Cities of Vesuvius

- Syllabus Content -

Religion: temples, household gods, foreign cults, tombs

See Chapter 9 of your text book: "Religion and Death".


Go to the temples page of this wiki.

Official Religion
Religion was greatly influenced by the Greeks of Campania from 6th century BC. Gods were adapted and assimilated into the culture. In Pompeii and Herculaneum they worshipped a lot of different deities. With the arrival of the imperial age, the cult of the emperors was added. Augustus, his family and successors, became part of religious practices, thereby securing loyalty and unifying the empire.
There was a great emphasis on Political orientation. Religious posts were political appointments, and citizens of the town had a political duty to carry out the correct rituals to the Gods (prayer and sacrifice) to ensure prosperity, good luck and protection for the people and state.
Just as the priests presided in the temples so the paterfamilias (or head of the house) presided over the domestic shrine.
No temples have been found in Herculaneum, sanctuaries however have been found in Pompeii. And a number of the other buildings found reflect the degree to which religion was integrated into social and political life.

The Capitoline Triad
The Gods included in the triad were, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva and are identified with Zeus, Hera and Athena of the Greek culture. They are the Gods of; the protector of the state, the protector of women and the patroness of craftsmen. There is a temple, whose appearance is much like the Capitolium in Rome, in the Forum of Pompeii that is dedicated to the Triad. The likeness of appearance is a symbol of Rome’s power in Pompeii, as it became a Roman colony in 80 BC.

Hercules, Apollo and Venus
Hercules, who was regarded as Herculaneum’s founder was worshipped from a very early time in both of the towns. His following was popular among sailers and traders because of the association he had with journeys. His mythological expeditions and interest in them became more fashionable during the 1st Century AD because it was said emperors, “notably Nero, liked to be regarded as reincarnations of Hercules” (Michael Grant, Cities of Vesuvius Pg. 98)
Apollo’s worship introduced into Pompeii around the 6th Century BC, from Greece. During the 2nd Century, a single temple, built according to the Greek Hellenistic architecture, replaced a sanctuary on the western side of the forum. Augustus declared Apollo his patron and related his time of reign with the brilliant God. Apollo was also embraced by Nero as the God of music.
Venus, the Roman version of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite of love, was worshipped as a goddess of nature, Venus Fisica, and believed to have been born in the water. In paintings she is often depicted nude, and residing or laying back in a sea shell by the side of water nymphs and cherubs. Her name was invoked by many sailors who wished for her protection on the sea. With the changing of Pompeii into a roman colony in 80BC Venus became the patron Goddess of the city. Her image was painted and repeated in houses and public places.

The Imperial Cult
Augustus introduced the cult of the emperor’s genius (military force), first as a way for the people to pay political homage and 21 part-time priests called Augustales, mostly freedmen were appointed to supervise it. A large elaborate temple called the Collegium Augustalium were the main headquarters of the priests. Pompeii and Herculaneum were among the cities throughout Italy that this new cult was formed in. As time went on, Julio-Claudian emperors took steps toward deification and the cult grew.
Deities, called lares were worshipped in the home, and their public equivalent Lares Publici protectors of roads and crossroads. They became linked in someway to the emperor, because a statue of the genius of Augustus resided alongside ten young dancing lares in the Pompeian central apse.
Close by the temple of lares was a shrine initially dedicated to the Goddess Fortuna. Marcus Tullinus, however, added the epithet ‘Augusta’ thereby associating the imperial with the deity of good fortune. Tullinus, a duumvir, did this possibly to repay a political favour.

Public Ritual
Sacrificial banquets were often carried out by the appointed flamens (specialised priests to a particular god or goddess) and Augustales on behalf of the population, and were done according to strict law and ritual that was not to be changed. The priest, who was veiled, ordered complete silent to initiate the ritual slaughter by coating the blade of the knife with a special mixture made by the vestal virgins, called mola salsa.
There were precise rules telling the flames how the ritual was to be done exactly:
  • The entrails were burned and offered up to the gods
  • The rest of the flesh was divided among the guests according to status.
The priests and the magistrates were given the superior cuts of meat and sat apart from the rest of the population. The rest of the participants received only tiny portions of the inferior cuts of meat.

