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Through the Lens of History XVII: “By Jove!” Roman Religion and Superstition

13 December, 2010

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision XVII: By Jove! Roman Religion and Superstition

The thief who stole this, may you consume his blood and take it away, Lord Neptune.”
– Inscription on a Roman curse

The Roman World of the Republic and Empire was rife with gods, cults, rituals and superstitions. Few events were so unimportant that they did not need the blessing of the gods and the approval of the heavens. Seeking divine approval for actions taken – and yet to be taken – was an important part of Roman civic and personal life.

Equally, the Romans believed magic and spirits were everywhere and that everyday life was rife with tasks to avoid ill fortune and bad luck. This vision looks at how to incorporate these thoughts into play.

Part I – The History

The Romans were pragmatic in their religion, adapting (and stealing) gods, goddesses and religious artifacts from every corner of the lands they visited and conquered. This led to a gradual accumulation of cults, sects and religions in Rome. When things went wrong, the Romans were prone to look for a supernatural explanation. Often, the solution to troubles Rome suffered from required building a new temple … and the importing of a new god or goddess to live there, thus avoiding further preternatural troubles.

Roman religion can be divided into two broad sorts, public and private.

Public religion was carried out in the many temples and shrines, visible to all. It was public in all senses of the word, performed before the people of the city in an open manner. Indeed, Roman rites were rich with ceremony and often public spectacles with parades and public feasts. The religions considered most important to the functioning – or even the survival – of the state were financed by the Roman treasury and the state sometimes approved the priests. Many Roman government officials even held roles that combined religious duties with their municipal roles. The Romans saw both as vital to the city’s success. Faith was not something to be held in secret; it was expected that people would see your worship and know you were a faithful worshiper and supporter of the city. Religion and civic duty were intertwined.

The surviving dedication of important families and individuals to repairing the temples, shrines and statues shows the public nature of religion in Rome. Supporting a temple was a sign of faith and a show of civic support for having the gods look favorably on the city and its people. Even those who belonged to mystery cults that performed secret rites that only their members would see proudly proclaimed their memberships in those very temples. Worshipers promised actions such as sacrifices or a new statue or shrine to a god in exchange for success in a particular endeavor. Usually, these promises for such things as safety on a long journey or success in a military campaign were made publicly. These pledges were expected to be kept, for supernatural reasons and because mortals could not trust a person who dared break his word to the gods.

Household Gods

Household Gods

Households practiced private religions, but even that was not private in the sense of being alone. The entire household participated in these small rituals to please the genii (household gods) and the family’s ancestors. Romans considered a harmonious household one that worked hand in hand in the material and the spiritual worlds. Small, daily sacrifices of food and wine (libations) were made to appease the genii and to make sure the spirits and small gods knew they were valuable members of the family and household community.

Worshipers also turned to the gods for justice and revenge. One way was the use of curse tablets. Ones that have been found were written on sheets of lead and sacrificed at temples and shrines. The curses called for terrible revenge against those who wronged the person making the sacrifice. Often, the person to be punished was named only by their act: “Punish the thief who took my bracelet.”

The Romans placed great store on lucky and unlucky days. They made sure to avoid the unlucky ones. In fact, one of the reasons February has twenty-eight days is that the Romans considered the entire month ill-starred. Romans even maintained lists of days on which no official business could be conducted. The Romans looked for omens in many things. Official augurs read the future in the flights of the birds; other diviners forecast the future through the entrails of sacrifices. No one was too poor to hire the services of a soothsayer to glimpse the future.

In Roman culture, faith was a civic virtue and supporting the right temples was a mark of political and religious acumen. Part of the problem Romans had with the Judians and early Christians was that they would not go along with official religious ceremonies that were as much (if not more so) displays of civil loyalty.

Overall, Romans put great store in superstition and the existence of harmful and helpful supernatural beings. Someone from such a culture would be familiar with the superstitions, even if they did not subscribe to the beliefs. The Romans were very pragmatic about their religion, willing to use what worked.

