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Roman mythology

Related subjects: Myths

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A head of Minerva found in the ruins of the Roman baths in Bath

Roman mythology, the mythological beliefs of the people of Ancient Rome, can be considered as having two parts. One part, largely later and literary, consists of whole-cloth borrowings from Greek mythology. The other, largely early and cultic, functioned in very different ways from its Greek counterpart.

Nature of early Roman myth

The Romans had no sequential narratives about their gods comparable to the Titanomachy or the seduction of Zeus by Hera until their poets began to adopt Greek models in the later part of the Roman Republic. What the Romans did have, however, were:

  • a highly developed system of rituals, priestly colleges, and pantheons of related gods.
  • a rich set of historical myths about the foundation and rise of their city involving human actors, with occasional divine interventions.

Early mythology about the gods

The Roman model involved a very different way of defining and thinking about gods than that of Greek gods. For example, if one were to ask a Greek about Demeter, he might reply with the well-known story of her grief at the abduction of Persephone by Hades.

An archaic Italian, by contrast, would tell you that Ceres had an official priest called a flamen, who was junior to the flamens of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, but senior to the flamens of Flora and Pomona. He might tell you that she was grouped in a triad with two other agricultural gods, Liber and Libera. And he might even be able to rattle off all of the minor gods with specialized functions who attended her: Sarritor (weeding), Messor (harvesting), Convector (carting), Conditor (storing), Insitor (sowing), and dozens more.

Thus the archaic Roman "mythology", at least concerning the gods, was made up not of narratives, but rather of interlocking and complex interrelations between and among gods and humans.

The original religion of the early Romans was modified by the addition of numerous and conflicting beliefs in later times, and by the assimilation of a vast amount of Greek mythology. We know what little we do about early Roman religion not through contemporary accounts, but from later writers who sought to salvage old traditions from the desuetude into which they were falling, such as the 1st century BC scholar Marcus Terentius Varro. Other classical writers, such as the poet Ovid in his Fasti (Calendar), were strongly influenced by Hellenistic civilization models, and in their works they frequently employed Greek beliefs to fill gaps in the Roman tradition. Because the Romans had so many gods to worship, they lived in fear of angering them.

Early mythology about Roman history

In contrast to the dearth of narrative material about the gods, the Romans had a rich panoply of legends about the foundation and early growth of their own city. In addition to these largely home-grown traditions, material from Greek heroic legend was grafted onto this native stock at an early date, rendering Aeneas, for example, an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, and by extension, the Trojans as the ancestors of the Roman people (which is why the Roman centurions took a uniform based on the Greeks' drawing of the Trojans).

The Aeneid and the first few books of Livy are the best extant sources for this human mythology.

Native Roman and Italic gods

Statue of Ceres carrying fruit.

The Roman ritual practice of the official priesthoods clearly distinguishes two classes of gods, the di indigetes and the di novensides or novensiles. The indigetes were the original gods of the Roman state (see List of Di Indigetes), and their names and nature are indicated by the titles of the earliest priests and by the fixed festivals of the calendar; 30 such gods were honored with special festivals. The novensides were later divinities whose cults were introduced to the city in the historical period, usually at a known date and in response to a specific crisis or felt need. Early Roman divinities included, in addition to the di indigetes, a host of so-called specialist gods whose names were invoked in the carrying out of various activities, such as harvesting. Fragments of old ritual accompanying such acts as plowing or sowing reveal that at every stage of the operation a separate deity was invoked, the name of each deity being regularly derived from the verb for the operation. Such divinities may be grouped under the general term of attendant, or auxiliary, gods, who were invoked along with the greater deities.

The character of the indigetes and their festivals show that the early Romans were not only members of an agricultural community but also were fond of fighting and much engaged in war. The gods represented distinctly the practical needs of daily life, as felt by the Roman community to which they belonged. They were scrupulously accorded the rites and offerings considered proper. Thus, Janus and Vesta guarded the door and hearth, the Lares protected the field and house, Pales the pasture, Saturn the sowing, Ceres the growth of the grain, Pomona the fruit, and Consus and Ops the harvest. Even the majestic Jupiter, the ruler of the gods, was honored for the aid his rains might give to the farms and vineyards. In his more encompassing character he was considered, through his weapon of lightning, the director of human activity and, by his widespread domain, the protector of the Romans in their military activities beyond the borders of their own community. Prominent in early times were the gods Mars and Quirinus, who were often identified with each other. Mars was a god of war; he was honored in March and October. Quirinus is thought by modern scholars to have been the patron of the armed community in time of peace.

At the head of the earliest pantheon were the triad Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus (whose three priests, or flamens, were of the highest order), and Janus and Vesta. These gods in early times had little individuality, and their personal histories lacked marriages and genealogies. Unlike the gods of the Greeks, they were not considered to function in the manner of mortals, and thus not many accounts of their activities exist. This older worship was associated with Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, who was believed to have had as his consort and adviser the Roman goddess of fountains and flowers, Egeria, who is often identified as a nymph in later literary sources. New elements were added at a relatively early date, however. To the royal house of the Tarquins was ascribed by legend the establishment of the great Capitoline triad, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, which assumed the supreme place in Roman religion. Other additions were the worship of Diana on the Aventine Hill and the introduction of the Sibylline books, prophecies of world history, which, according to legend, were purchased by Tarquin in the late 6th century BC from the Cumaean Sibyl.

Foreign gods

The absorption of neighboring local gods took place as the Roman state conquered the surrounding territory. The Romans commonly granted the local gods of the conquered territory the same honours as the earlier gods who had been regarded as peculiar to the Roman state. In many instances the newly acquired deities were formally invited to take up their abode in new sanctuaries at Rome. In 203 BC, the cult object embodying Cybele was removed from Phrygian Pessinos and ceremoniously welcomed to Rome. Moreover, the growth of the city attracted foreigners, who were allowed to continue the worship of their own gods. In this way Mithras came to Rome and his popularity in the legions spread his cult as far afield as Britain. In addition to Castor and Pollux, the conquered settlements in Italy seem to have contributed to the Roman pantheon Diana, Minerva, Hercules, Venus, and other deities of lesser rank, some of whom were Italic divinities, others originally derived from the Greek culture of Magna Graecia. The important Roman deities were eventually identified with the more anthropomorphic Greek gods and goddesses, and assumed many of their attributes and myths.

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