Roman Mythology in Context
From the founding of the Roman empire to its fall in 476 ce, Rome dominated Europe and much of North Africa, the Near East, and Asia Minor. Although this sprawling empire encompassed many cultures with their own myths and legends, the mythology of the Romans themselves revolved around the founding, history, and heroes of the city of Rome. The Romans had developed their own pantheon, or collection of recognized gods and goddesses. After they conquered Greece, however, their deities (gods and goddesses) became increasingly associated with the figures of Greek mythology.
Although Rome's early history is difficult to separate from the legends that formed around it, the city appears to have begun as a community of central Italian peoples known as Latins. The Latins merged with the Etruscans, who probably came to Italy from Asia Minor before 800 bce.
Until 510 bce, Rome was ruled by kings. Then it became a republic governed by elected officials. The Roman republic eventually dominated most of Italy and conquered the North African coast and Greece. By 31 BCE, Rome governed all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea as well as northwest Europe.
The principal sources of information about Roman mythology appeared during the early years of the empire, between about 20 bce and 20 ce. The poet Virgil produced Rome's national epic, the Aeneid , which drew on myths that linked the city's founding with Greek deities and legends. Another poet, Ovid, wrote the Metamorphoses, a collection of Near Eastern and Greek myths that the Romans had adopted. Ovid's Fasti describes Roman myths about the gods according to the festivals in their calendar. In his history of Rome, Livy portrayed legends about the city's founding as though they were historical events. These and other writers worked to create an “official” Roman mythology, one that gave Rome an ancient, distinguished, and glorious heritage.
Core Deities and Characters
In their early years, the Romans had many deities and spirits called numina, or powers, that were believed to inhabit all of nature. Unlike the Greek deities, the numina did not have distinctive, well-defined personalities and characteristics. Few stories about them existed. They were simply the forces that oversaw the activities of daily life. Examples include Janus (pronounced JAY-nuhs), god of doorways and archways, and Terminus (pronounced TUR-muh-nuhs), god of boundaries. Many early Roman deities were associated with farming, crops, or the land. Sylvanus (pronounced sil-VAY-nuhs), for example, was the protector of woodcutters and plowmen. Other early deities represented virtues or qualities, such as Concordia (pronounced kon-KOR-dee-uh), goddess of agreement; Fides (pronounced FEE-des), goddess of honesty; and Fortuna (pronounced for-TOO-nuh), goddess of fate or luck.
Captivated by the elaborate and entertaining myths the Greeks had woven around their gods and goddesses, the Romans gradually changed some of their numina into Roman versions of the major Greek deities. The ancient Roman god Saturn, guardian of seeds and planting, became identified with the Titan Cronus (pronounced KROH-nuhs), who appeared in Greek mythology as the ancestor of the gods. Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee) became Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) and Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh), the king and queen of the Greek gods, became the Roman Jupiter (pronounced JOO-pi-tur) and Juno (pronounced JOO-noh).
Raising the Sun
One of Rome's most worshipped goddesses received little literary attention. According to legend, Angerona (pronounced an-juh-ROH-nuh) knew a magical spell to raise the sun in midwinter. Her festival occurred on December 21, the shortest day of the year, when she was believed to say the words that would cause the days to lengthen and spring to return. Even more important, Angerona guarded the secret name of the city of Rome. The gods knew this name, but Rome would be doomed if people ever learned it. Statues of Angerona showed her mouth covered with her hands or a gag so that the secret name could not slip out.
Mars, a Roman deity first associated with agriculture, took on the characteristics of Ares (pronounced AIR-eez), the Greek god of war, which explains why the Roman version of this god is concerned with both war and farming. Diana, a traditional Roman goddess of the forests, was identified with Artemis (pronounced AHR-tuh-miss), the Greek goddess of the hunt. Minerva (pronounced mi-NUR-vuh) was the Roman version of Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh), Neptune of Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun), Vulcan of Hephaestus (pronounced hi-FES-tuhs), Mercury (pronounced MUR-kyoo-ree) of Hermes (pronounced HUR-meez), Ceres (pronounced SEER-eez) of Demeter (pronounced di-MEE-ter), and Bacchus (pronounced BAHK-us) of Dionysus (pronounced dye-uh-NYE-suhs). Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh), too, was brought into the Roman pantheon, where he was known as both Apollo and Phoebus (pronounced FEE-buhs).
The Romans gave their deities some of the characteristics and even some of the stories associated with the Greek gods and goddesses. They also imported other foreign deities, such as Cybele (pronounced SIB-uh-lee) from near Troy in Asia Minor, and the Persian god Mithras (pronounced MITH-rahs). At the same time, in their own homes they continued to worship their traditional household gods, known as the Lares (pronounced LAIR-eez) and Penates (pronounced puh-NAY-teez).
