The Romans are often accused of stealing their gods from the Greeks. But while the likes of Jupiter, Juno, Mars and Venus may have been affiliated with the Greek gods, they, like all of Rome’s deities, predate the Greek pantheon influence on Roman culture.
In fact, Rome’s gods– the well-known and the more obscure– are ancient and reflect the uniquely Roman way of interpreting the unseen world around them.
The Spirits of Place: Animism
Evidence for archaic Roman religion is sparse and much of this comes to us in a second-hand form recorded by authors living hundreds of years later. But one theory places the basis of Roman religion in the principle of ‘animism’ or the manifestation of divine power through nature.
To the early farming communities that predated the city of Rome, every place, be it a river, stream or grove, had its own patron deity. Many of the names of these gods are lost. It was also quite usual for the Romans not to name them at all, but they always honoured them.
The Romans believed that these gods were endowed with, what in the imperial period, was defined as numen or divine power. From the earliest times, if someone cleared or built upon a tract of land, it was usual to pacify the spirits of place with sacrifices.
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This was not an act of worship or submission. Rather, it was the respectful gesture of a good neighbour. Ovid in his Fasti describes a ritual dedicated to the god of boundaries, Terminus, held every year on the morning of the 23rd February. He describes how farmers would meet at the boundary point of their lands, bringing ‘a garland and each a cake’ to offer to the deity.
Lares and Penates
Amongst these spirits of place were the Lares, the guardian spirits of particular tracts of land. When building a house upon that land, the Lares became the guardians of the home. In cities, they also became the guardian spirits of the various districts, marked by an altar or shrine most commonly found at crossroads.
The Penates, an obscure group of spirits whose name derives either from the word penus (store-room) or penitus (those that dwell within), joined the Lares in this capacity. So the Penates were the gods of the inner reaches of either the house or the pantry. Historian Mary Beard notes that according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, they were also the ancestral gods of Aeneas, who introduced them from Troy.
The exact nature of the Lares is debatable. Ovid believed they were descended from a nymph. It was also commonly believed that they were the spirits of dead ancestors, guarding their descendants. This belief remained in vogue well into the Imperial period.
The Lares of Augustus’s household were Venus and Cupid, supposedly early Julian ancestors.
The Cult of the Dead
Although not gods, per se, the cult of Di Manes or ‘good dead’ remained vital from the beginnings of Rome until the end of the empire. The Romans held their dead ancestors in high esteem, believing them to be separate from the living yet still present in the physical world. They honoured these ancestors yearly at three festivals held in their honour: the Feralia, the Parentalia and the Lemuria, as well as on their birthdays.
Roman Gods: What’s in a Name?
Aside from the ancestral dead, it is debatable whether the Romans originally viewed spirits of place as having human attributes, personalities or even gender. Cato records how it was usual to begin rites to the deities of groves by saying ‘be thou a god or a goddess.’
Pales, the shepherd god, was variably presented as male or female. Even Venus, later seen as the epitome of divine femininity, was, as the neutral noun ending of her name indicates, not originally seen as a goddess at all.
Often, names were a summation of the god’s function. Janus’s name comes from the Latin ianua or ‘gateway.’ Ceres is a corruption of Geres from gero or ‘to bear.’
The Roman Pantheon
Because the gods did not have human attributes, the Romans saw no need for a complex mythology to surround them. But contact with Greek culture changed this and the Romans saw advantages to affiliating their own gods with those of an established and prestigious culture.
The Romans began to fit their gods into the Greek mythological structure. Roman gods with the most applicable attributes found themselves cast in the roles of the Olympians. Jupiter, formerly the Roman god of skies and oaths became the Roman Zeus and Juno, a mother goddess figure, became Hera. Mars, previously a god of agriculture and war, had his agrarian role downplayed as he was cast as Ares.
Many previously minor gods found themselves promoted as they were cast in the remaining Olympian roles. Venus, formerly a minor garden deity, became the goddess of love, and Neptune, only one of many Roman water deities, became the god of the sea.
However, other key Roman gods could not be fitted into this new style pantheon. But they still retained their cult significance within Roman state religion. The goddess Vesta, guardian of the Roman state was one example and her ancient cult of the Vestal Virgins continued as an important part of Roman state religion.
Janus, the god of thresholds, beginnings and endings, also remained a prominent deity. Other ancient deities, such as Tellus, the earth goddess and Ceres the goddess of the crops, also remained, but became more marginal as the emphasis of Roman society shifted further away from agriculture.
Roman Pragmatism and Familiar Deities
The Romans’ pragmatic usurpation of gods from other cultures resulted in popular deities with familiar roles throughout the Roman Empire – but the Roman gods did predate the Greek Gods they came to resemble.© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past