daughter of Saturn, sister of Neptune and Pluto, Mother of Juventas, Mars and Vulcan; protector of Rome’s women; patron goddess of Rome
3. Minerva (Athena)
Born of the head of Jupiter after he impregnated his sister Metis, ripped their daughter from her womb and ate her; goddess of wisdom, arts, trade and strategy.
4. Neptune (Poseidon)
Brother of Jupiter, Pluto and Juno; god of freshwater and the sea, earthquakes, hurricanes and horses; often depicted with his trident.
5. Venus (Aphrodite)
Mother of the Roman people; goddess of love, beauty, fertility, sex, desire and prosperity; patron of wine
6. Mars (Ares)
Son of Juno (without Jupiter); god of war; guardian of agriculture; embodiment of virility and aggression; father of Romulus — founder of Rome
7. Apollo (Apollo)
The Archer; son of Jupiter and Latona; twin of Diana; god of music, healing, light and truth. Apollo is one of only a few Roman gods who kept the same name as his Greek counterpart.
Emperor Constantine was said to have had a vision of Apollo. He went on to use him as one of his key symbols until his Christian conversion.
8. Diana (Artemis)
Daughter of Jupiter and Latona; twin of Apollo; goddess of the hunt, the moon and birth
9. Vulcan (Hephaestus)
God of fire, volcanoes, metal work and the forge; maker of the weapons of the gods
10. Vesta (Hestia)
The sacred fire of the Vestal Virgins (all female and Rome’s only full-time priesthood); daughter of Saturn and Ops; goddess of hearth, home and family
11. Mercury (Hermes)
Son of Maia and Jupiter; god of profit, trade, eloquence, communication, travel, trickery and thieves; guide of dead souls to the underworld
12. Ceres (Demeter)
The Eternal Mother; daughter of Saturn and Ops; goddess of agriculture, grain, women, motherhood and marriage; the lawgiver
The Capitoline Triad
The three main Roman gods, known as the Capitoline Triad, are Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The Capitoline Triad replaced Archaic Triad of Jupiter, Mars and earlier Roman god Quirinus, who originated in Sabine mythology.