Glossary of ancient Roman religion  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
glossary, Roman religion







bellum pium et iustum








divus, diva
















Fratres Arvales


















pax divom, pax deorum


















rex sacrorum



















ver sacrum



Main concepts



Fas is perhaps the most important concept in Roman religion. It refers to the invisible or mystical setting that allows man to live in peace on this world. this setting is the foundation on whch all human behaviour and visible relationships rely upon as defined by the concept of ius. According to this interpretation the word fas should be rooted in IE *dhe- which has given in Latin the verb "facio", here in fas in its original meaning of to set.

Thus fas does not indicate a law of the gods, but more appropriately the law that rules the relationship between man and the realm of the invisible or the gods. In such a perspective it is the corresponding term of ius as far as human interpersonal relationships are concerned.

Servius comments Georg. I, 269 "fas et iura sinunt" (the fas and the iura allow) with the words: "divina humanaque iura permittunt: nam ad religionem fas, ad hominem iura pertinunt" ("both the divine and the human law allow (this): the fas belongs to religion and the iura to man").

According to Benveniste Latin is the only IE language that has preserved a distinction between fas and ius. The root *dhe- has given in Latin the word fetialis (fetial), name of a magistrate who has the duty (among other) of making treaties and declaring war by calling the fas as a witness. The enlarging in sibilant of the root though is peculiar to Italic languages and Latin: compare Pelignian fesnu, Oscan fiisnu, Umbrian fesnaf-e "in fano" (a sacred space or temple). In Latin it is part of a large group of derived words as fanum, festus, feriae, fasti.

It is noteworthy that to express this notion a root has been used which in many IE languages expresses concepts of a juridical nature: see Gr. 'themi', Skt. 'dhaman-' 'institution' and most importantly Avest. dat(e)m 'religious rule, law'.

It seems that the relatioship between fas and ius can be compared to that existing in Vedic scriptures between two concepts of the order of the universe, that of the dhaman and that of the rta'. While there can be a dhaman of the rta' the opposite relationship is unconceivable.

The concept of fas thence cannot be analysed further and made the object of case study as it is possible for the ius which can be discussed in details. It is fas or not fas (fas est, fas non est). A point in time or place are fas or nefas on the grounds that they offer or do not offer to human action (other than religious) the invisible setting that makes it safe and bestows on it likeliness of success.

Fas was interpreted by the ancient as connected to the verb fari (to speak) also because many words derived by it passed on to the religious sphere, as eg fatum, fandum . The use of fas for fatum is attested in Virgil (Aen.II, 779: Serv. "fas pro fato"). Fanum too has been connected to fari (Varr. LL VI, 54: "quod pontifices in sacrando fati sunt finem", "what the pontiffs in the consacration said to be the boundary"). The same interpretation is given for dies fasti (Varr. LL VI, 29: "dies fasti, per quos praetorem omnia verba sine piaculo licet fari", "the days in which the praetor can say all words without needing an act of expiation", here meaning the three ritual words of his office: "do, dico, addico").

There have been modern attempts at reconsidering this interpretation as valid, eg Riccardo Orestano and Emil Benveniste.

The long 'a' in fas does not create a problem as it is common in monosyllabic words (compare das, datis).

The concept of fas was widely applied in religious practices and also normal public and private life.

The most remarkable instances are the Roman Calendar that was charachterized by marking days as F(as) or N(efas) in the first place. Time was in fact regulated in accord to the knowledge of its quality in rspect to the fas. The word fastus referring to the fas quality of a day passed on to acquire the meaning of calendar in its plural form Fasti.

The choice of the place on which to perform a certain religious practice, found a city or camping the army should be chosen according to specific rules that enabled to determine its nature in relation to the fas. The word fanum (temple, fane) evolved from *fas-nom, literally a place situated in (under) the fas. See above parallels in other Italic languages.


Pax is a concept that denotes the idea of a harmonic, balanced relatioship between man and god, as expressed in the formula pax divom. It is testified in texts of any period.

Pax preserves almost always the etymological meaning of 'treaty, pact' and its connexion to pactus, pactio.

In some context though it assumes the sense of benevolence of god toward man.

Man expects or hopes to receive from god the grace of normal and benevolent relationships.

