Ares, the god of war (part 3)

In the previous two instalments in this series, I looked at the Greek god of war, Ares. As many of you are no doubt aware, the Romans possessed a pantheon of gods similar to those of the Greeks. However, unlike the Greek ones, the Roman gods were originally not anthropomorphic, nor did they possess the wealth of stories that the Greeks associated with theirs.

When the Romans came into closer contact with the Greeks, especially as a result of conflicts in Southern Italy and Macedonia, and from the second century BC onwards in particular, they imported the Greek way of depicting the gods along with many of their traits and associated myths.

For most of the Greek gods, a suitable Roman equivalent existed. Roman Jupiter was equated with the Greek Zeus, his wife Juno with Hera, Minerva with Athena, Diana with Artemis, Vulcan with Hephaestus, and so on. However, for some Greek gods, no Roman equivalent existed, which is why Apollo, for example, was adopted wholesale. Also the reverse could be true, as the Romans possessed a few gods uniquely their own, such as Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions, after whom the month of January is named.

Mars, the Roman Ares

Perhaps the most important of all the Roman deities was their equivalent of the Greek Ares, Mars. He was important enough to give his name to what was originally the first month of the Roman calendar, March. As his main occupation was war, he was initially venerated outside the city; the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) was named after him.

Unlike Ares, Mars was not simply a god of war, but also a god of agriculture. There have been some attempts by modern authors to connect the Greek Ares with agriculture, too, but these have usually amounted to little. To the ancient Greeks, warfare and agriculture were perhaps not as closely related as some modern commentators assume, and the reason for that is probably that the ancient Greeks, much like the modern Hellenes, usually farmed relatively small plots that were not contiguous, and thus were not nearly as susceptible to wildfires and the assaults by armed men as larger tracts of land – such as those worked by the Romans – would have been.

Like the Greeks, the Romans were quick to equate certain deities worshipped by foreign peoples with their own. As most peoples that they came into contact with (or conquered) possessed their own god of war, the Romans identified these by naming them Mars, followed by a – usually Latinized – version of the native name, as in the case of the Celtic Teutates (after Toutatis).

Mars the Avenger

As in Greek mythology, Mars was the lover of Venus, and as such gained new significance when Octavian (Augustus) founded the Roman Empire in 27 BC. Octavian had been adopted posthumously by Julius Caesar, and the Julii themselves claimed descent from none other than the hero Aeneas, who settled in Latium with his people after fleeing Troy. Aeneas himself was a son of the goddess of love.

Mars became an even more prominent god among the Romans as a result of Augustus’ building of the temple of Mars Ultor – Mars the Avenger – in Rome. He had ordered the construction of this temple after he had avenged the murderers of his adopted father and restored order in Rome. The temple contained three statues: Mars, flanked on either side by his lover Venus and her descendant, the deified Julius Caesar.

Mars was closely connected to Rome as the father of its founder, Romulus. The mother of Romulus and his ill-fated twin brother Remus had been Rhea Silvia, a priestess of Vesta. Their birth was the result of Mars’ rape of the virgin-priestess. Rape, in fact, would play an important part in the early history of Rome as Romulus and the first Romans did not have any women to found a community with and, after failed marriage negotiations, opted to rape the nearby Sabine women, who afterwards decided to stay and marry the Romans.

By erecting the temple of Mars Ultor, Augustus emphasized a number of things, namely that he had honoured law and order (by hunting down the killers of his adoptive father), respected the founder of the Roman people (in the form of Venus/Aeneas), as well as the founder of Rome itself (via Mars); Virgil would later, in his Aeneid, refer to Augustus as the third founder of Rome, after Aeneas and Romulus. The temple served to emphasize the close relationship between these different deities in order to enhance Augustus’ own status.

This was the third and final part of this series on the god of war. If you missed them, feel free to read part 1 and part 2. I am also interested in reading your comments; you can leave them here or on our Facebook page.

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