The Sacred in the Roman Tradition

From Fustel de Coulanges to Kerenyi and Dumézil, Julius Evola got interested in the works of the most renowned modern specialists of ancient Rome. If the Roman cult is examined by the three of them, sometimes with much pertinence, Fustel de Coulanges’ work is mainly concerned with the political institutions of ancient Rome and their foundations, and more precisely, with the relations between propriety and political-religious institutions ; Kerenyi’s with Roman mythology, along Jungian lines ; Dumézil’s with the primitive organisation of the Roman cult and its evolution up to the Augustean restoration, within the framework of a comparative study of Indo-European peoples’ ‘religion’. Very few historians have dedicated a work to the very concept of sacredness in ancient Rome. Vittorio Macchioro, director of the National Museum under Fascism, a great classicist and a great specialist in Orphism *, did, in ‘Roma Capta. Saggio intorno alla religione dei Romani’, Messine : Principato, 1928.

It was reviewed by Julius Evola in an article published in ‘Ur’ : ‘Sul ‘sacro’ nella tradizione romana’. Actually, it is more than a review. Much more.


In 1929, the editions Principato published a book by Vittorio Macchioro called ‘Roma Capta. Saggio intorno alla religione dei Romani’, a book remarkable for the seriousness of its documentation, for the limpidity of its exposition and for illustrating the acute sense of the tragedy in which the ancient sacred Roman tradition was involved. Certainly, we disagree on more than one point with the interpretation of Macchioro. Macchioro, as almost all contemporary ‘erudite persons’, lack the doctrinal and traditional points of reference which alone allow us to understand the positive essence of what can be referred to as pre-modern spirituality. Nevertheless, in his book, he gives us a great deal of partially organised material which can be used by the one who wants to explore in depths the world of Roman spirituality prior the period in which it was altered by alien influences. We will use it in this essay, meant to bring to light other aspects of the Roman tradition than those which have been the subject of previous monographs.

Sallust uses the expression « religiossimi mortales » (‘The Conspiracy of Catiline’, 13) for original Romans, and Cicero stated that ancient Roman civilisation was the one which, by its sense of the sacred, surpassed any other people or nation, « omnes gentes nationesque superavimus » (‘On the Responses of the Haruspices’, IX, 19). These testimonies and others which can be found in a whole series of ancient writers, if they constitute a formal refutation of the views of those who, in Roman civilisation, see and bring out only the civil, political and juridical profane aspects, must still not create misunderstandings with respect to the use, precisely, of the term ‘religion’. As a matter of fact, the primordial ‘religion’ of Romans, the traditional one which was linked to the mysterious origins of the ‘sacred city’, has not much to do with what that expression means generally today.

First point. The personification of the divine was almost completely lacking in the ancient Roman ‘religion’, so much so that images were absent in the cult. The ancient Roman had a fundamental aversion to thinking by means of images. Hence, in the profane field, one of the reasons for the contempt which ancient Romans had for the artist was their original pride for distinguishing themselves by very different ideals than the creation of images and the sculpture of marble. Hence, in the field of the sacred, the non-existence, in the first Romanity, of a mythology of the kind of that which is used to be called Greek, but which it would be better to call of the Greek decadence. The Roman knew even less gods as philosophical abstractions, as theological concepts, as speculative hypotheses. In Roman reality, thought, taken in this sense, had just as little room as, precisely, the outwardness of figurative arts had.

Thus, it was not as ‘thought’, nor as a mythological world, nor even as backbone of a mere faith, that the Roman knew the divine. The Roman knew the divine as action. Before that of the deus, the sensation of the numen was deep in the Roman : and the numen is the divinity conceived of not so much as a ‘person’ than as a ‘power’, a principle of action ; it is the entity whose representation did not matter (at best, the ancient Roman used symbolical objects to represent the numen : the spear, the fire, the shield, and so on), but only its positive action. Thus, it may well be said that the ancient Roman ‘religion’ had an ‘experimental’ character. Servius, in the commentary on the ‘Eneade’ (III, 456), brought distinctly to light this point by saying that ancient Romans, maiores nostri, placed the whole religion not in faith, but in experience : « maiores enim expugnando religionem totum in experientia collocabunt ». To this can be added the testimony of Lactancius (‘Divine Institutions’, IV, 3), who informs us that Roman ‘religion’ was not aimed at searching for the ‘truth’, but only at knowing the rite : « nec habet inquisitionem aliquam veritas sed tantummodo ritum colendi ».

