At the founding of Rome, the gods were numina, divine manifestations, faceless, formless, but no less powerful. The idea of gods as anthropomorphized beings came later, with the influence from Etruscans and Greeks, which had human form. Some of the Roman Gods are at least as old as the founding of Rome.
The concept of numen continued to exist and it was related to any manifestation of the divine. For the Romans, everything in Nature is thought to be inhabited by numina, which explains the big number of deities in the Roman pantheon, as will be shown. Numina manifest the divine will by means of natural phenomena, which the pious Roman constantly seeks to interpret. That's why great attention is paid to omens and portents in every aspect of Roman daily life.
A groups of twelve Gods called Dii Consentes is especially honored by the Romans:
- Volcanus, and
These are the ones listed by the Poet Ennius about the 3rd Century, B.C.E.. Their gilt statues stood in the Forum, later apparently in the Porticus Deorum Consentium. As there were six male and six female, they may well have been the twelve worshipped at the lectisternium of 217 BC.
A lectisternium is a banquet of the gods, where the statues of the gods were put upon cushions, and where these statues were offered meals. The number 12 was taken from the Etruscans, which also worshipped a main pantheon of 12 Gods. Nevertheless, the Dii Consentes were not identified with Etruscan deities but rather with the Greek Olympian Gods (though the original character of the Roman Gods was different from the Greek, having no myths traditionally associated). The twelve Dii Consentes are lead by the first three, which for the Capitoline Triad. These are the three cornerstones of Roman religion, whose rites were conducted in the Capitoleum Vetus on the Capitoline Hill.
But what better characterizes the traditional Roman Religion is the household or family cult of the Dii Familiaris. In this cult, the Lar Familiaris (guardian spirit - Genius - of the family), the Lares Loci (guardian spirits of the place where the house is built), the Genius of the paterfamilias (House-Father), the Dii Penates (patron gods of the storeroom), the Dii Manes (spirits of the deceased) and a multitude of other domestic deities are daily worshipped by the members of the family. The household cult is so important that it even serves as the model for several practices of the state cult (e.g. there were the Lar Praestites, Penates Publici, etc.. Even during the Empire, the Imperial cult came to be based on the household cult, now interpreted as the cult of the Genius of the Emperor, paterfamilias of the family of all the Romans).
Other important Gods are
There is also a group of mysterious deities formed by native tutelary deities, river Gods or deified heroes from Latium which are collectively called Dii Indigites (e.g. deified Aeneas, Faunus, Sol Indiges, Iuppiter Indiges, Numicus). A multitude of other deities is also traditionally worshipped, which includes tutelary deities (e.g. Roma, Tiberinus), native Latin deities (e.g. Bellus, Bellona, Liber, Libera), abstract deities such as Fortuna (Fate), Concordia (Concord), Pax (Peace), Iustitia (Justice), etc.. Pre-Roman native italian deities mainly adopted from the Sabines and Etruscans are also worshipped: Nerio (Sabine deity and the consort of Mars), Dius Fidius (Sabine as well), etc. In fact, Quirinus and Vertumnus were also adopted respectively from the Sabines and Etruscans. The Dii Inferi, Gods of the Underworld (Inferus) are Dis/Orcus and Proserpina, equated to the Greek Gods Hades/Plouton (Pluto in Latin) and Persephone. These Gods symbolize the creative power of the Earth which provide human beings the means for subsistence (Dis = wealth = Plouton in greek). The Inferus is also traditionally regarded as the home for the spirits of the dead, though the concept of afterlife was quite varied.
The pious spirit of the Romans consists of a constant wish to bring the favour of the divine upon him, the family and the state. As such, the Roman is naturally willing to pay the deserved homage and sacrifice to foreign deities, specially if he is in their land. In order to achieve victory in war, the Romans often asked the favour of the Gods of their enemies, paying them sacrifices even greater than those offered by their own people. This spirit joined by the affluence of foreigners which resulter either from trade or conquest, brough new cults to Rome. These were as expected democratically adopted by permitting the priests of these Gods to establish temples in Rome. Among the foreign deities, the Dii Novensiles, are Apollo, Ceres (these were adopted as early as to allow them to become part of the Dii Consentes), Bacchus/Dionysus, Sol Invictus Elagabalus, Isis, Serapis, Cybele, Attis, Mithras and many others.
