Gender Roles and Ancient Roman Religion

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A research paper that goes into the basics of gender roles and where they found their place within the religious customs of Ancient Rome. Written in 2004.

Submitted: November 10, 2009

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Submitted: November 10, 2009

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Gender Roles and Ancient Roman Religion”

Each religion throughout history has had a set of gender roles that have dictated certain behaviors and practices within that religion. Many of these things vary from culture to culture and oftentimes it is political and/or social beliefs and tendencies that dictate what these gender roles will be.

Ancient Rome is one of many ancient cultures that used gender roles in religious practice and observation. This research paper will seek to outline the basic views concerning gender that this culture held as well as how these gender roles affected the operation of public and private religion, religious rites, and political operation. It will also seek to give basic description of patron deities both male and female as well as mention cults which are gender specific as and also those which utilize and incorporate individuals of both sexes.

Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome1

When discussing the religion of any particular ancient culture I feel that it is only appropriate that description and mention be given to the patron or prominent deities of that culture’s pantheon. Many of the ancient Roman deities are adaptations of Greek deities but serve important positions within their society as individual and unique gods and goddesses.2 Below are the twelve major gods of the Roman pantheon as well as descriptions:3

Gods of Ancient Rome

  • Jupiter – Jupiter is the supreme god of the pantheon and is called dies pater4. Jupiter is a god of sky and light as well as a protector god of the state and the laws the state creates. He was often worshipped as “Jupiter Optimus Maximus” which referred to his status as ruler over the universe as well as god of the state. He was a god that distributes laws, controls the realm of existence, and spoke to humanity through the use of oracles.

  • Neptune – Neptune is the god of the sea. There is little known about his origins and he is not a very powerful god. He was held in more respect as “Neptune Equester”, the patron god of horses and horse-racing.

  • Apollo – Apollos is the son of Zeus and the twin brother of Artemis. He is the god of music5 and is also the god of prophecy, poetry, archery, dance, medicine, as well as deity over other traits and functions.

  • Mars – Mars is the god of war and is one of the most prominent gods of the Roman pantheon. Earlier in Roman history he was a god of spring, growth, and fertility as well as a protector of cattle. Later on he became associated possibly with the earth god which could have been how he became transformed into a god of death, and eventually a god of war.

  • Vulcan – Vulcan is the god of fire, especially that of a destructive nature. He is also known as the god of craftsmanship.

  • Mercury – Mercury is the god of trade and profit as well as god over merchants and travelers. He is also known as Alipes.6

Goddesses of Ancient Rome

  • Juno – Juno is a goddess of protection as well as a counselor of the Roman state. She is also queen of the gods and sister (along with wife) of Jupiter. Along with Jupiter and Minerva she completes a triad that is worshipped on the Capitol of Rome. Also, as the Juno Moneta7 she guarded over the empire’s finances.

  • Minerva – Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, the arts, science, trade, and medicine. However, she is also associated as a goddess of war. She is the daughter of Jupiter and is believed to be the inventor of numbers and musical instruments.

  • Diana – Diana is the goddess of nature, fertility, and childbirth. She is a moon goddess. Her followers were mainly female as she was a goddess of fertility and as such was believed to render women fertile in union as well as bless them with easy childbirths.

  • Venus – Venus is the goddess of love and beauty as well as sexual union. Before associated with these things she was considered the patroness of gardens and vineyards. Some of her lovers include Vulcan and Mars, after the form of Aphrodite’s encounters.

  • Vesta – Vesta is one of the most mysterious and popular goddesses of the pantheon. She is the goddess of the hearth. Her worship began as primarily a private cult, but her cult eventually became a cult of the state.

  • Ceres – The mother of Proserpina and the daughter of Saturn, Ceres is the goddess of agriculture and grain. She is also the patron goddess of a mother’s love for her children.

