Latin is one of several
Italic dialects along with dialects in the Greek, Celtic and Etruscan languages
which were once widely spoken in the Italic peninsula. Eventually all these
languages were overtaken by the language of imperial Rome, but they left their
mark on Latin. Following the collapse of the Roman empire, forms of Latin became
the standard language in Spain, France, Romania and several smaller regions,
where they absorbed elements from still more languages, mostly forms of the
Celtic languages. Eventually they developed into the vernacular languages that
we know today as Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian and other closely related
languages of the Romance language family, itself part of the larger Indo-European Language family.
Geography and History
The Italic tribes appear in the
peninsula of Italy by about 800 BCE according to archaeologists, although not
yet with any writing. This is one of the few times that a language-speaking
culture can be identified with an archaeological culture because the
archaeological remains were stable and identifiable up to the time when writing
appears in this culture. However the earliest inscriptions in Latin date more
recently, and they are extremely prevalent through the classical period all over
Europe and the middle East. By 400 CE the capital of the classical world moved
to Constantinople and Rome disintegrated, resulting in the development of
Christianity as a form of emperor worship.
Certainly Latin is well-known, however it is rare to find a clear
understanding of the historical development of Latin among Latin teachers. The
appearance of names in the Celtic and Etruscan languages among the pantheon of
Roman Gods seems to confuse many scholars.
The earliest religious texts in Latin
consist of a few scraps of verse or prayers in Saturnine verse form, and a small
number of inscriptions known from carved stones. However, this is followed by a
large number of inscriptions including votive offerings, temple dedications and
related information published in the Corpus Inscriptionum
Latinorum (CIL) books and elsewhere. In addition there is a certain amount of religious
poetry, such as the Odes of Horace and records of religious institutions that
can be examined for information about Roman religion. Most of the native reports
on Roman religion, such as Varro’s De Re Religio have not survived, though we know that linen books were once kept at the temples. These consisted of records of the rituals performed. However the formal Roman Pagan liturgy of
the Vates (Pagan priests, probably actually Celtic) continued in use in the Catholic Church, so that is well known.
Very little remains of what is thought to have existed as Roman Pagan mythology and most of it is identified as the legendary
“history” of Rome, in which the Pagan Gods and Goddesses are seen as Roman kings
and queens, in for example, the History of Livy and Virgil’s Aeneid. Works from
the classical period such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are often lifted bodily from
Greek mythology and give no actual information about Roman myths except possibly
the names of the Gods and Goddesses, a point which has sometimes confused
scholars into believing that the myths of the Greeks and Romans were identical.
One of the better known secondary
sources is the great collection of the Golden Bough by James Frazer. This certainly
draws together a great deal of information from different sources, but it
suffers under some false theories, and certainly dwells too much on the most
By late classical times, the Romans recognized
a pantheon of twelve Gods and Goddesses, based on the Greek model. They list
Jupiter or Jove,
Apollo (originally Pales),
Minerva, Jupiter and Juno are actually
Etruscan Gods and the earliest temple in Rome was for the three of them. The
Romans themselves were largely unaware of the Etruscan origin of these Gods
along with much of their civilization, although Livy gives the Roman tradition
of the introduction of Juno into the Roman pantheon, at the time the Romans
conquered the major Etruscan city Veii. Etruscan is a difficult case because it
is not thought to be an Indo-European language. The problem with this is that
most of the names of Etruscan Gods are noticeably Indo-European, either because
it is an Indo-European language (possibly a descendant of Lydian, related to the
Anatolian languages like Hittite), or possibly because the Gods were borrowed
from Greek colonists in the Italic peninsula as early as the 8th century BCE.
Many Roman Gods and Goddesses clearly are cognate Indo-European Deities. Dea Dia, Dis Pater and Jove are forms of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE)
Goddess *Devi; Aurora is the Roman form of *Aeusos;
and Venus and Priapus are forms of *Pria.
Pluto and Latona are forms of *Pleto, and the Gemini are equated to *Yama,
where they are referred to as the Dioskuri in Greek and Latin sources and
christianized as Sanctos Geminos and eventually various forms of Saint James.
The Roman Pagan Gods and Goddesses are well known, although
they are often misunderstood in the western tradition. This is mainly because they were
treated as abstract representations of ideas due to the development of
analysis and borrowing from classical culture that took place in the
Renaissance. The names of Latin deities and many of the words for religious processes,
objects and personnel were borrowed from the variety of other languages spoken
in the Italic peninsula including Celtic, Etruscan and Greek. An additional
difficulty is that many aspects of the Pagan religion were demonized, perverted
or misconstrued by early Christians and this unfortunately continues up to the
Roman Pagan Calendars are recorded from about
the 2nd century BCE in wall paintings. The information about festivals is
amplified by the rather creative report for the first six months written by
Ovid, known as the Fasti. Other sources also give details, but the information
has often been confusing, mainly because the calendar of the Roman Pagans (in
manuscript form, known as the Calendar of Philocalus, dated to 345 CE) became
the religious calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. The names of the Roman Gods
and Goddesses were simply changed to saints and the festivals of the
Roman Pagan calendar became the feast days of the Roman Catholic church. Classical Roman festivals are the Poplifugia and the Festival of Romulus which fall on July 5th and 7th respectively and the Vestalia which runs from June 9-15th. There is a short article on the April 15 Fordicalia festival which is to protect the winter grain crops.
