Roman mythology is part of Classical mythology alongside Greek mythos. It was the backbone of the ancient Roman polytheistic religion. Being composed of rich legends, Roman mythology tackles anything from the founding of Rome, to why gods have certain epithets, and why their local geography is the way that it is.
While learning about Roman mythology, it is vital to keep in mind that Roman myth exemplifies Roman culture. Although many religious facets (notably myths) were later adopted from Greek territories and neighbors, their interpretations and practices were distinctly Roman.
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What is Roman Mythology?
Roman mythology refers to the collection of myths and legends found in ancient Roman religion. Communicated largely through oral traditions, aspects of the religion of ancient Rome were eventually recorded in Latin around 20 BCE. Many parts of Roman myth and legend can be traced back to Hellenistic, Etruscan, and Sabine origins.
When Did Roman Mythology Start?
Roman mythology kicks off with the legendary fall of Troy. From then on, Trojan refugees escape to ancient Latium to put down roots, being led the whole time by the demi-god, Aeneas. Way later in the history of Rome, demi-god twins are born, raised, overthrow a tyrant, and start a new city on Capitoline Hill that eventually becomes Rome.
How Old is Roman Mythology?
Roman mythology is nearly 3,000 years old. Unlike their closest neighbors in the Mediterranean, the Greeks, they don’t have ancient (albeit, epic) records like Homer’s prolific Iliad and Odyssey or anything like Hesiod’s remarkable Theogony. Rather, Roman legends were recorded later in the civilization’s history. The celebrated poet Virgil was among the first to address the mythos of Rome in the epic poem, the Aeneid, sometime between 29 and 19 BCE.
When Was Rome Founded?
Rome was founded sometime in 750 BCE. It is 2,775 years old. It saw its ascension in Iron Age Europe and at the start of the Greek Archaic Period.
Before the celebrated Roman Empire, there was the Kingdom of Rome. This regal age in Roman history began with the city’s founding by Romulus around 753 BCE. Settlements cropped up around Palatine Hill over the next 200-ish years. By 509 BCE the Romans said “Out with the old, in with the new” and became a republic after the overthrow of the kings.
The Roman Republic lasted until about 27 BCE. Unfortunately, the Republic of Rome was fraught with social unrest. After decades of civil war and several Servile Wars, Rome was in desperate need of a hotfix.
READ MORE: Roman Wars
Rome was a full-fledged Empire now, and kings are back! Except they have a fancy new name: Caesar. And, they aren’t kings, but emperors.
What are Romans Known For?
The Romans are known for their architecture, politics, and vast military. Especially their military. Famed for its impressive legions and advancements in military strategy, the Roman Republic took to conquering most of the Mediterranean by the end of the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE). Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, vestiges lived on through the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages.
Is Roman Mythology Based on Greek?
Roman mythology is not based on Greek mythos. At least, not completely.
In all, Rome and the Romans had their own legends and mythos prior to their conquest of Greece in the 2nd century CE. Now, things get tricky with the spread of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great. It was all the rage in the Mediterranean.
Before the Hellenistic Period helmed by Alexander the Great, the two ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome still had a ton of similarities between their mythologies. Why is this? It all boils down to Proto-Indo-European religion and its many, many branches.
“Proto-Indo-European” refers to the prehistoric people of Eurasia and their languages. Most of our knowledge of Proto Indo Europeans is based on deductions from reconstructed languages. From such, we know that Proto Indo Europeans venerated a “sky father” figure in their religions, *Dyḗus ph₂tḗr (Dyēus Patēr), among other gods.
How Did the Greeks Influence Roman Mythology?
The Greeks influenced Roman mythology through Hellenism and the Hellenistic Period throughout antiquity. More or less, Greek culture, myths, and religious ideals were spread across the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great.
When the Romans got ahold of Greek mythology stories, they took what they liked and left the rest. Some myths were painstakingly tailored to the tastes of the Roman populace through rewrites and other adjustments. Other myths, those not flexible enough to be seamlessly absorbed into the Roman state religion, were left with their identities intact. All in all, the Romans adapted gods and myths to expand upon their already established, ancient belief system.
What is Greco-Roman Mythology?