Women in Ancient Roman Religion

The roles of men and women within ancient Rome were significantly different. The male Roman citizen’s duties, business, and roles were primarily outside of the home dealing with things of a military, political, or financial nature. As a result, women oversaw the daily duties, activities, and responsibilities within the home.8 These responsibilities included observance and practice of religious rites, prayers, etc.9

Religion permeated a Roman woman’s life in her daily activities. Throughout Roman history it was customary to keep the traditions of the family’s ancestors as well as add new beliefs, rituals, and practices to the old beliefs as time went on and the family evolved. As such the woman of the household would be the one to care for the family shrine or altar, keeping it properly stocked and saying the appropriate daily prayers.

There was also a strong belief in spirits that guarded/presided over separate household areas or activities.10 Women were responsible in saying the appropriate prayers as well as performing the appropriate rituals in order to keep these household spirits appeased and in harmony with the family. Along with being certain that the household gods were appeased, the Roman woman insured the safety and protection of her home and her family by carefully being attentive to these spirits and gods’ “well-being”.

The Cult of Venus

Venus as Goddess

Venus is often seen as the patron goddess of sexual relationships, her Greek counterpart being Aphrodite. However, her cults would suggest that Venus symbolized more than sexual union. The way in which her cults are organized as well as how rituals were performed (as well as who could take part in them) eludes that she “represented an ideology best described as one of inclusiveness or of integration.”11 When seen in such a light it could be proposed that the sexual relationships she presides as goddess over can be seen as a union that joins not only the male and female categories of ancient Roman society, but transcends other such categories as social and political affiliation as well as financial and marital categories amongst men and women.12

Ritual group” categories and singular rituals

The cult of Venus is important to mention because unlike many other cults in the time of ancient Rome, it appears this goddess’s cults transcended categories ascribed to different classes of women as well as men and incorporated separate classes together in singular religious rituals. While ritual groups were often categorized into such things as matrons, prostitutes, etc. some cults were easily able to accommodate different categorized “ritual groups” into a single religious rite.13

One example of this is apparent in the cults of Venus14 where the different ritual groups comprised of wives as well as prostitutes participated in a singular ritual that was designed to acknowledge and celebrate a sexuality that was common amongst all women regardless of social status, marital status, or financial status. While the separate categories were acknowledged as well, there were no special actions taken to separate the groups within the ritual.

Men in the Venus Cult

While it is apparent that in the Venus Verticordia ritual group categories were put aside in order to celebrate a common sexuality amongst women of various stations and classes, it appears that in other Venus cults15 these “sexually defined categories operated together with male centered representations of military power and military dominance16”. While many of the goddess cults in ancient Rome were restricted to only female participants, these Venus cults recognized the male influence and position within their society and thus implemented it into their religious practices and observations.17

Female Cults

Besides the Venus cults there are several other cults in ancient Rome, some of which are exclusively female. Though the participants were female in these cults, there were other classifications and categorization that would be used in separating and distinguishing between members of these cults. In such cults centered around Flora, Bona Dea, Ceres, and others women were grouped according to their gender and their sexuality. Ancient Roman religion viewed women largely in terms relating to their sexuality, as well as those implications sexuality (or lack of in the case of the Vestal Virgins) created. These things were taken largely into consideration and thus categories that would separate such groups as wives/matrons and prostitutes evolved in these cult practices.18

The Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins were an important and widely known aspect of ancient Roman religion. These women were considered an important collective in reference to politics as well as religion.

At all times there would be six women that made up what is collectively known as the entity called the “vestal virgins”. The age of these women could range from the very young to the very old, though those newly selected to become part of the Vestal Virgins could be no more than ten years of age. When being initiated into the role of a Vestal Virgin, the girl would take a vow in which she would commit herself to uncompromised virginity. Her period of service in this role was originally set at thirty years, but if she so chose she could choose to remain a Vestal Virgin up until the time of her death.19

The virginity of the Vestal Virgins was a very important concept to be upheld. This virginity in many ways made the Vestal Virgins a physical entity of themselves that could have considerable effect on political stability. For example, if it was discovered or suspected that a Vestal Virgin had lost her virginity, it was a symbol that the state’s relationship with the state’s gods was instable and that there were problems. The only avenue that would restore the peace and balance between the state and its gods would be a ritual in which the Vestal Virgin would be buried alive with such things as a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, a lamp and a bedroll. In this respect the former Vestal Virgin becomes a sacrifice in an attempt to appease the gods and rectify whatever imbalance or error there was between them and the political state’s relationship. The Vestal Virgin would be replaced with another initiate, and everything would be restored.20

