Great Gods of the Romans


Mars and Venus, PompeiiKnown as the quintessential IE war-god, Mars was a major Roman god during the Republic and Empire periods. He was also known as Marti, Martis, Mavors, Maris, and Mamers. He was also referred to as Mars pater, Marspiter, Marspiteris, and Maspiter ('Mars the Father' - i.e. 'lord' or 'protector'). Since earliest times he formed part of the Roman sky-god triad along with Jupiter and Quirinus, sharing a main Roman temple with them on the Capitol. He had his own priest, the flamen Martialis, who also served Quirinus, and these two gods had some sort of close relation. War spoils were dedicated in his honor, and soldiers swore oaths in his name.

Mars was depicted with a crested helmet and shield. His totemic animals were the wolf and woodpecker. His bellicose epithets included Gradivus ('vanguard of the army in battle') and Ultor ('the Avenger', given by Augustus after Philippi). His attendants were Fuga and Timur, the personifications of flight and fear. His wife was the minor goddess Nerio, whose name is derived from IE and Latin words for 'strenght, valor', and so on. His main festivals were on March 1 (the feriae Marti) and October 19 (the Armilustrium) were linked to the campaigning season. These were the dates when weapons were ritually taken out of storage for the summer and purified and stored for winter. Every five years the Souvetarurilia was held, when the fertility ad cleansing rites included the sacrifice of a pig (sus), a sheep (ovis), and bull (taurus).

Although an indigenous god, Mars was largely synchronized with Ares' character and Greek myths. These included his love affair with Venus, which mirrored that of Homer's Ares and Aphrodite. The same is true of his heritage, with his mother Juno assuming the role of Ares' mother Hera in Greek myth. Strangely, Juno was said to have born Mars parthenogenically with only the aid of Flora. In Roman myth, Mars was said to have been the father of Romulus and Remus by the Vestal Ilia (Rhea Silvia), and so the Romans thought of him as their primogenitor.

Despite his martial character and job description, Mars also had agricultural functions that predated his war-god role. In fact, it seems Mars' original character as a guardian of the fields was the origin of this war-god (> Lat marra, 'hoe', and marga, 'a kind of earth'?). After all, the IE 'clear-sky' gods with whom Mars must be equated were all, it seems, originally protector-gods. In early Roman history he was a god of spring growth, fertility, and the protector of cattle. Ovid also called him the 'god of husbandy, of shepherds and seers'. His character in the countryside, where the agrarian Italians looked to him to protect their fields more than to defeat foreign enemies in battle, supports this theory. So do his festivals, which are grouped mostly in spring. Only in the capital did he lose this agrarian role, except that his function as the protector of fields and pastures was transferred to the city and later the state of Rome.

Mars entered history as a rural deity who protected fields and pastures. This explains his early association with Silvanus, the forest-god. As Rome urbanized his protective role became martial in nature as the Romans lost their agrarian roots, they became involved in foreign wars, and they became exposed to Greek culture and thus Ares. His month Mars heralded not only spring and the renewal of growth, but it marked the start of new campaigning seasons. Thus Mars developed at the expense of Tutans, who was probably the original Roman representative of the western IE 'Tues' god of clear skies equating to the Celtic and Norse war-gods Teutates and Tyr, respectively. Name origin

The meaning of Mars' name is obscure. Linguists do not support derivation of his name from the Latin mors, 'death'. The Marsians and Marrucini tribes of central Italy also claimed descent from him, and the Sabines, Hernici, Aequiculi, and other inland Italian tribes also worshipped him. There was also a Celtic or German Marsi and Marsaci tribes in Germany and Gallia Belgica, respectively, and the Marsigni, a part of the Suevi confederation of Germany. Thus this name may have a very ancient IE meaning.

We have identified the IE war-gods as deriving from the pan-IE protector-god indentified with clear skies and daylight (See The Sky-God Triad). In the west, however, this god is identified as Teutates in Gaul, Tyr in Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon Tiv (> Eng Tuesday), and Tutans in Rome. So, we would hope that his name could be related to words related to 'light, shine, bright, daylight'. About the only possibility is mar-, 'gleam'; Skt marikis, 'beam of light'.

However, his name could have been a contraction of his eponym Mavors or Mavortis, his archaic and poetic name. This name might have been derived from mah, magh, 'to cut', and vor-, 'swallow up, overwhelm, destroy, ruin', etc. (> Eng voracious, devour). However, this decidedly war-god meaning does not lend itself to the earlier protector-god of fields. A possible Etruscan cognate might have been mavu, though this does not seem related to the Etruscan names Marte, Marte, Martes, and Mamar, Mari, and Maris.

While all these names appear to be cognates with the various names of the Roman Mars, there was no Etruscan god with a similar name. Mamer was the Oscan name for Mars, so identifying Mars' name in Tuscan seem hazardous. It seems the Etruscan name similarities are coincidental or borrowed from Italian languages? Another possibility takes us to Latvia, where Martins was the god who protected horses and cattle during the winter, releasing them to the pastures in spring (= Eng, etc. marshall, 'horse groom'?). His festival on November 1 marked the start of the winter season similar to Mars' on October 19. This is interesting because Matins' twin brother was Usins, a sword-wielding equestrian god of summer. Together they represent the Latvian version of the IE solar 'divine twin' solar horse-gods.

That this pair apparently disappeared in Roman myth is not surprising. Horses are also conspicuously muted in Greek myth because the indigenous populations in both areas did not have them and because both peoples were decidedly not equestrian by nature. Indeed, throughout their entire history the Romans never cared to master horsemanship, relying instead on the skills of their subject peoples. Still, given that the twins Romulus and Remus were the sons of Mars could suggest that they were originally the Roman version of the IE 'divine twins', un-mounted after the incoming early Italians lost or gave up their horses in Italy. Even so, Mars' holidays known as the Equirria were held on February 27 and March 14 where rites were made to horses. One the Ides of October (15th), horse races were held on the Campus Martius, where a horse from the leading team was sacrificed. This seems to recall the importance of the horse to the pan-IE 'clear-sky god' if not the 'divine twins'.

Another possibility are IE words for 'boundary, border', and so on: Goth marka, OE maere, Lat margo, Skt maryada, Av maraza, Hitt mark, etc. Thus Mars could have been so-named because he was the guardian of the field boundaries. In the old Roman calendar March was the first month of the year, and thus demarcated the calendar. boundaries of the fields and pastures, marked by his boundary stones just as the year was marked by his month. This protective role was later transferred to the boundaries of the state. Whether marching or riding, the boundaries were his to defend, whether against the elements, pests, invaders, or other threats to the welfare of the people.

We might also note that rivers have always made convenient boundaries. Thus mar in Thracian meant 'river', and various rivers with this root include the ancient Marsyas in Anatolia, the Margis or Margas in Moesia, the Marus in Dacia (now the March or Morana), the Maritsa in Bulgaria, and so on. These seem related to Latin margo, 'edge, border, margin, boundary, shore' (< PIE *mara, 'sea', and > Eng marsh?). We should also note in passing that another common word for 'boundary', PIE *gran-, was found in ancient Anatolia as the river Granicus.

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