Cult following: the importance of the gods in daily life
The Pompeians worshipped many gods, primarily Graeco-Roman deities such as Jupiter (the Greek Zeus), Juno (Hera), Minerva (Athena) and Apollo. The oldest temple in Pompeii, which dates to the sixth century BC, may have been a temple of Minerva. A temple of Apollo stands next to the Forum and a temple of Jupiter at its north end, both built in the second century BC. In about 80 BC, a temple of Venus was built on high ground in the southwest corner of the city overlooking the sea, from which mythology tells us the goddess was born.
Roman temples were designed to house cult statues of the god or goddess to which they were dedicated; unlike most churches today, they were not usually entered by the worshippers. Instead, priests venerated the gods with processions and sacrifices on the altar, which stood in front of the temple. The Romans believed it was crucial to perform these important rituals correctly, and the only way to know whether the god had been appeased was by divination, which meant examining the livers of sacrificial animals and the direction in which birds flew or how they ate in order to interpret the god’s mood and intentions.
In addition to the public temples, most houses had a small shrine or lararium, where daily ceremonials and rituals were performed to appease the lares and penates who guarded the house. The lares (household gods) are usually depicted on these shrines dressed in short tunics and carrying drinking horns and wine buckets.
As Rome’s empire spread, several new religions spread to Pompeii from overseas. The Egyptian cult of Isis was popular in Pompeii before the Roman colony was established in 80 BC, and appealed especially to the poor and oppressed, thanks to its story of death and resurrection and the promise of immortality. In the mythology, Osiris, the husband of Isis, is killed, and the tears of his grieving wife cause the Nile to flood; however, her magical skills enable her to bring Osiris back to life. When it was first discovered, the Temple of Isis at Pompeii was in exceptionally fine condition, with most of the temple vessels and fittings still in place. At the time of the eruption, the priests had tried to save the treasures of the temple, and the body of one of them was found next to a bag of gold near the Via dell’Abbondanza, (Street of Abundance).
The Bacchic cult also became highly popular in this vineyard-surrounded city, perhaps because it advocated extensive drinking of wine, which was thought to induce religious ecstasy. One famous room in the Villa of the Mysteries depicts the god Bacchus initiating members into his secret society.
Even a brand-new religion called Christianity found its way to Pompeii, perhaps along with the influx of Jewish slaves to Italy after Jerusalem was sacked in 70 AD. At least some Bible stories seem to have been familiar to Pompeians; one inscription mentions Sodom and Gomorrah, and a painting in the House of the Physician shows a parody of the Judgment of Solomon with the characters depicted as dwarfs. A number of Semitic names have also been found in other inscriptions at Pompeii, including Jeshua, Jonas, ‘Maria, a textile worker, and Martha, a slave’. Christianity was still young when Pompeii was destroyed, but St Paul wrote during his voyage from Malta to Rome in 62 AD, “… on the second day we came to Puteoli. There we found brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days.” (Acts, 28:14). Puteoli is close to Pompeii, so it is possible that some Pompeians had also converted to Christianity, but no proof of this has yet been discovered.