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 moral attitudes 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
3. Things you can do:
3.1. You can connect with a Latin culture
3.2. You can entwine it with your country, nation or city
3.3. You can honour non-Roman gods
3.4. You can be creative with your offerings
Things you don’t need:
1.1. You don’t need to be fluent in Latin
It is certainly important to have a basic knowledge of Latin so as to grasp the original meaning of words we still use – like sacred, holy or sacrifice – but to which we award a modern sense. However, that doesn’t mean that you need to be a Latinist. Some will disagree, arguing that one must know the language in order to access the culture and that Roman polytheism, because it’s an orthopraxic religion, demands that traditional rites be performed using the original language, however archaic it may be. And while that is not an unfounded claim, my approach is less conservative because I take into account the historical process.
Simply put, Roman culture didn’t just vanish into thin air when Rome was looted by Alaric or the western empire collapsed in the 5th century. Rather, it continued to be a part of educated life, integrated the matrix of western civilization, shaped the cultures of new nations and evolved into different national tongues. It’s not by accident that modern parliaments and courts look like Roman temples, that fasces feature on symbols of the French republic or US American coins, that States and institutions carry Latin mottos, that academic, scientific and judicial jargon is rich in Latin terms and expressions, that democracies have checks and balances and various national assemblies have a senate (from senex or elder). These and other things are modern manifestations of Roman culture, part of the heritage of an ancient civilization that no longer exists, but whose customs and laws were transmitted, served as a model or helped shape our life. If to a lesser or greater degree, that depends on the predominant matrix of each country: it is stronger in places like Portugal, Spain, France and naturally Italy, all of which are culturally and linguistically Latin nations, but it’s comparatively weaker in Germany, Denmark or Finland.
This means that Roman polytheism wasn’t generated by a long-lost culture or practiced using a language that has no connection whatsoever to modern tongues. Rather, romanitas is alive and well today, especially among the Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, French, Walloons, some Swiss and even Romanians, which are all direct heirs of the customs and language of ancient Rome. Those among them who choose to be cultores are not connecting with an alien culture, but the basis of their own, because in a very concrete sense they are the modern-day Romans. And as such, it is perfectly suitable to use their languages for ritual purposes since they descend directly from Latin. Furthermore, if the goal is to revive Roman polytheism to make it a part of the modern world, with all the necessary adaptations as opposed to merely imitating the past, then the use of a modern romance tongue helps giving a renewed life and cultural context to traditions that were last practiced over one thousand years ago (see point 3.1. for examples).
This doesn’t mean that you can’t be fluent in Latin if you want to, but it’s not mandatory; it also doesn’t mean that you don’t have to study ancient Roman culture, because there are differences between then and now. But it’s one thing to learn about and understand something from which your own modern culture derives heavily and something with which it has little or no connection to.
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, retouring an ancient State, moral code and social organization, then you’re no different from someone who claims that modern Judaism is not genuine because it has no temple in Jerusalem or a Hebrew monarchy. Or that a true Shintoist needs to live in a feudal Japan ruled by a shogun, a real Hindu must revert India back to the Gupta empire, the Maratha Confederacy or a myriad of small kingdoms and real Muslims need to live a caliph. 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, of something that has no actual life, but merely imitates the past in a fixed form. But if Roman polytheism is to be revived as opposed to merely re-enacted, then the result will naturally be something different from its past version because living things evolve when context changes. Just as Judaism changed with the diaspora and lost of the temple or Shinto was at various times reorganized due to political and social conditions.
The fact is that you don’t have to turn your life, religious or otherwise, into a perpetual renaissance fair to be a proper Roman polytheist. You can certainly go into re-enactment as a hobby or business, but it’s not a pre-requisite, for while religion can be conservative – in the case, 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 constantly reconnect with its surroundings, be they political, social, legal or environmental. 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’re not sure about it, 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 bygone kingdom and submit to a medieval papacy in order to be true Catholics? And mind you, unlike Roman polytheism, Catholicism has sacred scriptures that allow for a 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 real 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 must have a moral code, so much so that occasionally there people who try to create one out of classical works that have no orthodoxic value or present the morals of Roman society from the start of the Common Era as being those of Roman polytheism.
