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Gods of ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The central place in the eldest Roman pantheon belonged to the triad consisting of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, but also Janus and Vesta. In the beginning, they did not have any individual traits, spouses or genealogy. Moreover, they were not considered to be similar to people and thus there are only a few stories about their deeds. However, new elements were added relatively early. Tarquinius family is considered to establish the Capitoline Triad consisting of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The Triad held a dominant position in Roman religion.

We can distinguish two categories of Roman deities based on Roman rituals: Rome’s indigenous deities (di indigetes) and new gods (di novensiles). Indigetes were the gods of Rome’s prime religion, their names and characters are connected with the titles of early priests and fixed holidays of the Roman calendar.

Novensiles were the gods introduced later, in response to crisis or breakthroughs. Besides di indigetes, into a group of Roman early gods fell also deities called in particular situations and its name usually derived from the verb describing the current activity. They might be perceived as auxiliary deities, except for the major gods were also called.

The enormous number of gods and goddesses existing in Roman religion was being enlarged by lots of deities being a personification of some general concepts, images, traits and feelings. In this regard Roman religion was exceptionally creative and abundant.

Next to Greek gods also some Eastern cults came to Rome, especially when the Empire was conquering new territories such as Africa and Asia. But taking over a new cult had been happening before.

Roman deities (painting). In 217 BCE there were established – in imitation of Greek cult – 12 major gods: Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Mars, Venus, Apollo, Diana, Vulcan, Vesta, Mercury, Ceres.
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Influence of Etruscan religion

The Capitoline Triad , consisted of three gods:: Jupiter identified with Zeus), his wife Juno (identified with Hera) and Minerva (identified with Athena).
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The first changes in religion took place during the monarchy – it was the time of Etruscan influence. Their religion performed significant role in Rome’s history. Even in the reign of Claudius Etrusca Disciplina was highly valued, which was confirmed by Tacitus.

The biggest impact on Rome and the whole of Italy had the Etruscan Triad consisting of Tinia, Uni and Minerva. This triad became really significant after erecting in Rome the Capitoline Temple for Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The temple was built by the Etruscan architects according to their styles and a famous statue of Jupiter, identified with Tinia, was made by Vulca from the town of Veii.

The Etruscan books called Etrusca Disciplina, known from some sources had special meaning for all the peoples of Italy. It consisted of the following parts: libri haruspicini, libri fulgurales and libri rituales. It discussed many matters in detail, eg. how to establish new cities, build temples or perform administrative functions, how to interpret the sky or how to perform divination from the animal entrails. It also included brontoscopical calendar.

Etruscan religion was a major factor in the religious changes that Rome underwent. It was the Etruscans who taught Romans how to personate so far impersonal images of gods and present them as human-shaped statues and sculptures. At that time appeared the first temples built in the imitation of Etruscan style. Thanks to the Etruscans Romans made their way from the prime animism and pandemonism to anthropomorphism. Many primal deities worshiped for ages disappeared and consigned to history, others transformed and changed their appearance adapting to the new ideas and new mythology.

Influence of Greek religion

Mercury (in the middle; Pompeian mosaic)

Greek influences on Roman religion go back to the beginnings of the 5th century BCE. It happened thanks to the development of trade and political connections. Hellenic myths and beliefs began to gain popularity. Next to native deities, so called di indigentes, there were introduced new gods, so called di novensides and thus Roman and Greek deities mixed with each other. Sibylline Books performed significant role in this process. Sibyl was a prophetess of Gaia. She inhabited the city of Cumae in Campania. The Greeks knew nine Sibyls.

Let us see the legend of Roman Sibyl: One day in the palace of Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, appeared an old woman carrying nine heavy books. She asked the king whether he would like to buy them. When he asked about the price she offered a price so high that it made him laugh. In response to that woman built a bonfire and threw three books into it. Then she asked him again whether he would like to buy the rest, at the same price. And again the king refused and she burned the next three books. She resumed the question for the third time and then Tarquinius realized that there must have been some great mysteries hidden in those books and he bought them. Later he placed them in the Capitol and confided them to two priests. Over time the number of priests raised to ten and later even to 15 men. They were explaining divine prophecies based on the signs, so called prodigia. On the grounds of Senate’s decision, priests found in the Sibylline Books some countermeasures, usually concerning introducing new cults, mostly Greek.

