Roman Myths

[ Anthropology ]

Roman Myths

By Jane F. Gardner

Roman myths, and how they differ from those of other ancient cultures.

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The myths of the Romans are rather different from those of other ancient cultures, such as the Greeks or the Egyptians. Most Roman myths do not consist of stories about the gods and their actions, nor were they presented as fictional, magic stories. Ancient writers such as Livy, Virgil, and Ovid treated myths as history: the history of Rome itself, of its rituals and religious practices, and of important, noble Roman families. Myths were valued as exempla—illustrations of moral truths.

Many myths centered around the founding of the city of Rome, such as those of Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, and the (largely imaginary) Seven Kings. Others provided models of virtuous behavior by citizens or added luster to family histories. The protagonists were often male, but sometimes female. Lucretia, who killed herself to expunge the shame of being raped and helped precipitate the founding of the Roman Republic, was a heroine who has exercised a particular fascination on later writers and artists. Still other myths grew up around particular deities (mostly Greek) who were taken into the Roman pantheon at different times or provided "historical" explanations for cult activities or festivals such as Lupercalia.

  • Map
  • Introduction
  • Aeneas and the destiny of Rome
  • Founding fathers: Romulus and the kings of Rome
  • The hero and the state
  • Legendary ladies
  • Some gods old and new
  • Cults and festivals
  • Conclusion
  • Suggestions for further reading
  • Index

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The Romans, it has been said, had no myths, only legends. The Oxford English Dictionary describes myth as 'fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena'. Most Roman myths do not fit this definition at all well. They are presented in ancient writers not as fiction, but as the early history of the Roman people--even though we can observe their content changing before our very eyes. Many myths do not involve the gods at all, or only to a small extent, and these are not myths about the Roman gods themselves.

In the first century BC a speaker in Cicero's philosophical dialogue On the Nature of the Gods distinguishes between mythological stories about the gods, which he regards as something Greek, and Roman expectations of religion; Roman religion is made up of (1) ritual, (2) taking auspices, and (3) prophetic warnings issued by interpreters of Sibylline oracles, or of the entrails of sacrificed animals, on the basis of portents and omens. 'I am quite certain that Romulus by instituting auspices, and Numa ritual, laid the foundations of our state, which would never have been able to be so great had not the immortal gods been placated to the utmost extent.'

In other words, stories about the gods were unimportant; religion's function was to maintain a stable relationship between the gods and the state, and Rome's past success was its justification. A generation later a Greek writer, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, spoke approvingly of Rome's lack of myths (especially of the morally discreditable kind) about the gods. This he ascribes to the foresight of Romulus, who saw that what was paramount was maintaining the favour of the gods, through suitable ritual practice, and the encouragement of civic virtues.

Two other factors that certainly play a part in determining the character of Roman myth are, firstly, the ancient view, common both to Greeks and to Romans, of what history was for and how it should be written, and, secondly, the fact that the earliest detailed accounts available to us come in writers from the first centuries Bc and AD. By that time Rome had already developed into a highly sophisticated, urban society, whose culture, literature and thought were deeply permeated by centuries of influence from Greek literature and culture; the 'myths' are preserved in writings that are the product of highly refined and self-conscious literary techniques. Authors felt free to reshape and even make additions to the traditional stories.

Our main sources

Livy (c. 59 BC-AD 17) wrote a history of Rome in 142 books, from the foundation of Rome to 9 BC. Book 1, after briefly outlining the events from Aeneas' departure from Troy to the birth of Romulus and Remus, contains the story of the foundation of Rome and the reigns of its seven kings. Book 2 deals with the establishment of the Roman Republic and its earliest struggles.

The greatest work of Virgil (70-19 BC) was the Aeneid, an epic poem in twelve books, recounting the adventures of Aeneas after his departure from Troy until his arrival in Italy and the union of Trojans and Italians. There are several prophetic looks ahead to the future greatness of Rome, culminating in the destined appearance of the emperor Augustus (whose family claimed descent from Aeneas' divine mother, Venus).

