Roman Culture/Roman Religion and Ritual
Roman society was very much focused on the cultivation of right relationships. Pietas was one of the highest attributes a Roman could exhibit. The focus of piety was mainly on familial relationships, but underlying principle held the same for all aspects of society. A Roman must have the proper relationship with his peers, his social betters, and his slaves. However, for the gods, the Roman must display cultus. This cultivation of the appropriate bond with the divine found its ultimate expression in religion through ritual. For the Romans, religion was about the strict observance and the proper performance of ritual.
With its ideas of religion based so much upon personal faith, it may be difficult for the modern world to understand that to the Romans, religion did not reflect a theistic notion of a personal, intimate relationship with a god, but instead represented a contract between people and gods, the pax deorum, or peace of the gods. This contract was solidified through rites, including sacrifices and vows, and was based upon mutual benefit. Roman prayers, sacrifices, and vows could be summarized by the phrase do ut des, "I give so that you might give." The personal beliefs of individuals was of little consequence, but the rituals governing these contracts were everything.
The earliest Italian gods were called numina (singular, numen), and they were more like nature spirits. However, through the influence of the Greeks and Etruscans, the numina were syncretized with foreign deities, and the familiar pantheon of Greco-Roman gods was born. However, these anthropomorphic divinities retained many aspects of the numina, including specific purviews, and their spiritual/natural domains might include weather or certain crops. In order for these gods to function in a way which was beneficial to humanity, they required propitiation through rituals such as animal sacrifice.
Animal sacrifice was said by Hesiod to have been first performed by Prometheus, and because of this it has been performed by people ever since (Theogony 535-60). This myth provides an insight into the importance Romans placed upon tradition in their religion. In order to maintain the peace of the gods, the rituals and prayers governing such sacrifices had to be performed exactly as prescribed by tradition, down to the most minute detail. If the desired end was not achieved, then the only answer was that the rituals were done incorrectly or that some detail was missed.
The highly ritualized Roman religion was an attempt to influence the natural world and invest the Roman with a sense of control. The thinking was that if the individual would give something to the deity or promise to do something for the deity, then the deity would do something in return. Prayers were offered whether the god responded or not; whereas, vows were offered on the basis of a positive answer. Prayers and vows were usually fulfilled through sacrifice or through the dedication of something valuable to the individual to the god or goddess.
Simon R. F. Price "religion, Roman" The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth. Oxford University Press 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). 10 December 2011 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t111.e5548>
Fritz Graf "ritual" The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth. Oxford University Press 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). 10 December 2011 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t111.e5600>
Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. Ed. Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins. Oxford University Press: New York. 1994.
Editor's Note edit
Edited by Dominick DiMercurio II for a few minor grammatical mistakes. Checked with http://plagiarisma.net/, status: unique, 100% originality. Note: references are given.