Greco-Roman mythology is the body of myths from Greek mythology and Roman mythology. It is alternatively known as Classical mythology. Pretty much, in the 2nd century BCE Rome managed to conquer Greece during the height of Hellenism. Afterward, they adopted many aspects of Greek mythology, including Greek gods and goddesses, which they assigned Roman names.
What Was the Source of Roman Mythology?
Roman mythology began with the preceding religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Proto-Indo-Europeans are an archaic Eurasian population from prehistory. We don’t really know too much about these folks, save for them being the base of many linguistic trees and traditional Eurasian religious practices.
The Romans, while originating from the Proto-Indo-Europeans, were heavily influenced by Grecian mythos. Moreover, they adopted other aspects of local religions, including those of the Etruscans and the Sabine people. Once their conquest got (more) underway, Romans further added Egyptian, Germanic, and Celtic gods and goddesses to their pantheon.
The Roman Pantheon
The Roman pantheon is marked by some pretty stand-out gods. We all know of the supreme god, Jupiter, and of the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana. However, of course, our modern knowledge of the Roman gods and goddesses only goes so far.
To the ancient Romans, the gods were everything. In honor of their many deities, the Romans built temples, made sacrifices, and held massive celebrations. In return, they were granted divine favors.
While there are 67-ish Roman deities in this ancient religion, the Roman people didn’t usually just lump them all together. There were varying collections of gods that could be organized based on realm, function, and relation. Some deities overlapped.
To the Roman polymath Varro, the deities of ancient Rome could be identified by their realms. Of these, he refers to them as the dii superi, the dii terrestres, and the dii inferni. The dii superi ruled from the Heavens, the dii terrestres lorded over the Earth, and the dii inferni dwelled in the Underworld. The gods from these respective categories would then be divided into multiple triads, with some being included in the Dii Consentes (12 major gods) and the Dii Selecti (20 principal gods).
The Roman Dii Consentes are equal to the Greek Olympian gods. Of them, there are 12. They were frequently depicted together and, thanks to divine genetics, are all related.
To the ancient Romans, the Dii Consentes were among the most powerful deities in their pantheon. They had control over every aspect of life, from the natural world to relationships with family and lovers, except death.
The Dii Selecti are the 20 “main” gods of the Roman pantheon. Unlike the above deities, the Dii Selecti were less commonly worshiped, and certainly not all at once.
Other Roman Gods
The Roman pantheon was made up of many more gods than just those of the Dii Consentes and Dii Selecti. There were those that composed triads and others that were venerated in more obscure practices. The facts are that just because a god wasn’t as popular with the people as, say, Jupiter, doesn’t make them unimportant. There are tons of other gods in Roman mythology stories than what a glance would lead one to believe.
- Anna Perenna
- The Parcae
- The Camenae
- The Capitoline Triad
- The Aventine Triad
- The Archaic Triad
Who are the 7 Major Roman Gods?
There aren’t exactly 7 “major” Roman gods. Major deities in Roman culture included those that made up the Dii Consentes and the broader Dii Selecti. Thus, the number of major gods fell between 12 and 20.
Despite a distinct lack of 7 major Roman gods, there are notably 7 major hills of Rome. The hills included Caelius, Cermalus, Cispius, Fagutal, Oppius, Palatium, and Velia. The communities surrounding these hills held December festivals, collectively called Septimontium.
Who are the 12 in Roman Mythology?
Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Mars, Venus, Apollo, Diana, Vulcan, Vesta, Mercury, and Ceres compose the Dii Consentes, also known as the 12 in Roman mythology. The 12 were venerated throughout the entirety of Rome and were considered the principal gods of the Pantheon. More or less, they are the “Olympians” of ancient Rome.
One could find the likeness of the Dii Consentes just about anywhere. Not to mention, poets loved talking about them. According to various accounts, gilded statues of these glorious Roman gods were on public display at the Roman Forum. Excavations of the ancient Latium city of Gabii had also unearthed an apparent ritual altar to the 12 deities.
Where Do Roman Gods Live?
The Roman gods lived in Olympos. Except, Olympos (also spelled “Olympus”), wasn’t the mountain that the Greeks associated with the gods. It wasn’t a location someone could normally reach. Besides, if it were Mount Olympus, their gods would be across the entire Mediterranean. Instead, the Roman Olympos was a separate realm entirely.