Ovid (43 BC-AD 17/18) makes occasional use of Roman myth in several of his published poetical works. One, the Fasti, was an account of the Roman calendar, month by month, including descriptions and purported explanations of the origins of the sacred rites and festivals of the Roman religious year. Unfortunately only the first six books, January to June, survive. Metamorphoses includes some Roman tales, culminating in the deification of Julius Caesar, and ends with an encomium of Augustus.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus came to Rome as a teacher of rhetoric at about the time of Augustus Caesar's achieving sole leadership (30/29 BC) and stayed there for twenty-two years. He wrote Roman Antiquities, a romantic and rhetorical history of Rome from earliest times to the beginning of the first Punic War (264 BC). It was a panegyric of early Rome, aimed at reconciling Greeks to being ruled by Romans.

Ancient Latin scholarship also preserved some information, even although in abbreviated and often scrappy form. Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) devoted twenty years after his retirement from public life to research and writing, and he had a prodigious output. A later writer credited him with having edited 490 books by the time he was seventy-seven. Among his lost works was Divine and Human Antiquities, in forty-one books. Besides a treatise on agriculture, all of his work that survives is about a quarter of The Latin Language, which contains many antiquarian snippets. We also have part of the epitome by Sextus Pompeius Festus (second century AD) of a similar work by a learned freedman, Verrius Flaccus, the teacher of Augustus' grandsons.

Plutarch (c. AD 46-after 120), a Greek who travelled widely in the Roman world on public business, was also prolific. His best known work is the Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans, of which twenty-two pairs and four separate biographies survive. For early Rome, we have his Lives of the kings Romulus and Numa, of Publius Valerius Publicola, one of the first consuls, and of Coriolanus. His Roman Questions discusses Roman customs and religious rituals.

None of these works is earlier than the first century BC, that is seven centuries after the traditional date of the foundation of Rome. What sources did these writers have?

Mainly they relied on earlier writers. The first known Roman historian (of whom only a few fragments survive) was Quintus Fabius Pictor, who wrote, at the end of the third century BC, a history of Rome from the origins to the middle of the third century. Like Rome's earliest known poets, he wrote in Greek; the first to write a historical account in Latin was the elder Cato, half a century later. Later writers, such as Livy, based their accounts, not on original research (for which there were virtually no materials) but on those of their predecessors, sometimes consciously trying to assess the value of conflicting versions, but more often than not picking the one that made the best story or the most suitable for their particular purposes. The two things that were of main importance for most ancient writers of history were the literary quality of the work, and its didactic value. 'What makes the study of history particularly beneficial and profitable,' wrote Livy, 'is that you have lessons from all manner of experience set out in full view as if on a memorial, and from there you may choose both for yourself and for your country examples of what to imitate and what things (bad begun and worse ended) to avoid.' This meant, amongst other things, that writers would interpret the past in terms of the issues of their own time.

The period from the supposed origins of Rome down to the end of the monarchy and establishment of the Republic (traditionally 509 BC) cannot be called 'historical' in our sense of the word; neither can much of what appears in literary accounts of the first generation or two of the Republic. Modern scholars argue about whether any historical truth can be said to exist at all in the stories about the period of the kings (and if there is, how to identify it), and the traditional accounts of the early days of the Republic are also agreed to be full of invention and contamination from later sources. For anyone interested in mythmaking, however, these traditions are a treasure-house, for in them, and in the way they change and develop right down through the historical period, we see the Romans defining themselves through the stories they tell about their past--that is, through their 'myths'. They use a variety of materials, such as ideas and motifs copied from Greek mythology and history, motifs of a traditional 'folktale' type, and stories from the family traditions of some of the great Roman families. Republican moneyers issued coin types referring to their supposed ancestors in the legendary past. Historians disseminated the family traditions; the prominence of the Fabii, the Valerii and the Claudii in the history of the early Republic probably owes something to Fabius Pictor, and to Valerius Antias and Claudius Quadrigarius, who wrote their own histories of Rome round about 80 BC.

These family legends appealed particularly to historical writers and also to orators like Cicero (even though they might sometimes express scepticism about them) because of their value as what the Romans called exempla, illustrations of a particular moral truth ('what to imitate and what things to avoid'). The early books of Livy, like the historical 'flash-forwards' in Virgil, have many of these patriotic legends exemplifying the 'Roman' virtues.

The Romans, like the Greeks, were also particularly interested in aetiology, i.e. accounting for beginnings, the beginning of rituals, of placenames, of institutions, of cities, of the whole Roman people and its history. This does not mean that they wanted actually to find out how they began, simply to tell a satisfactory story about them.

