The major Roman gods, in alphabetical order, including some interesting images, details and anecdotes. For really deep insight it is worth reading Ovid’s book “Metamorphoses” which has inspired artists with endless details and stories about the different deities of Rome:
- Apollo: brother of the Italic Diana goddess of hunting. He was god of prophecies, the arts, light and the sun.
As sun god he was often depicted with rays fanning out from his head and riding a horse drawn chariot across the sky. Emperor Augustus associated himself with Apollo as deity of order during the chaotic power struggles which followed the death of Julius Caesar. Emperor Constantine had more than one vision during his military lifetime of which the most famous is the revelation of Christ, before that he supposedly saw Apollo. An interesting fresco in the Catacombs shows Christ as sun god-Apollo.
- Bacchus: Was god of wine and other festivities and excesses. Celebrations in his honor were called Bacchanalia and were eventually forbidden by virtue of their orgiastic and sometimes violent excesses which in the extreme were said to include eating one another.
- Bellona: Being belligerent and continuously devoted to war, the Romans couldn’t do without a female deity wholly devoted to the activity of war. Wife but at times also considered sister, charioteer, twin of the god of war Mars.
- Castor and Pollux: These were twin sons of Jupiter and Leda (Jupiter took the unlikely form of a Swan for the occasion). Castor was a masterful rider whilst his brother was a great boxer. The Romans associated them with safety at sea (St. Elmo’s Fire). They were also referred to as the Dioscuri and were set in the sky as the constellation Gemini. There is also reason to believe that they played a part in Mithraism as two figures holding torches signifying sun rise and sun set.The twins appear in the verses of Homer’s Odissey: “…Castor, breaker of horses, and the hardy boxer Polydeuces, both buried now in the life-giving earth though still alive. Even under the earth Zeus grants them that distinction: one day alive, the next day dead, each twin by turns, they both hold honours equal to the gods”.
- Ceres: Ceres or Cerere, was goddess of the earth, crops, agriculture and fertility. The word “Cereals” is obviously derived from here. She was also goddess of marriage and of the dead. Her temple on the Esquiline was the first to display Greek artistic influence in Rome (the artists Damophylus and Gargasus) as opposed to the Etruscan influence which preceded (such as Vulca of Veio).
- Magna Mater also known as Cibele: The supreme mother. The Romans lost their cool when they were beaten by Carthage and so imported her from Pessinum, near Troy, as a remedy. The ship carrying her image (or in fact a large rock I think) ran aground as it entered Rome’s port of Ostia but was supposedly freed by the virtue of a Vestal Virgin. Although the priestly order was presided by a Roman citizen the order required priests to be castrated. Not having any available in Rome the Senate preferred to find them amongst slaves and captives.
- Cupid: Cupid was the son of Venus and was in charge of waking up desire and love. We often see him in paintings with his little bow and arrow.
- Diana: The twin sister of Apollo, daughter of Jupiter. She was primarily goddess of the moon, of fertility and of hunting. The shows with wild beasts called Venationes, held in Amphitheaters such as the Colosseum were held in her honor.
- Esculapius: God of medicine. His earliest temple in Rome was built in 293BC on the Tiber island. It is to him that we owe the modern symbol of medicine often seen on ambulances: a staff with two snakes wound up it.
- Faun: Rather like the earlier Italic god Silvan, faun was god of woodlands. Nowadays we may be more accustomed to the equivalent Greek god, Pan.
- Fortune or Fortuna, aka Mater Matuta: There was a special relationship between the king Servius Tullius and the fickle goddess Fortuna also known as Mater Matuta, goddess of dawn. As such she was particularly associated with the dawn of the longest day of the year (21st June). According to myth she was given haven by Hercules in the Forum Boarium and through a series of local and foreign associations she came to be associated with navigation, commerce, maternity, virginity and warriors. The feasts of Mater Matuta and Fortuna were both held on the 11 June. Fortuna Virginalis was a particular epithet under which she acted as goddess of young brides. At Roman weddings young brides would gift their “Toga Praetexta” before donning the wedding gown “Tunica Recta”
- Hercules: a sort of demi-god cum hero, protector of Gladiators. Generally shown wearing a lion’s skin over his head and shoulders and carrying a wooden club.
