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The Roman pantheon is full of powerful gods and goddesses, each with its own role and backstory. While many were inspired by the gods of Greek mythology, there were also distinctly Roman deities.
Of these gods, the Dii Consentes (also called Di or Dei Consentes) were among the most important. On a side note, this group of twelve deities corresponded with the twelve Greek Olympian gods, but there is evidence that groups of twelve deities existed in other mythologies as well, including in Hittite and (possibly) Etruscan mythologies.
This article will cover the main deities of the Roman pantheon, outlining their roles, importance, and relevance today.
Roman Gods and Goddesses
The name Jupiter comes from theProto-Italic word djous, which means day or sky, and the word pater which means father. Put together, the name Jupiter indicates his role as the god of the sky and of lightning.
Jupiter was the king of all gods. He was adored at times under the name Jupiter Pluvius, ‘the sender of rain’, and one of his epithets was that of Jupiter Tonans, ‘the thunderer’.
A thunderbolt was Jupiter’s weapon of choice, and his sacred animal was the eagle. Despite his obvious similarities to the Greek Zeus, Jupiter had a distinction – he had a strong sense of morality.
This explains his cult in the Capitol itself, where it was not uncommon to see busts of his image. Senators and Consuls, when taking office, dedicated their first speeches to the god of gods, and promised on his name to watch over the best interests of all Romans.
One of the oldest known Latin divinities, Venus was originally associated with the protection of orchards. She had a sanctuary near Ardea, even before the foundation of Rome, and according to Virgil she was an ancestor of Aeneas.
The poet recalls that Venus, in the form of the morning star, guided Aeneas on his exile from Troy until his arrival in Latium, where his descendants Romulus and Remus would found Rome.
Only after the 2nd century BC, when she became the equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite, did Venus begin to be regarded as the goddess of beauty, love, sexual desire, and fertility. From then on, the fate of every marriage and union between people would depend on the goodwill of this goddess.
The son of Jupiter and Latona, and twin brother of Diana, Apollo belongs to the second generation of Olympic gods. Similar to the Greek myth, Jupiter’ wife, Juno, jealous of his relationship with Latona, chased the poor pregnant goddess around the world. She finally managed to give birth to Apollo on a barren island.
Despite his unfortunate birth, Apollo went on to become one of the main gods in at least three religions: Greek, Roman, and Orphic. Among the Romans, the emperor Augustus took Apollo as his personal protector, and so did many of his successors.
Augustus claimed that it was Apollo himself who helped him defeat Anthony and Cleopatra in the naval battle of Actium (31 BC). Apart from protecting the emperor, Apollo was the god of music, creativity, and poetry. He is depicted as young and beautiful, and the god who gave humanity the gift of medicine through his son Aesclepius.
Diana was Apollo’s twin sister and a virgin goddess. She was the goddess of hunting, domestic animals, and of the wild. Hunters came to her for protection and to guarantee their success.
While she did have a temple in Rome, in the Aventine Hill, her natural places of worship were sanctuaries in the woodlands and mountainous areas. Here, men and women were welcomed equally and a resident priest, who many times was a runaway slave, would perform rituals and received the votive offerings brought by worshippers.
Diana is usually depicted with her bow and quiver and accompanied by a dog. In later depictions, she wears a crescent-moon ornament in her hair.
Mercury was the equivalent of the Greek Hermes, and like him, was the protector of merchants, of financial success, commerce, communication, travelers, boundaries, and thieves. The root of his name, merx, is the Latin word for wares, referring to his connection to trade.
Mercury is also the messenger of the gods, and sometimes acts as a psychopomp too. His attributes are well known: the caduceus, a winged staff entwined with two serpents, a winged hat, and winged sandals.
Mercury was worshipped in a temple behind the Circus Maximus, strategically close to the port of Rome and the city’s markets. The metal mercury and the planet are named after him.
Minerva first appeared in Etruscan religion and was subsequently adopted by the Romans. Tradition stated that she was one of the divinities introduced in Rome by its second king Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC), successor of Romulus.
Minerva is the equivalent of the Greek Athena. She was a popular goddess, and worshippers came to her seeking her wisdom in terms of war, poetry, weaving, family, mathematics, and the arts in general. Although a patron of war, she is associated with the strategic aspects of warfare and with defensive war only. In statues and mosaics, she is usually seen with her sacred animal the owl.
Together with Juno and Jupiter, she is one of the three Roman deities of the Capitoline Triad.
The goddess of marriage and childbirth, Juno was the wife of Jupiter and the mother of Vulcan, Mars, Bellona, and Juventas. She’s is one of the most complex Roman goddesses, as she had many epithets which represented the varied roles that she played.
Juno’s role in Roman mythology was to preside over each aspect of a woman’s life and protect legally married women. She was also the protector of the state.
According to various sources, Juno was more warrior-like in nature, as opposed to Hera, her Greek counterpart. She is often portrayed as a beautiful young woman wearing a cloak made of goatskin and carrying a shield and spear. In some depictions of the goddess, she can be seen wearing a crown made of roses and lilies, holding a scepter, and riding in a beautiful golden chariot with peacocks instead of horses. She had several temples throughout Rome dedicated in her honor and remains one of the most revered deities in Roman mythology.
