Through the Lens of History 1 – By the Gods!

15 July, 2009

Tis the ides of July, and time to journey back in time.  Welcome to:

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 1: By the Gods! The Faiths of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Ave and well met.  Welcome to the first installment of Through the Lens of History where I will take various pieces of history and show how they can be used to make compelling settings and scenarios for games.

The subject of this installment is Ancient Religion; focusing on those of Greece and Rome.  Modern religion in the West is heavily shaped by the success in the Western world of the various Christian denominations and the prevalent separation of Church and State but it was not always so . . .

Part I – The History
The Ancient Greeks and Romans paid respect to a wide pantheon of gods and goddesses, in both public and private ways.  The Romans admired Greek culture and adopted much of Greek religion, even incorporating many of their own gods within the Greek myths creating a continuity of faith and belief between the two societies.  The civic religion of the city-states was a public celebration, sanctioned by the authorities, to please the gods and benefit the city.  Private religion was the personal faith of the individual and ranged from the universal acknowledging of the household gods to enthusiastically joining cults of various types.

Religion and authority have been intertwined for as long as there have been recognizable versions of either.  Priests acted as advisors, scribes and scholars, keeping the early empires running while the kings provided leadership and the military power needed to protect the empire.  Vast religious ceremonies and pageantry featured rulers as divine representatives of the gods to awe and inspire their people.  Here, religion supported the state and the state returned the favor making it very difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.

The polis or city-states of Ancient Greece and Italy readily mixed religion and the state.  Each of the Greek polis had its own patron god or goddess, such as wise Athena for the city of Athens.  The divine patron symbolized their city and the god and their associated symbols were used in art and coinage representing the city.  The gods were thanked for their patronage during great festivals which adored the gods through parades, songs and sacrifices.

Among the festivals were the celebrations of the first fruits, at the beginning of the harvest to thank the gods for their generosity.  Athletic games and contests of drama and poetry were often parts of the festivals, this was how the Olympic Games began, and were dedicated to the gods.  Greek religious beliefs held that the Olympians enjoyed the same things as their mortal followers.

Religion was a public occasion, even among the mystery cults (more about them later), with many open displays of piety.  Worshipers prayed standing proudly before the gods, speaking loudly so that all could hear.  Both the Greeks and Romans believed in the dignity of humanity and did not prostrate themselves before the gods but approached them as one seeking aid from a trusted superior would; and with confidence.  Festivals were religion writ large, an occasion for the entire community to thank and beseech the gods, to publicly show both the piety and wealth of the city.

Public religion was very important to the people of the polis, as a unifying force of tradition and civic pride, the very soul of the city.  It was an aspect of civil society, joining religion and politics, as well as a chance to see and be seen. Following the public religion was expected of all who lived there, it was a sign of being part of the city, but people were also welcome to follow whatever other gods they wished (as long as they were not a threat to the state).  But there was private religion as well.

One such private religion was the mystery cult, so called because the members learned greater religious ‘mysteries’ (secrets) as they gained greater levels of initiation within the cult.  Membership and even initiate rank was something that was usually openly and proudly proclaimed.  It was just the actual religious mysteries that were kept secret.  Mystery cults can be viewed more as exclusive clubs rather than secret societies.  They certainly supported their members’ ambitions and helped one another to advance but they did not seem (as a general rule) to be seeking to change or overthrow the governments they lived under.  Most of the mystery cults came from either the fringes of the Greco-Roman World or from outside of it.  Because of this they were sometimes called ‘Eastern Cults’ and occasional provoked official suspicion and backlash against their members.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, sacrifices were an important way to thank the gods for their patronage and assistance (and to demonstrate one’s wealth and piety).  Typical sacrifices were animals; large animals for major festivals, smaller ones for lesser occasions (or smaller budgets).  The temples were places for the gods to keep their belongings, while the sacrifices were performed in public at altars in open places where the smoke of the offering could make its way up to the gods.  The animal was killed before the altar where it was ritually butchered by a priest or priestess.  The inedible parts were burned for the god, hence “burnt offerings,” while the remainder was cooked and shared by the priests and worshipers.

