Roman Mythology, the religious beliefs and practices of the people of ancient Rome. At first the Romans envisioned their gods more as powers than as persons, and as a result there is little mythology that is purely Roman. According to Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, only after the Romans came into contact with Greek culture in the 6th century BC did they begin to represent their gods in human form. Over the last three centuries before Christ was born, writers such as Virgil and Ovid grafted the names and functions of Roman gods onto Greek literary and artistic tradition, creating a hybrid Greco-Roman mythology that has inspired poets and painters from antiquity to the present day. Most of what we know about ancient Rome and its mythology comes from the works of ancient Roman writers, from surviving artworks, and from archaeological findings.
The Romans believed that their religious practices maintained the pax deorum—or “peace of the gods”—that ensured the community’s continued prosperity. No private citizen was likely to undertake business of any importance without seeking the favor of the appropriate god, and the Romans held numerous public festivals to honor their gods.
II MYTHS OF THE FOUNDING OF ROME
The Romans did not develop a myth about the creation of the world itself, but they did attach great importance to the founding of Rome. Two distinct myths developed about the city’s beginnings: the story of the twins Romulus and Remus, and the tale of Aeneas.
The myth of Romulus and Remus is best known from its account in the work of Livy, a Roman historian of the 1st century bc. The twins were the sons of the god Mars and a mortal woman named Rhea Silvia. When they were infants, Romulus and Remus’s great uncle set them adrift on the Tiber River to die. The great uncle had stolen royal power from the twins’ grandfather and did not want the boys to survive to challenge his right to power. But a she-wolf found Romulus and Remus and cared for them until a shepherd discovered them. The shepherd and his wife took the boys in and raised them as their own children. Years later, after restoring their grandfather to his throne, Romulus and Remus decided to found a city of their own. However, the two quarreled, and in the ensuing brawl Remus died. In some versions of the story Romulus killed him, in other versions Romulus’s followers did so. After his brother’s death, Romulus named the new city Rome and became its first king. According to Varro, the date that Romulus founded Rome was 753 bc.
The other legend of Rome’s founding traced the origins of the city to Aeneas, the son of the goddess Venus and the Trojan prince Anchises. Aeneas came from the city of Troy in Asia Minor, which according to tradition was conquered by Greek forces during the Trojan War. The war was fought in the late 13th or early 12th century bc, and it forms the setting for the epic poem the Iliad by the Greek poet Homer. Although Aeneas’s role in the Iliad is small, Roman legend holds that after the war he led a group of Trojan survivors who left Troy and eventually arrived at Carthage, where the queen, Dido, fell in love with Aeneas. But he left her and traveled to Italy, where he founded Rome.
Scholars believe that the legend of Aeneas gained acceptance during the 3rd century bc, when Rome was developing as a nation and its citizens sought to enhance the city’s prestige by establishing a connection to the famous figures of Greek mythology. It was difficult, therefore, for later writers to reconcile the 400-year interval between the story of Aeneas, which took place in the 12th century bc, and the account of Romulus and Remus, which occurred in the 8th century bc. The poet Virgil resolved the problem in his epic the Aeneid, which describes Aeneas marrying Lavinia, daughter of the king of Latium, a kingdom that occupied the future territory of Rome. Through this marriage, Aeneas became the originator of a line of kings and a direct ancestor of Romulus and the Romans.
Most of the other early stories of Rome have to do with the traditional Seven Kings, who were the first seven rulers of Rome. One of the best-known stories about the reign of Romulus is the so-called Rape of the Sabines. According to this story, to ensure the future of Rome, Romulus and his band of followers needed wives who would bear children to ensure the future of the new city. They invited their neighbors, the Sabine people, to a festival and then kidnapped the daughters of the Sabines. A war broke out between the two communities, and peace was restored only when the Sabine women declared their preference for their Roman husbands. The Sabines then joined the Romans in a single community.
