Mars: The Roman God of War

One of the first things that comes to your mind when you think of the word ‘Mars’ is most likely the twinkling red planet soon to be conquered by Elon Musk. However, did you ever stop to think about the namesake of this devilishly sanguine world suspended in outer space?

The color red represents aggression, and aggression brings about the throbs of conflict. Unfortunately, war is one of the most freakishly ancient aspects of what makes us truly human. 

The first major armed war in recorded history might’ve occurred between Egyptians. Still, the spirit of war was immortalized by the ancient Greeks and, subsequently, the Romans. Of all the areas that Greek and Roman deities hold watch over, war is something that has prevailed repeatedly. 

More so for Rome, given their countless wars and conquests that loom over ancient history.  

Hence, it is only natural that it has an advocate.

And oh boy, is there one.

That is Mars, the Roman god of war, who is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Ares. 

What Was Mars the God Of?

Mars was not your typical Roman deity slumbering around the luxury of divine palaces up in the sky. Unlike other Roman gods, Mars’ comfort zone was the battlefield.

To you, peace might mean the chirping of birds and the gentle vibration of waves crashing against the seashore. To this man, though, peace meant something else entirely. 

Peace meant war. 

Peace meant the sound of splintering timbers and a thousand gladiators bleeding to death on the battlefield. At the same time, countless swords clank endlessly all around. Mars was not just the god of war; he was the god of every event of destruction that reigned supreme within blood-ridden battlefields. That meant death, devastation, destabilization, and every bit of hostility that any soldier in the ancient world could muster.

He was the god of all that and beyond. A true monster on all fronts. 

Alright, enough of painting him as the big bad guy. 

When Mars didn’t rip apart hearts and muscles with his bare hands, he paid extra attention to agriculture. Hey, even giant evil warriors sometimes need some greenery. 

Hence, this made him the Roman god of war and the defender of agriculture. This contrastingly unique combination thus solidified his place within the Roman pantheon. 

Mars and Ares

On one side of the ring, we have Mars, and on the other, his Greek equivalent Ares. 

Don’t worry, the fight ends in a stalemate for now because, well, they are the same person. 

However, if they weren’t, you would quite literally find the concept of the destruction of the entire world amplified to its maximum. Let us take a closer look at the differences and similarities between Mars and Ares concerning their Greco-Roman roots. 

Contradicting the ruthless details described above, Mars is actually quite unlike Ares. While Ares blew the war trumpets and represented utter destruction, harbinging the spirit of actual war, Mars symbolized securing peace through conflict. 

The Differences Between Mars and Ares

Ares, quite simply, wasn’t as famous in Greek mythology as Mars was in Roman tales. This was caused primarily since Ares was depicted as this individual that refracted mindless bloodthirst. The Greeks revered him for his billowing brutality and insanity on the battlefield. 

However, this veneration didn’t lead to any strategic outcome. It was simply a testament to the virility required to completely turn the tides of war. 

Mars, on the other hand, was a much more structured deity. His position in the Roman religion was second only to Jupiter. Hence, he was one of the supreme Roman deities. 

Mars was assigned to control military power to ensure eventual peace. Unlike his Greek counterpart, Mars was the defender of city borders and an agricultural god that highlighted the importance of Roman military inclusion within farming.

While Ares was depicted as this mercilessly brutal deity, ancient Romans attributed Mars to ensuring peace through war, of which war was not the main focus. 

Mars’ Symbols and Representations

The Unsheathed Spear of Mars 

Early Rome was a plethora of testaments and symbols dedicated to their beloved deities.

Being one of the most important gods in the Roman pantheon, Mars was no stranger to this. His symbols ranged from aggression to tranquility, a range that represents his varied inclusion within the daily chants of the Roman people.

One of the main symbols that highlighted his aggression and virility was his spear. In fact, Mars’ spear has gone through a burst of fame thanks to the assassination of Julius Caesar in the year 44BC. 

