XX. THE ROMAN REPUBLICANS SERIOUS AND GAY.
Other festivals were devoted to Vulcanus, god of fire, without whose help the handicraftsmen thought they could not carry on their work; and Neptunus, god of the ocean and the sea, to whom sailors addressed their prayers, and to whom commanders going out with fleets offered oblations. Family life was not likely to be forgotten by a people among whom the father was the first priest, and accordingly we find that every house was in a certain sense a temple of Vesta, the goddess of the fireside, and that as of old time the family assembled in the atrium around the hearth, to partake of their common meal, the renewal of the family bond of union was in later days accompanied with acts of worship of Vesta, whose actual temple was only an enlargement of the fireside, uniting all the citizens of the state into a single large family. In her shrine there was no statue, but her presence was represented by the eternal fire burning upon her hearth, a fire that Æneas was fabled to have brought with him from old Troy. The purifying flames stood for the unsullied character of the goddess, which was also betokened by the immaculate maidens who kept alive the sacred coals. As Vesta was remembered at every meal, so also the Lares and Penates, divinities of the fireside, were worshipped, for there was a purification at the beginning of the repast and a libation poured upon the table or the hearth in their honor at its close. When one went abroad he prayed to the Penates for a safe return, and when he came back, he hung his armor and his staff beside their images, and gave them thanks. In every sorrow and in every joy the indefinite divinities that went under these names were called upon for sympathy or help.
In the month of June the mothers celebrated a feast called Matralia, to impress upon themselves their duties towards children; and at another they brought to mind the good deeds of the Sabine women in keeping their husbands and fathers from war. [Footnote: see page 26] This was the Matronalia, and the epigrammatist Martial, who lived during the first century of our era, called it the Women's Saturnalia, on account of its permitted relaxation of manners. At that time husbands gave presents to their wives, lovers to their sweethearts, and mistresses feasted their maids.
The Lemuria was a family service that the father celebrated on the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth of May, when the ghosts of the departed were propitiated. It was thought that these spirits were wont to return to the scenes of their earthly lives to injure those who were still wrestling with the severe realities of time, and specially did they come up during the darkness of night. Therefore it was that at midnight the father rose and went forth with cabalistic signs, skilfully adapted to keep the spectres at a distance. After thrice washing his hands in pure spring water, he turned around and took certain black beans into his mouth, and then threw them behind him for the ghosts to pick up. The goodman then uttered other mystic expressions without risking any looks towards the supposed sprites, after which he washed his hands, and beat some brazen basins, and nine times cried aloud: "Begone, ye spectres of the house!" Then could he look around, for the ghosts were harmless.
Thus the Roman forefathers worshipped personal gods, but they did not, in the early times, follow the example of the imaginative Greeks, and represent them, as possessing passions like themselves, nor did they erect them into families and write out their lines of descent, or create a mythology filled with stories of their acts good and bad. The gods were spiritual beings, but the religion was not a spiritual life, nor did it have much connection with morality. It was mainly based on the enjoyment of earthly pleasures. If the ceremonious duties were done, the demands of Roman religion were satisfied. It was a hard and narrow faith, but it seemed to tend towards bringing earthly guilt and punishment into relation with its divinities, and it contained the idea of substitution, as is clearly seen in the stories of Curtius, Decius Mus, and others. [Footnote: "When the gods of the community were angry, and nobody could be laid hold of as definitely guilty, they might be appeased by one who voluntarily gave himself up." - MOMMSEN, Book I., chapter 12. ]
As time passed on the rites and ceremonies increased in number and intricacy, and it became necessary to have special orders to attend to their observance, for the fathers of the families were not able to give their attention to the matter sufficiently. Thus the colleges of priests naturally grew up to care for the national religion, the most ancient of them bearing reference to Mars the killing god. They were the augurs and the pontifices, and as the religion grew more and more formal and the priests less and less earnest, the observances fell into dull and insipid performances, in which no one was interested, and in time public service became not only tedious, but costly, penny collections made from house to house being among the least onerous expedients resorted to for the support of the new grafts on the tree of devotion.