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Chapter 6


First to the gods 'tis fitting to prepare The due libation, and the solemn prayer; For all mankind alike require their grace, All born to want; a miserable race.--Homer.


1. We have shown that the Romans were, most probably, a people compounded of the Latins, the Sabines, and the Tuscans; and that the first and last of these component parts were themselves formed from Pelasgic and native tribes. The original deities[1] worshipped by the Romans were derived from the joint traditions of all these tribes; but the religious institutions and ceremonies were almost wholly borrowed from the Tuscans. Unlike the Grecian mythology, with which, in later ages, it was united, the Roman system of religion had all the gloom and mystery of the eastern superstitions; their gods were objects of fear rather than love, and were worshipped more to avert the consequences of their anger than to conciliate their favour. A consequence of this system was, the institution of human sacrifices, which were not quite disused in Rome until a late period of the republic.

2. The religious institutions of the Romans form an essential part of their civil government; every public act, whether of legislation or election, was connected with certain determined forms, and thus received the sanction of a higher power. Every public assembly was opened by the magistrate and augurs taking the auspices, or signs by which they believed that the will of the gods could be determined; and if any unfavourable omen was discovered, either then or at any subsequent time, the assembly was at once dismissed. 3. The right of taking auspices was long the peculiar privilege of the patricians, and frequently afforded them pretexts for evading the demands of the plebeians; when a popular law was to be proposed, it was easy to discover some unfavourable omen which prohibited discussion; when it was evident that the centuries were about to annul some patrician privilege, the augurs readily saw or heard some signal of divine wrath, which prevented the vote from being completed. It was on this account that the plebeians would not consent to place the comitia tributa under the sanction of the auspices.

4. The augurs were at first only three in number, but they were in later ages increased to fifteen, and formed into a college. Nothing of importance was transacted without their concurrence in the earlier ages of the republic, but after the second punic war, their influence was considerably diminished.[2] 5. They derived omens from five sources: 1, from celestial phenomena, such as thunder, lightning, comets, &c.; 2, from the flight of birds; 3, from the feeding of the sacred chickens; 4, from the appearance of a beast in any unusual place; 5, from any accident that occurred unexpectedly.

6. The usual form of taking an augury was very solemn; the augur ascended a tower, bearing in his hand a curved stick called a lituus. He turned his face to the east, and marked out some distant objects as the limits within which he would make his observations, and divided mentally the enclosed space into four divisions. He next, with covered head, offered sacrifices to the gods, and prayed that they would vouchsafe some manifestation of their will. After these preliminaries he made his observations in silence, and then announced the result to the expecting people.

7. The Arusp'ices were a Tuscan order of priests, who attempted to predict futurity by observing the beasts offered in sacrifice. They formed their opinions most commonly from inspecting the entrails, but there was no circumstance too trivial to escape their notice, and which they did not believe in some degree portentous. The arusp'ices were most commonly consulted by individuals; but their opinions, as well as those of the augurs, were taken on all important affairs of state. The arusp'ices seem not to have been appointed officially, nor are they recognised as a regular order of priesthood.

8. The pontiffs and fla'mens, as the superior priests were designated, enjoyed great privileges, and were generally men of rank. When the republic was abolished, the emperors assumed the office of pontifex maximus, or chief pontiff, deeming its powers too extensive to be entrusted to a subject.

9. The institution of vestal virgins was older than the city itself, and was regarded by the Romans as the most sacred part of their religious system. In the time of Numa there were but four, but two more were added by Tarquin; probably the addition made by Tarquin was to give the tribe of the Lu'ceres a share in this important priesthood. The duty of the vestal virgins was to keep the sacred fire that burned on the altar of Vesta from being extinguished; and to preserve a certain sacred pledge on which the very existence of Rome was supposed to depend. What this pledge was we have no means of discovering; some suppose that it was the Trojan Palla'dium, others, with more probability, some traditional mystery brought by the Pelas'gi from Samothrace.

10. The privileges conceded to the vestals were very great; they had the most honourable seats at public games and festivals; they were attended by a lictor with fasces like the magistrates; they were provided with chariots when they required them; and they possessed the power of pardoning any criminal whom they met on the way to execution, if they declared that the meeting was accidental. The magistrates were obliged to salute them as they passed, and the fasces of the consul were lowered to do them reverence. To withhold from them marks of respect subjected the offender to public odium; a personal insult was capitally punished. They possessed the exclusive privilege of being buried within the city; an honour which the Romans rarely extended to others.

11. The vestals were bound by a vow of perpetual virginity, and a violation of this oath was cruelly punished. The unfortunate offender was buried alive in a vault constructed beneath the Fo'rum by the elder Tarquin. The terror of such a dreadful fate had the desired effect; there were only eighteen instances of incontinence among the vestals, during the space of a thousand years.

12. The mixture of religion with civil polity, gave permanence and stability to the Roman institutions; notwithstanding all the changes and revolutions in the government the old forms were preserved; and thus, though the city was taken by Porsenna, and burned by the Gauls, the Roman constitution survived the ruin, and was again restored to its pristine vigour.

13. The Romans always adopted the gods of the conquered nations, and, consequently, when their empire became very extensive, the number of deities was absurdly excessive, and the variety of religious worship perfectly ridiculous. The rulers of the world wanted the taste and ingenuity of the lively Greeks, who accommodated every religious system to their own, and from some real or fancied resemblance, identified the gods of Olym'pus with other nations. The Romans never used this process of assimilation, and, consequently, introduced so much confusion into their mythology, that philosophers rejected the entire system. This circumstance greatly facilitated the progress of Christianity, whose beautiful simplicity furnished a powerful contrast to the confused and cumbrous mass of divinities, worshipped in the time of the emperors.


Questions for Examination.

1. How did the religion of the Romans differ from that of the Greeks?

2. Was the Roman religion connected with the government?

3. How was the right of taking the Auspices abused?

4. Who were the augurs?

5. From what did the augurs take omens?

6. What were the forms used in taking the auspices?

7. Who were the aruspices?

8. What other priests had the Romans?

9. What was the duty of the vestal virgins?

10. Did the vestals enjoy great privileges?

11. How were the vestals punished for a breach of their vows?

12. Why was the Roman constitution very permanent?

13. Whence arose the confusion in the religious system of the Romans?



[1] The reader will find an exceedingly interesting account of the deities peculiar to the Romans, in Mr. Keightley's very valuable work on Mythology.

2: The poet Ennius, who was of Grecian descent, ridiculed very successfully the Roman superstitions; the following fragment, translated by Dunlop, would, probably, have been punished as blasphemous in the first ages of the republic:--

For no Marsian augur (whom fools view with awe,) Nor diviner, nor star-gazer, care I a straw; The Isis-taught quack, an expounder of dreams, Is neither in science nor art what he seems; Superstitious and shameless they prowl through our streets, Some hungry, some crazy, but all of them cheats. Impostors, who vaunt that to others they'll show A path which themselves neither travel nor know: Since they promise us wealth if we pay for their pains, Let them take from that wealth and bestow what remains

Oliver Goldsmith