Roman mythology is the body of traditional stories pertaining to
ancient Rome's legendary origins and religious system, as represented
in the literature and visual arts of the Romans. "Roman mythology" may
also refer to the modern study of these representations, and to the
subject matter as represented in the literature and art of other
cultures in any period.
The Romans usually treated their traditional narratives as historical,
even when these have miraculous or supernatural elements. The stories
are often concerned with politics and morality, and how an
individual's personal integrity relates to his or her responsibility
to the community or Roman state. Heroism is an important theme. When
the stories illuminate Roman religious practices, they are more
concerned with ritual, augury, and institutions than with theology or
The study of Roman religion and myth is complicated by the early
influence of Greek religion on the
Italian peninsula during Rome's
protohistory, and by the later artistic imitation of Greek literary
models by Roman authors. In matters of theology, the Romans were
curiously eager to identify their own gods with those of the Greeks
(interpretatio graeca), and to reinterpret stories about Greek deities
under the names of their Roman counterparts. Rome's early myths and
legends also have a dynamic relationship with Etruscan religion, less
documented than that of the Greeks.
Roman mythology may lack a body of divine narratives as
extensive as that found in Greek literature, Romulus and Remus
suckling the she-wolf is as famous as any image from Greek mythology
except for the Trojan Horse. Because
Latin literature was more
widely known in Europe throughout the
Middle Ages and into the
Renaissance, the interpretations of Greek myths by the Romans often
had the greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations
of "classical mythology" than Greek sources. In particular, the
versions of Greek myths in Ovid's Metamorphoses, written during the
reign of Augustus, came to be regarded as canonical.
1 The nature of Roman myth
1.1 Founding myths
1.2 Other myths
2 Religion and myth
2.1 Foreign gods
3 See also
The nature of Roman myth
In this wall painting from Pompeii, Venus looks on while the physician
Iapyx tends to the wound of her son, Aeneas; the tearful boy is her
grandson Ascanius, also known as Iulus, legendary ancestor[citation
Julius Caesar and the Julio-
Because ritual played the central role in Roman religion that myth did
for the Greeks, it is sometimes doubted that the Romans had much of a
native mythology. This perception is a product of
Romanticism and the
classical scholarship of the 19th century, which valued Greek
civilization as more "authentically creative." From the Renaissance
to the 18th century, however, Roman myths were an inspiration
particularly for European painting. The Roman tradition is rich in
historical myths, or legends, concerning the foundation and rise of
the city. These narratives focus on human actors, with only occasional
intervention from deities but a pervasive sense of divinely ordered
destiny. In Rome's earliest period, history and myth have a mutual and
complementary relationship. As
T. P. Wiseman notes:
The Roman stories still matter, as they mattered to
Dante in 1300 and
Shakespeare in 1600 and the founding fathers of the United States in
1776. What does it take to be a free citizen? Can a superpower still
be a republic? How does well-meaning authority turn into murderous
Major sources for Roman myth include the
Vergil and the
first few books of Livy's history as well as Dionysius' s Roman
Antiquities. Other important sources are the Fasti of Ovid, a six-book
poem structured by the Roman religious calendar, and the fourth book
of elegies by Propertius. Scenes from Roman myth also appear in Roman
wall painting, coins, and sculpture, particularly reliefs.
Main article: Founding of Rome
Aeneid and Livy's early history are the best extant sources for
Rome's founding myths. Material from Greek heroic legend was grafted
onto this native stock at an early date. The Trojan prince
cast as husband of Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, patronymical
ancestor of the Latini, and therefore through a convoluted revisionist
genealogy as forebear of Romulus and Remus. By extension, the Trojans
were adopted as the mythical ancestors of the Roman people.
Mucius Scaevola in the Presence of Lars Porsenna (early 1640s) by
Polyphemus hears of the arrival of Galatea; ancient Roman fresco
painted in the "Fourth Style" of
Pompeii (45-79 AD)
The characteristic myths of
Rome are often political or moral, that
is, they deal with the development of Roman government in accordance
with divine law, as expressed by Roman religion, and with
demonstrations of the individual's adherence to moral expectations
(mos maiorum) or failures to do so.
Rape of the
Sabine women, explaining the importance of the
the formation of Roman culture, and the growth of
conflict and alliance.
Numa Pompilius, the
Sabine second king of
Rome who consorted with the
nymph Egeria and established many of Rome's legal and religious
Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, whose mysterious origins were
freely mythologized and who was said to have been the lover of the
The Tarpeian Rock, and why it was used for the execution of traitors.
Lucretia, whose self-sacrifice prompted the overthrow of the early
Roman monarchy and led to the establishment of the Republic.
