Roman religion and mythology had their roots among pre-Roman Italian peoples, for example, the Sabines and Etruscans.
Italian gods were not originally anthropomorphic like Greek gods, with whom they became identified:
DIS PATER (HADES or PLUTO)
Non-Italian gods whose names changed from the Greek included the following:
CASTOR and POLLUX (CASTOR and POLYDEUCES)
APOLLO kept the same name at Rome.
Janus. The god JANUS [jay'nus] was the god of beginnings, associated originally with water and bridges. The doors of his temple were closed only in time of peace. He was also the god of doors, entrances, and archways, and was identified with Portunus, god of harbors. He was portrayed with two faces, one looking forward and one looking backward.
Mars. Originally an agricultural god, MARS [marz] gave his name to March, the first month of the year in the pre-Julian calendar. His consort was Nerio, a Sabine fertility goddess. He became the Roman god of war, sometimes with the title of Gradivus (“the marcher”), and sometimes associated with the Sabine war god QUIRINUS [kweye-reye'nus or kweye-ree'nus]. Among other Roman deities of war was Bellona. Animals associated with Mars were the wolf and the woodpecker (picus in Latin). The woodpecker was said to have been a Latin king, Picus, who was turned into a bird by Circe, while his wife, Canens (“singer”), wasted away into a voice.
Jupiter. The Italian sky-god was JUPITER [joo'pi-ter], whose principal temple was dedicated on the Capitoline Hill at Rome in 509 B.C. There he was worshiped as Jupiter Optimus Maximus, “Best and Greatest,” and shared his temple with Minerva and Juno. The triumphus (triumph), the procession celebrating a Roman general’s victories, had this temple as its terminus. Like Zeus, Jupiter had the thunderbolt as his special weapon, and the place where lightning had struck had to be purified by an expiatory ritual. Jupiter caused a shield (ancile) to fall from heaven into Rome as a talisman of Roman power. Along with eleven other ancilia (made so that there would be less chance of the genuine ancile being stolen), it was kept in the Regia, the official quarters of the Pontifex Maximus, the head of Roman state religion. As Jupiter Latiaris, Jupiter was chief god of the Latin tribes, and as the god associated with Fides (Good Faith), he was identified with the Sabine god Dius Fidius, who also was identified with a Latin diety, Semo Sancus. As Jupiter Indiges, Jupiter was worshiped beside the river Numicus, about twenty miles to the south of Rome. The Di Indigetes (the plural of Indiges) were a group of gods whose functions are not known, and Aeneas was deified as Indiges after his death beside the Numicus.
Juno. The goddess JUNO [jou'noh] originally presided over all aspects of the life of women, particularly marriage (as Juno Pronoba) and childbirth (as Juno Lucina, whose annual festival was the Matronalia). As Juno Moneta (“adviser”), she was worshiped on the Arx (part of the Capitoline Hill) with a temple next to the Roman Mint (which was called ad Monetam, hence the origin of the word “mint”). As Juno Regina, “queen,” she was escorted to Rome from the Etruscan city of Veii on its defeat by the Romans in 396 B.C. Like Hera with Zeus, Juno became the wife and sister of Jupiter in Roman literature, sometimes opposing the will of Jupiter, as in her efforts to prevent the fated success of Aeneas.
Minerva. Also a pre-Roman goddess, MINERVA [mi-ner'va] was brought to Rome by the Etruscans and identified with Athena in her attributes and functions, especially as goddess of activities requiring intelligence. She was patroness of craftspeople and of schoolchildren; her festival was the Quinquatrus.
Vesta. The Italian fire-gods were Vesta, Cacus, and Vulcan. VESTA [ves'ta], the counterpart to the Greek Hestia, was the goddess of the hearth, the center of family life and of the state's life as a community. She was symbolized by the ever-burning fire in her temple in the Forum of Rome. Her cult was tended by six Vestal Virgins, high officials in the hierarchy of state religion. Other household divinities were the PENATES [pe-na'teez], defined as “the gods who are worshiped in the home.” The Penates were identified with the household gods of Troy entrusted by Hector’s ghost to Aeneas and brought by him to Italy. The Trojan Palladium was kept in the temple of Vesta; it was said to have been given by Diomedes to the embassy of Aeneas that had sought his help.