For a religion to have a moral doctrine that’s more than just notions circumscribed to a time or place, it needs scriptures that can lay down ideas with a status that’s both timeless and universal. No matter where you are, how far conditions have changed or what period of History you live in, the moral code stands because it’s been fixed in a sacred and written form that is generally not believed to be confined to a specific time and place. This is basically what happens in Christianity or Islam, where texts deemed as divine word are used to judge, approve or condemn everyday human behaviour. It is irrelevant that things have changed since the Bible or the Quran were written or that modern western societies are not those of the Middle East in the 7th century or before. The word of god is timeless and universal, generally not bound by geography or chronology. Or when it clashes too much with modern life, people resort to interpretational acrobatics to explain metaphorically or philosophically something that would be incompatible with today’s world if taken literally. Because from the moment ideas assume a sacralized written form, as divine commandments, word or god-given dogma, they lose fluidity and cannot be simply set aside, but must be somehow explained or justified.
So what are the sacred scriptures of Roman polytheism? The answer is none! It’s true that classical authors wrote books about religious topics, like Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, but they express personal opinions on the subject, those of one or more philosophical schools or the prevailing view among a particular social group. People of other strata or intellectual persuasion would see things differently, much like those who write about religion today will naturally have various opinions on the topic. There’s a good glimpse of that in Seneca’s De Superstitione, as quoted in Augustine’s City of God (VI: 10), where he criticizes things done by common Romans on Capitol Hill, like bathing the statue of Jupiter, 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 a divine decree.
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 political project. An author attached to other ideals or in different circumstances would have produced a different story, just as 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). One must never forget that the existing sources of information are surviving fragments referring mostly to public cults and expressing the standpoint of the upper classes. Simply put, they’re socially biased and do not give us the whole picture.
So if Roman polytheism has no scriptures, it also lacks the means to codify a moral doctrine. If it has no sacred texts that preserve the right and wrong of yesterday as valid today, it has no teachings that can regulate human behaviour outside the ritual context. Which means that in order to be a Roman polytheist, you don’t have to reproduce the moral attitudes of the past regarding women, animals, sex, gender, race, abortion, marriage, the death penalty and so forth. Because while those attitudes can be reflected on and by religion, as when people say the Gods don’t like X or Y, they’re not the moral values of Roman polytheism, but of the society where it was practiced. In a way, purely orthopraxic religions are a bit like a mirror in that they reflect prevailing social attitudes, but do not crystallize them in the form of a moral doctrine because they have no doctrinal texts. In as much as if you change the social context – say, from c. 10 CE to today – you’ll find different values being reflected on and conveyed by religious narratives.
If you fail to see the difference, you may find yourself accepting slavery, torture, gladiator games, a republican form of government or an emperor 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, they’re not one and the same
If Roman polytheism has no scriptures and thus no moral doctrine, does that mean that cultores are amoral people? No! It simply means that we get our sense of right and wrong from elsewhere. It can be from a mixture of ancient authors, a combination of current laws and customs, personal insights drawn from various texts 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, if nothing else because at the very heart of polytheism as a religious category is the notion of plurality. In that regard, the Gods too can certainly inspire people to act in a given way in their everyday lives, but different deities motivate different actions, which again leads to the matter of 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 the goal is to revive an ancient religion to be a part of 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 Mediterranean up until the 5th century. Ancient Romans resorted to what was known to them at the time and joined different philosophical schools, so by applying that same dynamic to the present –and not just imitate how it was in the past – modern cultores can pick what is available today. And that includes a huge range of intellectual traditions apart from Stoicism, Epicureanism and Platonism, ranging from 17th century Rationalism and 20th century Objectivism to 19th century Transcendentalism, classical Pragmatism and Pythagoreanism and even Hindu and Buddhist schools of philosophy, to name just some of the options available in our time. And whether you pick one, several or none, you’ll still be a Roman polytheist, because its emphasis and hence what defines it as a religion is not a creed or moral code, but traditional 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 it’s solely about what was done in a particular city, however important. Because religion in the ancient world was local before it was “national”, meaning that Roman polytheism, as a whole, was not uniform, but diverse. As diverse as the many communities, cities and tribes that comprised it or were integrated into the Latin world and even when the gods and practices were Romanized to a greater or lesser 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 (also in southern Spain), inscriptions indicate 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, people also honoured gods like Lahus, Bandua, Covetena and the Lares Viales (2011: 86). And many of those deities were absent from 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 god just because it was marked or worshipped in a given city, even if it was the capital. 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 now 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 the surviving information may be on State cults and that, coupled with a romanticized view of grand temples and festivities, makes it easy to forget that there was also a family and even personal dimension to it, the latter known, for instance, through the particular devotions of some emperors (e.g. Domitian’s for Minerva). 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 flame in the temple of Vesta and the Penates Publici.