Nonetheless the pax divom depends to a great extent on man. Man must pay the highest degree of attention at not perturbing or forgetting the god(s)'s prerogatives. When in the course of life matters, sometimes inevitably or even inadvertently, such a fault on the part of man happens, it is necessary in man's own interest to be prompt to take appropriate action in order to restore the original balance in the relationship between the two parties.

Obviously this initiative can only be undertaken by man himself and in Roman religion this action takes always the form of some rites as cerimonies and vows aimed at the achievement of the stipulation of a new treaty of sort with the gods.

Man may ask for the benevolence of gods in general or for some specific purpose: for their propitious attitude to the interests and wishes of the community (or of individuals), or for placating them if he has become aware that the original equilibrium has been broken.

The establishment of the perfect equilibrium in the relationship between man and god expressed in the concept of pax divom has an explicit correspondence among Italic people as it is testified in the Umbrian Iguvine Tables: VI b 61 records the following formula: "fututo foner pacrer pashe vestra pople totar iiovinar" 'be favourable and pacific (makers of peace) through your own peace to the town of Iguvium.' Else in VI a 23 we read this invocation to Jupiter Grabovius: "fos sei, pacer sei ocre fisei" 'be favourable, be pacific (maker of peace) with the arx fisia (of god Fisius).'


Prex, the term designating prayer is connected to IE root *pre-, originally not related with the area of religion. This is a spy of the innovative linguistic attitude of the Italic people to the sphere of religion. The word usually appears in the plural, preces. The meaning proper of the word is "I try and obtain by uttering appropriate words what is my right to obtain". It has a correspondent in Umbrian persklu meaning supplication. It is used often in association with quaeso in expressions such te precor quaesoque or prece quaesit (eg Lucr. V 1229). According to Benveniste quaeso would mean "I use the appropriate means to obtain" or according to Morani "I wish to obtain, try and obtain" while precor designates the utterance of the adequate words to achieve one's aim.


Sacer is one of the main concepts in Roman religion. It designates specifically throughout its history as a religious term that which belongs to gods for human definition or decision. It has an exact opposite in the word profanum. The sphere of that which belongs to gods for gods's own sanction or action is denoted by the adjective religiosus.

The word is rooted in IE Sak- which is attested mostly in Italy. See Oscan sakoro 'sacred' (nom. sing. fem.), sacrid abl., sakrim 'sacrificial victim', sakaraklum 'sacellum, small shrine', sakarater 'sacratur, consacrate' (indicative pres. tense).

In Latin this root has given two forms, one in -ro-, sakros present in the first attested document of the Latin language, the stone of the Forum or Lapis Niger and a form in -ri- survived only in the expression porci sakres.

Among the composite forms the most noteworthy are perhaps sacerdos, word created with the addition to sacer of a word rooted in IE dhe- (as for Gr. tithemi, I pose) properly he who enacts sacral actions and sacrificium sacral rite, or more precisely the action by which something is rendered sacred. Other noteworthy composites are sacrarium, sacramentum, sacellum.

The derivate verbs sacrare, is more recent as well as its composite forms except for obsecro. It has substituted the more ancient pollucere of unknown origin.

Outside Italy the use of this IE root is attested with certainty only in Hittite saklai 'usage, rite, law'

The discussion of the connotations of the word sacer takes us to the heart of the history of Roman religious thought.

It has been argued that Italic as well as Celtic religious cultures would have preserved ancient common IE heritage, this fact being testified by the existence of a body of sacral lore handed down traditionally by a sacerdotal class, lore that conferred sacrality to the position of the ruler or king (Lat. rex (regs), Celt. rig, corresponding to Vedic rajahn). These facts would be the omologous of what happened in India with the Vedic tradition and in Iran with the Avestan. This theory was expounded first by J. Vendryes in 1918.

The theory has been further developed by G. Dumezil in varius works. Dumezil sees an etymological correspondence between the words designating the sacerdotal function in Latin and Vedic (flamen and brahman) and in many words connected to religion, such as ius, credo, ritus, purus, castus, voveo .