Cacus. In Book 8 of the Aeneid, the Italian fire-god CACUS [ka'kus] is made out to be a fire-breathing monster who stole the Cattle of Geryon from Hercules and was killed by him. The myth identifies his home as a cave on the Aventine Hill; an ancient pathway leading up to the southwest part of the Palatine Hill was called the Scalae Caci (“Steps of Cacus”).
Vulcan. The chief Italian fire-god was VULCAN [vul'can] (Volcanus), originally the god of destructive fire but (through his identification with Hephaestus) also of creative fire. He was more important in the pantheon than Hephaestus was among the Olympians. His forge was beneath Mt. Etna, and his associates (the Cyclopes) and myths are all taken over from the Greek legends of Hephaestus.
Saturn. The leading Italian agricultural gods were Saturn, Mars, and Ceres. SATURN [sat'urn] was identified with Cronus, and his consort, Ops, was identified with Rhea. His cult partner was Lus, and the partner of Ops was Consus (at whose festival, the Consualia, the rape of the Sabine women took place), who presided over grain when it was stored. Saturn was said to have ruled over a Golden Age in the early history of humankind. His festival, the Saturnalia, was a midwinter celebration, perhaps originally connected with the sowing of grain.
Ceres. The Italian goddess of grain, CERES [seer'eez], was identified with Demeter. A temple was dedicated to her at Rome in 493 B.C. She was associated with Liber (identified with Dionysus) and Libera (identified with Kore-Persephone), so that the Roman triad of Ceres-Liber-Libera repeated the Eleusinian triad of Demeter-Iacchus/Bacchus-Kore. When the grain was sown in the earth, it was protected by another Italian earth-goddess, Tellus Mater (Earth Mother).
Flora and Pomona. Minor fertility deities were FLORA [flo'ra] and POMONA [po-moh'na]. Flora was the goddess of the flowering plants (including grain and the vine), and was said to be the consort of Zephyrus, the West Wind, who gave her a garden filled with flowers and tended by the Horae (the Seasons) and Graces (Greek Charites).
Pomona was the goddess of fruit that can be picked from trees, and she kept a garden from which she excluded would-be suitors. The Etruscan god Vertumnus (perhaps “changer” or “turner”) turned himself into an old woman who advised Pomona to marry Vertumnus. When he resumed his usual form as a young male god, she accepted him.
Pales. The deities (originally two) who protected the farmers’ livestock were called PALES [pay'leez], whose name later was used for one deity, male or female. Their festival, the Parilia (or Palilia) was considered to be the anniversary of the founding of Rome.
Silvanus and Faunus. Two divinities of the woods were SILVANUS [sil-vay'nus or sil-va'nus], “forester,” and FAUNUS [faw'nus], “favorer.” In Vergil, Faunus is son of Picus and grandson of Saturn and father (with Marica) of Latinus. Both he and Silvanus were identified with Pan and were thought to be responsible for strange and sudden sounds in the woods. Faunus had oracular powers (both Latinus and the second Roman king, Numa, consulted him), and his consort, Fauna, was identified with the Bona Dea (“good goddess”), whose worship was only open to women.
Faunus (as the equivalent of the Arcadian god Pan) was worshiped by King Evander, who came from Arcadia and founded Pallanteum, the first settlement on the Palatine Hill. His sanctuary was a cave on the Palatine, called the Lupercal, where the infants Romulus and Remus were later suckled by the wolf (lupa). In historical times young men ran around the boundaries of the Palatine near-naked because Faunus had tried to seduce Omphale when she and Hercules were asleep in the Lupercal. He did not know that they had exchanged clothes and found himself attempting to seduce Hercules. After that his followers (the Luperci) went naked to prevent the repetition of such a painful error.
