Earliest Latin Quotes on Religion

Map of Roman Tusculum where Cato was born in 234 BCE.


Earliest Latin Mentions about Roman Religion

Our earliest reference to Roman religion is from Cato the Elder. It is simply a mentions that he was not too impressed with existing rural Druid temples:

(January 1, 2024) The inscription on this tomb is often claimed to be one of the earliest Latin texts based on the occupant's (Cornelius Lucius Scipio Bapbatus) death date of 280 BCE but that is false. While still old, it is not the earliest. This text and sarcophagus were found in the Scipio family tomb in Rome. Based on its Old Latin style (/t/ word endings are a clue for Old Latin), the text was added later, probably during the time of his grandson Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236/235–c. 183 BC.). He defeated Hannibal in Spain during the second Punic War but who feuded with Cato the Elder. The tomb continued in use until the 100's CE. 

The Scipios regularly followed the practice of inhumation and not cremation so the family tomb was filled with sarcophagi, arranged for the most part in loculi cut in the tufa rock. (It is probable that there was a quarry here before the tomb was made). This sarcophagus was the only one which survived looters intact. It is now in the Vatican Museum.

It preserves his epitaph, written in Old Latin. The inscription reads:

English Translation

Translation by Olmsted with OLIVETTI Latin to English dictionary online at: https://www.online-latin-dictionary.com/ (best for old Latin)


Tomb of the Scipios and the sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus by Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker. Online at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/roman/roman-republic/a/tomb-of-the-scipios-sarcophagus-of-scipio-barbatus

Samuel Ball Platner, Thomas Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome: Online at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0054%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DS%3Aentry+group%3D2%3Aentry%3Dsep-scipionum

Photo from: https://gravelyspeaking.com/2014/09/12/scipios-tomb-classical-exemplar/

Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato The Elder) 234–149 BCE 

(December 25, 2023) During his retirement Cato was the person who made the then local Italian dialect of Latin into an expressive written language able to compete with Greek. With their complex grammar rules, both were much more expressive and precise then the older Alphabetic Akkadian.  He was also an extreme nationalist. Yet his dialect was considered to be "Old Latin" during the era of the Roman empire after Augustus Caesar (emperor from 27 BCE to 14 CE) as indicated in the following quote about Cato.

Antonium de orat. II 12, 51 sqq. (= Pict. lat. test. 1). Quintil. II 5, 21 - But I think that children should be especially warned against two kinds (of books): Firstly, anyone interested in antiquities should not be hardened by their reading of Gracchus and Cato and others of the like: for they will become hideous and fastidious. Neither will they still follow their speech pattern, which was undoubtedly the best but is foreign to our times, and the content, which is the worst, will be seen as great. - Quote in Hermann Peter in "Quotes about Cato (1883)

So while Cato was respected for his abilities people were suspicious of his and his family's ardent Roman nationalism in the age of empire. For example, his great grandson assassinated Julius Caesar.

Cato was born in Tusculum which was a Roman city in the Alban Hills just south of Rome. His personality is revealed by his support of the puritanical Oppian law. In 215, at the height of the War and at the request of the tribune of the plebs Gaius Oppius, his pushed through the Oppian Law (Lex Oppia), intended to restrict the luxury and extravagance of women in order to save money for the public treasury. The law specified that no woman could own more than half an ounce of gold, nor wear a garment of several colors, nor drive a carriage with horses closer than a mile to the city, except to attend public celebrations of religious rites. 

He was a successful yet genocidal general against the Carthaginians in Spain. He claimed to have destroyed more towns there than he had spent days in that country. For his achievements in Hispania, the senate decreed a thanksgiving ceremony of three days. In the course of the year 194 BC, he returned to Rome and was rewarded with the honor of a Roman triumph, at which he exhibited an extraordinary quantity of captured brass, silver, and gold, both coin and ingots which he mostly distributed to his soldiery.

From the date of his censorship (184) to his death in 149, Cato held no public office, but continued to distinguish himself in the Senate as the persistent opponent of the new ideas. He was struck with horror, along with many other Romans, at the licence of the Bacchanalian mysteries, which he attributed to the influence of Greek manners, and he vehemently urged the dismissal of the philosophers Carneades, Diogenes, and Critolaus, who had come as ambassadors from Athens, on account of what he believed was the dangerous nature of their ideas. He also uttered warnings against the influence of Chaldean astrologers who had entered Italy along with Greek culture.