It is thus legitimate to speak of a specifically Roman active-intensive conception of the sacred. It seems that the ancient Roman still kept that relationship with the sphere of essentiality, which made him exclude from his original traditions any fantastic and mythological form of supra-sensitive perception. We know well that traditional mythologies, with their various figures, are not creations of human imagination, but systems of forms in which imagination, with its images, expresses, corporalises supra-sensitive experiences. But we also know well that those modes of an indirect and mythologised experience are inferior to an experience which is direct and absolute, that is, without forms and without images : mute, essential. This is precisely the level of the Roman conception of the sacred. This conception can be seen as the coherent sacred counterpart of that realism, of that intolerance for the unessential, the non-essential, the sentimental and the subjectivity which, originally, was always a Roman rule on the ethical, political and social plane. And just as the consciousness of a higher ethos – that inner style of life directly possessed which made the first ambassador of an already altered Hellade say that he had found himself, in the Roman Senate, not in a gathering of barbarians, as he had feared, but almost as in a « council of kings » – was hidden in the Roman contempt for aesthetes and ‘philosophers’, so, in the apparent poverty of the original Roman cult, in its dry and bare forms, foreign to any mysticism and pathos, to any fanciful and aesthetic rags, there is something mysterious and powerful, which, in its greatness, turns out to be hard to conceive : a breath of primordiality.

The conception of god as numen corresponds, in ancient Rome, to the conception of the cult as pure rite. It accompanied any aspect of Roman life, both individual and collective, both private and political, both in peace times and in war times. The most ancient Roman religion was linked to the so-called Indigitamenta. Indigitare means, more or less, to invoke. The Indigitamenta were a treatise in which the names of the various gods and the occasions in which each of them could be evoked effectively, according to its nature and, so to speak, its jurisdiction, were written down. Those names were thus nomina agentis, that is to say that they did not have a mythological, but practical origin. They encompassed also mysterious relations, based on the ancient idea according to which the name contains, to a certain extent, the power, the soul of the named and evoked things. The Roman expression which always accompanied the rite is characteristic : « I feel that I am naming ». It fixed the deep consciousness of the action, its power, the participation in its ‘fatal’ aspect, which will convert it into a command to the invisible.

Thus, not prayers or dogmas, but rites. The relations of the Roman with the sacred had their principle and their end in the rite. Roman ‘religion’ – Macchioro writes – « never had a theoretical or ethical or metaphysical content, it never possessed, and never wanted to possess, a whole of doctrines, either on God, or on the world, or on man ; it exhausted itself in the rite. There was no religion, either good or bad, either true or false, outside the rite. To accomplish exactly the rite means to be religious. The one who alters the rite comes out of the limits of religion, and however pure and sincere his intention, falls into superstition ».

This is why the determination of the true, that is effective, adequate, determining, rite constituted the centre of Roman ‘religion’. There was thus a ius sacrum, that is, a fixed traditional rite, which coincided with religion and which, as such, could not be changed in the slightest without the relation with the god involved in the accomplishment of the rite being destroyed. The slightest breach in the ius sacrum, be it by inattention, caused a piaculum, so that the whole ceremony had to be redone. If the one who was guilty of the piaculum had made deliberately the mistake, then his relation with the divinity was broken for ever and he was outside the ius sacrum, impius and subject to divine punishment ; if the piaculum was unintentional, then the relation was established again with an expiatory sacrifice ». – As far as ‘divine punishment’ and ‘expiation’ is concerned, let us be quite clear about it. Here, it is not about ‘sin’ or ‘repentance’. In a laboratory, by clumsiness or by imprudence, an experience can be spoiled. Then, it needs to be redone, if one has not suffered the consequences of the mistake, which the slightest thing can have been enough to cause. The same thing can be thought of ritual action. When the ancient Roman tradition speaks of a person who was ‘struck’ for having altered the rite of a sacrifice, one can only see in this ‘divine punishment’ the impersonal effect of evoked and badly manipulated forces. As for expiation or expiatory sacrifice, it did not have the signification of a moral act of contrition, but, if we may put it this way, of an objective operation of detoxification and of reintegration of the one who had paved inadvertently the way for forces which polarised in a negative sense, and such as to weaken the objective power of ‘evoking’ and of indigitare in the person of the guilty one.