It is thought his spear had vibrated right before the beloved dictator was hacked into a million pieces. Hence forbearing the news of his death and impending chaos towards Rome’s way. Even though Julius Caesar had reportedly seen it move, he was unable to prevent his demise. 

Hence, the spear stands as a symbol of imminent danger and war.

The Sheathed Spear of Mars

When his hormones aren’t being cranky, and Mars isn’t feeling angry for whatever reason, his spear remains calm. It stands as an ode to his tranquility. 

To represent peace, his spear would be wrapped in olive leaves or laurel to convey the idea that the spear is at ease. Hence, this stood as a symbol of respected authority and general peace. 

Mars’ Appearance

It ain’t easy being red all the time. 

Mars might be the Roman god of war, but he also is the god of some fresh fit. His wardrobe is geared for war and is the cause behind steamy dreams for most teenage boys. 

Donning a golden helmet and a “paludamentum”- an ancient Roman military drip – he is depicted as a young yet mature man with an absolutely chiseled physique (hide your girls). 

In other depictions, he is also spotted riding a chariot drawn by fire-breathing horses and darting across the sky in search of corrupted centurions to slay. 

He also wielded his trusty spear in his right hand, which carried so much power that it could reportedly devastate an entire army with just one swift streak through the lot. You wouldn’t want to be in front of that. 

Lucky for the roman army. 

Meet The Family

Such power. 

Now you may ask, who could have possibly been his father or mother for him to have inherited such a natural fit of rage and godly elegance? 

Great question, but the answer won’t really surprise you.

Mars was the son of two of the biggest hotshots in Roman mythology, Jupiter and Juno. As you may already know, they are the breathing (not so much) examples of the most supreme Roman deities due to their definite command over the rest of the pantheon. 

However, as Ovid writes in his “Fasti,” Mars was not conceived because of Jupiter’s seed but as a blessing from Flora, the nymph of flowers. Flora had touched Juno’s womb with a flower, blessing her with a baby as per Juno’s request. 

Though this request might sound unconventional, it was because Jupiter had given birth to Minerva from his own head only hours before without any kind of aid from Juno.

This activated Juno’s anger hormones, and she gave birth to Mars alone after Flora’s blessing. No wonder Mars is angry all the time.

Mars’ consorts are Nerio, Rhea Silvia (whom he infamously raped), and the ever-beautiful Venus, the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite

The Many Epithets of Mars

Mars goes by many names in the group chat of gods.

This is primarily due to his roles in the Roman religion ranging over a plethora of aspects. From being a peaceful protector to being the legendary father of the Roman state, Mars symbolizes countless branches of virility within the Roman army.

Mars Pater Victor

Translating literally to ‘Mars, the Father and the Victor,’ Mars Pater Victor does whatever it takes to ensure victory for the Roman side. Being the father figure on the battlefield, his presence is invoked through several ritualistic practices.

His favor on the battlefield is gained through the fresh hot sacrifice of a pig, sheep, and a bull through a traditional rite called “suovetaurilia.” 

Furthermore, the attention of such a legendary father would have also been grabbed through the sacrifice of a Roman general or the souls of the enemy.  

Mars Gradivus

Being another significant variation of Mars on the battlefield, Mars Gradivus was the go-to god whenever a soldier took on the grand oath of not being a coward in war. Swearing fealty to him meant commitment on the battlefield and marching forth with the utmost honor.

Hence, Mars Gradivus was the embodiment of striding into the enemy lines with valor, which is also reflected in his name. “Gradivus” is derived from the word “gradus,” which, besides meaning a classical dictionary, also means “march.” 

Mars Augustus

Straying away from the thundering cacophony of the battlefield, Mars Augustus is a god that takes on the duties of ensuring honor within imperial families and groups. This included countless cults around Rome and the Emperor himself paying their respects to the Roman god of war to win his blessings. 

In return, Mars Augustus would happily favor the Emperor’s prosperity, and the general wellbeing of whichever cult worshiped him. 

Mars Ultor 

After Julius Caesar got shredded into countless pieces of human meat in 44 BC, the spirit of turmoil rose within the state’s political circles. Mars Ultor symbolized vengeance that shrouded the Roman state after Caesar’s murder. 

