Looking for a complete introduction to Roman mythology in just a few minutes? You’ve come to the right place! Read on !
Creatures are not there to feed us and delight our senses; all primitive mythologies knew this well, which gave them metaphorical meaning; and, in so doing, they justified creation in a much deeper way than utilitarian interpretations do. “Nature is a revelation from God to man…” (Albert Béguin, L’Âme romantique et le rêve, 1939)
Roman mythology is the set of beliefs and rituals applied to supernatural things, accepted or practiced by the ancient Romans. Roman beliefs remained in force until Christianity supplanted the original religions of the Roman Empire in the early Middle Ages.
The origin of the religion of the early Romans remains unclear due to the assimilation of much Greek mythology and many other beliefs. Significant changes in religion had already taken place before the written tradition began; its origins were in most cases unknown to early Roman writers, such as the first century BC scholar. Varro .
Other classical authors, such as the poet Ovid in his Fastes (“calendar”), were greatly influenced by their Alexandrian models, their work often incorporating Greek beliefs to fill in the gaps in the Roman tradition.
Gods of the Roman Mythology
The Roman ritual clearly distinguishes two classes of gods, the dii indigetes and the dii novensides or novensiles.
- The indigetes were the original gods of the Roman state, their names and their nature are indicated by the first priests and by the festivals of the calendar. About thirty of these gods were honored on the occasion of ceremonies.
- The novensides were new deities whose cults were introduced during the historical period.
Among the early Roman deities, in addition to the dii indigetes , there were a large number of gods whose names were invoked during various activities such as the harvest. The ancient rituals were associated with acts such as plowing and sowing, and at each stage a particular deity was invoked, hence the origin of its name.
These deities are grouped under the general name of auxiliary or associated gods and were honored along with the main gods. The early Roman cult was more a polydemonism than a polytheism – the practitioners’ concepts of the gods were limited to their names and functions, with the numen of being, or power, manifesting itself in a very specialized way.
The nature of the Indigetes gods and their cults shows that the early Romans belonged to an agricultural community, but that they also enjoyed fighting and war. The gods represented the practical needs of daily life, and they were scrupulously accorded rites and offerings. Thus, Janus and Vesta guarded the door and the hearth, the Lares gods protected the fields and the house, Pales guarded the herds, Saturn watched over the sowing, Ceres over the growth of the wheat, Pomona over the fruits, Consus and Ops over the harvest.
Even the majestic Jupiter, the ruler of the gods, was honored for his contribution to the rain needed for farms and vineyards. Because of his omnipresent character, possessing the lightning as a weapon, he directed the activity of men and, by virtue of his status, he was the protector of the Romans in their military activities outside their borders. The gods Mars and Quirinus, often confused, were of great importance in the early days. Mars was the god of young men and their activities, mainly war, and was celebrated in March and October. Nowadays it is considered that Quirinus was the god of armies in times of peace.
At the head of the pantheon were the trio Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (whose three priests were the highest in rank), then Janus and Vesta. These gods of ancient times had little personality, their history lacked marriages and genealogy. Unlike the Greek gods, they were not thought to act like mortals, and there are few accounts of their activities. This ancient cult was associated with Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome, whose mistress and advisor was Egeria, the Roman goddess of Fountains and Childbirth.
New elements were soon added. The legend attributes to the royal house of Tarquin the introduction of the Capitoline trilogy, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, which had the first place in the Roman religion. Among other additions, we find the cult of Diana on Mount Aventine and the introduction of the Sibylline Books, prophecies on the history of the world that, according to legend, were purchased by Tarquin the Superb at the end of the sixth century BC from the Sibyl of Cumae.
Introduction of new deities of Roman Mythology
The absorption of neighboring local gods parallels Rome’s conquest of neighboring territories. The Romans usually gave the local gods of the conquered territories the same honors as the original gods attached to the Roman state.
Often, deities so recognized were given a place in new sanctuaries in Rome. Moreover, the growth of the city attracted foreigners who were allowed to continue the practice of the worship of their gods. In addition to Castor and Pollux, the colonized regions of Italy seem to have brought to the Roman pantheon Diana, Minerva, Hercules, Venus and certain deities of Italian or Greek origin.
The important Roman deities were eventually assimilated to the Greek gods and goddesses, whose anthropomorphic character was more pronounced, as well as their attributes and their myths.
Religious festivals of the Roman mythology
The Roman religious calendar reflected Rome’s hospitality to the cults and deities of conquered territories. Originally, Roman religious festivals were few in number. The oldest survived until the end of the pagan empire, preserving the memory of the propitiatory and fertility rites of a primitive agricultural people.
