Religion in Pompeii & Herculaneum

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Romans took their religion very seriously. In this lesson, we're going to look at evidence about Roman religion found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and see what this tells us about life inside the Empire.

Religion in Ancient Roman Life

To the people of ancient Rome, religion was an absolutely essential part of life. Theirs was a polytheistic religion, recognizing dozens of deities, and included ceremonies performed in public temples as well as in private homes.

Now here's the question: The Romans lived 2,000 years ago, so how do we know what their religious lives were like? In 79 CE, a volcano in southern Italy named Mount Vesuvius erupted, completely burying the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash and volcanic mud. While this was certainly a tragedy for the people who lived there, the disaster did manage to perfectly preserve Roman society for us. A lot of our knowledge of Roman religious practices comes from these cities, and the evidence of a thriving society entombed in ash.


Roman religion 101: if you didn't constantly worship the gods, they wouldn't help you. Even worse, they may get vengeful. So, every Roman city had a variety of temples where offerings could be made to the gods. The oldest temple in Pompeii, which dates back to the 6th century BCE, seems to have been dedicated to Minerva, goddess of arts and wisdom, and a rough equivalent of the Greek goddess Athena.

However, Pompeii also had temples to Apollo and Jupiter around the forum, the central public plaza of the city, which were built in the 2nd century BCE. Their location tells us that they were some of the most important temples to public and administrative life in the busy city. In the 1st century BCE, the city also dedicated a temple to Venus overlooking the sea. Herculaneum had its own set of temples as well.

Ruins of the Temple of Jupiter in Pompeii

However, both Pompeii and Herculaneum also have temples to one other unexpected deity: Isis. Isis was an Egyptian goddess, who had become very popular in Pompeii thanks to the growing connections between Romans and other Mediterranean civilizations. Isis' popularity was limited to southern Italy, but the temple to Isis in Pompeii was in great condition when it was buried by ash, showing us that people were still frequenting it and carefully caring for it up to that point.

Fresco of a ceremony to Isis, found in Herculaneum

Religious Cults

The temples were the center of religious life in Pompeii, but they don't tell the full story. Religious cults specialized in the ceremonies associated with several deities, and Pompeii hosted a major cult of Bacchus, god of wine. Pompeii was surrounded by vineyards and a major wine-producing region of the Roman Empire, so this makes sense. Plus, the worship of Bacchus basically entailed drinking wine, so it wasn't hard to recruit members. Don't be mistaken though, membership in the Bacchic cult was focused on strict religious devotion and included many very serious and secretive ceremonies. Some of these were recorded in frescoes painted onto the walls of the Pompeian house called the Villa of the Mysteries, depicting initiation ceremonies overseen by Bacchus himself.

Fresco of an initiation ceremony into the Cult of Bacchus, from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii

House Gods

One of the fascinating things about the Roman religion is that not all gods had equal jurisdiction. Greek-inspired gods like Jupiter (a mirror of the Greek Zeus) influenced all of Roman society, but the Romans also worshipped countless place deities, who protected specific locations. This is one thing that makes the Roman religion very different than the Greek religion, and amongst the most important of these Italian deities were the lares, or house gods.

A house god was unique to the house, and specifically the family who lived in that house. It protected the family from spiritual evil and brought luck, so it was very important. Most Roman homes in Pompeii and Herculaneum were built with a lararium, a small private chapel, shrine or altar inside the house for daily offerings or prayers to the lares. This was an important daily ritual in Roman life.

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