Neptune: Roman God of the Sea

Like many Roman gods and goddesses, Neptune shares many visual, religious, and symbolic associations with his Greek counterpart, Poseidon, who tends to hold a more pre-eminent position in the modern imagination.

This is partly due to the fact that Neptune does not feature in much Roman literature, except in his notable role in the Virgilian classic, the Aeneid. Yet, it is important to point out that there are still some defining differences between the two gods that make Neptune and Poseidon markedly distinct from one another.

Areas of Patronage

One of these important differences is what each god officially patronizes. Whilst Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea, granted that domain by his brother Zeus after the defeat of their father (along with Hades who acquires the underworld), Neptune was primarily the God of fresh water – so he was accordingly seen as an essential provider of sustenance. 

Furthermore, fresh water was a very important concern for the early settlers of Latium, the area from which Rome was built and established. Neptune therefore played a more geographically specific role in the formation of the Roman pantheon and its accompanying myths. Poseidon on the other hand, whilst having specific cult centers, was seen as a god without such geographical specificity.

Areas of Origin

This then brings us to the other marked difference between Neptune and Poseidon – their respective origins and civilizations of patronage. Whilst Poseidon plays a very important part in the genesis of the Greek gods, helping his brothers defeat the Titans and establish their rule over the heavens, earth, and underworld, Neptune heralds from more obscure origins somewhere in Italy (possibly from Etruria or Latium).

Whilst he seems to later take on many of Poseidon’s characteristics – including his origin story – Neptune elsewhere remains decidedly Roman and begins his story as the guarantor of fresh water for fledgling Italian communities.

Differences in Prominence and Popularity

Even though this meant he was initially important to these early Roman and Italian peoples, he was actually never to achieve the prominence that Poseidon had in the Greek pantheon, often seen as a number two behind Zeus.

Indeed, Neptune was not part of either the Archaic Triad (of Jupiter, Mars and Romulus) who were central to the foundation myths of Rome, or the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Mars, Minerva) who were fundamental to Roman religious life for centuries. This then is another notable difference between the two – that whilst Poseidon was decidedly a “chief god” in the Greek pantheon, he was not to reach such illustrious and influential heights for his Roman worshippers.  

Neptune’s Name

The origins of the name “Neptune,” or “Neptunus” are the subject of much scholarly debate, as its exact point of conception remains unclear. 

Etruscan Origins?

Whilst some have stated that it likely derives from some form of indo-European, with “Neptu” meaning “moist substance” in that family of languages, and “nebh” connoting a rainy sky, there is also the Etruscan god Nethuns to consider – who himself was a god of wells (and later all water). 

Additionally, there seems to perhaps be some etymological similarities to the Irish god of wells and rivers, although the links are also disputed.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that a god of water was revered by both the Romans and Etruscans at similar times. As close neighbors (as well as stubborn enemies) it’s relatively unsurprising that they may have developed similar gods to each other or taken them from each other to later develop and differentiate them.

We have mention of the Etruscan Nethuns from the “Piacenza Liver,” which was an elaborate bronze model of a sheep’s liver from the 3rd century BC, as well as a coin found in an Etruscan town (from around the end of the 3rd century BC), which shows Nethuns in a very similar appearance to Poseidon.

Other explanations

For later Roman writers such as Varro, the name seemed to derive from nuptus instead, connoting a covering of heaven and earth. This confusion in where his name derived, as well as the nature of his early worship and its later development both have been understood to have contributed to Neptune’s ambiguous image in Roman culture and tradition.

Early worship of Neptune in Italy

We know that Neptune had only one temple in Rome itself, located by the racetrack, the Circus Flaminius. This seems to have been built – and in operation – by 206BC at the latest, and perhaps considerably earlier, as attested by the ancient historian Cassius Dio.

