Ancient Roman Prayer

February 18, 2008 at 5:13 am (Cult & Culture)

Within Ancient Roman paganism, or at least during the century before the coming of Christ, there was a general conception of the peace of the gods known as the Pax Deorum.  This peace of Rome was based upon reciprocity and cooperation between the gods and the citizens of Rome.  The Pax Deorum was a Roman pagan religious conception, in which “the divine powers and human beings worked in harmony.” [1] This harmony was maintained through a complex system of alter and temple piety of sacrifices and prayers in order to retain peace in the field and city.  This harmony was based upon a relationship of reciprocity, in which works of praise and sacrifice of man would obligate the protection from particular gods.  In this pagan religious system the gods received honor, glorification, sacrifice, and prayer from mankind, while mankind received peace and protection from the gods.  The nature of a Roman pagan prayer and its prayer system is best summarized by a few surviving examples, which historians are able to build an understanding to the nature of the Roman gods and Roman devotion.  Marcus Cato (234-149 B.C.) in his worked called On Agriculture described, as the title suggests, the care of Roman farmland and husbandry.  In this work, he described the life of old Rome during the best days of the Roman Republic and offers one of the best examples of the Roman conception of prayer.  In this work there are many types of prayer, but overall they represent a prayer system that has elements of honor and glorification of the gods through sacrifice and prayer.  Cato said:

Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off and removed sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vine-yards and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house and my household  To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land and my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars, to the same intent deign to accept the offering of these suckling offering.[2]

Roman pagan prayers were phrased like legal documents that could obligate gods for particular action and protection.  In this particular case, Cato was praying to Mars for a blessing upon his farmland, which he accompanied with many sacrifices.  This prayer, like many other Roman prayers, was formulated in order to address every possible detail and foreseeable disaster, in order to protect his land from disaster, prevent gods from ill motivation, and to obligate their protection.[3] For Romans, most religious activity revolved around issues of agriculture, but it was not water that they worshipped, it was “the gods who kept an eye on irrigation and watched out for scrub fires.”[4] In sum, Roman religious life revolved around a complex form of polytheism, in which there was a particular god associated with a particular action and place.[5]  In this system, the role of the person was to pray, to sacrifice, and to obligate the gods for their own benefit, and from their own action.  It was the work of the pious person to achieve this balance through religious elements and rituals and temple piety.  Roman prayer was not exclusive to farm life, but also connected with city life as well.  This connection between the Roman religious system and the city is best summarized with the reaction of the terminal crisis of the civil wars during the late Roman Republic.

Historically, the Roman Republic during the first century BC suffered from many civil wars.[6] These civil wars had tremendous affect upon not only the life and stability of the late Roman Republic, but also pagan religious life.  It was during these civil wars that there developed the perception of a religious terminal crisis, due to the fact that many of the cities’ temples, alters, and civic buildings lay in ruins.  From this type of impiety or derogation of pagan piety, many people in Rome, believed that the Pax Deorum was removed.  Horace, who was born in 65 B. C., in the Second Ode of book one said:

Our younger generation, or what shreds of them survive their fathers’ sins [civil wars], will hear that Romans sharpened against Romans the sword, which should rather have killed our enemies… What god can the people call on to shore up our toppling Empire?  What prayer can the Virgins din into the ears of their goddess Vesta who does not listen to their chanting?  Whom will Jupiter appoint to expiate our crimes?[7]