Initiated by the Roman Emperor Augustus, Mars Ultor was aimed to merge with the goddess Ultio and strike the fear of raging vengeance into whoever dared to oppose the Emperor. 

Mars Ultor was later given an honorable place of worship in the middle of the Roman Forum of Augustus, which later became the central hub for discussing Roman military campaigns. 

Mars Silvanus

As Mars Silvanus, Mars would be responsible for the well-being of farm animals. This was highlighted in one of Cato’s “cures” to heal cattle, and it states the necessity of a sacrifice to Mars Silvanus to “promote the health of the cattle. 

Mars Balearicus 

Far from Rome, Mars was also worshiped in Majorca, where his unending might was contained within bronze figures and miniature statues. Taking on a more materialistic approach to things, Majorcans fashioned depictions of Mars on hooves, horns, and various types of statuettes.

Mars Quirinus

Mars Quirinus depicted the rageful god as a peaceful protector of the Roman state and a crucial symbol of serenity after times of intense chaos. Hence, this variation of Mars was the harbinger of treaties and truces, which led him to be connected deeper to Rome’s military ventures, just in a way that didn’t amplify his warlike aspect. 

Instead, his presence guaranteed protection for the ‘Quirites’ of the Roman state, an umbrella term for all the citizens necessary for making oaths that ensured treaties. 

Mars Within the Celtic Pantheon

Surprisingly, Mars appears in other cultures far away from the white marbled infrastructure of Rome. In the green fields paraded by the Celts in Roman Britain, Mars went by many epithets, and some of them even hung the red deity up there with Celtic gods

Some of these epithets and roles included:

Mars Condatis, the master of rivers and healing.

Mars Albiorix, the Emperor of the world.

Mars Alator, the cunning huntsman.

Mars Belatucadros, the shining slayer.

Mars Cocidius, Mars synthesized with the Celtic god Cocidius, the defender of Hadrian’s Wall

Mars Balearicus, the raging warrior.

Mars Braciaca, he combines with Braciaca, the Celtic god of abundant harvest and sacred grove. 

Albeit, numerous other epithets were attributed to Mars and combined with other Celtic gods. His immense involvement with different cultures is also a perfect symbol for Rome’s rapid expansion into half of Europe during the first millennium. 

Mars and Venus

Thinking of Romeo and Juliet? 

Bonnie and Clyde, perhaps?

That is so cliche.

In times when you are sitting idle and daydreaming about the perfect power couple, you shouldn’t be thinking about Romeo and Juliet. Instead, shift your focus to the lovers of a lifetime. The purifying weapons of love to cleanse all hatred from the roots of this cruel, cruel world.

That, indeed, is Mars and Venus, the Roman counterparts of the heartwarming romance of Ares and Aphrodite. 

Being the god of war makes for a chaotic daily life. It is only fair that you entrap the most beautiful of muses, nay; goddesses, as your consort. Venus, just like her Greek counterpart, is the Roman goddess of love and beauty. 

Like two planets dancing alongside each other in the night sky, the love story of Mars and Venus charms the very foundations of Roman mythology. 

It is not without fault due to the fact that their relationship is adulterous. But for some strange reason, traditional analysis and depictions continue to slide straight past that as this power couple continues to inspire contemporary artists and writers alike.

The Rape of Rhea Silvia

The tutelary god of war engaged in a much more severe part of the mythology that is often overlooked by historians. However, it stands as a central moment in Roman tales that might’ve changed everything about the course of Roman literature.

Forever.

The story is highlighted in Livy’s “The History of Rome.” It features Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin sworn to never engage in any sexual act. However, this celibacy was forced due to a clash of kingdoms and was done to ensure that there would be no immediate heirs from Rhea Silvia’s womb. 

One day, however, Mars was casually walking down the street with his spear in hand and came across Rhea Silvia minding her business. Overcome by the need for invasion, Mars blew the war trumpets and marched toward the poor woman. 

