At the close of the regal period, the official Roman religion had acquired those permanent characteristics which no intrusive influence of later centuries was ever able to obliterate. It combined the practical give-and-take attitude of the Italian peasant with the ceremonial formalism of the Etruscans. The Roman state cults were in the nature of contractual acts, by which the magistrate bargained for certain benefits or abstention from certain torts on the part of the deity in consideration of certain services, which were graduated according to a comprehensive tariff and performed with punctilious exactitude.
Of all ancient religions, it was the least emotional. The official Roman mind admitted a feeling of vague awe (religio in its original sense) in the presence of the deity, but it deprecated any superstitio or unchecked display of emotion as out of place in an act of worship, just as it would have frowned on cheers or groans before the praetor’s tribunal. It was, equally, the most meticulous and conservative in its ritual. Even in the emancipated and irreverent days of the later republic, ceremonial taboos inherited from the stone age were observed with an outward scrupulousness that bordered on the absurd. Encased in this straight-jacket, Roman religion never became, like that of the Greeks, the foster-mother of art, music, and literature. Though it possessed a fundamental resemblance with the religion of the early Israelites, it never could reproduce a comprehensive and satisfying code of conduct.
Yet, for all its hardness and seeming selfishness, it was not lacking in social value. Negatively, it was singularly free from those extravagances of lust and of fear which emotionalism in ancient religion usually carried in its train. Temple prostitutes were entirely unknown in the state worship and human sacrifices were of the utmost rarity. Positively, in emphasizing the principle of reciprocal service between man and god, it also fostered the idea of mutual obligation between man and man. Again, within each Roman family, the traditional religion strengthened the feeling of partnership in a common cause. In early Rome, weddings were usually consecrated by a religious ceremonial (confarreatio) and husband and wife shared the duties of the household ritual. Lastly, the pax deorum, or covenant with the gods, imparted to the early Roman a sense of security which reinforced his inborn doggedness and could make him invincible in his fixity of purpose.
From: A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine by Max Cary; 2nd edition (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1954), pp. 53-55. The first edition was published in 1935.
Max Cary (1881-1958) was Reader, then Professor of Ancient History at the University of London from 1908 to 1946.