Roman mythology is the conflation of ancient Roman gods and roman religion together with the influences of the other cultures which ancient Rome came into contact with, both commercially as well as part of its military expansion to build the Roman empire. There are many Roman frescoes depicting mythological tales such as the love relationship of Mars and Venus behind Vulcan’s back or the Greek hero Odysseus sailing past the coasts where the sirens lured sailors to dash their ships on the rocks.
Greek ability to “package” mythology into easily consumed literature and theatre provided a strong driving force for Roman reinterpretation and assimilation of the largely indo-european pantheon.
A relatively amusing example of this influence is emperor Commodus‘ love for being called “The Roman Hercules” and having himself portrayed with a club and lion skin in clear reference to the Greek hero demigod. Marc Anthony did much the same although this was much more of a propagandistic move as he later realigned his popular image with the festive Dionysus-Bacchus.
The cult of Bacchus imported from Greece was a phenomenal success with its followers and the extreme debauchery caused the authorities to stamp it out with force: an interesting piece of evidence for those interested in ancient Roman morality. The result of both cult and its repression was a huge number of civilian deaths including the suicides of those who couldn’t bear the public disgrace.
The cult’s major claim to success was that it didn’t require solemn sacrifice and prayer. The reunions were held in secret at night and involved deafening music, plenty of drinking, eating and drugs. Sounds like a modern student party huh?
The next part is the worrying bit: The sacrificial victims, which were the staple fodder of any religion of the time, were the novices who would be told to attend a reunion after ten days abstention from sexual activity. On the night they would be drugged and serially raped by the other attendants. Sexual union was meant to bring contact with the divinity itself and often resulted in orgy, rape and murder. It is not surprising that the authorities punished the attendants with an equally impressive carnage.
Greek influence penetrated Roman religion not only because of its abundance of fresh “godly” material but also because of its ability to render them lively as art and as rites. Greek influence was not the only one of course as Rome regularly traded and held intimate contact with a number of other races and religions all of which were readily and freely assimilated. This attitude was not only passive but also active: there are numerous cases, such as Pompeii and Carthage for example where the colonising Romans considered their deities only as a component of “Romanisation” whilst leaving ample space and even financing the local cults so as to generate a unique local blend.
In spite of this the Romans seem to have held a firm hand on the “supremacy” of their own deities over those of Greece and other lands. This is most poignant when we consider the practice of “evocatio” (the early practice of convincing foreign deities to come and reside at Rome) and eventually of the persecutions and social divide caused by the growth of Christianity which went in direct contrast with the concept of mythology and multiple cults.
Roman mythology as a means of understanding Roman Society
If we are to take a Jungian approach to understanding human beings and the society they form it is easy to deduce that a deeper understanding of the mythological sphere of ancient Rome is an essential step to gaining insight into the “collective unconscious” of ancient Roman society, and of course to understanding the change it must have undergone at the time of the fall of the Roman empire.
Here’s a lovely picture of the god Mercury wearing his traveler’s clothes – Hermes for the Greeks.
Ancient Roman Gods | ancient roman religion | The Gods of Rome and Politics | Christianity in Ancient Rome |