A common small sacrifice was the libation.  When drinking wine, a small portion was first poured out upon the ground to thank the gods.  Other sacrifices given were tokens inscribed with thanks, decorations for the temples and shrines, and, for the wealthy, new buildings and land for the temples.  These sacrifices were often lavishly decorated and openly inscribed with the name of the giver and the reason for the gift.  These offerings were given in thanks for such things as returning safely from a dangerous trip or success in some endeavor.  In the household shrines, simple sacrifices were made, incense was burned for the gods and they were given a small share of each meal as well as libations.

Just as there were gods of the city, there were gods of the household as well.  The Romans had the lares that protected their homes and occupants.  Sacrifices were made to them throughout the month by the household.  Gods abounded in the polytheistic system, from the small gods of the house to major deities that guided cities.  Nothing was so unimportant that it did not to have its own god to whom a sacrifice could be made.

Sacrifice was important as a symbol that joined god and worshiper.  The worshiper sacrificed in thanks for aid that the god had given and with the expectation that the god would continue to look kindly upon him.  If things went wrong, then the worshiper either had not sacrificed enough or had made some mistake in the rites.

The Romans were great sticklers for “the right rites” expecting them to be performed exactly as they had been done in the past, and attributing any misfortune to failing in properly performing the ritual.  Indeed Rome possessed an entire class of religious specialists, called a pontifex (pl. pontiffs), who possessed their own college and advised worshipers on what rites were needed and how to perform them.  The head of this college, the pontifex maximus, became an important political post and was held by Julius Caesar, by later Roman Emperors, and, even today, if one of the titles of the Pope.

In Rome, and to a lesser extent in Greece, important rituals were performed by civic officers who acted in a priestly role as part of their official duties.  For example, a senator might undertake a ritual sacrifice to Mars, god of war, before sending the army to fight.  A pontifex would direct the senator in the proper ritual and the senator would undertake it, acting as a priest for the duration of the rite.  This often made the line between civic officials and civic priests a thin one.  Though professional priests and other religious specialists did exist and performed rituals for both the public religion and for private citizens.

As is evidenced, religion and civil society had a complex interplay in the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures and this article did not even touch upon oracles and divination.  For the city-states, religion and government walked hand in hand, one supporting the other.  While private citizens supported the gods of their city, they often sought out more for themselves, a private religion that appealed to their own sense of faith.   In a pantheistic society, worshiping several gods was not only acceptable, it was expected.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together
Now, this is all well and good you are saying but how does it affect a game?
Most game worlds, like the Ancient Greek and Roman states, are based on pantheistic religious structures.  By looking at them we can gather some idea of how game worlds may treat religion and faith.  What ideas can we use?

Public Gods.  Each city is likely to have its patron god or goddess and a devoted civic cult.  People who stay in the city, especially if they are wealthy and influential, will be expected to support the civic cult, or, at the very least, not interfere with it even if their patron is a different god.  This is not a betrayal of a pantheistic god, just an acknowledgment that you are in someone else’s territory and that you show respect for them.

Faith is not binary in pantheistic system, you may have one god as your patron deity, but you ask another appropriate god or goddess for help as needed.  For example, Ares, god of war, will not help you get a good crop.  For that you appeal to Demeter, goddess of grains.  The city and its people are going to be suspicious of those who will not join in and support the civic religion.  After all, the government and the religion are allied and if you do not respect their god, you are not showing respect to the city.

Festivals.  Everyone likes a celebration!  It is a chance to unwind, to have some fun and thank the gods as well.  Everyone is happy, right?  All sort of things can go wrong at a festival:
•    A rival power might wish to sabotage the festival to offend the gods and make the city vulnerable to attack.  Perhaps the prize sacrifice has been stolen and must be recovered . . . in a few short hours before the parade starts.
•    There are shady dealings at a contest and the characters are asked to help one of the factions who has been suffering mysterious accidents.  This would be especially effective if the characters are foreigners, then they could be asked to help fellow countrymen who are competing.
•    The characters may wish to compete in the contests of a festival themselves.  Be it a festival of sports, like the Olympics, or of dramas or poetry.  It will give the characters a taste of something different.  However, their rivals are very intent on winning, as it is a great honor.  Will the competition stoop to dishonorable means to insure their victory?  Will the characters?
•    An impartial judge is needed for one of the contests and one of the player characters is chosen.  Everyone wants to win this year and offers of bribes and threats soon start pouring in.  As the character is tempted, remind them that the gods may be watching as well.  Is it better to offend mortal or divine powers?