Roman mythology also includes human heroes. Sometimes these mortals became deities. Romulus (pronounced ROM-yuh-luhs), the legendary founder of the city of Rome, was thought to have become the god Quirinus (pronounced kwi-RYE-nuhs). Many emperors were declared gods by the Roman senate after their deaths, and people worshipped them in temples. The most honored heroes, however, were Aeneas (pronounced i-NEE-uhs), Romulus and Remus , and others from myths about Rome's beginnings and early history.
Romans cherished myths about their city's founding. A myth that probably dates from around 400 bce told of the twins Romulus and Remus, offspring of a Latin princess and the god Mars. Although their uncle tried to drown them, they survived under the care of a she-wolf and a woodpecker. Eventually, the twins overthrew their uncle and decided to found a new city on the spot where they had been rescued by the she-wolf After receiving an omen—a sign from the gods—about the new city, Romulus killed Remus and became the leader as the gods had intended. Rome took its name from him.
The ditch that Romulus dug to mark the boundary of Rome was called the pomerium (pronounced poh-MEHR-ee-uhm). Everything within the pomerium was considered to be part of the original, authentic, sacred Rome. Throughout Rome's long history, the Romans preserved landmarks within the pomerium that they associated with the legend of Romulus and Remus. These included a cave on the Palatine Hill where the wolf was said to have nursed the twins, and a nearby hut where Romulus was said to have lived.
According to legend, Romulus made the new city a refuge for criminals, poor people, and runaway slaves to attract citizens. Because this population lacked women, Romulus invited a neighboring people called the Sabines (pronounced SAY-bines) to a religious festival, and the Romans then kidnapped the Sabine women. Titus Tatius (pronounced TAY-shuhs), king of the Sabines, brought an army to wage war on Rome. By that time, however, the Sabine women had married their Roman captors. At their urging, the men made peace, and until his death, Titus ruled at the side of Romulus.
One myth connected with the war between the Romans and the Sabines reveals that a high-ranking Roman woman named Tarpeia (pronounced tahr-PEE-uh) caught sight of Tatius and fell in love with him. Tarpeia betrayed Rome to the Sabine army, but Tatius slew her for her treachery. The myth became part of the city's geography; a rocky outcropping from which the Romans cast murderers and traitors to their deaths was called the Tarpeian Hill. Other legendary figures from Rome's early history include the virtuous wife Lucretia (pronounced loo-KREE-shuh) and the brave soldier Horatius (pronounced hoh-RAY-shuhs), both of whom appear in tales about the downfall of the monarchy and the founding of the Roman Republic.
By the late years of the Republic, Romans had adopted a powerful new myth about their state's origins. This account is most fully told in the Aeneid. It revolves around Aeneas, a Trojan prince who fled from his ruined homeland because the gods told him that he was fated to establish a “new Troy.” After wandering around the Mediterranean, Aeneas landed in Italy with some Trojan followers. There he married the daughter of the local Latin king. Aeneas's son Ascanius (pronounced ass-KAN-ee-us) founded a settlement called Alba Longa. This version of Roman history emphasized the idea that the gods had always meant for Rome to rule the world. Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, a princess of Alba Longa, and descendants of Aeneas—a perfect example of Roman willingness and ability to piece together different myths.
Myths arose linking many deities with key events in Roman history. The twin wind gods Castor (pronounced KAS-ter) and Pollux (pronounced POL-uhks), together called the Dioscuri (pronounced dye-uh-SKYOO-rye), appear in both Greek and Roman mythology as inseparable brothers who form the constellation Gemini (pronounced JEM-uh-nye). In the Roman version, the Dioscuri fought on the side of the Roman army in a battle in the 490s bce and brought word of the Roman victory back to the city.
Key Themes and Symbols
The myths and legends about Roman history celebrate the virtues that Romans especially prized: duty, self-sacrifice, honor, bravery, and piety. Roman deities, too, tended to represent virtues, without the all-too-human weaknesses and vices of the Greek gods. A Greek historian named Dionysius of Halicarnassus recognized this difference when he wrote that the Roman deities were more moral than the Greek deities because the Romans had taken only what was good from the old stories and left out all the disgraceful parts.
Roman Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The influence of Roman mythology extended farther and lasted longer than the Roman empire. Statues, temples, and other structures associated with Roman deities and myths can be found far from the ancient capital. An old mosaic—a picture made from small pieces of rock or tile—found in Britain shows the she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus. It is a reminder of the days when Rome ruled Britain and a mark of how far Roman mythology spread.
The Renaissance began with a new interest in ancient Greece and Rome. The mythology of these cultures became part of the store of knowledge of well-educated Europeans. Since that time, hundreds of artists, writers, and musical composers have found inspiration in the Aeneid and in Rome's heavily mythologized version of its history.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Although many of the deities in Roman mythology are based on Greek gods and goddesses, they are often better known in modern times by their Roman names. For example, the goddess of love is more easily recognized by the name Venus (Roman) than by Aphrodite (Greek). Even Romanized spellings of Greek names are often more popular, such as Hercules (Roman) instead of Heracles (Greek). What reasons can you think of to explain this widespread acceptance of Roman names over the original Greek names?