1. Things you don’t need:
1.1. You don’t need to be fluent in Latin
1.2. You don’t need to (pretend) to be a Roman citizen
1.3. You don’t need to replicate the morals of the past
1.4. You don’t have to follow a classical school of philosophy
1.5. You don’t have to limit yourself to Rome
Things you don’t need:
1.1. You don’t need to be fluent in Latin
Let’s start by getting out of the way things that are not necessary, starting with fluency in Latin. While a basic knowledge of the language is a desirable skill for a Roman polytheist, in that it allows you to better understand concepts and ideas through their original meaning, I’d argue that the basics are sufficient and that a high proficiency in Latin isn’t strictly necessary. Now, some of my coreligionists disagree, claiming that the language is essential to connect with the culture that produced Roman polytheism and that it, by virtue of being an orthopraxic religion, requires one to perform rites according to tradition and hence in the original tongue. And while it is true that the emphasis of the cultus deorum is on correct ritual practice – as opposed to faith and morality – I disagree with the remaining arguments.
The reason is simple: Roman culture didn’t vanish into thin air when Rome fell and the empire with it in the 5th century. Rather, it evolved into different languages and national identities and became a part of the wider western culture. Ever wondered why the buildings of the US Supreme Court or Austrian parliament, which are no older than the 19th century, nonetheless look like Roman temples? Why there’s a fasces on the French national emblem or the walls of the US House of Representatives? Why there are so many Latin expressions in mottos, academic and judicial jargon? Why modern democracies have checks and balances and several national parliaments have an upper house called senate (from Latin senex, elder)? The answer is because Roman culture is one of the roots of modern western civilization (along with ancient Greece and Christian humanism). To a greater or lesser extent depending on the exact country, we inherited institutions, customs and ideas from ancient Rome, which survived, evolved or inspired thinkers, artists and leaders of later ages, eventually producing an essential part of who we are today. And every time you hear modern Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or French, you’re listening to languages that evolved in a diverse fashion straight out of Latin. They didn’t just pick up several words, but are in essence direct linguistic descendents of the tongue Romans used to communicate and worship.
This means that the cultus deorum wasn’t generated by a long-gone culture we have no connection to whatsoever, but by one of which we are a product. To a greater or lesser degree, we are children of Rome and hence culturally related to it. And unlike Greek, which didn’t remain nor evolved into our time as an everyday language outside Greece, Latin has spawned a handful of tongues that are currently spoken daily in all five continents by millions of people. As such, if your goal is to revive an ancient religion to make it a part of the modern world, as opposed to re-enacting it or placing it in opposition to the present, you don’t really need to speak Latin to access Latin culture. Because it didn’t die out and vanish without a living trace, but evolved into not one, but several national cultures and a part of the wider western one. So while you can study and become fluent in the language of the ancient Romans if you really want to – it’s an option, not a mandatory thing – you can also access Latinity by connecting to its heritage in your modern country or through Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian cultures – to name just the big ones – all of which are presently alive and well. And thus using the corresponding national languages in a ritual context is not only a good way to breathe new life into old traditions (see point 3.1.), but also a perfectly acceptable orthopraxic alternative. You can add a few Latin words or archaic expressions in pivotal moments if you want to, especially if you don’t use a romance language.
You also don’t need to be part of an organization that seeks to reproduce ancient politics and society, eat and dress like someone from 2000 years ago and have a matching ancient Roman name. If you disagree and think that cultores need to live in a time capsule that’s stuck somewhere around the start of the Common Era, then you’re no different from someone who claims that you need to live in medieval Japan in order to be a proper Shintoist. Or that India needs to revert back to the Gupta empire, the Maratha Confederacy or a myriad of small kingdoms for Hindus to be real Hindus. Or that a true United States patriot is someone who dresses, speaks, lives and thinks like an American from c. 1776. All of these examples amount to forms of fossilized existence, which is the very opposite of reviving something ancient to be a part of the modern world.
The fact is that you don’t have to turn your life, religious or otherwise, into a perpetual renaissance fair in order to be a proper Roman polytheist. You can certainly go into re-enactment as a hobby or business, but it’s not strictly necessary, because while religion can be conservative – in the case of the cultus deorum, ritually conservative – and tradition needs to change in a careful manner so as to remain traditional, it’s not static unless it’s dead or dying. If it’s a living religion, it will adapt and evolve to keep up with changing circumstances and reconnect with its surroundings, be it politically, socially, legally or environmentally. It doesn’t have to be stuck in the specifics of a given time and place in order to be true and genuine, no matter how relevant a particular period of History may be. And if you have any doubts about that, look at Catholicism, which has reached the modern world as an unbroken tradition with over one thousand years. Do you think Catholics need to eat, speak and dress like 11th century Europeans, uphold the social structure and values from c. 1050, recreate a kingdom from that time and submit to a medieval papacy in order to be true Catholics? And mind you, unlike the cultus deorum, Catholicism has sacred scriptures that allow for a written crystallization of beliefs, ideas and morals as “word of God”. If despite that you don’t need to live in a replica of the Middle Ages to be a genuine Catholic, why should you have to pretend to live in classical antiquity to be a proper Roman polytheist?
