Religion was an important part of daily life in Rome. It helped Romans make sense of good and bad things that happened. If terrible things like natural disasters or battle losses occurred, Romans believed it was evidence that the Gods were unhappy with the people of Rome. When good things like a battle victory or a good harvest happened, Romans believed it was evidence of help or approval from the Gods. To keep the Gods happy, Romans often participated in animal sacrifices of lambs, pigs or bulls. At one time, even prisoners of war were offered as human sacrifices, but this practice was discontinued. Romans also held festivals and built temples to celebrate the Gods.
Romans worshiped a pantheon, also thought of as a council, of 12 major gods. These 12 major gods were called the Dii Consentes. This group included six gods and six goddesses. The gods included: Jupiter, Neptune, Mars, Apollo, Vulcan and Mercury. The goddesses were Juno, Minerva, Venus, Diana, Vesta and Ceres. Jupiter ruled over the Pantheon.
In fact, the famous Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to the Roman Gods. The exact purpose of the building is unknown. Though it has been used as a church, historians are unsure of whether ancient Romans actually worshiped there. The Pantheon was built by the consul Agrippa between 27 B.C. and 25 B.C.
In Roman religion, Mars was a very important god. His role was second only to Jupiter, the leader of the pantheon. Mars was the son of the God Jupiter and the Goddess Juno. His father, Jupiter, was the God of the sky and thunder. Jupiter was considered the chief, or central, guardian of Rome and was often considered to be witness to solemn oaths such as those undertaken by government officials or soldiers. His mother, Juno, was the protector of Roman women and was the patron Goddess of Rome. Both his mother and father were renowned for strength and protection. Mars himself was the god of war and was, himself, seen as protector of the Roman Army. He was thought to be difficult, argumentative and unpopular among the gods, but was revered by men; especially soldiers. It was even reported that Mars was the father of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who were the founders of Rome.
Mars was known as the Roman god of war. He was said to love the violence and conflict. His persona represented military power and the noise and blood of battle. Since he was the father of Romulus and Remus it was believed he would come to the aid of Rome during times of conflict or war. He was the patron God of soldiers and was worshiped prior to battle. Soldiers in the Roman Army prayed to Mars before battle, asking that he might fight on their side. Soldiers hoped that their prayers would appeal to Mars and that he would protect them in battle and lead them to victory. They believed that ultimately it was Mars who decided who would win any battle. All aspects of war in Rome were associated with the God Mars. This did not only apply to military campaigns of conquest. Mars was said to protect cities from invading armies and help soldiers crush rebellion as well.
As the God of War, Mars had many symbols associated with him. The most recognizable was The Ancile. The Ancile was his sacred shield. Legend has it that this shield fell from heaven during the rule of Pompilius. It was said that if the shield remained in the city, Rome would be safe. Priests were commissioned to protect the shield and eleven copies were made, reportedly to confuse would-be thieves. The group of 12 ancilla were used in rituals. Mars was often depicted clothed on bronze armor. He carried a spear that was often depicted as covered in blood.
Other symbols surrounding the God of War included a burning torch, a vulture, dog, woodpecker, eagle and owl. Mars was a strong god and rode a chariot drawn by fire-breathing horses. The names of his horses were Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos. Aithon means red fire, Phlogios means flame, Konabos means tumult – which is a loud confusing noise – and Phobos means fear.
Mars was celebrated twice a year in March and October. The old Roman calendar began with mensis Martius. This translates to Mars’ Month. This is what the month of March is named for. The Salii – the priests who protected and carried the ancilia – celebrated the new year on the first day of March by dressing and dancing in battle armor. This was said to be when Mars was born. Also in March, the twelve Salii carried the ancilia around the city in a parade with war trumpets, stopping at different sacred locations along the way.
Festivities complete with trumpets, dancing, feasts and sacrifices continued throughout the month of March. On the 23rd, The Tubilustrium festival was held in Mars’ honor in the Atrium Sutorium. This date was chosen because it coincided with the start of the military campaign season. This group of festivals and celebrations were called the Feriae Marti.
In February and March, horse races were held at the Campus Martius outside the walls of Rome in honor of Mars. These races were said to have been started by Romulus. In October, Mars’ parents Jupiter and Juno were celebrated. On the Ides – or 14th – of October, one of the winning horses from the races was sacrificed in honor of Mars for his continued protection.
As a nation of conquest and war, Gods such as Mars were important to Rome. It was believed that he kept enemies of the state at bay and protected the divine right of the state’s rule. At different times in history, he meant different things to the people. He was a military deity as Rome conquered its neighbors and a protector in times of peace.
Eventually, Mars became not just the protector of Rome, but the guardian and avenger of Emperor Caesar himself.
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