Olympos in myths were the Heavens themselves. It wasn’t a mountain peak. Alternatively, most divinities of Rome would have associated realms in which the respective gods dwelled. You’d find Pluto, for example, in the Underworld.
Roman Myths and Legends
Roman myths and legends acted as a way to communicate various aspects of Roman religion (and culture) to the public. Steeped in oral traditions like so many other ancient civilizations, ancient Roman religious beliefs were related through epic myths and thrilling legends.
When comparing Roman myths to their Greek counterpart, it’s easy to see the similarities between the two. A lot of the time, major myths with major gods are very alike. The most significant difference would be the names of the characters themselves. For example, the Roman god Mars would replace his Greek counterpart, Ares. So on and so forth.
- The Abduction of the Sabine Women
- The Geese of Capitoline Hill
- The Legend of Lucrezia (a.k.a. How the Kingdom of Rome Fell)
- The Myth of Aeneas
- The Nymph Egeria and King Numa Pompilius
- The She-Wolf of Palatine Hill and the Twins, Romulus and Remus
What is the Most Famous Roman Myth?
The story of Romulus and Remus is the most famous Roman myth. As the story goes, the twin boys were born to a woman named Rhea Silvia in Alba Longa. She was the niece of the reigning king Amulius who had deposed her father, the former king Numitor.
Rhea Silvia was a Vestal Virgin. A big part of being a Vestal Virgin is keeping one’s maidenhood. And proclaiming immaculate conception wasn’t really going to work for Rhea. According to some variations of the legend, the Roman war god, Mars, had sired Romulus and Remus after a rendezvous in a sacred grove.
Now, King Amulius wasn’t about to let his grand-nephews ruin all his hard work. They were a serious threat to his rule. Therefore, he ordered them to be drowned in the River Tiber. Thankfully, there was more than a bit of divine intervention.
The Roman god of the Tiber, Tibernius, took a shine to the twins. With help from the she-wolf (lupa) of Palatine Hill and some open-hearted shepherds, Romulus and Remus grew to be fine young men. They killed King Amulius, reinstated their grandpa as ruler of Alba Longa, and took to starting their own settlements. Sometime between 753 and 754 BCE, Romulus killed Remus after a heated dispute.
The year of Remus’ death is considered to be the same year that Rome was founded.
Who Were the Mythological Heroes of Ancient Rome?
Heroes of ancient Rome were seen as exemplars of Roman morals. They were tactful, chaste, courageous, and above all else, an upstanding individual. Romans regarded their heroes differently than the Greeks.
One of the most iconic Greek heroes, Odysseus, was seen as a scoundrel by the Romans. Where Greeks admired his cunning, the Romans saw someone who couldn’t – no, shouldn’t – be trusted. And this does tie into some seriously ancient bad blood between the two civilizations that (according to legend) all began during the fabled Trojan War.
The earliest Roman hero recorded is the legendary ancestor Aeneas, a demi-god son of Aphrodite and a hero of Troy. When Rome fell, Aeneas led refugees to safety. Virgil’s Aeneid details the many trials Aeneas had to face alongside Troy’s survivors before settling in ancient Latium. The Aeneid is considered Rome’s national epic.
Not all heroes of Roman mythology were demigods. Aeneas is an exemption. Instead, the most popular Roman heroes were commonly represented as the “underdogs” who, through varying degrees of tenacity, come out on top. Some of the most celebrated heroes of Rome were a Roman general, former kings of Rome, and an assassin that infiltrated an Etruscan camp during the Roman-Etruscan Wars.
- Evander (of Pallene)
- Marcus Curtius
- Mucius Scaevola
- Numa Pompilius
- Romulus and Remus
- Servius Tullius
- Silvius Brabo
*Hercules is the same as the Greek mythological figure, Heracles. The variation in the name comes from the transcription of the traditional Greek myth into Latin.
Mythical Creatures of Roman Myths
Mythical creatures could be found across the Roman Republic and beyond. They were mythical races found far from the Italian Peninsula, fantastical animals, or location-bound guardian spirits. As tends to be the case, Roman mythological creatures existed in life and, oftentimes, just in ancient ancestors’ imaginations.
In the legends of Rome, mythical creatures acted as an in-between. They were supernatural, yet not divine, and certainly not wholly human. Instead, Rome’s mythical creatures acted as a means to explain the more immediate portion of an unexplainable world.
