Venus: The Roman Goddess of Love
When the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon, they associated Aphrodite with a local goddess of charm and attraction.
The two goddesses were not altogether similar, however. While Aphrodite was a goddess of personal attraction and desire, Venus had a much broader and less clearly-defined role.
The gulf between the two love goddesses only widened when Venus’s cult became more popular. As the mother of the city and one of its greatest patrons, Venus took on a role that was much different than Aphrodite had had in Greece.
The Roman Venus was a goddess of contradictions and mystery. She could stir up emotions as well as bring peace, valued purity as much as she encouraged desire, and was a personal goddess who could also be remote and aloof.
Venus was an important goddess in many aspects of daily life, from love and fertility to ensuring peace. Eventually, she even became a basis for the power of one of history’s most famous families.
Like most members of their pantheon, the Romans adopted Venus almost directly from a Greek counterpart.
The inspiration for Venus was the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She was the deity of love, desire, and attraction.
The goddess was brought to Italy at a relatively early date and her temple rituals were virtually identical to those of Greece. The people of Italy had no unique connection to Venus until the Second Punic War in 217 BC.
In danger of losing their war against Carthage, the Romans looked to an oracle for advice. She said that if Venus, the patroness of Carthage’s Sicilian allies, could be persuaded to change her allegiance, the Romans might be able to achieve victory.
When Rome attacked the city of Eryx in Sicily, they stole the temple’s image of Venus and relocated it to the Capitaline Hill. They promised the goddess a grand temple if she would support their cause.
Not long after, the Romans won a decisive victory in the war. Venus had favored Rome.
The people of the city soon came to see the goddess’s favor a sign that she rightfully belonged in their city rather than among the foreign Sicilians or Carthaginians. A close connection was felt with Venus and soon the Roman mythology was expanded to make this official.
The Romans looked to a relatively minor character in Homer’s Iliad for this link. Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite and a cousin of the Trojan King, was saved during the war to fulfill a destiny that Homer never made clear.
The Romans believed they knew that destiny. The city’s official mythology soon included the Greek character.
Aeneas, the Romans claimed had escaped Troy at the end of the war. Setting out with a crew of loyal men, he made his way to Italy.
When the adventures of Aeneas were written, they followed a familiar pattern of borrowing from Greek sources. On his journey, Aeneas encounters many of the same threats and wonders that Odysseus came across on his own voyage from Troy.
Aeneas made additional stops in both Carthage and Sicily, however. While he was tempted to stay in Carthage and marry Dido, the gods urged him to continue to the land they favored, Rome.
When Dido learned of this, she vowed that their lands would always be enemies. The conflicts between Rome and Carthage were engrained in the founding myth they embraced.
When Aeneas arrived in the region that would later be home to the Romans, he and his men were welcomed by King Latinus. The king soon had his daughter, Lavinia, married to the Trojan hero.
Virgil’s Aeneid ends with the hero about to go to war against the other tribes of Italy. Other sources, however, say that he won the war and established the dominance of the Latin people over the neighbors.
After an unknown number of generations, one of Aeneas and Lavinia’s female descendants would become a priestess of Vesta. This was Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus.
Aeneas was established as both a legendary king of the Latin people and the ancestor of Rome’s founders. Through him, the state of Rome claimed direct descent from the goddess that had granted them favor in the war against Carthage.
The Romans viewed Venus’s domain and powers as somewhat different than those of Aphrodite.
The Greek goddess was intrinsically tied to ideas of romance and physical attraction. Venus, however, was more generally seen as a source of many types of charm.
Some historians believe that the native Italian goddess who gave Venus her name may have been a goddess of magic or divinity instead of more physical types of love.
This Venus, they claim, represented the attraction between humans and the gods, rather than to one another.
The native Italian gods were much less humanized than those of the Greeks and tended to represent more abstract ideas than immediate emotions.
In this context, it seems likely that the original Venus was not concerned with human affairs as much as her Greek counterpart. Venus’s association with the love between romantic partners was introduced when the Romans adopted the specific mythology of Aphrodite.
Because Venus had somewhat more abstract origins than Aphrodite, she remained as a more fluid and sometimes contradictory figure.
Venus was the goddess not only of love and beauty, but also of persuasion. This could be between romantic partners, but she also held the power to persuade the state and even the other gods.
Other Roman deities like Jupiter and Minerva were focused on law, hierarchy, and righteousness. Venus, however, offered more room for negotiation.
People could pray to Venus not only to sway the mind of another person, but also to sway a vote or the course of state affairs. Because they had a familial connection as citizens of the city her descendants ruled over, people could pray to Venus to sway the minds of even the gods.
While figures like Jupiter and Mars were gods of the state, people could see Venus as a more personal deity. This was reflected in the fact that her worship took many different forms not only across the Empire, but even within the city of Rome itself.
