Although today Rome is the main center of Catholicism, ancient Romans were actually polytheistic, and worshipped a number of Roman Gods and Goddesses whom they believed helped them succeed in their daily life and – most importantly – helped them achieve the objective to become rulers of much of the known world.
Most of the Roman Gods and Goddesses were actually absorbed from the Greek pantheon. With time, as the Roman Empire expanded, the Romans included other foreign deities in their religion – as long as they fit with their culture – and finally, towards the end of their 12-centuries long empire, they embraced Christianity.
Romans believed their gods to be immortal and to be ruling heaven, Earth and the underworld.
Roman gods were grouped in various ways. The Di Consentes deities comprised the 12 main gods of the Roman Pantheon – they were known as the Council of the 12, and were a clear reflections of the Greek Gods and Goddesses. The Di Selecti group was made of 20 gods – some of which also sitting among the Di Consentes gods.
Jupiter, Juno and Minerva composed the Capitoline Triad – that is, the 3 main Roman Gods who went to replace the Archaic Triad of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, a god whose origins were found in Sabine mythology.
Much like in Greece, Roman Gods and Goddesses were also arranged in couples: Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta and Mercury-Ceres.
Continue reading to discover the most important Roman Gods and Goddesses and what role they covered. I will also point out their Greek counterpart.
The Di Consentes Roman Gods And Goddesses
Jupiter, known in Greece as Zeus, is the father of the gods – he is the god of the sky and of thunder. In fact, his Latin name, luppiter, literally means “sky father.” He’s famed for wielding thunderbolts as a weapon and for being the national god of Rome until Christianity came knocking.
The Roman people believed that it was Jupiter that had made them “superior” as they had honored him more than any other civilization. He was therefore also the personification of Rome’s sense of divinity.
The phrase “by Jove!” (or “by Jupiter!”) may seem like something posh people say, but it actually comes from a Latin exclamation pro Iovem and pro Iuppiter, which is literally like saying “oh my god!”. He was that important.
Perhaps better known by her Greek name, Athena – hence the name of the city Athens – Minerva is the goddess of wisdom above all. She’s also the goddess of arts, justice, warfare, trade and victory, as well as law. There’s a lot that Minerva stands for, just like all the Roman deities.
She is often depicted by an owl, which signifies wisdom and knowledge. At other times, though less frequently, she appears in art with an olive tree and a snake.
In Greek mythology, her origin story is pretty crazy. She is born from Zeus’s head, already fully grown as an adult, fully clothed and covered in armour as if ready for battle.
Despite being Greek in origin, Minerva appears in many Roman myths. One of these involves Medusa, who was apparently discovered kissing the god Neptune in a temple dedicated to Minerva. Upon the discovery, Minerva turned Medusa’s hair into snakes and cursed all living creatures who looked at her to turn to stone. Maybe an overreaction, but that’s the gods for you!
Juno – queen of the gods, wife of Jupiter and mother to Mars – is the Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth. Like Jupiter, she’s also a major patron god of the city of Rome and the Romans at large.
She’s depicted armed and cloaked in goatskin, somewhat similarly to Minerva. This warlike attire shows her roots in the Greek goddess Athena. But she actually has one of the most complex theologies in Ancient Roman religion, with a number of different epithets, aspects and roles played.
Though her central role is as the goddess of marriage, she also features as a goddess of vitality, eternal youth, fertility and a protector of community. Among her many epithets she is known as Fluvonia or Februalis, named for the role in the fertility rituals in the month of February, thus beginning the new year.
Apollo is one of the most important gods in the Roman pantheon. He covers a lot of bases – truth; prophecy; music and dance; healing and disease; poetry and archery. Perhaps most importantly, he is the god of sun and light.
He basically embodies the ideal of harmony and reason, aka kalokagathia, which was of paramount importance to Hellenic civilization. After all, he is also the national god of the Ancient Greeks. He’s one of the only deities of the classical world to retain the same name in both Greek and Latin.
There are many temples dedicated to Apollo throughout Greece and other Greek colonies. The most famous of these is in Thebes, which was built in the 9th century BC. One of the temples of Apollo in Rome was dedicated to his doctoral, healing aspect, and was founded in 431 BC. It was rebuilt in 34 BC, but only three columns from this renovation exist today.
