Neptune: The Roman God of Water
In Roman mythology, Neptune was the god of water. Like his Greek counterpart, Poseidon, he was most often associated with the Mediterranean Sea.
Neptune was never strictly a sea god, however. His early Italian origin had been as a god of fresh water and, possibly, the clouds.
Although he had the same mythology as Poseidon, placing him primarily in stories of seafaring, his association with other types of water made him an important god in land-locked parts of the Roman Empire as well as along the coast.
He was not alone in this, however. In addition to sharing freshwater rivers, lakes, and springs with other gods, many of his roles at sea were also shared as well.
While Neptune had much in common with Poseidon, the way in which he was worshipped and the position he held make him a distinctly Roman god of water.
Roman mythology was almost entirely borrowed from that of Greece. This seems particularly true in the case of Neptune.
In their own founding myths, the Romans described themselves as being descended from non-Italians who moved into the area. They most often attributed this ancestry to the Greeks, giving a justification for their adoption of Greek mythology and customs.
In truth, however, Rome was originally inhabited by the Latin people. Other Italian tribes were assimilated into their territory, so the first Roman gods were derived from these local cultures.
Historians have suggested, however, that these early Italian gods were incorporeal and impersonal. They had no human forms, no personalities, and little to no mythology.
When the early Romans encountered traders and colonists from Greece, they were introduced to a pantheon of gods that was much more engaging and relatable than their own. They adopted the rich mythology of the Greeks.
This practice may seem unusual to modern readers, but it was actually not unusual in the ancient world. The Greeks typically associated foreign gods with their own, a practice continued later by the Romans.
Most Roman gods, however, still had Italian origins even if their myths became almost entirely Greek. While they took on the personalities and myths of the Greek counterparts, they often retained elements of Latin worship that were slightly different.
In the case of Neptune, his mythology, personality, and relationships were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Greek Poseidon. His domain, however, was somewhat different.
In Greek mythology, Poseidon had very specifically been the god of the sea. A variety of river gods and nymphs had controlled other waters who were usually descended from Oceanus, the primordial god of the river that encircled the world.
The Romans, however, believed that Neptune was the god of all water. While he was still associated with the Mediterranean Sea, he was also the god of fresh water.
Historians generally believe that this is because the early Romans did not have a sea god to directly compare Poseidon to.
While many Indo-European religions share distinct archetypes, their sea gods are much more varied. Some historians believe that this is because the earliest Proto-Indo-Europeans did not live near the coast.
Instead, the cultures that descended from them created sea gods as the sea became more important in their lives. In Italy, this happened very late.
The precursor to Neptune had little connection to the sea. The Latins and their neighbors descended from people who had not lived near the coast and, as of the time of the adoption of Greece’s legends, were not heavily involved in seafaring.
Instead, the earliest form of Neptune was the god of the rivers and pools that the local people relied on. When Greek legends were incorporated into Roman belief he became the god of the sea, but he retained his connection to inland water as well.
A theory has emerged in the last thirty years that may shed light on Neptune’s role as a fresh water god.
The etymology of Neptune’s name has never been entirely certain, with a traditional interpretation being that it originated from a possible Proto-Indo-European word for moisture.
But some scholars have begun to assert that, rather than referring to moisture on Earth, this name may refer to water from the heavens.
In this interpretation, the water god would be a counterpart to the sky god. While the sky deity, who in Rome was Jupiter, represented the clear and sunny sky, the water god represented the cloudy sky and rain.
Over time, the cloud god was more closely connected to liquid water, which originated in his domain. A connection was maintained, however, in the belief that he caused storms.
This would explain, at least in part, why Neptune and Jupiter were so similar in both temperament and the way they were represented.
Historians have further asserted that the cloud god that Neptune was descended from was also a god of fertility.
While the clear sky was revered, clouds and rain were important for agriculture. By raining down on the Earth, the cloudy sky god made plants grow and sent the water humans and animals both needed to survive.
This would make Neptune, in his original form, closer to the Greek deity Uranus than Poseidon. Uranus also fertilized Gaia, the Mother Earth, with rain.
It is possible that this early Indo-European belief had already evolved to include all water by the time the Latins adopted Greek mythology. Neptune was no longer associated with the sky as the source of water, but with water itself.
Further evidence of this can be seen in Neptune’s wife, Salacia.
In Greek mythology, Poseidon had been married to a nymph named Amphitrite. She was the mother of all sea creatures but played little role in her husband’s overall mythology.
In Rome she was called Salacia. Her story was the same as Amphitrite’s had been, but her name had a very different meaning.
Salacia’s name comes from the Latin word salio. This is the same word that forms the basis of the English salacious.
Amphitrite had been a mother goddess, but Salacia’s very name connected her to fertility and sexuality. Historians have used this to further the theory that Neptune originated as a god of fertility himself.