Cloelia, A Roman woman taken hostage by Lars Porsena. She escaped the
Clusian camp with a group of Roman virgins.
Horatius at the bridge, on the importance of individual valor.
Mucius Scaevola, who thrust his right hand into the fire to prove his
loyalty to Rome.
Caeculus and the founding of Praeneste.
Manlius and the geese, about divine intervention at the Gallic siege
Stories pertaining to the Nonae Caprotinae and Poplifugia
Coriolanus, a story of politics and morality.
The Etruscan city of Corythus as the "cradle" of Trojan and Italian
The arrival of the Great Mother (Cybele) in Rome.
Religion and myth
Main article: Religion in ancient Rome
Divine narrative played a more important role in the system of Greek
religious belief than among the Romans, for whom ritual and cult were
primary. Although Roman religion was not based on scriptures and
exegesis, priestly literature was one of the earliest written forms of
Latin prose. The books (libri) and commentaries (commentarii) of
College of Pontiffs
College of Pontiffs and of the augurs contained religious
procedures, prayers, and rulings and opinions on points of religious
law. Although at least some of this archived material was
available for consultation by the Roman senate, it was often occultum
genus litterarum, an arcane form of literature to which by
definition only priests had access. Prophecies pertaining to world
history and Rome's destiny turn up fortuitously at critical junctures
in history, discovered suddenly in the nebulous Sibylline books, which
according to legend were purchased by Tarquin the Proud in the late
6th century BC from the Cumaean Sibyl. Some aspects of archaic Roman
religion were preserved by the lost theological works of the
1st-century BC scholar Varro, known through other classical and
At the head of the earliest pantheon were the so-called Archaic Triad
of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, whose flamens were of the highest
Janus and Vesta. According to tradition, the founder of
Roman religion was Numa Pompilius, the
Sabine second king of Rome, who
was believed to have had as his consort and adviser a Roman goddess or
nymph of fountains and prophecy, Egeria. The Etruscan-influenced
Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and
Minerva later became central to
official religion, replacing the
Archaic Triad — an unusual example
Indo-European religion of a supreme triad formed of two female
deities and only one male. The cult of Diana was established on the
Aventine Hill, but the most famous Roman manifestation of this goddess
may be Diana Nemorensis, owing to the attention paid to her cult by
J.G. Frazer in the mythographical classic The Golden Bough.
Punishment of Ixion: in the center is Mercury holding the caduceus and
on the right Juno sits on her throne. Behind her Iris stands and
gestures. On the left is Vulcan (blond figure) standing behind the
wheel, manning it, with
Ixion already tied to it.
Nephele sits at
Mercury's feet; a Roman fresco from the eastern wall of the triclinium
in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii, Fourth Style (60-79 AD).
The gods represented distinctly the practical needs of daily life, and
they were scrupulously accorded the rites and offerings considered
proper. Early Roman divinities included a host of "specialist gods"
whose names were invoked in the carrying out of various specific
activities. Fragments of old ritual accompanying such acts as plowing
or sowing reveal that at every stage of the operation a separate deity
was invoked, the name of each deity being regularly derived from the
verb for the operation. Tutelary deities were particularly important
in ancient Rome.
Janus and Vesta guarded the door and hearth, the
the field and house,
Pales the pasture, Saturn the sowing, Ceres the
growth of the grain, Pomona the fruit, and
Ops the harvest.
Even the majestic Jupiter, the ruler of the gods, was honored for the
aid his rains might give to the farms and vineyards. In his more
encompassing character he was considered, through his weapon of
lightning, the director of human activity and, by his widespread
domain, the protector of the Romans in their military activities
beyond the borders of their own community. Prominent in early times
were the gods Mars and Quirinus, who were often identified with each
other. Mars was a god of war; he was honored in March and October.
Quirinus is thought by modern scholars to have been the patron of the
armed community in time of peace.
The 19th-century scholar Georg Wissowa thought that the Romans
distinguished two classes of gods, the di indigetes and the di
novensides or novensiles: the indigetes were the original gods of the
Roman state, their names and nature indicated by the titles of the
earliest priests and by the fixed festivals of the calendar, with 30
such gods honored by special festivals; the novensides were later
divinities whose cults were introduced to the city in the historical
period, usually at a known date and in response to a specific crisis
or felt need.
Arnaldo Momigliano and others, however, have argued that
this distinction cannot be maintained. During the war with
Hannibal, any distinction between "indigenous" and "immigrant" gods
begins to fade, and the Romans embraced diverse gods from various
cultures as a sign of strength and universal divine favor.
