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Thread: Roman and Greek Olympians, compare and contrast

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    Roman and Greek Olympians, compare and contrast

    So, I've heard over the years that while the Romans did honor 12 Olympians that bore a startling resemblence to the Greek Olympians, they also tended to interpret them slightly (or possibly not so slightly) differently from the way that the Greeks did.

    If anyone is familiar with both, just how similar and how different did things get?
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    Kick Ass Little Crow Corvus's Avatar
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    Re: Roman and Greek Olympians, compare and contrast

    I harp on this a lot with people who think Greek and Roman religion is identical. The Romans were highly inspired by the Greeks, in part because of the rampant colonization the Greeks did, but they come from a different region entirely with unique culture. By the time of the Roman Empire, the Roman pantheon reached levels of politicalization that even the state focused Greeks would consider excessive. To oversimplify, the differences vary by deity but, are quite extreme in some cases, while with others there's more nuanced changes.

    The Roman equivalent to the Olympians is Dii Consentes, which includes Juno, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Neptune, Vulcan, and Apollo, while excluding Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of Dionysus who is counted among the Greek Olympians (Hestia steps down to allow him her slot in Greek myth).
    Part of the confusion stems from the lack of documentation of early Roman mythology. The sources are extremely fuzzy and as a result it's difficult to extract what specifically are native contributions to the early Roman religion and what has been obscured by Greek influence. The most obvious differences are probably best seen in their syncretization. The imported Greek gods absorbed aspects of native Latin and Etruscan gods giving them distinct attributes not seen in Greece.

    More people are familiar with the Greek Olympians so I'll principally focus on Roman attributes and point differences where I find necessary. I'd put a read more here but, I cannot remember if bbcode supports that or how to even do it. I've been gone way too long. Also writing this is taking a ton of time so I only included a few of the Olympians here (in no particular order, nor implying theyre more important).

    Jupiter (Zeus): Both are the heads of their respective pantheons, being sky gods associated with oaths, justice, and law. In Roman religion, Jupiter was the principal god of the state and of great importance to the armies (Mars would hold domination as patron of the armies but state's power extending from Jupiter and the army being the power of the state ensured his continued importance), his eagle is one of the most recognizable emblems of the Roman Empire.

    Along with Juno and Minerva they were the three members of the second Capitoline Triad, guardians of the state and protectors of the homeland. Interestingly, Jupiter is also a member of the first Capitoline Triad which predated the republic, however the other two members are Mars and Quirinus, the latter of which is understood to be a Sabine war deity. These three members were all war gods (It's been proposed that the archaic triad more closely represents three class hierarchy of indo-european society, in which case Jupiter holds the role as priest and omnipotent god) with politicization of the military being an essential part to the region even before Roman domination.

    The differences in interpretation imo are largely cultural. The Greeks were highly divided based on regional loyalties with gods being perceived to take sides based on which state was the most virtuous or pious. The Romans however have had a united political identity, with the Roman kings, and later the Consuls, deriving their divine right to rule from his favor. According to myth, the second king of Rome, Numa, established the official institutions of religion on instruction from Jupiter. Gaining the favor of Jupiter was a principal duty of the ruler regardless of what political system was being used. It was understood that Jupiter granted political and military power to those he favored.

    From the native religions of Italy, Jupiter absorbs aspects of Diespater, the native latin sky god who was associated with wind, light, and thunder. They aren't synchronized as thoroughly as some of the others so they aren't always equated, but Jupiter usurps Diespater. Jupiter's position as sky god becomes less important over time, but this is true of most of the gods' natural associations.

    Juno (Hera): In Greek religion Hera is a goddess of motherhood and marriage. She's associated with roles as the ideal wife and spends most of her myths engaging in attempted infanticide with all of Zeus's illegitimate children. Juno emphasized Hera's role as god of marriage and like all Roman gods, she was more politicized. Surprisingly, Juno's role as a war goddess involves much less of Hera's famed infanticide, probably because Jupiter was more slightly responsible than Zeus. In Rome, Juno absorbs most of Greek Athena's warlike aspects. She is the patron goddess of Rome and known as "The Queen" where she was understood as goddess of Sovereignty. In contrast to Greek myths, Roman myths have Juno supporting demigods and heroes in their quests. As noted, she was named as part of the second Capitoline Triad, deities of law who represented the power of Roman society and law.