There certainly was extensive information on Roman
religion in, for example, several of the books by Varro, but that seems to have
been destroyed by hostile Christians like Augustine of Hippo. On the other hand,
it is widely recognized that Roman myths were historicized, so that the ancient
Indo-European myths appear as events in the lives of the legendary kings of
Rome. Among these are the story of Romulus and Remus, which is thought to be a
form of the myth of the Creation of the World from the body of a Cow, but there
certainly are no extensive mythologies known from Roman sources that are the
equivalents of Greek or Norse mythology.
A few formulas are known of the Roman Pagan
rites from ancient times, recognizable because they are written in the older
Saturnine verse form. These are quoted in Varro and Cato and include exact
instructions for an offering to make farm land fertile. Additional phrases and
parts of prayers are known from other sources, but they tend to be fragments.
The Odes of Horace are a collection of poems in Latin, and some are in the form
of invocations to the Gods. Some of these were written specifically to be
performed at festivals for certain deities, and they are very beautiful,
especially the Secular Hymn.
As usual among the Indo-Europeans, offerings
of food made up one of the most important rituals of the Romans. Cato and some
other sources give the exact recipes for the foods that were prepared as
offerings to the Goddesses. Cato gives a recipe for what is clearly cheesecake;
this is the Mediterranean form of the dairy offering that is one of the
high-status types of food offerings that are typical of all the Indo-Europeans,
though with variations in different countries. These include ghee, butter and
yoghurt in India, milk and cheesecake in Greece and Rome and reportedly cheddar
cheese in northern England.
In Rome, some priestly functions were limited to
members of the patrician families, but others were not. Worship and offering
were normally done at home or in temples, and female priests were the norm until
they were suppressed by the Roman emperor. Some clans had clan Gods, such as the
Fabians or Antonines, and the proper worship of these Gods was limited to them.
Of course in the very hierarchal Rome, emperors participated in rituals such as
performances, including games, which were very showy and professionally
organized. Both Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus made themselves Pontifex
Maximus, or chief priest of the Roman priesthood. Dumézil argued that there were
three Roman flamens, that is, priests assigned to maintain the rites for a
particular God, the Gods corresponding to the three classes of society, but
in fact, there were at least a dozen different flamens and the Gods who
had flamens assigned to them do not fall into any particular category except that they
were important enough to have a state cult in Rome.
Caesar Augustus (Octavian, died 14 CE) “reformed” religion in
Rome, rebuilt and renamed many of the temples and endowed the colleges of
priests with the requirement that they always make the first sacrifice to him,
his spirit and his family. He built a temple in Rome to Julius Caesar whom he liked to consider his father. This tradition of worship continued among the Roman emperors
that followed him, with the sacrifices being made to the current emperor, to his
spirit, and to his heir which was usually thought to be his son though this rarely
worked out. These people are known by the names Divine Father (Divus Augustus Pater, see coin on front page, struck by Tiberius for Augustus) the
name that Augustus Caesar liked to be called; his Numa (spirit); and his heir
apparent, understood to be the emperor’s son (filius), later referred to as
Caesar which was understood to mean “heir.” This deification of the emperors and
their spirits and heirs continued among the Vates or Roman priesthood until Rome
ran out of emperors in the fourth century, which led to the development of
Christianization of Roman Paganism
The colleges of priests that had been organized, controlled and endowed by Caesar Augustus
continue as the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. The deified
humans who are the main objects of worship in the Roman Pagan religion (at least
in the public or state cult among the patrician classes) continue in
Christianity as worship of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, while the rest of the
Roman Pagan liturgy became the liturgy of the western Christian Church with very little change until recently.
Continuation of Pagan Traditions
Spanish, Romansh, and Romanian folklore all include elements of the Pagan religion of
the Romans which were brought in with the Roman language and mixed in with
elements of the native language and culture, see especially Pagan Saints for a brief look at the way the Roman Pagan Goddesses and Gods were turned into saints in the Roman Catholic Church. In Italy there is considerable
information about Italian witchcraft which includes traditional beliefs and
practices (see Charles Leland, Etruscan Roman Remains, 1892). French folk lore is a little more difficult because it picks up an
extensive Celtic underlay, but it is generally possible to pick this out and
benefit from it by a linguistic analysis which can usually distinguish Celtic
names from Latin names. [fuggle26]
An example of the continuation of Paganism is Mardi Gras or the festival of
Great Mars, which was probably originally set to March 1st. The lesser festival
of Mars would be in the fall, later the feast day of St. Martin, Nov. 11. This
wide reach in the holidays is typical of a country like Italy (the source of the
calendar for the Roman Catholic Church) which has a very long warm season. These
two holidays represent the beginning and the end of the “campaigning” season or
time of war every year. Imperial Rome considered war an honorable way of making
a living--and they expected all able-bodied men to join the army and spend the
summer looting the neighbors, for the good of the state. This wide schedule
makes no sense in a country like England, where the soldiers had better get home
before the winter rains start and November is too late.
• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V., and Ivanov, Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in
Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed.,
and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i
indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
• Müller, (Friedrich) Max, Comparative Mythology, Arno Press, NY, 1909, 1977.
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), published by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
© 2007, last updated 9/14/2017, at piereligion.org/latin.html