When War and Religion Meet (Megan Phillips, 2019)

When War and Religion Meet (Megan Phillips, 2019)

Abstract: War and religion play distinct and important roles in the foundation of Rome. Throughout Livy Books 1, 2 and 5 there is evidence for the importance of war and religion in their own spheres as well as how they operated together. Livy attributes much of the importance of war and religion to the foundation of Rome and its kings, but he also displays how war and religion affected the Roman culture and values. The essay evaluates how Livy conceptualizes the development of war and religion, and why these to values were important in Roman society.


In his Histories of Early Rome, Livy discusses and conceptualizes war and religion in the development of what would become the Roman Empire. Livy first addresses these two ideas as separate entities that begin to intertwine with one another as the history of Rome evolves. As war and religion intertwine in Livy’s works, they develop their own importance in the state of Rome. However, in order to convey this combination of contrasting ideas, Livy constructed his work to show how they developed separately, and both held merit in their use or creation in Rome. Livy’s work demonstrates how important the intricacy of religion was when combined with the brutality of war in Rome after they had been individually utilized and developed for Roman standards. War and religion in Roman history had to play two distinctly different roles but were also in need of the other to reach the full capability of what Rome and Roman society was meant to be.

From the beginning of his work Livy represents how important the prospect of war would be to the Roman society. It seems that Livy wants to present Rome as a war-like or war-driven society, much like the early society of Sparta. This representation is seen through the actions of Remus and Romulus when they were founding the city of Rome. Livy writes, “Remus, by way of jeering at his brother, jumped over the half-built walls of the new settlement whereupon Romulus killed him in a fit of rage” (1.7). This encounter between Romulus and Remus establishes Romulus as the sole founder and first king of Rome. In book one of Livy’s work this is the first major action we see made by Romulus and it establishes the character he displays during his time as the king of Rome. Romulus builds Rome from nothing and creates a militarily powerful young state that will continually win many of its encounters with its neighboring states. This idea of war that Romulus establishes from the beginning of Roman history is continually seen throughout the reigns of his successors. Livy writes of the encounter between Alba and Rome during the reign of Tullus Hostilius when the champions of both sides met in battle. As the champions battle it appears that Rome would lose until the final brother of the Roman champions slays all three of the Alban champions in revenge for the deaths of his brothers and for the glory of Rome. When the lone Roman champion returns to the city his sister is weeping for the loss of her betrothed who was one of the Alban champions. In response he kills her in cold-blood, but he is let free because his father declared that he would have killed his daughter if his son had not (1.24-1.26). This incident displays how deeply rooted the ideas of war and loyalty are to Rome at times of war. The Romans rely heavily on their ability to defeat other cities in battle in order to maintain the sovereignty of Rome. The idea of war and a war-like society is so deep rooted that father has the right of life and death over the members of his household, which is seen in section twenty-six of book one. War becomes so commonplace in Roman society that by the end of the reigns of Roman kings, power was taken by force during the tyranny of Tarquin the Proud and again when he is booted from power.

As seen previously, Livy focuses heavily on the Roman ideal of war and a war-like society. However, Livy directly contrasts theses ideals throughout book one by discussing the importance in the development of Roman religion. As was discussed, Romulus focused heavily on Rome’s military and their involvement in various engagements with Rome’s neighbors. His sucessor, Numa Pompilius, directly opposes the ideals that Romulus stood for from the moment he took office. Livy writes of how under the rule of Numa many priesthoods were established, such as the Flamen Dialis, the Vestal Virgins, the twelve Salii and the pontifex (1.20). Each of the positions that Numa put forth established the state religion and the necessary ceremonies for various practices and events. Though it can be seen in Livy’s work they were practiced before Numa, it was during this time that regarding of auguries became common practice and the proper thing to do. Livy writes, “They now had serious matters to consider; and believing, as they now did, that the heavenly powers took part in human affairs, they became so much absorbed in the cultivation of religion…” (1.20). Livy clearly establishes that Numa is responsible for the Roman religion. The idea of religion begins to resonate in the citizens of Rome as a practice that should readily be used either to make sure the taken action is approved by the gods or that the gods are properly respected every day. The importance of religion is shown further in book one when Tullius Hostilius leaves only the temples of Alba standing (1.29). The idea of religion permeated so far that even during his tyrannical reign, Tarquin the Proud commissioned the building of the Temple of Jupiter (1.52). Often Livy speaks of religion in Rome as an entity separated from that of war. Livy creates unique spaces for both entities within the state of Rome and how they were perceived as important to the Romans at different periods of time. He writes more about the development and use of religion in Roman society during times of peace in Rome and how these times shaped the use of religion in the times of war later during the republic.