In this book, Horace implies that, because of the sins of the fathers during the civil wars and derogation of Roman religious piety, the peace of the gods left Rome.  The explanation of the destruction of the city was caused by the lack of devotion, prayer, and sacrifice to the gods.  The result was that the Roman people did not have any god to call upon, to hear prayer, and to expiate crimes.  Horace also said, “You will remain sullied with the guilt of your fathers, Roman, until you have rebuilt the temples and restored all the ruined sanctuaries with their dark images of the gods, befouled with smoke.”[8] Horace believed that through a revival of religious piety in Rome, by means of pagan temples and sacrifice, the Pax Deorum could be restored.  Ovid, who was born in 43 B. C., described in Fasti, that Augustus, as the religious leader of Rome during the first century, was able to rebuild the temples in Rome and thus obligate the gods to return.  Ovid said concerning Augustus, “Mankind is not enough: he obligates gods.  Builder of temples, holy rebuilder of temples, I pray that the gods return your care.  May the celestials give you the years you gave them, and continue their guard before your house.”[9] For Livy, who was born in 59 B. C.,  pagan prayer was powerful enough to return the Pax Deorum and he believed that “unless the divine inhabitants were properly and continually propitiated through prayer and sacrifice, they would not do their part in supporting” the affairs of the farm or city.[10] 

            The object of Roman pagan prayer was a multitude of gods that were whimsical and able to forsake, and who responded out of reciprocity.  Their gods were whimsical, because they were unpredictable, changing, and able to leave the farm and city, even during times of need and danger.  Roman gods were able to forsake, because their gods could leave the city during times of impiety and derogation.  Their gods respond out of reciprocity, because the piety of pagan sacrifice and prayer obligated the gods for certain protection and when not properly honored the gods were able to leave, ignore, and cause disaster.  D. Peterson described the function of pagan prescribed rituals as “necessary in order to benefit individuals, families, cities, and the wider community, or to prevent some disaster from occurring.”[11]

            In sum, Roman prayer is based upon a complex religious system.  For this description, the important elements in this system are to address in prayer and sacrifice the concerns related to the farm or city life.  Most of the recorded prayers concern agriculture and protection, in which Romans prayed to a particular god and obligated them for protection through their own devotion.  From this devotion, the gods would grant protection to the pious person and grant their prayers.  Due to this system, prayers were typically detailed in order to cover every possible misfortune and phrased to keep gods in their good favor, in their city, and protecting their lands.

[1] Michael Grant, History of Rome (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 19.  

[2] Marcus Porcius Cato, On Agriculture, trans. William Davis Hooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 123 (CXLI).

[3] R. M. Ogilvie, The Romans and Their Gods: In the Age of Augustus (New York: Norton and Company, 1969), 37

[4] Florence Dupont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), 198.

[5] See, Florence Dupont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), 75.

[6]  The civil wars of the Late Republic are listed in the following: Cornelius Sulla (88 and 82 BC); Pompey, and Crassus (71 BC);  Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (the Second Triumvirate in 60 BC); Caesar (49 BC); and by Octavian (43 BC).   See, David Shotter, Augustus Caesar (New York: Routledge, 1991), 21.              

[7] Horace,Second Ode, Book I: 21-30.

[8] Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 102-3. Horace Carmen 3.6

[9] Ovid, Fasti: February I, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976): 557, 577.

[10] Livy, trans. B. O. Foster.  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967). 

[11] David Peterson, Engaging with God.  (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 145.



  1. Herb Piper said,

    Thank you for the insight. My personal interest is what happened at the origin of of Christianity that distinguished it from Roman religion. The entirely new belief in the Christian God had caused such dissonance that it resulted in thr persecution that followed.

  2. Herb Piper said,

    Thanks for the insight. I am personally intrigued by the dissonance between Roman religion and the new Christian God that it resulted in such persecution that followed. Why were the two belief systems so in conflict with each other. These kinds of questions are a result of joining bible study group just ordinary people.

    • mealtime1211 said,

      For the most part the conflict resulted somewhat out of happenstance and somewhat out of political and sociological circumstance. Something to keep in mind though is that initially Christianity was under the radar (so to speak) from Roman control because it was seen as a sect of Judaism. Once Christianity began to distance itself from Judaism, then the Roman Empire began to treat the Christians differently. Within the Roman Empire, Judaism was respected for being an ancient religion, so for a while Christianity was under its umbrellas. Once the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity developed many Roman officials and citizens were skeptical of the new religion. And Christians often became scapegoats for empire problems, etc.

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