The history of Roman religion might be said to begin with Varro's Human and Divine Antiquities (47 bc), of which the second half, sixteen books on Divine Antiquities, codified for the first time Roman religious institutions: priests, temples, festivals, rites, and gods.
Defining ‘Roman religion’ is harder than it might seem. Scholarly emphasis has generally fallen on the public festivals and institutions, since they provided the framework for private rituals; only those committed to a protestant view of personal piety will argue that public rituals lack real religious feeling or significance. The geographical scope of the phrase changes radically over time, from the regal period when Rome was just one city‐state through to Rome's acquisition of an empire stretching from Scotland to Syria. Two related themes run through that expansion: the role of specifically Roman cults outside Rome, and the religious impact of empire on Rome itself.
Our knowledge of the early phase of Roman religion is patchy, and subject, like all early Roman history, to later myth‐making. For the republic, archaeological evidence, e.g. of temples, is important, and the literary tradition becomes increasingly reliable, esp. from the mid‐4th or 3rd down to the 1st cent. bc. It becomes possible to produce a diachronic history of the changes to the public cults of the city of Rome, such as the introduction of the cult of Magna Mater (204; see cybele; philhellenism), the suppression of the Bacchanalia (186), the creation in Italy and the provinces of colonies (see colonization, roman) whose religious institutions were modelled on those of Rome, and the increasingly divine aura assumed by dynasts of the late republic.
The Augustan ‘restoration’ of religion was in reality more a restructuring, with the figure of the emperor incorporated at many points. Some ‘ancient’ cults were given a fresh impetus, while Augustus also built major new temples in the city (Apollo; Mars Ultor), which expressed his relationship to the divine. This Augustan system remained fundamental to the public religious life of Rome to the end of antiquity. Roman religious life became increasingly cosmopolitan under the empire, with a flourishing of associations focused on gods both Roman and foreign, some within individual households, others drawing their membership from a wider circle. In the high empire the civic cults of Rome operated alongside associations devoted to Isis, Mithras, Yahweh, or Christ (see christianity). Outside Rome, civic cults in the west took on a strongly Roman cast. Pre‐Roman gods were reinterpreted and local pantheons modelled on the Roman (see interpretatio romana). In the 3rd and 4th cents., there was an increasing conceptual opposition between Roman religion and Christianity, but elements of the Roman system proved to be very enduring: in Rome the Lupercalia were still celebrated in the late 5th cent. ad.
Subjects: Classical Studies.