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War deities have been an important aspect of almost every ancient civilization and mythology. Rome was no exception. Considering that the Roman Empire is famous for the many wars and invasions that took place during its history, it’s little wonder that the gods and goddesses associated with war and conflict were respected, valued and praised. Bellona was one such deity, the goddess of war and the companion of Mars. Here’s a closer look.
Who Was Bellona?
Bellona’s parents are believed to be Jupiter and Jove. Her role as a companion of Mars varies; depending on the myth, she was his wife, sister, or daughter. Bellona was the Roman goddess of war, conquest, destruction, and bloodshed. She also had connections to the Cappadocian goddess of war, Ma.
Role in Roman Mythology
The Romans believed that Bellona could offer them protection in war and ensure their victory. Because of this belief, she was an ever-present deity in the prayers and war cries of the soldiers. In many cases, Bellona was invoked to accompany the soldiers in war. Due to the importance of wars and conquests in the Roman Empire, Bellona had an active role throughout the history of Rome. Having the favor of Bellona meant having a good outcome in war.
Depictions of Bellona
There appear to be no depictions of Bellona that has survived from the Roman times. However, in later centuries, she was immortalized in many European artworks, including paintings and sculptures. She was also a popular figure in literature, appearing in Shakespeare’s plays such as Henry IV and Macbeth (where Macbeth is praised for being Bellona’s bridegroom, referring to his skill on the battlefield).
In most of her visual depictions, Bellona appears with a plumed helmet and a variety of weapons. Depending on the myth, she carries a sword, a shield, or a spear and rides a chariot into battle. In her descriptions, she was an active young woman who was always commanding, yelling, and giving war orders. According to Virgil, she carried a whip or a blood-tainted scourge. These symbols demonstrate the ferocity and strength of Bellona as a war goddess.
Worship and Traditions Relating to Bellona
Bellona had several temples in the Roman Empire. However, her principal place of worship was the temple in the Roman Campus Martius. This region was outside the Pomerium, and it had extraterritorial status. Due to this status, the foreign ambassadors who could not enter the city stayed there. The Senate of the Roman Empire met with the ambassadors and welcomed victorious generals in this complex.
Next to the temple, there was a war column that played a fundamental role in wars. This column represented foreign lands, so it was the place where the Romans declared war. The Romans used Bellona’s complex to launch their campaigns against distant countries. One of the diplomacy priests, known as fetiales, threw a javelin over the column to symbolize the first attack on the enemy. When this practice evolved, they threw the weapon directly onto the territory that was to be attacked, marking the beginning of the war.
The priests of Bellona were the Bellonarii, and one of their rituals of worship included mutilating their limbs. After that, the priests collected the blood to drink it or to offer it to Bellona. This ritual took place on March 24 and was known as dies sanguinis, the day of blood. These rites were similar to those offered to Cybele, a goddess of Asia Minor. Apart from this, Bellona also had another festival on June 3.
Symbolism Associated with Bellona
Bellona’s portrayal in art and literature is rich with symbolism, each element communicating her persona as a fierce goddess of war. These symbols collectively offer a deeper understanding of her role in Roman mythology.
- Weapons: Frequently depicted with a sword, shield, or spear, Bellona’s armament symbolizes various aspects of warfare. The sword stands for offensive power, protection, and strength. The spear, akin to the sword, underscores her reach and ability to keep enemies at bay. The shield she sometimes holds signifies defense and resilience, asserting her capacity to withstand adversities and attacks.
- Helmet: The plumed or crested helmet she wears is more than a protective gear; it represents her vigilance on the battlefield. In the context of Roman mythology, a helmet often indicates the status of the bearer as a warrior, adding to Bellona’s formidable image.
- Chariot: When depicted on a chariot, Bellona symbolizes swift power. The chariot, a crucial military innovation of ancient times, embodies warfare, victory, and domination, underscoring her influential role in war.
- Whip or Scourge: Some descriptions of Bellona include a whip or a blood-tainted scourge in her hand. This symbol, loaded with the connotations of punishment and control, accentuates her ruthlessness as a war deity.
- Active Posture: Bellona’s active, commanding, and yelling poses illustrate her aggressive nature and her leadership in war. They communicate the essence of a deity who is not merely ready for war but eagerly partakes in it.
These symbols together build a composite image of Bellona as a comprehensive deity of war. They reinforce her persona, emphasizing her readiness for battle, her commanding presence, and her mastery over the many facets of warfare.
The myth of Bellona influenced the traditions of the Romans regarding war. Bellona had associations not only with conflicts but also with conquering and defeating the enemy. She remained a worshipped deity for her fundamental role in the wars against foreign countries.