We’re used to think of religion as something that has a moral code of some sort, guiding lines provided by deities or holy people on what’s best or how to behave in our daily lives. In fact, we’re so used to the notion that when we find no obvious moral doctrine, some people attempt to codify one from texts that have no orthodoxic value. Because a religion must have a moral code, right? Wrong! At least when it comes to Roman polytheism, that’s an assumption that makes little sense and owes more to Abrahamic traditions than anything else.
For a religion to have a moral doctrine that’s more than just personal or social, it needs scriptures that can capture ideas and preserve them as valid regardless of place and time. No matter where you are, how far conditions have changed or what period of History you live in, that moral code remains in force because it is fixed in a sacred, written form and is generally not believed to be confined to a specific time and place. This is basically what you have in Christianity or Islam, where quotes from scriptures, which are seen as divine word, are used to judge, reject or justify human actions. Never mind the fact that times have changed dramatically since the Bible or the Quran were written or that western societies are not those of the Middle East in the 5th century BCE or 7th CE. The word of God is atemporal, not bound by time or place, and from the moment it assumes the written form, it’s not subject to the mutability that characterizes oral traditions.
So what are the sacred scriptures of Roman polytheism? The answer: none! It has no equivalent of the Bible or the Ten Commandments. Roman authors certainly wrote plenty of texts about religion, like Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, but they express personal views on the subject, those of particular philosophical schools or the prevailing mentality among the elites. Different people of different intellectual persuasion or social strata would naturally see things differently, much like those who write about religion today will have different opinions on the topic. We have a good glimpse of that in Seneca’s On Superstition, where he criticizes things done by common Romans in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, like washing the statue of the god, pretending to brush the hair of Juno and Minerva or announcing visitors. Which, to quote J. A. North in his Roman Religion, is an attack on “popular expressions of piety from a Stoic viewpoint and characterizing them as superstitious” (2000: 82). In other words, it’s a man’s opinion, not dogma, scripture or divine sanctions. Roman authors also produced literary works featuring the Gods, of which Virgil’s Aeneid is a prime example, but that too is not sacred word, a revealed truth or a divinely sanctioned account of the past. Rather, it is an artistic expression of the views of a human being from a given time and place, in this case someone who was conveying a part of emperor Augustus’ political project. An author attached to other ideals or in different circumstances would have produced a different story. And people from lower social classes would likely have their own views on religion and disagree with the elites in some regard (as hinted by Seneca’s account). Never forget that we have only fragmented data on the past and largely from the upper strata, which means that our information on ancient Roman polytheism is socially biased.
So if the cultus deorum has no scriptures, then it also has no moral doctrine. If it has no sacred text that preserves the right and wrong of everyday life in ancient Rome as equally right and wrong today, then it has no mandatory teachings on human conduct outside the ritual context. Which means that in order to be a modern Roman polytheist, you don’t have to reproduce the past’s social attitudes on women, animals, sex, gender, race, abortion, marriage, the death penalty and so forth. Because while those attitudes could be reflected on and by religion (e.g. the Gods don’t like it when you do this or that), they’re not the moral values of Roman polytheism – they’re those of the society where it was practiced. In a way, purely orthopraxic religions are a bit like a mirror in that they reflect social attitudes, but do not crystallize them in the form of a moral doctrine. In as much as if you change the social context – from c. 10 CE to today – you’ll see different values being reflected on and conveyed through religious narratives. If you fail to see the difference, you may well find yourself accepting slavery, torture and gladiator games as an integral part of Roman polytheism because you missed the distinction between the religious and the social, which, while able to entwine and intersect extensively, are not one and the same.
If Roman polytheism has no scriptures and thus no moral doctrine, does that mean that Roman polytheists are amoral people? No! It simply means that we get our morals from elsewhere. It can be from a mixture of ancient authors, a combination of current law and customs, personal insights drawn from various sources or a philosophical school of one’s choosing. It’s really an open game where discussions on issues like abortion, the death penalty, same-sex marriage or immigration are not constrained by scripture or divine word, but can be debated much more freely. Of course, this leads to an enormous variety of opinions among Roman polytheists, but that’s okay, because at the very heart of polytheism as a religious category is the notion of divine plurality and hence of worldviews and agendas. In that regard, the Gods can certainly inspire people to act in a given way in their everyday lives, but different gods inspire or call for different things, so once again, the outcome is diversity.
Now, when I said you could get your morals from philosophical schools, I naturally meant Stoicism, Platonism and Epicureanism, but also other intellectual traditions. Again, if you’re reviving an ancient religion in the modern world, as opposed to re-enacting it as it was roughly two thousand years ago, you don’t have to limit yourself to what was available around the start of the Common Era. Romans used what was known to them at the time and different Romans followed different philosophical schools. Ergo, by applying similar dynamics to the modern world so that the cultus deorum can entwine with it, you can use what is available today. And that includes the huge range of intellectual traditions that are out there: you can naturally choose to be a Stoic, Platonist or Epicurean, but also adhere to the ideals of 17th century Rationalism or Empiricism, 19th century Transcendentalism, 20th century Objectivism, classical Pragmatism, Pythagoreanism and even Hindu and Buddhist schools of philosophy, to name just a few of the options that are available in our time. And whether you pick one, several or none of them, you’ll still be a Roman polytheist, because its focus and hence what defines it as a religion is not a creed or moral code, but ritual action. More on that in point 2.2.
