Roman religious terms

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An aedes is a structure, and in Religious terms a shrine or temple building. Templum referred to the area marked off as sacred, while the actual structure housing the god's image was the aedes.


  • ARA (sg) (pl: arae)

An ara is an altar, the structure on which a sacrifice is made. Arae were often open-air structures, immediately accessible to the public, whether within Rome or out elsewhere.


  • AUGUR (sg) (pl: augures)

The augures were official diviners for the Roman Republic. Their office was to observe signs according to Etruscan tradition, interpret the will of the Gods regarding one or another proposed action, and report that at assembly. Smith (Dictionary) points out that "The word auspex was supplanted by augur, but the scientific term for the observation continued on the contrary to be auspicium and not augurium", such that augures took the auspicia, but not the auguria.


See augur. The term augurium denoted several functions related to the augurs of Rome - the augurs' rites, the augurs' laws, the augurs' compendium of known signs, and even the consecration of a man as an augur. The actual observation and interpretation of the signs, however, was called auspicium.


The auspex was one who read bird flight (avi-spex, more or less "bird-seer"), and so, an augur. The related verb is auspico, auspicere - to take the auspicia. Interestingly, in Latin the term "augur" came to be favored over "auspex", but contrarily in the term for the results, "auspicia" came to be favored over "augurium". See augur, augurium, above, and auspicium, below.


An auspicium was a "reading of the birds", of their behavior in a marked portion of the sky (a templum of airy space). Magistrates took the auspicia publica to determine whether planned ceremonies, elections, or other public undertakings should be undertaken or not; if the Gods were averse, the undertaking would be postponed. Auspicia appear to have been of five kinds.


"With the head covered" - the manner in which the Religious officiants of Rome offered libations, sacrifices, and prayers to the Gods. An officiant covered his head by a fold of the back of the toga, an act of piety necessary to the rites.


A collegium (a "college") was a Roman association that had a legal authority, whether commercial, magisterial, or religious. Most significant to Roman religion were the College of Pontiffs; the College of Augurs; the Sibylline college (the Quindecimviri Sacris Faciundis); and the Septemviri Epulonum college, the seven priests who oversaw public religious banquets.


The consecratio was the the rite by which (in a Religious sense) the aedes of a god was created. It most likely followed at some point the marking-off or sanctifiying of the sacral area (see templum); its officiant was a pontiff, but it also involved a dedication by a civil magistrate standing for the Roman state.


Cultus Deorum can be translated as the care of the Gods, the activity, rituals, duties and worship that are characteristic of the Religio Romana. An individual who performs these obligations is a cultor Deorum, a religious "cultivator" of the Gods. Such care was both ritual and material, and the customs were exacting; rites had to be performed in a perfectly precise manner; offerings of animals and materials were specifically laid down for the various acts of sacrifice.


A delubrum was a shrine; according to Varro, it was the oldest form of an aedes (q.v.). See also fanum.


Literally, "I give, so that you may give", a concept or principle of ancient religion - and of the Religio Romana in particular. Humankind was bound to respect the Gods and to make appropriate offerings, and the Gods took part by giving something of value back to men: a state of religious reciprocity. Some have seen this principle as a kind of magic commercialism, but it was more than that. A quote from Emile Durkheim gets to the heart of it: it was "an exchange of mutually invigorating good deeds between the divinity and his faithful". See also "cultus deorum".


The fanum was a sacred space, a shrine. It could be a sacral feature of nature (a sacred tree or grove, or some other locus) or be a consecrated artificial site (an aedes, or a delubrum). As a word, it was cognate with terms in other Italic languages, and was not defined narrowly, but was general in its reference.


  • FAS (from adj, an indeclinable noun, n.)

To be "Religiously or divinely legitimate" might be offered as a definition of fas. One explanation of fas is, as given in the Lewis & Short dictionary, "the dictates of religion, divine law; opp. to jus, or human law". From its strict meaning of something that accords with the divine, it took a common, generic meaning of "that which is proper". See also nefas.


Derived from fas, the phrase "dies fasti" meant "days Religiously allowing", or in the words of Wm. Smith, "those days upon which legal business might, without impiety ... be transacted before the praetor, ... i.e. lawful days" (Smith's Dictionary). The days of the Roman Kalendarium were variously stigmatized by Relgious freedoms and restrictions (there were dies Fasti, Nefasti, Comitiales, Atri, &c.), and since these governed public life and business, "fasti" became a handy shorthand not only for the days, but for the calendar itself.