So, for instance, the beginnings of the main political religious and civic institutions of historical Rome are allocated among the seven kings (themselves mainly imaginary): Romulus--the senate, the 'curiate' assembly and the 'centuries' of cavalry; Numa--the calendar and the major priesthoods; Hostilius--treason trials, and religious procedures for making peace; Ancus Marcius--procedures for declaring war, Rome's first prison, bridge and aqueduct; Tarquinius Priscus ('the First')--the first stone wall round the city, the annual Roman games; Servius Tullius--the census, the tribal system and the hierarchical 'centuriate' assembly. Even the main sewer was attributed to a king, Tarquinius Superbus ('the Proud'), though the parts of it that survive go back no earlier than the fourth century BC.

Roman gods and Greek myths

The Romans, it seems, had a native god, or gods, for almost every important object or activity. For instance, Consus ('storage'--though Varro thought the name came from 'counsel'), Pales (goddess of flocks and herds) and Robigo /-us (blight) were agricultural; Janus looked after doorways, Faunus was the god of wild things, Silvanus the god of woodlands and untilled land; and there were many others who appear merely to have been personified functions--but to us, and to Romans of the classical period, they are only names. They have numen (divine power) but no individual personalities. Though Roman religious observance was elaborate and detailed, and the calendar, all through the year, was full of sacrifices and rituals, administered by boards of priests, few have stories attached to them, and few of these, even when they purport to explain the particular cult or functional title of a god, involve the gods themselves. If there ever was a Roman mythology about their gods, it has vanished irretrievably. Roman gods lack personal adventures, and family relationships: for the great gods, these were simply taken over from the Greeks, Olympian and Roman deities being matched up in a very rough and ready way.

The principal Greek gods were Kronos, father of Zeus, who overthrew him; Zeus, king and weather god; his brother Poseidon, god of waters and earthquakes; Hera, queen goddess, wife (and sister) of Zeus, deity of marriage and women; and Zeus' other sisters Demeter (grain and crops) and Hestia (the household hearth). To these must be added the children of Hera, Ares (war), and Hephaistos (smith-craftsman), who was married to Aphrodite. She was the goddess of love, and variously said to be 'foam-born' from Kronos' father Uranos, or Zeus' daughter by a Titaness. Athena, goddess of wisdom, was daughter of Zeus and Metis (a personification of counsel). Other children of Zeus, by various lovers, were the twins Apollo (music--also medicine, archery, flocks and herds) and Artemis, associated with wild animals, hunting and virginity; and also Hermes, messenger of the gods, and patron of merchants and thieves, and a late-comer to Olympus, Dionysos (also called Bacchus), god of wine.

Some of these, though not all, the Romans simply identified with gods of their own, not always very appropriately. Jupiter (also known as 'Jove'), Neptune, Mars, Venus and Vesta are more or less good fits for Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, Aphrodite and Hestia. Vulcan, the Roman fire-god, is equated with Hephaistos. Artemis was identified with Diana, a goddess of woodlands, but also probably of the moon, women and child birth. Juno, though appearing historically in functions very like those of Hera, and especially as a goddess of women, may originally have been a deity associated with the vigour of young warriors. Kronos is ill-matched with the Roman Saturnus, originally perhaps a god of sown crops, who became associated, like Kronos, with a primitive Golden Age, before agriculture was necessary. Minerva is also rather surprising as a match for Athena. Minerva was an Italian goddess of handicrafts. For the Romans, she was one of their chief triad of gods, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, with a temple on the Capitol. The temple and its triad came to symbolise being Roman, and were reduplicated all over the Roman empire. The Romans themselves believed that it had been instituted, c. 509 BC, by Rome's last king, Tarquin the Proud. His father had come from Etruria, which may tell us something about Minerva's origins, while her elevation to a senior position, like Athena, perhaps reflects the influence of Greek culture on the Etruscans already at that period.

Mercury, the analogue of Hermes, was probably not originally Roman at all, but merely a renaming of a Greek god taken over by the Romans, along with a group of others, in the first decade of the fifth century BC. About the same time, Demeter and Dionysus were introduced to Rome as Ceres and Liber. This was done on the advice of the so-called Sibylline Books, a collection of oracles kept in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and consulted in times of crisis (particularly natural disaster, such as plague or famine) to discover how to make peace with the gods; the response was usually the introduction of a new god, or a new religious rite. Dionysius tells (following, he says, Varro) how the Romans came to possess them:

A certain woman who was not a native of the country came to the tyrant [Tarquin the Proud] wanting to sell him nine books full of Sibylline oracles. When Tarquin refused to buy them at the price asked, she went away and burned three of them; then soon after she came back and asked the same price for the remaining six. She was thought mad, and was laughed at for asking the same price for the smaller number of books as she had failed to get even for the larger number, and she went away again and burned half the remaining books. Then she came back and asked the same price for the three that were left. Surprised at her determination, Tarquin sent for the augurs and asked them what to do. Certain signs told them that he had rejected a blessing sent by the gods. They declared that it was a great misfortune that he had not bought all the books, and told him to give the old woman as much money as she wanted, and take the remaining oracles.