It is in rite, in the inflexible tradition, well-defined in every respect, of rite as a tradition of transcendent action that, not only Roman life, but also Roman greatness, was centred. Valerio Massimo (I, 1, 3) mentions that the Romans attributed their luck to their ritual scrupulousness. According to Livy (XVII, 9) (1), after the terrible battle of Trasimene, it is not a priest, but a general, Fabius, who said to the soldiers : « Your mistake is more to have neglected sacrifice than to have lacked courage or skill ». Plutarch (‘The Life of Marcellus’, 4) (2) mentions that, in the tragic moments of the Gallic war, the Romans « thought it more important for the protection of the city that the Consuls practised divine things rather than they beat the enemy ». The mystery of the origins prevailed  : « Rome could not have gained so much power if it had not had divine origins, so as to show to the eyes of men something great and inexplicable » (Plutarch, ‘On the Fortune of the Romans’, I, 8) (3). And, as a last echo, Emperor Julian (‘Against the Galilaeans’, 222c) does not hesitate to say that he could not oppose « either the dominion of all the barbarian countries, together with the Roman ones » to the ritual knowledge of the gods (4).

The one who does not manage to see the virile, dry splendour of that spirituality because any ‘religious intimacy’, any sentimentalism and any theological speculation appears as almost non-existent in that world made of numina and of riti, can be inclined to define the Roman vision of sacred as a ‘magical primitivism’, almost of savage peoples. Macchioro himself seems to be of that opinion. But the readers know already enough to prevent similar incomprehensions. They know that, if ‘magic’ may have been an ancient traditional science of a not very high type, which was banned more than once by the Romans themselves, it can still mark a spiritual attitude which is to the ‘religious’ (in the common devotional sense) one what the masculine is to the feminine, what the ‘solar’ is to the ‘lunar’. As for savages, the reader knows likewise that, for us, they represent the crepuscular fragments of most ancient races and civilisations, whose very name has often been lost today. And since what was in the origins is not the inferior, but the superior, what is the closest to absolute spirituality, so the fact that certain traditions among savages survive only in materialised, bestial, degenerating forms must still not prevent us from acknowledging the sense and the dignity which is theirs once they are brought back to the origins. This applies, to a large extent, to what is ‘magic’, and not witchcraft, in savages. Primitive Rome embodied, not in degenerating forms as in those poor morainic remains, but in still bright and self-conscious forms, that original spirituality, with which it impregnated its whole life and gave strength occultly to its greatness precisely by means of the rite and of the tradition of rite.

Let us now come to another characteristic of the Roman conception of the sacred. It’s ‘immanence’. In this respect, one should not think of the speculations of ‘idealist’ modern philosophy. To explain ourselves, let us compare the style of Roman spirituality with the Hellenic one. Whereas the latter is mainly under a – let us put this way – spatial sign, the former is under a temporal sign. For the latter, the gods, objects of pure contemplation, live as eternal essences in the absolute space of the ‘supraworld’ ; for the Roman, instead, the gods, without loosing anything of their metaphysical dignity, manifest essentially – as numina – in time, in history, in human vicissitudes, and the greatest concern of the Roman was that of coming to a balance, of favouring an encounter between divine forces and human ones, or to see to it that these prolonged or channelled those. The whole oracular Roman art meets a similar idea ; and since, in its turn, the weaves of the oracular answers and of the oracles was inseparable from the whole deeds of Romanity, it can be said that the whole Roman history assumed, for our ancestors, the character of a true sacred history, of a story adumbrated constantly by divine meanings, revelations and symbols. The fact is that all this did not have as a counterpart an ecstatic and passive attitude, but rather an active, warlike attitude. It can well be said that the Roman made his history sacred, feeding invisible forces into it and acting united with them.

