Religion in ancient Rome combined several different cult practices and embraced more than a single set of beliefs. 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 gods as numina. Another aspect of this animistic belief was ancestor, or genius, worship, with each family honouring their own dead by their own rites.

Based heavily in Greek and Etruscan mythology, Roman religion came to encompass and absorb hundreds of other religions, developing a rich and complex mythology.

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.

Under the Empire, religion in Rome evolved in many ways. Numerous foreign cults grew popular, such as the worship of the Egyptian Isis and the Persian Mithras. The importance of the imperial cult grew steadily, reaching its peak during the third century. There was also a trend towards monotheism throughout the imperial period, and a growing popularity of oracles.

The culmination of the trend towards monotheism, Christianity, began to spread and gain momentum in the second century. Despite persecutions, it steadily gained converts. It became an officially supported religion in the Roman state under Constantine I. All cults except Christianity were prohibited in AD 391 by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I. However, even in the fourth and fifth century Roman paganism kept its vitality. Temples were still frequently visited, ancient beliefs and practices continued.

Imperial cultEdit

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 emperors Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, and Titus were deified, and after the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, few emperors failed to receive this distinction.

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. The central elements of the cult complex were next to a temple; a theatre or amphitheatre for gladiator displays and other games and a public bath complex. Sometimes the imperial cult was added to the cults of an existing temple or celebrated in a special hall in the bath complex.

Evidence for the importance of the imperial cult include the "Achievements of the Divine Augustus" (Res Gestae Divi Augusti), written upon two large bronze pillars once located in Rome, Roman coins where the Emperor is portrayed with a halo or nimbus, and temple inscriptions such as "Divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea..." (Roman Temple Inscription in Myra, Lycia).

Absorption of foreign cultsEdit

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. The cults of Cybele, Isis, Attis, Mithras, and Sol Invictus were particularly important. Some of these were initiatory religions of intense personal significance, offering salvation to their devotees. This was in contrast to the older religion of the Olympian deities.

Therefore, there was some similarity between these foreign cults and early Christianity in some respects.

Spread of ChristianityEdit

Despite desultory persecutions, usually at times of civic tensions beginning with Nero, and more thorough persecutions beginning under Diocletian, Christianity steadily gained converts. It became an officially supported religion in the Roman state under Constantine I, who ruled as sole emperor from AD 324 to 337. All cults save Christianity were prohibited in AD 391 by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I. Destruction of temples began immediately.

See alsoEdit

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