Roman religion, although now extinct, still profoundly influences now Christianised Europe and its ex-colonial treasures. This is not just due to the rich mythology of Rome, but because Roman religion was a function of Roman law – and thus became a basis for all those civlisations that were to erupt from Rome’s ashes of empire.
The universe of the Romans was one where the gods and spirits of all things held everything in lawful and harmonious balance – ethically superior to one any humans could devise. For there to be wrong in the world meant that either the an enemy had canvessed Divine favour more righteously, or else the Romans themselves, either as a population or individually, had transgressed some Holy codice.
At first, in the early days of the city of Rome, their gods were the formless spirits of ancestors (manes, or lares). Fear of upsetting dead ancestors was a driving force for the development of familial rituals, intended to placate these restless dead to ensure the protection of the home and living relatives.
Essentially, the original Roman pantheon was nothing more than an extended family of these, quite likely due to the following of the manes of a particularly powerful early chieftain – perhaps an historical Romulus, if ever there was one. As the village of Rome grew to a town, the primaeval manes began to take on form, and absorb the tribal deities of their neighbours – notably the Tarquins and Etruscans, who themselves were particularly influenced by Greek colonies along the coast of Italy, for example at Paestrum.
As greater contact with the other civilisations of Italy lead to greater movement of cultural ideas, so did the Latin allies and the Greek colonies exert an increasingly powerful spiritual influence, and the gods of Rome took shape in the now far more familiar anthropomorphic Greek forms.
Roman religion was not simply a world of mythologies and gods to appease, for at the very heart of their ethos was the notion that the gods were arbitrators of justice, and therefore merely a functionary element, just as the Roman Praetors were earthly symbols of Rome’s human laws.
As the Republic of Rome spread, notably after the Second Punic war, when the defeat of Hannibal in Africa was almost immediately followed by Rome’s cause in Greece, and against Antiochus in Asia minor, Rome effectively flung its doors to new ideas, so that the Empire that followed was ultimately multi-cultural in all ways.
Although the evolved and primarily Greek influenced theology remained the only effective official state religion until the time of Constantine in the fourth century BC, other theologies played a significant part, not least a great influx of eastern cults from Asia and the bridge to Africa, including early Christianity.
However, for all their later cosmopolitan acceptance of other faiths, the Roman Empire’s original state gods were so ingrained in law and the calendar itself that all other religions had to be subservient to them – and it was Christian refusal to abide so that lead to their repeated persecution.
Yet Rome was not simply a place of religion and varying theology – it was also a place where primarily Greek philosophies influenced greatly, not least the Stoics and Sophists.
However Rome, whether of the Republic or Empire, is viewed, it must never be underestimated that the Romans saw in the gods not simply idols for worship, but an entire mechanism of law that wheeled the universe entire upon itself. To deny themselves of the gods was not simply to deny themselves of religion, but of any sense of justice.