The Romans adopted much of their mythology from Greece, often changing little more than the names of the gods and goddesses.
The Greek god of love Eros was recast as the Roman Cupid. But, while many gods were recognizable between the cultures, the Greek view of Eros had already undergone many changes over the course of the religion’s history.
The earliest version of Eros was of a primordial being, older than the Earth itself. By the Roman era, however, he was often shown as a child.
The story of how Eros became Cupid shows how Greek mythology over the course of many generations and continued to be changed by the culture of Rome.
Eros was one of many Greek gods who had a Roman counterpart. The Romans often took Greek mythology in large part and replaced the names and some specific details of the deities with Italian ones, and Eros was no different.
In Rome, he came to be known as Cupid. Just as eros was the Greek word for love, his Latin name was taken from the word for desire, cupio. The god had undergone significant transformation before he made his way to Italy, however.
Early Greek literature did not have a consensus on the origins of Eros. While the dominant view came to be that he was the son of Aphrodite, an alternative belief held him as a primordial god who had come into being before even Gaia and Uranus.
By the Roman era, the idea of the primordial Eros had mostly died out in Greece. The Roman Cupid was almost exclusively called the son of Venus, the counterpart of Aphrodite.
While the Greek myths had largely insinuated that Ares was the young god’s father, however, the Romans tended to leave the question of their god’s paternity more open-ended. Some writers said Mars was his father, others said it was the smith god Vulcan, and others never specified a father at all.
The Greek god likely began as a daimone, or personification. The fact that the god of love shared his name with his function and was joined by several other minor gods, the Erotes, indicates that he may have once been a less individualized character.
By the time of Rome, however, a specific mythology and attributes had been developed for the god of love. While Cupid was not a god with his own temples or cult, he retained the mythology developed over centuries in Greece.
One of the most notable stories in this mythology was that of Cupid, or Eros, and his wife Psyche. While the story can be recognized in art from the Classical era in Greece, no written record survives until Roman writers attributed the story to Cupid.
The Roman Cupid had, from the beginning, many attributes that had changed over the course of Greek history. But none were as notable as the god’s appearance.
Greek art most typically depicted Eros as it did many of the other gods. He was a slim and youthful man with the body type and physical proportions that defined the Greek ideal of beauty.
Eros was identifiable from most other gods because he had wings. This trait remained in the Roman era.
Over time, Greek art increasingly included Eros’s weapon in his artistic depictions. The arrows of Eros could cause men and women to fall instantly in love, and the winged god was often shown armed with his bow.
Eros and the Erotes were often in the company of their mother, the goddess of beauty. Paintings of Aphrodite and her children marked one of the first major shifts in the depiction of Eros and Cupid.
It was often a convention in ancient art to illustrate the importance of different characters by making them different sizes. The Olympian goddess was often shown as larger than the many minor gods who flew around her.
The winged Erotes in Greek art retained adult proportions but were shown as much smaller than the gods around them. This may have begun the shift toward showing Eros as much younger than he had been depicted in the past.
Another reason for making Eros youthful was the way in which he was characterized. As Eros appeared more as a character in mythology, he became more mischievous and immature.
Greek writers also made Eros more youthful, including scenes of his mother and other gods scolding him as if he were a child. In literature, Eros was increasingly described as boyish or a child.
By the Hellenistic era, when the Romans had largely adopted Greek mythology, it was not unusual to show Eros with a more child-like form.
This convention carried over to Roman art, where it applied to both Cupid and the other gods of love. The trend toward a younger depiction became even more pronounced.
This stylistic shift also reflected a change in attitudes toward the love Eros inspired. While the Greek view was often based in sexual desire, the Romans tended to see Cupid in a more innocent and romantic light.
Roman art tended to show Cupid as entirely childish, taking the form of a young boy or even a young toddler. The entire retinue of Venus, once shown as physically small but adult, became a cadre of mischievous flying babies.
The one exception, of course, was in the story of Cupid and Psyche. As a husband the god was still shown as a physically attractive young man, but votive images and icons of Venus featured the childish Cupid.
This image remains familiar to this day, while many are unaware of the god’s formerly adult representation. The winged Cupid, in the form of a chubby baby, carries his bow on messages of love and Valentine’s Day cards in the modern world.
Eros was one of many gods of the Greek pantheon who was incorporated into the religion of Rome. There he was called Cupid.
The Roman Cupid was virtually unrecognizable from the earliest images of Eros, however.
The Romans inherited a mythology that had already undergone centuries of evolution and change. Eros was one of the figures who underwent a transformation in this timespan.
Many early sources claimed that Eros was a primordial being, while his name and early imagery indicate that he was a simple personification of the concept of love. Later Greeks, however, mostly held that he was the son of Aphrodite and had a much more clear characterization and mythology of the god.
The personality that developed for Eros in literature had an impact on art. As he was shown as more mischievous and disobedient, he took on an increasingly young appearance.
By the time the Romans depicted Cupid in their own art, he was often shown as a very young child. The wings and bow were maintained from earlier portrayals, but the early Greek Eros was unrecognizable in the infantile Cupid that still graces Valentines today.