HST3164/3165: From Jupiter to Caesars: religions of the Romans

40 credits (semesters 1 and 2)

Module Leader: Dr Daniele Miano



A pass in at least two history modules at level two.


Module Summary

Did the Romans really believe in their gods? We know from the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero that some of them did not and there are cynical statements showing that some of them recognised the importance of religion for controlling their compatriots, choosing to see or not see supernatural events and prodigies depending on their political aims.

Yet religion for the Romans was all-pervasive. Every public act was also a religious one. The Greek historian Polybius described the Romans as the most religious of peoples, and we have countless documents of acts of worship towards the gods. What was the role of individuals in a religion which has been so frequently characterised in modern scholarship as formal, merely public, and essentially empty?

This module will look at the history, the institutions, the cultic practices and the most important deities of Roman religions. We will also look at religious change, discussing the introduction of gods from other places, the related question of religious tolerance, and the worship of Roman Emperors.


The first aim of this module is to provide a source based outline of the religious history of the city of Rome from the Republican to the Early Imperial period, through an analysis of religious practices, institutions and concepts.

The second aim is to train you to properly contextualise a set of documents on the religious history of Rome, using this evidence to construct arguments and relate them to current historiographical debates on Roman history and religion.

The third aim is to introduce you to the conceptual challenges of the study of ancient religions, and in particular the question of the extent to which modern categories such as "religion" and "belie" can be applied to the ancient world.

Teaching and Assessment

You will work with a similar variety of literary sources, inscriptions and archaeological material, and they would even come back to some documents they had studied in their second year (like the Senate decree on the Bacchanalia), but you will use this material for a paper with a thematic rather than narrative scope. This implies that you will have to construct increasingly abstract arguments, having a broader, comparative approach to the materials.

The seminars will be partially based on presentations (especially in the first part of the module), partially on presentations by you and your class, which will be expected to show a greater engagement with the ancient sources and modern scholarship from the presentations of Making Roman Italy. You will receive reading lists at the beginning of the module, which will include a list of primary sources to consult (normally from the sourcebook of the course) and a bibliography. It is expected that group discussion of primary sources would take a considerable part of the sessions.

The module will be divided in three sections. Conceptions: what did the Romans think about their gods? How did they describe their relationship with them? The first part of the module will be dedicated to these questions. Practice: what were the main Roman deities? What were the most important priesthoods? Was there divination at Rome? This part of the module will analyse Roman religions in practice. Narrative: this section will give account of religious change. How were new gods introduced at Rome? Did the direct contact with the conquered Greeks lead to a change of religious practices? Did the Romans think that their Emperors were gods?

This module will consist of 22 seminars. Possible in class activities include role playing group discussions in which you will pretend to be the characters of Ciceronian dialogues, presenting and debating arguments in support and against divination or mythology. In the classes on gods you will be asked to choose your "tutelary" god or goddess and present him or her to the class.

Selected Reading

  • M. Beard, J.A. North, S. Price, Religions of Rome, vol. 1, Cambridge 1998.
  • J. Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Edinburgh 2003.
  • Ancient sources in translation are usefully collected in M. Beard, J.A. North, S. Price, Religions of Rome, vol. 2, Cambridge 1998.

Intended Learning Outcomes
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