The Greek goddess Aphrodite had been primarily a goddess of the attractions felt between two people. Her powers worked on a very personal, emotional level.
The Romans, however, believed that Venus had a much broader reach. Many of the domains they attributed to her were linked to her core powers over charm, beauty, and love, but the Romans often expanded them on a larger level.
Venus took on an important role as a goddess of marriage. While Aphrodite had been similarly invoked by brides, the way in which the Romans felt Venus operated was quite different.
In invoking several deities during a marriage ceremony, Seneca illustrated one of the roles Venus was thought to play:
May the high gods who rule over heaven, and they who rule the sea, with gracious divinity attend on our princes’ marriage, amid the people’s solemn applause. First to the sceptre-bearing Thunderers [Jupiter and Juno] let the bull with white-shining hide offer his high-raised neck. Lucina let a heifer appease, snow-white, untouched by the yoke; and let her [Venus] who restrains the bloody hands of rough Mars, who brings peace to warring nations and holds plenty in her rich horn, mild goddess, be given a tender victim.
Seneca, Medea 56 ff (trans. Miller)
Venus’s role in marriage was not only to make the couple attracted to one another and encourage them to procreate, and Aphrodite’s largely was. Her role in marriage was much more focused on creating a bond between the couple.
The Romans saw Venus as a peacekeeper. Both because she had the ability to sway people’s hearts and minds and because of her relationship with Mars, they believed she had the power to quell disagreements and bring couples to an accord.
This ability expanded far beyond marriage and family. As the feminine counterpart to Mars, she could bring peace to nations as well.
The Romans still personified ideas such as peace and concord as individual deities, but the power of Venus made those goddesses secondary.
The Romans and the people within their Empire worshiped Venus under a variety of forms.
The many epithets and titles Venus was given in and around Rome illustrate the many roles she played in the religion of the state.
- Venus Felix (Lucky Venus) – This was a widespread title that was at one point adopted by the dictator Sulla. It reflects Venus’s ability to change fate and influence events in a person’s favor.
- Venus Cloacina (Venus the Purifier) – Originally based on the site of a polluted stream before the construction of the Roman sewers, it was later taken to symbolize the goddess’s ability to bring about reconciliation and peace.
- Venus Heliopolitana (Venus of Heliopolis in Syria) – A local form of the goddess, this was a name given to the Semitic goddess Astarte.
- Venus Caelestis (Celestial Venus) – Usually understood as a form of Ashtart or Magna Mater, this was a later version of Venus worshiped as the supreme female deity.
- Venus Victrix (Victorious Venus) – Originally named for her early associations with war, it was later taken to mean that she won victory over men’s hearts.
- Venus Obsequens (Indulgent Venus) – The goddess’s first form in Rome. Her temple was supposedly funded by fines placed on women for adultery and immorality.
- Venus Libitina (Venus the Free Woman) – Under this name, she was the patroness of funerals and undertakers.
- Alma Venus (Mother Venus) – This name celebrates Venus as a universal force of creation.
- Venus Physica (Physical Venus) – As a goddess for fertility and creation, she was the goddess who made and protected the physical world.
- Venus Verticordia (Venus the Changer of Hearts) – This was a moralistic version of Venus who led girls off the path or promiscuity and back into proper behavior.
- Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother) – One of her most politically important titles, it referred to her both as a mother of the Roman state and as the ancestress of some of its most important families. It also recognized her generally as a goddess of fertility and femininity.
In the Greek world, Aphrodite’s role as a mother had been secondary to many of her other functions. In Rome, however, it was one of her most important roles.
The city of Rome collectively saw Venus as a mother figure because she was the ancestress of its most important founders.
One family in particular saw a much closer connection to Venus. Through them, she would be the mother of Europe’s greatest empire.
The gens Julia was one of the Republic’s oldest and most influential patrician families. The first member of the gens to reach the rank of consul did so in 489 BC, and from that time the family was highly involved in Roman politics.
In the later Republic, it became fashionable for Rome’s elite to claim descent from one or more of the gods. This was a common way for kings and hereditary rules to legitimize their claims to power, so the Romans adopted the custom to apply to the entire patrician class’s status.
The Julii claimed that their semi-legendary founding ancestor, Iulius, was the same person as the mythological character Ascanius. This made him the son of Aeneas and, therefore, the grandson of Venus.
After this divine connection was established, the Julii often referred to their ancestors in both public and private settings. The most famous member of their family to do so was Gaius Julius Caesar.
During Caesar’s civil war, he used the phrase Venus Genetrix as a signal for his soldiers. In public speeches he often referred to his family’s Olympian ancestor and long, likely embellished, history in Roman politics.
As Caesar consolidated power, he used his connection to Venus in the same way ancient Greek kings used their supposed divine ancestry – it gave him a mandate for rule.