If the notion of Roman polytheism has an immediate referential effect to Rome, you’d be wrong to conclude that the cultus deorum is about what was done in just one particular city. Because religion in the ancient world was local before it was “national” and as Rome expanded its territory and different communities were integrated into the Latin world, so too were its gods, shrines and rites. Which resulted not in a uniform Roman religion throughout the empire, but in a myriad of local and regional variations, where different cities and provinces had different traditions, celebrations and pantheons. There were festivals that were marked in one place, but not in others; gods and goddesses who were popular in one region, but less so or even unknown elsewhere. There was never a single Roman religion with a universal religious calendar, but many, as diverse as the cultures, cities and tribes absorbed into the Latin world and even when deities and practices were Romanized to a lesser or greater extent. For instance, the charter of Urso in southern Spain, which John Scheid quotes in his Introduction to Roman Religion (2003: 41), awarded the local magistrates the power to decide which festivals were marked and how. And as mentioned in chapter 7 of the Companion to Roman Religion, edited by Jörg Rüpke, whereas in Tucci (southern Spain), inscriptions tell that Hercules, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Pietas Augusta were worshipped locally, the same type of evidence from Lugo (northwest Spain) points to a very different pantheon where, together with Jupiter OM, people also honoured Lahus, Rego and Veroca, plus Bandua, Covetena and the Lares Viales in the countryside (2011: 86). And many of these gods would have had no place in the religious practices of communities in Britain, Italy or the Balkans.
So don’t focus too much on Rome. Don’t assume that you have to celebrate a particular date or honour a specific deity just because it was marked or worshipped in that city. It may have been the capital of the empire and most of our information may come from there, but that doesn’t mean that being Roman amounts to being strictly from Rome. It wasn’t so in the past and it’s even less so today, when Romanitas has lost its political sense and stands essentially for the common heritage of different Latin countries and cultures.
2.1. Have a Lararium
Roman polytheism is first and foremost a domestic religion. Most of our limited information on the past may be about State cults and that, together with a romanticized view of grand temples, makes it easy to forget that there was also a family and even personal dimension to it. But public religion was essentially domestic one taken to a communal level, in as much as the State, just as an individual home, had its own hearth and household gods – i.e. the temple of Vesta and the Penates publici, respectively.
So unlike what happens in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, better known traditions that often serve as a religious model in our day and age, being a proper Roman polytheist doesn’t require you to worship at a temple every week. For one and also unlike what happens in Abrahamic religions, because in the cultus deorum a temple is not a house of worship, but a residence of the deity, in as much as altars (but not shrines – see the difference here) were commonly located outside the building. But most importantly, because your own home is your first temple and you or whomever leads your household is its prime priest. And at the centre of Roman domestic religion is the Lararium.
As the name suggests, it is a shrine to the Lares, namely the Family Lares. Who are they exactly is a matter of personal faith, since Roman polytheism has no orthodoxy and therefore you’ll find different beliefs on the subject: some people see the Them as local gods attached to the home; others as the family dead led or intermediated by a Lar, who can be a deity like Venus or Hercules and identified with a primordial ancestor; to some, the Family Lares may even include deceased pets and farm animals; and others seen Them as an ancestral subgroup that’s restricted to those who have reincarnated several times and ascended to a status above the regular dead. Additionally, there’s a closely related host called the Penates, whose exact nature is also seen differently by different people, ranging from specifically pantry gods and house genii to any deity that’s a patron or special devotion of household members. The notion of Lares and Penates was never fixed nor entirely stable in the ancient Roman world, having had different meanings depending on place and time, so as with so many other things in Roman polytheism, it’s up to you to put together your own theology.
Now, strictly speaking, a Lararium should be a shrine to the Family Lares alone, but this is a general principle more than an absolute rule. For instance, if you see in your Lar a primordial ancestor and identity Him/Her with a deity like Mars or Juno, then it make sense that He/She should have a place in your Lararium. And if you add to it the Penates in the wider sense of any deity that has a special place in the household, then that too will allow for the inclusion of more gods and goddesses. This may result in a very crowded Lararium, but it is important to note that it doesn’t have to be so. If you want to and if there’s enough room in your house, you can set up additional shrines to individual deities – e.g. one to Mars, another to Jupiter, a third for Diana – and restrict the Lararium to your family ancestors and maybe house genii. Again, it’s up to you and depends on the theology you build up, your resources and available space.
Where should you place the Lararium? If you have a fireplace, the mantel is a great option. If you don’t, the living room is equally good since it’s a focal part of the house. The entry hall is another highly symbolic possibility, but if you share a home with more people, you may have to place it in your bedroom. Simply put, combine meaning with usage in a practical manner.
As for what should be in the Lararium, it again depends on your theology as well as the means and space available to you, but a good basic list would be as follows:
- photos of family dead;
- a source of light (e.g. a small candle);
- one statue or framed image representing a Lar;
- an incense burner, if you can or want to burn incense; if not…
- …a small dish or bowl to collect libations or other offerings.
And that’s it. Anything else is up to you. For instance, my Lararium has a statue of a nymph-like deity (perhaps a local Nabia, whom I identify with my Family Lar), three small bowls for offerings of wine, salted flour and incense, two small statues of dwarves or gnomes to represent the Penates in the strict sense of housewights, a small pin with an old Portuguese coat-of-arms that stands for my national heroes or communal ancestors and photos of deceased family members and pets. On special occasions, like New Year, I also hang a wreath above the image of my Family Lar.
