The Roman Pantheon

Interlaced with elements of the supernatural, traditional narrative, woven as it was with politics and morality, was nonetheless considered by the Roman of antiquity, much as the Greek before him, as historical fact. Stories emphasised the relationship between individual personal integrity, focused around concepts of virtue and vice, and social responsibility. But Roman mytho-theology remains difficult to parse from the profound early influence of Greek religion on the Italian peninsula and by a later Roman mimesis upon Greek literary models (interpretatio graeca). Rome’s early myth and legend, moreover, dynamically relate also to Etruscan religion.

The Roman tradition is rich in historical myths, or legends, concerning the foundation and rise of the city. These narratives focus on human actors, with only occasional intervention from deities but a pervasive sense of divinely ordered destiny. In Rome’s earliest period, history and myth have a mutual and complementary relationship.²

The Roman Pantheon, its proto-mytho-genealogy, traditionally then reads very much like a borrowing from the Greek, with modification here and there. But to treat it merely as that might also be to overlook much. Let us consider here, however, the great similarities between the two – between ancient Greek and Roman pantheons.

Saturn was god of time (cf. Cronus) and father of Jupiter (equivalent of Zeus), in whose honour a temple was erected upon Capitoline Hill (Mons Saturnius) which, though the smallest, was the most crucial of the seven hills of Rome and considered eternal. Saturnalia was the day of celebration of Saturn, one of both revelry and pomp.

The Seven Hills of Rome [Wikimedia]
Juno Regina, queen of the gods, daughter of Saturn and Jupiter’s wife (cf. Hera), mother of Vulcan and Juventas, was protector of the state. She, and her son Mars, were celebrated on the feast of Matronalia.

Brother to Jupiter was Neptune (cf. Poseidon), god of not only sea but patron-saint also of horses, honoured at the summer zenith. And like her Greek counterpart Athena, Minerva was similarly said to have been borne of her father Jupiter’s (cf. Zeus) head after the latter had swallowed her mother, Metis. Jupiter was anxious to forestall usurpation prophesied to befall him at the hands of the child of Metis. Minerva’s origins might go further back, however, to a like-named Etruscan goddess or even from Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory.

Minerva epitomized the aspects of both warfare and its consequences – including possible peace, as opposed to the more direct allusion to war (like in the case of Athena).¹

Claiming the position of second-in-charge, Mars (cf. Ares) was felt to be father of the Roman progenitor twins, Romulus and Remus, and the realisation that military campaigns ought to begin during a period of the year named after him, March.

From war to love, and Aphrodite’s counterpart, Venus, goddess of victory but also of fertility (which is success of a kind) — of beauty, sex, and desire. To that end, Venus was busy; fathering the twins Timor and Metus (cf. Phobos and Deimos, or “fear” and “terror”), Concordia (cf. Harmonia, or “harmony”), and Cupids (cf. Erotes). She also bore Hermaphroditus and Fortuna (“luck and fate”).

Common to both the Greek and Roman pantheons, in both name and type, was one of Jupiter’s sons, Apollo, god of “light, music, poetry, medicine, and even archery”.¹

After his victory at the Battle of Actium (circa 31 BC) fought near Apollo’s sanctuary … Augustus encouraged the worship of Apollo as one of the major Roman gods … to institute the quinquennial games in honour of Apollo, while also building a new temple on the Palatine Hill.¹

Apollo’s twin sister, Diana (cf. Artemis), a virgin goddess or maiden (consider also Minerva and Vesta), patronised the hunt and nature’s wild but, like most Roman deities was considerably complexified compared to her Greek counterpart, incorporating also aspects of darkness.¹

Vulcan‘s forge (cf. Hephaistos) is situated in space to Mount Aetna, Sicily, and in time to the 7th century BCE.¹ First to be swallowed but last to be released, by Jupiter, beautiful Vesta (cf. Hestia) rejected the overtures of many gods, appealing to her father for chastity and domesticity. Her shrine was attended to by child priestesses known as the “Vestal Virgins”, remaining closed to the public except for Vestalia, in June.

Her [Vesta’s] cult was one of the last pagan institutions to be disbanded by Christian emperor Theodosius I in 391 AD, after almost a thousand years of the burning of the sacred fire.¹

Mercury (cf. Hermes) was Roman god of commerce and communication, which might explain his renown further afield, in Gaul (present day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and parts of Northern Italy), Britain, and Germany (cf. Wotan).¹

Daughter of Saturn and sister of Jupiter, but a totally benevolent deity, Ceres (cf. Demeter) represented agriculture and crops. Pluto of the underworld (cf. Hades) kidnapped her daughter, Proserpine (cf. Persephone), allowing her to return to earth only from spring to autumn, originating in Cerealia, a seven-day long April celebration in her honour.

If you can’t beat them, join them. And so did Rome’s Bacchus (cf. Dionysus), god of wine and religious fervour and origin of the secretive debauchery of Bacchanalia festivities.

But perhaps the most famous god of late antiquity (1st–4th centuries AD) and rival to Christianity, yet least known in the popular culture of today, was Mithras, from the Indo-Iranian word (mitra) for”contract”, “agreement”, or “covenant”.

Imagery of Mithras is well known with the god’s depiction as a youth wearing an Anatolian attire and a Phrygian cap in a bull-slaying scene.¹

Zoroastrian deity popular within the Roman Legion, Mithra worship was characterised by seven grades of initiation and secretive meetings in underground temples.

Rather than mere modifications of the Greek pantheon, the Roman gods were a complexified mix of earlier Etruscan, Greek, and more modern Roman lore. Their foothold within the lived Roman patriarchy, however, is harder to discern.


Reference
Further Reading
  1. Before MAGA: Mithras, Phrygian Caps, and the Politics of Headwear, Sarah E. Bond – Hyperallergic, April 6, 2018
Classical Sources

Footnote:

The Aeneid and Livy’s early history are the best extant sources for Rome’s founding myths. Material from Greek heroic legend was grafted onto this native stock at an early date. The Trojan prince Aeneas was cast as husband of Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, patronymical ancestor of the Latini, and therefore through a convoluted revisionist genealogy as forebear of Romulus and Remus. By extension, the Trojans were adopted as the mythical ancestors of the Roman people. Roman wall paintingcoins, and sculpture, and particularly reliefs help to supplement the mytho-historical picture.²

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