Looking over the Roman pantheon, one can’t help thinking the various gods all look . . . familiar. Their domains, abilities and relationships all seem suspiciously similar to those of many of the Greek deities, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The Romans believed heavily in syncretic religion, or the blending of beliefs, deities, and practices. When the Romans could find common ground between a foreign god and one of their own, they effectively blended them into an “enhanced” version of the Roman god. They didn’t “steal” gods, per se, they merely aligned their own gods with the ones they encountered in other cultures.
And they did this with everyone they encountered, incorporating deities and religious ideas from the Gauls to the Persians. That they would do the same with what had been the preeminent culture of the region, and one essentially in their own backyard, only makes sense.
In fact, one of these syncretized deities sits at the very top of the Roman pantheon – Jupiter, the Roman counterpart to the Greek god Zeus. So, let’s look at this king of the Roman gods, and both how he resembles his Greek cousin and how he stands apart.
The Roman Zeus
In the broad mythological strokes, Jupiter is very similar to Zeus. Their physical descriptions are at least vaguely similar, to start with.
Both were gods of the sky who both threw lightning bolts at those they wished to punish. Both were the sons of gods associated with Time. And both overthrew fathers who tried to devour all their children to avoid being deposed (in Jupiter’s case, Saturn swallowed his offspring – just as Zeus’ father Cronos did), and both did so with the aid of their mothers.
Jupiter and Zeus were each king of the gods in their respective pantheons, and each had brothers that ruled the seas and the underworld. They married their sisters (Hera for Zeus, Juno for Jupiter) and both were noted as serial philanderers, fathering a number of children. Even their names draw from the same proto-Indo-European word – dyeu, meaning “sky” or “shining”.
Jupiter as a God All on His Own
Yet it’s unfair to call the two identical. For all their similarities, Jupiter occupied a unique position in Roman civic and political life which his Greek counterpart couldn’t match. Zeus may have been the chief deity of the Greek pantheon, but Jupiter stood as the supreme god of the Roman Republic, to whom consuls swore their oaths, and who presided over the structure of society, the outcomes of wars, and the fate of the Roman state itself.
The Genealogy of Jupiter
Jupiter was born to the sky god Saturn and Ops, the goddess of the earth. He married his twin sister Juno, and with her fathered the god of war Mars and his war-goddess sister Bellona, as well as the god Vulcan (the Roman forge-god in the mold of the Greek Hephaestus) and Juventas (the goddess of youth).
But Jupiter fathered other children as well with different lovers. With the fertility goddess Maia, he sired Mercury, divine messenger and god of travel and commerce. By his sister Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, he fathered the goddess Proserpine, who was associated with the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth, and strongly aligns with the Greek Persephone.
Jupiter also raped the Titan Metis, an act which produced the goddess Minerva. And with the mysterious and ill-defined goddess Dione, he fathered the Roman goddess of love, Venus.
His Many Names
While we know the Roman god today simply as “Jupiter,” he was actually known by several names in Roman history. The most familiar of these is Jove, but Jupiter also boasted a range of epithets which marked different aspects of the god who – as the supreme deity of the republican and imperial eras – was inextricably linked with the form and character of the state and thus evolved and changed alongside it.
“He who carries of the spoils of war,” this incarnation of Jupiter is perhaps the earliest. His temple was the first known to have been built in the city of Rome and was said to have been dedicated by Romulus himself.
This incarnation of the god presided over oaths, contracts, and marriages. As the epithet suggests, he was also connected with the Roman rituals dealing with spoils of war, and with a collegium of priests called Fetials, who provided advice on wars and other foreign affairs.
Though today we pronounce the god’s name as “Jupiter,” it’s noteworthy that there was actually no “J” sound in ancient Rome. It would instead have been pronounced similarly to a “y” sound in English, and this classic form is commonly represented by substituting I for J, giving us the Iuppiter spelling.
Iuppiter Lapis is another of the oldest names of the god and signified the “Jupiter stone”. Also called the Oath Stone, Iuppiter Lapis was a sacred stone in the temple of Jupiter and believed by most sources to have been an unshaped or rough-hewn piece of flint, a stone was seen by Romans as symbolic of lightning. While it doesn’t seem to have been universal, there is some evidence of cult beliefs regarding the stone as an actual manifestation of Jupiter himself rather than simply a sacred item associated with him.