Mars proceeded to rape Rhea Silvia, and this sudden outburst of libido forever changed the course of Roman history. 

As Livy mentions:

“The Vestal was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars their father, either because she really believed it or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause.”

However, with Mars’ immediate departure after the rape, neither god nor men took care of her, and she was left alone in the world with two little babies to take care of.

The Twins

From Mars’ seed and Rhea Silvia’s womb came forth twins. 

You may ask, who WERE these babies really?

Brace yourself because they were none other than Romulus and Remus, the legendary figures in Roman mythology whose tales dictate the eventual founding of the city of Rome. Though the story of Romulus and Remus stretches over many events, all of it does lead back to the stirring in the loins of the Roman god.

Hence, in some sense, Mars helps construct the city, which returns to his worship unironically, thus completing the cycle. 

This only solidifies the tutelary god and his imposing position within the pantheon of the rest of the Roman gods. 

The Archaic Triad

Triads in theology are a huge deal. In fact, they are integrated into many well-known religions and mythologies. Examples include the Holy Trinity in Christianity, the Trimurti in Hinduism, and the Triglav in Slavic mythology

The number three represents balance and order due to its harmonic nature, and Roman mythology is no stranger to it. If we look outwards, we will also find the essence of a trinity in Greek mythology, with just a different name.

The Capitoline Triad was a triad of deities in Roman mythology consisting of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Even though they were the epitome of divine Roman authority, it was actually preceded by the Archaic Triad.

The Archaic Triad consisted of three supreme roman deities, Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, with Mars at the helm of military prowess. Simply put, the Archaic Triad was a singular sub-pantheon that represented Mars and two of his other sides- his power of command through Jupiter and the spirit of peace through Quirinus.  

The Triad was essential in determining archaic Roman society by producing a hierarchy of dignity among ancient priests. These three supreme roman deities helmed by the god of war blessed the hearts of many on Capitoline Hill and catalyzed generations of subsequent worship. 

Mars In Other Fields

Mars, alongside his fellow Greek god Ares, has transcended beyond the traditional pages of mythology and entered the world of pop culture and science. 

We are all familiar with the planet Mars. Due to its red surface and an imposing presence in the night sky, the world has been named after the god of war. Ironically, this planet is soon to be conquered by us human beings with hopefully little bloodshed. 

Fingers crossed, we will find Mars just chilling on Mars, munching on a Mars bar.

The month of March is also named after him, coincidentally matching one of his innate attributes of ‘marching’ into war with valor. 

Besides the fields of science, Mars has also been adapted to the silver screen, producing countless renders of this dashing deity. A rendition of Father Mars has appeared in the famous anime series “Black Clover.” However, his Greek counterpart Ares is favored a bit more.

Ares has appeared in the popular video game “God of War” as the god of war. Edgar Ramirez’s “Clash of the Titans” and “Wrath of the Titans” are blessed by his presence too. Mars/Ares is a primary character in the DC Universe, where a particular attribute of his is the fact that his power increases exponentially while being in war. Talk about being badass.

A bulky yet powerful machine gun is named “Ares” in the hit first-person shooter Valorant. Aptly named for its violent on-screen presence. 

All of these may be gracefully traced back to Mars and Ares. This destructive double-edged sword continues to represent sheer brutality and military dexterity in today’s world.

Conclusion

Human sacrifices. 

Sacred spears. 

Countless enemies looking up at the blood-red skies, awaiting their imminent doom.

Mars falls from the clouds with a spear gripped firmly in his hand. He is ready to butcher anyone in his way for the sake of state peace. That is exactly what Mars meant to the soldiers of Rome. 

A statement.

A warning to the pages of time, and one that still stands to this very day. 

References:

https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0026%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D4

http://www.spainisculture.com/en/obras_de_excelencia/museo_de_mallorca/mars_balearicus_nig17807.html

https://camws.org/sites/default/files/meeting2015/Abstracts2015/212.RheaSilvia.pdf

https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft4199n900&chunk.id=s1.6.25&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ch6&brand=ucpress

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