Diego Lafuente’s personal blog

January 5, 2016

Superstition in Rome and the Sibylline Books


Reading historical accounts, one realizes that the level of superstition among the Romans was very high, even excessive. So much so that nowadays it would probably make us laugh to read in a magazine or newspaper that a citizen had sacrificed a cow to appease the anger of a god and bring more jobs to the city.

In Ancient Rome, however, this was not considered so amusing or eloquent. Any portent was taken very seriously, and if they accumulated, popular paranoia would escalate to unimaginable heights. And here comes the question we always ask: how to calm a people misled by paranoia? Well, in Ancient Rome they did it with hundreds of rituals and sacrifices. In this post, we will review the craziness of the Romans, some of their documented customs, and remember this: it was a different era.

Superstition has existed in the Ancient City even before its foundation. Humanity already attributed prodigies to the actions of the gods. These gods, by the way, were bothered by millions of insignificant actions or not, nothing more and nothing less than by the bad behavior of their subjects, and who could they be? These citizens, negligent in their actions, always got the rest of the population in trouble, either by blasphemy, a prayer at the wrong time or poorly pronounced, attacking a city without the permission of the gods, etc. And when the whole population had neglected something, the gods, in their right, reproached and took measures. This was the thinking of the time, and in Rome, religion was not as important at the time of its foundation as it seemed, but it was immediately after the death of Romulus.

Given that the paranoia was a significant collective problem that emotionally affected everyone, many leaders close to the city tried to implement all kinds of "solutions". However, it was in 715 BC when Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, established the Roman Religion as such and its methods for practicing it, to appease the wrath of citizens who were very bellicose, helping them find calm and thus develop a better society. Although these rituals and procedures were aimed at calming collective anxiety, they also served as a bridge to demagoguery, as all these rituals were carried out by the elite of Rome, who could afford the expenses and had the approval of the genealogical branch of the founding fathers, being the pillars of the entire political and social system. The Romans embraced the religion in such a way that they became addicted to the placebo effect it generated. In another article, I will delve deeper into the Roman religion and Numa Pompilius.