The Fasti also refers to the famous six-book poem by the poet Ovid, which has been a mine of information on Roman Religion. (See here.) Ovid begins his work saying, "The order of the calendar throughout the Latin year, its causes, and the starry signs that set beneath the earth and rise again -- of these I’ll sing."


That which was favored by the divine powers, that which was held to be auspicious, of good omen, fortunate, lucky. It is a cousin to the Latin word fastus (see fasti above).


A ritual injunction, enjoining silence for the performance of the ritual. (Literally, "Be favorable [to the rite] as regards your tongues.")


Thought to be derived from an Indo-European word meaning "fruitful, productive", felix had the Religious meaning of "being at peace with the Gods".


The feriae were the "free days" of the Roman calendar, days on which public business was prohibited, employees were given a holiday, and even the slaves were allowed time off, as well. There were three sorts of feriae:

  • feriae stativae "standing holidays", id est, feriae that occurred on certain dates, regularly, each year;
  • feriae conceptivae id est, feriae that recurred, but the dates were not fixed, being determined each year by magistrate or priestly college according to augury or other religious calculations;
  • feriae imperativae "mandated holidays", feriae that were not recurring, but were established or created by magistrates to celebrate a special occasion.


Dies festi were religiously-dedicated holidays on which, as with feriae, public business was not allowed.


  • FETIAL (from adj fetialis/fetiales)

The Fetials were an order of priests, said to have been an Aequian institution borrowed & established in Rome in ancient times by Ancus Martius (or Marcius), the legendary fourth king of Rome. Their duties were largely to do with external affairs, interaction with other nations. They had authority in areas of war, peace, diplomacy, and international agreements.


A critical part of Roman religion was the establishment of "sacred areas" called templa, making certains areas fit for augury or other divine interaction. The common word finis - border or limit - took on a specific meaning in Roman religion, the religious finis being a sacred boundary in which consecration or augury might proceed. However, Roman religion being bound up as intimately with the state as it was, it was often not the priests or augures who established these fines, but Rome's magistrates.


For each major and official deity of Roman religion, a certain priest - a flamen - was charged with officiating at rites for said deity. There were fifteen of these flamines dedicated to certain Gods, and they made up a good portion of the College of Pontiffs of Rome. They were elected publicly to their offices, the pool of candidates limited by certain conditions of family and birth, and the inaugurated flamen" had a right to a lictor, toga praetexta, use of the sella curulis, and a seat in the senate in virtue of his office. There were three patrician flamines (flamines majores), who officiated for the most eminent deities - Iuppiter, Mars, Quirinus; the rest were plebeian flamines (flamines minores). Again, magistracy and religion were interwoven in Rome; one could argue that Rome was in effect as much a "church" as a state.

The most dignified flamines were those attached to these three superior deities:

  • of Jove (Iuppiter, Diiovis) had the Flamen Dialis, the Jovian pontiff, "the Lighter of the Fire of Jove";
  • of Mars, called the Flamen Martialis, priest of Mars;
  • of Quirinus, called the Flamen Quirinalis.

It is not clear exactly which Gods else filled out the remaining 12 offices, but there is evidence for at least ten (you may see the Wikipedia info regarding this, here).


Here was another order of Roman priests, the "Brothers of the Fields", 12 in number again. These were dedicated to maintaining the fertility of the land by worship of the Dea Dia, identified with the goddess Ceres. It is asserted that these Brothers were the oldest of the religious colleges, a society founded by Romulus himself. (For this author, to the extent that farming was the theme of Old Rome par excellence, this in itself marks the Fratres Arvales as an ancient order.) A man held the office of Frater Arvalis for the rest of this life.

It was in May that the Fratres Arvales officiated at the Ambarvalia, a three-day celebration for the Dea Dia, which is to say Ceres, the Goddess of Grain. The sacrifices seem to have been made at points defining Old Rome's original extent (the Ager Romanus) as well as other areas of religious importance.


The hostia was a victim offered to a god in sacrifice, although for some authorities the words hostia and victima were differentiated for various reasons: in once case, the hostia was a sacrifice offered before a battle for victory, and a victima one offered after the victory was won; in another, the difference was of size - the hostia was a smallish offering compared the larger victima.

Etymologically, the Latin words involving host- led quite separate lives: the hostis was the enemy faced in battle; hostiae were offerings made for the defeat of Rome's hostes, but eventually gave the English the word "host" for the bread used in Christian eucharist; and although the English word "host" for the provider of hospitality derives from another Latin word — hospes, "guest" or "host" — that parent word nonetheless came from the same original Indo-European root, *ghostis "a stranger".


A rite performed, as one might guess, by the augurs, in which the observation of certain augural signs marked the Gods' pleasure at the appointment of the subject to the office in question.


The Latin for "to invoke", to pray unto the Gods.


The prayers used to invoke the Gods - an official pontifical catalog of prayers and rites to be used for that purpose. "In them were set forth the various powers of each god who was to be summoned to aid in particular cases...." (Peck. Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. 1898) The names of these Gods only survive in tossed and tumbled batches, and of course the actual catalogs have not survived.

Beyond this, there is debate as to what kinds of catalogs the indigitamenta were, whether of prayers, or of prayers intended to "indigitate" (to focus the action of the god on the case at hand), or of the names of the minor Gods to be invoked for sundry aspects of well-being, or of specific epithets with which to address the major Gods in order to "indigitate" them for such minor aspects of well-being. (Controversy mentioned at here, under the "Form" section. Here also, see the Roscher's copious listing of surviving indigital names.)


The invocations referred to the manner of addressing the Gods in prayer, for of course one had to address the God in the proper way in order to gain effectiveness for the prayer. "The list of names (nomina) is often extensive ...; many prayers and hymns are composed largely of invocations." See here.


  • IUS (sg) (pl iura)

The Latin word for rights, fairness, just prerogatives - one sees it in Latin iustitia (justice). One's right was also that which is right, iustum or "lawful" as a principle. The ius divinum was in its nature best or supreme, and from it was derived a less-exalted ius civile or set of citizens' rights. Ius was to be contrasted with the more profane lex or merely human law, as a principle would contrast with specific actions and decisions. (See also lex, infra.)


  • LAR (sg) (pl lares)

The ancestor spirit or spirits of a Roman house - a subset of the domestic manes. Each house kept images of the lares along with the penates. Additionally, lares might be "spirits of those who have died and remain to protect our neighborhoods, roads, and other community places." H. Piscinus, here. The first lares were held to have been brought to Rome by Aeneas, and a special set of lares, the lares praestites, were venerated as the ancestral spirits of Rome herself.


The shrine to the manes - the Lares and Penates - that was kept in a Roman house. It was the center of domestic veneration and offerings to the family's ancestor spirits.


Larvae were malignant spirits which, had they been beneficent, would have been manes. But these were spirits of ill will which it was necessary to ward off.


The lemures are another interesting kind of Roman spirit. These were issue-less, homeless and even foreign spirits who roamed the land, searching for someone, anyone, who would take them into their house as a lar or as lares - ghosts, if you will, and like ghosts they could be harmful or harmless or even beneficent, but were generally treated as troublesome; one could not be certain whether they were friendly or not, since they are not family spirits or even spirits of one's won countrymen. The festival of Lemuria was largely observed in order to provide something for the lemures, to help them travel on and not linger. (As you might guess, the lemures of Madagascar were named after these Roman Lemures due to their “ghostly” appearance.) H. Piscinus, here.


The Lectisternium was a rite of setting a meal out before images of the Gods. It was "a banquet of the gods, sometimes held on occasions of national thanksgiving. Images of the gods were laid on cushions (pulvinaria), and food of all kinds was placed before them." (Shorey, Commentary on Horace ..., Sanborn and Co. 1910). There are numerous mentions of lectisternia in Livy (viz examples, here. ) The word derives from sternere lectum, to drape cloth on a couch. "[T]he images of the gods were placed upon couches and food was set before them...." (Rolfe, Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, Heinemann 1927)


  • LEX (sg) (pl leges)

Law, or a law. Originally, the word may have meant "word" and had a specfically religious meaning, as chosen words of ritual. The phrase quaqua lege volet gave leeway as to wording for someone performing a ritual; "legum dictio" was a name for the inauguration of magistrates; the very word religio itself is based upon lex, legis. In later times, the common meaning shifted toward public law and away from specific relgious contexts, whence the modern word "law". Lex (word, rule) is often contrasted with ius (right, a just thing).


The libation was the gesture of respect offered to the Gods by dedicating to Them the first drops of liquid foodstuffs, whether wine, milk, honey, oil or even water. The first drops would be sprinkled onto a household altar, or a public one, or simply upon the earth. It is something like the "saying of grace" in later Christian tradition.


Liber is Latin for book, and there were many religious books used by augures, pontifices, sacerdotes and presumably magistrates performing religious rites. The Libri Augurales were a collection of the essential lore of the augurs. The Libri Pontificales were the core texts of the Religio, supposedly begun by Numa Pompilius himself, the religiously inclined and innovative second king of Rome.


This could be either the augur's telltale curved staff or a curved war-horn. In Christianity, the lituus survives as the crosier or curved or crooked staff of a bishop. For the augur, it was both a symbol and a tool, used in dividing the templum of the sky into the proper regions for divination.


A lucus was a sacred grove, dedicated to a certain divinity (or possibly several). Some were forbidden to men at large, and some were capitales luci, sacred woods where trespass meant death. A lucus was distinguished from silva (a natural woodland) and nemus (a grove, but see nemus, infra).


  • LUDI (pl) (sg ludus)

A ludus is a game, and the ludi were the sacred games that formed a large part of Roman religious festivals.


An order of priests, these were were "wolfly" ones, lupercales, after the lupus (wolf) who nursed Romulus and Remus. They were central to the observance of the Lupercalia, the fertility festival dedicated to the god Lupercus. The Luperci sacrificed goats and dogs to Lupercus, and later ran through the city, half-naked and clad only in pieces of goat-skin, smacking bystanders with pieces of goat-skin - especially women, for it was believed that such contact rendered a woman fertile.


The Lustratio was a rite of purification. According to Smith (Dictionary, Lustratio the Romans performed lustrationes often in order to purify and bless whatever was of value to them - their fields, their flocks, their colonies, their naval fleets are among those objects of lustration that Smith cites.


Manes, meaning “the good ones", were the protective or benevolent spirits of the Roman family, and were venerated and honored at home.


An Etruscan term for lightning, or the power of Gods to wield lightning. It was a major subject of augury (augurium).


An offering or anointment made of salted flour, and a critical element of ritual. Its invention was attributed to Numa Pompilius (second king of Rome). It was sprinkled on sacrifical victims, between their horns and on their foreheads; and was also sprinkled onto altars, or into the sacred fire.


A monstrum was a sign from the Gods, something unnatural in form that displayed their displeasure, often a deformed animal. Suetonius gave the examples of "a snake with feet, or a bird with four wings". There is debate as to whether the word derived from monstro, monstrare (to show) or from moneo, monére (to warn). Its negative or monitory value eventually led to the modern profane word, "monster".


While the common meaning of mundus was "the world", it also referred to a certain pit of religious import that was dug and sealed by Romulus as a part of the founding of the city of Rome. As a concave pit in the earth, it represented a doorway from the upper to the lower worlds, and was the receptacle for offerings to infernal deities, and in particular to beneficent Ceres, goddess of fruition. It was kept sealed, however, and only opened on a certain three days of the year.


  • NEFAS (an indeclinable noun, n.)

An action or event or thing contrary to divine law; a thing offensive to the Gods and forbidden - something heinous or sacreligious.


An adjective, related to nefas, above. It is used principally as an adjective to dies, "day", for on dies nefasti ("inappropropriate days", "forbidden days") no official business could be transacted.


Nemus meant woodland, woods, or glade, and was used in common speech and poetry to describe such a grove in nature, but also in poetry and religion to indicate a sacred grove.


The "Numa Tradition" refers to the ritual tradition in Roman Religion established by Numa Pompilius, second king of Rome, unwarlike successor to Romulus, and great Religious reformer thereof. The reforms, traditions, and religious offices attributed to his creation are many. See the Nova Roman article on Numa here. There is also a very good article on Numa and Roman sacrifice here.


The nuntiatio was the object of an augur's work: to report the observed signs and their meanings. It was to be made not in writing, but verbally before the appropriate assembly. Magistrates empowered to take the auspices also gave nuntiationes.


As with a number of ob- terms, the obnuntiatio was a negative report on the auspices, a report of unfavorable signs, and resulted in suspension, postponement or cancelation of public actions. It is only mentioned in the writings of Cicero. Polas a veto on public action. n 44 BCE, Marcus Antonius, as an augur, used the obnuntiatio to halt the election of the consuls.


The observatio referred to the traditional Etruscan-taught interpretation of signs. It meant both the act of observation and also the written lore by which such observations were made. The lore of observatio was accepted as scientific and factual, in contrast to the more speculative coniectura (q.v.).


  • OMEN (sg) (pl omina)

An omen was a sign - whether favorable or not - indicating an individual's future; whereas a prodigium was of import more to the public at large, an omen was more a sign pointed at the fate of an individual. Of course, if the individual were himself of public consequence, then the omen meant something for the public, as well. Omens - whether apocryphally or not - were part of many a story and history. During the Second Punic War, when Hannibal was invading North Italy, the consul Flaminius disregarded several omina before his disastrous defeat at Lake Trasimeno. On the other hand, favorable omina (real or ficitonal) might be publicized in relation to public figures, as part of their active public relations campaigns, or as part of legend.


An ostentum was a sign of a certain kind. Suetonius defined it as something that "shows itself" (se ostendere) "without possessing a solid body and affects both our eyes and ears, like darkness or a light at night." [cite] The ostenta were not the codified signs related to observatio (supra) but rather novel signs that required some further interpretation, which is to say were the domain of coniectura rather than observatio. Nonetheless, observations & interpretations related to ostenta were collected in ostentaria, books which described such signs and helped guide their interpretation.


As with any hierarchy, the priests of Rome had a pecking order, the ordo sacerdotum, ranking the chief priests, at least in their seating at sacrifices and banquets. Nearest the images of the Gods, at the top of the order, was the time-honored Rex Sacrorum; next him was the Flamen Dialis (Priest of Iuppiter); then the Flamen Martialis (Priest of Mars); then the Flamen Quirinalis (Priest of Quirinus), and last the Pontifex Maximus (Great Priest).


A Roman "having put on the paludamentum", the distinctive Roman military commander's vestments. This included arms, armor and ornaments, and was worn beyond the pomerium or sacred boundaries of Rome. Donning the paludamentum, one was paludatus, and had already received imperium and the auspices of war, and had made the requisite pledges and sacrifices at the Capitolium.


Literally the "Peace of the Gods", pax in this sense was also a "pact", a contract, between men and deity. But this peace was contingent, and the people (and their priests and magistrates) had to follow the rites, obey the obligations, and offer the correct sacrifices to maintain the pact. Thus the priests (and magistrates) had the extra burden of keeping this peace in effect for the benefit of all Rome. (See also, Do ut Des, above.)


The piaculum was a religious device to atone with the Gods for a slip or transgression in worship, a sacrifice to expiate such an error.


  • PIETAS (sg) (pl pietates) - see Pius, below.


An Italic word seen not only in Latin but also in cognate forms in Volscian, Oscan and Umbrian, pius could describe both actions done to the Gods' satisfaction and people who behaved in ways satisfactory to the Gods.


The pomoerium was a sacred boundary which, in effect, marked the heart of the sacred city of Rome. Stone pillars set at certain intervals marked the great loop of city within the pomoerium. Although sacred, the pomoerium was not entirely static; with the city's expansion and according to the correct ritual, it was continually enlarged over the years, from Romulus's area at the foot of the Palatine Hill (Gellius), to larger and larger areas under the Republic, Sulla, Augusutus and, finally, the Emperor Aurelian, after he had enlarged the walls of the city in the third century. (See also templum)


The pontifices (pontiffs) were, in Smith's words, "the most illustrious among the great colleges of priests", held their religious office for life, working under the Pontifex Maximus. They "had the supreme superintendence of all matters of religion, and of things and persons connected with public as well as private worship." Thus, although chief priests of other priestly colleges may have been ranked higher in divine eminence, it was the Pontifex Maximus who wielded greatest power over people. How a man became a pontiff changed over the centuries, but it is significant that men might become a pontiff in addition to other titles and magistracies.


The portentum (a foreseeing, a portent) is similar to the ostentum (supra). Per Smith, it was "some strange incident or wonderful appearance which was supposed to herald the approach of misfortune." Thus, being novel and unexpected, it was a matter for coniectura rather than Etruscan observatio. It is also said that the portenta were interpreted by the haruspices rather than the augurs.


In modern English, "precatory" means entreating, begging, imploring. For the ancient Romans, the Latin verb precari meant to beg, implore, entreat. In the Religio, the precatio was the prayer formula used to address the deities. For most purposes, it can be said to mean "prayer"; however, in augury precatio was the intial entreaty that began a ceremony by invoking the divine presence. (See also prex.)


  • PREX (sg) (pl preces)

While prex commonly meant "a prayer", in Religion it might also specify the third and final part in a tripartite prayer, delivering just what was being sought from the deity. It was most often used not in the singular, but in the plural, preces, with the collective meaning of a prayer.


Prodigium (prodigy) was used commonly as a general term for any unexpected signs or omens presaging future events; but in a more restricted sense it was used for signs that predicted disaster that would affect "a whole community or nation rather than private individuals" and were ""direct manifestations of the wrath of heaven, and warnings of coming vengeance" (Smith). Prodigies were in the class of auspicia oblativa, that is, signs thrust upon a community rather than ones deliberately sought. Since such warnings of divine displeasure were matters of civic concern, Roman citizens reported alleged prodigia to the authorities, somewhat the way a local health hazard or a crime would be reported in modern society: the authorities attempted to filter out the bogus reports, but if verified the report would go to the Senate itself, be debated there. Confirmed prodigies had to be referred to the pontiffs and augurs, who would take the correct measures to placate the deities. In the panic of the dark days of the Second Punic War, after Hannibal's astounding destruction of the legions at Cannae, prodigies multiplied and the amends or restitution made to the Gods even involved the practically unprecedented sacrifice of living human victims buried alive in the Forum Boarium.


The fanum was a shrine, and pro fanum meant occuring before the shrine, that is, outside the sacred precinct or divine templum. Thus, something profanum (profane) was something non-divine and common to men, as in modern English coarse & nasty words are called "profanities.


The pulvinar was a special couch or bed used specifically for the display of divine images. By extension, the dais or platform used to display the pulvinaria with their Godly occupants could also be referred to as a pulvinar. (See lectisternum.)



Religio is usually thought to have been derived from the combination re- + ligo/ligāre" (to bind again, to tie again); but a more interesting contender in the unsure etymology would be the combination re + legō/legere (meaning either to intensively choose, select or gather, or to repeatedly read over what you've collected). In any event, the religion of the Romans was a religion of exacting ritual and of strong bonds between men and Gods, something on the order of "scrupulous attention to divine obligations". Our modern word "religion" is rather less exacting. (See also do ut des, supra.)


Unlike the term sacer (sacred), which marked things of a religious nature made by men, the term religiosus indicated a thing marked out specfically by the Gods themselves. An example would be a place struck by a lightning bolt, for it had been deliberately marked by Iuppiter's own action, marked out by Iuppiter's own hand - and therefore held to be taboo for mortals.


The office of Rex Sacrorum (one might translate it as "King of Sacred Affairs") was a priesthood reserved for Patrician Senators, a most distinguished office, in prestige apparently superior even to the Flamen Dialis or chief priest of Iuppiter, and in prestige (if not in political power) superior to the Pontifex Maximus himself. (See also the Ordo Sacerdotum, supra.) The wife of the Rex Sacrorum was involved in religious offices as well; as Regina Sacrorum she had multiple duties assigned to her.


Ritus was the way in which rites were carried out, and not the rites themselves. One had to perform Roman ceremonies strictly ritë - in proper religious order, following proper religious custom. The ritus was the "proven way", and only much later in Christian times did it take on the meaning of the ceremonies themselves. Thus when the phrase ritus Graecus is seen, it describes how the rites were performed, i.e., they were performed the "Greek way", "according to Greek custom".


Coming from the adjective sacer, a sacellum was a little sacred place, which is to say a shrine.


Sacerdos was the general term for a priest or priestess of Rome.


  • SACER (sacer, sacra, sacrum) (adj)

As opposed to the most modern notions of the "sacred", sacer in ancient Roman terms meant "given over to the Gods", and included everything touched by deity, whether the sacred area marked off by augurs, animals dedicated for offering to the Gods, or such criminals as had committed a crime serious enough to have them cast out of Roman society altogether.


A Roman name for a priest, thought to originally have meant simply "he (or she) who performs the sacred rituals". While Roman magistrates were required to perform certain religious rituals, they were not themselves sacerdotes, i.e., they were not professionally priests, not themselves dedicated to a particular deity or deity's temple.


The sacra are the traditional cults and rites of Rome. The sacra publica were for the state and the people of Rome, and the sacra privata were observed domestically, by the gens, family, or individual involved.


A sacramentum was a pledge or bond given to the Gods, a contract made with divinity, "an appeal to some superior being, calling on him to bear witness that the swearer speaks the truth, or intends to perform the promise which he makes." To fail in such a pledge would result in being declared sacer in the unfavorable sense, i.e., being cursed to destruction, with great loss of property and family. While a ius iurandum was an oath given by and among men (although witnessed by the Gods), the sacramentum was a direct vow to the deity or deities themselves.


The sacrarium was a place for storage of sacred objects. Often the word was used as equivalent to sacellum (small shrine), although it's specific meaning was the safe location for storing the religious objects.


Sacrifice, as an action, is a generality of religions, an offering of something of some value to the Gods. One gives up something of value in order to "give something back" to the Gods who govern your world, to please them and show respect. (See "do ut des", supra.) Roman rites generally required a sacrifice - after all, if we're going to ask a benefit of the Gods, don't we have to do something for them first? For most lustrationes, an animal sacrifice - in fact, a sacrifice of three animals together - was required as well as the ritual sprinkling of cleansing water. Purifications by lustration were very important - fields, dwellings, livestock, people, a ship, an army, a religious site - all might be objects of lustration. For major lustrations, the suovetaurilia was performed. This triple-sacrifice was of a pig (suus/suis), a sheep (ovis/ovis), and a bull (taurus/tauri), the smoke of whose burnt flesh was thought to be in itself purifying.

But not all sacrifices were bloody; if one did not give up livestock, there was still the farmers' main produce, fruit and grain. Smith's article on sacrifice (here) states that offerings were often "fruit and cakes. The former were mostly offered to the gods as primitiae or tithes of the harvest, and as a sign of gratitude." Moreover, for the poorer Romans, livestock could not be sacrificed on a regular basis, and so in place of the prohibitively expensive bloody sacrifice cakes might be offered, especially baked in the image of the animal that would ideally have been offered. Cakes, one should remember, were products of grains, and were an offering from the farmers' critical crops, of their agricultural wealth.

See also sacrifice here at Nova Roma. Another good article on Roman sacrifice can be found here.


It is said by Livy that this word was created to describe the sanctity & inviolability of the potestas of Plebeian Tribunes and other magistrates. Given that it combines "sacer" and "sanctus", it is an emphatic word indeed - something both "dedicated to the Gods and hallowed".


  • SALII (pl) (not used in the singular)

These priests of Mars, the "leaping priests" (salientes), danced a ritual that involved not only leaping and bounding, but also the ancillae - the shields sacred to Mars.


In the word sacer we find two distinct meanings, that, in modern terms, something sacer might be either sacred or cursed; so also in sanctio, for it can mean either something "holy" or something under divine punishment. Sanctio comes from the verb sancio/sancire: "I hallow, I sanctify", i.e., I dedicate this to the Gods as sacred (or, in the negative aspect, cursed). Our modern version of this noun, "sanction", retains this split in aspect - if we allow something, we give it our "sanction" (approval); if we disapprove of something, we apply a "sanction" against it (punishment).


A "sign" was a general term for symbols or events that were interpreted as indicating the presence or activity of a God. See also: prodigia, ostenta, omina, portenta.


In performance of sacred Roman ritual, correct execution was of greatest importance, and silentium (silence) was required to preserve the sacred setting and avoid distractions to the officiators.


An association or group - as in a collegium or a sodalicium. The sodalitas ("society") was a voluntary assocation of sodales or members. While some priests kept collegia, others were united in sodalitates, for example the Fetiales, priests who had authority in areas of war, peace, diplomacy, and international agreements.


Divination performed by observing the sky and its birds, whether in flight or even in their eating patterns. Augurs and certain magistrates would perform these observations and announce their findings. Being the mouthpiece of the pleasure of the Gods was a powerful office, since divine displeasure might halt or postpone state and private business.


The sponsio was a sacred foedus, a solemn religious promise or obligation; a sacred oath. For example, a betrothal as pledged by the family of the bride (the betrothal ceremony itself was called sponalia; or a promise as pledged by the Roman official in a treaty between nations.


Although the modern English word "superstition" derives from this Latin word, the meanings are different. While "superstition" in the modern sense usually means a spurious belief in magical powers of some sort, in Ancient Rome it meant an excess of the belief in magical powers. Divinity and the realm of magic were much accepted in Rome (as they have been in every culture) but superstitio was, in effect, "too much religion". Seneca made a telling remark, too, that while " religio honnors the Gods, superstitio wrongs them" - that superstitio excessively and wrongly placed confidence in or feared the wrath of Deity, whereas religio was a bona fide and properly measured observance.


Supplicationes were either a plea for divine aid at a time of serious public threat, or a thanksgiving thereafter. A supplicatio involved a procession by the people of Rome throughout the city, attending to various religious sites, expressing a plea for salvation by the Divine Powers. One suppication is described as the whole population turning out, wearing wreaths and carrying twigs of laurel, and making sacrifices at indicated temples and precincts throughout the City.


A "temporary hut", which is to say a tent, was not only a part of Roman military usage but also a part of Roman augury. In augury, a templum (sacred area) was first sanctified by the augur, and within this a tabernaculum (tent) was pitched, which would be the templum minus or "minor sacred area" was used by the augurs in taking the auspices.


The word templum, although related to the modern word, "temple", has a quite different definition: while the modern "temple" is seen as a religious structure, the Roman templum was of "a place marked off" in a sacred fashion, a place sanctified for religious use. So the first step in building a religious structure (modern "temple") would have involved marking off a sacred site or templum. It is thought the word is related to the Greek word temenos, meaning an area "cut off" from the common geography, a sanctified place.

Permanent structures aside, in augury templa were several. In taking the auspices (see Auspicium) one could find three distinct templa: (1) First, there was the marking off of a sacred area of ground in which the augur would make his observations, and this geographical space was a templum. (2) Then, too, the area of the sky where bird flight or other phenomena were to be observed was also marked off, and this aerial area was also a templum. (3) Then again, within the templum grounds, the augurs would pitch a tent (tabernaculum) from which the augurs operated, called the templum minus ("minor sacred area").

Additionally, all of Rome within the Pomoerium (q.v.) was already a consecrated place.


The verba certa (or certa verba) were simply the precise words of a verbal formula, whether religious or legal. For the Romans, religious ritual had to be performed perfectly; thus the words used had to be "certain" - exact, and were therefore of necessity already prescribed. (In _____ there is an interesting distinction between "prayer" as commonly understood in our time and prex (prayer) as it was understood in Roman times:


While the verba certa were absolutely precise and unchanging, the verba concepta appear to have been words that, while still formulaic, were not absolutely and immutably fixed. Apparently the advantage of such phrases was that they could be used in more circumstances, remaining rigidly ceremonial yet adaptable to more situations.


The "sacred spring" was a ceremony that developed from dire origins to become a kind of "ritual migration". It appears that originally, among the Sabines in times of the greatest distress, sacrifices of a whole generation of offspring were vowed to Mars - of livestock or people born in the spring of the following year. In time, accouring to ancient sources, ritual expulsion took the place of actual human sacrifice so that future children might still be vowed to the God, but were not expelled until age 21 or so. Such a group of votives were called the sacrani; they were sent off to found or conquer a community at a certain destination, all the while under the protection of the God. It is noted that the Mamertines of Sicily were the descendants of just such a group of sacrani. During the Second Punic War, the Romans undertook Vera Sacra twice, but the vows were specifically for livestock votives, not people.


The victima was the sacrificial victim. Not any animal could be offered in sacrifice, but prospective victims had to be evaluated for their merits. Qualities such as species, appearance, colors, gender, even whether castrated could all come into play. For example, for sacrifice to the celestial deities, a white color was requisite; for the chthonic deities, dark colors; and for Vulcanus in particular, a red color. Moreover, a pretense that the victim was itself willing to undergo the sacrifice was maintained, such that a nod of the head - natural or forced - was a prerequisite; if a victima displayed panic or distress, it was an ill omen for the rite.

More specifically, the victima could be contrasted with the hostia, another name for the animal to be sacrificed. As some ancient authorities put it, before a battle, when facing the enemy (the hostis), blessings were asked for and a hostia sacrificed; later, when the Romans had triumphed (were, then, victores), thanks were offered and a victima was sacrificed.


The victimarius was an attendant who guided and handled the animal to be sacrificed. One or more led the victim to the altar, carried the axe or the mallet and knife to be used, and held the animal in the proper position for act to follow.


In Religious circumstances, a vitium was a flaw, error or imperfection in the performance of a ritual. A single vitium would void the rite and require that it be performed again from the beginning.


"Vitulari est voce laetari" reports Macrobius, quoting Titus, in the third book of his Saturnalia - in other words, "to vitulate is to rejoice in voice", to show mirth or give thanks by vocal expression, presumably singing. He even reports a supposed etymology of the word linking it with the word victoria, as in the singing of triumph after a victory, and concludes that vitulari is the equivalent of Greek paianizein, to sing paeans, songs of thanksgiving or triumph.


A verbal noun drawn from vitulor, vitulari, a vitulatio would be a "rejoicing", and in fact names a specific Roman holiday, an annual day of thanksgiving celebrated on July 6 or 8, depending on whom you read. Beyond this, a goddess Vitula was identified with it, who was celebrated as well.


To solemnly pledge something to a deity was to "vovere", to vow that thing. Thus the past participle, votum, described both the action or fact of the pledge, and the thing pledged. The thing pledged could be a sacrifical offering, or a statue, or even something as great as a temple, depending on the situation and the individual or group that was pledging. Vota were offered privately, publicly for the state (and later, the Emperor), and militarily, by commanders before campaigning, or if needed during a campaign. There was even, in earlier times, a more extreme sort of military vow, the devotio, in which a Roman general vowed his own life and the lives of the enemy he killed to the God or Goddess in question.

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