Iuppiter is the God of the sky, moon, winds, rain and thunder, who became king of the Gods after overthrowing his father Saturnus. The ancient name of Iuppiter was Diespiter, whose root is Dios (= Zeus, God) + Pater (= Father). As Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, he is the tutelary God of Rome. As a warrior, he is Iuppiter Stator, protector of the City and State who exhorts soldiers to be steadfast in battle. But Iuppiter has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Iuno is Iuppiter's sister, wife and queen of the Gods, is the protectress of the Roman State. Her festival, the Matronalia, is celebrated in March on the Kalends. She is also honoured as Iuno Lucetia, celestial light; Iuno Lucina, childbirth, inwhich the child is brought into light; Iuno Sospita, who protects labor and delivery of children; Iuno Moneta, whose sacred geese warned Rome of an impending invasion. Iuno Moneta's temple was near the mint, thus her name was the root for "money". But Iuno has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Minerva, Goddess of wisdom and learning, meditation, inventiveness, accomplishments, the arts, spinning and weaving, and commerce. Minerva was identified with Pallas Athene, bestower of victory, when Pompey the Great built her temple with the proceeds from his eastern campaigns. Minerva and Mars are honored Quinquatras, five days at the Spring equinox. But Minerva has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Vesta is the Goddess of hearth and home, of domestic and religious fire. Her festival is the Vestalia, held on June 7, when Her temple is open to all mothers who bring plates of food. Vesta's temple was the hearth of Rome, where the sacred fire burned. The fire was tended by six Vestal Virgins, priestesses who were dedicated to the Goddess' service for thirty years, and who were headed by the Virgo Maxima, the eldest Vestal. Vestals were always preceded by lictors, the only women in Rome allowed the privilege. If a condemned man met a Vestal, he was reprieved. When a Roman made his will, he entrusted it to the Vestal Virgins. But Vesta has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Ceres is the Goddess of agriculture. During a drought in 496 BCE, the Sibylline Books ordered the institution of the worship of Demeter, Dionysus and Persephone, called by the Latin names Ceres, Liber and Libera. Ceres was the Goddess of the plebeians: the Ædiles Plebis cared for her temple and had their official residences in it, and were responsible for the games at the Cerealia, her original festival on April 12-19. There was a women's 9-day fast and festival when women offered the first corn harvest to Ceres, originally celebrated every five years, but later - by the time of Augustus - held every October 4.
Diana, Goddess of the Moon and of wild places, the Divine Huntress, protectress of women and virgin Goddess. In earlier times, She was the mother Goddess of Nature. Her temple at Lake Nemi was in a sacred grove and was guarded by her priest, the Rex Nemorensis, the King of the Wood. He was always an escaped slave who was entitled to food, sanctuary and honour - until he was slain by the next candidate. But Diana has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Venus was originally a Goddess of Spring, flowers and vines. By order of the Sibylline Books a temple on Mt. Eryx was dedicated to Venus as the Goddess of love and beauty. She was also Venus Genetrix, mother of the Roman people through Her son Aeneas, Who was also an ancestor of the Julii. Both Julius Caesar and Hadrian dedicated temples to Venus Genetrix. Hadrian's still stands near the Flavian amphitheatre. She has darker aspects too, such as Venus Libitina, an aspect of Venus associated with the extinction of life force. But Venus has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Mars, God of war, was originally an agricultural God whose character changed with that of His people. For this reason, he is the most Roman of the Gods, representing the abundance of the fields, and the battles that must be won to keep and enlarge the provinces that kept Rome fed and thriving. His priests were dancing warriors, the Salii, who sang their war-songs in the streets during his festivals. His sacred spears and 12 shields were kept in his temple on the Palatine Hill. But Mars has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Mercurius is the God of commerce. The guild of merchants honored Mercurius at his temple near the Circus Maximus on his festival on May 15. They also sprinkled themselves and their merchandise with sacred water in a ceremony at the Capena Gate. When Mercurius became identified with Hermes, he took on the duties of messenger of the Gods, Psychopompus who guides the souls of the dead through the Underworld, and God of sleep and dreams. He also became God of thieves and trickery, owing to a trick he had played on Apollo by stealing and hiding the Sun God's cattle. His serpent-twined staff, the caduceus, was originally a magician's wand for wealth (which may be why it is the symbol of the medical profession) but became identified later as a herald's staff. But Mercurius has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Neptunus, God of all the fresh water (from