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 the later Roman conquest of the city-states of Macedonia and Greece caused the Romans to adopt many Greek myths.
The Romans also combined 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, this grouping of 12 gods has pre Hellenic origins, probably in the religions of peoples from the Lycian and Hittite regions of Anatolia.
The three main Roman gods, known as the Capitoline Triad, are Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
The Capitoline Triad replaced the Archaic Triad of Jupiter, Mars and earlier Roman god Quirinus, who originated in Sabine mythology.
The gilt statues of the Di Consentes 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.
Each of the following Di Consentes had a Greek counterpart, noted in parenthesis:
1. Jupiter (Zeus)
Supreme King of the gods. God of the sky and thunder, and patron god of Rome.
Jupiter was a son of Saturn; brother to Neptune, Pluto and Juno, to whom he was also husband.
Saturn had been warned that one of his children would overthrow him and began swallowing his children.
On their release after a trick by Jupiter’s mother Opis; Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto and Juno overthrew their father. The three brothers divided control of the world, and Jupiter took control of the sky.
2. Juno (Hera)
Queen of the gods. Saturn’s daughter Juno was the wife and sister of Jupiter, and sister of Neptune and Pluto. She was the mother of Juventas, Mars and Vulcan.
Juno was patron goddess of Rome, but was also attributed with several epithets; amongst them Juno Sospita, protector of those awaiting childbirth; Juno Lucina, goddess of childbirth; and Juno Moneta, protecting the funds of Rome.
The first Roman coins were said to be minted in the Temple of Juno Moneta.
3. Minerva (Athena)
Goddess of wisdom, arts, trade and strategy.
Minerva was born of the head of Jupiter after he swallowed her mother Metis, having been told that the child he had impregnated her with could be more powerful than he.
Metis created commotion by making armour and weapons for her daughter inside of Jupiter, and the god demanded that his head be split open to end the noise.
4. Neptune (Poseidon)
Brother of Jupiter, Pluto and Juno, Neptune was god of freshwater and the sea, along with earthquakes, hurricanes and horses.
Neptune is often depicted as an older man with a trident, sometimes being pulled across the sea in a horsedrawn chariot.
5. Venus (Aphrodite)
Mother of the Roman people, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, sex, desire and prosperity, equal to her Greek counterpart Aphrodite.
She was also, however, goddess of victory and even prostitution, and patron of wine.
Venus was born from the foam of the sea after Saturn castrated his father Uranus into it.
Venus is said to have had two main lovers; Vulcan, her husband and the god of fire, and Mars.
6. Mars (Ares)
According to Ovid, Mars was son of Juno alone, as his mother sought to restore balance after Jupiter usurped her role as mother by giving birth to Minerva from his head.
Famously god of war, Mars was also guardian of agriculture and the embodiment of virility and aggression.
He was the Venus’ lover in adultery and the father of Romulus — founder of Rome and Remus.
7. Apollo (Apollo)
The Archer. Son of Jupiter and Latona, twin of Diana. Apollo was 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. The Emperor used the god as one of his key symbols until his Christian conversion.
8. Diana (Artemis)
Daughter of Jupiter and Latona and twin of Apollo.
Diana was goddess of the hunt, the moon and birth.
To some Diana was also considered to be goddess of lower classes, especially slaves, for whom her festival on the Ides of August in Rome and Aricia was also a holiday.
9. Vulcan (Hephaestus)
God of fire, volcanoes, metal work and the forge; maker of the weapons of the gods.
In some mythology Vulcan is said to have been banished from the heavens as a child because of a physical defect. Hidden in the base of a volcano he learnt his trade.
When Vulcan built Juno, his mother, a trap as revenge for his banishment his father, Jupiter, offered him Venus as a wife, in exchange for Juno’s freedom.
It was said that Vulcan had a forge under Mount Etna, and that whenever his wife was unfaithful, the volcano became volatile.
Because of his position as deity of destructive fire, Vulcan’s temples were regularly located outside cities.
10. Vesta (Hestia)
Goddess of hearth, home and domestic life.
Vesta was a daughter of Saturn and Ops and sister to Jupiter, Juno, Neptune and Pluto.
She was enshrined in the sacred and perpetually burning fire of the Vestal Virgins (all female and Rome’s only full-time priesthood).
11. Mercury (Hermes)
Son of Maia and Jupiter; god of profit, trade, eloquence, communication, travel, trickery and thieves.
He is often depicted carrying a purse, a nod to his association with trade. He also often had wings, just as Hermes does in Greek mythology.
Mercury was a roman psychopomp, tasked with guiding the souls of the dead to the underworld.
When the nymph Larunda betrayed Jupiter’s trust by revealing one of his affairs to his wife, Mercury was to take her to the underworld. However, he fell in love with the nymph on route and she had two children by him.
12. Ceres (Demeter)
The Eternal Mother. Ceres is the daughter of Saturn and Ops.
She was goddess of agriculture, grain, women, motherhood and marriage; and the lawgiver.
It was suggested that the cycle of seasons coincided with Ceres’ mood. The months of winter were the period in which her daughter, Proserpina, was obligated to live in the underworld with Pluto, having eaten pomegranate, the fruit of the underworld.
Ceres’ happiness at her daughters return allowed plants to grow through spring and summer, but in autumn she began to dread her daughter’s absence, and plants shed their crop.