Both beneficial and wrathful, he was apparently born clutching a golden sword. It’s said that he was also a master of the lyre, an ancient kind of harp.
One of the most important Roman Goddesses, Diana is the Goddess of the hunt, as well as of nature, birth and the moon. Daughter of Jupiter and Latona and Apollo’s twin, she’s often seen as the counterpart of Greek Goddess Artemis, though her origins were Italic or even older Indo-European.
According to legend, she was the one that brought out the moon every night, and the moon size would depend on Diana’s mood: the smaller the moon, the moodiest Diana was.
Diana was also the goddess of lower classes and slaves, in name of whom the Ides of August was celebrated.
Daughter of Saturn and Ops, and second sister of Jupiter, Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, harvest and fertility, as well as marriage and women. Her role was so important that Romans believed that when she was unhappy all crops would die; and that the cycle of seasons coincided with her moods.
For example, fall and winter would correspond to the 6 saddest months for Ceres, during which her daughter, Proserpina, was forced to live in the underworld with Pluto, guilty of having eaten pomegranate, known to be fruit of the underworld. Just as well, spring and summer would be the happy seasons, during which Ceres was joyful for her daughter’s comeback and thus allowed everything to bloom and crops to grow.
Goddess of hearth and home and domestic life, Vesta was the last sister of Jupiter, Juno, Neptune and Pluto and daughter of Saturn and Ops. The cult of the vestal virgins, who attended the perpetually burning flame protecting the city of Rome, was entirely dedicated to her. According to legend, she said that should the flame go out, she’d get terribly angry and Rome would be left with no protection.
Vulcan is one of the lesser-known Roman gods (not just an alien planet from Star Trek). He’s all about fire, metalworking and blacksmithing, as well as the god of deserts and volcanoes. It’s actually from his Latin name, Volcanus, that we get the word “volcano” in the first place.
Vulcan is often depicted with a blacksmith’s hammer in hand. He was celebrated each year on August 23 with a festival called “Vulcanalia,” during which big bonfires were set and small animals were sacrificed in the fire.
He is thought to be one of the most ancient Roman gods. In fact, the temple dedicated to him, the Vulcanal, dates back to the 8th century BC when Rome was ruled by kings before it became a Republic.
Though Mars is better known as the god of war, he’s also related to agriculture (albeit as more of a guardian than a farmer). Mars is where we get words like “martial,” the planet which is named after him, and even the month of “March.”
March itself was named after the god because this is when Romans would conduct military campaigns. The “season of war” lasted from March until October, which also happened to be harvest season – this is where Mars’ connection with agriculture comes into play. March was also previously the first month of the Roman calendar.
Mars is considered to be the son of Jupiter and Juno, and is often depicted in Roman artwork with Venus, with Cupid in attendance too. Their partnership represented love and war, of course.
Another Roman god that corresponds with a planet in the Solar System, Mercury has a lot of different aspects. He’s based on the Greek “messenger god” Hermes. Mercury is not only the god of messengers, but also of travel, commerce, finance, luck, trickery and thieves. It’s actually thought that his name is related to the Latin merx meaning merchandise.
As if he wasn’t busy enough, he also guides souls to the underworld. To help him get around, Mercury is equipped with flying sandals called Talaria that makes him as quick as the quickest bird, made for him out of gold by Vulcan. He’s also got a winged hat to top things off.
The liquid metal Mercury was actually named after him too, due to his slipperiness and speed.
Venus is the goddess of love. She’s possibly the best known of all the Roman deities. She has a planet named after her (among other things) after all.
She’s also the goddess of everything that comes with love – sexuality, fertility, desire, beauty (victory and prosperity aside). Her Greek counterpart is Aphrodite.
Venus is said to be an ancestor of the Roman people, as her son, the Trojan hero Aeneas, fled the fateful Trojan Wars to go on to found Rome. Julius Caesar himself actually claimed to be a direct descendent of Venus.
Her name means love and charm in Latin, and it is cognate with the word venia (favor/permission), where we get words like “venerate” from in English. She was born out of sea foam and is said to be a watery “female” balance to the “male” element of fire.