Finally, make plenty of use of your Lararium. Pray in front of it or salute those who are enshrined in it at least twice a day and honour Them at least three time a month on the Calends, Nones and Ides, dates that shall be explained next.
A group is defined by what is common to all its members and distinguished from others by that which is specific to said group. For instance, what defines a British person isn’t hair or skin colour, since those things are not unanimous among all who hold British citizenship, nor language, since English is official in various countries. Rather, it is a set of common institutions and legal status that binds British people together and at the same time distinguishes them from Australians or Canadians. In a similar fashion, Roman polytheism as a whole cannot be defined by something that is not common to all cultores. And since it’s a religion without a mandatory set of beliefs, philosophy or moral doctrine and is no longer tied to one particular nationality, then none of those things can be the distinguishing feature that simultaneously binds all of those who practice Roman polytheism and distinguishes them from fellow polytheists.
If we were to define a cultor as someone who was born and raised in Italy and subscribes to the tenets of Stoicism, we’d be excluding all those Roman polytheists who hold other nationalities and follow a different philosophical school. And if we were to define the cultus deorum as faith in the Roman gods, we’d be including wiccans who honour Jupiter and Juno in a magic circle and eight yearly festivals. Or perhaps include ourselves among Hellenic polytheists, since at least some of the Roman gods are of Greek origin. Faith, be it in the sense of belief or trust, is not what defines the cultus deorum. It’s how you honour the Gods that does it.
What calendar do you use? What acts of worship mark your month? Which deities feature in the opening and closing sections of your rites? How are they structured? This is the sort of questions that define you, religiously. Not which gods you believe in (which can be all) nor which ones you trust in, because the same god can be trusted by people from different religions. Apollo is a case in point, as are Epona and Saraswati. It’s common basic orthopraxy – correct ritual practice – that binds all cultores, regardless of nationality or where they stand in matters of belief, philosophy or morality, while at the same time distinguishing them from other polytheists who may honour the same gods.
Now, when I say basic, that’s exactly what I mean: the basis on which you then build your own rites and practices. They will always be diverse, make no mistake, because they will be influenced differently by devotions, national or local culture, intellectual persuasion, etc. But that’s okay! This is an issue of unity in diversity, not uniformity. Yet for a community to be one, even if only loosely so in the case of a global community, there has to be something in common, which in this case is a basic set of ritual rules we can all follow and on which we can then build our more diverse practices. As it stands, this is still very much in formation, but if I were to list the orthopraxic basics, it would be as follows:
i. You can use either the Gregorian or Julian calendar and mark New Year on either January 1st or Mach 1st;
ii. A traditional Roman month has three pivotal dates that should always be marked: the Calends, the Nones and the Ides. The former is the first day of every month, the latter the middle, while the second is the ninth day before the Ides, counted inclusively;
iii. Originally, these were marked by the phases of the moon, but later became fixed in the solar calendar. Chose the method you prefer. If you want to use the former, the new, half and full moons determine the Calends, Nones and Ides, respectively. If you prefer fixed dates, the first day of every month is the Calends, the 5th and 13th of most are the Nones and Ides. The exceptions are March, May, July and October, when the Nones are on the 7th and so plus nine days puts the Ides of those months on the 15th;
iv. As per tradition, Janus and Juno should be honoured on the Calends and Jupiter on the Ides. The Nones have no deity assigned. Also, your Family Lares should be worshipped on all three dates;
v. You can add other deities to these dates or mark other monthly occasions. Again, this is just the basics on which you then build your personal, domestic, local or group practices.
- Ritual structure
i. In Roman rite, which should be used in at least the majority of the ceremonies performed by Roman polytheists, Janus is one of the first deities to be honoured and Vesta one of the last. You can add other gods and goddesses to the opening and closing sections, if you want to;
ii. Also in Roman rite, always cover your head with a piece of cloth. It can be a small towel, a scarf or even a hoodie, so long as it’s clean;
iii. Different deities or divine aspects call for different altars. For celestial ones, the altar should be square or rectangular; for terrestrial or chthonic powers, it should be circular and may be in a pit; for infernal deities, a pit is required;
iv. In formal or semi-formal ceremonies, when consecrating offerings, at the very least they should be sprinkled with salted wheat flour;
v. If you consecrate food and then wish to use it for human consumption after offering a portion to one or more deities, it must be ritually profaned (usually by touching it with your hand), but only if the food was consecrated to celestial or terrestrial gods. Food for the infernal deities is theirs and theirs alone;
vi. At the end of the ceremony or at some point near the closing section, you should either resort to divination to ascertain if the offerings were accepted by the Gods or, at the very least, make an expiatory offering – like a libation or a portion of incense – in case one or more deities were offended during the ritual actions.
vii. A ritual fire, one that’s more than a candle and can therefore burn offerings, isn’t something that’s easily available to many of us today. If you don’t have a fireplace or a yard, you can try using a properly insulated bowl to light a fire under the kitchen chimney. If that too is not an option, use different bowls with the correct shapes and then pour their content in appropriate places outdoors: square bowls to collect offerings to celestial deities, circular ones with fresh soil to gather those to terrestrial ones; hill tops are good places to pour what is offered to the former, fields or woodland what is given to the latter.
