Mars: The Roman God of War
The Roman god of war, Mars, might have shared his stories with the Greek god Ares, but the two were very different. Keep reading to learn about why Mars was important in ancient Rome, and continues to be today!
When the early people of Rome adopted the mythology of their Greek neighbors, the god of war was renamed Mars. This was not the only change that took place, however.
From the beginning, Mars was very different that Ares had been to the Greeks. He was not a bloodthirsty and destructive god, but a protector and father to the people of Rome.
This made him much more important in daily life than Ares had ever been in Greece. While only soldiers had reason to pray to Ares, Mars was one of the central gods of the state religion of the Romans.
He was so important that his sacred site became a central area of civic life. His name and symbolism continue to be used every day in the modern world, even if English speakers don’t always realize it.
So how was Mars seen in Rome and how has he continued to influence our lives today? Read on to find out!
The Italian Origins of Mars
Roman mythology came from two distinct sources.
The early Latin tribes of Italy lived alongside many other native cultures. These, most famously the Etruscans, had a significant influence on the development of Roman religion.
The Etruscans and other Italian cultures had their own pantheon of gods. What they seem to have lacked, however, was a cohesive mythology.
The native Italian gods seem to have been remote figures without human forms, personalities, or relationships. They were more abstract than the well-defined gods of many other Mediterranean cultures.
The early Romans saw a solution to this in another of their neighbors, the Greeks.
Throughout the early development of Rome, Greek colonies and trade routes in Italy exposed the native people to their religion and customs. Unlike the Italians, the Greeks had a complex mythology in which the gods appeared as understandably human-like characters.
The early Romans combined these two traditions. The mythology that described the acts and relationships of the gods was taken from Greece, but the gods put into those roles often showed Latin and Etruscan origins.
Mars likely took his name from the Etruscan god Maris. This child-god, however, was influenced by Greek mythology and was a son of Hercule, the Etruscan form of Hercules, and underwent the same purification ritual as the young Achilles.
The fact that there is little obvious connection between Maris and Mars has lead many scholars to believe that the name may have been of non-Italian origin. Whatever the case, it is clear that Mars had a distinct identity before the introduction of Ares’ mythology.
Distinction from Ares
The Greek god of war, Ares, was the source of the mythology surrounding Mars. In practice, however, the two were quite different.
Both were war gods, but the ways in which they were viewed in Rome were not the same as in Greece.
The Greek Ares was a fearsome god who was often treated with ambivalence or even contempt. Most myths tended to minimize his power and show the god as weakened or humiliated.
This was a way for the people of Greece to deal with the threat of warfare and violence. Because the city-states of Greece often warred with each other, Ares represented the brutality and bloodlust that most Greek people knew they could experience in any campaign season.
Rome, however, was a more settled society. For most of Roman history, war occurred on the distant borders of the country rather than just outside its major city.
Because the people of Rome were largely more removed from the horrors of war than the Greeks, their vision of the god of war reflected a different reality. Rather than personifying unbridled violence and destruction like Ares, Mars represented the glory of war.
In fact, later Romans saw Mars as a god of peace. By waging campaigns on the distant frontiers of the Republic, later the Empire, Mars ensured that the people of Rome and its surrounding areas never experienced war closer to home.
Ares was known to take no sides in battle and show no mercy. Mars, on the other hand, protected the peace and economic stability of Rome.
The Roman Mars also had features of a fertility or nature god, almost certainly a feature of an earlier Italian god as Ares had no such connotations.
Mars even had a different consort than Ares. While the story of his affair with Venus, the Roman version of Aphrodite, persisted, Mars was given a distinctly Roman consort.
This was Nerio or Neriene. Her name meant “Valor” and she personified the positive attributes that the Roman people saw in their god of war.
Mars as the Father of the Roman People
The people of Rome saw Mars as more than just their warrior god. They also believed he was their direct ancestor.
The story of the founding of Rome began with the ancient city of Alba Longa in Central Italy. Its king, Numitor, was a descendant of Venus’s son Aeneas.
Numitor was deposed by his brother, Amulius. The new king had his nephew killed to secure his position on the throne.
His niece, Rhea Silvia, was made a priestess of Vesta. The temple’s vow of chastity ensured that she would never have a child who could potentially challenge Amulius.
These vows, however, did not stop Mars. When Rhea Silvia went into his grove to collect water for the temple he chased her into a cave and impregnated her.
Mars promised that her children would be great, but Vesta was furious that Rhea Silvia’s vows had been broken. Venus, the ancestress of Rhea Silvia, took pity on her, however, and shielded her from Vesta’s anger.
Rhea Silvia was imprisoned by her uncle. When her twin sons, Romulus and Remus, were born he ordered that they be set adrift on the Tiber River to die from exposure.
The twins were famously saved by a she-wolf and returned to overthrow their uncle when they had grown. Rather than remain in his city, however, they went to the place where they had been put into the river and founded a new city, named after Romulus, on the nearby hills.
According to some legends, Rhea Silvia threw herself into the Tiber to drown after losing her children.
Rome traced its founding to both Mars and Venus through this story. While the two were lovers in both Greek and Roman mythology, their connection to Rome was through two separate lines.