Even though such correspondences are undeniable it looks that the situation in ancient Latium had undergone deep changes as the boundaries between the functions of the rex and those of the sacerdotes had become blurred. Certainly the rex, contrary to what was the case in Vedic India, had assumed directly sacerdotal functions. At the same time common citizens could become sacerdotes as long they were patricians. Since in ancient Latium the king was primarily a warior this last fact marks a blurring between the warring and the sacral function. In Rome the rex was on the other invested of his authority by the will of the people and not directly by the gods, hence being a primus inter pares from a legal standpoint. But the king is in ancient Rome also the highest sacerdos as he celebrates himself religious rites, differently from what happened both in Vedic India with the purohita and among Celt tribes with the druids.

Such a blurring affected the essence itself of religion in Roman culture. The idea of sacer was affected too as it became a concept connected essentially to the sphere of political life, the publicum. According to Festus's definition nothing is sacer without a public legal sanction: "Gallus Aelius says that it is sacer what is in any way or by any institution of the community rendered sacred (consecratum), be it either a building or an altar or a sign, a place or money, or anything that else that be dedicated to the gods; any of these things that privates for their own practices of cult may dedicate to a god, that the Roman pontiffs do not consider it sacer". The passage from the condition of profanum to that of sacer requires fixed ritual actions including formulae (solemnia verba): the rite is performed by the state through the competent magistrate but the formula is utered by the pontiff; even the duplicity of the terminology dedicatum-consecratum hints to the duplicity of the authorities that perform the rite: the sacerdos consecrat, the state dedicates. The reverse passage from the conditon of sacer to that of profanum, is named resecratio. It too needs precise ritual formulae and is explained by Festus as solvere religione.

The notion of sacer always implies a unilateral initiative: it is sacer only that which has been declared to be such by man. The consecratio implies a renounciation on the part of man to something that becomes property of the god.

Whenever it is the god that actively takes possess of something that belongs to man, the term religiosus is always used in sacer's stead. Death is such a case and thus a graveyard is named locus religiosus. Another instance is a place or object hit by lightning, the access to or contact with which were strictly forbidden. Festus states explicitly: "A place was once considered to become religiosus which looked to have been dedicated to himself by gods".

The word sacer does only design the existence or creation of a positive relationship with gods on the part of man. The content of such a relationship is then specified by a complex of norms or rules that make up the fas. Fowler has speculated that "sacer may have meant simply taboo, ie removed from the profanumwithout any special refernce to a deity, but holy or accursed, according to circumstances".

The meaning of sacer as belonging to gods is usual. Even in the expression porci sacres it stands for animals reserved to the gods. the idea of perfecton atributed by Varo is not correct, though it shows the way by which the idea of perfection and purity seeped onto the original meaning because of the need that animals reserved for sacrifice be perfect. It is noteworthy that animals not yet consecrati but reserved to this aim were considered sacres. The semantic evolution toward the idea of perfection of which Varo's text is testimony shows the reason why in time sacer will take on a connotation of moral or inner value: sacer perfect, thence sacred, untouchable, unviolable.

Often sacer has a negative meaning: instead of meaning 'in the possession of the god' it means 'not belonging to man', 'foreign to normal human interaction modality'. The dies sacri arenefasti or quieti, while the dies profani arefasti or negotiosi. This negative connotation of sacer explains why the word has no negative form such *insecer: Latin shows its peculiar atitude and difference from Greek that does have negative forms for words related to the sacred. The oppositon sacer profanus too provides a confirmation of this quality: profanus is what is outside the sacer, pro- fano, but it does imply a radical negation of the sacred. It can be invested of this quality at any time the community might feel the need for its declaration of sacrality. Nothing is sacred in itself and nothing is profane in itself: but everything can become sacred or profane accrding to circumstances, provided that the community declare it such by the relevant rites.

This fact bears a trace of the IE origin of the word as the Hittite saklai means rite. The restitution of the profane charachter to an object previously declared sacred is well documented: in the band of the ver sacrum of 217 BC we read: si id moritur...profanum esto "if the animal dies shall be profane"

The first document of Latin literatur, the stone of the Forum, bears the expression sakros esed, showing that the rite which is recorded thereon implies a provision for the possible accident that would make it invalid

Benveniste states that Latin has best shewn the distinction between sacred and profane.

In general it can be said that it is sacer everything that does not fall within the sphere of the ius'.