New festivals were instituted to mark the naturalization of new gods, so that the number of working days in the calendar was less than the number of festival days. Among the most important religious festivals, we can note the Saturnalia, the Lupercalia, the Equirria, and the Secular Games.
During the Empire, Saturnalia was celebrated for seven days, from December 17 to 23, during the winter solstice. All work ceased and slaves were temporarily free, gifts were exchanged and merriment took center stage.
The Lupercalia was an ancient festival that honored Lupercus, an Italian pastoral god. The Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15 in the Lupercal cave near Mount Palatine, where the two legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were fed by a she-wolf.
The Equirria, feasts given in honor of Mars, were celebrated on February 27 and March 14, traditionally the time of year when new military campaigns were prepared. The celebration was especially marked by horse races on the Field of Mars.
The Secular Games
The Secular Games, which included both athletic performances and sacrifices, were held at irregular intervals, about once a century, to mark the beginning of a new saeculum, or era. This tradition, however, was often neglected.
The Roman Temples
The architecture of the Roman temples as well as their great number reflects the receptivity of the city for all the religions of the world. The temple of Isis and Serapis on the Field of Mars, built with Egyptian materials and in the Egyptian style to house the Hellenized cult of the goddess Isis is typical of the heterogeneity of Roman religious monuments.
The most remarkable temples of Rome were the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and the Pantheon.
The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, on the Capitol, was dedicated in 509 BC to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. First built in the Etruscan style, it was restored several times during the Empire and was finally destroyed by the Vandals in 455 AD.
The Pantheon was built from 117 to 138 AD by Emperor Hadrian and dedicated to all the gods; this monument replaced a smaller temple built by the general and statesman Marcus Agrippa. The Pantheon became a Christian church in 607.
It is a temple dedicated by the Ancients, especially the Greeks and Romans, to all their gods. By analogy, in some countries, the pantheon is a monument intended to receive the remains of illustrious men. Figuratively speaking, the word “pantheon” refers to the group of people who have distinguished themselves in one field or another and who remain in the individual or collective memory.
This word gave birth to the verb panthéoniser which means “to put in the Pantheon” as well as the adjective panthéonesque to designate all that is relative to the Pantheon.
Decline of Roman religion
The transfer of the anthropomorphic qualities of the Greek gods to Roman religion and, perhaps more importantly, the supremacy of Greek philosophy among the Romans, led to the increasing neglect of the old rites, and in the first century B.C. the religious importance of the ancestral offices of the clergy declined.
The patricians called to these duties no longer believed in the rites, except out of political necessity, and the people became more and more interested in foreign rites. The positions of pontiff and augur remained nevertheless coveted political posts.
A thorough reform and restoration of the old system was then undertaken by the emperor Augustus, who himself became a member of the clergy. Although the early rituals had been far from moral, being mostly a business relationship with unseen powers, where men sacrificed to the gods in exchange for security, they had brought piety and religious discipline.
Augustus therefore favored religion as a protection against internal disorder. During this period, the legend of the founding of Rome by Aeneas gained importance thanks to the publication of Virgil’s Aeneid.
The Aeneid in Roman Mythology
The Aeneid is an epic by Virgil, the most prestigious example of this literary genre in Latin, composed in dactylic hexameters. Like the Iliad and the Odyssey – from which the Aeneid is largely inspired – the work has been admired by generations of scholars from antiquity to the present day and has been a recurring source of inspiration for artists and poets.
The Aeneid is the story of the trials of the Trojan Aeneas, mythical ancestor of the Roman people, son of Anchises and the goddess Venus, from the capture of Troy, until his settlement in Latium in Hesperia. The legend that brings Aeneas to Italy predates Virgil. The poem, written between 29 and 19 B.C. contains at the death of Virgil about 10 000 verses and is divided into twelve songs.
Under Augustus, the Roman religion of the Empire tended to focus more and more on the imperial family, the emperors being deified after their death. This deification had in fact begun before the establishment of the Empire, with Julius Caesar. The emperors Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian and Titus were also deified and, after the reign (96-98 AD) of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, few emperors escaped this distinction.
Subsequently, many foreign cults became popular and spread, such as the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis and that of the Persian god Mithra, similar in some aspects to Christianity. Despite the persecutions that developed from the reign of Nero to that of Diocletian, Christianity gained followers and became the official religion of the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine, who ruled from 324 to 337 AD. All pagan cults were banned in 392 AD by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I.