As the history of Rome evolves, it can be seen that the entities of religion and war in Rome begin to intertwine changing how the society of Rome operated. This change in operation of society appeared in the beginning of the Roman Republic. The first instance that of this that Livy states in the moment in which Horatius and Publicola drew lots to determine who would lead the operation against Veii and who would dedicate the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. Livy continues on to say how Horatius’ family tried all they could to stop Publicola from dedicating the temple (2.9). In this instance, Livy demonstrates how integrated religion had become in Roman society, so much so that there was possibly more merit in dedicating a temple than there was in leading an operation against an enemy city. The importance of the entities of war and religion eventually begin for level out in Rome. Many times, the importance that Livy places on Roman religion comes from the spoils of war, which are made tributes for the Roman gods. Livy even writes, “Praises were showered upon the peacemakers, and to mark their appreciation they sent a gold crown as a gift to Jupiter in the temple on the Capitol” (2.23). At this point in time, the importance Rome placed on the gods after winning a battle seems to have permeated to civilizations around them. The Latins, being the ones who sent the crown to Jupiter, are showing the utmost respect for the Romans gods, whom they do not worship. They show this respect merely because the Romans showed the Latins mercy in freeing them, and the Latins felt the need to praise the Roman gods for their role. This displays just how important a role the idea of the gods has begun to play in Roman society, especially in terms of war and war-related events like the freeing the Latin prisoners of war.

The importance of Roman religion in times of war does not just include the high honor of dedicating a temple over waging war or supplying tributes to the gods after a victory in battle. The religion of Rome also provided importance in the manner of when they would go to battle. Livy writes of the war with the Etruscans in book five. He discusses how the lake in the Alban Wood flooded without any excess rainfall. A soothsayer stated that the Romans would never take Veii until the water had drained off. He is taken to the Roman senate where he explains that the gods must have wanted the message passed along and that the gods of Veii would not desert the city until the waters had subsided (5.14-5.16). By utilizing this omen from the gods, Rome was able to gauge their time accordingly and not waste time or money in a direct assault to Veii until the waters subsided. Omens and auguries like these constantly determined when a legion was to go to war and how a battle ought to be fought. The author demonstrates many times in the work how auguries were utilized to determine the will of the gods. In general, if war occurred without a blessing from the gods, the Romans lost. It became widely necessary for Rome to operate in terms of the gods’ wishes.

Livy demonstrates just how imperative that operation was because he repeatedly discusses the omens and auguries a consul had to follow before battle.  By demonstrating this, Livy is also showing that Romans put their faith in the will of the gods above all else. The fact that the will of the gods comes before all else is demonstrated further towards the end of book five. At this point, Livy writes, “He [Camillus] then ordered his troops to pile their baggage and get ready for actions. ‘It is your duty,’ he said, ‘to recover your country not by gold but by sword. You will be fighting with all you love before your eyes: the temples of the gods, your wives and children…” (5.49). The manner in which Camillus states the items that the soldiers love displays that the gods and their sacred homes should be their first love. By Livy conveying this, he is showing that even in war, the most important thing to a Roman is to please the gods and do right by their will. Livy is demonstrating the complete combination of war and religion in Roman society by the end of book five. At this point the two entities no longer exist in their own spheres of influence but overlap in order to allow for Roman civilization to operate the way that it evolved to do so since the time of Romulus and Numa.

Livy addresses the subjects of war and religion in very similar manners when they are first introduced in book one. He develops each ideal separately in Roman society, in order to display how each operate on their own. Once Livy had demonstrated how religion and war impacted the Roman society by themselves, he begins to show how the two entities operationalized together. As can be seen in books two and five, there is a clear necessity to have religion and war work together in Roman society. While Rome’s conquests continued to expand from the city itself, Livy shows how much more the Romans relied on the religion. By relying on their gods and their will while in battle, the Romans grew to be one of the strongest military forces and empires in the ancient world.