Even in the case in which sacer takes up a meaning close to that of taboo when referred to people. This is Festus's definiton: "It is considered sacer the man who has been judged by the people for a henious action: it is not fas to execute him, but he who shall kill him cannot be condemned of parricide".homo sacer is est quem populus iudicavit ob maleficium; neque fas est eum imolari, sed qui occidit, parricidii non damnatur Human law cannot judge the man who has been declared sacred. Thefas, superior invisble seting on which theius lies and is founded forbids the revenge on the sacer person by the courts. Nothing else than this fact can prove the foreigness to the ius of the sacer.

According to a lex regia: si prentem puer verberit, ast olle plorassit parens, puer divis parentum sacer esto. "if a child hits his parent to the point that the parent should cry, the child shal be sacred to the gods of the parents". The condition that the parent must be made cry is a necessary condition for the declaration of sacrality. The order that has been breached belongs to a higher sphere than that with which the rules proper to the ius are concerned. The culprit has offended besides his parent his parent's gods. It is up to them to take the just revenge.

Any action that can put at risk the foundations of the structure of communal organisation makes the perpe trator sacer, such the patronus that does not observes his obligations to his clientes, the man who moves the signs marking the boundaries fines of fields along with all his cattle, by Numa's disposition, fact that reveals once more the charachter of absolute objectivity of the declaration.

Similar is the situation of the person who has voted himself to the gods but has not died. The devotion puts him for ever outside to the sphere of the profane world. He caanot sacrifice and the community must offer an expiatory victim in his stead.

It is now clear how the notion of sacer may have taken up the sense of 'accursed', as in Virgil's auri sacra fames, "the accursed hunger of gold" or in Plautus's sacerrumum domicilium for the brothel.

In Latin literature other than religious and legal use the semantic limits of sacer are sometimes blurred. In Vergil it may take up the value of eeroj (eg Ideae sacer vertex Aen. 10, 230) and the lack of a clear distinction between prayer and incantation may give to sacer the value of 'magic', as in Horace Ep. 17, 6: Canidia parce voci tandem sacri.

According to Fugier sacer may also mean 'numinous'. This semantic value is attested only among authors of augustan times and there too it is doubtful that it may be regarded as autonomous from the justification of religious practices. In the same instances made by Fugier: eg Ov. Fas. III, 264 ff. est lacus, antica religione sacer.

The hierarchy of the sacerdotal positons is stated by Festus as follows: rex, flamen dialis, flamen martialis, flamen quirinalis, pontifex maximus. The first terms preserve remarkable elements of antiquity and the tripartiton of the flamines hints to the ancient tripartition of functions of Indoeuropean society. However in Rome the relics of this tripartition are very limited as it has been shewn above. Later during the Republic the rex sacrorum is just a figurehead and real religious power is in the hands of the pontifex maximus.

It is a common feature of IE languages to distinguish the sphere of the sacred into two areas marked by a different terminology: on the one hand that of which is sacred for its inherent, intimate nature or mystical force and on the other hand that which is so for separation, ie which is so for being forbidden to human contact . Benveniste has analysed these two series thoroughly:

Avestic: sp(e)nta-/yaoz-data-; Gr.: eeroj/-gioj; Goth.: hails/weihs.

The first term implies an idea of an exuberance of force, sign of the divine presence or of its effect.

In Latin this topic has given rise to debate among scholars as the correspondence of terms is unclear.

While it can be assumed that the use of the word sacer seems to hint clearly to an idea of separation (that which belongs to god(s) by official,public definition) it is difficult to identify a Latin word that designs that which is divine for its inherent nature. There are two other words attested as connected to the sphere of the sacred: sanctus and religiosus. Another, augustus has been proposed by Dumezil, but its use is not significantly attested in documents.

Huguette Fugier has given to the root *sak of sacer, sacratio the meaning of existant, reel, and to the verb sancire the meaning rendre reel, whence rendre effectif, garanti: sanctus would thus mean garanti par une sanctio by means of an act sacer. Benveniste gives to the verb sancire the meaning of surrounded and protected by a defense, interpretation undoubtedly based on Gaius 's quotation of Aelius's Gallus definition of sanctus as something which is defended militarily as the city wall. On these grounds the two authors consider Lat. sanctus to denote the sacred by separation and sacer the sacred for internal force.

The preceding analysis of the usage of the word sacer shows that this view is arbitrary and untenable. While the two words share the same etymology being both rooted in *sak, it would be more appropriate to reverse this interpretation and see in sanctus the equivalent of the sacred for internal force or inherent nature (see sanctus).

See also

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