What was the role of the the war god Mars in Rome?
The Romans were a people who were defined by war. They regarded themselves as a warrior people who were entrusted with a divine mission to bring civilization and peace to the world. Mars, the God of War, was essential in Rome. This deity was so much more than a War-God, who granted victory. He was also the guardian of Rome and agriculture and central to the city-state's public religion that eventually conquered much of the known world. The myths and fables surrounding God are crucial for any student of Roman history, especially its social and political history.
Origin of Mars
It is widely believed that the name Mars was of non-Latin origin. Some scholars believe that the name ultimately derived from an Etruscan deity. The city-states of Etruria greatly influenced the nascent city-state and many have asserted that Rome was a Roman foundation. It seems likely that Mars is a local derivative of the Indo-European War-God. It is important to note that this god was also the protector of Rome and was an important agricultural deity, who guarded the field and herds. This indicates that Mars may be a composite of several deities.
It has been theorized that Mars was originally an old fertility god who became the titular deity of battle and conflict. The symbols for this divine figure were the wolf and the lance. It is reported that at an early date that the Romans sacrificed humans to the god of war. These were mainly prisoners of war and they were offered to Mars to thank him for granting, victory on the battlefield. This is a practice that was observed among many ancient peoples.
The history of Mars
Mars was the second most important god in the Roman Pantheon. His worship went back to the earliest day of Rome when it was only a small settlement overlooking the Tiber. There were many festivals and celebrations held in his honor. These were mainly held in March which was the month that marked the end of the agricultural season and the campaigning seasons. Indeed the month of March is named after the War-God. Among the festivities held in the honor of the god were chariot races and one known as the Armilustrium, when the soldiers' arms were purified before they were put away for the winter.
One of Rome's most important public spaces were named after him, ‘The Field of Mars’. Here the army would assemble before going on a campaign. There were at least three priesthoods dedicated to serving Mars. The Salii and others were priests from the patrician order and they would engage in ancient ceremonies such as dancing to honor the god. People often celebrated these without being fully aware of their meaning and significance. Within the city, there was a shrine or sanctuary where the spears of Mars were kept. This was once the house of the Kings who originally ruled Rome.
Before the onset of every war, one of the Republic’s two consuls would cry out before the shrine calling on ‘Mars to wake up’. There were several aspects to Mars, and these had their cults. Mars Silvanus was often invoked by farmers, seeking protection for their herds and harvests.
Mars was part of the original triad of Gods who were considered to be the most important in the city’s public religion. The God of War, Jupiter and Quirinus, an agricultural and war deity, composed the original triad in Rome. This trio was crucial in the public religion of the city on the Tiber. However, this archaic triad was later replaced by a new one, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Over time, the Greek War-God Ares began to influence the conception of the Roman God. However, Mars always remained distinct and an important figure in the Italian city’s state religion.
The Romans had a much higher regard for Mars than the Greeks ever had for Ares. Augustus, as part of his policy of restoring Rome, placed a greater emphasis on Rome. He patronized various cults of Mars and built a new temple to the god, Temple of Mars Ultor in the center of Rome. He ordered its construction inside the sacred boundary of the city and this signified a greater emphasis on the god. Augustus also developed a new aspect of the deity, Mars Ultor. Increasingly Augustus associated the deity with the Imperial Cult. Mars was celebrated throughout the Roman Empire until it was Christianized in the 4th century AD.
The story of Mars
This God, sometimes also referred to as Mamers, as Jupiter and Juno's son, was the King and the Queen of the Roman Pantheon. He became the second most powerful of all the supreme beings in the state religion of the Romans. From an early date, this god was associated with the wolf. This is important when it comes to the foundation myth of Rome. According to most sources, Mars was the father of Romulus and Remus, the two brothers who founded the city on the Seven Hills. The legend states that Mars raped their mother, who was the daughter of the deposed King of Alba Longa.
Their mother abandoned Romulus and Remus in a bid to save their lives. This was because the new king of Alba Longa, a usurper, wanted to kill them based on a prophecy. The twins were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf, which of course was an animal who was sacred to God. The Romans considered the god to be the city's founder and be it’s especially protector.
There were two stories about Rome's foundation, and the second one was the myth of Aeneas. In this fable, the Trojan hero established the city of Latinium, which was Rome's mother city. Mars' relationship with Venus was the mother of Aeneas, was developed to reconcile the two foundation myths, and it is recounted in the Aeneid.<Virgil, Aeneid, I </ref> Anytime that the city was in danger, it was believed that Mars would protect it. There are many stories told, about Mars intervening, in battles on the Roman side.
At the Battle of Sentium (295 BC), it was believed that Mars, turned the tide of battle in favor of the Romans. The Roman Gods were anthropomorphic deities like the Greeks, and they were notorious for their sex life. In the oldest stories of Mars, he is married to Nerio, and she was probably an Ancient Italian war goddess. She was the feminine equivalent of Mars and embodied valor and the life force.
However, Mamers was portrayed as having a long-term affair with Venus, the goddess of love. In later versions of the myth, the two were married. They are often considered to be the parents of Concordia, the goddess of peace and social harmony. The two opposing forces that represented war and love are reconciled in their daughter. In another story, Mars falls in love with Minerva, the virgin goddess of wisdom and practical knowledge, and ultimately derived from the Greek Goddess Athena. The God of War was completely besotted with Minerva, but she was uninterested. Mars asked the goddess of the Old Year, an aged old crone, Anna Perenna, to help him win Minerva's love. However, Anna fell in love with the handsome and manly Mars. She pretended to be Minerva and duped the son of Juno and Jupiter into marrying her.
Mars had many children and included Phobos, who personified ‘Fear’ and Deimos, the personification of ‘Terror.’ In Roman art, the deity of war and the protector of agriculture are often shown in Bellona. She was the personification of the spirit of battle. In many of the stories about Mars, he is portrayed as an argumentative and even brutal character. However, while he was portrayed often with a spear dipped in blood, he was believed to use his power to protect his people and only favored those who fought a just war. Moreover, Mars was also a protector and often promoted peace.
What he meant to the Romans
The Romans, like other ancient peoples, regarded their gods as superhumans or personifications of natural forces. For them, the son of Jupiter was the personification of war and all its attributes. They believed that if they honored him, he would protect them through rites and sacrifices and win the battle. Mars symbolized the warlike character of the Romans, and they saw themselves as a martial race. The essence of the Roman War God was energy and life force, and this represented the violence of war and also the battle against nature, a feature of his role as an agricultural guardian.
The legionnaires, in particular, worshipped the Deity, and they sacrificed to him before every battle. Soldiers typically swore an oath to Mars and this common allegiance gave the army a greater cohesion. The military believed that he was their patron and protector, and he was the arbiter of victory. He was also believed to protect the city on the Tiber from invading armies and also thought to punish rebels.
The historian Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century AD) noted that the legions honored the old Latin divinity, even when other traditional cults had been abandoned (Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae, 18, 10–17). The Romans were perhaps the first people to develop a theory of the ‘just war.’ Mars was invoked by those who condemned wars of aggression that was not legal or moral. This was very important in Republican Rome and Mars was used to ensure that no general disobeyed the senate and sought to enhance his personal glory. This ensured that no military leader became too strong and threatened the Republican order until the civil wars of the First Century BC.
Augustus initiated many religious reforms as he established the Imperial system. He began to erect buildings and commissioned artworks that portrayed Mars as his personal protector. He also developed the cult of Mars Ultor, the avenger. This was to demonstrate that anyone who threatened the Emperor's life would face the wrath of the son of Jupiter. Mars was incorporated into the Imperial cult, that was used to legitimize the Imperial system and to protect the person of the Emperor. Rome’s legions brought the cult of the God all over the Mediterranean World and by the 1st century BC, there were temples to the old Italian war god all over the Empire.
Many peoples, especially the Celts, equated their own war-gods to Mars and this was important in their gradual acceptance of Roman rule and indeed the process of Romanization. The belief concerning Mars is a good example of the important role of myths in a society and how they can create a sense of collective identity, and purpose.
The myths of Mars are based on early Italic stories about fertility and war gods. He was fundamental in Roman mythology and religion. Their conception of the son of Jupiter changed over time and this was mainly as a result of the influence of the Greeks. However, he remained a uniquely Roman God and was very different from Ares. He was also the guardian of agriculture. For the Latins, he was their protector in war and peace.
This deity played a vital role in Roman society because it was a marital one. He was the patron of soldiers and he was worshipped under a variety of aspects, all related to war and conflict. Later he was appropriated by Augustus in the development of the Imperial Cult. This divinity was crucial in the forging of collective identity and social bonds. Mars was crucial in developing an ideology that justified the creation of the Ancient World’s greatest Empire.
Roman, Luke, and Monica Roman. Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. Infobase Publishing, 2010.
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