Household Gods

These are the things that are commonly found in a household shrine:
Lares - protectors of the household. There are usually depicted as a pair of dancing youths in short tunics with a drinking horn in the shape of an animal's head in one hand and either a wine bucket or a patera (dish).
Penates – protectors of the stores
Genius – guardian spirits of the family
Bacchus (the god of wine) and Mercury (messenger of the god Jupiter and god of commerce) were also added to some lararia.
Snake and altar – agathodemon (snake) was shown rearing its head or wrapping itself around the altar which was said to bring fertility to the family

Lararium - House of the Vettii

  • Lararia are shrines to the gods of the household, and are found in different shapes and forms in many Pompeian houses, ranging from simple wall-paintings to large and elaborate shrines.
  • The picture above which was found in the House of the Vettii, shows us a shrine in the form of a temple.
  • Columns support a pediment (which is the triangular shape on top of the picture), and frame a central painting.
  • Two dancing lares (guardians of the family, who protect the household from external threats) hold raised drinking horns.
  • They are positioned on either side of the genius (who represents the spirit of the male head of the household), who is dressed in a toga and making a sacrifice.
  • Beneath them all is a serpent. Snakes are often depicted in lararia, and were considered guardian spirits of the family.

Thermopolium of L. Vetutius Placidus
Genius (centre) with lares on either side
On the left is Bacchus and on the right is Mercury
Peristyle of the House of the Golden Cupids

Different types of lararia
  • A niche found in the walls of poorer homes with figures painted in black
  • Aedicule which is a mini temple set on a podium lined with expensive materials such as marble
  • A wall that is made to look like an aedicule (but is 2D) with the household gods also painted. (This painting technique is called trompe l'oeil ["trick the eye"].)

Worships and offerings
  • Rituals performed by the paterfamilias (the head of the family) who was the chief priest
  • Regular daily offerings and monthly celebrations were carried out, using an offering of wreath, portions of a meal (eg. Fruits and eggs) and crumbs left on the floor
  • Sometimes on a special occasion a lamb was also sacrificed

Foreign Cults

For the Cult of Isis see pp.155-157 of the text and "The Temple of Isis" on the Temples page of this wiki.

The Cult of Dionysus
(pp.157-159 of text)

Pompeii Tombs

The deceased were usually buried in tombs that lined the streets outside the city walls. It was not permitted for any cremations or burials to take place within the city walls; however, sometimes important citizens were given permission to build their tombs within this space.

Most of the excavated tombs in Pompeii provide a curious picture of the Pompeian society. They provide us valuable information about the Pompeian lives such as occupations, customs, and family relationships. By studying the tombs inscriptions in context, we can recreate some of the religious rites that were performed at the gravesites. Tombs varied from the plainest to the most elaborate monument with sculptural decoration.

Most tombs contained multiple burials, in the form of cremations since most people in Pompeii were cremated. The deceased’s ashes were placed in urns, which were either stored inside a tomb; usually alongside with other members of the family, or buried underground beneath a herm. The herm itself would mark the actual point of burial, and would often be connected to the urn below by a pipe, which allowed for the pouring of libations onto the ashes. Not all herms were inscribed, but many displayed simple texts that records the deceased’s name and age.

Another local type of tombs was the ‘exedra’ or ‘seat-tomb.’ These were large monuments, consisting of a masonry seat (usually semicircular) and were capable of accommodating at least 8 passers-by. All tombs of this type were granted as a public honour to the deceased’s achievements and social status. Not everyone was honoured with public tombs as they were usually intended for prominent magistrates, benefactors or priestesses. Some of the seat-tombs were decorated with bas-reliefs which recalled the deceased’s occupations and contributions to the Pompeian society.

Priestess Mamia was honoured with the seat-tomb imposing monument was designed to allow passers-by to sit down for recognition of her services to the town.

Families who had very little money inheritance had often belonged to a funeral club. This is where these people paid a fee while alive, which made sure that they were cremated after their deaths and were interred in a mausoleum with others in the same club. In this way, they would not be forgotten.
Unlike freedmen and freedwomen, the status of slave was rarely explicitly recorded on tombstones in Pompeii. Conviva, a slave of Veia who lived for 20 years, is inscribed on a marble plaque from a tomb outside Nucerian Gate, beneath which was a terracotta jar containing bones and a low denomination coin of the Republic.

A few notices of births have been found. Considering the rate of infant mortality in roman times, children are certainly under-represented in funerary inscriptions, but it is characteristic of those who are commemorated as infants that their ages at death are recorded in more detail than usual for adults.
The tomb of the public priestess and benefactor, Eumachia, was the largest tomb discovered so far. It incorporated a huge seat area, much bigger than any other tombs, a large terrace and a locked entrance door, which gave access to the steps up to the terrace.