The primary role of divine protectors of the Roman state was under the guardianship of the three major deities, also known as the “Capitoline Triad”: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva which king Tarquinius Priscus used to replace the more ancient triad of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (Romulus).
This triad was in itself a Romanisation of the existing Etruscan gods Tinia, Uni and Minerva. The ancient origins of Minerva can be discerned from the fact that the Vestal Virgins were supposed to have guarded an ancient image of Minerva which had been brought by Aeneas from Troy some twenty generations before Romulus founded the city of Rome.
Even if this is only myth it is clear that the Romans themselves gave Minerva a great deal of importance from the earliest of times. In fact we know that Minerva was also an Etruscan deity. Being predecessors of the Romans it is clear that the deity preceded the Roman state or at least was contemporary with Ancient Rome. A similar scenario is applied to the Roman Goddess Venus, possibly descended from the more visceral ancient fertility goddesses.
Gods and deities within the Roman social context
The brief outline above gives an immediate idea of how complex the panorama of ancient Roman gods can be: a mixture of local, inherited and imported divinities which became part of ancient roman society and fabric as part of the intercultural mixing and trading which was present in the area of the river Tiber from the very earliest ages of the city. In much the same way ancient Roman writing came to be.
Ancient Roman gods were part of every day life – so much so that religion was intimately integrated with public institutions and religious ceremony was part of the office of Roman magistrates (as were also their military duties in the Roman army). Most interestingly, Consuls would have the authority to consult the augurs and aruspices for divine signs when about to embark in important tasks such as war or call public elections, as well as to propose the introduction of new deities from abroad (handled by a specific group of priests known as duoviri and then decemviri) and building of new temples.
The result of this intimate relationship between sacred sphere, state functions and military sphere resulted in a closely knitted Roman society, particularly in the early period of Rome as a kingdom. Social structure like that of the ancient roman religious orders gradually fell apart during the fall of the ancient Roman empire as the ancient religious orders were gradually overcome by the Christian clergy. The shift away from paganism and the pagan gods towards christianity was a definite factor at play amongst the causes for the decline of the empire and a defining element of Roman society after the fall of the empire.
Roman mythology, roman gods and the individual within Roman society:
Before jumping in to look at the Roman approach to their Gods (and those of others!) it is worth scratching the surface of a further area of interest though it is rather more modern in approach and esoteric which can help us gain a deeper understanding of what it was to be a Roman. A quick overview of Carl Jung’s work will quickly give a relatively modern approach to understanding the human psyche.
One aspect of the model considers the “collective unconscious” – a sort of Platonic concept suggesting that individuals are born and live as a society with a bunch of collective concepts which can be more or less undefined for the individuals within it. The Collective Unconscious is considered as being made up of a number of “Archetypes” (ie the basic ideas or concepts are subdivided into categories) and one manifestation of these is also in the mythology and common symbology and imagery we live with in our every day lives. Freud had a similar idea and regularly used mythology as a means of looking at the psyche, for example “the Oedipus complex” and such like.
It stands to reason that much the same model can be applied to Roman individuals and Roman society. Without going into excessive detail it is easy to imagine how the ability of Roman society to absorb, homogenise and re-elaborate a broad spectrum of mythology, gods and divinities went a long way to continuously defining and redefining their “collective unconscious” and as such shaping and changing the very definition of what was considered within the term “Romans”.
Roman accounts of their gods and myths
There are a few Roman texts which give us particularly good accounts of the myths behind the Roman deities:
- Gaius Julius Hyginus wrote “Fabulae” (stories) which describe a long list of mythical figures, including some of the deities.
- Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” which likely made use of Hyginus’ book (they likely knew each other)
- Apuleius’ “Golden Asse” aka “Metamorphoses” but not to be confused with those of Ovid. It gives a particularly good account of the popular attitude to magic, the Romano-Egyptian cult of Isis.
Roman approach to gods and deities
The Roman approach to deities and religion was rather different to the sense of religion we might recognise nowadays: an ancient roman god was essentially another, more powerful being with whom the individual could essentially strike a pact or contract: I sacrifice such and such in exchange for such and such a favour… Clearly the deity was at full liberty of choosing whether or not to answer your call.
As might be guessed from above, ancient roman gods therefore became a mixture of various influences, not only those of Greece and the orient and indeed it was important to the Romans that the deities should feel honoured and respected in coming to Rome (in exchange for protection of the city!).