Part II – Breaking it Apart and Putting it Back Together

An interesting use of style of Roman belief would be to allow characters to “buy” favors from the gods during (or before) adventures. These come in two types. The first are situational favors.
Lord Vulcan, master of the forge, ward me from the flames of your enemies, and I will give your temple in Ixionia a new statue!

If so inclined, the god could protect the character.  For example -using the OGL- with protection from energy (fire) as a 15th-level caster. In return, the character must provide a statue at his earliest opportunity. Such a divine gift should come only to those who have proven themselves faithful worshippers in the past. The boon should never occur more than once an adventure.

The value of the gift to the god should be at least as expensive as someone casting the spell.  In the example above it should cost at a minimum as a scroll of the spell effect (2,250 gold in the above example). But the gods appreciate generosity – when it is directed toward them.

The second type of favor is the quest or task:
Lady Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, guard me from harm during this war, and upon my return I will build you a new and glorious temple.”

These boons last for the duration of the quest or task. In the example, using the OGL it could be a +2 deflection bonus to armor class for the duration of the war – as long as the character does not offend the goddess. It is not wise to anger those protecting you.

Such a boon obviously requires a much more valuable gift in the end. It should be twice that of a magic item that provides the same effect. In the example, the effect is the same as a ring of protection +2, which costs 8,000 gold. The new temple should thus be worth 16,000 gold (or more). Making such an oath publicly at the beginning of such a task allows the character to get by with spending slightly less (as much as 10 percent) as your success is based on that of the god, making both of you look good when you do well.

If you make a bargain with the gods, though, you had better keep your end of it. The god usually gives the character one warning to make good on his promise, then the curses start flying and even other gods will not interfere. After all, if you betrayed one of them, how can they trust you now? Earning back the trust of the gods is likely to be a long and arduous task; it is best not to offend them in the first place.

Soothsayers and diviners can serve as a way for Game Masters to convey additional information, especially if characters miss an important warning. If characters resist consulting a diviner, their patron can insist on it before the characters leave on their mission.

Curse tablets are another potential plot device. If a character is guilty of a crime, he could be struck with one or more curses. While each curse could be weak in power (–1 to skill checks, –1 to saves, or so on), the cumulative effect would be to progressively weaken the character until he makes amends, either to those he has wronged or to the gods themselves.

Soothsayers and diviners should always provide cryptic information. If characters are heading to the temple of an evil serpent god and have forgotten to acquire means of neutralizing poisons, the soothsayer might say:
Sharper then a serpent’s tooth and deadlier than its gaze, beware the cups and daggers of evil.”

This way, players get the satisfaction of figuring out what the warning means – or they ignore it at their peril. Another reason to keep warnings cryptic is to prevent characters from relying upon them. Not all soothsayers can actually see the threads of the future, after all. Some are just very good at telling people what they want to hear.

All of these things can add depth to a campaign that draws upon the Roman -or similar- pantheistic tradition.

Supplemental d20 Material

New Feat

False Soothsayer [General]
You are praised as one who can see the future and advise those who wish to know their fate. However, you have no talent to see the future, just a convincing line of patter. In truth, you are nothing but a trickster.

Prerequisites: Bluff 2 ranks; Sense Motive 2 Ranks; 1 rank in Knowledge (arcana) or Knowledge (religion).

Benefit: You receive a +2 bonus on Bluff, Diplomacy and Sense Motive checks when dealing with those who think you are a soothsayer.  If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +4 for that skill.

Because of everyone telling you their problems and aspirations, you receive a +2 circumstance bonus to Knowledge (local) checks once you have been working as a soothsayer for a month or more in one community.

Note: If it is ever proven conclusively that you have no divinatory powers, those you have advised are likely to seek restitution or revenge.

Image by Mary Harrsch of items in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.

There is an excellent set of articles on polytheism on A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry by someone with a much greater knowledge of the subject.

One comment

  1. Your guidelines for divine favors are very good! Consider it stolen for my “cleric-less” game 🙂



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