In general the Romans are very superstitious and very ritualistic. His conception of the world, in a sense it can be called animist because they believe that everything is pervaded by a divine force which justifies its development and virtuality, leads them to constantly be aware of the signs that manifest the will of the gods or announce the future. And this in turn requires constantly celebrate rites and ceremonies which discover the future and the will of the gods and spirits in order to propitiate his favor or stop their anger. So they do not undertake any action without consulting those signs.
This idea was expressed consistently by Pliny the Younger at the beginning of his “Panegyric of Trajan” 1.1:
Right and wisely, senators, our forefathers instituted that the actions and speeches must begin with prayers, because the men can’t receive the auspices legally, can’t receive them prudently at all without the help, without advice and without the glory of the immortal gods.
Bene ac sapienter, patres conscripcti, maiores instituerunt ut rerum agendarum ita dicendi a precationibus capere, quod nihil rite, nihil providenter homines sine deorum inmortalium ope, consilio, honore auspicarentur.
The Romans considered themselves the most religious people of all, as Cicero himself says in his De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) 2.8:
And if we want to compare our stuff with foreigners, we see that in the other aspects we are equal or even lower, but in religion, that is, in the worship of the gods we are much higher.
et si conferre volumus nostra cum externis, ceteris rebús aut pares aut etiam inferiores reperiemur, religione id est cultu deorum multo superiores.
If we understand religious people as "rites practitioner", we must to share the statement of Cicero.
About the Roman rites I will speak more fully on another occasion, but we should know now a summarized example to assess its importance in the Roman religion. This is the ritual what the paterfamilias (father and head of the Roman family) has to perform in the festivals of the dead called Lemuria, rite what in his time has lost all understanding but that is still practiced "religiously" as did their ancestors, never better applied this adverb, and which the poet Ovid tells us in his Fasti, 5, 419-492:
At midnight the father (paterfamilias) rises, bare feet up and, clicks the thumb with the other fingers to ward off ghosts; washes his hands three times in a fountain; puts into your mouth black beans which then pulls back saying nine times: 'I throw these beans, with them I rescued me and mine' without turning back, touching the water again, sounds a bronze object and asks the shadow (the deceased) to exit home saying nine times 'Manes of my parents, get out'. So it is quiet.
(Look at the times he repeats the formula: three or nine times)
Julius Caesar, who among the many roles and titles that he had, held also the Pontifex Maximus (The greatest pontiff), ie one of the most senior religious authorities, was not particularly devout and respectful of fate and omens when they involved an obstacle in their projects: neither heard the blind seer (it is curios that often a physical blind have clairvoyance of the future) who warned him to take care of the Ides of March nor attended the premonitory dream of his wife Calpurnia the day on he was killed.
But that does not mean he was not as superstitious as their fellow citizens. Pliny tells us in HN 28,4(21) how pronounced three times a magic formula always riding on a war chariot following a mishap that had on one occasion:
It is said that the dictator Caesar, after having had an accident with your vehicle, always, before you sit down, what do we now know that many, used to seek their safety by repeating three times a spell.
Caesarem dictatorem post unum ancipitem vehiculi casum ferunt semper, ut primum consedisset, id quod plerosque nunc facere scimus, carmine ter repetito securitatem itinerum aucupari solitum. (Plin. Naturalis Historia, Lib. 28, 4, (21).
The spell should not always be effective because Dio Cassius tells us how celebrating their first win of the four that won, that for his victories in Gaul, was broken the axle of the car and had to await the arrival of a replacement . It was a bad omen, a bad sign that Caesar sought to correct gaiting with his knees up the steps of the Temple of Jupiter where the victorious general ended his parade:
Dio Cassius tells us so in Roman History 43, 21, 1-2:
Now on the first day of the triumph a portent far from good fell to his lot: the axle of the triumphal car broke down directly opposite the temple of Fortune built by Lucullus, so that he had to complete the rest of the course in another. On this occasion, too, he climbed up the stairs of the Capitol on his knees, without noticing at all either the chariot which had been dedicated to Jupiter in his honour, or the image of the inhabited world lying beneath his feet, or the inscription upon it; but later he erased from the inscription the term "demigod." (translated by Earnest Cary)
Maybe someone thinks that these rituals and superstitious practices were unique to ancient religions, but any will easily notice how number three is still present in our current customs and rituals. Probably the magical and mystical value of the number “three” is conferred to it because the three represents the union of opposites: one front and opposite the two, the three becomes the synthesis.
Also known is the importance of the "three" in Indo-European cultures in which societies are organized into three estates or parts: priests, warriors, artisans. These organization is reflected in all cultures from Europe to India.
Evidence of this is also the group of deities in triads or groups of three gods: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva in Rome, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva in India.
Is there any relationship between this religious custom of triads and acceptance of the Christian Trinity?
But back to the ritual, is not how many present people too repeated three times few sentences or phrases such as "Ave Maria" or the sign of the cross? Do not Pope and priest bless three times the faithful? Would not it be just as effective a heartfelt prayer than its three times repetition?
And what about the number nine which served as a guideline to the paterfamilias in the ceremony of Lemuria? “Nine” is three times three. We remember our dead in a special way for nine days with a novena (nine days of prayers) to say nothing of those frequently held in honor of our saints or virgins of different invocation.
We recall here what has been said in this blog in http://www.antiquitatem.com/en/love-potion-filter-elixir-witch-pliny talking about a spell to avoid an elusive love:
But the nurse, mixing sulphur in a flat bowl,
kindles narcissus and cassia, savoury herbs;
and thrice tying nine threads, marked eith three different hues, she cries:
“Spit thrice into your bosom, as I do, maiden;
spit thirce, maiden: heaven delights in an uneven number
(by H.R. Fairclough, rev. G.P. Goold; Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA 2001; )
"At nutrix patula componens sulpura testa
narcissum casiamque herbas incendit olentis
terque novena ligans triplici diversa colore
fila «ter in gremium mecum» inquit «despue, virgo,
despue ter, virgo: numero deus impare gaudet.»:
And all this is more shocking in a culture in which the decimal counting base is absolutely imposed and widespread, but for some things uses older accounts: triduums, weeks, novenas, dozens …
Finally, anyone who has visited a any famous shrine of the many who are not only in Iberia but in Europe and across the ocean and seen the rows of worshipers kneeling walkers, will not miss the way that Caesar tried to exorcise her bad omens.
Even today, some faithful and devoted people march kneeling from time to time in processions to atone for a fault or to make a profit of divinity. It is the realization of the principle "do ut des" (I give you to give me, I give, in this case an effort, to give me what I ask) which is a central element of Roman religion and currently survives on religiosity of many people.
The Romans did not understand the meaning of many ancient rituals, although they believed in their magical efficacy. Do we understand finally ours rituals, which are nothing else the survival of their own? Certainly we do not understand them, but we do not cease to practice them.