By Dr Nigel Pollard
Last updated 2011-02-17
The actual substance of the Roman state religion lay in ritual rather than individual belief, and was collective rather than personal. The rituals consisted of festivals, offerings (often of food or wine) and animal sacrifices. These rituals had to be carried out regularly and correctly in order to retain the favour of the gods towards the state, household or individual.
The image shown here is that of a sculpted relief of c.AD 176-80, depicting the emperor Marcus Aurelius offering a sacrifice. He is veiled as a priest, and stands by a small altar, along with the bull that is to be sacrificed, a flute-player and (to the right) the victimarius, who actually killed the animal, with his axe. Between the emperor and the bull is a priest, a flamen, who can be identified by his distinctive headgear, which has a spike on it.
Typically these rituals were performed out of doors - Roman temples were not places for group worship like modern churches, mosques or synagogues are, but were store-houses for a statue of the god, and for equipment connected with the cult.
Sacrifices generally took place on an altar in front of the temple. The relief shown here depicts a temple in the background, probably the Capitoline temple of Jupiter, in Rome, with its three doors to the rooms dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
The absence of strong elements of personal belief, salvation and morality in the Roman state religion may be one of the reasons why certain kinds of philosophy (like that of Stoicism) and non-state cults (like Isis-worship or Mithraism, for example - see image 8) were popular alongside the state religion.
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