 This surviving quote from his book Praecepta ad Filium, "Maxims addressed to his son," is revealing:

  • In due course, my son Marcus, I shall explain what I found out in Athens about these Greeks, and demonstrate what advantage there may be in looking into their writings (while not taking them too seriously). They are a worthless and unruly tribe. Take this as a prophecy: when those folk give us their writings they will corrupt everything. All the more if they send their doctors here. They have sworn to kill all barbarians with medicine—and they charge a fee for doing it, in order to be trusted and to work more easily. They call us barbarians, too, of course, and Opici, a dirtier name than the rest. I have forbidden you to deal with doctors. —  Quoted by Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia 29.13–14.

Cato's last years, he was known for strenuously urging his countrymen to prosecute the Third Punic War and to destroy Carthage. Cato was convinced that the security of Rome depended on its annihilation. From then on, he began concluding his speeches in the Senate —on any topic whatsoever— with the cry, "Carthage must be destroyed" (Carthago delenda est).

The only book of his to survive in total in the one on agriculture.  All we have are quotes from various later authors.  

Book I was the history of the founding and kings of Rome. Books II and III cover the origins of major Italian cities and gave the work its title. The last four books dealt with the Roman Republic, its wars, and its growing power, focused on the period between the onset of the First Punic War up to 149 BC. 

The classical standard reference for Cato was the collection of quotes put together by Hermann Peter in 1883.


Google Translate

All existing quotes from Cato's Origines in Latin: edited by Hermann Peter (1883) Historicorum Romanorum Fragmenta, Leipzig: Teubner, 1883 (pp. 40-67). Online at: http://forumromanum.org/literature/cato/origines.html

Cato the Elder: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_the_Elder

Italian translation of  Cato's De re rustica (1794). Cato The Elder wa a prolific writer but this is the only book of his to survive in total. It is a handbook on agricultural practices. 

Quotes From Roman Writers About Cato

Quintil. XII 11, 23 - Therefore M. Cato was the same supreme emperor, the same wise man, the same orator, the same founder of history, the same law, the same expert in rural matters.
Test. Fab. Pict. lat. 1. - He instituted writing. There are seven books of them. the first contains the deeds of the kings of the Roman people, the second and third, from which every Italian city arose.
Corn. Nep. Cat. 3 - Although he had taken up the study of these [letters] at an older age, he had made such progress, that it is not easy to find out anything about the Greeks or about the Italians that was unknown to him.
fr. 62 - He had been defeated by the nation of the Volsci, which was also governed by the power of the Etruscans (Etruscorum) as Cato ... 
Cato orig. fr. 77 - He does not like to write what is most important on the table with the priest, how often the goods are expensive, how often the light of the moon or the sun is dim or something.
Appul. de mag. c. 17 (p. 38 Iord.) - But M. Cato, not concealing anything that others might preach about him, left it written in his speech that, when he was going to Spain as consul, he had taken three seru from the city alone
Cicero Brut. 17, 66 - Now indeed, what flower or light of eloquence do not have its origins? Favored-ones are lacking for him, just as many centuries ago. The Philistine of Syracuse (Greek) and Thucydides (Greek) himself, with the insights of Cato, he blocked these latter, as if exaggerated, for a deeper speech (Latin). - their speech is more ancient having some more terrible words. and q. s. He holds it against the speaker
et q. s. contra loquentem facit Atticum 85, 294 - Indeed, you would say that the Origins are full of all the praises of an orator, and that you would compare Cato with Philistus and Thucydides, for whom not even among the Greeks can be imitated.
- Quotes in Hermann Peter in "Quotes about Cato (1883)

Quotes From Cato's Book 1 of Origins

(December 25, 2023) 

Quotes From Cato's Book 2 of Origins

Book 3 is short with nothing interesting relative to this website.

Quotes From Cato's Book 4 of Origins

Quotes From Cato's Book 5 of Origins

Books 6 and 7 are short with nothing interesting relative to this website.