Jupiter the Sustainer, whose temple, according to legend, was built by Romulus at the foot of the Palatine Hill. During the Romans’ battle against the Sabines led by King Tatius, the Roman line had broken at Palatine Hill, leaving them in danger of a complete rout.
Romulus called out to Jupiter and swore to build him a temple on that very spot if the god would grant him victory. The god responded and, true to the epithet Jupiter Stator, caused the Roman army to stand fast in the face of the Sabines until they won the day.
Iuppiter Optimus Maximus
“The Greatest and Best,” Jupiter Optimus Maximus was the incarnation of the god most intertwined with the Roman state. Also referred to as Jupiter Capitolinus, his temple – said to be the grandest in Rome – stood on Capitoline Hill and was built completed by the last of the Roman kings, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.
Romans routinely made sacrifices and recited specific prayers to seek his patronage and thus elevate themselves in Roman society. And not just Romans – as essentially a divine Roman king, Jupiter received pleas from foreign dignitaries as well. Emissaries would make sacrifices to the god when attempting to secure treaties or other agreements with the nation.
When the Roman army was victorious in war, a military procession (called a triumph) followed a route through the city that ended at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. These processions brought captives and spoils to the temple for presentation to the god, with the triumphant general driving a four-horse chariot and wearing a purple and gold cloak signifying both the state and Jupiter himself.
Jupiter bore a number of other epithets connected to his domain as a god of the sky, such as Jupiter Caelus (“the heavens”), Jupiter Pluvius (“sender of rain”), and Jupiter Tonans (“thunderer”). Additional epithets specifically connected the god to lightning, notably Jupiter Fulgur (“lightning Jupiter”) and Jupiter Lucetius (“of the light”).
He also bore a number of names related to specific locations, particularly far-flung areas of Roman influence. Examples of this include Jupiter Ammon (worshiped in Egypt, and connected with the Egyptian god Amun), Jupiter Poeninus (worshiped in the Alps), and Jupiter Taranis (a syncretization of the Celtic god Taranis).
The Father of Heavens, Diespiter was a sky god retained from the pre-Roman Italic peoples that occupied the area of modern Italy. The name and concept of this deity can be found well before the Roman era and traces all the way back to the Sanskrit sky father, Dyaus pitar, from the very beginnings of proto-Indo-European language. While clearly of a much older lineage than the Jupiter cult, the name was still adopted as yet another reference to the god.
The patron of good faith and the god of integrity, the relationship of Dius Fidius to Jupiter is somewhat murky. In several citations, they seem to be separate entities, while in others it seems to be just another name applied to Jupiter – sensible enough, given Jupiter’s central role in oaths and contracts.
The Mythology of Jupiter
The earliest worship of Jupiter is believed to have incorporated him as part of what is called the Archaic Triad, which grouped the god with fellow Roman gods Mars and Quirinus. In this mostly speculative trio, Mars represented the Roman military, Quirinus represented the agrarian citizenry, and Jupiter represented the priestly class.
A more firmly documented partnership occurs later, with the Capitoline Triad which can be found in depictions in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus as well as the older Capitolium Vetus on Quirinal Hill. This triad put Jupiter together with his wife, Juno (in her aspect as Queen Juno), and Jupiter’s daughter Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.
A State-Centered Narrative
Unlike the mythology of the Greeks and many other cultures, Romans had little in the way of a grander, cosmic narrative. Their tales of Jupiter and the other gods included little or nothing about the creation of the world or the people in it.
Indeed, Roman gods and goddesses have few stories centered on themselves or on purely celestial concerns. Rather, Roman myths almost always center around the god’s relationship to the Roman state and its people, how the god interacted with Rome rather than how the gods interacted with each other or the broader universe.
This reinforces the importance of the integral civic function of Roman gods in the Roman state religion, especially Jupiter. While the Greeks revered and celebrated their gods, the Romans wove them into the fabric of their daily lives in a much more substantial and practical way.
As the king of the Roman gods, Jupiter obviously occupied a preeminent place in Roman civic life. And not surprisingly, a cult as important and intertwined with the state as Jupiter’s required a number of mortal servants to oversee its operations and tend to its needs – and to wield its power.
A college of fifteen priests, the Flamines actually served a number of gods, with each member devoted to a different deity. At their head, however, was the Flamen Dialis, who was devoted to Jupiter, as was his wife, the Flaminica Dialis.