Mithras in a Roman wall painting
The absorption of neighboring local gods took place as the Roman state
conquered the surrounding territory. The Romans commonly granted the
local gods of the conquered territory the same honors as the earlier
gods of the Roman state religion. In addition to Castor and Pollux,
the conquered settlements in Italy seem to have contributed to the
Roman pantheon Diana, Minerva, Hercules, Venus, and deities of lesser
rank, some of whom were Italic divinities, others originally derived
from the Greek culture of Magna Graecia. In 203 BC, the cult object
Cybele was brought from
Phrygia and welcomed
with due ceremony to Rome, centuries before the territory was annexed
Lucretius and Catullus, poets contemporary in the
mid-1st century BC, offer disapproving glimpses of her wildly ecstatic
In some instances, deities of an enemy power were formally invited
through the ritual of evocatio to take up their abode in new
sanctuaries at Rome.
Communities of foreigners (peregrini) and former slaves (libertini)
continued their own religious practices within the city. In this way
Mithras came to
Rome and his popularity within the
Roman army spread
his cult as far afield as Roman Britain. The important Roman deities
were eventually identified with the more anthropomorphic Greek gods
and goddesses, and assumed many of their attributes and myths.
Classical Civilisation portal
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Roman mythology.
Roman polytheistic reconstructionism
The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough (mythology)
List of Roman gods
^ John North, Roman Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp.
^ North, Roman Religion, pp. 4–5.
^ North, Roman Religion, p. 4.
^ T. P. Wiseman, Remus: A Roman
Myth (Cambridge University Press,
1995), p. xiii.
^ T. P. Wiseman, The Myths of
Rome (University of Exeter Press, 2004),
^ a b Wiseman, The Myths of Rome, preface.
^ Alexandre Grandazzi, The Foundation of Rome:
Myth and History
(Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 45–46.
^ See also Lusus Troiae.
^ J.N. Bremmer and N.M. Horsfall, Roman
Myth and Mythography
(University of London Institute of Classical Studies, 1987), pp.
^ Bremmer and Horsfall, pp. 63–75.
^ Bremmer and Horsfall, pp. 76–88.
^ Bremmer and Horsfall, pp. 89–104; Larissa Bonfante, Etruscan Life
and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies (Wayne State University
Press, 1986), p. 25.
^ Bremmer and Horsfall, pp. 105–111.
^ Moses Hadas, A History of
Latin Literature (Columbia University
Press, 1952), p. 15 online.
^ C.O. Brink,
Horace on Poetry. Epistles Book II: The Letters to
Florus (Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 64 online.
^ Cicero, De domo sua 138.
^ Jerzy Linderski, "The libri reconditi," Harvard Studies in Classical
Philology 89 (1985) 207–234.
^ Georg Wissowa, De dis Romanorum indigetibus et novensidibus
disputatio (1892), full text (in Latin) online.
^ Arnaldo Momigliano, "From Bachofen to Cumont," in A.D. Momigliano:
Studies on Modern Scholarship (University of California Press, 1994),
p. 319; Franz Altheim, A History of Roman Religion, as translated by
Harold Mattingly (London, 1938), pp. 110–112; Mary Beard, J.A. North
and S.R.F. Price. Religions of Rome: A History (Cambridge University
Press, 1998), vol. 1, p. 158, note 7.
^ William Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People
(London, 1922) pp. 157 and 319; J.S. Wacher, The Roman World
(Routledge, 1987, 2002), p. 751.
Alan Cameron Greek
Mythography in the Roman World (2005) OUP, Oxford
(reviewed by T P Wiseman in
Times Literary Supplement 13 May 2005 page
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) (1981–1999,
Artemis-Verlag, 9 volumes), Supplementum (2009, Artemis_Verlag).
LIMC-France (LIMC) : databases dedicated to Graeco-Roman
mythology and its iconography.
Religion in ancient Rome
Practices and beliefs
List of Roman deities
Twelve major gods
Deified emperors: Divus Julius
Glossary of ancient Roman religion
Ancient Greek religion
Decline of Greco-Roman polytheism
Ancient Roman religion and mythology
Castor and Pollux
Romulus and Remus
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus
The Golden Ass
Concepts and practices
Religion in ancient Rome
Glossary of ancient Roman religion
Myth and ritual
Conversion to Christianity
Decline of Greco-Roman polytheism
Ancient Rome topics
historiography of the fall
Tribune of the Plebs
Frontiers and fortifications
Decorations and punishments
Conflict of the Orders
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Younger
Quintus Curtius Rufus
Seneca the Elder
Seneca the Younger
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Eusebius of Caesaria
Phlegon of Tralles
Lists and other
Cities and towns
Wars and battles