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Romans, though you’re guiltless, you’ll still expiate
your fathers’ sins, till you’ve restored the temples,
and the tumbling shrines of all the gods,
and their images, soiled with black smoke.
~Horace, Odes, III, 6; A. S. Kline trans.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Priesthoods and the Cultus Deorum

Our friends at Neos Alexandria have an interesting post on the reconstruction of priesthoods. They suggest an important reason for us to be interested in this:
" create religions that provide for the spiritual needs of the people who follow it, and help cement the chances of our survival as a faith in the modern world. Many of the successful and still surviving ancient religions have such divisions, and it is one reason why they still exist, despite pressures from Western Monotheisms." (1)
Neos Alexandria is a multicultural group, and they mention the case of Roman reconstructionism:
"The Romans had similar divisions [of society] particularly with the Pontifices who oversaw the priesthoods, the Flamines who carried the rituals out, and the Augurs who served as diviners." (1)
I agree that our survival and growth depends in great measure on our ability to speak to people's spiritual needs. More than that, we need to agree upon and promote a set of core values and procedures that we can keep in common. I don't mean that we need to have a "Spanish Inquisition" type obsession with orthodoxy, but if we are to be anything we have to be something. This is the reason, for example, that we carry the "Basic Principles" statement at the bottom of every page of this blog. (That statement came out of both scholarly research and discussions with a fairly large group of self-identified followers of the Cultus Deorum.)

What I disagree with, though, is the suggestion that the best way to do this is through establishment of formal priesthoods such as the College of Pontifices. There are several reasons for this.

The first reason, and maybe a rather technical one, is that the major priesthoods of Rome were closely tied to the administration of the state. What I mean by "closely tied" is that the Senate was also involved with the state cult ("sacra publica") that the priestly colleges mainly served. Also, the state religious activity of Rome was situated in relation to a geographical division, the pomerium, that originated with the founding rituals of the city. We have no state and no pomerium, so it is hard to see how the legal and political aspects of the state cult can realistically be recreated.

Another reason that the "state model" is not the best one is that for most Romans, the state cult was not particularly relevant. There were other, smaller-scale aspects of the cultus, related to trade guilds, neighborhoods and families, for example, and these were arguably more relevant to most people than the sacra publica. These other sacra often did not involve priests at all. What "A Young Flemish Hellenist" said when speaking of Hellenismos applies almost equally to the Cultus Deorum:
"Furthermore, priests have no role in marriages, funerals, and the like. Such occasions were seen as private matters, and were dealt with by the families involved. Usually they were led by the the head of the family, most often the father of the the family (Pater Familias in Latin). " (2)
The final reason to avoid the state model of the Cultus Deorum is that it has already been tried, and it has failed. Nova Roma's attempt to buy land and establish itself as a pseudo-state collapsed in what appears to be a case of land fraud, leaving them as an internet-only organization. "Nova Roma Revealed" quotes them as saying:
"The next step however is to remove from our own records this classification of our "undivided 1/40 interest" in ten acres or less of desert as ager publicus. We have to disavow it from ourselves before we can justify disposing ourselves of the land." (3)
After over a decade of effort they have failed to establish themselves as a credible force in the pagan movement. Their lack of ability to produce any positive results, coupled with their famous squabbling has recently led to a 60% drop in membership:
"At the beginning of census in Nova Roma are recorded: 1345 active citizens."
"At the end of census in Nova Roma are recorded: 537 active citizens." (4)
This "official priesthoods" model is likely to continue to lead to failures. It requires a huge commitment of time and energy on the part of the individuals involved, and that for the long term as well, and this has proven difficult for most people, leading to a large number of abandoned initiatives. Even when the time and energy are available, whatever expertise is developed is far removed from the individuals who need it. The top-down model might work for the Catholics, with their money and with their millions of members, but it is not appropriate for the Cultus Deorum, at least for now and for the near future.

A Young Flemish Hellenist touched the heart of the matter:
"I think no need yet of modern priests. Most of us are solitary, and are thus kind of informal “priests” in our own worship." (2) 
For Romans, there is no "kind of informal" about it. Each head of household is also the head of that household's domestic cultus. Cicero said:
"The most sacred, the most hallowed place on earth is the home of each and every citizen. There are his sacred hearth and his household gods, there the very center of his worship, religion, and domestic ritual". (Cicero, De Domo Sua 41, 109)
The head of every kind of community or association was also responsible for the religious obligations of that group. The community of Roman Reconstructionists needs to focus on the household and on building local groups, not on a top-down global priesthood. We must dedicate ourselves to spreading our collective experience and the results of our researches as widely as possible, so that we can rebuild the Cultus Deorum organically, from the ground up.

There is no need to wait. If you are interested in the Cultus Deorum, you now have everything that you need to start. Importantly, you do not need to sign on with any organization. You can start your own practice of the Cultus Deorum right now, in your home. To help you, we have a series of "Beginner's Guides" and other things on our website. These are still in progress, though, and collaborators and contributors are most welcome. We are also networking on Meetups, Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook. Follow us, share us and talk with us.

2011 was a very good year, bringing many new friends together. I anticipate that 2012 will be even better. You can help by following those links and participating in our network.

(1) A Comparative Study of Priesthoods and Clergy at Neos Alexandria (N.D.)

(2) Priesthood at A Young Flemish Hellenist (28 December 2011)

(3) Land Fraud at Nova Roma Revealed (27 March 2011)

(4) More than half have left, and most won't pay 5 dollars at Nova Roma Revealed (21 October 2011)


  1. Interesting... I didn't consider the fact that the head of the family actually was the family's priest. I guess it's because I still live with my parents, so I don't consider myself the head of the family, though I do pray on behalf of my family. Anyways, thanks for giving me a new angle at the household cult in this respect ;-)

    1. The Cultus Deorum was fully integrated into the people's lives. Of course there were full time priests and religious experts, but there was not the strong isolation of the religious aspect of life as we see in the West today. In other parts of the world, however, we still see a situation similar to the one in ancient Rome.

  2. I agree with you. It's essential to be commonly focused on some general values and principle inspired to respect and tolerance and banning any expression of fanatism. We do not have public rites and we know that it's not possible to go back to the past: we can however be a community of free women and men inspired by precise spiritual values. I think that your're doing a lot in this direction...

    1. Thank you for your support! When I saw your blog I understood that we are part of the same culture.

  3. salve

    saludos cordiales desde el blog , desde este blog se viene precisamente afirmando el las palabras que comentáis en esta entrada, estoy de acuerdo con las apreciaciones, es cuestión de unirnos y trabajas, estar en contacto.
    In pax deorvm