rivers, springs, etc.) and of equestrian accomplishments. Equated to the Greek Poseidon, He is also the God of the sea. He had temples in the Circus Flaminius and later on the Campus Martius. His festival, the Neptunalia is celebrated on July 23. But Neptunus has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Volcanus, the God of the fire of the sky, the lightning and the fires caused by it, he is the raging fire (opposed to the domestic fire, Vesta). He was equated to the Greek Haephestus, God of the fire, forge and volcanos. As a Nature God, he was married to Maia, Goddess of Spring. Equated to Haephestus, he made Iuppiter's thunderbolts and married to Venus. At his festival, the Volcanalia on August 23, fishes were throuwn into the hearth fires. The eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79 AD took place in the day of His festival. As God of metal workers, He also has a festival on May 23. As God of conflagration, His temples were built outside the pomerium, on the Campus Martius. But Volcanus has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
Apollo, Greek God of the Sun, prophecy, archery, music, poetry, inspiration and healing, perfection of male beauty, twin brother of Diana. Apollo came to prominence in the 5th century BCE, when the Sibylline Books of Apollo's prophecy (which had been offered to King Tarquinius Superbus by the Sibyl of Cumae) dictated the introduction of His cult in Rome following a plague. Besides Cumae, His oracles were also in other places such as Ionia, Delos, Delphi, Erithrea. It was Apollo who gave the gift of prophecy to His lover Cassandra, who was doomed to speak the truth, but never to be believed. Apollo is father of the God Aesculapius. But Apollo has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...
The Lar Familiaris is the guardian spirit of a family and symbolizes the household. He was honored on all family occasions: a new brideoffered a coin and a sacrifice on entering her new house. Rams are sacrificed to the Lar Familiaris after funerals as a purification rite. During the 1st century AD, the Romans came to honor two Lares instead of one, becoming strongly connected with the Penates. In the lararium, the Lares are usually represented in dancing poses, carrying greek rhytones of wine.
The Lares Loci are the guardian spirits of a place. In the lararium, the Lares Loci of the place where the house is built are also honoured, being represented by one or more serpents.
Each man has a Genius, each woman a Iuno. This is the creative force that engenders the individual and imbues him/her with growth, learning and morality. This spirit stays with the person until death. The Genius of the paterfamilias deserves special honor, and is represented in the lararium by a man dressed in white with the head covered by the toga.
The Penates are connected with each family. If the family moves, the Penates go with it. They are the spirits of the larder, of food and drink, and they share the hearth as an altar with the Goddess Vesta.
The Manes are the spirits of the dead ancestors. When the deceased receives the due honours and rites, he is allowed to ascend from the Underworld to protect his family. This is in contrast with the Lemures or Larvae, evil ghosts which are the souls of the dead who the Dii Inferi refused to receive in the Underworld.
Each corner of the house is under the influence of a protector God. Forculus protects the door, Limentinus the threshold, Cardea the hinges. Vesta protects the hearth. Each tool has also its protector spirit: Deverra protects the broom, Pilumnus the rammer, Intercidona the axe.
The generation of a human being is also ruled by protector Gods. Iuno and Mena assure the menstrual flux of the future mother. Jugatinus presides to the union of man and woman. Cinxia or Virginensis uncover the woman's girdle. Subigus delivers her to the man. Prema commands the penetration. Inuus (Tutunus or Mutunus) and Pertunda put an end to virginity. Ianus, God of passage, opens the way for the generating seed emanated from Saturnus, but it is Liber who allows the ejaculation. Once concepted, the new human being needs Fluonia or Fluvionia, Who retains the nourishing blood. But the nourishing itself is presided by Alemona. To avoid the dangers of upside-down pregnancy, Postverta and Prosa are invoked. Diana Nemorensis is also invoked to allow a good pregnancy. Three dities protect the mother from the violence of Silvanus: Intercidona, Deverra and Pilumnus. In the the atrium, a bet is setup for Pilumnus and Picumnus or Iuno, and a table is setup for Hercules. Nona and Decima allow the birth between the ninth and tenth month. But it is Egeria who makes the baby come out (egerere). Parca or Partula preside to the birth, but it is Vitumnus Who gives life, Sentinus the senses. After the birth, Lucina, bringer of light, must be invoked. Lucina is also the Goddess to whom sterile (or with pregnancy desease) women direct their prayer. After the birth, the pregnant women must be purified, and it is Iuno Februa (Februalis or Februlis) Who frees them from the placental membrane. With the aid of Levana, the sage-woman raises and presents the child to the mother. The father then raises the child with the aid of Statina (Statilina, Statinus or Statilinus).