Many of the Roman gods were taken almost directly from their Greek counterparts. Between Athena and Minerva, for example, there are so few differences that the characters are virtually indistinguishable.
The two cultures had a very different view of one type of god, however. The god of war was seen in very different terms by the Romans than he had been by the Greeks.
The Roman Mars was given many of the myths associated with Ares, but he remained a uniquely Roman character. While Ares was cruel and bloodthirsty, Mars was associated with protection and the bounty of the land.
The different ways in which the Greeks and Romans viewed there gods can be attributed to the very different roles war played in the daily lives of their people.
Ares was the Greek god of war. As such, he was most often thought to have been worshipped in Rome under the name Mars.
While the Romans took much of their mythology from their Greek forebearers, however, the Roman gods were not always directly adopted from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Before Rome rose to prominence, Italy was home to many separate kingdoms. One of the foremost among these were the Etruscans.
The residents of modern Tuscany had contact with the Greeks, but also had their own ancient beliefs. While their gods sometimes had some similarities to those of other Mediterranean cultures, they were distinctly Italian.
The early Romans took much of their religion from the Etruscans, including the names of their gods. As they adopted the Greek pantheon, they associated the Greek legends with their existing beliefs but kept many of the names of their own gods.
Mars may have gotten his name from the Etruscan child-god Maris, although some historians believe the ancient Latin name was of non-Italian origin. But whether he was native to the region or not, the Latins worshipped Mars before he took on the identity of Ares.
The Greek Ares was a violent and often disliked figure, so while their domains were the same it wasn’t possible for the early Romans to fit him into their beliefs as easily as they did many other gods.
Mars was a god of war, but he was also a protective deity. Unlike Ares he was associated with the fertility of the fields and the defense of the city as well as the violence of war.
While the Romans adopted some aspects of Ares’ mythology, such as his affair with Aphrodite/Venus, it was impossible for them to reconcile their protective agricultural god with the destructive aspects of war.
So while Mars is often referred to as the Latin name for Ares, the characters remained somewhat distinct. Mars appeared in the myths formerly associated with Ares but was worshipped in a much different way.
While most Greeks avoided paying attention to the hateful Ares, Mars was one of the most important gods of the Roman pantheon. He was widely venerated and, in recognition of his dual role in both war and fertility, his greatest festivals were held when the campaign season ended and the crops were ready to be harvested.
The Greeks saw Ares as a force of wanton destruction, but the Romans viewed their god of war through a different lens. To them, Mars presided over wars as a way to bring an end to conflict and ensure peace.
The different views of the gods of war illustrate one of the most significant differences between the cultures of ancient Greece and post-monarchial Rome.
The Greeks were a culture for whom war was an ever-present threat. The Greek city-states were never united by more than tenuous and short-lived treaties.
Instead, they were constantly fighting among one another. Most Greek armies fought against other Greeks far more often than they did a foreign enemy.
The many city-states of Greece and Asia Minor were therefore often only separated from their enemies by a short distance. By land or by sea, an enemy army could reach its neighbor’s walls in a matter of days.
It was not unusual, therefore, for a Greek city to be utterly destroyed by war several times in a single generation. Archaeological excavations at Troy, for example, show that the walls of the city were severely damaged to the point of falling twice in a period of just forty years.
Because the Greeks lived under constant threat of war, their god reflected that state of being. The people of Greece were almost unanimously acquainted with the fear and destruction of battle, so their god of war had no sense of mercy or protection.
The Romans, in contrast, had little first-hand experience with large-scale violence.
By the time the Greek gods made their way to Rome, the city had expanded its control over almost all of Italy. By the Republican Era, Rome controlled an empire whose borders were far from their homeland.
Roman armies fought virtually every campaign season, but they typically did so far from Rome itself. They fought to expand their territory and quell local insurrections, not to defend their own city from destruction.
While Rome was occasionally threatened by outside forces, it was not unusual for the citizens of Italy to go many generations without seeing a fight in their own lands. For Roman civilians, warfare was a distant thing that kept any enemies far away from their own homes.
The Roman god of war, therefore, could be a more protective figure. With battles being fought in distant lands against entirely foreign enemies, the citizens of Rome saw war as a necessary part of keeping the interior of the Republic, and later the Empire, safe.
Ares was a god of people that would never know peace. Mars, however, belonged to a civilization that believed they would one day control enough of the world that there would one day be no enemies left to wage war against.
The Greek god of war was Ares. Mars is often considered to be his Roman counterpart, but the two deities had several key differences.
When then Romans adopted Greek mythology, the character of Mars could not be entirely reconciled with that of the Greek god. While Ares was violent and chaotic, Mars was a protective benefactor of his people.
Mars, therefore, shared many of the stories of Ares but almost none of his personality. The people of Rome continued to worship their warrior god as a source of peace and prosperity rather than destruction and fear.
The differing views of these two gods can be largely attributed to the experiences of the people who believed in them. While the Greeks were threatened with almost constant violence from close neighbors, the Romans waged war on distant borders to bring greater prosperity to their homeland.
Because the citizens of Rome had little personal experience of war, they could continue to envision Mars as a god who brought peace and plenty to their land. While the Greeks created a god to reflect their own fears, the Roman god showed the relative peace of living in a united and prosperous land.