Neptune is the Roman god of the sea and freshwater, identified with the Greek god Poseidon. He had two siblings, Jupiter and Pluto, who were the gods of the heavens and the underworld, respectively. Neptune was also regarded as the god of horses and was the patron of horse racing. Due to this, he’s often portrayed with large, beautiful horses, or riding in his chariot pulled by gigantic hippocampi.
For the most part, Neptune was responsible for all the springs, lakes, seas, and rivers in the world. The Romans held a festival in his honor known as ‘Neptunalia’ on the 23rd of July to invoke the deity’s blessings and keep away droughts when the water levels were low during summer.
Although Neptune was one of the most important deities of the Roman pantheon, there was only one temple dedicated to him in Rome, located near the Circus Flaminius.
Identified with the Greek goddess Hestia, Vesta was the Titan goddess of domestic life, the heart, and the home. She was the first-born child of Rhea and Kronos who swallowed her along with her siblings. She was the last to be freed by her brother Jupiter and so is regarded as both the oldest and the youngest of all the gods.
Vesta was a beautiful goddess who had many suitors, but she rejected them all and remained a virgin. She is always depicted as a fully dressed woman with her favorite animal, the donkey. As the goddess of the hearth, she was also patroness of the bakers in the city.
The followers of Vesta were the Vestal virgins who kept a flame burning continuously in her honor to protect the city of Rome. Legend has it that allowing the flame to go out would incur the wrath of the goddess, leaving the city unprotected.
Ceres, (identified with the Greek goddess Demeter), was the Roman goddess of grain, agriculture, and mothers’ love. As the daughter of Ops and Saturn, she was a powerful goddess who was much loved for her service to humankind. She gave humans the gift of the harvest, taught them how to grow, preserve, and prepare corn and grain. She was also responsible for the land’s fertility.
She’s always portrayed with a basket of flowers, grain, or fruits in one hand and a scepter in the other. In some depictions of the goddess, she’s sometimes seen wearing garlands made of corn and holding a farming tool in one hand.
The goddess Ceres featured in several myths, the most famous being the myth of her daughter Proserpina’s abduction by Pluto, the god of the underworld.
The Romans built a temple on Aventine Hill of ancient Rome, dedicating it to the goddess. It was one of the many temples built in her honor and the most well-known.
Vulcan, whose Greek counterpart is Hephaestus, was the Roman god of fire, volcanoes, metalworking, and the forge. Although he was known to be the ugliest of the gods, he was highly skilled in metalworking and created the strongest and most famous weapons in Roman mythology, such as Jupiter’s lightning bolt.
As he was the god of the destructive aspects of fire, the Romans built temples dedicated to Vulcan outside the city. He is typically depicted holding a blacksmith’s hammer or working at a forge with tongs, a hammer, or an anvil. He’s also portrayed with a lame leg, due to an injury that he had sustained as a child. This deformity set him apart from the other deities who considered him a pariah and it was this imperfection that motivated him to seek perfection in his craft.
The god of war and of agriculture, Mars is the Roman counterpart of the Greek god Ares. He’s known for his rage, destruction, fury, and power. However, unlike Ares, Mars was believed to be more rational and level-headed.
The son of Jupiter and Juno, Mars was one of the most important deities of the Roman pantheon, second only to Jupiter. He was a protector of Rome and was highly respected by the Romans, who were a people proud in war.
Mars holds an important role as the supposed father of Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city of Rome. The month of Martius (March) was named in his honor, and many festivals and ceremonies related to war were held during this month. During the reign of Augustus, Mars gained more significance to the Romans, and was seen as the personal guardian of the emperor under the epithet Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger).
Roman vs. Greek Gods
Apart from the individual differences of the Greek and Roman deities, there are some important distinctions that separate these two similar mythologies.
- Names – The most obvious difference, apart from Apollo, the Roman deities have different names compared to their Greek counterparts.
- Age – Greek mythology predates Roman mythology by around 1000 years. By the time the Roman civilization was formed, Greek mythology was well-developed and firmly established. The Romans borrowed much of the mythology, and then simply added their flavor to the characters and stories to represent Roman ideals and values.
- Appearance – The Greeks valued beauty and appearance, a fact which is evident in their myths. The appearance of their deities was important to the Greeks and many of their myths give clear descriptions of how these gods and goddesses looked. The Romans, however, didn’t emphasize appearance as much, and the figures and behavior of their deities aren’t given the same importance as those of their Greek counterparts.
- Written Records – Both Roman and Greek mythologies were immortalized in ancient works that continue to be read and studied. For Greek mythology, the most important written records are the works of Homer, which detail the Trojan War and many of the famous myths, as well Hesiod’s Theogony. For Roman mythology, the most important sources include Virgil’s Aeneid, the first few books of Livy’s history, and the Roman Antiquities by Dionysius.
Most Roman gods were borrowed directly from the Greek, and only their names and some associations were changed. Their importance was roughly the same, too. The main difference was that Romans, while less poetic, were more systematic in establishing their pantheon. They developed a strict list of twelve Dii Consentes that remained untouched from the late 3rd century BC until the collapse of the Roman Empire around 476 AD.