Greek Gods vs Roman Gods - by Joseph Manning

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Key Terms:

Cults – in the ancient world, cults were various groups that were dedicated to worshipping specific gods. If the cult had exclusive membership and kept the rites performed within it a secret from non-members then it is referred to as a “mystery cult” by modern scholars.

Pantheon – Greek for “all the gods” – means the whole collection of gods from a certain religion.

Persephone – the Daughter of Demeter who, in myth, was kidnapped and taken to the underworld before being released. This myth was believed to be the cause of seasons and formed the centre of much of Demeter’s worship in the Greek world.

Homeric Hymns – a collection of hymns in honour of the Greek gods; each one is dedicated to a central myth of the respective deity.

Thesmophoria – a festival held in honour of Demeter and Persephone in which women would perform rites for three days in order to please the goddess to ensure a good harvest.

Eleusinian Mysteries – an exclusive religious group in which initiates were made to perform sacred rites of Demeter in the hope of attaining a better afterlife following death.

Apollo – a Greek god associated with the sun, dance, medicine, music, archery, and more.

From Virgil’s Aeneid or Percy Jackson, the Roman and Greek gods are pretty heavily conflated. Jupiter is related to Zeus, Mars to Ares, Minerva to Athena and so on. One can therefore be forgiven for thinking that this means the two sets of gods are pretty much the same, but you would be mistaken for doing so. Despite the efforts of the Romans to make their religion as close to the Greeks as they could, when looking at the two pantheons in detail, the fundamental differences are too difficult to ignore.

Statue of Mars from the Forum of Nerva
Statue of Mars from the Forum of Nerva

Let’s take Mars and Ares for example. Both are certainly gods of war and are both typically depicted in the armour of each god’s respective culture, but that’s where the similarities end. To the Greeks, Ares was not a popular god by any means. He had very few temples and shrines and even fewer cults worshipping him. The goddess Athena, who represented wisdom and battle strategy, was a significantly more popular deity than Ares, who was instead largely seen as representing the brutality of war. Mars on the other hand was one of the most popular deities in the Roman pantheon. This can be seen particularly early on in Roman history, with Mars being worshipped alongside the king of the gods himself, Jupiter, and a mysterious god named Quirinus. He also had his own strange ritual called the October Horse, which involved the sacrifice of a horse by Mars’ sacred priest, the ‘Flamines Martialis’. Nowhere in Greece can any equivalent or similar ritual be found to Ares and so the differences between the two gods really come to light. Additionally, at the start of the Roman empire, Mars was made to be an even more popular deity when the emperor Augustus used the god under the name of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) to mark his new reign. We can therefore see that although the two gods were vaguely similar and had been associated together, they actually served very different functions and roles within each of their religions.

Statue of Ares from Hadrian’s Villa
Statue of Ares from Hadrian’s Villa

Such differences can be seen with other gods that had been conflated too. The Greek goddess Demeter was associated with the Roman goddess Ceres and, much like Mars, the two are similar in broad terms, with them both being goddesses of agriculture and growth. The specific details of their characterisation and worship, however, are noticeably different. This is most clear from looking at Demeter’s mythical relationship with her daughter Persephone. To the Greeks, this relationship was fundamental to Demeter’s characterisation and worship, with their relationship being the centre for her Homeric Hymn, her major festival (the Thesmophoria), and the main mystery cult dedicated to her (the Eleusinian Mysteries). In Rome, such a relationship is simply nowhere near as prevalent or as important. Instead, Ceres was more closely associated with the gods of freedom, Liber and Libera, another earth goddess called Tellus, and agricultural spirits. Although a concept of Demeter and Persephone became incorporated into Ceres’ identity later on as Greek myths became more popular in Rome, this was largely absent in Ceres’ actual worship and never grew to the same prominence as in Greek religion.

Throughout the pantheon, the majority of Roman gods with supposed Greek counterparts follow similar patterns. Diana, a hunting goddess like Artemis, actually started off as a “goddess of the woods”, originating in a place called Aricia in Italy. Minerva, who came to be associated with the popular Greek goddess Athena, was actually a goddess who held dominion over things more closely associated with Apollo, such as medicine and the arts – only becoming associated with battle strategy and wisdom following Greek influence. It becomes clear then that although certain Roman and Greek gods were related to each other, treating them as therefore actually being the same isn’t quite correct.

“Council of the gods”, Giovanni Lanfranco (1582)
“Council of the gods”, Giovanni Lanfranco (1582)

Although there is certainly an overlap between Greek and Roman religion and firm connections between the two cultures, reducing the Roman gods to merely being the Greek gods with different names denies a large and very interesting part of the Roman world. Seeing the Romans try to relate and align their world with the world around them is fascinating but not to be accepted as a genuine fact. Instead, take the two sets of gods as entirely separate at first and then look at the similarities afterwards for a fuller, more accurate, and more interesting understanding of the mysterious gods of the ancient world.

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