The second Roman king was Numa Pompilius, whom the Romans credited with inventing their religious institutions. Artworks depict Numa as a priestly figure with a long white beard. Legend tells that the fourth king, Ancus Martius (whose name means “warlike”), conquered many neighboring towns and greatly increased Roman territory. The sixth king, Servius Tullius, developed the first census, or counting of the population and their property. According to tradition, Servius Tullius also built the first city wall.
III THE ROMAN GODS
The early Romans did not represent their gods in human or animal form, and the gods did not have well-defined personalities. Most Roman gods were, however, associated with particular places. For example, high hilltops and oak-groves were associated with Jupiter, the god of rain, thunder, and lightning. Any piece of land struck by lightning was dedicated to him. According to Varro, Romans worshiped their gods without images for 170 years after the city was founded. Only in the 6th century bc, under the influence of the Greeks and of neighboring societies such as the Etruscan civilization did the Romans first represent their gods in human form and build temples for them.
While the personalities of their gods were not important to the early Romans, they cared a great deal about the gods’ functions. Gods presided over every aspect of life and death, including the phases of the agricultural year. The Romans integrated their worship into the routines of public and private life. For example, the doorway of a house—an important threshold separating personal space from public space—fell under the protection of the god Janus, who was also the god of beginnings. The first month of the year, January, was named for him. The hearth, which served as the center of the home, was the province of the goddess Vesta. A state shrine to Vesta featured a fire that was perpetually tended by priestesses called Vestal virgins.
Knowledge of early Roman religion is limited, but some evidence exists that the earliest Roman community had special reverence for the gods Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Jupiter was the Roman form of the sky-god whom the Greeks worshiped as Zeus. The Romans worshiped Jupiter as the special protector of the Roman state. Mars—later equated with the Greek god Ares—was a warrior-god whose sacred animals were the wolf and the woodpecker. Festivals in his honor took place in March and October and marked the opening and close of the military campaigning season. Mars also appears to have had some role in protecting farmers’ fields. Quirinus remains a vague figure. The Romans associated him with the Sabine people, and he later came to be identified with Romulus, who had become a god.
According to Roman tradition, a dynasty of Etruscan kings ruled the city in the 6th century bc. During this period Rome adopted a group of three Etruscan gods as the focus of state worship. Because the Romans worshiped these gods in a grand temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, they were known as the Capitoline triad. The triad consisted of Jupiter and the goddesses Juno and Minerva. At this time Jupiter was viewed as the sovereign, or head, of the Roman state. Juno was both the protector of women in marriage and childbirth and was the patron deity of several communities in ancient Italy. The Romans worshiped her under several names, including Juno Sospita (Juno the Savior) and Juno Regina (Juno the Queen). Minerva, who later came to be identified with the Greek goddess Athena, was the goddess of handicrafts. Her temple on the Aventine Hill in Rome was a center for organizations of skilled craftspeople.
According to tradition, in 509 bc the dynasty of Etruscan kings ended and the Roman Republic was founded. The republic was ruled by two chief magistrates, called consuls, who were elected by the people to one-year terms. During the time of the republic, the Capitoline temple became the most important public shrine of the Roman people and the focus of public worship. Each January, the new consuls offered sacrifices to open the new year, and provincial governors took their vows before departing for their provinces. At other times, victorious generals led triumphal processions up to the Capitoline temple, where they offered sacrifices and gave thanks for their victories.
As Rome’s sphere of influence expanded, the Romans encountered the older and richer religious and mythological beliefs of the Greek civilization, and the beliefs of other cultures of the eastern Mediterranean Sea region. Major innovations in Roman religious life occurred as a result of this contact, most notably the Romans’ acceptance of gods from these other cultures. New gods and heroes were traditionally given temples outside the pomerium, the ritual boundary of the city, rather than in the city center.
Among the earliest of the Greek gods to be accepted by the Romans were Castor and Polydeuces, divine twins who were believed to have intervened in the Romans’ favor at the battle of Lake Regillus in 484 bc. This battle marked an early victory for the young Roman Republic against a force of surrounding Latin peoples. Later in the 5th century bc, on the advice of an oracle, the worship of the Greek god Apollo was introduced in Rome to avert a terrible plague. Apollo later became a symbol of Roman virtue and austerity. Other Roman gods that took on characteristics of Greek divinities were Diana (Artemis), Mercury (Hermes), Neptune (Poseidon), Pluto (Hades), Venus (Aphrodite), and Vulcan (Hephaestus).
