Roman religious belief evolved over time. Many of the well-known gods, goddesses, and heroes of Rome were adopted from other cultures and civilizations. Greek mythology, with its focus on gods with humanlike characteristics, greatly influenced later Roman mythology. What we know about early Roman mythology comes from archaeological findings, artwork, and writers such as Marcus Terentius Varro, Virgil, and Ovid. Roman myth borrowed greatly from the Greeks, replacing Greek deities with Roman names, creating a hybrid Greco-Roman mythology.
Only after Rome came into contact with Greece during the sixth century b.c.e. did Roman gods and goddesses assume human qualities. Early Romans envisioned their deities as powers that demanded appeasement. Pax deorum, or “peace of the gods,” was the ultimate goal of early Roman religious practices. Romans believed that through ritual, worship, and public festivals their gods would ensure continued prosperity for the community. Early Roman deities controlled aspects of everyday life. Romans worshipped two classes of gods. The major deities, or di indigetes, were the original gods of the Roman state. Lesser gods, the di novensides, were adopted later when the need for a specific power was warranted.
While the personalities of the deities were unimportant to early Romans, the attributes of the gods and goddesses were important. The heads of the earliest Roman pantheon were Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, Janus, and Vesta. Jupiter, the head of the gods, brought life-giving rain for the crops and provided protection to Romans engaged in military activities outside their own borders. Mars was originally the god of fertility and vegetation but later became associated with activities of young men and especially war. The month March was named for the Roman god Mars because of his association with spring and fertility. Quirinus, the patron god of the military in times of peace, was often worshipped in conjunction with Mars. Janus, associated with new beginnings, was depicted as a two-faced god who presided over all that was double-edged. January takes its name from this god because the month represents a time for looking backward and also forward to the future. His double-gated temple in the Forum was said to have kept its doors closed only in times of peace. Consequently, the doors of the temple rarely closed.
Vesta, goddess of the hearth fire, held a special status in the Roman pantheon. Vestal virgins, or virgins who took a 30-year vow of chastity, served as Vesta’s priestesses. Vesta’s priestesses attained a larger role in Roman society than other women. They were often consulted in matters of state and were entrusted with sensitive documents, such as wills and treaties. After 30 years of chastity, vestal virgins could marry if they so wished. Other deities represented the agrarian and warlike culture of the Romans. The Lares, a purely Roman invention of house guardians, protected the fields and the home. Saturn governed the sowing of seed. He was celebrated in the Saturnalia Festival (December 17–23), during which masters and slaves exchanged roles. Ceres protected the growth of grain, Pomona governed fruit, and Consus presided over the harvest.
As Rome conquered its neighbors, foreign gods and goddesses were added to the Roman pantheon. Conquered peoples were encouraged to continue the worship of native gods. Combined with an ever-increasing influx of new territories and foreigners visiting the city, Rome experienced the largest cultural diffusion of the time. Consequently, Rome became religiously diverse. Divinities such as Minerva, Venus, Diana, Hercules, and Mithras, along with other lesser deities, were added to the Roman pantheon. Cults appeared in Rome that worshipped deities from as far away as Egypt. The worship of Isis, for example, became popular in Rome. The Roman practice of accepting the gods of its conquered peoples allowed for greater control in the territories. It also gave Rome a comprehensive mythology, most of which was borrowed or adapted to fit earlier deities.
Though the Romans did not provide a well-defined mythology for their gods or for the creation of the world, they did create an elaborate mythology for the founding of Rome. Early myths concerning Rome’s founding were created with bits of historical fact mixed with mythical retellings. Tales of Rome’s first kings were almost completely mythical in nature. Most of Roman myth concerns the first seven kings to rule Rome. The earliest myth about the founding of Rome was based on Rome’s first king, Romulus. According to the myth, Rhea Silvia the only daughter of Numitor, the king of Alba Longa, was destined to become a vestal virgin. Instead, she was raped by the god Mars. She bore twins, Romulus and Remus, who were cast into the Tiber River. To ensure that his sons would survive, Mars sent a she-wolf to care for the twins. Eventually, a shepherd named Faustulus discovered Romulus and Remus, and he raised them as shepherds.
The twins eventually set out to found their own city. A dispute arose between them, and Romulus murdered Remus. Romulus ruled Rome, and the city flourished. However, the city lacked enough women. Romulus solved the problem by kidnapping some Sabine women. The kidnapped women saved the city from war by claiming they were happier with their newfound husbands. After a reign of 40 years Romulus ascended to the heavens to become the war god Quirinus. Borrowing from the Greeks, later renditions of the Romulus and Remus myth trace the lineage of Romulus and Remus back to the surviving prince of Troy, Aeneas.
The original Roman pantheon and myth is often obscured by the later Greco-Roman mythology. Romans were deeply religious but being a practical people lacked the imagination to create a myriad of personalities to compliment their deities. As Rome came into contact with other cultures, their mythology was enhanced. The Romans adopted the heroes and deities of others, borrowing the elaborate myths and humanlike personalities that accompanied them.
Major Roman Deities
Apollo God of the sun and music
Bacchus God of wine and intoxication
Ceres Mother Goddess, earth
Cupid (Amor) God of love
Diana Moon Goddess, protector of animals and virginity
Fortuna Goddess of luck and good fortune
Janus God of gates, doorways, and new beginnings
Juno Queen of gods, protector of women and childbirth
Jupiter King of gods, lightning, storms, protector of military pursuits and oaths
Maia Goddess of earth, plains, and growth
Mars God of war, fertility, spring, and farming
Mercury God of wind, messenger of the gods
Minerva Goddess of wisdom, arts and crafts, and war
Neptune God of watering and the sea
Pluto King of the underworld
Proserpine Queen of the underworld
Quirinus God of defense, war, and the state
Saturn God of agriculture, sowing of the seed
Uranus God of the heavens
Venus Goddess of sexual love and beauty
Vesta Goddess of hearth and ceremonial fire
Vulcan God of fire and forges
- Cotterell, Arthur, and Rachel Storm. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Lorenz Books, 1999;
- Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998;
- Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts On File, 1993.