    One notable difference is the complexity of Juno compared to Hera. She maintains many more aspects associated with typical "earth mother" goddesses as well as her love and marriage powers. Many of her titles deal with youth, fertility (both childbirth and agriculturally), wealth, renewal, and youth. In total, she is both a state goddess (of politics, marriage, and military) and a goddess of abundance. While it's unclear, it's theorized these aspects as a mother/earth goddess are related to evolution from a native goddess since they're largely absent from the associations of Greek Hera.

    Ceres (Demeter): a true earth mother goddess, Ceres changes little from Greek to Roman. She shares many parts of her domain with Juno, principally marriage and agriculture, though the later is much more pronounced. Ceres, like Demeter, is principally a goddess of grain and farms. A linguistic note I always enjoy is that "cereals" is derived from her name. Her mysteries survived Roman adaptation as well with a special temple vault dedicated to them. Ceres was believed to preside over spirits of the dead, especially the familial spirits, assisting the dead in their passage to the underworld as di manes when proper offerings were made (the dead who do not receive these rites risk becoming vengeful dead). In this way Ceres was the divinity that controlled the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead, with the ability to pass between them. There's attestations of her mysteries being performed even well after the official dissolution of all non-Christian cults.

    As agriculture is the source of civilization, it was believed that Ceres was the source of civilized law. An epitaph shared by Demeter and Ceres is "law bearing" which captures this association well. Crimes against farms, especially grain or corn, crimes involving alteration of property lines, and crimes against the poor were all considered crimes against Ceres herself. In association with this, Ceres was patron goddess of plebeian class and the poor, as well as protector of farmers. Her mercy and compassion were significantly appealing to the lower class as it was believed she would accept any offering, no matter how small, so long as it was pure and given with reverence.

    Neptune (Poseidon): The god of all things wet, or so he tells the ladies, Neptune originally probably wasn't the god of the oceans. The latins were indo-european peoples, originally with little exposure to the sea as they travelled to Italy from inland areas. In these circumstances Neptune was a god of freshwater being inland springs and rivers. Something these people did understand were horses though, and like Poseidon, Neptune has been a horse god since the beginning of his worship. Horses were of great importance to early Romans and even later as cavalry use developed in the military. It could be that the horse association is tied to Neptune's power over inland waterways as horses gathered around springs (because you know, drinking water).

    It has been proposed that earlier on Neptune was a sky god himself, due to the unimportance of the sea to inland peoples, and may have been a counterpart to Diespater/Jupiter. Where Diespater was a god of light and clear sky, Neptune may have been associated with the clouded and rainy sky. Since this competed with the domain of Jupiter, it's likely that Jupiter gradually absorbed these aspects as stormy skies were Zeus's domain. This is largely theoretical, and not strictly Greek or Roman, but Neptune as a sky god, embodiment of the life giving rain and cold-moist generative powers, counterpart to the drier, firey, and light giving clear sky Jupiter, is somewhat prototypical to the archetypes present in their migratory group. As a result, it may be that the archaic peoples who would become the Romans worshipped a watery and airy god that could be identified as a precursor to Neptune.

    Regardless, the verifiable truth bodes less auspicious for dear Neptune. The Greeks were a seafaring people who held Poseidon in great importance. While the Romans had an impressive navy, it never reached the importance or prestige of the legions as they were principally a land based people with a land based cultural tradition. As a result, Neptune was regulated to a much lower status than Greek Poseidon, being appeased in times of earthquakes, prayed to by sailors, and arguably more important in his relationship to horses than to the sea.

