What is the difference between the Ancient Greek religion and the Ancient Roman religion?

My question is about, not cultural differences, but conceptual differences." Wikipedia doesn't compare them. I find no link on the internet making a critical comparison, they never talk about concepts, they enounce facts. A religion is not only a collection of facts (This god is called like this, he dressed like this...), it's based on philsophical concepts.

Both are often confused such that the Roman one seems a copycat of the Greek one.
I've read recently on the Internet a defense of Roman ancient religion, saying it was very different from the Greek one, but no further explanations sadly.

  • 6
    Welcome to History:SE. Could you edit your question to clarify what you've looked into already, complete with links and references, and context if applicable? In particular, please let us know what you find missing or unclear about the Wikipedia entry on the topic, if one exists. This allows those who might want to answer to do so without needing to redo the work you've already done. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 11:33
  • 3
    Yes. I will try. Big thank you for helping me to make my question clearer.
    – Quidam
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 11:40
  • 2
    Yes please. It helps round out the concept of what you're looking for, and perhaps saves several users from bothering with the WP search you already tried.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 12:06
  • 4
    Where did you read that on the internet? Citations are invaluable for history.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:24
  • 4
    The difference is that in Greek your use of the definite article would be merely unjustified; in Latin it would be impossible
    – C Monsour
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 16:59

4 Answers 4


The biggest difference that I'm aware of is that the Classical Greek religion was much more the religion of myths that we all know, while the Classical Roman religion had fewer personifications and its gods were much more like numinous forces than like people.

The Greek religion that we know was encapsulated by Homer who served in some respects like an Old Testament to their classical religion. The Greek gods seem to have alwayds been personified -- they were basically powerful -- sometimes very powerful -- people. The Greek religion was by-and-large not about morality (how could any of the Olympians claim superiority there?) but about propitiation of potentially dangerous powers and making deals with potentially friendly ones who might thereafter act as your supporter or your city's patron.

During the course of classical antiquity many philosophers examined Greek religion and often found it wanting. By the height of Greek culture, the religion still existed, but the various philosophical schools -- the Cynics, the Sophists, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, the Epicureans -- provided a guide to living which the Greek religion lacked. But the Olympians were deeply embedded in Greek culture, and you could certainly get in trouble by being too overt in your questioning of them -- just ask Socrates. But they appear to have been more a matter of social solidarity than what we'd understand as a religion.

The Romans were broadly similar, but the earliest things we know of the Roman gods show them as faceless, unembodied personifications of places and forces: Luck, War, the Sky, Fertility, Crossroads, Family, etc., etc. As the Romans became more aware of Greek culture they came to see their gods as having Greek equivalents and their view of the gods tended towards the Greek model, but never completely. The Roman gods were always numinous forces as much as they were people with great powers.

The Roman religion has been characterizes as being "organized superstition" and some Roman rituals were meaningless to the participants and done only because they'd always been done that way and it might be bad luck to stop. Roman religious rituals also had the feature that they had to be done perfectly with any slightest error requiring the officiant to start from the beginning.

The Roman religion was intimately tied to the Republic, with the officials of the Republic conducting many rituals. There were priests, but they were almost invariably powerful officials who were elected or appointed to the post and who used their religious position to further their political one. (Famously, Julius Caesar's political career was saved when he manged to get elected Pontifex Maximus.)

As the Republic turned into the Empire, the Roman religion was even more co-opted for political ends, and the worship of deified emperors and of Rome itself became an increasing focus, not because people believed that Augustus now sat on Mt Olympus or wherever, but because it provided a unifying force in a giant organization that badly needed them. (This was a large part of why Christians were persecuted: they didn't participate in civic rituals that the State considered important, but (because they were new and didn't have a long history) lacked the Get Out of Sacrifice Free card that the Romans (usually) gave the Jews.)

With the Roman religion providing as little spiritual guidance or solace as the Greek, the Greek philosophical schools were also heavily adopted by the Romans.

Bottom line: The Greeks tended towards greater personification of their gods; the Romans tended towards their religion being a series of quid pro quo transactions with faceless forces. But they had much in common and more as time went on and the cultures merged.

Edit: Off-hand, one book I found very interesting was Religions of Rome: Vol 1 – A History by Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Cambridge, 978-0-521-31682-8, 454 pp, 1998.

  • 2
    Julius Caesar's political career was not saved by becoming pontifex maximus. It was saved by being removed many years earlier from the office of flamen dialis, a quite unusual incident, but without which he could not have had the career he had. Not all priesthoods were consistent with the exercise of political power
    – C Monsour
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 16:57
  • 12
    @jamesqf in case you actually don't understand, Mark Olson is saying that Roman religion was purely about ritual and not at all about belief. Indeed, the Romans viewed belief as a matter of philosophy, not of religion. They would have viewed the Pledge of Allegiance as clearly religious, but the Nicene Creed as straddling the boundary, and Buddhism as clearly philosophical.
    – C Monsour
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 18:01
  • 6
    @CMonsour: A very good point about the Pledge of Allegiance vs. Buddhism. We tend to see the Romans as much like us (and they were) and forget that the past really is a different country.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 19:20
  • 2
    Heavily tied into the Roman state sponsorship, Mars was well-liked in the Roman Empire while Ares was not in Greece. The cultures had a different approach in matters of state and it shows here.
    – gormadoc
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 19:56
  • 2
    To further build on this answer, two of the elements of Roman religion that Mark Olson mentions here - its emphasis on ritual and its deep embedding in the Roman state - both arise in part from the essentially contractual way that the Romans related to the supernatural. Romans fundamentally believed that supernatural forces, if properly propitiated, could be bound to perform in certain ways, in much the same way as we regard signatories to a contract as being bound. You just had to get the ritual right, and get the correct official to perform it.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 17:13

This is a bad answer - I don't have sources available. It is my understanding that we lack a great deal of the sources needed for an emic understanding of Roman and Greek religious practice, and I think that's fundamentally what you're seeking.

