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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.


Romans enjoyed great freedom in their performance of private ritual (in Latin, "sacra privata"). Each family and clan had its own traditions and we encourage modern Romans to try to develop their own new traditions, but while keeping as close as possible to the practices of antiquity. In this spirit, we offer the following ideas.

Romans in the late Republic considered the Numa tradition to be the "oldest, purest, and most reverent" form of the cultus deorum, believing that it preserved traditions wherein simple offerings provided a much more reverent worship of the Gods. Those traditions seem related to Carmentis and the cultus that was devoted to her in her sacred grove. According to this view, only later were immolationes introduced. "The Gods," said Varro, "do not desire blood sacrifice; their images even less."

"Formerly what served to reconcile Gods and men was spelt and pure salt's glistening grain. ... A man was wealthy if he could add violets to crowns fashioned from meadow flowers; the knife which eviscerates a pole-axed bull had no role in the sacred rites. Ceres first delighted in a greedy sow's blood" (Ovid Fasti 1.337-49).

In times of great distress the City of Rome would renew itself by returning to the Numa tradition. The first time came with the expulsion of the kings and establishment of the Republic around 509 BCE. The second time followed the Gallic sack of Rome in 390 BCE. Following the Civil Wars in the Late Republic, some Romans once again advocated a return to the Numa tradition as a way to restore Rome.

Cato the Elder's De Agricultura, is a valuable source for the domestic cult. Sections 139 - 140 give a ritual for clearing a grove or digging land. Since every piece of land has its own genii, and each tree has its own guardian spirit which dwells within it, before disturbing land or cutting down trees it is pietas to sacrifice first to the gods who live within them. Cato gives the ritual once, for clearing a grove, then he lists the changes to make for digging land. In other words, for Cato himself this ritual was a kind of template that could be adjusted for different purposes. For this reason it is often used as a template for modern reconstructions.

We can break the ritual down to this template:

  1. When making an offering, address the god(s) by name, and say what you are offering and why. (Example: "Be you god or be you goddess, to whom this place is sacred, it is right to offer to you a pig for the pruning of this sacred place.")
  2. Add a ritual formula for correctness. (Example: "Whether I or whether one ordered by me offered it, may it be done rightly.")
  3. Say what you desire of the gods whom you invoked. (Example: "For the sake of this thing I pray good prayers to you for the sacrificing of this pig, that you may be favorable and gracious to me, to my family and house, to my children. For the sake of these things accept the sacrifice of this pig.")
Cato has obviously left out a lot, but he was writing for people whom he could assume knew all about how to do these things in general.

General considerations

The celebrant should be both physically and ritually clean. Ceremonies can be performed in the morning, after bathing.

Care should be taken to avoid the celebrant hearing ill omens. Romans used musical instruments to mask sounds of ill omen.

Rituals should be performed perfectly. If there is a flaw, even just a fumbled word spoken in the ritual, the entire ritual should be started over. 

The correct gestures should always be used. Prayers are spoken aloud, and using the correct gestures is as important as using the correct words.

Praying with folded hands, the fingers interlocked, is expressly forbidden. The reason is that crossing the fingers in a "knot" negates the prayers and vows. Pray to the celestial gods with your "eyes raised to heaven and right hand star-ward stretched" (Virgil Aeneid 12.195), the palm opened, fingers together, and hand stretched slightly backward. Pray to a terrestial god with the same gesture, but turned palm downward, toward the abode of the terrestrial gods. It is also possible to direct the prayer toward a temple or toward an altar. If praying to Silvanus, face the palm toward a nearby forest. If praying to Neptunus, toward a nearby body of water.

Cn. Cornelius Lentulus and C. Cocceius Spinula perform ritual in the ruins of Aquincum (Budapest) and demonstrate correct form.

Both are capite velato (heads covered). With their right hands they each hold a patera over the focus of the altar. The free hand is open and palm upwards, directed to the heavens; a gesture appropriate for celestial deities.

Note also that they have correctly placed a piece of turf on the altar itself, and the fire is on the turf.

This is a good way to begin your ritual:
  • Wash both hands in clean water and pray: 
Haec aqua impuritates a corpore velut plumbo ad aurum mutando eluat. 
(May this water cast out all impurities from my substance as from lead to gold.)
  • Place both hands upon your head and pray: 
Purga mentem. 
(Purify my mind.)
  • Bring the arms down to your sides with hands in gesture to your body and pray: 
Purga corpus.  
(Purify my body.)
  • Place both hands on the chest, over the heart and pray: 
Purga animum.  
(Purify my heart.)
  • Take a moment to focus and become fully present and affirm: 
Ita est! 
(It is so.)