Janus (Ianus): Ancient god giving his name to the month of January. He was perhaps most curious in that he had two faces, one at the front and the other at the back of his head. His temple was one of the very first in Rome, built by Numa, its doors were shut during times of peace. The temple was erected on occasion of the peace stipulated between the Romans and their neighbors the Sabines. The place on which the temple was built was a crossroads between the Via Sacra (Sacred Street) and the way which joined the Forum to the poor quarter called the Suburra. Being external to the Palatine it represented a virtual door to all that was foreign and threatening.
Like the deity Portunus, Janus was god of doors as well as representing opposites such as purity and impurity, good and bad, sacred and profane but was more generally associated with the concept of “peace”.
Janus was often referred to as “Janus bifrons” and in some occasions could actually have as many as four faces. There’s a wonderful Romanic style façade to a basilica at Tuscania in the countryside north of Rome which includes a representation of what I believe is Janus quadrifrons holding a snake. Frequently roman homes would have a figure of Janus (or of a Phallus for fertility) over their front door. In the case of Janus it was for him to stand guard over the threshold as god of doors.
- Juno: Juno was one of the three major gods set on the Capitoline hill, the Romans imported her from the nearby Etruscans at the city of Veii. Daughter of Saturn. She was wife (as well as sister!) of Jupiter and mother of several of the major deities. She represented the vigour of women as well as fertility of the fields, woods, animals and men. She also came to be associated with the Roman state and government, Roman coinage, treasury and minting. She had many names for her different qualities. The month of June was named after her.
Jupiter: Together with Juno and Minerva, Jupiter formed the “Capitoline triad” and sat at his temple on the Capitoline hill since the earliest days of Rome. It is possible that in the beginning he was a single entity with Janus. The cultural provenance of Jupiter stretches back into the Indo-European origins of western peoples. Jupiter was the supreme god as well as being divinity of the skies, rain, thunder and lightning. Government, law, morality and order were also under his watchful eye. Jupiter was son of Saturn or Cronos whom he slew to become father of the gods. He was chronically (no pun meant!) unfaithful to his wife and hid under different guises such as a swan or a cloud in order to have his way with women.
In many ways the fusion of Jupiter and Zeus was a first mental step towards the monotheism of Judaeo-Christianity. A second abortive step was taken by the emperor Heliogabalus who it seems attempted to unify all the gods under a single deity “Sol Invictu”. He was killed and dragged through the crowds.
The huge temple to Jupiter on the Capitoline hill was started by one of the Tarquin kings of Rome, possibly Tarquinius Priscus.
The enormous building was probably measured something in the region of 170ft x 190ft and was probably completed and consecrated a long time after it was started, possibly in the first year of the Republic.
As well as the Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva the temple was made to house various preexisting deities such as Terminus.
It is of interest to note how the Capitoline triad actually changed even during the age of the kings so that the earlier gods of Jove, Mars and Quirinus (Romulus) were actually replaced by the more “current” gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.Roman
The temple to Jupiter also included a statue of the god himself the “Capitoline Jupiter” which was commissioned by king Tarquinius Priscus from his Etruscan countryman Vulca of Veio (one of the very few artists who’s name has made it through the millennia). This was possibly the first statue of a divinity to be placed in Rome and was most probably made of ceramic very much like the Veio Apollo on show in the Etruscan museum at Rome. Vulca’s Jupiter was seated and wore the sovereign’s garments and symbols of power, reinforcing the direct link between king and god.
- Mars: God of war after whom the month of March was named. Mythological father of Romulus and Remus. Protector divinity of Emperor Augustus. Had an illicit affair with Venus behind her husband’s back (Vulcan).
- Mater Matuta (see Fortuna and Mercury)
- Mercury: God of merchandise “merx”, commerce and information as well as merchants, orators and thieves, which makes up for an interestingcombination of virtues. His first temple was erected in 495BC at more or less the same time as the recorded removal of the mercantile temple to Mater Matuta. See his clothing.
