In contrast to that of the Greeks, Roman mythology seems arid and impoverished. As a rule the Romans were, not myth-makers, and the myths they had were usually imported. The Roman gods were utilitarian, like the practical and unimaginative Romans themselves. These gods were expected to serve and protect men, and when they failed to be useful their worship was curtailed. This does not mean the Romans lacked religious sentiment. They had a pantheistic sense of the divinities present in nature. But their deepest religious feelings centered on the family and the state. When the Romans adopted the Greek gods from the third century B.C. on, these deities were simplified to conform to the Roman religion. Mars was the chief god of the imperial age, more honored than Jupiter, since he aided and symbolized the Roman conquests.
The writers who handled mythological subjects typically dealt with patriotic legends that glorified the Roman past, or in love tales. Thus they paid tribute to the state or to love, the basis of the family, in terms derived from Greek mythology. Sometimes in their borrowings they achieved true originality, as Vergil did in his epic poem, The Aeneid, or as Ovid did in his poetic compilation, The Metamorphoses.
The Roman Gods
The gods listed immediately following were the Roman adaptations of the Greek gods. These had importance in both Roman mythological writing and in the Roman religion. Then we will list some of the purely native gods, who were significant mainly for the Roman religion.
Jupiter, Jove (Zeus) reigned in the Roman pantheon and defended the state, a god of celestial phenomena and justice.
Juno (Hera), the wife of Jupiter, a goddess of motherhood and childbearing.
Saturn (Cronus), the father of Jupiter, ruled Italy during the Golden Age. The Saturnalia was held in his honor, a winter festival in which masters and slaves exchanged roles, a time of gift giving and license.
Mars (Ares), the son of Juno, was a highly respected god of war but also an agricultural deity. Thus he represented two primary Roman preoccupations — farming and fighting.
Vesta (Hestia) was a lovely goddess of the hearth and of sacrificial fire. Her temple was tended by the Vestal Virgins.
Ceres (Demeter) was a goddess of grain.
Minerva (Athena) was a warrior goddess who also presided over commerce.
Neptune (Poseidon) was lord of the sea.
Dis, Pluto (Hades) ruled the underworld of death.
Mercury (Hermes) was a god of commerce and messages.
Venus (Aphrodite), originally an agricultural goddess, was the deity of love, particularly sexual love.
Cupid (Eros), her son, was the god of erotic attraction.
Vulcan, Mulciber (Hephaestus) was a god of fire and warmth, of the forge and of volcanic eruptions.
Liber, Bacchus (Dionysus) was the god of wine and drunkenness.
Diana (Artemis) was a huntress, goddess of the woods and moon.
Apollo was the god of truth and light, as in Greece.
Proserpina (Persephone), a goddess of spring, the daughter of Ceres and wife of Pluto.
The Numina were vague, protective powers that inhabited nature and presided over daily human activities, the earliest gods.
Janus was the god of beginnings, of doorways and public gates, of departures and returns. The statue of Janus in his temple had two faces, a young one that looked toward the rising sun and an old one that faced the setting sun. At his temple in Rome the doors were shut only in times of peace, which were extremely rare.
The Lares and Penates were mainly gods of the family. A Lar was a protective ancestral spirit, while the Penates were household gods, guardians of the hearth and storerooms. Each Roman family had its own special gods. However, Roman cities had public Lares and Penates to safeguard them.
Priapus, an ugly god with huge genitals, promoted fertility.
Sylvanus and Faunus were rustic gods of the forest and possessed goat-shanks, like Pan. Fauns were woodland goat-men, and have often been confused with Satyrs, who had horses' haunches.
Flora was a goddess of flowers, fruits, and springtime.
The Manes were benevolent spirits of the dead, good souls, as opposed to the Lemurs (also Larvae), which were evil discarnates.