The Flamen was granted a lictor (a sort of assistant/bodyguard) and a curule chair, both normally reserved only for magistrates with military or governmental authority. Unique among Roman priests, the Flamen also held a seat on the Senate.
A separate college of priests called the Augurs bore the responsibility of interpreting the will of the gods through divination. Specifically, they looked for signs in the movements and activity of birds – their species, sounds, and flight patterns.
No major endeavor of Rome could be undertaken without understanding the will of Jupiter, which meant that no such endeavor could be done without the input of the Augurs.
All major functions of the state, from construction to warfare to trade policy, were decided with the influence of these priests. This granted exceptional power to the Augurs – and, unlike the Flamines who admitted only patricians, a position with the Augurs was open even to low-born Romans.
As noted previously, the Fetials – a college of 20 priests – were concerned with Rome’s relationships to other nations and ensuring those relationships adhered to the often-complex religious requirements that ensured the gods’ continued protection.
When Rome had a dispute with another nation, two Fetials would be dispatched under the auspices of Jupiter Lapis to visit that nation and deliver Rome’s demands according to an elaborate ritual. If no resolution could be found, the Fetials would denounce the nation to the Roman Senate, and – if war was declared – perform a second ritual to ensure Jupiter’s favor. The Fetials likewise had a prominent ritual function in treaties, as recorded by Livy in his The History of Rome.
As Rome’s main civic deity, it’s little surprise that Jupiter had more festivals and feasts in his honor than any other god in the pantheon. These included annual fixed holidays, games, and recurring days each month, and all served to help maintain and promote the connection between Jupiter and the Roman State.
The Ides and the Nundinae
The Ides, or center point of each month, were sacred to Jupiter and were marked with the sacrifice of a white lamb at the Capitoline Citadel. The Nundinae, meanwhile, were 8-day “market weeks”, during which patrician business was generally suspended and rural citizens could halt work in order to visit the city, recurring throughout the year. Also sacred to Jupiter, the Flaminica Dialis would mark the Nundinae by sacrificing a ram to him.
Jupiter was honored with a number of annual festivals, as well. Just before the beginning of the Roman year (March 1st) came the festival of Iuppiter Terminus, or Jupiter of the Boundaries, followed by the Regifugium, or expulsion of a ceremonial “king” (rex sacrorum) before the renewal of the new year.
On April 23rd came the Vinalia Urbana, when new wines were offered to Jupiter, the first of three wine-related festivals during the year. July 5th brought the Poplifugua, which commemorated the Romans’ flight from the city when it was sacked, though the specifics of when and by who vary with the account.
On August 19th came the second wine festival, the Vinalia Altera, during which priests sacrificed a sheep and beseeched Jupiter for favorable weather for the grape harvest. The Flamen Dialis himself would cut the first grapes of the harvest. The last wine festival came on October 11th, the Meditrinalia, with the end of the harvest, the pressing of the grapes, and start of fermentation.
And on two separate dates, September 13th and November 13th, came the Epulum Iovis, or Feasts of Jove, in which meals were presented to Jove (organized – and eaten by – priests). These feasts were each connected to another of the celebrations connected to Jupiter – the games, or Ludi.
The Roman Games, or Ludi Romani, were held on the Ides of September, while the older Ludi Plebeii (Plebeian Games) fell in mid-November. Both were integrated with the concurrent Epula Iovis.
The games involved chariot races, horsemanship, boxing, dancing, and – in later years – dramatic performances. While they were not connected to the formal military processions per se, military triumphs and spoils were still heavily celebrated at the games, and the season in which they were held coincided with the return of the armies from the field.
As the Roman Republic fell into the Imperial era, the cult of Jupiter began to decline. Despite its prior importance in civic life, as the Roman Empire progressed the god began to be increasingly eclipsed by a growing number of deified emperors such as Augustus and Titus, and ultimately faded almost completely as Christianity became the dominant religion beginning in the Fourth Century C.E.
And while a number of Roman gods persevered in popular culture and symbology –the caduceus held by Mercury (and his Greek counterpart, Hermes) still represents the medical profession, while Justitia still stands outside every courthouse holding her scales – Jupiter had surprisingly little enduring impact. Apart from being the namesake of the planet Jupiter, the god has little to show today for his golden age as Rome’s supreme god.