Because the Julii claimed to be descended from Rome’s founders, they had a natural claim to kingship. Even as Caesar denied that he was trying to re-establish a monarchy, he was giving his family a claim on such power.
Caesar’s nephew, however, had no such claim. Gaius Octavius was not born into the Julii but into a high-ranking plebian family. He could claim no direct descent from the gods through paternal lines.
Roman law, however, allowed for heirs to be adopted posthumously. Because Octavius was named in Julius Caesar’s will as his heir, he was adopted into the Julii and given patrician rank.
He changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar but went by the name Octavian in reference to his family of origin. When he effectively became a king, he came to be known as Caesar Augustus.
Like his uncle, Augustus died without a son to inherit his position. He adopted his stepson, Tiberius, on the condition that Tiberius would similarly make his nephew Germanicus his legal heir.
The Julio-Claudian line continued this tradition, almost exclusively passing down power through adoption rather than direct lineage. Each emperor of Rome was therefore entitled to the name Julius Caesar, join the gens Julia, and consider themselves descendants of Venus.
While the supposed genetic relationship to the goddess was broken, the Roman emperors still belonged to the family that descended from the goddess whose offspring also founded the city. Her status as Venus Genetrix to both the city and the imperial family became intertwined until they were virtually inseparable.
The fact that the Julii called themselves descendants of Venus legitimized the Roman Emperors for over three hundred years.
Venus had many roles in Roman society. One result of this is that she could be worshiped in very different ways.
This is perhaps best illustrated in two of the goddess’s largest festivals in the city of Rome.
The Veneralia was held on April 1st in honor of Venus Veneralia, the aspect of the goddess that celebrated propriety and modesty.
While this may seem like an unlikely form for a goddess of desire and love to take, Venus Veneralia was one of her most widely-worshiped forms in the city of Rome.
During the Punic Wars, the Romans interpreted military failures as divine displeasure. The source of this anger was thought to be the sexual immorality of Rome’s people.
Venus Veneralia was dedicated to the young women of the city at that time in order to encourage them to lead more moral, conservative lives. The goddess celebrated purity and marriage.
During her festival, the statue of Venus Veneralia was ritualistically cleansed and attended to by chaste young women. Serving the goddess was an honor that they could only be granted it they followed her moral precepts.
According to Ovid, Venus Veneralia had not always been modest and chaste herself. The change of heart her name referenced was not only that of her followers, but also her own.
Just a few weeks later, on April 23rd, another temple celebrated the festival of Vinalia Urbana. Venus shared this wine festival with Jupiter.
Wines of new vintage could be enjoyed by men and women alike during the festival. Although Venus was usually the goddess of standard, lower-alcohol wine, upper-class women could sometimes enjoy Jupiter’s stronger wine in the temple itself where they were safe from the possibility of being threatened by men while inebriated.
Lower-class girls and prostitutes also gathered outside the temple, although they were not allowed to enter. They left flowers for the goddess with prayers to be made more beautiful, charming, and witty.
Because the festival gathered both wine and prostitutes, it also celebrated some of Venus’s more traditional physical powers.
In under a month, the goddess was worshipped at two large festivals that celebrated completely opposed points of view. While one celebrated virtue and chastity, the other attracted the city’s many sex workers in a celebration of wine.
The contrasting festivals celebrated in Rome showed only a fraction of the ways in which Venus was regarded in the Empire, but even those two single events were wildly different.
When the Romans adopted Greek mythology, they applied the attributes and legends of Aphrodite to a local goddess called Venus.
The new cult was not initially influential in the Republic. During the Second Punic War, however, the belief that Venus had favored Rome to secure a victory made her almost instantly more popular.
The Romans soon created a founding legend that tied the goddess to their city and explained their enmity with Carthage. The Trojan hero Aeneas was the son of venus and was rewritten as an early king of the Latin people.
His descendants, Romulus and Remus, went on to found the city itself. They made Venus the ancestress of all of Rome.
Because of this and the unique way in which the pre-Greek goddess had functioned, the Roman people largely regarded Venus as a goddess who took more personal care with them.
She had the ability to sway the minds and hearts of others, whether they be potential lovers or heads of state. She was also a goddess of unions who could make peace both in marriage and between nations.
Venus was worshipped in a variety of ways, some of which were seemingly contradictory. Because she was seen as more personal and changeable than the lawful Jupiter and other Olympians, she could be revered in very different ways.
One of the most lasting impacts Venus had on Roman history, however, was not as a goddess of love.
As the ancestress of both the state and the gens Julii, she legitimized the claim of her human descendants to power. When those descendants, whether through blood or adoption, became Rome’s emperors, they used their connection to the goddess of love to strengthen their control over the new Empire.