He did, and the woman disappeared. Tarquin appointed keepers of the oracles, a post, says Dionysius, which existed to his day. When the oracles were destroyed by fire in 83 BC, a fresh collection was made by transcribing oracles from various parts of the known world; some of these were found to be fakes.

Rome was generally receptive to new gods and goddesses. Among the first to be admitted to Rome were Apollo (for whom no Roman equivalent was found), as healing god, and the deified hero Heracles (whom the Romans called Hercules). One of the most famous introductions was the Great Mother Goddess, Cybele, or Mater Magna, brought, in the form of a black stone, to Rome in 204 BC during the war against Hannibal; her temple was inaugurated in 191 BC, and an annual festival of theatrical performances and games, the Megalesia, established. The cult came from the 'Greek' end of the Mediterranean, from Phrygia in Asia Minor. The festival, at least, was highly popular among the Romans, though no Romans were allowed to participate in her cult, which did not conform to their ideas of decorum. It involved noisy street processions of ecstatic priests who leapt and danced, accompanied by horns, drums and cymbals, and begged from the passers-by. Abandoned dancing, specially in public, was disapproved of anyway by the Romans, and matters were made worse in their eyes by the fact that the priests were eunuchs.

What the Romans really thought about their Hellenised gods is all the more difficult for us to perceive because in surviving writings the stories have become little more than literary motifs or devices. Ovid in The Art of Love simply took over from Homer the story of how Vulcan (Hephaistos) caught his wife Venus and Mars (Aphrodite and Ares) in bed together, trapped them with an invisible net and fetched the other gods to laugh at them. Ovid uses it to illustrate some tongue-in-cheek advice to suspicious lovers: if you suspect she's cheating, don't try to catch her out--you'll lose in the long run. He hastily adds, 'Of course, this isn't about real married ladies.' This was cautious: Augustus had introduced a law with stern penalties for adultery. He exiled Ovid in AD 8, for reasons which are unknown, but the erotic amorality of much of his poetry cannot have helped.

However, Virgil found it convenient in the Aeneid to ignore Venus' infidelity. She persuades Vulcan to make weapons for Aeneas (her son by a mortal, Anchises) by the simple use of marital seduction:

He hesitated, but she put her snowy arms about him and clasped him in a warm and tender embrace. And he suddenly took flame--as usual--and the familiar heat entered his marrow and raced through his trembling bones, just as when thunder cracks apart the storm-clouds and the fiery flash darts out, sparkling. The goddess was aware of it, pleased with her cunning and conscious of her beauty. The old god answered, bound in the toils of undying love.

He consents, conjugal relations (it is hinted) follow, and he falls asleep.

The seduction scene is almost a parody of one in the Iliad, in which Hera diverts Zeus' attention from what is happening on the Trojan battlefield. Virgil uses it for the purpose of introducing a description of the arms, particularly of the shield. This also is an idea lifted from Homer's Iliad, in which Hephaistos makes a shield for Achilles. Virgil wants to use the decoration on the shield for a sort of picture-show of famous events in Roman history, culminating, in the middle, with a splendid set-piece in which the future Emperor Augustus, Virgil's patron, and (as his publicity kept reminding Romans) descendant of Venus and Aeneas, is shown defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium (31 BC), with Apollo helping him--another myth in the making--and holding a triumph in Rome over conquered peoples from all ends of the world.

By Jane F. Gardner

Jane F. Gardner is a senior lecturer, department of classics, University of Reading and curator of the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology.

"Gardner, in Roman Myths, distills Roman mythological narratives drawn from numerous primary sources, and presents a coherent, tightly configured end product suitable for readers in high school and first-year college.... This book is very well done, eminently useful in a nascent setting and could be an excellent spring board in a Latin class where background lectures conjoin with reading standard authors, such as Ovid, Vergil, Horace, or Cicero."
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