Google Translate

All existing quotes from Cato's Origines in Latin: edited by Hermann Peter (1883) Historicorum Romanorum Fragmenta, Leipzig: Teubner, 1883 (pp. 40-67). Online at: http://forumromanum.org/literature/cato/origines.html

Quotations from Vero are now found in: The Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum is maintained by David Camden as part of the larger Forum Romanum resource. Online at: http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/index.html

Most Important Deities For Early Romans as Reported by Vero

(December 27) Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 2: Varro compiled the chosen gods in the last volume: and there are twenty: twelve males, eight females: Janus, Jupiter, Saturn, Genius, Mercury, Apollo, Mars, Vulcan (fire), Neptune (sea), Sun, Orcus (Oaths), Liber (free-one, wine), Terra (ground), Ceres (food plants), Juno, Luna , Diana, Minerva, Venus, Vesta.

Marcus Vero Quotes 50 BCE

(December 24, 2023) Marcus Varro (116-27 BCE) is gives more information on early  Roman religion in his book on Divine Things. He was born in or near Reate (now Rieti in Lazio, Italy into a family thought to be of equestrian rank. He always remained close to his roots in the area, owning a large farm in the Reatine plain (reported as near Lago di Ripasottile,

He wrote Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum (Antiquities of Human and Divine Things). The work has been lost, but it was quoted by many including Saint Augustine in his De civitate Dei Contra Paganos (City of God Against the Pagans distributed after 426). Additionally his quotes have been found in surviving texts from other authors, including (among others) Pliny (1st c.), Gellius (2nd c.), Censorinus (3rd c.), Servius (4th/5th c.), Nonius (4th/5th c.), Macrobius (5th c.), Priscian (5th/6th c.) etc.. 

Antquities 1 Human Things Book 7

Servius, ad Verg. Aen. VIII, 51: Evander, having been released from his province into exile, came not voluntarily to Italy, and, driven by the natives, held the places where Rome now is, and founded a small town on the Palatine Hill, as Varro says. Did not the exiles of the Arcades take refuge in the Palatine under the leadership of Evander? And this Mount Palatine ... is said ... according to Varro ... by the daughter of Evander Pallantia corrupted by Hercules and afterwards buried there ...

Antiquities 2 Divine Things, Book 1

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei VII, 6 et 9: Therefore the same Varro says, still speaking on natural theology, that God is to be thought of as the soul of the world, which the Greeks call kosmon, and that this world itself is God. But just as a wise man is said to be wise from his mind when he is of body and mind, so the world is to be called a god from his mind when he is of mind and body. - Then Varro adds: divide the world into two parts, heaven and earth, and divide heaven into ether and air, and divide the earth into water and earth. Of these, ether is the highest, air the second, water the third, and earth the lowest. That all four parts of souls are full in the ether and air of the immortals in the water and earth of the mortals; and from the highest circumference of heaven to the circle of the moon, that the stars and stars are ethereal souls, and that the celestial gods are not only to be understood, but also to be seen; families and geniuses.

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 5 Thus Varro commends the physical interpretations to say that the ancients invented images of the gods and insignia and ornaments; those who had observed with their eyes, those who had added to the mysteries of the doctrine, could see with their minds the soul of the world and its parts, that is, the true gods, whose images they made in the form of man seem to have followed this, that the soul of mortals, which is in a human body, is most like the soul of the immortal ...

 Augustinus, VI, 6: He says (Varro) that what the poets write is less than that which the people should follow, but that which the philosophers write is more than that it is expedient for the common people to scrutinize them. These things, he says, are so abhorrent that, nevertheless, not a few have been adopted by both sexes for civil purposes. Therefore let us write together with the commoners what are in common with the poets.

 Id. ib. IV, 22: As a great favor, Varro boasts of offering himself to his citizens, for he not only mentions the gods whom the Romans ought to worship, but also says what belongs to each one. How, he says, it is of no use to men to know the name and form of a physician, and to be ignorant of what a physician is; so it is of no use to know that Aesculapius is a god, if you do not know that he favors your health, and so you do not know why you owe him supplication. This also affirms Varro in another similitude, saying, not only that no one can live well, but that no one can live at all if he does not know who is the carpenter, who is the baker, who is the roofer, from whom he can ask for what tools, from whom to hire a helper, who to guide, who to teach, and so on. There is no doubt that the knowledge of the gods is useful if it is known what power and ability each god has and the power of each thing. For from this we shall be able to know which god we ought to invoke and invoke for each cause, lest we do as mimes are wont to do, and let us ask for water from the Lymphs and wine from Liberos.

Antiquities 2 Divine Things, Book 5

Servius, ad Verg. ecl. V, 66: Varro asserts that altars were made for the gods above, altars for the earth, and hearths for the underworld.

