Stories about the soldiers of ancient Rome tell of their ingenuity and incredible feats in battle. But who did they worship?
Roman soldiers would have worshipped a range of different gods depending on the era of Roman history and also on geographical factors. Like other Romans, Roman soldiers worshipped gods from many different cultures before the adoption of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
To find out more about the ancient religious practices of Roman soldiers and society, read on.
Religion and the Military
The Romans believed in a wide range of gods that they could call on for certain attributes, with there being gods associated with everything from people to places and behaviors. As in other parts of Roman society, the gods were an everyday part of military life and the modern ideas of religion do not really apply to the Roman era.
Romans were generally adaptable and open to a wide range of gods and seemed to be ever on the lookout for new gods that could potentially provide them with better luck. There were, indeed, cults that favored some gods over others, and new movements from the east also often found followers in Roman society.
With this in mind, Roman soldiers can likely be described as spiritually adaptable people who worshipped a polytheistic and pantheistic pantheon of gods. Roman military camps would be equipped with shrines and they would practice rituals and ceremonies to secure the favor of the gods.
The suovetaurilia, depicted on Trajan’s Column to mark the Dacian Wars, seems to have been an important religious ceremony for Roman soldiers. A pig (sus), sheep (ovis), and bull (taurus) were led outside of the camp, suggesting that the interior of the camp was holy, and could be sacrificed to a range of gods, which was of particular importance before a major battle.
In the Punic Wars too, there are records of the Roman military calling on the divine and predicting their fate. The consul Publius Claudius Pulcher threw sacred chickens into the sea as they would not eat in a ceremony, which was a bad omen, and he was subsequently defeated in battle.
An extreme offering Roman commanders could make was the devotio, whereby they would offer their own lives in battle to the gods of the underworld, a practice similar to those found among gladiators. Livy writes of how Decius Mus sacrificed himself along with his enemies in a suicidal charge, as had his son and grandson, for the favor of the gods in battle.
Popular gods included Jupiter and Mars, but local gods seem to have been worshipped too. There is evidence in Britain that gods like Minerva and Mars were equated with local gods, leading to a fusion of gods that could be worshipped.
Religion and Roman Society
As mentioned previously, it is difficult to define Roman religion using modern standards and with an empire of its size, it is natural that it contained many different religions from the different cultures it contained.
Similar to how Romans adopted military technology from the cultures they encountered, so too did they adopt their religious practices. As a result, a wide range of pantheons influenced Rome, including the Greeks, Egyptians, Etruscans, Celts, and Assyrians. The Roman pantheon was very similar to that of the Greeks, with Greek mythological deities like Zeus, Ares, and Athena having equivalents like Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva.
These gods and practices would often mix together, and Roman temples can be found dedicated to the likes of the Egyptian Isis, the Anatolian Cybele, and the Persian Mithras (with the Mithras religion becoming widely popular in the Roman Empire). Roman emperors were also often deified and worshipped as gods by the ancient Romans, while there were religions that were often persecuted, such as the druids of Britain, Judaism, and later Christianity.
Conversion to Christianity
After Constantine I converted to Christianity in 312 AD, with Christianity having experienced periods of relative tolerance and persecution previously, branches of Christianity became widely popular with many in Roman society, from the elites to the plebeians.
While pagan traditions continued in Roman society, this marked the beginning of the conversion of Roman society to Christianity, including its legions. As the Roman legions had once worshipped many gods and performed ceremonies for their favor, from the 4th century, they would start to call on Jesus and God to assist them, as many soldiers do to this day.