Early Traces in Italy

Evidence also seems to suggest that by 399BC a water god – most probably Neptune, or some prosaic form of him – was worshiped as part of an expanding Roman pantheon. This is because he is listed in the first “Lectisternium” at Rome, which was an archaic religious ceremony which aimed to propitiate the city’s gods and goddesses.

This helps to explain why there was an early festival dedicated to Neptune, known as the Neptunalia, which will be discussed more below. Moreover, there was also a prominent shrine to Neptune at Lake Comum (modern-day Como), with foundations stretching far back into antiquity. 

Neptune the Provider of Water

As mentioned before, this long history of Neptune’s worship owes a lot to his role as a provider of sustenance for communities of ancient Italians. As early Latium (where Rome was founded) was very marshy and was located by the River Tiber, which often flooded, the control over sources of water were very important to proto-Romans.

As such, there was a proliferation of water shrines near springs and wells, dedicated to various water gods and nymphs, no doubt including early prototypes of Neptune. As Rome expanded physically and politically, its burgeoning population required more voluminous supplies of fresh water, and it embarked upon a long-running policy of constructing aqueducts to feed its reservoirs, fountains, and public baths.  

Growing Assimilations with Poseidon and Consus

As Roman civilization expanded and gradually took on more of Greek culture and myth, Neptune became increasingly assimilated with Poseidon in art and literature.  

Neptune becoming Poseidon

This adoption has had a very profound effect on our understanding of Neptune as it meant that Neptune increasinglay began to exist as Poseidon’s counterpart, just in Roman garb. He was also associated, or supposed to be married to Salacia, Roman Goddess of the sea, who also had her Greek counterpart Amphitrite.

This also meant that Neptune’s area of patronage began to absorb new dimensions, namely making Neptune a god of sea, and seafaring. This also extended to naval victories in war, shown by the fact that the Roman general/renegade Sextus Pompeius described himself as the “son of Neptune,” after his naval victories.

Moreover, he also became the god of storms and earthquakes, just as Poseidon was, greatly extending his “domain” in the process. This all also transformed his image and disposition in the eyes of ancient observers, as he was no longer simply a provider of sustenance, but now a god with a vast domain, embodied by tempestuous storms and sea journeys fraught with danger.

Furthermore, Neptune began to mirror Poseidon in art as well, and there is an array of Roman mosaics that show Neptune, trident in hand, accompanied by dolphins or horses – of which there is a particularly striking example from La Chebba, Tunisia.

Neptune and Consus

Yet traditionally, this patronage of horses and association with all things equine, had belonged to the Roman god Consus, and as such, the two gods began to be conflated with one another to the confusion of contemporaries! As a result, Consus was sometimes renamed Neptunus Equistris in an attempt to help solve any confusion!

Nevertheless, this conflation of Neptune with other gods is quite an important aspect of his enduring image and how he was perceived in Roman literature.

Neptune in Roman Literature

As has been alluded to already, Neptune was not a particularly prominent Roman god, which shows itself in the extant Roman literature we still possess. Whilst there are some references to the Neptunalia festival in a small catalog of Roman writers, there isn’t too much on his general mythology.

Neptune in Ovid

This reality is no doubt caused by his synchronism with Poseidon, whose mythology was hoisted onto Neptune, obscuring the original conceptions of the Italian god. However, we do have a passage in the metamorphoses of Ovid about how Neptune sculpted the valleys and mountains of the earth with his trident.

Ovid also says that Neptune flooded the earth at this point due to such overzealous sculpting, but eventually told his son Triton to blow his conch in order for the waters to recede. When they had receded to a suitable level, Neptune left the waters as they were and, in the process, sculpted the world as it is.

Neptune in Other Writers

Besides this, Neptune is almost exclusively discussed in passing from various Roman sources, ranging from Cicero to Valerius Maximus. These passages include discussions of Octavian/Augustus setting up a temple to Neptune at Actium, and passing references to Neptune’s divine domain or methods of worship. 