A particular aspect of ‘immanence’ concerns the human symbol. It is well-known that, at the origins of Rome, the pontifical dignity and the royal one were gathered in one single person ; even subsequently, and before the Augustean restoration, in the figures of the consuls and in many other typical Roman figures, sacred functions were essentially the prerogative of political leaders. Even more typical examples could be found in the specifically sacred domain. One of them was brought to light by Kerényi. In Hellade, it was the statue which symbolised, in its perfection and achievement, the Olympian god. In Rome, the same god had instead consecrated a living symbol, the flamen dialis ; this majestic and pure figure, closely connected with the idea of the state, appeared throughout his life as a living symbol of the divinity – so that it could be called precisely « a living statue of Jupiter ». And, even though in already crepuscular reflections, similar meanings maintained in the Imperial epoch. The imperial cult is precisely a testimony of it. The human figure of a dominator embodied a divine symbol.

Let us mention another aspect of Roman ‘religion’, related to the afterworld. In the origins, it can be said that the problem of the afterworld as a ‘religious’ problem did not even arise for the average Roman. Manly realistic, foreign to any vain speculation, closed to the agitations of hope, of fear and of belief, the Roman was not interested in this. He was able to look with a clear and calm look at the void itself. He did not need, on the other hand, of supranatural perspectives to give to his life a meaning and an inner law. Thus, the original conception of the afterworld in Rome was mainly that of a night, of a state without joy nor suffering  : « perpetua nox dormienda » – Caton says ; « ultra neque curae neque gaudi locum esse » – are words attributed to Caesar. The success of Epicurian philosophy resumed from Lucretius in Rome is significant in this respect. It does not denote a materialism but, once again, a realism. The ancient Roman soul reacted against the mysticism and the mythologism imported from Asia and decadent Hellade ; it was found most in a conception as that of Lucretius or Epicure, in which the explanation according to natural causes had the function of an arm to destroy in the lower classes the terror of death and the fear of gods, to free, in short, life and give it calm and certainty ; when, for the best ones, the Olympian ideal, uncontaminated, of the gods as impassive and detached essences, for which neither hope nor fear is to be felt and which can be considered by the wise as model and limit of perfection.

But the problem of the afterworld did not stop at the religious problem of the lot of the individual soul. The ancient world has always seen man as an entity rather more complex than the one which results from the mere soul-body binome, as an entity, comprised instead of various forces, and, first among them, those of stock and of race, which have their laws and special relations with the living and the dead. The part of the dead which is in an essential relation with such forces is that in which the Roman was mainly interested : not the dead in itself, thus, but the dead conceived of as a force which remains, which keeps on living in the deep trunk and in the destiny of a family, of a people or of a race and which is capable of a positive action. Here, the characteristics of the general Roman conception of the sacred appear once again : instead of the soul, a power ; instead of sentimental intimacy, the objectivity of rite. Basically, the Roman, originally, considered the dead, not as a personal being, but as an impersonal energy, to be dealt with as all the others which he foreboded as invisible counterparts of the visible were to be dealt with. Fustel de Coulanges noticed that the dead did not love the living, nor did these love the dead. There was no relation of sorrow, of pain or of pity, or, at least, it was something subordinate and ‘private’ with respect to the essential goal, which was to direct the energies which had freed with death, so as to lead them to act, not as a misfortune, but as a ‘luck’.

Now, the development of the Roman conception of the afterworld should be considered briefly. In the origins, it feels the effect of the substratum of the spirituality of Italic peoples of a lower, telluric, non heroic civilisation, whose horizon stopped, in this respect, at the ‘path of the inferno’ : this is why it was thought that the dead in general merge with the impersonal energies of blood and that it was only as such, not as transfigured and transfiguring natures, that they continued to be united with the living. This is the sense of the ancient conception of the lares, which can be said to be less Roman than it is Etruscan. The lare is the genius generis, that is, the vital force which generates, keeps alive and develops a given stock and which, simultaneously, serves as a receptacle for the energies of the dead : a substance in which the dead continue to live and to be obscurely present in a people. The cult of the lares, in its original form, as we have said, is not Roman, nor did it have a patrician character. Its origin is Etruscan-Sabin. It was purportedly introduced in Rome by Servius Tullius, that is, by a king of plebeian birth. The legend according to which the lares are the sons of ‘Mania the mute’ or of Acca Larentia, identical to Dea Dia, and the region which is peculiar to them is not the highness of the skies or a symbolic place in the earth, but the infernal, subterranean zone (Festus : « deorum inferorum, quos vocant lares »), brings us back to the Asiatic-Southern civilisation of a naturalist-matriarchal type, unaware of the higher ideal of a celestial virility. A particularity of the cult of the lares was that the slaves had a momentous part in it, and it was even the only one which had them as servants in Rome.

But the true Roman spirit reveals itself through a later purification of this cult. The conception of the dead which is dissolved into the dark and naturalistic force of the ancestors gives way to that of the dead as a ‘hero’, as divine ancestor, principle of a supranatural heredity which the family or noble rite renewed and confirmed in the line of descent. Varron, comparing the lares with the manes, called them « divine spirits » and « heroes ». From then on, the comparison of them with the heroes of the patrician Hellenic cult was more and more frequent, and the fundamental views peculiar to the great Aryan civilisations of Hyperborean stock reasserted themselves in this respect in Rome. Censorinus and Plutarch speak to us of a duality, of a double genius, one bright and the other dark, until, in traditions which Plotinus will take up again, the lare is conceived of as the soul of those which are freed by death and become eternal spirits. Whereas the lare was originally represented by the snake, by the ambiguous animal of humid earth, later it assumed the manly figure of the pater familias, in a gesture of sacrificing, with which, for the lare, the ‘royal’ meaning contained in the original expression comes back : since lar corresponds to the Greek anax, which means commander, leader or prince.

It is a sharply aristocratic vision which corresponds to the highest purified consciousness of Romanity. The destiny of those who will be only shades of the Hades becomes by that time of secondary importance. The dead which remains united to the living is not the mere vital energy of a stock, but rather something transfigured, a bright principle whose body is the eternal ritually burning flame in the centre of the noble house and which is not an abstraction or a devout memory, but rather a force, acting in the sense of a salute, of a ‘luck’ and of a greatness in the line of descent, when this line of descent, true to its tradition, maintains the contacts intact.

A further aspect of Roman ‘immanence’ thus appears to us. The Roman unity of the dead with the living is only a form of the unity of divine forces with the human ones which develops on the plane of action and of history. Once again, imperial theology will represent, with its symbolical divine genealogies, a limit of this process. The ‘genius’ of dominators is already a true force of the ‘supraworld’ which mysterious relations connect with the invisible influences of a given blood and with the supra-individual element inherent to the imperial function.


* Kessinger Publishing ( has recently published three of Macchioro’s books in English, in addition to « From Orpheus to Paul: a History of Orphism », which it also published in English in 2003. The titles are: ‘Greek Mysticism’, ‘Orphism and Christianity’, and ‘The Orphic Ecstasy’.

It should be pointed out that, in ‘Heraclite’ (1928), which has not been translated into English yet, Macchioro develops considerations on the palingenesis which are closely akin to Evola’s.

(1) The right quote, taken from Tite-Livy, ‘The History of Rome’, Book XXII, chapter X, 7, is as follows : « Quintus Fabius Maximus, dictator for the second time, the day he took office, as, in the Senate, which he had convoked, he had started with taking an interest in gods, and showed that the negligence of ceremonies and of auspices had been, in Consul Caius Flaminius, a mistake more serious than his imprudence and his ignorance, and that, about the means of appeasing the anger of gods, gods themselves had to be consulted about… »

(2) The right quote, taken from ‘The Life of Marcellus’, 4, is as follows : « To such a degree did the Romans make everything depend upon the will of the gods, and so intolerant were they of any neglect of omens and ancestral rites, even when attended by the greatest successes, considering it of more importance for the safety of the city that their magistrates should reverence religion than that they should overcome their enemies. »

(3) The right quote, taken from ‘On the Fortune of the Romans’, 1, 11, is as follows : « (…) the smooth flow of events and the impelling swiftness of Rome’s progress to so high a pinnacle of power and expansion demonstrates to all who reason aright that the progress of Rome’s sovereignty was not brought about by the handiwork and urging of human beings, but was speeded on its way by divine escort and the fair wind of Fortune. » In any case, the whole text of Plutarch is suffused with the idea expressed by Evola through his periphrase of this passage.

(4) The right quote, taken from ‘Against Heracleios’, 222c, is as follows : « He is forever deprived of the knowledge of gods, which, as far as I am concerned, I would not even weigh up with the whole empire of the barbarians in addition to that of the Romans… »