The Roman Gods

The Twelve great Olympians mentioned earlier were turned into Roman gods also. The influence of Greek art and literature became so powerful in Rome that ancient Roman deities were changed to resemble the corresponding Greek gods, and were considered to be the same. Most of them, however, in Rome had Roman names. These were Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Neptune (Poseidon), Vesta (Hestia), Mars (Ares), Minerva (Athena), Venus (Aphrodite), Mercury (Hermes), Diana (Artemis), Vulcan or Mulciber (Hephaestus), and Ceres (Demeter).

Two kept their Greek names: Apollo and Pluto; but the latter was never called Hades, as was usual in Greece. Bacchus, never Dionysus, was the name of the wine-god, who had also a Latin name, Liber.

It was a simple matter to adopt the Greek gods because the Romans did not have definitely personified gods of their own. They were a people of deep religious feeling, but they had little imagination. They could never have created the Olympians, each a distinct, vivid personality. Their gods, before they took over from the Greeks, were vague, hardly more than a “those that are above.” They were THE NUMINA, which means the Powers or the Wills—the Will-Powers, perhaps.

Until Greek literature and art entered Italy the Romans felt no need for beautiful, poetic gods. They were a practical people and they did not care about “Violet-tressed Muses who inspire song,” or “Lyric Apollo making sweet melodies upon his golden lyre,” or anything of that sort. They wanted useful gods. An important Power, for example, was One Who Guards the Cradle. Another was One Who Presides over Children’s Food. No stories were ever told about the Numina. For the most part they were not even distinguished as male or female. The simple acts of everyday life, however, were closely connected with them and gained dignity from them as was not the case with any of the Greek gods except Demeter and Dionysus.

The most prominent and revered of them all were the LARES and PENATES. Every Roman family had a Lar, who was the spirit of an ancestor, and several Penates, gods of the hearth and guardians of the storehouse. They were the family’s own gods, belonging only to it, really the most important part of it, the protectors and defenders of the entire household. They were never worshiped in temples, but only in the home, where some of the food at each meal was offered to them. There were also public Lares and Penates, who did for the city what the others did for the family.

There were also many Numina connected with the life of the household, such as TERMINUS, Guardian of Boundaries; PRIAPUS, Cause of Fertility; PALES, Strengthener of Cattle; and SYLVANUS, Helper of Plowmen and Woodcutters. A long list could be made. Everything important to the farm was under the care of a beneficent power, never conceived of as having a definite shape.

SATURN was originally one of the Numina, the Protector of the Sowers and the Seed, as his wife OPS was a Harvest Helper. In later days, he was said to be the same as the Greek Cronus and the father of Jupiter, the Roman Zeus. In this way he became a personality and a number of stories were told about him. In memory of the Golden Age, when he reigned in Italy, the great feast of the Saturnalia was held every year during the winter. The idea of it was that the Golden Age returned to the earth during the days it lasted. No war could be then declared; slaves and masters ate at the same table; executions were postponed; it was a season for giving presents; it kept alive in men’s minds the idea of equality, of a time when all were on the same level.

JANUS, too, was originally one of the Numina, “the god of good beginnings,” which are sure to result in good endings. He became personified to a certain degree. His chief temple in Rome ran east and west, where the day begins and ends, and had two doors, between which stood his statue with two faces, one young and one old. These doors were closed only when Rome was at peace. In the first seven hundred years of the city’s life they were closed three times, in the reign of the good king, Numa; after the first Punic War when Carthage was defeated in 241 B.C.; and in the reign of Augustus when, Milton says,

No war or battle’s sound
Was heard the world around.

Naturally his month, January, began the new year.

FAUNUS was Saturn’s grandson. He was a sort of Roman Pan, a rustic god. He was a prophet too, and spoke to men in their dreams.

THE FAUNS were Roman satyrs.

QUIRINUS was the name of the deified Romulus, the founder of Rome.

THE MANES were the spirits of the good dead in Hades. Sometimes they were regarded as divine and worshiped.

THE LEMURES or LARVAE were the spirits of the wicked dead and were greatly feared.

THE CAMENAE began as useful and practical goddesses who cared for springs and wells and cured disease and foretold the future. But when the Greek gods came to Rome, the Camenae were identified with those impractical deities the Muses, who cared only for art and science. Egeria who taught King Numa was said to be a Camena.

LUCINA was sometimes regarded as a Roman EILEITHYIA, the goddess of childbirth, but usually the name is used as an epithet of both Juno and Diana.

POMONA AND VERTUMNUS began as Numina, as Powers Protecting Orchards and Gardens. But they were personified later and a story was told about how they fell in love with each other.