Compared then to other Roman gods, he does not receive any special myths or discussions, beyond these points of proper worship or theology. Whilst there will almost certainly have been other writings that included Neptune originally, his scarcity in the surviving literature is certainly thought to reflect his relative lack of popularity for contemporaries.    

 Neptune and the Aeneid

Seemingly in an effort to differentiate Roman from Greek, when the famous Roman poet Virgil was writing what was to become the “founding” classic of Rome – the Aeneid – he made sure to juxtapose Neptune from the Poseidon that appears in the counterposed works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Angry homeric poseidon vs helpful virgilian Neptune

In the Odyssey, Poseidon is a notorious antagonist to the main hero Odysseus, who endeavors to get back to his island home of Ithaca after the Trojan war, even though the Ocean god is determined to stop him at every turn. This is mainly because Odysseus blinds the inhospitable and iniquitous cyclops-son of Poseidon, who is called Polyphemus.

Whilst Polyphemus quite frankly deserved this blinding after he tried to imprison and kill Odysseus and his men, Poseidon simply does not let the matter rest and is seen as a rather evil god throughout the Homeric epic.

In quite stark contrast to this, Neptune is seen as a rather benevolent god in the corresponding Roman epic, the Aeneid. In this story, which was clearly inspired by the Odyssey, the Trojan hero Aeneas flees the burning city of Troy with his father Anchises and is tasked to find a new home for his people. This new home is to become Rome.

Rather than impede Aeneas on his journey, Neptune in fact helps Aeneas travel across the seas by calming the waves and aiding him on his long journey. This happens at the beginning, when Juno oversteps her bounds and tries to create a storm to disrupt Aeneas’s journey. Disgruntled at this transgressive behavior from Juno, Neptune quickly intervenes and calms the sea.

Later on as well, when Aeneas reluctantly leaves his new lover Dido, the Queen of Carthage, he again seeks Neptune’s assistance. In order for Neptune to grant it however, he takes the life of Aeneas’s helmsman Palinurus as a sacrifice. Whilst this in itself proves that Neptune’s assistance was not granted completely freely, it is a markedly different presentation of the sea god, from the one we receive in the Homeric, and Greek, Odyssey.

Neptune’s Family and Consorts

As with Poseidon, Neptune was the son of the chief Titan, who in Roman mythology was called Saturn, whereas his mother was the primordial deity Ops, or Opis. Whilst Neptune’s Italian origins did not necessarily place him as son of the chief deity, it was inevitable that he would come to be seen as such, after his assimilation with Poseidon. 

As a result, in many modern accounts, he shares the same origin story with the Greek god, assisting his siblings in order to kill their father, before mandating their respective domains of rulership.

Neptune’s Siblings

These siblings were Jupiter the ruler of the Gods and bringer of thunder, Juno queen of the gods and protector of the state, Pluto the god of the underworld, Vesta goddess of the hearth and home and Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. He also had two consorts who together were supposed to personify different aspects of water and the ocean.

Neptune’s consorts

Salacia, who has already been mentioned, was the consort most associated with Neptune and was supposed to personify the gushing, overflowing aspect of water. The other was Venilia who represented the calmer side of water. With Salacia, Neptune fathered four children – Benthesikyme, Rhodes, Triton, and Proteus who all share various roles in different myths, all of which however, remain associated with the sea or other waters.

The Neptunalia

As previously mentioned, and like many Roman Gods, Neptune had his own festival as well – the Neptunalia. Unlike many other Roman religious festivals however, there isn’t much known about the two-day annual event, save for some details from Roman writers such as Livy and Varro.

Summertime Festival

Celebrated at the hottest time of the year, around the 23rd of July, when the Italian countryside experienced a considerable drought, the timing itself suggests there was a propitiatory element that was central to the event, with attendees presumably aiming to encourage the water god to guarantee the future flow of plentiful water. 