    Minerva (Athena): While retaining her reputation as a crafty goddess of wisdom and warfare, Minerva was much more vitally a domestic deity associated with arts and medicine. Ovid titles her as a “goddess of a thousand works” showing her broad and far reaching portfolio. Physicians held her in high regard with medicine becoming more scientific than superstitious. Creators of arts looked to Minerva as a goddess of inspiration, a craft goddess.

    Her importance here follows through to commerce, as arts are created they are sold (or more often commissioned and then created, but that messes up my metaphor) and what merchant doesn’t value a sharp mind and good haggling? While many gods were featured on coins throughout history, Minerva is one of the few (only? I’m not actually sure honestly) deities that includes her emblem on the reverse once Emperors were shown on them. Minerva represents acquisition of wealth through good business deals.

    Romans, like the Greeks, valued good strategy as well as found great cultural importance in arts. As a result, Minerva was also part of the second Capitoline Tribune. While, somehow, not being as strongly militaristic as Athena, Minerva was still important as a war goddess. Though overshadowed by the huge number of other more political military gods, Minerva was still valued for her role and regularly prayed to.

    Apollo (Apollo): So this one is awkward. Apollo is an iconic Greek god without a formal Roman equivalent. To the Greeks Apollo was a god of music, prophecy, and medicine. In terms of cultural ideals, Apollo is fundamentally Greek in how he has been viewed. The Romans worshipped him but, not with the same importance as the Greeks. I honestly don’t know very much about the Roman worship of Apollo. I know they sometimes referred to him as Phoebus, usually a title but sometimes used as a proper name.

    While the Greeks eventually conflated Helios with Apollo (and Artemis with Selene), there’s little evidence to suggest that the Romans did the same. As a result the cult of Sol and the cult of Apollo remain largely separated, however the absorption of the cult of Helios-Apollo is also well attested to. There is an argument to be made that the latter cult of Sol Invictus is related to Apollo, but it’s disputed as to where Sol Invictus came from as the cult rose to prominence despite Sol’s cult (Sol Indiges) being rather unimportant previously, though conventional thought claimed Sol Invictus was a foreign god related to the Mithrac mysteries. Invictus is an epitaph is also given to numerous gods including Apollo and other military gods.

    All in all, it seems sun gods were a muddy area and I don’t have the know how to further make sense of it.

    Diana (Artemis): In my opinion, these are very different goddesses. Both are maiden hunting goddesses associated with the wild lands, disease, and animals. Greeks identified Artemis with Selene, understanding that they were both the same. The Romans also identified the moon (Luna) as Diana. There is significant evidence to suggest a cult center which predates Greek arrival in the area, with the arrival of Artemis adding some elements. Diana, along with Minerva and Vesta, are maiden or virginal goddesses. Despite this, Diana’s status as a virginal goddess seems to have varied with time. She never married, but there’s contention over Diana as she has more explicitly sexual (and more mature than maiden-like) roles.

    In association with her role as a hunting goddess, she was also known as defender of the lower class. When called Latonia, she was considered the queen of thieves who would pray to her to avoid capture. In Roman folklore she is syncretized with Trivia (who may or may not be the Roman equivalent of Hecate, their similarities are enough that it’s probably a safe assumption) to such a degree that even contemporary scholars identified their altars with one another. Trivia was known to be a goddess of magic, also known as the queen of ghosts, who dwelled near crossroads and was called upon for the working of curses. By the time Christianity was well established in Europe, Diana was known as the patron of witches. Her recognition in this role almost certainly existed before Christian recognition in the empire. Beyond this she keeps the hunter, wilds, purity themes that Artemis had, perhaps absorbing them when the Greeks brought their religion to Italy.

    TL;DR: Roman religion is inherently politicalized with the focus of the unified state being a main factor in the differences in viewing these deities. In addition, local traditions and syncretism with native Latin and Etruscan gods resulted in nuanced, but significant differences as the Greeks and Romans had differing cultures. However, in many cases Greek colonialization and the prevalence of Hellenistic tradition has obscured to what degree native religion influenced Dii Consentes. While it varies by specific deity, there are many similarities changed by context, with some being drastically different figures.
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