So unlike what happens in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, better-known traditions that often serve as a religious model in our days, being a proper Roman polytheist doesn’t require you to go to a temple every week. Your first place of worship is your own house, where those who live in it are its priests and coexist with various household deities. And at the center of 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: 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 an aspect of a deity like Venus or Hercules and identified with a primordial ancestor; to some, the Family Lares may include deceased pets and farm animals, while others seen them as an ancestral subgroup of those who have reincarnated several times and ascended to a status above the regular dead. These and other ideas are part of the theologies of different modern cultores and the same diversity is found regarding the Penates, a group closely related to the Family Lares and whose identity is seen in a varied fashion, 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, as that of Penates, was never entirely stable in the ancient Roman world, having had different meanings depending on time and place, as with many other things in a religion where theology is above all a matter of free speculation.
Now, strictly speaking, a Lararium should be a shrine to the Family Lares alone, but this is more of a general principle than an absolute rule. For instance, if you see your Lar as a primordial ancestor and identity it with a deity like Mars or Minerva, then it makes sense that it 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 can lead to the inclusion of more gods and goddesses. This may result in a very crowded Lararium, perhaps too crowded, do it doesn’t have to be that way. 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, the theology you construct, your resources and the available space.
Where should you place the Lararium? If you have a fireplace, the mantel is a great option. If not, the living or dining 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 (can include pets);
- a source of light (e.g. a candle, but careful if it’s on a shelf);
- 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 clay statue of a nymph-like deity (a local aspect of the goddess Nabia, whom I identify as my Family Lar), at least one candle in front of it, small bowls for offerings of wine, salted flour and incense, two 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 and photos of deceased family members and pets. On special occasions like New Year, I add things like a wreath above the image of my Family Lar.
Finally, use your Lararium abundantly, praying or at least saluting those enshrine in it once or twice a day. In my case, I do it after waking up and before going to bed and additionally before leaving on a journey, upon arrival or in an important moment in my life or that of family members (like a birth or finishing a degree). And on top of that, I make offerings three times per month, on the Calends, Nones and Ides, dates that are explained in the next point.
If a religion as a whole has no orthodoxy, scriptures or moral doctrine, nor is it connected to a particular State, national culture, language or territory and, furthermore, it lacks an exclusivist attitude regarding deities outside its traditional pantheon, then Roman polytheism ends up being defined solely by its orthopraxy. This means that one needs to set aside the childish rejection any form of authority outside individual will and accept that, in a ritual context, there are rules that one needs to follow in order to be a Roman polytheist. It doesn’t mean that you have to practice exactly as it was done in the ancient world, for one because part of the information has been lost, but also due to the changes in social, political and cultural context. But between the opposites of tradition and innovation there is a middle way where one revives an ancient religion to be a part of the modern world. Otherwise, you’re either creating something entirely new, with no fundamental link to the past, or just imitating a religion as it was two thousand years ago.
What does the modern Roman orthopraxy consist of? The topic has been up for debate during the last several years and it’s not entirely settled yet, but the following list has been taking shape:
1. You can use either the Gregorian or Julian calendar and mark New Year on either January 1st or Mach 1st;
2. A traditional Roman month has three pivotal dates that should always be marked: the Calends, the Nones and the Ides. The first is the opening day of every month, the third the middle, while the second is the ninth day before the Ides, counted inclusively;
3. Originally, they were determined by the phases of the moon, but later became fixed dates in the solar calendar. Chose the method you prefer. If you want to use the former, then 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;
4. Traditionally, 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 of those dates;
5. And individual, family or community is free to worship other deities on any of those days or mark other monthly sacrifices.
- Ritual structure
1. 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;
2. 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;
3. 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;
4. In formal or semi-formal ceremonies, when consecrating the main offerings, at the very least they should be sprinkled with salted wheat flour;
5. 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 made profane again, usually by touching it with your hand. But only if the food was consecrated to celestial or terrestrial gods! If it was given to infernal deities, it’s theirs and theirs alone;
6. 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;
7. 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 yard, you can try using a properly insulated bowl to light a fire in next to a window or on a balcony or terrace. You can also do it under the kitchen chimney. If that too is not an option, use different bowls with the correct shapes to collect the offerings unburned and then pour them in meaningful places outdoors: square bowls to collect food to celestial deities, circular ones with fresh soil to gather that 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. And in that case, don’t leave outside food that can be harmful to wildlife (like sugar);
8. You can make a combination of burned and unburned offerings in the same ceremony, depending on which deity you’re addressing. So for instance, when worshipping Silvanus, who’s an entirely terrestrial god, the opening and closing tributes may employ a ritual fire, but the main offerings can be placed in a circular bowl and later poured on the ground next to a tree or in a wood while uttering a prayer to Silvanus.