The Romans also adopted Greek heroes into their mythology. Perhaps the best-known figure was the Greek hero Heracles, who became known in Rome as Hercules. According to Roman historian Livy, Hercules once stopped at the site of Rome before Rome’s founding, and there killed a monster that had terrorized the local people.
Rome also imported gods from other regions of the Mediterranean world, sometimes to fill particular roles. In 204 bc, armies from the rival city-state of Carthage, led by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, threatened to invade Rome. In this emergency, Roman priests consulted the Sibylline Books, which contained collections of oracles or prophecies, and recommended that the Romans begin to worship the goddess Cybele from the city of Pessinus in Asia Minor. To worship Cybele, the Romans dedicated a spot to her on the Palatine Hill in the heart of Rome. The Romans eventually defeated Hannibal.
As Rome expanded and became a hub of international commerce, more and more foreign gods found their way into the culture. Especially popular were the so-called savior-gods of religious orders known as mystery religions. Savior-gods such as Mithra, the ancient Persian god of light and wisdom, offered the promise of individual salvation through the belief in the immortality of the soul. Mystery religions such as Mithraism were open only to the initiated. As a result, many people saw them as offering a greater sense of community than traditional Roman religion. Scholars have noted similarities between mystery religions and the early Christian church, which took root in the Roman world when mystery religions were popular and widespread.
A later development in Roman religion was the worshiping of emperors as gods. As the Romans expanded their holdings to the east, they encountered the phenomenon of divine kingship. At first they rejected the idea that a human ruler should be worshiped as a god. But in 44 bc, Roman ruler Julius Caesar permitted a statue to be erected to himself bearing the inscription deo invicto (“to the unvanquished god”), and declared himself dictator for life. That same year Caesar was assassinated by citizens who were unhappy with his dictatorial regime and wanted to see a return to Rome’s earlier republican ideals. While Caesar’s heir, Octavian, took the name Augustus and made himself the first emperor of Rome, he also avoided any claim to divinity. In the first century of the Roman Empire, the idea of the divinization of emperors was often ridiculed. The philosopher and playwright Seneca mocked the imperial divinization of Claudius I as the “Pumpkinification of Claudius.”
As the government of the Roman Empire became more and more autocratic, giving rulers almost unlimited power, emperors eventually accepted divine honors, and sacrifice to the emperor came to be required as a token of loyalty. The requirement of sacrifice became a significant source of conflict between early Christians, who resisted the practice, and the Roman political authorities who enforced it. The period of emperors being considered gods ended in the 4th century ad, when Emperor Constantine the Great became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. By the end of the 4th century, Emperor Theodosius I, who was a supporter of orthodox Christianity, officially banned the practice of the old Roman pagan religion.
IV HOW THE ROMANS WORSHIPED THEIR GODS
Because many of the early religious practices of the Romans originated in a period when Rome was a small, agricultural community, these customs reflected the needs and concerns of the farming community. Long after Rome had become a busy commercial center, the religious calendar of Rome continued to reflect the cycle of the agricultural year.
Romans worshiped their gods on both individual and communal levels. Each part of a Roman house had a god associated with it. The hearth was sacred to Vesta, and during the main meal of the day people would throw a small cake into the fire as an offering to her. Roman houses had a penus, or storeroom for grain, over which gods called the Penates presided. They also received daily offerings. Closely connected with the Penates were the household gods known as Lares, to whom families would pray and perhaps offer a small gift of wine or incense. The god Janus presided over the main door to the house. Janus was envisioned as a human figure who faced both directions at once and was thus suited to watch over the doorway. The Romans believed that if they paid due respect to these gods each day, they could be confident of enjoying divine blessing for their daily activities.
