Fighting and Praying the Roman Way (Riley LoCurto, 2019)

Fighting and Praying the Roman Way      (Riley LoCurto, 2019)

Abstract: War and religion are the two pillars of Roman society and culture. In Livy’s histories of Rome, he tells many stories about how Rome came to be, and what came to be important to Rome. Naturally, he recounts old wars and conquests, but he speaks extensively on religion as well. This points to how singularly important to two are. This paper seeks to analyze the way that the roles of war and religion developed through time, as described in the books 1, 2, and 5 of Livy. In these books detailing early Roman history, it becomes clear that the relationship between the two became increasingly intertwined rather than being mutually exclusive. In the beginning, during the time of the kings, these two elements are very separate despite their centrality to the state. Over time, war is increasingly dependent on religion and the importance of omens in warfare is established. During times of internal strife, when citizens are not following the state, their devotion to the gods is always intact and never questioned. In his writing, Livy provides us with his view of these two most important elements of Roman society, and how their roles shifted over time with the development of Rome.

War and religion take important, though fundamentally different, roles in most any society, and the same holds true for Roman society. Throughout the texts of Livy’s books 1, 2, and 5, the ancient author provides numerous examples of the Romans’ exploits on the battlefield, as well as many examples of their religious devotion. These two activities of the Romans are, in fact, the two most important lights in which Livy paints them. However, these two cultural pillars are not presented as separate and exclusive entities. At the outset of his history Livy separates war and religion, but Book 5 the two are intertwined. The end result presents a melding of the two into a coexistence and a dependence, with the two ultimately complementing each other while occupying different levels of importance.

  1. War, Religion, and the Roman kings

From the very beginning of Rome’s history, religion and war had a preeminent role. The founding of Rome itself has an extremely mythic tale attached to it. The story of Romulus and Remus, who are said to be the sons of the god Mars, immediately grounds the Roman civilization into a divine narrative (Livy 1.3). Even when founding the city, Romulus and Remus consult with the gods by augury to decide who would become the leader of the city (Livy 1.7). This does not end clearly- the augury for each brother is interpreted differently, and the incident ends in Romulus killing his brother (Livy 1.7). In this instance, the consulting of religion is seen as necessary. Livy tells the early history of Rome by going through each of its kings. The reign of Romulus is marked by expansion and, specifically, the Rape of the Sabine Women, in which the Romans kidnap the Sabine women during a religious festival (Livy 1.9). While religion is certainly important to the Romans, at this moment they do not show the proper reverence that one would expect for a religious ceremony.

Livy treats war and religion as almost separate concepts in Book 1, with the first three kings switching between them. When Livy describes the ascendency of Numa Pompilius to the throne, he remarks, “Rome had originally been founded by force of arms; the new king now prepared to give the community a second beginning, this time on the solid basis of law and religious observance” (Livy 1.18). This characterization continues throughout the sections dedicated to Numa. In every instance, Numa is extremely devoted to religion and the development of Rome’s religious observances and traditions (Livy 1.20). Coincidentally, Numa’s reign is also characterized by a Rome at peace (Livy 1.22). With these first two kings, Livy presents war and religion as aspects of Roman culture that are extremely important, but not necessarily integrated together.

This continues in Livy’s description of Tullus’s reign, who is almost completely identified with war, and at the end of his reign Livy writes that his one shortcoming was in his neglect of religion (Livy 1.31-1.32). It is only with Tullus’s successor, Ancus, that war and religion start to coexist. Livy describes Ancus as having “in him something of Numa and something of Romulus too” (Livy 1.32). Ancus is credited with creating the Romans’ formal declaration of war, one in which the gods are invoked heavily and is highly ceremonial (Livy 1.32). Thus, throughout the reigns of the kings there is a separation between war and religion, one is paired to Romulus, and later Tullus, while religion is associated with Numa. It is only later, over the course of more than one king’s reign,  that Livy presents the two existing simultaneously.

  1. Omens and foretellings

When Livy starts to present war and religion as more heavily intertwined, it is often with the telling of religious omens that either must be consulted before an action is taken, or foretell what is to come. An early example of this is the story he recounts of Tarquin’s attempt to add formations to the existing centuries of the Roman army. Livy notes that when Romulus attempted to do the same thing, he consulted the auguries beforehand, and Tarquin’s failure to do so leads to a confrontation between him and an augur, with Tarquin ridiculing the need for the augury. Ultimately, Tarquin is proved wrong by the augur, who does this by reading the king’s mind and cutting a whetstone in half with a razor (Livy 1.36). What this story serves in Livy’s narrative is to demonstrate the important way that religious ceremonies were used and were supposed to be used within war. He also connects this tradition of ceremonial auspices before war back to Romulus, which emphasizes its importance, while also positioning this tale of Tarquin as the event that clinched this importance for the future (Livy 1.36). Livy has positioned this incident as one that influenced the ceremonies of Roman religious ceremonies in war.

