Ancient Romans believed in gods – lots of them. Thousands, in fact. There were gods for nearly every aspect of life. There were gods of war, love, and wisdom, but there was also a god of the kitchen, a bath god, and a keyhole god. Romans had shrines to the gods in their homes and visited temples at least once a day. Romans were keen to please their gods and were fearful of angering them. They also honoured the gods through celebration, and there were around 200 major festivals each year.
Who were these gods? Where did they come from? What was their role in myth and in the everyday life of Romans?
Here we look at the Dei Consentes - the twelve major deities of the ancient Roman religion. (For each of the twelve, the major things that they were gods of are given, but they were all invariably gods of much more.)
God of: The Sun, music, and healing
Greek equivalent: Apollo
Introduced into Italy by the Greeks, one classical scholar called Apollo, the ‘only god common to Greece and Rome’.
A temple was built and dedicated to him in Rome after the plague of 433 BC and, after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Emperor Augustus built a grand shrine to Apollo on the city’s Palatine Hill.
In Roman mythology, he was brother to Mercury and sister to Diana. His parents were Jupiter and Latona, a mistress of Jupiter.
Apollo was a busy god who looked after many aspects of life, including archery, poetry, music, light, and prophecy. His main job was to bring up the Sun each day. In art and myth, Apollo has always been portrayed as handsome, athletic, and youthful.
Goddess of: Agriculture, fertility, and motherhood
Greek equivalent: Demeter
As the Roman pantheon’s ancient corn goddess, all Romans strived to keep Ceres happy. Failed crops meant that someone had made her unhappy, and keeping her on side would ensure a healthy harvest.
According to myth, Ceres made did this at least twice a year anyway. She would mourn the annual departure of her daughter Proserpine at winter by letting vegetation die, and when Proserpine returned to her mother in the spring Ceres would welcome her by making letting plants and crops grow again. The only agricultural god to be a member of the Dei Consentes, plebian households would offer sacrifices to Ceres after the death of a family member, to purify the property.
Ceres had her temple on the Aventine Hill. Ceres’s parents were Saturn and Ops, and her siblings were Jupiter, Juno, Pluto, Vesta, and Neptune.
Goddess of: The hunt and the moon
Greek equivalent: Artemis
Diana was a Roman goddess with her own Italian antiquity separate from the Greek goddess Artemis, with whom she was later identified due to similarities. Diana’s temple was located on the Aventine Hill and possibly built in the 6th century BC.
A goddess of fertility and a protective goddess of women in childbirth, she was also the goddess of wild animals, the countryside, and hunters.
In Diana’s mythic sacred grove by Lake Nemi, there was a special tree that bore mistletoe. If a runaway slave reached this grove and broke off a bough of the mistletoe he could fight the resident priest-king. If the slave killed the priest he took his place until he in turn was killed by a challenger.
Just as it was Diana’s twin Apollo’s job to bring out the Sun, so it was Diana’s job to bring out the moon. How much of the moon she brought out each night – full, half, or crescent – depended on her mood.
Goddess of: Queen of the Gods, goddess of marriage and childbirth and patron goddess of Rome
Greek equivalent: Hera
The origins of a cult of Juno stretch far into Italic history, as she had anciently been a goddess of the moon. There was a temple to Juno in Rome as long ago as the 8th century BC.
Every year for centuries after the catastrophic sacking of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC, city guard-dogs would be crucified as punishment for the failure of their predecessors to warn the inner sanctum of the city of the incoming hordes. Watching these dogs die on the cross, seated on cushions of purple and gold, were the Juno geese. The sacred geese of the goddess Juno had squawked to warn of the advancing barbarians that night, preventing the Capitol at least from being taken.
The goddess Juno was thereafter Juno Moneta (she who warns). This is where we get the word ‘money’ from, as coins were minted in her temple in Rome for a time. The temple of Juno Moneta was on the Capitoline Hill.
God of: King of the Gods and the god of thunder and lightning
Greek equivalent: Zeus
Jupiter was the sky god of the ancient Italians and was a major god for the Etruscan kings of Rome. Jupiter was the supreme deity of the ancient Romans and was sovereign over all other gods and of men.
His temple on the Capitoline Hill, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (best and greatest), was where returning triumphant Roman generals would pay homage. This mighty building was seen as the centre of Roman power.
He shared his temple with a trinity of two other major Roman gods, his daughter Minerva and wife Juno. This was known as the Capitoline Triad.
Centuries earlier, when the foundations of the temple were being dug, a human head was found. Soothsayers of the time declared this to be a sign of Rome’s future as the head of the world.
In his origin myth, Jupiter escaped being eaten by his father Saturn, who had been warned that one of his children would usurp him. Jupiter returned as an adult to take his vengeance, forcing his father to regurgitate Jupiter’s older siblings. With his brothers and sisters, they defeated Saturn and the Titans and imprisoned them in Tartarus.
Jupiter’s chief weapon was a lightning bolt, which he would throw down to earth, and he was associated with rain and thunderstorms.
God of: War
Greek equivalent: Ares
A separate deity to Ares, Mars was originally a god of agriculture and vegetation. As the peoples of the Italian peninsular became a warring empire, Mars thus became for them a god that protected Roman farms and watched over farmers’ sons when they went off to war.
After his victory over Julius Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), started a temple at the foot of the Esquiline Hill in Rome. It was dedicated to Mars Ultor (Mars the avenger). Finished many years later in 2 BC, the ruins of this temple can still be seen today.
In mythology, Mars was an unpopular figure disliked by all the other gods apart from Venus (with whom he had a romantic affair). He was tall and handsome, but also wicked and arrogant. He was a lover of battle who represented the bloody violence of war.
Mars was the son of Jupiter and Juno and the father of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.
God of: Merchants and traders
Greek equivalent: Hermes
Evidence suggests that Mercury was essentially an appropriation of the Greek god Hermes, although eventually, he became a Roman deity in his own right.
Mercury’s temple was on the Aventine Hill in Rome. One of the lesser gods of the twelve and with no flamen (dedicated priests), he was nonetheless popular.
Mercury was the god of many things including trade, finance, communication, travellers, trickery, and luck.
Mercury was the youngest son of Jupiter, and his mother was Maia. Like Hermes, Mercury is often depicted holding the caduceus (a golden staff with serpents wrapped around it). With his winged sandals, he was the fastest flyer of all the gods. Wise, loyal, and witty, Mercury was known as a peacemaker among the other gods and as a problem solver for Jupiter. Everyone liked and respected Mercury, even his brother Mars.
Goddess of: Wisdom, war, and artisans
Greek equivalent: Athena
Minerva had Etruscan, Greek, and native Italian roots, though there is still debate about the exact origins of the deity. Nonetheless, she became one of the most important and revered goddesses for ancient Romans.
As well as sharing a part of the great temple on the Capitoline, Minerva also had a temple on the Campus Martius, the Temple of Minerva Chalcidica.
In myth, Minerva’s father Jupiter gave birth to her by ejecting her from his brain.
One of Minerva’s favourite companions was an owl. The species of owl named the ‘little owl’ is still known as the owl of Athena or the owl of Minerva. As Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, her sacred bird became a symbol of sagacity and knowledge. The figure of the wise owl continued in art and literature over the centuries and endures today.
God of: The sea, as Lord of the Sea
Greek equivalent: Poseidon
The ancient festival of Neptune was held on 23 July, under the baking hot Italian sun, to celebrate the god of water. Neptune’s origins in the mists of early antiquity may even have been Etruscan. Later, borrowing from Greek mythology, Neptune became, like Poseidon, a god of the sea.
The image of Neptune as a bearded, hulking figure on a chariot pulled by sea horses, trident in hand, has endured to the modern-day.
Neptune was the brother of Jupiter and Pluto. Juno, Ceres, and Vesta were his siblings.
Like the sea, Neptune had boundless energy and a volatile temper. He had long green hair and glistening blue eyes.
He was also the god of horses and horse racing, and his temple was near the Circus Flaminius, Rome’s ancient racetrack.
Goddess of: Love and beauty
Greek equivalent: Aphrodite
After the 48 BC Battle of Pharsalus, victor Julius Caesar built a temple to Venus. The Romans first dedicated a temple to the goddess in 295 BC.
Venus was one of the most venerated of all the gods of Ancient Rome and a symbol of Roman greatness; even Julius Caesar claimed to be descended from Venus. In the distant past, Venus was never originally a goddess of fertility, but rather a sort of spirit of kitchen gardens.
Forever associated with sex, love, beauty and femininity, her son with Mars was Cupid. Her husband was the god Vulcan.
Venus was possibly a daughter of Jupiter, though her emergence was often described as magical and sudden. To the Romans, her role was that of the great mother of the Roman people – Venus Genetrix. Her son, Aeneas, was an ancestor of the legendary Romulus and Remus.
This mythic origin, and her association with fertility, stems largely from her later identification with the Greek goddess Aphrodite, mother of Aeneas in Homer’s Iliad.
Goddess of: The hearth and household
Greek equivalent: Hestia
Worship of Vesta is thought to have begun anciently in Lavinium, the Italian city founded, according to legend, by Trojan hero Aeneas.
The Vestal Virgins, the priestesses of Vesta, were the only ones permitted inside Vesta’s temple, which was on the Via Sacra. They lived in a house behind the temple and their job was to guard the state hearth, with the sacred fire that burned continuously, in the temple, among other things.
The role of the Vestal Virgin was older than The Eternal City itself.
Vestal Virgins had to obey a vow of chastity, and the punishment for breaking this was to be buried alive.
Vesta was one of the most important Roman female divinities. Her parents were Saturn and Ops, and her brothers were Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto. Her sisters were Juno and Ceres.
It was Vesta’s job to watch over the hearth, home, and family, and so she was revered by Roman women and worshipped in every home.
God of: Fire and smithing
Greek equivalent: Hephaestus
Vulcan was associated from early Roman history with volcanic fire, and Vulcan had a shrine near Mount Vesuvius. It is from Volcanus, the Latin name for the god, that we derive the modern word volcano. The Temple of Vulcan, which legend has it was built by Romulus, was located on the Campus Martius in Rome.
Destructive fires and volcanic eruptions were thought by Romans to be Vulcan’s wrath.
At his festival, the Volcanalia, live fish from the River Tiber would be thrown into a fire as an offering to appease Vulcan.
In mythology, Vulcan was the son of Juno and Jupiter and the husband of Venus. His siblings were Diana, Mars, Apollo, and Minerva.
In his origin myth, he was supposedly thrown from heaven by either his father or mother. They were apparently displeased at his having some sort of physical deformity. He was also said to have broken his leg when he landed on Earth.
He was the god of craftsmen, the forge, and smithing, typically portrayed with a blacksmith’s hammer. Associated with all aspects of work, he was often depicted as having a ruddy complexion and his sacred animals were the dog and the donkey.
According to the myths, Vulcan was said to hammer away in his fiery forge beneath Mount Etna making weapons for the gods and goddesses. The activity from the volcano was for Romans a sign that he was busy in his workshop.