The readings in this section, like those in the immigration section, do not do credit to the complexity of the religious groups in Rome, but they at least sketch out part of the picture. Rome had its own deities who were worshipped within the pomerium, the religious boundary of the city. They also had many important cult sites outside that boundary; foreign deities had their cult sites outside the pomerium, but that did not mean many of them were not also incredibly important to Rome and Romans.

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will get a brief overview about some ‘unRoman’ religions that fall outside of the traditional worship of the Greco-Roman gods, including:

  • Judaism;
  • Magna Mater and the Galli;
  • the Vestal Virgins;
  • Various other Roman cults; and,
  • Christianity


The following passages, as well as many of the subsequent chapters in this section, includes instances of misogyny, racism, explicit material, and — unsurprisingly — religious discrimination.

To start us off here is Juvenal, in a satire directed against women, attacking a number of supposedly ‘unRoman’ religions and their female adherents. Despite what Juvenal says, however, both men and women worshipped these gods and attended their temples and compounds.

And now, behold! In comes the chorus of the frantic Bellona and the Magna Mater, attended by a giant half-man, with an obscene form admired by youths who cut off their smooth balls long ago:[1] a noisy cohort and the people’s castanets fall silent as appears, as he wears a Phrygian turban tied around his plebeian cheeks. With solemn utterance he bids the lady beware of the September winds unless she purifies herself with a hundred eggs, and present him with some old mulberry-coloured garments in order that any great and unforeseen calamity may pass into the clothes, and make expiation for the entire year. In winter she will go down to the river in the morning, break the ice, and plunge three times into the Tiber, dipping her trembling head in its whirling waters, and crawling out of there naked and shivering, she will creep with bleeding knees right across the field of Tarquin the Proud. If the white Io shall so order, she will journey to the confines of Egypt, and fetch water from hot Meroe with which to sprinkle the Temple of Isis which stands hard by the ancient sheepfold. For she believes that the command was given by the voice of the Goddess herself—-a pretty kind of mind and spirit for the Gods to talk to at night! Hence the chief and highest place of honour is awarded to Anubis, who, with his linen-clad and shaven crew, mocks at the weeping of the people as he runs along. He it is that obtains pardon for wives who break the law of purity on days that should be kept holy, and exacts huge penalties when the coverlet has been profaned, or when the silver serpent has been seen to nod his head. His tears and carefully-studied mutterings make sure that Osiris will not refuse a pardon for the fault, bribed, no doubt, by a fat goose and a slice of sacrificial cake.

No sooner has that one departed than a palsied Jewess, leaving her basket and her basket of hay, comes begging to her secret ear; she is an interpreter of the laws of Jerusalem, a high priestess of the tree, a trusty go-between of highest heaven. She, too, fills her palm, but more sparingly, for a Jew will tell you dreams of any kind you please for the smallest fee. An Armenian or Commagenian sooth-sayer, after examining the lungs of a dove that is still warm, will promise a youthful lover, or a big bequest from some rich and childless man; he will probe the breast of a chicken, or the entrails of a dog, sometimes even of a boy; some things he will do with the intention of informing against them himself.

Still more trusted are the Chaldaeans; every word spoken by the astrologer they will believe has come from Hammon’s[2] fountain, for now that the Delphic oracle is silent,[3] man is condemned to darkness as to his future. Chief among these was one who was oft in exile, through whose friendship and venal prophecies the great citizen died whom Otho feared. For nowadays no astrologer has credit unless he have been imprisoned in some distant camp, with chains clanking on either arm; none believe in his powers unless he has been condemned and all but put to death, having just contrived to get deported to a Cyclad, or to escape at last from the diminutive Seriphos.

Your excellent Tanaquil[4] consults as to the long-delayed death of her jaundiced mother—-having previously enquired about your own; she will ask when she may expect to bury her sister, or her uncles; and whether her lover will outlive herself—-what greater boon could the Gods bestow upon her? And yet your Tanaquil does not herself understand the gloomy threats of Saturn, or under what constellation Venus will show herself propitious, which months will be months of losses, which of gains; but beware of ever encountering one whom you see clutching a well-worn calendar in her hands as if it were a ball of clammy amber; one who inquires of none, but is now herself inquired of; one who, if her husband is going forth to camp, or returning home from abroad, will not bear him company if the numbers of Thrasyllus call her back. If she wants to drive as far as the first mile-stone, she finds the right hour from her book; if there is a sore place in the corner of her eye, she will not call for a salve until she has consulted her horoscope: and if she be ill in bed, deems no hour so suitable for taking food as that prescribed to her by Petosiris.

If the woman is of humble rank, she will promenade between the turning-posts of the Circus; she will have her fortune told, and will present her brow and her hand to the seer who asks for many an approving smack of the lips. Wealthy women will pay for answers from a Phrygian or Indian augur well skilled in the stars and the heavens, or one of the elders employed to expiate thunderbolts. Plebeian destinies are determined in the Circus or on the ramparts:[5] the woman who displays a long gold chain on her bare neck inquires before the pillars and the clusters of dolphins whether she shall throw over the tavern-keeper and marry the old-clothes-man.

Juvenal, Satire 6.511-587


  1. The priests of Magna Mater, the Galli, committed self-castration as a mark of their devotion to her.
  2. Jupiter Ammon, whose oracle in Siwa in Egypt had been consulted by Alexander the Great.
  3. This ancient oracle of Apollo in Greece fell silent in the Roman period.
  4. A legendary Etruscan queen of Rome, known for her cleverness and scheming. It also marks this woman as aristocratic and as claiming descent from a very old family.
  5. For more on the Circus, please see the section on Entertainers; in particular, the chapters on Charioteers and Gladiators.


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