Vestal Virgins were set apart from the rest of ancient Roman society by a variety of distinctions. The first (and most obvious) is the collective virginity of this group of women. Ancient Roman society was very concerned with the concept and act of procreation and these women being separated from that concern automatically separated them from other women of the society. Without fertility or need to bear children, their primary focuses would often not be that of a typical Roman woman. Also, being in the role of Vestal Virgin endowed the women with certain legal rules that separated them not only from the women of ancient Roman society, but set them apart from the male Roman citizens as well, thus making them a truly unique and separate group holding both religious and political implications and influence.21

Men in Ancient Roman Religion

While I have had difficulty finding significant information concerning male Roman citizens in ancient Rome that discusses their roles in great detail, certain things have been made apparent and it is important that I mention them in a paper that discusses gender roles of both men and women in ancient Roman religion.

Men’s roles in society were prominent in the social and political fields, and their concern dealt with the roles they held within these spheres. As a result, religious roles men held often dealt with representation of these roles. Military power and military dominance were concerns of the Roman man, and often in rituals they held positions of representation for these qualities. At the religious festival of Bona Dea, men represented both a political presence as well as a symbolic sexual one. Both of these aspects were acknowledged and integrated into the religious rites and rituals that occurred within the festival.22

Emperor Worship

Ideas have been entertained concerning the concept of emperor worship in ancient Rome. Worship was not seen necessarily as a negative idea in Roman life, it seemed that it was instead that Romans merely felt that no man was worthy of such a display of worship within the state’s public sphere. They felt that worship was not something given to praise someone for a divine state of being but instead something one did in order to placate those figures within the Roman state that needed it. However, there were times when this was acceptable.

One example would be when there was a military triumph in battle. It was common for the slave of a man who died valiantly in battle to fall with his master, killing himself or falling in battle as well. This would be an echo from a time when kings were viewed in a very high light and it was honorable to die with one’s master on the field of battle. The idea of a “state cult” as stated by Gradel in Emperor Worship and Roman Religion is something he states only Caesar held. It is not apparent if the title Caesar was given was meant to be interpreted in such a way, and it is something that did not occur in the future. While most likely not a large part or very significant idea in the practice of religion by the ancient Roman people, I felt it would be worth mention in this paper as a possibility.23

Conclusion

I found that the amount of possibilities when researching this subject to be astounding. There were many different choices I could have made as to sections to describe in brief (or detailed) accounts. I attempted to choose subjects I felt most readily described the gender roles of men and women in the religion of Ancient Rome. I leave this research paper with a better understanding of the workings within ancient Roman society as well as an interest to continue my research on this particular subject further.




1 The descriptions of the Gods and Goddesses here were compiled with the source Pantheon.org and “Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling”

2 Grant, Frederick C. “Ancient Roman Religion”

3 “Survivals of Roman Religion” by Gordon J. Laing

4 “shining father”

5 principally the lyre though other instruments are sometimes associated with him

6 “with the winged feet”

7 “she who warns”

8 These activities included such things as preparing food, tending the hearth, keeping the home clean and running in the typical Roman traditions, making clothes, spinning and weaving wool, etc.

9 “The Roles of Patrician and Plebeian Women in Their Religion in the Republic of Rome” Lisa A. Young

10 These spirits were called the numina

11 “From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion” by Ariadne Staples pg. 98

12 See above footnote.

13 See above footnote.

14 Specifically the Venus Verticordia.

15Venus Obsequeno and Venus Erycina.

16 “From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion” Page 98

17 See above footnote.

18 See above footnote.

19 “From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion” p. 129

20 Dr. Burgess lecture, “History of Rome”, Spring 2004

21 “From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion” pg. 130

22 See above footnote.

23 “Emperor Worship and Roman Religion: The Classical Review” O. Hekster, September 2003


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