Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore

By Emma Southon

A biography of the most extraordinary woman in the Roman world

Sunday, 5 March 2017

I've been thinking about Roman Religion

About 9 months ago I started a Roman tinyletter called U Wot MVIII. One of the things I decided to document every week was Roman religious festivals and observances, thinking that there’d be a few a year and it would be fun. I’ve never studied Roman religion in any depth beyond undergraduate survey courses. I’ve always been a historian rather than a classicist, and gods and myths have never interested me much.


What I learnt almost immediately was that Romans celebrated a major festival at least once a month, sometimes three or four. In between the big ones, which meant that no public business was allowed and street parties and the like, there would be little ones. One day celebrations and sacred days and weird little rituals. Essentially the whole of February is a series of different festivals. April is the same. It’s constant!


And those are just the ones I’m writing about in U Wot MVIII. I know there’s also household gods. Little statues of gods that were kept in tiny shrines in the house. I once knew an archaeologist at Pompeii whose PhD thesis argued that there were lots of shrines in roman houses because the inhabitants carried the statues around the house with them and made tiny sacrifices to them throughout the day.


It has become increasingly, tangibly obvious that what we in this modern, secular, western world, have absolutely the wrong idea about Roman religion. Jorg Rupke says that our Christianised notion of religion as something that we do or have fundamentally warps what we see when we look at the Romans. We see gods and temples and sacrifices and think we know what that means.


But Oh My God this stuff is constant. They are praying and sacrificing and celebrating and honouring and communicating with divine beings every. Single. Day. In AD22 the senate had a long, long debate about where the gods Apollo and Diana were born. All astronomical events were considered to be omens. Anything was considered to be an omen. At one point Suetonius claimed that lots of people dying in Rome was an omen. A 2 minute random flip through Suetonius finds the following:


  • More lightning strikes than I can be bothered to count
  • A funeral pyre being blown over by wind and dogs leaping in to eat the half burnt corpse (which does sound like a bad day in fairness)
  • A dead fire in Tiberius’s dining room suddenly flaring up again
  • A statue of Jupiter laughing
  • Blood splashing Caligula as he sacrificed a flamingo (and WHERE are the flamingo sacrifices in tv shows about Rome?!)
  • Caligula covering Vespasian’s toga with mud
  • A stray dog picking up a human hand from the road and dropping it on Vespasian’s breakfast table (there is too damn much in this sentence to deal with).


Those are the weird ones. Wind. Losing a tooth. A tree falling over. Someone falling over. A dog barking. An unlucky noise at the wrong time. A bird flying in literally any direction. All omens. As far as the Romans were concerned literally any natural event could be an omen.


And then there’s astrology, which the Romans loved. Not like your mum loves to read Jonathan Cainer in the Daily Mail every day, or that person you met on OKCupid who told you they were such a typical cancer. More like when Ronald Reagan used an astrologer to decide how to deal with Russia during the Cold War. Except worse, because everyone was at it all the time.


Of course the ancient world was a dark place. Once the sun went down the only light pollution was the revolting stink of an animal fat candle that couldn’t light half a room. The stars loomed huge and heavy over ancient cities. You and I will probably never experience the heaving bustle of a city like Rome and the sight of bright constellations burning above us simultaneously.


But that was every day in Rome. The gods were in your pocket. In everything you touched and saw and felt. Everything was sacred or profane. Any bit of weather was an omen to be deciphered and the altars ran with animal blood nearly every damn day. The stars were huge and sparkled and were both close and unfathomably far away. Sometimes they grew hair and flew. Divinity was in everything. Every meal a little was given to the god in your home.

Religion as I have ever experienced or understood it feels so inadequate and thin a term to describe this world. Religion implies that everything that wasn’t sacrificing on an altar was superstition and therefore lesser, when really there is no distinction between the two in the Roman experience. Trying to separate the two is like trying to separate the salt from the sea.

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