1. 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 if the deity is infernal, your palms should be facing down, towards the underworld;
2. With the exception of celestial deities, due to an obvious physical impossibility, you can do more than just turn your palms and actually touch the divine realm or reference point. For instance, in the case of a prayer to Silvanus or Ceres, you can do it with your right hand on a tree or soil, respectively. Or in the case of the infernal gods, while touching the ground or a grave with your left hand;
3.There are nuances to this, depending on the exact situation. For example, if you have a domestic shrine to a celestial deity, you may turn your palms towards it rather than up. And when addressing your Manes or family dead in a graveyard, your palms may not be facing down entirely, but somewhat towards the grave;
4. 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;
5. Which hand does most 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;
6. There are two other important gestures, one being the adoratio. It’s basically used to salute a deity during ritual and both formal and informal prayers and I’ve seen different descriptions of it, some more complex than others. Personally, I just kiss the inner tips of the index, middle and ring fingers together and then turn them 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;
7. 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 or wooden depictions of it being sold as lucky charms.
It is the sum of these things, not just one or two, that should consist of the Latin form of worship and thus the basic orthopraxy that identifies a modern Roman polytheist, regardless of philosophical or theological preferences, nationality, native tongue, opinions on issues like euthanasia or marriage or whether or not one worships solely traditionally Latin deities. And I stress that this is just a basic orthopraxy: it’s the minimum common denominator on which each individual, family or community can then build its own practices according to their worldview and integrate local customs and deities. In other words, it’s not a matter of uniformity, but of a form of unity in ample diversity.
If this seems a lot or confusing, don’t worry. Take it bit by bit, try as many times as necessary until it sinks in and remember that practice makes perfect. It’s basically like learning a language, only in this case it’s a gestural and ritual one. To make it easier, here’s a small reference table, nuances aside:
You may have noticed that I said nothing about yearly festivals in the section above and that’s because, apart from the Calends, Nones and Ides, which 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 Catholic calendar, but of a pre-Christian nature. Thus, if the inhabitants of ancient Rome honoured Juturna and celebrated Carmentalia or marked Vinalia on April 23rd and commemorated Volcanalia on August 23rd, then the same must be done by modern cultores, right? Wrong!
As mentioned above in point 1.5., you don’t have to limit yourself to what was done in one particular city, however important it was. Ancient Roman polytheism was not 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, it resulted above all from a need for political unity, 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 as a whole 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 regarding the calendar, that’s already covered by the celebration of the Calends, Nones and Ides, meaning anything else festive is really up to you, your family or community. Rome may have been the birthplace of Roman polytheism, but that makes it the starting point, not the limits or the total sum of the religion. And as such, instead of looking at ancient Rome’s annual festivals as mandatory events, take them as a reference or inspiration 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 put in place the orthopraxic basics listed above, you can worship just the gods who are meaningful to you, be they patrons, devotions or presiding powers of significant parts of your local environment. For example, if you live by the sea, oceanic gods will have a greater significance than for someone who happens to reside further inland, where perhaps a mountainous terrain may lead to a focus in other deities. There’s nothing wrong with that. And when it comes to picking festive dates, keep in mind the local cycles and their stages. 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 for 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, 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 a reason as valid 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.
Understand that I’m not saying that there’s no point in looking at the dates of ancient Roman festivals. At the very least, they should be studied so you can grasp the when and why and, based on that, pick a date in a thoughtful manner. The aforementioned cases of Neptunalia and Volcanalia are exemplary, since once you realize that they were connected to high temperatures and Summer fires, you can then conclude that, in the southern hemisphere, January or February, not July or August, are the most appropriate months. In other cases, maybe you’ll end up with a date identical to ancient Rome’s. There’s no reason to reject that if it makes sense, especially in the case of deities that lack a strong or clear connection to local cycles. Take the Dioscuri, for instance. If you want worship Them, you have at least four available criteria: the visible rise of the constellation of Gemini in your area, the fulfillment of a vow to Castor and Pollux, coastal weather patterns (since They’re rescuers of sailors) or simply the anniversary of Their temple in ancient Rome. The fourth criterion is valid if none of the other three means anything to you or has a limited local relevance.