- Minerva: One of the earliest gods of Rome whose image was supposedly brought to Italy by Romulus’ forefather Aeneas when he escaped from Troy. She was originally goddess of artisans but then became goddess of wisdom, not dissimilar to Athena, who had been born directly out of the head of Jupiter (Zeus).
- Neptune: God of the seas. Also greatly involved with the Circus.
- Portunus: God of doors and consequentially of ports also. Feast in August called the Portunalia. The temple of Portunus was by the Tiber and was associated with the Forum Boarium – the mercantile port-cum-market of Rome.
- Quirinus: The god Quirinus was part of the original Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus). A very early deity, associated with the Quirinal hill which is where the early Sabine people had settled as part of the earliest founding of Rome, following the famous rape of the Sabine women. The name was considered an extension of an earlier Sabine city of Cures or of a spear Curis. Quirinus was soon equated with the deified Romulus founder of Rome, and with the Roman people themselves. It became a pseudonym for “Roman citizens” who were referred to as “Quirites” even in Roman law to denote Roman citizens in their civil capacity.
- Sabazios or Sabazius: This was an ancient deity/mystery religion from the east, far earlier than ancient Rome or Greece. Interestingly the name would easily (though probably mistakingly!) break down into “Sabath” and “deus” and lead to consider some link to the monotheism of the archaic Jewish people. In Roman times it had a syncretic association with Jupiter and made its way across the empire, usually mysteric and only found at domestic level rather than in large dedicated temples. It is thought that a hand in a typical Roman ‘blessing’ gesture, covered with considerable symbolisms is associated with this divinity.
- Saturn: Saturn was a sort of “grandfather of the gods”: he fathered Jupiter by whom he was later slain. As well as being god of time (Greek Cronos) he was also a divinity of agriculture and sowing of seeds. Saturn was supposed to have lived in Latium in the earliest days of man and the gods and to have founded a very early settlement on the top of the Capitoline hill called “Saturnia”.
According to tradition the altar to Saturn predates Romulus’ founding of Rome, possibly founded by a mythical people emigrated from Greece to central Italy.
- Semo Sanctus: Semo Sancus was an ancient deity which predated Rome’s foundation. According to Roman accounts he was possibly of Sabine origin although linguistic study would suggest it is of Latin origin, in any case a local deity (or perhaps demigod, hence the “Semo”) closely associated or interchangeably regarded with Hercules because both divinities were considered protector of oaths and both are (possibly) demigods.The temple in Rome was probably founded around the first half of the 5th century BC on Quirinal hill. Given his association with oaths, contracts and promises the temple to Semo Sancus Dius Fidius had no roof: and persons taking oaths and striking pacts (Sancus) in it were under threat of being struck by lightning sent from the skies (Dius) if not done in good faith (Fidius).It is not surprising therefore that this divinity held a central role in sanctioning the pacts between Roman aristocracy and plebeians during the Roman social wars.
- Terra Mater: “Mother Earth” who later became the divinity of the extension of the empire.
- Victory: Hardly requires explanation!
- Venus: A great favourite. Goddess of love and mother of Cupid. Protective divinity of Julius Caesar and his Julian ancestry. For much more about Venus read on…
- Vesta: Highly venerated goddess of the hearth and family since the earliest days of Rome. The high priestess called the Virgo Maxima was almost equal in rank to the Pontifex Maximus, high priest of all Roman religions which was the king or emperor. The name “Vesta” literally meant “home” and the sacred fire of the hearth which the priestesses tended to was associated with that of the hearth of the king and hence that of the entire city and its people. It is no surprise therefore that the temple and home of the Vestals were directly connected with the king’s residence.
- Vulcan: God of fire and volcanoes. Contorted and crippled husband of Venus. Myth tells us that Romulus died in mysterious circumstances in the place of the Forum where the Lapis Niger (black marble) is found. Ancient writers tell us that Romulus was killed in the temple to Vulcan, from which we can deduce that the temple to Vulcan was where the Lapis Niger is, in the Forum.