Romans also paid respect to the gods of the fields. For example, the Terminalia was an annual festival at which farmers with adjoining property decorated boundary stones with garlands. Each family’s property was purified once a year in one of the oldest Roman festivals, called the Ambarvalia, in which families took part in a procession around their fields and sacrificed a pig, sheep, and bull and offered prayers to the god Mars for the health and prosperity of the fields, flocks, and family. After the sacrifice they feasted and celebrated.
Each stage of life was also marked by religious observances. At the birth of a child, men would strike the threshold of the house with agricultural implements to ward off the wilder spirits of the fields. At puberty, a boy set aside the bulla, or protective amulet of childhood, and exchanged his boyhood toga for the toga of manhood. The modern tradition of the bridal veil goes back to the Roman practice of veiling a young woman who was leaving the protection of her father’s home for that of her new husband, and who was therefore in a temporary state of religious vulnerability. Similarly, she would be carried over the threshold of her new home to avoid the bad omen that would result if the newest member of the household were to stumble upon her first entry into the house. When someone died in a house, the corpse was removed feet-first to discourage the ghost from returning. At the festival of the Parentalia, in February, the living family members would make offerings of flowers, corn meal, and wine on the graves of their family’s dead.
An important communal Roman religious celebration was the Lupercalia, held annually on February 15. The ceremony took place at the Lupercal, a small cave on the slopes of Rome’s Palatine Hill, where the Romans believed that Romulus and Remus had been suckled by the she-wolf. During the ceremony, two groups of young men sacrificed goats and a dog and then cut the goatskins into strips. Clothed only in these strips, the young men then ran a race along a specified course, tapping female bystanders with the strips of their goatskin garments as they passed. This rowdy festival was so popular that it was not abandoned until ad 494, well into the Christian era, when Pope Gelasius I replaced it with the Christian Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. The same pope also made the day before the celebration (February 14) the feast day of two 3rd century Roman martyrs named Saint Valentine, creating the basis for Saint Valentine’s Day. The modern holiday retains some of the fertility aspects of the ancient Lupercalia by its association with romance and courtship.
V ROMAN MYTHOLOGY IN LITERATURE AND ART
After the Romans came in contact with the Greeks in the 6th century BC, the identities of the Roman gods and the Greek gods tended to meld into Greco-Roman combinations. For centuries these deities and the stories told about them have inspired writers and artists.
Virgil’s poem the Aeneid was a literary celebration of the supposed Trojan origin of the Roman people. In the Aeneid, Virgil took Zeus and Hera, who the Greek writer Homer had earlier portrayed as somewhat petty and complaining, and transformed them into the awe-inspiring Jupiter and the vividly angry Juno. Writing just after Virgil, Ovid produced works that were witty and popularly entertaining. He wove the diverse strands of Greek mythology into a single tapestry in his 15-volume work the Metamorphoses, which covers the history of the world from creation to Ovid’s own time.
In later centuries, numerous musicians, writers, and artists drew on the stories that Virgil, Ovid, and other Roman writers told, incorporating the Roman literary images into their own works. In music, one of the best-known adaptations of Roman mythology is the opera Dido and Aeneas (about 1689) by English composer Henry Purcell. The opera dramatizes an episode from the Aeneid. Two of the most prominent writers to dramatize Roman mythology were Dante Alighieri of Italy, author of La divina commedia (1321?; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and Edmund Spenser of England, who wrote the epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590-1596). British writer Anthony Burgess retold the story of Aeneas’s travels in his novel A Vision of Battlements (1949). Aeneas’s journey through the underworld was also the subject of a poem by 20th-century American writer Reynolds Price.
Ovid’s vivid descriptions also lent themselves to representation in the visual arts. The Birth of Venus (after 1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy) by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli is a famous rendition of how Venus first appeared. Italian Renaissance sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini created the Fountain of the Triton (1642-1643?) in Rome, which depicts the moment in Ovid’s narrative when the sea-god Triton delivers a ringing blast from his conch horn to signal the end of the universal deluge. Aeneas was treated several times by 19th-century British painter J. M. W. Turner, who depicted Aeneas in the company of Dido, Mercury, and other figures from legend. Dido is also the subject of several paintings by 19th-century English painter Edward Burne-Jones.