Livy also begins to demonstrate the ways that religion is viewed as an absolutely central aspect of Roman life that supersedes most everything else. In one instance, the two consuls Horatius and Publicola divide up the tasks of a religious ceremony and Rome’s ongoing conflict with Veii. Of the two tasks, the religious ceremony is viewed as being so much more grand that the family of the consul sent off to war is insulted (Livy 2.9). This demonstrates the enormous weight and honor that was attached to religion, and the fact that it had a preeminent place above that of war. Later on, when Rome is at war with Etruria and Veii, Livy gives many examples of the Roman troops disobeying orders or refusing to fight. Before battle, the Roman commander Fabius states that, “On one occasion Roman soldiers betrayed their commander on the field; they will never betray the gods” (Livy 2.46). Again, by using the gods to inspire devotion in soldiers that were not exhibiting the standard Roman deference to authority, religion is shown to supersede these other bonds of Roman culture. Even when the bonds of deference so necessary to wage war are in peril, the Roman deference to the gods is never in doubt. The two concepts are clearly not the same, not held in the same regard, and occupy different spaces within Roman life; but here the importance of religion is used to motivate the gears of war. War and religion, while separate, are thus used together.

Omens hold extreme importance in war, and this only grows over time. This is extremely present in Book 5, when Livy recounts the wars with Veii and the sack of Rome by the Gauls. During the course of the war, the Romans received many bad omens. In each case, the Romans chose to respond to each specifically so as to fix whatever problems they thought the gods were pointing out to them. In response to a plague, the Romans consulted with the Sibylline Books and performed rituals to gain back the favor of the gods (Livy 5.13). The most important omen from the war with Veii concerned the Alban Lake, and the Romans immediately sent off to Delphi to find out the meaning; in the meantime, an Etruscan soothsayer foretold that the Romans would only take Veii once the Alban Lake was drained (Livy 5.14). When the news from the Oracle agreed with the soothsayer, the Romans also soon found that some discrepancy with a festival celebration had angered the gods (Livy 5.16). All this to say, the omens sent by the gods in this instance were viewed as being the determining factor in the war against Veii, and from the moment the Romans found out about this prophecy and acted on it Livy treats Veii as essentially doomed. Rome’s commander Camillus also makes lavish vows to the gods in case of victory, and these are treated with extreme importance (Livy 5.21). Livy as much as says that the gods had doomed Veii and “were even then turning their divine eyes towards new homes in the temples of their enemies” (Livy 5.21). Essentially, the war with Veii is ultimately decided by of these religious omens and promises made by Rome. Yes, the commander is highly praised, but the implication is that Rome won because it was divinely foretold, again emphasizing the preeminence of religion within war.

After the Gauls destroyed Rome, religion is portrayed as so integral to the Roman people and Rome as a city that it tethers them to their city despite its destruction. The entire Roman failure with the Gauls is blamed on the fact that the Romans ignored omens and the laws of the gods (Livy 5.51). Because of this, the Romans found themselves on the other end of divine retribution. In the wake of that failure, Camillus portrays the Romans “remembering” their  religion as what ultimately saved them, and he uses it as an argument to stay committed to Rome (Livy 5.51-5.52). He also emphasizes that the Romans cannot practice their religion and religious ceremonies outside of Rome, essentially claiming that the city itself is holy (Livy 5.51-5.52). By doing this, religion is presented as the reason for everything that has happened and also the only way for Rome to recover.

  1. Conclusion

The relationship between war and religion is fluid throughout the text. Livy clearly portrays the two aspects of Roman society as having different meanings and different levels of importance at different points in time. Ultimately, Livy portrays Rome as trying to find a balance between them, one that incorporates war and religion into each other without one consuming the other. They are at first presented as separate, and they become closer over time as Rome worked out exactly what that relationship would be. This is clear from the early days of Rome, where it seemed as if the kings were switching off between war and religion. As Livy progresses, he shows more and more of a coexistence between the two, with war being increasingly dependant on religious omens and foretellings. Eventually, everything that happens is presented as a product of the Romans’ religion. Livy chooses to present these two concepts this way to further emphasize the importance of both religion and war in the Roman culture. Both are important and necessary to the Roman way of life, and in his history Livy is writing how that way of life came to be. It did not spring to life all at once- it developed over time. By showing this development, Livy is able to provide a much more complex history.




















Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome from Its Foundations. Trans. by Aubrey De Sélincourt. London: Penguin Press, 1960. Print.