Venus. Originally, VENUS [vee'nus] was an Italian fertility goddess, especially the protectress of gardens. Later she was identified with Aphrodite, whose myths she appropriated, and her consort was Mars (although her husband in myth was Vulcan). As mother of Aeneas she became much more important in Roman mythology, a process that culminated in the dedication (A.D. 121) of a temple to Venus Felix (“bringer of success”) and Roma Aeterna (“eternal rome”) by the emperor Hadrian. As Venus Cloacina she had a shrine in the Forum beside the drainage system of the area (called the Cloaca); Pompey dedicated a temple to her as Venus Victrix (“conqueror”) as part of his theater, the first permanent stone theater at Rome (55 B.C.). Julius Ceasar (46 B.C.) dedicated a temple to her as Venus Genetrix (“ancestress”), honoring her as the founder of his family, The Gens Iulia. Her first temple at Rome (215 B.C.) was that of Venus Erycina (i.e., the Venus who was worshiped at Eryx in Sicily).
Priapus. The god PRIAPUS [preye-ay'pus] was the principal protector of gardens after the promotion of Venus to the ranks of the major divinities. He was represented by a statue painted red with an erect phallus. Ovid related (Fasti 1.415-440) that he tried to seduce the Naiad Lotis and was interrupted by the braying of the donkey of Silenus, which then became the animal sacrificed to Priapus.
Deities of Waters. Besides Janus, the Italian water-gods were the river-gods, the nymphs of springs and fountains, NEPTUNE [nep'toun] (Neptunus), and PORTUNUS [por-tou'nus]. The most important river-god was TIBERINUS [ti-ber-eye'nus], who, in Book 8 of the Aeneid, appeared in a dream to Aeneas and smoothed his waters so that the Trojans could sail up to Pallanteum. Notable fountain nymphs were JUTURNA [jou-tur'na] and the CAMENAE [ka-mee'nee]. Juturna was the sister of the Rutulian hero Turnus and had been raped by Jupiter. Her shrine was in the Forum, and her precinct included the headquarters of the water administration of Rome. The Camenae (identified with the Muses) were worshiped outside the Porta Capena at Rome. Associated with them were the nymphs EGERIA [e-je'ri-a] and CARMENTIS [kar-men'tis], both water divinities associated with childbirth. Egeria was said to have advised King Numa, and Carmentis was said to be the mother of Evander and to have prophetic powers.
Diana. Later idenfied with Artemis, DIANA [deye-a'na] was worshiped at the Latin town of Aricia, near which is Lake Nemi, called “Diana’s mirror.” She was concerned with the life of women and was sometimes identified with Lucina, the birth-goddess more commonly identified with Juno. Through her identification with Artemis, she became goddess of the hunt and of the moon, and was further identified with Hecate as an Underworld goddess. At Aricia she was associated with a minor Italian deity, Virbius, who was identified with Hippolytus, brought to life again by Aesculapius.
Mercury. The temple of MERCURY [mer'kyou-ree] (Mercurius), originally a god of trade and profit, was in the commercial center of Rome. Through his identification with Hermes he acquired the attributes, functions, and myths of Hermes.
The Roman Underworld. ORCUS [or'kus] was the Roman Underworld, and its ruler was DIS PATER [dis pa'ter], the equivalent of the Greek Pluto, since Dis is a form of dives (“wealthy”), and in Greek, “wealth” is ploutos. His cult was established in 249 B.C., and his consort was PROSERPINA [proh-ser'pe-na or Proserpine [proh'-ser-peyen], the Greek Persephone. Roman poets inherited the mythology of the Underworld from Homer and other Greek poets and from the philosophers (most notably Plato); they also used the beliefs of the mystery religions, both Greek and oriental. These literary, philosophical, and religious beliefs achieved a majestic synthesis in Book 6 of Vergil’s Aeneid.
Native Italian ideas of the Underworld originated from the religious beliefs of early agricultural communities. Each person had his or her own Manes (spirits of the dead), and epitaphs began with “Sacred to the Manes of…” (Dis manibus sacrum), followed by the person’s name. Spirits of ancestors were honored at the festival of Parentalia (in February, the last month of the old Roman calendar); the divi parentum (gods of the ancestors) had no names and no mythology. Other spirits in the dead were Lemures (identified by some poets with the Manes), who were propitiated in the family festival of the Lemuria in May. The burial goddess was Libitina, and undertakers were called libitinarii.
