Compare to modern society, the Romans seem extremely superstitious. But then today's major religions have all throughout their past discouraged, even combatted, superstitions. Also our sciences and our technological world allows little room for superstition.
The belief that objects, or living beings could possess special spiritual properties was widespread in primitive societies. The Romans were no strangers to this idea. Stones, trees, springs, caves, lakes, swamps, mountains - even animals and furniture - were all deemed to be hosts to spirits (numina). Stones in particular were often seen to contain spirits, especially if they were boundary stones, dividing one man's property from the other. It is very telling that the Latin word for such a boundary is terminus and that there actually was a Roman god called Terminus. This odd deity took the form of a huge piece of rock which rested in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Apparently several attempts to move the bolder when constructing the temple had failed. And so it remained within the temple, because it had 'refused to move, even for Jupiter'.
But Roman superstitions didn't end there. Children were told stories of nasty creatures who'd come to eat them if they weren't good. From the Greeks they had Mormo, a terrifying woman with donkey legs. And the Roman Lamia who stalked around looking for children to eat.
Children were by far not the only ones to fear such bogeys. The ghosts of the dead (lemures) roamed in all kinds of dark places. The Romans believed that some houses were visited by ghosts. Perhaps because the house had been the scene of a crime, worse still a murder.
Werewolves (verspilles), men who would turn into wolves and roam with the real wolves, perhaps attack herds at night, before turning back to human form, were also a belief known to the Romans. Further there was the belief that some old women knew the art of changing their form into birds. The stormy north seas were also said to be teeming with ghastly monsters, some being shaped half man, half beast.
Witches and vampires would sneak into house of a dead man to rob and mutilate his corpse, for example; eating its nose.
Many Roman also wore amulets and lucky charms, to avert the 'evil eye'. Marriages were planned for certain days and certain months to prevent them from being overshadowed by bad omen. One was to take care to cross the threshold of a house with one's left foot.
It was a omen of disaster to have a black cat enter the house, have a snake fall from the roof into the yard, or for a beam of the house to split. To spill wine, oil or even water could also be the sign that bad things were about to happen. Another prophecy of bad luck was to meet a mule in the street carrying a herb called hipposelinum, which was used to decorate tombs.
Another strange superstition was that one could stop oneself from having unpleasant thoughts by moistening a finger with saliva and rubbing it across the skin behind the ear.
If a cock would crow during a party, either the correct magic spell to overcome the bad omen needed to be cast or nothing was eaten that day.
But not all in Roman society were subject to superstitious. The educated upper classes were generally more enlightened. Few of them believed in ghosts. Most superstitious fears only had a hold over the generally uneducated lower ranks of society.
Nightmares were generally seen as omens of bad luck. A bad dream might be reason enough for a lawyer to ask that his case be adjourned .
The Sibylline Books, mentioned in the article Prayers and Sacrifice were consulted on the order of the Senate at times of crisis and calamity, in order to learn how the wrath of the gods could be allayed.
The Sibylline Books were accidentally burned in 83 BC, and evoys were sent all round the known world to collect a set of similar utterances. Augustus had the new collection put in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where it remained until it was finally destroyed in the fifth century.
Disasters were seen by Romans as manifestations of divine disapproval, and unusual phenomena as portents of catastrophe.
State business was fraught with difficulties, regarding omens. New laws might even have to be declared invalid if the omens hadn't been observed. Naturally this also offered reason to manifold possibilities purposes. If a bad omen had been observed then one could raise this matter at the beginning of the meeting of the senate or other political assembly and house might well decide to close for business for the day. In 59 BC, during Caesar's consulship, the other consul, Marcus Bibulus, tried to stop Caesar's laws from being passed on religious grounds. He announced he would be staying at home and looking out for omens. Bibulus' attempt succeeded in making the assembly nervous, but it did not manage to defeat Caesar's legislation. Caesar eventually won the day and his laws were passed, yet they were regarded with some suspicion.
Aware of the cynical way in which politicians might exploit omens, which they would report to the house, there was a clear distinction made between omens reported by others and such which revealed themselves suddenly. For example a sudden bolt of lighting in the sky, or an epileptic fit by someone in the assembly. These could indeed be seen as grave matters. If lighting was observed during the taking of the auspices, then it was in fact deemed a good sign. But thereafter it was seen as bad.
In 114 BC something happened which must have been unimaginable to superstitious Roman society. A vestal virgin was actually struck by lighting. No doubt it struck fear into the hearts of Romans that such a symbol of Roman spiritual life should be killed by the gods.
Other bad omens Roman laws tried to prevent from the outset. And so there was laws to ban women in many places from holding a spindle in public. For should anyone lay eyes on such a woman, it could mean exceptionally bad luck. In fact it could mean the failure of the harvest.