Note that the differences between religions may not be obvious to the outsider. I've encountered Protestants who claim that Catholics are not Christian, and Catholics who insist that post Vatican II liturgies are not Catholic. Like the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, the distinctions may not be obvious to an outside (etic) analysis. It may not be possible to provide a satisfactory or authoritative answer.

I want to highlight @Cmonsour's perceptive and pithy quip:

The difference is that in Greek your use of the definite article would be merely unjustified; in Latin it would be impossible.

Based on my study, Greek religion is more private that Roman - not private in the sense of solitary, but private in the sense of "less institutional". Roman religion is institutional and state sponsored. That is an oversimplification, but I don't think the fundamental differences are about the two religions, I think the fundamental difference is between the two cultures in which those religions flourished/functioned.

I can read most of Greek history without any reference to the priesthood of the Greek temples. (there are exceptions - but I cannot imagine reading Roman history without mention of Roman religious offices).

Everything in Rome was devoted to Rome, religion included. Rome was syncretic - they adopted foreign religions (while simultaneously rejecting "foreign" influences) - reconciling those two would require scholarship far beyond mine. Integration of the religions of conquered people was symbolic of the conquering of the people. Once conquered, a thing became almost Roman. or as @Ring puts it, a form of religious tolerance was part of the Imperial strategy. (Good summary @Ring)

Roman religion was more cultic, institutional and organized; I am not familiar with any Greek religious practices that would match the vestal virgins the pontifex maximus or the flamen dialis.

  • 1
    Thank you for putting into adequate words my understanding as well. Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 17:15
  • 2
    I believe religious tolerance was part of their official policy to keep subjugated populations quiet and compliant. "Kill them, tax, them, but don't mess with their gods." Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 17:19
  • 2
    I don't think any of these differences are really as different as you make them seem to be. Greek religion isn't private; its ceremonies (such as tragedy) are sponsored by the polis. Greece also adopted foreign religions (e.g. Athens celebrating the festival of the foreign goddess Bendis). About the statue of the "unknown god" (your one named source for Greek religion is Christian...) - if you read further down the Wikipedia page, it's compared to a Latin inscription in Rome.
    – b a
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 17:24
  • @bA. Excellent points. By "private" I mean note state sponsored. Poor word choice. The other points are really solid. I may revise or delete.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 17:48

You would do well to remember that there were very few similarities between Roman and Greek religion until the Romans began borrowing from the Greeks. For an idea of how utterly different Roman religion originally was from Greek religion, see for example Dumezil's Archaic Roman Religion.

  • @LangLangC What do you mean by 'northern'? I don't think we can presume that Greek religion even back then had the same affinity with Hindu, Norse, and Italic religions that thise had with each other. Greek has a very odd place on the IE linguistic tree at a large remove from other subfamilies. One rather suspects the same might have been true of their prehistoric (or posthistoric) religion. Real shame for us that they forgot how to write for centuries. Is there enough in Linear B to reconstruct much religion?
    – C Monsour
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 17:53
  • It's very interesting, but I think they could have common philosophical/conceptual bases, to allow the Roman one to "digest" the Greek one. It's also hard to find sources about the original Roman religion no "contaminated" by the Greek one.
    – Quidam
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 14:49

Well, one major difference between the Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman religions, were the headquarters for their Deities...that is to say, for the Ancient Greeks, Mount Olympus in Northern Greece, was the Spiritual Headquarters for their main Deities; whereas for the Romans, the Pantheon, located in the middle of Rome proper, was the main spiritual headquarters for their Deities.

It is certainly true that the Romans-(especially, during the imperial period), had almost as much spiritual reverence for Mount Olympus as their Greek progenitors and forebearers. However, for the Ancient Romans, their spiritual headquarters, were less pastorally rooted-(and perhaps less mystically rooted), when compared with their Ancient Greek neighbors. The Palatine Hill, on the outskirts of Rome, while widely believed to have been the birthplace of Roman civilization 2800 years ago, was not the birthplace or Spiritual Headquarters of the Ancient Roman religion.

(Historical sourcing....a visit to Rome's Pantheon. Various primary literatures, such as The Aeneid, The Iliad and The Odyssey, all discuss the spiritual centrality of Mount Olympus during Ancient times).

  • 1
    This is almost an exact copy of an answer made by a user deleted in 2021, which was deleted by the system bot as being a low quality answer. (You do tend to repeat yourself.) Please include authoritative sources for your answers. See How to Answer for an idea on what we are looking for in good answers.
    – justCal
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 22:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.