Lares. The LARES [lar'ez] were household spirits, often linked with the PENATES [pe-na'tez] (see Vesta, above). They could bring prosperity to the householder (in early times a farmer), and they were honored at the winter festival of the Compitalia, at which dolls were hung up in shrines, one for each member of the household. Each house had its Lar compitalis, and each city had its Lares praestites (guardian Lares). The Lares also protected travelers by land and sea.
Genius and Juno. The creative power of a man was symbolized by his GENIUS [jeen'nyus or gen'ius], and of a woman by her JUNO. The marriage bed, symbol of the continuing life of the family, was the lectus genialis.
Hercules. The earliest newcomer was HERCULES [her'kyou-leez] (Heracles), and his was the only foreign cult that Romulus was said to have accepted at the founding of Rome (see Cacus, above). His precinct was in the busy commercial area of the cattle market (Forum Boarium) and his altar there was the Ara Maxima (Greatest Altar). Like Mercury, he was the patron of traders, who dedicated a tithe of their profits to the gods.
The Dioscuri. CASTOR [kas'tor] and POLLUX [pol'lux] (the Latin form of Polydeuces), the DIOSCURI [di-os-kou'reye], appeared on white horses at the battle of Lake Regillus in 496 B.C. and led the Romans to victory, which they announced in the Forum after watering their horses at the fountain of Juturna. Their temple was dedicated in the Forum soon after.
The Sibylline Books. The collection of oracles, written in Greek and known as the SIBYLLINE [si'bi-leyen] books, was said to have been brought by the last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, from the Cumaean Sibyl herself (see MLS, Chapter 11). She burned three of the nine books each time Tarquin refused to pay her price, and he finally bought the last three at the price originally asked for all nine. The Sibylline oracles were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill and were consulted in times of public difficulty. After the original three were burned in a fire in 83 B.C., a new collection was made, which was put in the base of the statue of Apollo in his temple of the Palatine Hill.
Apollo. The first temple of APOLLO [a-pol'loh] at Rome was dedicated at a time of pestilence, in 431 B.C., on the advice of the Sibylline books, and he was originally worshiped as Apollo Medicus (“healer”). His other functions were introduced over the next two centuries, and he was especially worshiped by Augustus, the first Roman emperor, who dedicated a temple to him on the Palatine Hill. His functions, name, and mythology were taken over from the Greek Apollo, except that the oracle at Delphi no longer had the importance that it had had in the Greek world, although it continued to exist until the fourth century A.D. Apollo's oracles at Claros and Didyma (both in Asia Minor) were more active under the Roman Empire, while the oracle of Apollo’s father, Zeus, at Dodona ceased to function early in the period of Roman rule.
Asclepius. The Sibylline books also advised the bringing of ASCLEPIUS [as-klee'pi-us] (Aesculapius) to Rome in 293 B.C. He came in the form of a snake, slipping from the ship that brought him from Epidaurus onto the island in the middle of the river Tiber in Rome, where his temple was built.
Cybele and Mystery Religions. The goddesss CYBELE [sib'e-lee] also came to Rome (where she was called the Magna Mater, Great Mother) on the advice of the Sibylline books. She came in 205 B.C. in the form of a black stone from the Phrygian city of Pessinus, after the Delphic oracle had been consulted. Her temple was dedicated on the Palatine Hill and her festival was the Megalensia. Her priests, called Galli, performed ecstatic and colorful rituals, including self-mutilation, in their public processions.
The Greek, Egyptian, and Asiatic mystery religions were strong in the Roman Empire. Besides Dionysus and Demeter, Isis, Ma (Dea Syria, the Syrian goddess), Baal (identified with Jupiter Dolichenus), and Mithras were widely worshiped.
LEGENDS OF THE EARLY HISTORY OF ROME
Romulus and Remus. The last king of ALBA LONGA [al'ba lon'ga] (founded by Iulus) was Amulius, who had driven out the rightful king, his brother Numitor. Numitor's daughter RHEA SILVIA [re'a sil'vi-a] (or Ilia), although she had been a Vestal Virgin, conceived twin boys by Mars, whom the servants of Amulis exposed on the bank of the Tiber. A she-wolf suckled them near the cave of the Lupercal, below the Palatine Hill. They were found by a shepherd, Faustulus, who, with his wife, Acca Larentia, brought them up, naming them ROMULUS [rom'you-lus] and REMUS [ree'mus]. When they were grown up, the young men were recognized by their grandfather, whom they restored to his throne at Alba.