The first decision made on the basis of Sibylline Books was the pledge concerning building the temple on the Aventine in 496 BCE for the triad: Ceres, Liber and Libera. It was an agricultural triad, identified with a Greek Eluesinian triad consisting of Dionysus, Demeter and Persephone. The pledge took place in the first year after exiling tarquinian kings when Rome suffered from natural calamity – then the Sibylline Books were asked for advice. The priests announced the following answer: The famine punishment will last until you would honor the Greek triad: Dionysus, Demeter and Persephone.

Vulcan – Roman god of volcanoes, fire and smithery.
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This way a divine family appeared in Rome and, in order to make it easier for the people to believe in those foreign deities, their cult was united with the old Roman goddess of crops and and fertility Ceres, Liber was believed to be her son and identified with Dionysus and Libera was seen as Demeter’s daughter, Persephone.

Old religion did not know Mercury, his cult developed in Rome later, along with the development of trade when Rome’s influence reached territories beyond Italy. It is not known how exactly did it happen – whether he was brought form Greece with the help of sibylline oracles, but he very quickly began to liken to Greek Hermes.
Mercury’s temple (and Maia’s – his mother) was situated near Circus Maximus, where also happened to be a steam sacred to him. HIs festival fell in May and as then fell also services in honor of Maia, old italic goddess, wife of Vulcan’s – no wonder people mixed up those two goddesses and considered them one deity. And it happened – soon two Maias, italic and Roman became one in Romans’ minds.

A goddess, worshipped together with Mercure, was Fortuna, whose meaning deepened as she was identified with Greek Tyche. There are two theories about how her cult came to Rome. First one says that it was brought by the king Ancus Marcius. The second claims that it was the king Servius Tullius, son of a slave, who when he happily gained the throne, erected numerous chapels and altars, but also two temples to Fortuna as he was thankful for the care and distinction. One temple was located beyond the city, on the right side of the Tiber, the second – on Forum Boarium. Her festival was celebrated on June 24.

Gods Roman – Greek

  • Amor – Eros
  • Bacchus – Dionysus
  • Ceres – Demeter
  • Diana – Artemis
  • Juno – Hera
  • Venus – Aphrodite
  • Libitina – Persephone
  • Luna – Selene
  • Mars – Ares
  • Minerva – Athena
  • Pluto – Hades

As Greek beliefs, myths and rituals spread in Rome, a new mysteries began to be celebrated for Ceres, called Cerealia. It was based on the myth about Pluto’s (Hades) abduction of Proserpina (Persephone), Ceres’ (Demeter) daughter.

In 249 BCE (in 505 after founding the city), during the Punic War, when Rome was in danger, ten sibylline priests were ordered by the Senate to ask the oracle what to do. The oracle answered that the Romans were supposed to celebrate games in honor of Proserpina and a god named Dis Pater. On May 21 there was celebrated so called Agonalia, a festival of Vejovis, god of underworld.

Both Vejovis and Dis Pater, despite their Latin names, resembled Greek Hades – and their cult came to Rome also under the influence of Greece. At that time the whole underworld was formed in Roman awareness, of course according to hellenistic beliefs, eg. Thanatos, Greek son of Night, personification of death became Mors in Roman mythology and Erinyes, deities of vengeance, became Furies.


Nemean lion – one of Heracles’ labors.

Along with Greek gods also hellenic heroes came to Rome and, the biggest of all, Heracles, known in Rome as Hercules. Earlier his cult had spread on the peninsula with the Greek colonizers as he finally took over the whole Italy. The old altar of Hercules, so called Ara Maxima (the Great Altar) was situated near Palatine on Forum Boarium, not far from the Circus Maximus. According to the legend this altar was built by Evander, one of culture heroes and ancestors.

When Hercules was coming back home after his venture for Geryon herds, he was passing Evander’s settlement. As he was tired after the trip, he decided to rest in the tree’s shadow. Soon he fell asleep and then appeared a giant, Cacus. Monster, seeing the herd full of bullocks decided to steal them and hide in his cave. In aim to mislead Hercules he dragged them by their tales to leaving the trail in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Hercules, as soon as he woke up, noticed that a part of his herd was missing. He started to follow the tracks of cloven feet to catch the thief. But those were misleading and stopped short in the bushes near the rocks and led back to the pasture. As he was tired, he dropped the chase and set out with the rest of his herd which suddenly started mooing loudly. As the rest of the bullocks heard it, they also started to make loud noises and thus Cacus’ trick was revealed and after a bitter fight, Hercules killed the monster. Evander, grateful for this liberation built a huge altar for Hercules and commended priestship to two houses, Potitius and Pinarius.

After nationalizing the cult of Hercules he was being worshipped with games in amphitheaters and with sacrifices made in imitation of the Greek ones. Once a year, during his festival, praetor, bareheaded, crowned with the poplar leaves (Hercules’ favorite tree).

