The Roman goddess Venus held an extremely prominent position in Roman mythology, Roman religion and even in political propaganda. As a simple example of this we need but look at the great temple built by Emperor Hadrian at the head of the forum, just before the Colosseum: the temple of Venus (protector of Hadrian’s dynasty) and the goddess Rome with gigantic statues of the two divinities sitting back to back. This link between Rome and the goddess Venus was in fact one of the later examples in the city’s long history….
The establishment of kingly rule over a rowdy bunch necessarily required the timeline of Roman history and hitherto unwritten memory to be interwoven with mythology, particularly that which regarded the founding of the city and it’s people’s unity. So it was that the founding father of the city – Romulus – was, yes, a shepherd but only by virtue of the fact that he and his twin brother had been looked after by a shepherd.
Actually the twin brothers were born of the Vestal priestess-cum-princess Rhea Silvia who happened to have the fortune of an amorous visit from the Roman god of war Mars whilst she was locked away in solitary confinement by her evil uncle. Indeed the myth tells us that direct lineage of the Roman people could to be followed way back many generations to the Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Venus, who fled the burning Troy to found his own kingdom in central Italy. Not bad huh?
Another is Venus Genetrix – mother of the gens Iulia, she had a place of honour in Caesar’s forum to which the dictator intended to shift the centre of power.
Some other interesting facets of Venus included:
Venus Felix – Lucky Venus, a temple stood on the busy Via Sacra (the Forum). You might remember her as “Two Sixes Venus”
Venus Libertina – Freed Venus. The name could be a mixture of a variety of misspellings and misnomers. Interestingly there was a goddess of dead corpses called Libitina – who even had a gate in the Colosseum named after her – so you could in a sense regard Libitina a sort of opposite of Venus. A little like saying alpha-omega, ying and yang, but it’s another pure guess of mine.
Venus Verticordia – Her temple was built under instruction of the Sibylline books to make up for the inchastity of three Vestal Virgins. The three were likely buried alive to add to the atonement. It wasn’t the first time the books ordered something of the sort; for example the Magna Mater was brought into Rome to assist the Roman people during a failing war campaign. Given no Roman in his right mind would chop his own willy off to become a priest, slaves were brought in to do the job. Back to Venus… several more Venus epithets existed to suit a variety of needs and occasions but the above should give a good idea of the notion. A further couple of Venus epithets came to be preserved and used by modern art historians….
But as mentioned, the Roman goddess Venus was also an aspect of everyday politics….Guess who should claim direct lineage from Venus? Julius Caesar himself, perhaps as a means of excusing his own (in)famous promiscuity. The idea was that the gens Julia (ie the Julian family) was directly linked to the great lady Venus herself. To further consolidate his own divine right to rule, Caesar’s adoptive son and first Emperor of Rome Octavian a.k.a Augustus had it all written in wonderful verse by the great poet Virgil (who apparently wanted to destroy the work before dying but didn’t quite succeed).
Roman Venus in art
To consider Venus in art we shouldn’t forget that the modern Westerner’s view of love and beauty has been largely shaped by the Christian inheritance and as a consequence so too would our appreciation of the goddess Venus. Whilst the Romans were not without morality and in many cases quite prudish, by and large they weren’t averse to a degree of carnal pleasure and sexual allusion. Sexually explicit images which we would term blatant pornography abounded in Roman painting even in the best of homes and artifacts, for example even on cheap oil lamps.
Venus wasn’t always the actress of course but the use of mythological themes was one way of lending an excuse for such depictions – in much the same way as was done later with many Christian religious artworks (eg. Bernini’s ecstatic St. Teresa with arrow throwing angel in St. Peter’s which is a masterpiece of the Roman baroque period).
Amongst these mythological themes one of the most loved and recurring was the story of Venus’ illicit amours with the god Mars (click to enlarge the painting or for a greater enlargement). Her husband the smithy god Vulcan, warned by Apollo, literally catches the lovers in flagrante by use of a special net he forged for the purpose. Vulcan proceeds to call the other deities to jeer at the lovers and so, as they come to peep at the lovers, so do we. Going back to the morality of it all we should note that the thrill of this Venus peeping mechanism is also based on the notion that an extra marital relationships, such as Venus’ relationship with Mars behind her husband’s back, was illicit but possibly acceptable in this one case given the goddesses’ own nature.
Who was the Roman goddess Venus?
We all know what Venus has become, but who was she to start with? Sitting with other major Roman deities, Venus was the goddess of Love and Beauty. Venus was the ancient Roman equivalent of something which obviously ran far deeper into the culture of all major civilisations of the time. The Etruscan people who preceded the Romans had their own version in the goddess Turan whilst the Greeks had Aphrodite. Other peoples had other names for her but substantially she was one and the same – potentially all the way back to the Paleolithic great mother, goddess of fertility.
Venus herself was supposed to have been born of the froth of the sea and come from the East – which indeed she, together with several other deities including Saturn, Jupiter, Apollo and Co.; care of the “Indo-European” forefathers who populated much of Europe.
To gain a clearer understanding of what Venus actually stands for it is useful to refer to literati such as Camille Paglia and the art critic Kenneth Clark (qv. “The Nude”). The latter takes references to Plato’s Symposium as his starting point, where Plato suggests there are in fact two Venuses which he terms the “Celestial” and the “Vulgar”, later better known as “Venus Coelestis” and “Venus Naturalis”. Clark renamed them the Vegetable and Crystalline Venus as he sought to associate artistic form to the essential character and nature of the goddess. After all it is through art and various forms of pictorial representation that we now have our most direct contact with the Roman goddess Venus.
As already suggested above the goddess Venus became a great favourite of painters and artists: her very nature made it proper to paint her beauty and nudity with greatly reduced censorship, this was particularly so from the renaissance onwards, where all that was classical made a great come-back. Often she would be represented accompanied by Cupid (eg the Rockerby Venus) possibly with his arrows of love, or indeed accompanied by a dog to denote faithfulness or a rabbit to denote promiscuity.
As time progressed through to the 19th century art was gradually enslaved by Academic rules and written notions of what is beautiful and what isn’t, so too the name “Venus” became increasingly related to the generic nude and lost its direct association with the goddess per se. It was as if Venus had become disembodied or indeed become present in all unclad women.
As Clark would likely have put it: Venus became the generic nude, even if it wasn’t the goddess herself who was being depicted. Nowadays the proliferation of cheap reproduction and pornographic material has stretched Venus’s association to the naked as well as the nude. In a sense “Venus” is now an all-encompassing term to cover both Venus Coelestis and Venus Naturalis and it is only the Christian Virgin Mary who bars her way from claiming the epithet “Mater Coelestis” or “Mater Naturalis” she must have once sprung from, somewhere in primordial man’s mind the ancient goddess of fertility.
An excellent reference source for the various aspects of the Roman Godess Venus is Horace’s Odes and Epodes (see below). Useful references.