3.1. You can connect with a Latin culture
There are other things that while not strictly necessary, are nonetheless highly enriching and can breathe modern life into ancient practices. The use of a modern romance language mentioned in point 1.1. is a good example of that and there’s another, closely related one, which is a connection to modern Latinitas.
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 category of gods. Or the word sacrificium, which is a combination of sacer (sacred) and facio (to make), expresses not the act of giving 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 worldwide. And just as 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 that practice, but the word preserved the memory of it and can now be employed to revive the practice. As a result, the mantle may serve 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. Even if you don’t have a fireplace, They can still be honoured as presiding deities of the hearth, a role others may reserve for Vesta alone. 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 on a high place or an infernal power wrapped up in taboos, but as an entity that’s more akin to a family member or close friend. Again, the Family Lares are a good example, since, though seen as ancestors and thus deceased folks, They nonetheless have a place in domestic religion and are not restricted to the graveyard as Manes.
Language is a doorway to memory and culture. If Latin had simply vanished or remained confined to central Italy, then yes, a modern Roman polytheist would need to learn it in order 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 Latinitas. 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 two thousand 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 connected to the Romanitas of the present.
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? Yes, but why should that be a problem? As mentioned, Roman polytheism wasn’t confined to Rome and wasn’t a uniform religion, but 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 allows it – while others reserve that role for Vesta alone. Again, diversity is at the heart of polytheism. So retain the common orthopraxy, have a basic knowledge of Latin to make sure you’re not clashing with or departing 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 connecting them with your city, country or nation. This adds to the entwining of 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 was the imperial cult. There are modern Roman polytheists who are 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 aren’t citizens of, while at the same time neglecting the actual heroes and founding fathers of the modern countries they’re actual citizens of. Which is perhaps one of the best examples of fossilized practice, of imitating rather than reviving.
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 already mentioned); 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 fifteen hundred years, only the religious principle remains. And instead of imitating its product in a given time and place, you can apply the core dynamic to a modern context and let it produce new cults.
This means that just as ancient Romans honoured their founding fathers, heroes and dead rulers, 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 man or woman, 16th century navigator, 18th century thinker or 19th century general didn’t live in the Roman empire, that doesn’t mean modern 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 or 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 or 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 particulars 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 here). Which is another reason why this is not a mandatory feature and should be used at your discretion and with historical characters 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 divine monopoly, no cap on the number of deities or limits on their origin. It’s something ancient Romans themselves were a 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 in 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.
This diversity may seem overwhelming, but there are various ways you can deal with it. For instance, 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 also the possibility of using all three depending on who’s being addressed. For instance, equate Týr with Mars, but distinguish Odin from Mercury and awarded to both a Roman cult while at the same time keeping a Kemetic ritual structure for one or two Egyptian deities and a Gallo-Roman for Epona. 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 your local gods or those of the cultural region you’re in are not ancient Rome’s. 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 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 bloodless offerings, like libum or cheese cakes with honey, and simpler ones like incense or libations of wine.
Animal sacrifice is not forbidden in modern Roman polytheism, but it requires skills and means – both material and legal – to be done properly. Otherwise, it’s best to stay out of it and avoid legal problems or unnecessary suffering to the victim. As for bloodless offerings, you can use those mentioned in ancient sources, pick up a book of Roman recipes and try some 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. As with philosophical schools and national heroes, you don’t have to limit yourself to what was available up until the 5th century, but can use modern produce. And then you can combine them with the aforementioned traditional symbolism of animal sacrifice: for instance, 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 deities being honoured may not like what you give them. As with anything new, there’s an element of trial and error, so be prepared for rejections and return 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. And if you’re going to leave food outdoors, namely if you can’t burn offerings or they’re given to terrestrial or infernal gods, avoid things like sugar, which can be harmful to wild life.
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 locally 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 just one particular place and time.
Having said all of this, what does a Roman polytheist look like? The simple answer is someone who practices a modern form of an ancient religion. Someone who’s connected to 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 present time, identity and the local context. In short, someone who’s like an old tree: deeply rooted in past depths, but with evolving branches stretching out into the present sky. If the roots are all there is, then it’s just a dead stump; it there’s only leafs and twigs, it’s not even a tree.
Roman polytheists are a diverse group of people. For starters, because you’ll find some who disagree with part of what I wrote here and, even among those who do agree, there will still be variety. And that’s okay! Polytheism is 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, because 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 and 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, 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 unity in our diversity. Because there is beauty in plurality and community in shared things.