Macrobius, Sat. I, 9, 227: Varro, in his book V Rerum divinarum, writes twelve altars dedicated to Janus for as many months.

Antiquities 2 Divine Things, Book 6

Philargyrus, ad Verg. georg. IV, 265: Varro in divine-things 6 called-out channels as feminine..

Macrobius, I, 8: Although Varro, in book VI which deals with the sacred houses, writes that the house of Saturn was rented by L. Tarquinius, king T., to make a forum, but that the dictator Lartius dedicated it to the Saturnalia.

Antiquities 2 Divine Things, Book 7

Gellius, II, 28: [The Romans] when they felt that the earth had moved, or that it had been announced, they ordered the holidays for the matter by edict, but the name of the god, as it is customary, to establish and to proclaim the holiday, they refrained from binding the people to a false religion by naming one for another. M. Varro says that if any one had polluted those holidays, and for this purpose a chalice would have been needed, and if they had sacrificed a sacrifice to a god or to a goddess, M. Varro says that this was thus observed by a pontifical decree, since it was uncertain whether by what force and by whom the earth would tremble.

Antiquities 2 Divine Things, Book 14

Gellius, XVI, 17: for just as Aius was called a god and an altar was established for him, which is the lowest new way, because in that place a voice was associated with the divine, so Vaticanus was named a god, close to which were the beginnings of the human voice, since children, being at the same time and part of it, utter that first voice. which was the first syllable in the Vatican; and therefore it is said to wander as a word expressing the sound of a fresh voice.

Antiquities 2 Divine Things, Book 16

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 14:: therefore Mercury is said to be called as a running medium, because the word runs between men; therefore Hermes in Greek, which is a speech or an interpretation, which of course belongs to a speech, is called hermeneia; therefore also to be in charge of the goods, because the conversation becomes a medium between those who see and those who buy.

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 2: Varro compiled the chosen gods in the last volume: and there are twenty: twelve males, eight females: Janus, Jupiter, Saturn, Genius, Mercury, Apollo, Mars, Vulcan, Neptune, Sun, Orcus, Liber father, Earth, Ceres, Juno, Luna , Diana, Minerva, Venus, Vesta.

Arnobius, III, 40: Varro supposes that the gods of heaven, of whom we speak, who are inward and inwardly penetrating, neither their number nor their names are known. The Etruscans say and name these consenting and accomplices, that they rise together and kill together, six men and as many women with unknown names. But consider them the counselors and leaders of the supreme Jupiter. (Life powers of Ancient Pagan Paradigm)

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 7: Janus, from whom Varro took the beginning, when he prefaced his natural theology, is the world, to which the beginnings of things belong, while the ends belong to another, which they call Terminus.

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 9: Jove, who is also called Jupiter, is a God, who has power over the causes by which something happens in the world. Janus is preferred to him, because the feet of Janus are the first, next to Jupiter the highest. Jupiter is rightly considered the king of all.

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 6: Janus himself first, when the child is conceived. whence all these works take their beginning, distributed minute by minute by the gods, he opens the way by receiving the seed. Saturn is also there because of the seed itself; there is the Book that frees the sea with spilled seed; there they want Venus to be free, which will confer this same benefit on the woman, so that she herself may also be freed by the emitted seed. (Janus, as the 2-faced god seems to be their version of the hermaphrodite deity Athe, Athene)

Augustinus, de ciu. Dei, VII, 24: Varro ... wants to be a goddess of the Earth. In the same way, he says, they say the Great Mother: that she has a drum, is signified to be the globe of the earth. if they need seed, it is necessary to follow the earth: for in it all things are to be found. Those who worship the earth are enjoined not to sit down as they flaunt themselves near it; for it is always what they do. The sound of cymbals, the throwing of irons, and the clatter of hands and such things, signify what is going on in the field of worship, therefore brass, because the ancients worshiped brass, before iron was invented. They add the lion loose and tame, in order to show that there is no race of the earth so remote, and fiercely wild, that it is not suitable to be tamed and tamed. Then he adds: Mother Earth, and by the many names and surnames which they called, were supposed to be several Gods.

Tertullianus, ad nat., II, 4: :  aiunt quidam propterea deos theous appellatos, quod theein id est hieothai pro currere ac motari interpretatio est. .  -  some say that therefore some  gods are called theous, because that is the interpretation of the power for running and moving. (Derivative from Thu)


Quotes collected online at: