The goddess in ancient Rome saw as long a period of evolution as did the male god. A common misconception is that Roman deities and goddesses were imported from Greece – the reality is that early settlements, even cavemen, had divinities of their own. Both Romans and Greeks were part of the Indo-European people, with a common set of deties as well as separate developments of them.
Italic peoples such as the Etruscans, Latins, Sabines and others had a variety of deities, largely influenced by their Indo-European origins but also with autoctonous nuances. Many Roman goddesses were of Indo-European origin, and hence can be considered as pre-Roman, like the goddess of crops and cereals Cerere for example.
Many of the earliest goddesses, like “Flora”, or “Vesta” were closely associated with pastoral and agricultural notions: fertility, seasons, life and death, dawn, moon, the hearth/home, wife, childbirth, bounty, the earth and even wisdom.
Rome’s position on the Tiber made it an ideal trading point and as such a cross-roads not only of commerce but also of cultures and beliefs. Expansion of Roman influence across central Italy and increasing contact with Greek-eastern influences brought the Romans into contact with deities from neighbouring civilisations as well as far eastern ones.
The very origins of Rome, as a conflation of various peoples, Latins, Sabines, Etruscans, Greeks and Trojans meant that they were culturally set to accept and bring together many external influences and attitudes.
The Roman attitude to deities, and the belief that winning the enemy deities’ good will would ensure their own glory underpinned their open attitude to “foreign” gods and goddesses. The logic even applied to contest between the Romans themselves: Julius Caesar had made an oath to dedicate a temple to Venus Victrix as he engaged in the important battle of Pharsalus against Pompey the Great, knowing that the goddess was greatly favoured by Pompey he hoped to gain her support against him.
Female deities, even foreign ones, could be greatly feared and honoured, even as much as their male counterparts; for example the matronly, stern Juno (wife of Jupiter) or Minerva who together with Juno and Jupiter formed the “Capitoline triad” – ie two of the three deities considered protectors of the Roman state throughout its pagan period were female goddesses. Minerva was also known as one of the three virgin goddesses together with Diana (goddess of hunting) and Vesta (goddess of the hearth and home).
Many popular goddesses were imported from foreign lands and given a home in Rome. For example, the goddess Juno was “imported” by General Camillus from the neighbouring Etruscan city of Veii. Venus Eryx was imported from Sicily during the second Punic war. Another popular divinity welcomed from abroad was Isis – who had made her way across the Mediterranean from Egypt and entered Italy through cities such as Pompeii with far reaching trade routes which enabled the cult of such deities to travel with the merchants. Isis is also interesting because of how her attributes were soon associated with those of Venus, in a case of religious synchretism. An interesting example of this habit of importing deities was “Mater Matuta“, who was shipped into Rome lock stock and barrel, priesthood and all.