Neptune is equivalent to the Greek god Poseidon, and he is god of both the sea and freshwater. He’s the brother of Jupiter and Pluto – the three of them rule the heavens (Jupiter), the earthly world (Neptune) and the underworld (Pluto).
The Romans also thought of Neptune as the god of horses and was the patron god of horse racing. For that reason, he is often depicted with horses, or with giant seahorses pulling his sea chariot.
But for the most part, he was in charge of all the rivers, springs, lakes and seas in the world. A festival dedicated to him called Neptunalia was held on July 23 to ward off droughts when water levels were at their lowest in the height of summer.
Despite his importance, there was only one temple to him in Rome, known to have existed as early as 206 BC, close to the Circus Flaminius.
Other Roman Gods And Goddesses
Bacchus is the Roman equivalent of Greek god, Dionysus. He’s the god of a lot of different things, mainly wine and merrymaking. He’s also the god of winemaking, fertility, festivity and strangely, insanity. Basically, it seems to all be about partying when it comes to Bacchus – so much so that the Romans also called him Liber meaning “freedom.”
Perhaps because he was not related to war or anything too lofty (mainly just wine and partying), Bacchus was known as a patron god of the plebeians or regular folk of the Roman Empire.
Unlike other festivals dedicated to Roman gods, the one for Bacchus, the Bacchanalia, was held not once a year but several times a month. It involved a free-for-all of drunken men and women from all backgrounds and of all ages, enjoying a very liberal time indeed!
Though not one of the major gods, Somnus was still important. He’s the god or personification of sleep. In fact, somnus actually means “sleep” in Latin.
Residing in the Underworld, epic Roman poet Virgil described him as the brother of Mors (the god of death). In fact, he wrote that they lived next door to each other, on the banks of the underworld River Lethe, whose waters made people forgetful.
Greek poet Hesiod depicts Somnus’s mother as the goddess Nox (the personification of night). His father is said to be Scotus, the personification of darkness.
Ovid, yet another Roman poet, in his Metamorphoses describes the goddess Iris as saying Somnus is the “mildest of the gods.”
When Cupid met Psyche, Voluptas was born – or so says a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This makes her the granddaughter of Venus and Mars. She is the Roman goddess of sensual pleasure – her Latin name actually means “pleasure” or “bliss.”
Her Greek counterpart is Hedone, from where we get the word “hedonism”. Her opposite is the Algea, the plural personification of physical and mental pain.
Though there’s not much known about her, three Roman writers – Macrobius, Pliny the Elder, and Varro – make a reference to a certain goddess they call “Volupia,” who was worshipped at a temple called the Sacellum Volupiae.
Saturn is, quite literally, the granddaddy of the gods. He was the father of Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Ceres, Vesta and Juno. But their mother was his sister (whoops). That’s pretty typical of Roman mythology.
Saturn is also known for having eaten five out of six of his children. It was Jupiter who managed to save the day and get everyone back safe and sound someway or another!
With a planet and a day of the week (Saturday) named after him, Saturn is the god of wealth, agriculture, liberation and generation. There’s a temple dedicated to him, Saturn’s Temple, situated at the west end of the Roman Forum, which can still be seen to this day. This dates back to the earliest records of the Roman Republic in the 6th century BC. He is said to have ruled over the land that later became Rome.
His festival, Saturnalia, held in late December is one of the most famous Roman festivals – it’s a time of gift-giving, free speech, feasting and revelry. Interestingly, it was a time of role reversal, when masters would serve their slaves.
Janus is an important god in the Roman pantheon. Another of Rome’s old gods, Janus reigned alongside Saturn on the site that is now Rome.
He’s the god of some pretty large philosophical elements – time, duality, beginnings and endings as well as doorways and gates. He’s usually depicted with two faces – one facing the past, the other facing the future.
The month of January is thought to be named after him, as a sign of the start of a new year. He presides over beginnings and transitions. He didn’t have a temple in Rome, it was more of a passageway that was opened at times of war, and closed during peacetime.
Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks never had an equivalent to Janus, the Romans claiming them as their unique god.
One of the hills of Rome, though not one of the “Seven Hills of Rome,” is called the Janiculum, named after a cult dedicated to Janus which was centered on the hill.
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