Another hero whose cult spread across Rome was Evander. He came from Arcadia in the Peloponnese. His Greek name means “good man”. It is not so obvious why did Evander have to leave his home land. Anyway, he sailed west and hit the land by the Tiber. It was the land of Aborigines whose king was then Faun. He hosted him kindly and even gave him a part of his realm. Evander chose the place on the left bank of Tiber, next to the hill, which he named after his homeland, Pallantium. Later the word was cut short and finally sounded Pallatium. Small and poor Evander’s settlement became huge, rich city after many years. It was him who, according to the legends, welcomed the comers from East, first Hercules, then Aeneas.

Cult of DioscuriCastor and Polydeuces – was another one which came to Rome probably from the Greek cities in the south of Italy. Those divine twin brothers, sons of Zeus and Leda were called Castor and Pollux in Rome. The first temples were dedicated to them in the early ancient time as it was in 496 BCE after the successful battle of the Lake Regillus with the Latins, fought by dictator Postumius. The myth says that during this battle happened a miracle. There was a tipping point during the battle and Romans were about to lose when suddenly two unearthly beautiful young boys on white horses stood in front of Postumius. Commander and his entourage recognized the gods who came on battlefield. And then they reached their swords and attacked the enemies who began to run away hastily as they were terrified of this phenomenon. Postumius soldiers’, on the other hand, suddenly felt enormously courageous and they fell on the runaways and completed the victory. Meanwhile, behind the wall, people were waiting for the victory. After the battle Postumiuw erected a temple to the Dioscuri in the Forum, near the spring of Juturna. From then on each anniversary of this battle was celebrated with the march of fully armed soldiers under the walls of the temple. The army was also offering sacrifices on the altar of Dioscuri.

Influence of Eastern religion

Posąg Statue of Cybele; c. 50 CE.
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Along with Greek deities also some eastern cults came to Rome; especially when the Empire spread widely, reaching Africa and Asia. But taking over new cults had happened before.

One of the first eastern deities which the Romans encounters was Cybele – Phrygian goddess of fertile nature, Great Mother (Magna Mater Deum). In Rome she was identified with an old italic goddess Ops. She was worshiped by the priests – Korybantes who performing orgiastic rites dancing to the defeating sound of flutes, horns and reeds.

Cybele was brought to Rome in 204 BCE by the Sibylline oracle. It was in the middle of Punic War. Failures, famine, diseases and terrifying signs in the sky. Priests read in the holy Sibylline Books that the plagues would not stop until Rome brought from Pessinus the holy image of Great Mother. So the messengers reverentially brought the statue to Rome. The whole city wanted to welcome new goddess. Then something unexpected happened – the ship grounded. Priests began the prophecies and found out that only a virgin could bring it in to the shore. From then on Phrygian goddess inhabited the Temple of Victory on the Palatine. One new cult appeared along with Cybele – cult of her lover, Attis. He was supposed to be a young, handsome shepherd in whom Cybele fell in love with.
However, lovers did not enjoy themselves for a long time as Attis was soon killed by the boar. But Cybele used all her power and resurrected her lover.

Another story was also being told. It was said that it was Attis himself who, in a moment of madness, castrated himself with a knife and ran hurt through the forest until he fell under the pine tree and bleed to death. From his blood there were supposed to grew the violets. From then on the Cybele priests were always eunuchs who needed to castrate themselves the same as Attis did.

Main festivals in honor of Great Mother took place in March. The priests were cutting off the pine tree (under this tree Attis had died), tied the statue of Attis to the trunk, wrapped around the woolen shroud, decorated it with the violets and were singing laments. In the third day of the celebrations, known as the Day of Blood, there was being performed a holy dance, on the verge of ecstasy. The high priest was hurting himself with a sword, others did it with knives while dancing and sacrificed their vitals on the altar sprinkled with blood. Then they were burying the pine tree symbolizing Attis and lamenting. At night the tomb was being opened and the high priest announced Attis’ resurrection. The faithful, after many hours’ fast began a sumptuous feast.

March celebrations ended with one more ceremony. It was the procession of Cybele’s believers heading towards the stream Almo. There the high priest performed a ceremonial bath of the statue.