i. How you use your hands also differs depending on the deity or divine aspect being addressed. If it’s celestial, your palms should be facing up. If it’s terrestrial or chthonic, they should be facing down, towards the ground; alternatively, if it’s a river, forest, field or sea deity, your palms may face those sites, as appropriate, and even touch the ground or water. If the deity is infernal, your palms should be facing down, towards the underworld;
ii. There are nuances to this, depending on the exact situation. So for instance, if you have a domestic shrine to a celestial deity, you may turn your palms towards it rather than up. Another example is when addressing your manes or family dead in a graveyard, in which case you palms may not be facing down entirely, but somewhat towards the grave;
iii. Simply put, the basic principle is that your palms should face the deity or divine aspect being addressed. If up, forward or down depends on which god/ddess or the source of His/Her presence;
iv. Which hand does most of or the main work is also determined by the nature of the deity or aspect being addressed. If it’s celestial or terrestrial, the right hand has centre stage; if it’s infernal, the left hand does;
v. There are two other important gestures, one of them being the adoratio. It’s basically used to salute a deity during prayer and ritual and I’ve seen different descriptions of it, some more complex than others. Personally, I kiss the inner tips of the index, middle and ring fingers and then turn the palm towards or touch a shrine, altar or image. It’s a gesture that’s regularly used by Catholics in southern Europe, in both churches and roadside shrines, precisely as a form of salute and sign of respect;
vi. The second important gesture is the so-called mano fico or fig hand, which is used to ward off unfriendly spirits, namely when addressing infernal deities. It’s identical to the “I’ve got your nose” sign and consists of a fist where the thumb is placed between the index and middle fingers. In southern Europe, you can still find metal depictions of it being sold as talismans.
It is the sum of these things, not just one or two, that should make a Roman polytheist regardless of whether she’s a Stoic, Pythagorean or Rationalist, whether he believes the death penalty is right or wrong, whether she subscribes to the notion of do ut des or not (and Epicureans wouldn’t), whether a person is US American, Spanish or Brazilian, regardless of how you see the afterlife or whether you worship only Romans gods or have a more diverse pantheon where others are honoured in Roman or at least Romanized fashion. Like I said, it’s a matter of unity in diversity, not uniformity.
If this seems a lot, don’t worry. Take it bit by bit if you want to and remember that practice makes perfect. It’s basically like learning a language and this is a sort of language, but of a gestural and ritual kind. To make it easier, here’s a small reference table:
You may have noticed that I said nothing about yearly festivals in the section above and that’s because which annual celebrations you should mark is up to you or the group you’re a part of.
For a variety of reasons, from modern globalization to the cultural impact of Abrahamic traditions, we’re used to the dynamics of centralized religion and assume that it’s natural to have a universal festive calendar. After all, Muslims celebrate annual feasts roughly at the same time, no matter where they are in the world, which is equally true for Catholics and Jews. Wiccans too follow a unified calendar, marking Imbolc at the start of February or Beltane at the start of May, and even if regionally that results in a fuzzy connection with the natural cycle. So when confronted with ancient Roman polytheism, which was deeply entwined with the Roman State, and given that most of the surviving information comes from Rome proper, there’s a tendency to assume that what was religiously valid in that particular city was equally valid elsewhere and must be followed by all modern cultores. Almost like a Roman Catholic calendar, but of a pre-Christian nature. Ergo, if the inhabitants of ancient Rome honoured Juturna, celebrated Carmentalia, marked Vinalia on April 23rd and commemorated Volcanalia on August 23rd, then the same must be done by Roman polytheists today, right? Wrong!
As mentioned above in point 1.5., you don’t have to limit yourself to what was done in one particular city, no matter how important it was. The cultus deorum was never a uniform religion, since different settlements scheduled their own celebrations and organized their local pantheon, so there’s no reason why it should be any different today. Whatever push for centralization existed in the past resulted from a need for political cohesion, a feature that vanished when the empire fell and fragmented into several European nations. And the only remaining reason for a measure of standardization today resides in the fact that Roman polytheism has no universal orthodoxy, no direct equivalence with any nationality, no moral doctrine, no regulated and common faith that can distinguish it from other forms of polytheism. That leaves orthopraxy as its sole distinguishing and unifying feature, but with regard to the calendar, that’s already covered by the celebration of the Calends, Nones and Ides, so anything else festive is really up to you. Rome may have been the birthplace of the cultus deorum and capital of a State, but the empire is long gone and its culture has become a part of multiple national identities. And a birthplace is really just that: a starting point, not the place where something is confined to. So instead of looking at ancient Rome’s annual festivals as mandatory events, take them as a reference and build your own religious calendar, connecting it to your surroundings and focusing on your interests and devotions.
