Classical Myths and Legends:
Roman Deities and Epic

The Romans took over much of Greek mythology, usually identifying Greek deities with more or less similar Roman ones. Except for Apollo, all the Olympian deities have different names in Latin works: The Romans knew Zeus as JUPITER or, sometimes, Jove, a sky god and fount of justice. The sea god Poseidon becomes NEPTUNE in Roman mythology.

Hades, the king of the Underworld, could be called PLUTO ("The Rich One") by the Greeks, and the Romans often used this name or Dis. The messenger god Hermes becomes MERCURY for the Romans. The Greek god Hephaestus is the Roman god VULCAN, whose blacksmith qualities are recalled when we speak of "vulcanizing" tires.

The war god Ares is MARS for the Romans, though the Roman Mars also has some responsibilities for agriculture. The old Roman war god Quirinus was worshipped separately but identified either with Mars or with Romulus, son of Mars and the legendary founder of Rome. Romulus and his brother Remus had been raised by a she-wolf when their wicked uncle tried to kill them.

When speaking of Dionysus, the Romans often used his alternate name Bacchus or the strictly Roman name of Liber. Uranus (or Ouranos) is the same for Greeks and Romans. In Roman mythology, Kronos, the father of Zeus, becomes Saturn, and the Saturnalia, a festival in his honor, was a major event.

The Romans also identified the traditional Greek goddesses with various native deities: The Roman equivalent of Hera was Jupiter's consort, JUNO, another patron of marriage and motherhood and queen of the gods. The Greek Rhea>, mother of both Zeus and Hera, is Ops for the Romans. Ceres is the Roman Demeter, a goddess of agriculture--think of your breakfast "cereal." Persephone, the daughter of Ceres/Demeter and queen of the underworld, was called Proserpine by the Romans. Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom, equivalent to the Greek Athena. Venus is the Roman Aphrodite, and the Romans were devoted to this goddess of love and beauty. Her son Eros became the familiar Roman Cupid.

The Roman Hestia is the hearth goddess VESTA, whose famous Vestal Virgins tended Rome's sacred fire. Diana was the Roman equivalent for the Greek goddess Artemis, the virgin huntress associated with the moon. The Romans also called Artemis Cynthia and could call her (or Apollo) 'The Cynthian" after the hill of Cynthus on the island of Delos where they were bom. Diana/Artemis's mother Leto was known by the Romans as Latona. Another Roman moon goddess was Luna, identified with the Greek Selene, as her sister Aurora was with the Greek Eos as a goddess of dawn.

Although the Latin names for figures from Greek mythology are often better known than the Greek names, the names of traditional Roman deities are much less well known. Many have few or no myths attached. Bellona was an Italian goddess of war, said by the Romans to be the sister of Mars--think of "bellicose." Cloacina was the Roman goddess of sewers ("cloaca" in Latin). The rural Roman deity Faunus had a train of goat-eared Fauns very much like Pan's satyrs. He was the son of the woodpecker agricultural deity Picus and inherited some of his father's gift for prophecy. Fama was the Roman goddess of rumor and reputation-"fame." Flora, from whom we get the term "florist," was a Roman goddess of flowers, and of spring and youth in general. Fortuna -think "fortune"--was the Roman goddess of good luck, and one of the most popular Roman deities.

Of the purely Roman deities, one of the best known is JANUS, the two-faced Roman god of doorways, also the god of beginnings (like January) and endings. He was thought to be the oldest of gods, and his name was invoked even before that of Jupiter himself. One sometimes hears that Janus was the son of Apollo, but others disagree. Janus was married to Juturna, the goddess of springs, and he was the father of Fontus, the god of fountains.

The Lares and Penates were the household gods of Romans able to afford household deities. There were always two Penates, as gods of the storeroom. The Lares were good spirits of the departed, particularly of family ancestors. Lucina was a Roman goddess of childbirth and chastity. Pales was a Roman goddess of shepherds (or sometimes a male god). Pietas was the Roman goddess of domestic affection-for them, piety was family piety. Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, and married to the fruit and garden god Vertumnus, though others say she was married to another old Italian agricultural god, Picumnus. Silvanus was a Roman god of woods and fields. Some poets said he loved a youth named Cyparissus, who was transformed into a cypress tree, though this story is also told of Apollo. Terminus was the Roman god of boundaries and boundary stones.

A Roman Epic. The only royal Trojan to escape the fall of the city was Aphrodite was his mother and Julius Caesar among his descendants, Aeneas's story (The AENEID) was the obvious choice for the poet Virgil, when he was asked by the emperor Augustus Caesar to write an epic for Rome. In the first half of the Aeneid, the hero's wanderings parallel Homer's Odyssey. The 2nd half models its battle scenes on Homers Iliad, as Aeneas reaches Italy and marries a local princess after fighting a war and killing a brave rival. He joins his father-in-law as ruler of the Latins, founding the city of Alba Longa. Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, were his descendants. The least Homeric and most moving sections of the Aeneid deal with the hero's tragic love affair with Queen Dido of Carthage. When the gods remind Aeneas of his duty to posterity, he sneaks away. Dido tricks her sister Anna into helping her build a funeral pyre and then commits suicide.





[ For a fuller summary, see http://www.uwp.edu/academic/english/canary/aeneid.html. Cross references are to other web pages indexed at http://www.uwp.edu/academic/english/canary/gods.htm. This last posted July 15, 2002, by Bob Canary, mail comments to canary@uwp.edu]