The gods were one thing, seeing as they could influence the tides of war or the harvest. However, supernatural beings could be found in the hills and forests where civilization wanes.
- The Caladrius
- The Genius Loci
- The Lares
- The Oonae
- The Pandae
- The Panotti
- The Penates
The Monsters of Roman Religion
In Roman folklore, monsters were as real as the gods they respected and the spirits they admired. The fan-favorite Pliny the Elder had written extensively on monsters and unusual creatures in his Naturalis Historia, recording the strangest creatures from around the Roman world. Acting as threats to humanity, the Empire, and heroes alike, the monsters of early Roman legends and tales could (unfortunately) do it all.
- The Basilisk
- The Fire Giant, Cacus
- The Hydra
- The Manticore
- The Strix
Other cultures had an impact on Rome. The people along the River Tiber came to adopt foreign creepy crawlies along with their many gods.
The monsters that may be found in lands far beyond the city gates of Rome:
Roman Religious Practices, Festivals, and Customs
Festivals dominated the Roman calendar. Public celebrations would be staged during festival days and everyone was invited. Well, it depended on the festival, really. What could be guaranteed was feasting, dancing, theatrical plays, and competitive games.
While festivals included massive events that demanded public attention, not all Roman religious practices were so grand. Most of the time, veneration of gods, household deities, and ancestor spirits was done by families and individuals daily. Not everything required a show of zeal.
Sacrifices weren’t always something major, like that of a person or animal. Many sacrifices the Romans offered their deities and spirits included foodstuffs and goods: libations were just as effective as clay effigies to some gods.
Did the Romans Have Cults?
The Romans had religious cults. The most iconic Roman cult was the imperial cult, where deceased emperors could achieve apotheosis through a Senate vote. The imperial cult of Rome also established that the emperor and some imperial family had a divine right to rule. While very much like the Christian European monarchs of later eras, the imperial cult continued in polytheistic traditions for much of its existence.
Instead of the monarchy being a god-given right to individuals of a specific lineage, the emperor of Rome was seen as favored by ancient Roman state deities. The emperor was therefore innately pious, moral, and just. Part of the trend with Roman emperors is that many could claim descendance from a deity as legitimacy.
A prime example of claiming divine blood is the politician, Julius Caesar. He had claimed lineage from Romulus, whose father was Mars. Thereby, Romulus’ ancestor, Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite (a.k.a. the Roman Venus) was also in Julius’ bloodline. By Julius’ standards, he was related to key figures in Roman history and beloved Roman gods.
Alternatively, cults weren’t exclusive to the imperial family and Roman noble houses. Some of the most influential cults of ancient Rome included those that, by all accounts, were foreign. Some popular cults weren’t dedicated to Roman gods, or to those deities found in Greek mythology.
It is to no one’s surprise that the Mediterranean was a bit of a cultural melting pot. In Rome, leading cults included those in honor of the Egyptian Isis and the Anatolian Cybele. There is also evidence of Roman worship of Celtic gods like Cernunnos and Epona.
18 Cults of Rome
There were 18 official cults in Rome. Each of these recognized cults had their own flamen or priests. They were divided between flamines maiores (“major priests”) and flamines minores (“lesser priests”).
The three flamines maiores were in service to one of the three Roman gods of the Archaic Triad: Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. The high priests were known by the titles Flamen Dialis, Flamin Martialis, and Flamen Quirinalis respectively. During the Roman Imperial Period, deified emperors could also be granted a flamen, consequently adding an additional flamen major.
Meanwhile, those of the flamines minores served more obscure, “plebian” deities. Two of the fifteen Roman gods served by the flamines minores have lost their names to history. Official cults served and maintained by the flamines minores include the cults of…
What Was the College of Pontiffs?
The College of Pontiffs was a religious body in ancient Rome. Members were high-ranking priests, composed of pontifices, rex sacrorums, flamines, and Vestal Virgins. A patrician (usually) holding the title of pontifex maximus was the chief high priest of the College and they held the most influential position in all of Rome’s religion. The College of Pontiffs is one of the better-known priestly colleges (collegium) of Rome.
