Association of Polytheist Traditions
On being a Roman Pagan in the Twenty-Ninth Century*
Copyright © by Nick and Carol Ford 2004
What it is
Firstly, there are many different kinds of Roman paganism, which reflect both the thousand-year duration of pagan Roman culture and the many changes it underwent in different places through the passage of time, and the pluralistic, syncretic nature of Roman religion itself. Similarly, there are many different kinds of people, and to insist that all should conform to one single kind of spiritual practice, as being the only 'true' practice worthy of the name, is the kind of madness we leave to fundamentalist bigots, whatever faith they disgrace. We'll return to this in some detail later.
From all the diversity of belief and practice which you could call 'Roman Paganism', the nearest description of our faith is what we would call Romano-British. That is to say, the kind of faith historically practised (we imagine) by Roman pagans living in Britain from the first century BCE to the fifth century CE - making due allowance for the fact that several centuries of Heathen (Germanic pagan) and Christian practice have intervened, and that other religions and philosophies have also arrived to make their mark - whether we like it or not - on our cultural consciousness.
Why do it?
We wanted to engage in a tradition-based religion which had existed in this land before the adoption of Christianity. Other reconstructionist pagan faiths - Heathenry, or exclusively Celtic forms of worship - simply didn't appeal as much. However, we have to say that, having got to know many reconstructionist polytheists of these cultural faiths over the past few years, there are many similarities in our attitude and approach to theirs.
There is a fair amount of archaeological and literary evidence to show what Roman religious belief and practice was like - in fact, we have far more ancient literary sources than do Heathens or Celts - but like them, we are forced to draw on fragments from different periods and different places to try and piece together a credible model of what the everyday religious practice was in Roman Britain.
What comes across to us is a spirituality that is both holistic and practical: holistic, because Roman religion acknowledges that spirits of place (genii loci) exist everywhere, along with ancestral spirits (dii manes), spirits of house and home (lares and penates), other, lesser but more mobile minor deities (numina or daimones), as well as a host of gods of tribe and locality (some of which only seem to manifest at certain times of the year, as others are only apparently available in certain localities), besides the internationally-acknowledged gods of the official Roman pantheon. In addition to all these, every human being is a small god in potentiality because within each of us is a genius (possibly best translated as the Higher Self). In other words, the visible and invisible worlds are full of interactive entities, with whom the believer constantly negotiates relationships which it is hoped will be mutually beneficial.
It is practical because, as we have hinted above, there is no hard-and- fast distinction between the way you practise your religion and the way you live your life as a member of society: the rules, and the results, are exactly the same. The guiding principle is known as 'do ut des' ('I give, so that you may give'). In other words, the whole thing is a complex web of mutual obligations. There is no comprehensive philosophy about the nature of the universe, or even about life after death: the concerns of the Religio Romana are with life as it is, with the here and now. If we respect the past and act decently in the present, the future will look after itself.
Like other aspects of Roman society, the religion is highly inclusive and adoptive. All gods, from all faiths, are acknowledged, though each believer chooses which to worship (bearing in mind also that gods often seem to choose - or adopt - certain humans!). Personal Roman religion has little to do with the official state cult, which was performed by civil servants and full-time priests on behalf of the entire society, but instead centres around the family and the home.
Since there are so many gods one could not possibly worship them all, one concentrates as a matter of course on the household gods, including the ancestors. These have their annual festivals but are also honoured daily through the sharing of the main meal of the day with them. One prays and sacrifices to one's greater patron gods as well, not only on their festival days in the calendar, but also when moved to do so for whatever reason.
Sometimes, at the request of a particular god, we have conducted a public ceremony at a pagan gathering. What we do on such occasions is not typical of our everyday practice, as it necessarily includes a certain theatrical aspect to add dignity to the occasion and to impress the beholder (as well as, we hope, pleasing the god in question). On such occasions we wear Roman clothes and make some of the prayers in Latin (or occasionally, Welsh), but these are merely concessions to the appropriateness of the occasion. At home, cleanliness, good personal presentation, good English, and a respectful attitude are all that seem to be required. From a magical point of view, we have never found that one's choice of English or Latin makes any significant difference to the effects of the ritual.
We offer to the gods the best that we can provide, and what they interactively tell us they require - either directly, through intuition, or indirectly, through the observation of omens. Only once have we registered severe dissatisfaction at not getting the traditional animal sacrifice. Certain traditional festivals, like those of the dead, formerly held in February and May, we have moved to 31 October and Remembrance Sunday, in accordance with local custom. We do not believe that a British Roman would have acted any differently.
What we aren't
We believe we are following the spirit of the Mos Maiorum, the Way of the Elders, in a manner which is both practical in terms of the needs of this present age and culture, and respectful in that we retain those elements that are not impractical - or no longer work. However, our approach has drawn much criticism from other, more traditionalist practitioners, who have asserted that what they call our 'pick 'n mix' address to the Religio Romana, because it does not involve live animal sacrifice, does not follow ancient texts wherever possible (and in Latin at that), moves calendar dates, ignores some gods of the major pantheon and includes gods from other faiths, is no better than Wicca or Druidry.
Our response is that we are liberal reconstructionists, not re-enactors. Wicca and modern Druidry are perfectly valid spiritualities, and the only quarrel we have with these neo-pagan faiths is that their practitioners often claim to be following an ancient tradition, which they cannot by any means prove. The fact that we are selective in what parts of our tradition we choose to follow, is a different matter. If fundamentalists wish to believe that their archaic, decontextualised practices are somehow more pleasing to their gods (especially if, as we often learn, they make no effort to find out), then that is their privilege. If we prefer to believe that the gods derive more amusement than satisfaction from their narrow-minded antics, that is our privilege, too.
*Rome was founded in 753 BCE. This is just our little joke.
For Further ReadingALLASON-JONES, L, Coventina's Well, Hexham 1985.
CUNLIFFE, B., The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, Oxford 1988.
GREEN, M (1983): The Gods of Roman Britain, Aylesbury
HENIG, M (1984): Religion in Roman Britain, London
IRBY=MASSIE, G L (1999) Military Religion in Roman Britain, Leiden
MACMULLEN, R (1981): Paganism in the Roman Empire, London
ROSS, A (1992): Pagan Celtic Britain, London
TODD, M (Ed)(2003): A Companion to Roman Britain, Oxford
WEBSTER J (1995): Interpretatio: Roman Word Power and Celtic Gods, Britannia 26 (1995) 153-61.