Games at the Neptunalia

Additionally, since the festival was labeled “Nept Ludi” in ancient calendars, it seems clear that the festival included games (“ludi”) as well. This makes a lot of sense considering that Neptune’s temple in Rome was situated next to the racetrack. Moreover, his association with horses probably meant that horse racing was an essential aspect of the Neptunalia, although this is not explicitly stated in the ancient literature.

Revelry at the Neptunalia

Games and prayers for abundant water, were also accompanied by drinking and feasting, wherein the attendees would build huts out of branches and foliage, to sit together and celebrate – as the Roman poets Tertullian and Horace tell us. The latter however, seems dismissive of the revelries involved, saying that he would rather stay home with one of his mistresses and some “superior wine.”

The Ancient Stagnation of Neptune

Whilst he later had a planet named after him (as the planet was initially thought to affect the waves and sea), Neptune in fact had a relatively underwhelming existence as a Roman god. Although he initially seemed to be reasonably popular, due to his role as a provider of sustenance, praise and worship seemed to have quickly waned as Rome developed.

Aqueducts and Their Efect on Neptune

Various explanations for this are given. One is that, when Rome constructed its own system of aqueducts, fresh water was in abundance for most people and as such, there seemed to be little need to propitiate Neptune for more water. Whilst he might have been initially seen as the provider of sustenance, it later became apparent that it was in fact the emperors, magistrates, and builders of Rome that could properly take that title.

The Decline of Naval Victories

Additionally, most of Rome’s important naval victories were won early in its expansionist history, meaning that it was other gods who would usually be thanked in “triumphs” – wherein a victorious general or emperor would parade the spoils of war in front of the citizenry. Really after the battle of Actium in 31BC there were very few notable naval victories, and most campaigning was done on land in central and northern Europe.

Neptune’s Modern Legacy

Neptune’s modern legacy is difficult to completely disentangle and properly assess, as he has come to be seen as a Roman mirror image of Poseidon. Due to the fact that Greek myths tend to be more prevalent in the modern imagination – from games like God of War, class curriculums on the Iliad and the Odyssey, or Hollywood blockbusters on Troy, or the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Poseidon tends to be remembered more in modern discourse.

Additionally, it seems clear that even in Ancient Rome, Neptune’s image and legacy was rarely at the forefront of people’s minds. However, this does not tell the whole tale. Since the Renaissance, people have looked back upon and greatly revered the cultures of both Greece and Rome, and as a result, gods like Neptune have enjoyed a positive reception in art and architecture especially.

Statues of Neptune

Indeed, statues of Neptune adorn many modern cities, beyond just those in Italy. For example, there is the Neptune Fountain in Berlin, built in 1891, just as there is the very prominent and imposing Neptune Statue in Virginia, USA. Both show the god as a powerful figure, trident in hand with strong associations and connotations of the sea and water. However, perhaps the most famous statue of Neptune is the one that adorns the Trevi Fountain in the center of Rome.

From Renaissance painters, we have our most extensive portraiture and imagery of Neptune. He is usually depicted as a muscular, bearded man riding through waves with the help of a chariot of horses, trident or net in hand (in very similar appearance to the Retiarius class of gladiators that fought in Ancient Rome).

The Planet Neptune

Then of course, there is the planet Neptune, which has helped to revitalize interest in his divine Roman namesake. As previously mentioned, this is partly as an homage to his mastery of the sea, since those who discovered the planet thought it affected the sea’s motion (as the moon does).

Furthermore, as the planet was seen to be blue by its earliest observers, this further encouraged his associations with the Roman God of the sea. 

Neptune as a Trope and Reference point

Beyond this, Neptune has survived as a trope and metaphor for the sea in many modern literary works, including both poetry and fiction novels.

As such, to answer the question whether Neptune is “a novel Roman God or another Greek copy”, I think the answer has to be, a bit of both. Whilst he has clearly taken on a lot of Poseidon’s characteristics and image, his actual origins and historical context makes him at his root, a novel Roman God – perhaps just cloaked in Greek costume. 

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