Other colleges were enrolled by augurs, quindecimviri sacris faciundis (fifteen men that had priestly positions and safeguarded the Sibylline Books), and equlones (organizers of feasts, festivals, and games). Of those members of the College of Pontiffs, the flamines were leaders of Rome’s 18 official cults. The flamines had their own hierarchies within these cults. Meanwhile, the Vestal Virgins were the only female members of the College, formed by Roman virgins that tended to the flame at the Temple of Vesta.
What Was the Biggest Roman Festival?
Saturnalia was the biggest Roman festival. The event was so popular that days were tacked on for the celebrations. In the old Roman calendar, Saturnalia was celebrated on a single day, on the fourteenth before the kalendae (the 1st) of January. After the Julian reformation of the calendar, the month of December was extended. Thus, Saturnalia was given, unofficially, more festival days.
During Saturnalia, gifts made of wax were exchanged, Roman slaves were freed for the celebrations, and a “King of Saturnalia” was elected. There was also a bound figure of Saturn at the Temple of Saturn whose binds would be cut. The Romans believed that doing so would allow the god, a Roman counterpart to the Greek Cronus, to partake in the merriment. Over the eons, Saturnalia eventually became replaced by Christmas, starting sometime around 336 CE.
The only religious celebration to challenge the splendor that was Saturnalia is the country festival, Floralia. During the six-day-long festivities, dances and games were held. Unlike the celebrations of Saturnalia, Floralia was distinctly plebeian (working-class) with seldom patrician involvement.
Christianity in Ancient Rome
Christianity was thought to be first identified in Rome around 30 CE. Despite this, it was illegal to practice Christianity in Rome until the 313 CE Edict of Milan. After the Edict, traditional polytheism fell out of popularity. The new, monotheistic practices of the Christian faith rapidly spread throughout the Roman World.
By 380 CE, the Edict of Thessalonica was passed and Christianity became the state religion of Rome. Religiously, this was huge. Politically, this was massive. Cult priests no longer held the same influence they once did; temples were no longer in service; generations of polytheistic Roman history ended. Sometime after the Edict of Thessalonica, the persecution of pagans in Rome began.
Ancient Roman Artwork and Its Legendary Inspirations
Ancient Rome is known for its mosaics, bronze works, architecture, and paintings. Much like how they handled Greek gods and myths, the Romans also had a penchant for adapting ancient Greek art forms.
Much of the art of ancient Rome is aesthetically pleasing. It’s all about smooth lines and natural figures. Sometimes artists liked to blur the lines, giving emperors religious imagery in their portraits.
The most famous artistic interpretations of the gods and goddesses of Rome could have been found throughout the expansive Roman Forum.
Rome’s Theater Scene
Rome has a thing about theaters. There have been a lot of theatrical remnants discovered from across the once all-encompassing Roman world. In most major locations with Roman influences, one could easily find theaters.
The performing arts played such a critical role in Roman life and religion that performances can be traced back to the end of the Kingdom of Rome. As it was, the theater was meant to be spectacular. There were elaborate costumes and mock wars, including naval battles called naumachia. Gladiatorial games were also staged in Roman theaters, becoming a favorite form of Roman entertainment.
Even the Greco-Roman hero Hercules was captured in the theater. After all, his myth was definitely what one could describe as “spectacular.” Most notably, Hercules Furens by Lucius Annaeus Seneca dealt with the myth of the fledgling demi-god, his Twelve Labors, and his madness induced by the goddess Juno (Greek: Hera). The play is considered to be a tragedy. Tragedies are one of Rome’s two major theatrical forms, alongside comedy.
How Roman Mythology Exists in Modern Times
Artifacts of ancient Rome can be found all around us. Though, we can only marvel at the work of ancient man. Their stories and myths, however, are not wholly lost. While we may never be able to look upon ancient Rome as it once was, we can take steps to understand its complex systems of belief.
For centuries, independent researchers and global organizations have worked to patch together the tapestry that is Roman mythology. Much is missing, presumably lost to history. However, new discoveries are constantly being made. Italy, and many areas across the Mediterranean and Europe, have mingled their ancient history with the modern age.
Now, gorgeous architecture isn’t all that this ancient civilization left to the world. Well, gorgeous architecture and military stratagem. If we look closer, we could find that many aspects of Rome – through something as seemingly minor as a mosaic unearthed in the ruins of Pompeii – innately tie back to their mythology.