Salacia was paired with Venilia. Neptune’s wife represented the calm and bountiful sea, while her sister represented the wilder wind and waves.
Venilia’s name shares its root with that of Venus, the goddess of beauty and desire. Neptune’s paradrae, or accompanying gods, as a pair represented aspects of attraction and fertility within his domain.
The Romans often added to the original myths of Greece.
These additional myths often created links between Greece and Rome to explain how the gods and their culture had come to Italy. Gods like Venus and Mars were linked to Rome and its surrounding territories through these founding myths.
Neptune, however, was not seen as instrumental in the founding myths of Rome. While he calms the seas so Aeneas can safely reach Italy, he is not a forefather of any of the major founding fathers of Italian mythology.
Instead, the most well-known addition to Neptune’s mythology comes to us from Ovid. Writing in the early 1st century AD, the Roman poet’s Metamorphoses collected over two hundred myths centered on themes of change, love, and the wrath of the gods.
Some of these stories were entirely unique. The story of Minerva and Arachne, for example, was an original tale that alluded to the poet’s own feud with Caesar Augustus rather than an older Greek legend.
In many cases, however, Ovid expanded on existing myths. His changes to the stories added drama and, in some cases, clarified confusing or contradictory elements of the older legends.
The story of Medusa, to some, had an obvious flaw. While a few Greek texts had hinted at the idea that she was once beautiful, there was no clear story to explain why a god had fathered two children with one of mythology’s most hideous monsters.
To rationalize this apparent contradiction in the mythology, Ovid included Medusa among his stories of metamorphosis brought on by the gods.
When he recounted the story of Perseus beheading the infamous Gorgon, Ovid included details of her origin story:
While deep sleep held fast Medusa and her snakes, he [Perseus] severed her head clean from her neck; and from their mother’s blood swift-flying Pegasos and his brother [Khrysaor] sprang . . . She [Medousa], it’s said, was violated in Minerva’s [Athena’s] shrine by the Lord of the Sea (Rector Pelagi).
-Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 786 ff (trans. Melville)
According to Ovid, Medusa was not only the only Gorgon to be born mortal, but was also the only one to be born with a beautiful form. Medusa had been a lovely young woman in her youth.
In keeping with a standard trope of Greek and Roman mythology, however, the young woman’s beauty was soon noticed by a god. In this case, it was Neptune who took an interest in her.
The god assaulted Medusa in a temple of Minerva.
This was not only a desecration of Minerva’s sacred space. As a virgin goddess, it was also an affront to her own vows and values.
Ovid’s Minerva was an oftentimes vengeful and hot-headed goddess. As was often the case in mythology, she punished the victim of the assault rather than the god who had committed the offense.
Minerva turned Medusa’s famously beautiful hair into snakes and made her hideous enough to turn men to stone. She then banished the unfortunate Gorgon to live with her sisters in a remote cave.
When Minerva helped Perseus slay the Gorgon, according to Ovid, it was a continuation of this punishment.
In addition to providing an origin story for a famous monster, Ovid’s poem also rationalized the birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor from her severed neck. While Greek mythology had always claimed the sea god was their father, it was not until the Roman era that there was a justification for why a god would mate with a monster.
One of the ways in which it is sometimes possible to see the differences between Greek and Roman mythology is by looking at more minor gods and goddesses.
These are often deities who had a more important role in early Rome. As the Greek pantheon came to the forefront, their roles were usurped by the gods of Olympus.
When the Greek Poseidon was brought to Italy, there was more than one god who fit some of his roles. These were given to Neptune, but the other gods sometimes remained.
Some fo the gods who shared domains with Neptune included:
- Consus – While Neptune was, like Poseidon, identified with horses, Consus was as well. The god of grains and counsel was as well. He was honored with horse and mule races.
- Fortuna – The goddess of luck, instead of the god of the sea, was originally invoked at ports to pray for a safe voyage and give thanks for a successful trip. Her symbol, the wheel of fortune, developed from the image of a ship’s steering wheel.
- Rhenus Pater – In Gaul, the personification of the Rhine was called the father of all nymphs and rivers. This is almost certainly a case of a local god being incorporated into popular Roman belief and conflated with one of their own deities.
- Volturnus – Originally an Etruscan deity, he was the personification of the Tiber River and was often said to be the god of all rivers. He and his descendent, Fons, shared many of Neptune’s features as freshwater gods.
- Portunus – The god of both doors and harbors is sometimes thought to be one of the oldest in the Roman religion. Even after Neptune was made the god of the sea, Portunus was thanked for naval victories and associated with the ships that came into his ports.
The Romans were not alone in having many gods with dominion over the sea; the Greeks, too, had worshipped several deities related to water.
The overlapping roles of some of these gods suggest, however, that Neptune had not originally shared all of these roles.