In practical terms, this means that you don’t have to honour all the gods who were worshipped in ancient Rome, some of which may have been no more than local deities, while others may not be relevant in your daily life. Once you have put in place the orthopraxic basics listed above, you can worship just the gods who are in some way meaningful to you, be they patrons, devotions or presiding powers of significant parts of the regional environment. And when it comes to picking dates for their celebrations, keep in mind the stages of local cycles. Things like sowing, pruning, reaping, seasonal markets, animal migrations, regional weather patterns, annual movements of people and even customs. Tie your celebrations to your surroundings, choosing dates that are locally relevant instead of following those of a city that’s miles away or in a different latitude altogether. For instance, if you live in the southern hemisphere, the hottest month of the year isn’t July or August, but January or February, so perhaps January 23rd is the most appropriate date to mark Volcanalia down under. Want to celebrate Cerialia? When are the fields of cereals in your area blooming, maturing or reaped? Vinalia? What are the local customs on wine production and consumption? Perhaps there’s an annual wine market or fair, which would be a good time to celebrate Vinalia Priora. Don’t be afraid to link your celebrations to secular traditions, but allow them to entwine, just as ancient Roman polytheism entwined with civic life in different places. Sometimes, you may use criteria that were not employed in the past, but which may be relevant to you. Perhaps you live a short distance away from an active or dormant volcano and wish to mark Volcanalia on the anniversary of the last eruption, which is just as valid reason as the seasonal temperatures. If you to want use both criteria, don’t be afraid to add a second Volcanalia to your religious calendar, especially if you’re a devotee of Volcanus, in which case you can also honour Him on a monthly basis. You can even come up with new festivals if you think it makes sense or enriches your practices. That’s okay! Ancient Roman celebrations weren’t created collectively in one stroke, but were added, adapted and changed over time. Feel free to do the same, to be just as creative and practical in honoring the Gods and connecting to your surroundings.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no point in looking at the dates of ancient Roman festivals. At the very least, you should study them so you can grasp the when and why and, based on that, pick a date that makes more sense for you, your household or where you live. It may turn out to be the same as in ancient Rome or it may be different. No problem there. And also, they serve as a reference, especially for celebrations that are not tied to seasonal cycles. For instance, if you want to honour the Dioscuri, you have at least three possible criteria: the day of an important personal experience (like the fulfillment of a vow), the rise of the constellation of Gemini or the anniversary of Their temple in ancient Rome. They’re all valid and it’s really up to you to pick which one you want to employ.
3.1. You can connect with a Latin culture
There are other things that while not strictly necessary, are nonetheless highly enriching and have a great potential to make your practice more alive and less fossilized. A case in point is a connection with Latinity. Back in point 1.1. of this guide, I said you don’t need to be fluent in Latin to be a proper Roman polytheist, not because there’s no point in establishing a connection with Latin culture, but because there are various ways of doing it other than fluency in an ancient tongue.
Every language is a kind of epiphany, in that it can preserve and reveal worldviews and customs. For instance, the use of the word di or “gods” in Di Manes or Di Parentes conveys the belief that the dead and forefathers have divine qualities and were therefore seen as a type of gods. Or the word sacrificium, which is a combination of sacer (sacred) and facio (to make), expresses not the giving or making of something at great cost, but a transfer of goods from the human to the divine sphere, thus making them sacred – i.e. property of the Gods. This is why Latin is important at a basic level (as noted above), but also as said in point 1.1., far from having simply vanished, it evolved into different tongues that are currently spoken daily by millions of people in all five continents. And just like the Roman vernacular they derived from, those modern languages can also unlock a world of culture and meaning.
Consider the following example: the Portuguese word for fireplace is “lareira” – the “eira” (ground, floor) of the Lar – which is connected to the Latin Lararium, no doubt due to the use of the domestic hearth to burn offerings. Christianization may have erased the practice, but the word preserved the memory of it, and so the reverse process can take place and the word be employed to revive the practice. As a result, the mantle may be used as a Lararium or the Family Lares be seen as gods of the fireplace, in which case They’re given a libation immediately after the main offerings are placed on the fire. Even if you don’t have a fireplace, They may still be honoured as presiding deities of the hearth, a role others may reserve for Vesta. And on a similar note, the word lar is still used in modern Portuguese, where it means “home” (hence “home sweet home” translates as “lar doce lar”). This has the potential to produce a particular view of any god or divine aspect that’s given the title of Lar, in that it’s seen not as a distant deity in a high place or an infernal power wrapped up in taboos, but as an entity that’s more akin to a family member of close friend.
Language is a doorway to memory and culture. If Latin had simply vanished or remained confined to central Italy, then yes, a Roman polytheist would need to learn it to access Latin culture. But it hasn’t and so you don’t have to. Of course and again, you can strive to be fluent in Latin if you really want to and use it to connect with Latinity. Yet it’s not the only available path and modern romance languages like Spanish, French, Portuguese or Italian are just as valid. And they come with a bonus, for the more you intersect a modern Latin language and culture with your Roman polytheism, creating a living connection between the two by means of everyday words and customs, the less you’re drawn to anachronic micronations or a desire to imitate life and social attitudes from 2000 years ago out of a feeling that you’re not Roman enough. Because you don’t have to go back to the Romanitas of the past if you’re already in touch with the Romanitas of the present.
Does this mean that Latin is useless? Again, no! A basic knowledge of it is highly important, because the evolution of languages has also produced semantic changes, so it’s good to have the skills that allow you to identify older meanings and retain them in your practices. The issue around the words sacrificium and “sacrifice” is a case in point. Yet it’s a fallacy to say that you need to be fluent in Latin in order to access a Latin worldview.
But isn’t it true that there are differences in the vocabulary of romance languages and, as a result, the Portuguese examples given above won’t hold in Spanish or French? It is true, but why is that a problem? Roman polytheism wasn’t confined to Rome and wasn’t a uniform religion. As already mentioned, it had local and regional variations, so there’s no novelty in the possibility of diverse perspectives and traditions depending on whether you practice Roman polytheism through French, Italian or Portuguese lens. There’s nothing wrong in some cultores honouring the Family Lares as gods of the fireplace – because their Latin language produces that practice – while others reserve that role for Vesta alone. Again, diversity is at the heart of polytheism. Retain the common orthopraxy, have a basic knowledge of Latin to make sure you’re not clashing with or departing too much from traditional ritual concepts and then feel free to breathe new life into old practices by means of a modern Latin culture. If you do so, you’ll be creating a living link with your day-to-day without having to pretend that you live in ancient Rome.