Indo-European Deities in Rome
A strong underlying current came from the early indo-european deities (ie from those people settled in central Europe in the second millennium BC) which transformed into the various gods of the Germanic, Iberian, Italic, Greek, Etruscan peoples…Amongst these traditional deities we have Jupiter, Diana and Vesta. Cerere, Minerva, Juno, Mercury, Janus, Venus and Mars were common to the Romans and the Latin peoples of central Italy.
The Romans imported deities into Rome…
Other deities were imported from the orient such as the Magna Mater, from Egypt (there were many temples and followers of Isis), from the Greek colonies of southern Italy such as Hercules and Apollo and of course from Greece itself –such as the god of medicine Aesculapius (Asclepius).
Importing a divinity even had its own specific rite and reason: persuading an enemy’s divinity to remove to Rome essentially meant the enemy had lost protection and was hence doomed to lose the war. The specific rite was called “Evocatio” and we have a very good example of this when Camillus “persuaded” the goddess Juno – Juno Regina – to move to a temple in Rome. To Roman minds, her acceptance was the evident reason for the fall of the city of Veii where she had hitherto resided. A similar example of evocatio is to be had during the Punic Wars when Scipio Africanus in 146BC against the Carthaginians with the goddess Tanis, translated by the Romans as Juno Caelestis.
Bacchus is an interesting ancient Roman god – absorbed from a variety of areas: partly taken from Etruria but heavily influence by Greece and Orient ie originally oriental or middle eastern and closely associated with the taming of vines which then traded westward to Greece and across the Mediterranean.
Therefore the Romans happily absorbed and welcomed the divinities and indeed the following of one divinity rather than another held little problem for individuals so long as it didn’t interfere with the general concept that the state divinities. The Capitoline triad were the ones which essentially ruled the city and its dominions: the triad represented not only the Capitoline rule but also the rule of the Patrician class. It is therefore not surprising that a more plebeian version arose known as the Aventine triad around the 5th century BC.
The plebeian Aventine triad included the goddess of cereals Cerere (or Ceres) as well as Liber (Bacchus – wine) and Libera (Proserpine – spring). Often erroneously compared with the equivalent Greek triad of Demeter, Dionysus and Persephone.
The Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus was learned from the neighbouring Etruscans (Uni, Tinia, Menrva) and the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus, himself an Etruscan later subtly transformed it into the triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
Ancient Roman Gods of the Household – the Lares
Each household had its own deities which were regularly attended to in daily prayers, closely associated with its deceased ancestors. There were two types of household deity: Lares and Penates. The Lararium is to be seen in the atrium (sitting room) of many houses in Pompeii – a small altar with a small roof over it which contained some clay statuettes, representing the household ancestors. The Roman nobility even had a right “ius imaginis” to display the casts of their ancestors in their atrium. These would be used in family funerals – as if the ancestors were partaking in the funeral and welcoming the recently deceased to join them.
So we have the:
- Genius Familiaris: the essence or vital spirit of the family: the family’s power to procreate. We see this genius becoming rather powerful during the empire, and it was the Christians’ refusal to pay homage to the genius of the emperor (ie their staunch monotheism) that actually got them in trouble as traitors as opposed to their belief in Christ per se.
- Lar Familiaris: who guards the family fire and hence deserves his regular sacrificial offerings as well as foodstuff fallen from the table (by burning them)
- The Penates: deities or spirits which protect the household itself.
We have compiled a list of ancient Roman gods in order to give some idea of who the major deities were. In order to understand more about the ancient Roman gods read on about ancient Roman religion…
Ancient Roman Gods | ancient roman religion | The Gods of Rome and Politics | Christianity in Ancient Rome | List of Roman Gods | roman mythology | goddess (picture) | Goddess Clothing | greek and roman gods |
roman gods: asclepius | Hercules Mythology | temple of hercules | Roman God Janus | god jupiter | mars | roman god Mars |
roman goddesses (about roman goddesses in general): Goddess Aurora (sun rise) | roman goddess bellona (war) | Goddess Diana | goddess of love | Roman Goddess Venus (pictures) | Aphrodite Greek Goddess of Love (picture) | ancient fertility goddess | Athena Goddess | gaia goddess of earth | Minerva | moon goddess | Roman Goddess Juno | The Goddess Vesta |