The Founding of Rome. Romulus and Remus left Alba and founded their own city at the site of their miraculous rescue from the river. The omens seen by Romulus through augury (divination by means of the flight of birds) were more favorable than those seen by Remus, and the city was called Roma after Romulus. During its building, Remus offended Romulus by jumping over his walls while they were being built and Romulus killed him.
Romulus established his city and gave it laws. He enlarged the number of citizens by declaring the area between the two parts of the Capitoline Hill to be an asylum, that is, a sanctuary where anyone could come without fear of violence or prosecution. To provide women, Romulus and his men seized the women of the Sabine tribes, who were spectators at the festival of the Consualia (see Saturn). This act led to war with the SABINES [say'beyenz], which was ended by the Sabine women themselves (now the wives and mothers of Romans). The Sabines and Romans agreed to live together under the joint rule of the Sabine king Titus Tatius, and Romulus. The Romans were called by the Sabine title Quirites.
During the war with the Sabines, Romulus killed a Sabine leader and dedicated the spolia opima (i.e., spoils taken from an enemy commander killed by the Roman commander in person) to Jupiter Feretrius. After a second battle, the wife of Romulus, Hersilia, persuaded him to accept the Sabines as Roman citizens. Later TARPEIA [tar-pay'a] betrayed the Capitoline Hill to the Sabines, who crushed her to death under their shields, and the Tarpeian Rock (from which criminals were thrown to their death) was called after her. The god Janus saved the Forum from capture by causing jets of boiling water to burst forth, and Romulus eventually won the battle there by vowing a temple to Jupiter Stator (“the stayer”). During this battle also, a Sabine warrior, METTUS CURTIUS [met'tus kur'shi-us or kur'ti-us], rode his horse through a marshy depression in the Forum, thereafter called the Lacus Curtius. The Romans later said that it took its name from a Roman, Marcus Curtius, who sacrificed himself in 362 B.C. by riding his horse into a chasm, since the soothsayers had advised that it would be closed only when “that which was most valuable to Rome” was put into it.
Romulus disappeared from the earth miraculously and was deified as Quirinus, a Sabine god associated with Mars. Hersilia became Hora Quirini (“the power” or “the will” of Quirinus).
The Oath of the Horatii by J.-L. David (1748–1825). The scene here is based on Corneille’s tragedy Horace and Noverre’s ballet.
The Successors of Romulus. Under the third king, TULLUS HOSTILIUS [tul'lus hos-til'i-us], a war between Rome and Alba Longa was settled by combat between three brothers on each side: the Alban champions were the CURIATII [kur-i-a'shi-eye or kur-i-at'i-ee], and the Romans were the HORATII [ho-ra'shi-eye or ho-ra'ti-ee]. The victor (and only survivor) was HORATIUS [ho-ra'shi-us or ho-rat'i-us], who killed his sister because she mourned the death of the CURIATIUS [ku-ri-a'shi-us or ku-ri-at'i-us] to whom she was betrothed. As part of the ritual of purification for his crime, he passed under a kind of crossbar, the tigillum sororium, beside which were altars dedicated to Janus Curiatius and Juno Sororia.
The sixth king, SERVIUS TULLIUS [ser'vi-us tul'li-us], was said to be a grandson of Vulcan, who showed his favor by various portents. Servius carried out many political reforms and introduced the worship of Diana. He was murdered by the plotting of his daughter TULLIA [tul'li-a] and her husband, TARQUINIUS SUPERBUS [tar-kwin'i-us su-per'bus], “the proud.” Tullia drove her coach over the body of her father, which lay in the street, thereafter called Vicus Sceleratus (“Wicked Street”).
Tarquinius Superbus was the last king of Rome. His son, SEXTUS [sex'tus] Tarquinius, raped LUCRETIA [lou-kree'she-a], the wife of Tarquinius COLLATINUS [col-la-teye'nus], who had been found to be the most virtuous of all the Roman wives while their husbands were away on military service. She told her husband and her father of the crime and then stabbed herself. Tarquinius Superbus and his sons went into exile, and the Roman monarchy came to an end.