Another way of tying your religious practices to your everyday life is by including in them historical characters from your city, country or nation. This adds to the issue of entwining your festive calendar with your surroundings, which was addressed in point 2.3., though here the focus is on hero worship, an offshoot of which is the imperial cult. Modern Roman polytheists can be very keen on it, but it honestly strikes me as odd – to put it mildly – that present-day cultores pay tribute to rulers of a bygone State they weren’t born in and are not citizens of, while at the same time neglecting the actual heroes and founding fathers of the countries they’re actual citizens of. It’s perhaps one of the best examples of fossilized practice.
There are basically two reasons why Roman emperors were worshipped. One was theological, in that the dead were believed to have godly qualities (hence Di Manes or Divine Dead, as mentioned above); heroes in particular were the focus of traditional communal cults in the Mediterranean world, as in the Roman case of Quirinus as a deified Romulus. The second reason was political, since it granted rulers a divine aura that strengthened their authority and provided for a unifying focus in a multiethnic and multireligious society. But with the empire gone, its territory fragmented into Europe’s nations and its culture disseminated in a diverse manner, both nationally and internationally, it’s safe to say that the second reason has been made null and void. After 1500 years, only the religious principle remains. And instead of imitating its product in a given time and place, you can apply it to a modern context.
This means that just as ancient Romans honoured the founding fathers, heroes and dead rulers of their settlements or country, you can do the same with those of your city or modern nation and even if they were born after the 5th century CE or had a different religion. For one, because if you’re not re-enacting, then you don’t have to limit yourself to what was in existence up until a certain period. Just because a medieval king, viking chief, renaissance politician, 16th century navigator, 18th century thinker or 19th century general didn’t live in the Roman empire doesn’t mean cultores can’t honour them as heroes or communal ancestors. Because, again, Roman polytheism is about more than just Rome and breathing new life into an ancient religion means connecting it with the modern world, including modern nationalities. And secondly, if you’re going to exclude from your practices deceased people of importance because of their religion, then you might as well cut off from your Family Lares a huge part of your family tree, since most of us have multiple generations of non-polytheistic ancestors.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Roman emperors have no place in modern practices or that you should be worshiping living leaders. As a form of safety clause to prevent abuses, the divine status of the dead must be for the dead only and not those yet to be deceased or their living relatives. And also, there are valid reasons why ancient Roman emperors can be worshipped: for instance, if you’re a devotee of Antinous, Hadrian will naturally be a central figure in your practices; or maybe you have a deep admiration for Marcus Aurelius and his work and therefore wish to worship him. That’s legitimate. But in both of those cases, as in others, it’s worship born out of the relevance those people have in your personal life as sources of inspiration, religious figures and role-models. It’s basically the same as honouring Plato, Apuleius, Seneca, Leonardo da Vinci, John Locke, Isaac Newton or William Wilberforce. Which is different from paying tribute to deceased rulers out of a pretence citizenship and a non-existing civic duty towards a bygone State. And all the while ignoring the actual historical figures of the nation you’re actually part of.
Instead of imitating the specifics of Roman polytheism in a given time and place, apply the general principle to your specifics: just as deceased heroes, leaders and founders were worshipped as heroes or communal ancestors in the ancient world, honour those of your modern country, nation or city. Mind you, this is not mandatory. It’s just something you can do that has the potential to enrich and breathe modern life into your religious practice by connecting it with who you are now, not who you could have been had you lived two millennia ago. It can be problematic, namely if your country was built on comparatively recent acts of genocide or suppression, something that western Europeans may not be aware of, but US Americans most certainly can (on that, see some of the sections here). Which is another reason why this is not a mandatory feature. Use it at your discretion and with historical characters that you’re comfortable with. They don’t have to be military or political leaders, but can be artists, philanthropists, scientists or civil rights campaigners. Whomever shaped the place you live in or had a positive impact that’s still being felt today.
A question that occasionally pops up is whether Roman polytheists can worship non-Roman gods – Celtic, Egyptian, Slavic, etc. – and the answer is a definite yes. Having no orthodoxy and being a polytheistic religion, the cultus deorum is by default an open system, with no exclusive claim to truth, no cap on the number of deities or limits on their origin. It’s something ancient Romans themselves were prime examples of, since besides more traditional gods, they also worshipped and included in their pantheon deities from outside: Apollo was brought over from Greece, the Dioscuri from the Greek colonies in southern Italy, Mercury too may be no more than Hermes renamed, Isis was at one point very popular, Cybele was welcomed as one of the Rome’s own gods, Epona had a temple within the city. The absence of a zero-sum game in matters of divinity was also manifested in the rite of evocatio, whereby a deity from an enemy community was invited to switch side in return for being worshipped by the Romans – initially in Rome itself, but later on, as the lands ruled by it increased, in Roman territory.
