Religion in Ancient Pompeii

Scenes at the Villa of Mysteries depict the role of deities in rites of passage.
... Jupiterimages/ Images

A lot of what we know about daily life in ancient Rome comes from the work of archaeologists excavating the city of Pompeii. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. covered the city in molten lava, leaving much of it almost intact. Excavations of the site have revealed villas and temples, which show the role religion played in both home and public life, as well as the diversity of beliefs.

1 The Household Gods

Roman households had a shrine for their gods and goddesses of choice who they believed protected and assisted the family. These shrines were often situated near the kitchen area because looking after the family's food was vital to survival. Typically, the father led household religious observances, which were informal compared to public rituals. The shrine usually featured statues or paintings of the Lares: a group of spirits who offered protection for specific purposes, such as military action or travel, and one who protected the whole family, including slaves. Another important household deity was the "genius familiae." He was depicted as a man wearing a toga and often carrying a cornucopia. The genius' function was to support the health, fertility and continuity of the family. The women of the family were represented by depictions of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and Juno, associated with female fertility. Offerings to the gods usually took the form of wine and honey cakes.

2 Roman Deities

Roman deities were represented at temples to Apollo, Jupiter, Juno, Minerva and Venus in Pompeii. Temples were typically dedicated to one of the deities and contained a statue of them. Worshippers didn't enter the temple: priests presided over rituals and received offerings at an altar placed in front of the temple. The ancient Romans placed great emphasis on rituals being performed correctly. They used divination to find out if a god was pleased with the performance of a ritual. Two examples of divination are examining the liver of a sacrificed animal and watching the direction of birds in flight.

3 The Temple of Isis

One of the best preserved temples in Pompeii is the Temple of Isis. An inscription says that it was restored following the earthquake of 62 A.D. The temple is unique in that it is built in the Greek style for an Egyptian deity. The cult of Isis arrived in Pompeii largely due to the spread of the Roman empire throughout Egypt. In Egyptian mythology, she brings her husband Osiris back to life with her magic. Isis was popular throughout Pompeii, especially with the poor because her cult promised resurrection and immortality.

4 Villa of Mysteries

Secret initiation rites played an important role in the life of Pompeii's citizens, judging by the Villa of Mysteries. The large villa contains an "initiation chamber" painted with a series of frescoes and was used for important rites of passage, often taking a dramatic form where initiates acted out death and rebirth. Deities featured in the frescoes include Bacchus, the god associated with drinking and sensuality, and Eros, the god of love.

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.