World History 1 116 - 7.4.2 Religions of the Empire

In addition to performing public service and ritual, Romans participated in the private practice of religion. In the home they maintained a lararium, a shrine in which the spirits of ancestors were honored. Tiny statues, or lares, within the shrine represented these ancestors, and Romans made daily offerings to them. In addition, the penates, figurines of household gods, were put on the dining table during meals and worshipped as protectors of the home. Finally, the genius signified the household itself, represented as a snake in religious imagery.

More esoteric religious practices included the use of curse tablets and spells. With these, individuals hoped to mobilize supernatural powers to influence the living by writing an invocation. Many curse tablets, aimed at ensuring the writer’s way in love, justice, and competitions, have survived. The tablets were placed in graves, in water sources such as rivers and springs, and in the homes of targeted individuals. An example found in Egypt with a pierced female figurine ordered a spirit to “not allow [Ptolemais] to accept the advances of any man other than me alone [Sarapmmon]. Drag her by the hair, the guts, until she does not reject me.”

Mystery cults allowed individuals to become initiated in the worship of a specific deity. These groups were devoted to a single god or goddess who was often worshipped to the neglect of traditional Roman gods. Their adherents carried out secret initiation rites and practices, and there were often hierarchical levels of initiation. The cult devoted to the god Mithras originated in ancient Persia (now Iran) and found its way to Rome by the second century CE. Its beliefs centered on the idea that life originated from a sacred bull sacrificed by the god Mithras, often associated with the Sun (Figure 7.15). The practices of the cult are obscure and difficult to reconstruct, but it seems that initiations took place in a cave. The cult was especially popular among Roman soldiers.

A carving on a pale brown stone is shown, held up by four metal hinges on a brown spotted off-white background. In the middle, an image of a figure with curly hair, a cap, broken off nose, wearing a short draped shirt and flowing cape is shown sitting on top of an animal. A bird sits on the flowing cape facing the figure. The animal below the figure has four legs, curly mane, a thin tail, large head and horns. The figure is holding the snout of the animal with his thumb in the animal’s nostril. A long thin snake like creature winds along the bottom of the large animal and a small four legged animal with a long snout jumps up at the neck of the large animal. On either side of the large animal a figure stands with a long stick, draped, short robes, and curly hair under a cap. The one of the left holds the stick up while the one on the right points the stick down at the small jumping animal. In the top left corner of the stone several scenes are seen. A head with hair sticking out and holding a stick is shown behind the bird. Faded images of naked people are seen in the corner and a hooded image sitting is shown below them. Below the hooded image, three figures in ruffled clothes stand. On the right edges more scenes are shown. A head with hair and robes is shown next to a square in the corner with an animal’s behind and a person with a bow and arrow. Below that, a square shows two figures – one naked and kneeling with hands raised to another figure standing tall in a short robes. The last square shows two figures fighting, the taller one of the left in a short dress and robe holding a stick while a naked figure in a cape in kneeling on the ground.
Figure 7.15 In this second-century CE relief from a Mithraic sanctuary in Nersae, Italy, the intricate iconography typical of the cult of Mithras shows the god sacrificing the sacred bull, alongside other imagery important to Mithraic belief. (credit: “Tauroctony: Mithras killing the sacred bull” by Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Originating in Egypt, the cult devoted to the goddess Isis spread to the western Roman Empire in the first century BCE. The veneration of Isis included hymns of praise and initiation rituals, and priests of the cult usually shaved their heads. The exclusive worship of Isis was reflected in her perceived omnipotence and identification with other gods. She appears in the second-century Roman novel The Golden Ass, rescuing the protagonist Lucius. Her speech begins, “Behold, Lucius, here I am, moved by your prayer, I, mother of all Nature and mistress of the elements, first-born of the ages and greatest of powers divine, queen of the dead, and queen of the immortals, all gods and goddesses in a single form.” The popularity of mystery cults may have been a precursor to monotheism in Rome, as seen in the rise of Christianity.

Beyond the Book

The Temple of Isis in Pompeii

The Temple of Isis was one of many temples in Pompeii and was located just behind the city’s theater. Originally erected during the reign of Augustus, it was rebuilt following an earthquake in Pompeii in 62 CE (Mount Vesuvius erupted seventeen years later). Its proximity to other public buildings illustrates the temple’s incorporation into the city, but its structure and relatively small size emphasize the esoteric rituals of Isis worship.

Though employing a Roman architectural style, the temple also fused Egyptian and Greek elements in its design (Figure 7.16). It stands in a small courtyard, with an altar and a small building known as a purgatorium in front of it. Here, a basin containing water said to be from the Nile River was used in rituals of purification.

An image of a photograph is shown. In the photo, an old building partially ruined is shown. At the left forefront corner, a tall, round red brick structure is shown, with flaked bricks and black smudges at the top. The ground in the forefront is green grass and a line of very tall trees is shown in the background on a pale sky. In the middle a building stands made of faded, flaked red and white bricks. The building sits on a raised brick platform with black steps at the front. A short red brick wall shows on either side of the steps and broken columns are stationed at the top on either side. Two more columns are shown, one on each corner of the raised platform. Behind the columns a square wall stands with the front missing. Smaller rooms are attached on each side with a rounded arched opening. The walls are gray, black, red, and white. No roof is visible, but the edges of black scalloped tiles can be seen at the tops of the remaining walls.
Figure 7.16 This is the front of the excavated Temple of Isis, in its small courtyard, as it looks today in Pompeii. (credit: modification of work “Pompeii. Temple of Isis” by Istvánka/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

At the top of the steps, the entrance to the temple consisted of a portico, or a porch supported by columns, and was flanked by Egyptian statues. Inside, the inner area contained statues of Isis and her spouse Osiris, as well as wall paintings depicting the myths of Isis. There was a large gathering area in the rear of temple for initiates (ekklesiasterion), as well as living quarters for the priests of Isis, more altars and recesses, and a subterranean room used for initiating members (Figure 7.17).

A black drawing on a white background is shown of the floor plan of a building. The bottom border of the image shows a design of lines running horizontal and vertical. The left side shows a long thin rectangle area drawn along the side. Thick lines show the perimeter of the building – mostly square with a concave wall on the top right. The oval area created on the outside of the building is labelled with “K” and “Theatre.” Doorway openings are seen at the top right, bottom left, and top left, indicated by white spaces within the thick black lines. On the right side a square room is seen above a rectangular room, labelled “I” and “II” respectively. The “I” room shows squares with lines running across at the top and right sides. A large square area is seen to the left with four openings along the top and six openings along the right side. Inside is another square lined on the outside perimeter with black dots and a letter “C” on each side. Inside this square, two blue circles are drawn over thick lines, thin lines, vertical lined boxes, and small, dark squares, labelled with letters “D” “E” “k” “F” “e” “g” and “h.” In the top left of the image five areas can be seen in square forms connected together with openings and then connected to the large square at the bottom. The letters “G” “o” “q” “u” “s” and “p” mark the rooms.
Figure 7.17 This layout plan of the Temple of Isis shows its proximity to the theatre (labeled K in this image), suggesting the popularity of the cult of Isis in Pompeii. (credit: modification of work “Temple of Isis, Regio VIII, Insula 7, Pompeii, plan” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • What elements of the Temple of Isis and its location in the city suggest the public role it and structures like it played in Roman society?
  • Can you connect anything in these images to identified characteristics of Roman religion? Which ones?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax