Why am I writing about this? Because often people forget how much of the surviving information on ancient Roman religion is not only fragmentary, but also biased. And I don’t mean as in written by Christians or someone with an anti-polytheist agenda. I mean biased as in socially discriminatory: it reflects the views of the higher social groups, which had large villas, grand rural properties and could therefore reproduce and maintain private cults that reflected – and sometimes supplied a model for – public religion, with its grand temples, processions and feasts. That was a world apart from the daily life of ordinary Romans, most of which lived in small dwellings or apartments, had little wealth and limited room for a religious life at home. Yet oddly enough, some – dare I say many? – modern cultores seem to forget that and expect people to do what the Roman elites did. That, they would argue, is how things must be done, the right way to worship. These are the elitists of our days, forgetful of how the upper classes were only part ancient Rome and that our modern lives are in many ways as limited as those of the ancient lower social strata.
A lot if not most of us today live in cities, modern cities, which don’t always have a rural setting just a couple of blocks down the road. Most of us today live in apartment buildings or small dwellings, not a country house or a large mansion with a surrounding plot of land. A balcony is perhaps the closest thing to a yard we often have and even a backyard or a terrace may be shared with the neighbours. At the risk of stating the obvious, most of us don’t use fire at home on a daily basis because electricity has largely replaced the role it had in the past. Some don’t even use fire to cook anymore, having replaced it with electrical appliances. And we generally don’t live in places with the usual layout of an ancient Roman villa, where certain home shrines were traditionally placed in a given room. In this and other things, modern life is similar to that of ordinary Romans, but whereas they could resort to public temples and festivities and thus sort of go around the limitations of their domestic life, modern polytheists have no such luck. Today, it basically comes down to what we can do at home. Occasionally we use parks at the risk of having our ceremonies disturbed or outright interrupted. Sometimes we resort to a shared yard or terrace, though that has its risks also. We may drive or take a bus to a nearby woodland, beach or rural plot of land, but that’s hardly a solution for daily rites, not to mention when the weather doesn’t help. Home is where our shrines usually are and home is where we perform a lot if not almost all of our ceremonies. That’s okay, for there is such a thing as domestic religion, but it has little or no public options to complete it and it’s a modern home, often urban, not an ancient Roman villa.
Roman polytheists should worship celestial deities facing east? Sorry, but that’s not always possible: some people have a fireplace, yes, but it might be in another quadrant of the house. The same goes for a kitchen stove and windows, which are a good option on a sunny day when you want to burn offerings without filling your home with smoke. In many cases, one may simply have to do away with the whole idea of burning food in a ritual fire and satisfy him/herself with a candle and sticks of incense. Modern apartments aren’t built with Roman religion in mind. Your Lararium should be in the entry hall or living room? I’m afraid a lot of people can’t do that: some modern houses don’t even have a hall anymore, in other cases it’s a very small one and some of us share flats with family or friends, which makes it harder for common rooms to be religiously personalized. A cultor should have certain objects in his/her home shrine made from this and that material? Again, a lot of us may not have enough room for it and alternative items may be cheaper. Like the common Romans of old, we may not have the financial means of the elites.
Now I’m not saying that the surviving information, biased as it may be, should be ignored. As a reconstructionist, historical data is to me a reference, a solid basis on which I start building my religious practices. I’ll stress: start building. It’s not the whole of my life as a cultor and most certainly not in a world that has changed a lot since the fourth century. Put things into perspective. Be mindful of History together with a practical sense. Not everyone in the past lived in a villa or was a nobleman and often people had to adapt using standard traditions as a reference. No reason why it shouldn’t be any different today and despite the occasional tendency to look at what the elites did as “the right way”. Preferable at best, but not the only way.