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Roman mythology classroom
2. Historical Background
3. Ara Pacis (Literally, the altar of peace)
4. Emperor Worship
5. Key Texts
To say that the Romans merely "stole" Greek mythology, and just changed the names is drastically unfair to the Roman people. This is not to deny the similarities between them, as we shall see below, the Romans traced their ancestry back to the Trojan Aeneas, who survived the Trojan war (with the aid of his mother - Aphrodite/Venus). There are many direct equivalences between Greek and Roman gods, but there are also many differences. For instance, the Athenians worshipped Athene is a key deity, and one of her epithets was 'Athena Nike' (Nike meaning 'Victory'). To the Romans, Venus was, understandably a far more important deity, and one of their epithets for her was Venus Victrix ('Victrix' meaning 'Victory'). So each culture is associating their patron deity with Victory - which seems fairly understandable. But Athena is the goddess of wisdom, war, crafts (amongst other things), whereas Venus is the goddess of love.
And of course, the Romans had their own foundation myths regarding Rome that were unique to them - this extends far beyond the most famous myth of Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf.
- We will be concentrating on the ‘classical' Roman period of the 1st Century BC to the 1st Century AD
Ara Pacis (Literally, the altar of peace)
- The Romans had a love of preserving visual records of myths as well as actual historical events, and they had a love of the Hellenistic tradition.
- Myths were often used to represent an actual event, giving the current event authority.
- (A Greek example is the Parthenon, where mythical battles are used to represent the recent Greek victory over their enemies)
- A monument incorporating all these trends was the ara pacis
- It was set up by Augustus in the Campus Martius (Literally “The Field Of Mars”) at Rome to commemorate the peace he had imposed on the Mediterranean world.
- It consisted of an altar within an enclosure wall representing in ideal terms the procession that had occurred on the day that the altar was founded (13BC)
- The relief of the altar is in fact very close in formal terms to the Pathenon frieze of 5th Century Athens
Eastern Nations such as the Egyptians and the Greeks considered it normal to worship the ruler as a divine being. Julius Caesar had wanted a similar status but was assassinated before he could achieve this. However, he was given several honours that were close to those reserved for gods, including having his statue carried during religious processions.
After his death he was deified by his great nephew and adopted son, Augustus (who called himself ‘diui filius' or ‘the divine son'). He also, erected a temple to Caesar, encouraged his own worship, although he avoided calling himself a god. He also promoted the divine ancestry of the Julian family.
Goddess Venus (married Anchises)
Aeneas, prince of Troy
(several generations later) Romulus, founder of Rome.
(several generations later) Julius Caesar
Later, the divine ancestry was stressed far more, and emperors were indeed worshipped. For now, lets focus on the ancestry shown above and some (but not all – it would take too long!) of the stories behind each.
Venus is of course famous for being the Roman goddess of love, but was also seen to preside over vegetation and gardens as well as a mediating spirit of prayer. It was only after the 2nd century BC that she was assimilated into the legend of the Greek Aphrodite (goddess of love) that she became the famous Venus we know today.
She fell in love with Anchises when she saw him tending to his flocks on Mount Ida, near Troy. She approached him, claiming to be the daughter of Otreus, King of Phrygia, and to have been abducted and carried off to the Pastures of Ida. By this device she married him. Later, she told Anchises who she really was and predicted that she would bear him a son (Aeneas), but begged him not to tell anyone that his child was the son of a goddess, for if Jupiter (leader of the gods) should come to hear of it he would strike the child with lightening. Unfortunately, one day Anchises had drank too much wine and boasted of his love affairs. Jupiter punished him by making him lame (although some variations say he was made blind).
He is in fact descended from Jupiter through his father. In his early childhood, Aeneas was brought up in the mountains. Later, Aeneas stood out as the bravest of the Trojans after Hector. He was not a member of the reigning house, but predictions had been made at his birth which foretold that power would one day be his.
Aeneas had many battles with the famous Achilles (who was also descended from the gods, but had a weak spot in his heel – we know have the term ‘Achilles heel' derived from this, as well as your Achilles tendon!). Achilles aided in the 10 year war against Troy, but was killed by one of Priam's sons, Paris (he who 'stole' Helen) before the sacking of the city. Aeneas fled the burning city of Troy, under direction from the Gods, and saved his lame father by carrying him from the burning city, but failed to save his wife.
How did the Greeks enter Troy to burn it to the ground? Through the Trojan horse. 'Trojan horse' is a bit of a misnomer, and here I have to clarify something that with all due respect, the previous teacher got completely wrong. The Trojan horse wasn't a plan for the Trojans to get back at the Greeks for burning their city to the ground - shockingly, the sacking of Troy ended the war. The remaining Trojans fled their fallen city. No, the Trojan Horse was a method used by the Greeks to get into Troy. The plan was to fool the Trojans into thinking the Greeks had given up and left leaving a great wooden horse as an offering to the gods for safe passage home for the Greek fleet. The Trojans, in celebration, took the horse into their city, ignoring the warnings of the prophetess Cassandra (doomed never to believed although her prophesies were true). In the middle of the night the Greeks (not the Trojans) spilled out of the horse, now inside the city walls, and began the sacking of Troy.
Aeneas went on to fulfill his prophecy and become great, his descendants becoming the founders of Rome.
The story of Romulus is in fact that of the creation of Rome itself. Romulus, and his twin Remus, were left to die on a river bank shortly after their birth. They were found by a she-wolf who had just given birth. The wolf took pity on the babies and helped to keep them alive by feeding them. Luckily, they were soon found by a shepherd who took them in, providing them with a home, family and an education.
Livy Ab Urbe Condita Vol. I.
What is to come in the future on this page
If there are any requests as to which part of Roman religion you would like me to teach, please feel free to mail me or to add a comment to the bottom of this page. Here is the outline of what I plan to teach.
Roman State Religion
- The deities
- The associated rituals (prayer, sacrifice, processions, hymns, vows)
- Temples, shrines and altars to deities
- Religious officials
- Divination (e.g. Delphic oracle, the Sibylline books)
Roman Domestic Religion
- The difference between state (public) and domestic religion
- The deities worshipped in the home
- Religion from life to death
- Annual rites to placate the gods
- The Eleusinian Mysteries (principally based in Greece, although Greek speaking Romans could join)
- The cult of Dionysus
- The cult of Isis (a little bit of Egyptian mythology in Rome!)
Go or return to:
- Elftown Academy
Past teachers: [Sheona]
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