Neptune was one of the twelve major gods of the pantheon. Like the Greeks, the Romans revered him as one of the most powerful and influential deities.
However, his cult in Rome was never as popular or important as it had been in much of Greece.
In ancient Greece, Poseidon was one of the most widely-revered gods. Many cities and colonies claimed him as their patron or said that their founding kings were his descendants.
Even where he was not the official patron, he was often one of the most influential gods of a city. In Athens, for example, he was second in importance only to Athena and a myth was developed that told of how the two gods had once competed for the patronage of the city.
In comparison, Neptune’s cult was relatively small. He had only one major temple in Rome itself and many sailors and merchants thanked other gods, like Portunus or Fortuna, for safe voyages instead.
Neptune’s relative lack of importance in the daily life of Rome can be attributed to some of the major differences between Roman and Greek cultures.
The Greek world was centered around the Mediterannean. The difficult terrain and fractured political landscape of the Peloponnesian made trade and travel over land difficult and dangerous; the best way to move goods and people in Greece was by sea.
Greek culture expanded in the same way. They established colonies along the coasts Asia Minor, Italy, and North Africa where ships could connect them, and their trade goods, to their mother cities in Greece.
Rome, however, was never as much of a seafaring culture as Greece had been.
Throughout Roman history, the territory was expanded by land much more often than by sea. The Empire used a network of roads to move materials, armies, and colonists across Europe, going by ship only when necessary.
In fact, some historians see Rome as a culture with a distinct dislike of the sea. While some shipping was necessary to move goods from places like Egypt, the Romans often expressed disdain for travel by ship and used foreign crews more often than Roman ones.
Most Romans, therefore, placed less emphasis on their sea god. Land routes connected most of the Empire, so few Roman citizens had the same need to rely on ships as the Greeks had.
In a culture in which most people never had to travel by sea, and many never even saw it, the god of the sea was not particularly important in daily life even if he was a prominent member of the pantheon.
As one of the major gods of the state religion, Neptune was never entirely neglected in Roman religious life.
He was given sacrifices of bulls at his temple in Rome. Built near the Circus Flaminius racetrack, in honored Neptune as the god of horses and their role in Rome’s military.
His main festival, however, points more toward his ancient Italian origins than his role in later Roman culture.
The Neptunalia was held on July 23rd. Many ancient sources suggested that it was a two-day festival ending just as Furrinalia, a festival to the goddess of fresh water wells and springs, began.
Neptunalia was described as a time of merriment and revelry.
Few details survive, but one description of the festival said that worshippers built huts out of branches and camped in the forests just outside of Rome. They spent Neptunalia drinking wine and fresh spring water in the shade of the branches.
Although descriptions of Neptunalia are sparse, they hint at older celebrations of Neptune as a god of rain and water.
The festival was held in the middle of summer, typically a hot and dry season in Italy. At this time of year, the god of water was most important.
Along with the Furrinalia, the midsummer festival both thanked the god for the cool water he provided and prayed for him to send more. When water supplies dwindled in the heat of summer, Neptune’s clouds and rain were truly miraculous.
The camp-like nature of the festival was also a practical way to escape summer’s heat for a brief period. Drinking cool water in the forest was a respite from the heat of the city itself.
Some historians believe that Neptunalia evolved to honor Rome’s mastery of water as well. Unlike earlier cultures, who had relied on rainfall to feed their water sources, the Romans of later eras built sophisticated aqueducts to deliver water to their citizens year-round.
Even with this advanced infrastructure, however, July in Rome was a time of heat and drought. Prayers to Neptune were not only necessary to bring more cool water to the city and farmland, but also to break the oppressive heat of summer in the city.
While Neptune took on many of Poseidon’s myths and attributes, he remained a distinctly Roman god.
The Greeks had called Poseidon the god of the sea and he had little connection to fresh water. Rivers, wells, and springs belonged to other gods.
Neptune, however, had originated in an Italian tradition of water gods. With less connection to the sea, their god had been one of fresh water.
As a god of water and, possibly, clouds, Neptune had been seen as a fertility god. This was still apparent in Rome, where he was paired with goddesses who were associated with fertility and sexuality.
These ancient beliefs were seen in Neptune’s worship even after he became primarily associated with the sea. His festival in Rome, the Neptunalia, was held to pray for cool rain during the heat and droughts of summer.
Despite these roles, however, Neptune was less important to most Romans than he had been to the Greeks. He shared many of his traditional roles with both Italian gods and those adopted from other conquered peoples.
Most importantly, the civilization of Rome was never as closely linked to the sea as the Greeks had been. While Greek culture revolved around the Mediterranean, Romans traveled and traded by land much more, even going so far as to avoid sea travel whenever possible.
Because of this, Neptune was never as prominent in Roman life as he was in Greece. As one of the twelve major deities of Olympus, however, he was still a god who commanded respect throughout the Roman world.