Many other deities came from East to Rome, from Syria, Egypt, Carthage, Cappadocia or Persia. New oriental gods began to take over the place of old deities and overshadowed even the Greek gods. Egyptian goddess Isis – wife of Osiris and mother of Horus – became highly popular amongst other foreign deities. First she needed to be pleased with the small amount of believers as she was being worshipped covertly – her cult was not immediately approved by the country. It was not until the triumvirate when she was introduced to the established religion. Situation changed when Octavian went to war with Anthony and Cleopatra. Then, Egyptian deities were no longer welcomed in Rome as Egypt became the main enemy. So Isis fell from favor again and it changed when Caligula came to power. He introduced her to the group of Roman gods and erected new temple on the Campus Martius. November festivals were highly similar to those in honor of Cybele, it is easy to find many similarities between those two cults.

Mitra (painting)
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Cappadocian goddess of war, Maa, wanted to replace old Bellona already during Sulla’s reign. It was a barbarian deity, relishing cruel bloody rites – one of the temples had to be closed as there was found a vase full of human meat inside. Priests of Maa, during the ceremonies performed at her altars, were dancing orgiastically, making bloody sacrifices and hurting themselves in a moment of absolute madness. Those ceremonies gathered mainly bloodthirsty mob and soldiers recruited among the barbarians.
Also Syria and Phoenicia provided Rome with new deities such as Baal, goddesses Suria and Astarte. In the 1st century CE Persian god Mitra began to lead all those foreign deities. In Rome he was worshipped as Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus). There were being practiced mysteries centered on Mitra which took place in the underground caves. There, in front of the statue of Mitra killing the bull the participants underwent graduated tests achieving next grades( ravens, soldiers, lions, Persians to the highest, fathers).

Cult of the Emperor

Gaius Julius Caesar was deified after his death in 42 BCE by decree of the Senate and the people and granted the title Divus Iulius (the divine Julius).
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Another important matter which happened to appear many time in antiquity was the cult of the Emperor. Ancient East worshipped its rulers for ages – pharaohs, kings of Babylon or Assyria were son of gods to their subjects, creatures with supernatural powers, an incarnation of deity. Roman Caesars as they wanted more glory they reached for this honor. The first step was deifying Julius Caesar after his death. From then on as Divus Julius he was supposed to be immortal. After the consecration of new deity there was erected a Temple of Caesar in the Forum Romanum.

Caesar’s successors came into Roman pantheon one by one. Submissive Senate was eagerly passing new resolutions proclaiming next rulers to be immortal. In fact, it often happened after the emperors’ deaths, but after a while they were more often deified during their life, giving them the title divi (divine).

Augustus, in aim do grace his dynasty used a Trojan myth, glorifying gens Julia. During his reign Virgil wrote Aeneid, Roman epic.

It used to happen sometimes that wives and Caesar’s favorites were being deified, as for example Livia, Augustus’ wife or Antoninus, Hadrian’s favorite did. Also Caligula from the Claudian dynasty was deified during his life, as distinct from other emperors who were being deified after their death.

Rome as a deity

Existence of temples dedicated to Rome (Roma) made a suspicion that there used to be such deity. Meanwhile it is only an allegory present symbolical personification of the country which appeared for the first time in 269 BCE on the coins (nummus) in Rome and (204 BCE) in Locri (Calabria). Foreign peoples might have credited Rome with divine attributes but this is only a hypothesis. Those temples were erected also in Smyrna (195 BCE), a king of cult was observed in Ephesus, Sardi and Delo. It might have been confusing because of the emperor’s divinity – Augustus was a kind of demi-god, some celebrations were dedicated to him, and to the country as well.

Toilet gods

Romans had the goddess of the sewers, toilet god and god of excrement. Goddess of sewers was Cloacina (from the word cloaca, meaning sewer), she was taken over from the Etruscan mythology. She was a protector of Cloaca Maxima and was being referred to when eg. the sewer blocked up. Titus Tatius, early co-emperor build a temple dedicated to her, in his own toilet. Over time the goddess was identified with Venus who was being worshipped in the Shrine of Venus Cloacina (Sacellum Cloacinae) in the Roman Forum.

Romans also had a toilet god – Crepitus who was a god of flatulence (Romans referred to him when they suffered from diarrhea or constipation). Another deity was Sterquilinus (also called Stercutus or Sterculius, from the word stercus meaning excrements), god of fertilization, worshipped particularly by the farmers during manuring. Stercutus was highly associated with Saturn, god of agriculture. Over time he became attacked by the Christians who considered him to be ridiculous.

  • Parandowski Jan, Mitologia, Londyn 1992
  • Jaczynowska Maria, Religie świata rzymskiego, Warszawa 1987
  • Grant Michael, Mity rzymskie, Warszawa 1978
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Mitologia starożytnej Italii, Warszawa 1984

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