There are various ways you can deal with such diversity. You can take a syncretic approach and identify different gods with each other, resulting in something like Thor being seen as the same as Jupiter or Hercules, but with Norse garments. Or you can look at Them as different and honour Lugh, Veles or Odin as distinct individuals using the Roman rite, which means applying the orthopraxic basics listed in point 2.2. You can also take an intermediate approach and create a Romanized rite where you take that same orthopraxy and mix it with elements from the native culture of the god/dess being worshipped. And finally, there’s alsmajority of tradtio the possibility of using all three depending on who’s being addressed. For instance, apart from a majority of traditional Roman gods, I honour four Iberian deities in Roman rite, five Norse ones in a Romanized rite I devised (see here) and two Egyptian ones in Kemetic fashion. It’s really up to you and the Gods.
Whichever way, this too allows you connect to your surroundings and tie your practices to the place you live in. Because unless that happens to be central Italy, chances are that the local gods of your area or those of the cultural region you’re in are not those of ancient Rome. But instead of ignoring Them and focusing solely on Roman deities, as if cultores have to focus on one particular divine group to the exclusion of all others, you can add those non-Roman deities to your personal, domestic or communal pantheon. Just like the cities mentioned in point 1.5. honoured gods and goddesses who were not Italian, let alone Latin, but were nonetheless included in Roman religious life. Feel free to do the same, but with one caveat: it has the potential to impact on your religious label! For if what defines a Roman polytheist is first and foremost how he/she worships, then if the majority of your practices are not Roman or at least Romanized, but are performed according to non-Roman traditions, then you’ll be something other than a cultor or cultrix. That’s okay! There’s nothing wrong with being different, but make sure the label you use matches what you do.
The surviving information on ancient Roman polytheism contains a fair amount of data on traditional offerings, though part of it pertains to animal sacrifice: male beasts were given to gods, female to goddesses; white ones to celestial deities or divine aspects, dark ones to infernal powers; certain species of animals were deemed appropriate to this or that particular deity, like bulls to Jupiter and sows to Ceres; and of course, victims were also chosen considering their physical state and age. Then there’s also information on non-violent offerings, like libum or cheese cakes with honey, and simpler ones like incense or libations of wine.
You can perform animal sacrifices if you want to and have the necessary skills and means – both material and legal – to do it properly. If not, it’s best to stay out of it and avoid causing unnecessary suffering to the victim or find yourself on the wrong side of the law. As for non-violent offerings, you can use those mentioned in ancient sources, pick up a book of Roman recipes and reproduce or adapt a few of them or present entirely modern alternatives. Meat, fish, savory or sweet dishes, bread or dairy products, jam, caramel or chocolate, red wine, white wine, green wine, milk, fresh juices, liquors… the list goes on. And then you can combine the aforementioned symbolism of animal sacrifice with non-animal offerings: for instance, you can offer Ceres a wheat bread shaped like a pig or Jupiter a cake shaped like a bull and glazed with white sugar. Feel free to be creative, but here too with a caveat: if you experiment with new offerings, the deity being honoured may not like what you give Him/Her. As with anything new, there’s an element of trial and error, so be prepared for rejections and returns to the drawing board. In essence, by presenting new offerings, you’re opening up a negotiation with the Gods and trying to carve out new practices, so it may take time and a fair amount of missed tries before you reach an enduring result.
Don’t be discouraged, though, because there’s an advantage to this creativity: it allows you to incorporate local products. There may be meat, fish or pastry dishes that are traditional in your area, a type of fruit that’s abundantly produced in your region or maybe you have a set of family recipes. If they resemble some of the things that were made and offered in the ancient Roman world, good! But if not, don’t be afraid to offer them. Try it, if necessary adapt it, and in this as in the issue of the festive calendar, culture and nationality, tie your practices to your surroundings. As said before, there’s more to Roman polytheism than what was done in one particular place and time.
All of this said and assumingly done, what does a modern Roman polytheist look like? Like someone who practices a modern form of an ancient religion. Someone who’s in touch with the past, draws practices, elements, basic dynamics and inspiration from it, but is not limited to it. Someone who looks to ancient Roman civilization, but isn’t detached from his/her own time, identity and location. In short, someone who’s like an ancient tree: deeply rooted in past depths, but branches stretching out into the present sky and producing new leafs and shapes. If the roots are all there is, then it’s just a dead stump.
Roman polytheists are a diverse group of people. For starters, because you’ll find some who disagree with part, if not most of what I wrote here, and even among those who agree with me, there will still be an enormous variety. And that’s okay! Polytheism is in essence a religious category that embraces the plurality that exists in many gods and hence many agendas, worldviews and values. So long as there’s co-existence and mutual respect, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s value and beauty in diversity, just as there is in freedom. The freedom to build your theology, chose your philosophy, determine your opinion on political, economic and social matters, tie your religion to your country, your region, your city, your home. To make it a vibrant part of who you are as an individual, a family member, a citizen of a modern community, not of an anachronically recreated bygone State.
In these things, Roman polytheists will naturally be different from each other. We will not speak the same native language, have the same culture nor see the Gods, the afterlife, the meaning of life, the changes in society, its problems and solutions in the same way. This is to be expected, but also embraced, because humans are as diverse as the Gods and that’s a good thing. And what binds us all together as a religious community is not matters of faith, morality, language or nationality, which will be different in different people, but a common ritual protocol that, by virtue of being shared and traditional, connects us with each other, the Gods and those who came before us. The living and the dead, the divine and the non-divine, today and yesterday and beyond. That is the orthopraxic line that links us, that is our unity in diversity. Because there is beauty in plurality and community in shared things.