The Roman history Livy repeated the tale of Rhea Silvia and Mars, but cast doubt on the role the god of war traditionally played in the story. Seeking to remove the supernatural elements from what was believed to be factual history, he rationalized that the inclusion of Mars in the story may have been a way to legitimize the birth of twins to a Vestal virgin.
But, as I see it, the origin of a very great city and the beginning of the greatest empire next to the power of the gods was predestined. When the Vestal [Rhea Silvia] … gave birth to twins, she named Mars as the father of her children, either because she believed it was so or because a god was more respectable as the author of the deed.
-Livy, History of Rome
Words That Have Lived On
Whether or not Mars was the father of Rome’s founding king, he left his mark on the city.
Mars was one of the central gods of the state religion of Rome, and as such had a major impact on its culture.
One aspect of this was in the language that was used there. Many words that have been passed down from Latin still reflect the importance of Mars in Roman life.
- Marital – Relating to the military.
- March – The first month of the Roman calendar, it contained five feasts to Mars because it marked the beginning of the campaign season for the Roman military.
- Mars – The Greeks associated the planet with Ares because of its blood-red color, so it today carries the Roman name.
- Martin – Along with related names like Marcia, this Latin-based name remains common in languages around the world. It also appears as several surnames including Martens, Martinez, and Martinev.
- A day of the week- While the English language takes its days of the week from the Germanic gods, French, Italian, and Spanish retain Latin origins. Tuesday is called mardi in French, martedi in Italian, and martes in Spanish after Mars.
The Spear of Mars
Mars has also remained relevant in daily life through his iconography.
The Greeks had little iconography associated with Ares because they hesitated to put him in a prominent place of display. Mars, however, was well-loved and well-represented in Roman art and architecture.
The warrior god’s spear became one of his key attributes in Roman art. While he could be depicted as a bearded man or a smooth-faced youth, Mars always carried his spear.
This became important to early scientists who were looking for simple symbols to use in their notes for planets, metals, and elements. Medieval scientists already referred to the planets by their Latin names, so they looked to Roman mythology and symbolism to devise their shorthand.
The symbol for the planet Mars was taken directly from the god’s imagery. It consisted of a circle, representing his shield, with a spear across it.
This was later changed slightly so that only the tip of the spear remained. It pointed up at an angle from the upper right hand side.
This symbol, based directly on the way Mars strapped his spear and shield across his back, was used to represent the red planet in notes and on charts.
It was also used to represent iron, the metal that medieval alchemists associated with the planet Mars.
A few of these medieval planetary symbols are still used in astrology, but the symbol of Mars took on a new meaning when the 18th century scientist Linneaus proposed a new classification system for biology and botany.
To simplify the representation of male and female in his early works in genetics, Linneaus used the traditional planetary symbols. The symbol for Venus represented female and Mars represented male based on the characterizations of the gods the planets were named for.
Because Mars was seen as the paradigm of masculinity, the symbol derived from his iconography continues to be used to represent the male gender today.
The Campus Martius
Although Mars was an ancestor of the Romans and the ideal of martial masculinity, his presence was still kept outside of their city.
According to Roman tradition, weapons were not allowed within the city of Rome itself. Thus, the space devoted to Mars had to be placed outside of the city’s boundary as well.
While this boundary was once a literal one, as the city grew it became a symbolic one. The Campus Martius, or Field of Mars, remained outside of the sacred borders of the city.
The Campus Martius had no temple in the Roman Republic. It was an open space that served as a military training ground and pasturage for the army’s horses.
Proper temples in which people gave offerings to Mars were located within the city’s sacred space, even in the Forum itself, but the Campus Martius provided a place for a more practical form of worship.
The Campus Martius was originally an open space in which young men could train with their weapons and hold unofficial races, all activities that fell within the purview of Mars. As Rome grew in power and prestige, however, the Campus Martius evolved.
Organized equestrian and athletic events began to be held there in the later years of the Republic. Before the construction of the Colosseum, the Field of Mars served as a place for the people of Rome to find entertainment through chariot races and competitions.
When Augustus became the first emperor, however, he decided to remake the Campus Martius as an imperial space. A temple was built to Mars the avenger in honor of Julius Caesar and an Egyptian obelisk was used as the center of an enormous ornamental sundial.
Augustus also built the Altar of Augustan Peace, celebrating the role of the emperor and Mars in keeping conflict out of Rome.
With conflict far removed, the city no longer had the need for a permanent training ground. The Campus Martius was transformed from a rugged place to a beautiful, park-like space filled with ornamental gardens and architecture that celebrated the military and cultural supremacy of Rome.
Mars and the Roman Idea of War
Even in his earliest forms, the Roman god Mars was distinct from his Greek counterpart. Ares was a merciless god who was to be feared, but Mars had more benevolent and protective features.
In fact, the Roman people considered him to be one of their ancestors. He was said to be the father of the twins, Romulus and Remus, who had founded the city.
The Roman view of Mars only became more favorable as their territories and economic power expanded. With war confined to the distant borders, the people of the city no longer had any experience to make them fear the god of war.
Mars was a protector who kept the threat of violence from directly affecting his followers. War was so far removed that the city’s forming training field, the Campus Martius, was remade with ornamental gardens and decorative architecture.
As a protector and ancestor, Mars was so central to Roman life that his influence continues to be felt today. Mars gave his name and symbol not only in association with the military and masculinity but also in how we speak of the planets and our calendar.