Mystery Cults.  Something is up with one of the mystery cults and it may represent a threat to the social order.  The characters are asked to investigate the cult and spy on the secret religious ceremonies to see if the cultists are planning anything illegal.  The activities of the cult may or may not be entirely innocent, but in either case they will be upset to find people spying on private ceremonies.

The character may find the idea of a mystery cult intriguing and join.  This could put them on the opposite side of the equation, trying to convince the city that they do not have any ill intentions toward the city, but at the same time being unable to reveal any of the secrets of the cult.

Pontifex Politics. One of the characters wants to seek office as a pontifex and the college of pontiff plans a rigorous set of tasks to test the character’s worth.  The pontifex’s post carries status and influence, making it valuable to the rival political factions making it much sought after.  The character is likely to face considerable difficulties in their tests from both expected and unexpected quarters.

“The Right Rite.” Something is going very wrong for one of the cities and it is discovered that it is because an important rite has not been performed.  But they are not sure which one it is because it has been lost!  Earthquakes, fire or war, or even the humble rat, may have destroyed the needed information in the temple’s archive.  Now the city’s priests and agents are scouring libraries and temples far and wide to try and regain the missing ritual.
As things keep going from bad to worse in the city, a great reward is offered for the missing ritual.  This causes charlatans and fakes of all stripes to come pouring into the city offering false hope and ineffective rites.  Can the characters find the right rite and save the city?

Supplemental d20 Material (OGL):
New Feats

Civic Priest [General]
You are authorized to oversee religious rites and rituals in your home city and are afforded respect and honor because of it.

Prerequisites: Citizen of the city, Diplomacy 2 ranks, Knowledge (religion) 2 ranks.

Benefit: You gain a +2 bonus to Diplomacy checks.  When dealing with others in your city you receive a +2 circumstance bonus to Bluff, Intimidate and Gather Information checks as long as you are acting in an official capacity.  Most citizens of your city will offer you reasonable aid if requested.

Special: As a civic priest, you will be expected to attend festivals, oversee rites and other such duties for your city.

Note that this feat does not require any actual ability to cast divine spells, the DM may change that to suit the campaign.

Pontifex [General]
You are recognized and skilled in the proper instruction of religious rites and proper rituals.      Those who follow your instructions exactly can gain greater results from their faith.

Prerequisites: Citizen of the city, acceptance into the college of Pontiffs, Concentration, Diplomacy 2 ranks, Knowledge (religion) 4 ranks, Wis 11.

Benefit: You gain a +1 circumstance bonus to Diplomacy checks involving anyone who lives in your city or who is pious towards your city’s gods and a +1 bonus to Knowledge (religion) checks.

By working with a divine spell caster, you can increase the power of their spells.  The divine spell caster must follow your instructions exactly.  This increases the casting time of the spell by one minute per level of the spell and requires sacrifices worth 50 gold per level of spell being cast.  The Pontifex must make a Knowledge (religion) check with a Difficulty Class of 10 + the level of the spell and the caster must make a Concentration check with the same DC.  If either check is failed, the spell is unsuccessful and is lost without effect.  If both are successful, the spell is cast as if the caster were two levels higher.  Only one pontifex can advise on any ritual.

Special: As a pontifex you will be expected to advise and direct religious rites and rituals for the city.

Note that this feat does not require any actual ability to cast divine spells, the DM may change that to suit the campaign.

The mechanics of both of the above feats are adapted from Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved book, from the feats Priest and Aid Spellcasting respectively.



  1. Wow. A lot of good stuff here! Like how you’ve translated some of this into system-specific items as well which gives d20 DMs bang for their virtual buck.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! Hope that it proves of someuse to you. I had forgotten how much information was packed into that article.

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