Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Mars – the Virile God

Marble head of Mars Ultor (c. 2nd century CE)
Simply put, Mars is the God of war, specifically the violence of the warrior within the context of war (Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, at 156). Naturally he is a patron God of the military, but also of less favourably viewed forms of violence, such as banditry, as Apuleius makes clear in The Golden Ass when the leader of a band of robbers says: 
“‘Well now, we’re going to sell the girl and since we’re going to recruit new associates, why not make an offering to Mars the Comrade, though we have no animal fit for the sacrifice, and not even enough wine for a proper drinking bout. Grant me ten of you then, and that should be sufficient to raid the nearest village and furnish a … banquet for us all.’ 
Then he departed, while the rest set about building a large fire, and piled up an altar of green turf to the god Mars. 
Later the leader and his men returned, driving a flock of sheep and goats, and carrying skins of wine. They picked out a large shaggy old he-goat and sacrificed it to Mars the Companion and Comrade. Instantly the preparations for a luxurious banquet began [Apuleius, The Golden Ass, bk VII].”
Mars' potency
However, Mars has another side, which is as potent as it is wholly male. He is not just a destructive force, nor even just protective, as we might expect, but also life-giving – he is virile in every sense. The ancient authors of Rome continually refer to Mars as “Mars Pater” (Father Mars), and there are two myths that ancient Romans seemed to especially associate with Mars, and neither of them involves violence. Instead they involve sex, and sex of a kind that should be shameful (for they involve rape and adultery) but somehow is not. The first myth is told again and again by the ancient authors, but Ovid tells it best:
“Vestal [virgin / priestess] Silvia  one morning … was fetching water to wash the holy things. She came to where the bank sloped softly with its path, and removed the earthen jar from her head … As she sat, shady willows and melodious birds bred sleep, and the water’s gentle murmur. Seductive peace stole over languid eyes; her hand becomes limp and slips from her chin. Mars sees her, desires what he sees, takes what he desires; divine power made his rape unfelt. Sleep departs, she lies freighted; there was now, of course, in her guts the Roman city’s founder [Ovid, Fasti, bk III].”
Virgil picks up the story;
“… a royal priestess, Ilia [ie, the Vestal priestess Silvia], heavy with child, shall bear Mars twins. Then Romulus will further the race, proud in his nurse the she-wolf’s tawny pelt, and found the walls of Mars, and call the people Romans, from his own name [Virgil, The Aeneid, bk I].”
In this passage there is an allusion to the famous wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. This is highly relevant, for to Roman minds the wolf is sacred to Mars and the wolf that suckled Rome’s founding twins is known as the “wolf of Mars”. As Propertius writes:
“Wolf of Mars, the best of nurses to our State, what towers have sprung from your milk [Propertius, The Elegies, bk IV]!”
In every conceivable sense this story sets out Mars as the divine ancestor of Rome. He provides the seed, and his sacred totem animal provides the nourishment.

The other story that ancient Romans knew well, borrowed from Greek myth, is as follows:
“The whole world knows the myth: Venus and Mars caught up by Vulcan [the mythological husband of Venus], the crafty smith, when Father Mars, in the grip of mad passion, resigned his awesome generalship to join the ranks of lovers. For her part (for no Goddess has a softer heart), Venus was not averse to being wooed, she certainly didn’t play the country prude … At first, through modesty and shame, they kept their affair dark, but the game was up when the Sun (who can fool that all-viewing God) told Vulcan what his wife was doing … and so Vulcan set, all round and over the bed, an invisible net … the lovers met as arranged, were caught stark naked in the snare, Vulcan invited the Gods round, and the pair made a … spectacle … It took all Neptune’s pleading before Vulcan agreed reluctantly to release them [Ovid, The Art of Love, bk II].”     
"Venus, Mars and Cupid" by Rubens (17th century)
Romans likely had a particular fondness for this story because in it the divine ancestor of the Romans (Mars) pairs up with the even more ancient genetrix (ancestress) of Rome – Venus, said to be the mother of Aeneas, the mythical hero of Troy and pre-Italian ancestor of the Roman people. Thus the story celebrates the love between Rome’s divine ancestors, which of course was not without progeny, as Cicero tells us:
“Venus … her son Anteros [God of mutual / requited love] is said to have been fathered by Mars [Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, bk III].”
But ultimately the point is that Mars and Venus come together as divine protectors of Rome:
“Father Mars … may Venus herself protect your children: let it be eternal, this head that survives from Aeneas’ line [Propertius, The Elegies, bk III].”
So Mars is “libidinous” (Propertius, The Elegies, bk II) and “passionate” (Tibullus, Nemesis, bk II) and in him Rome discerns sacred paternity:
“Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome. For such is her renown in war that … she chooses to represent Mars as her own and her founder's father … [Livy, History of Rome, bk I].”
Mars' agricultural aspect
So he is a God of war, but cannot simply be a God of destruction and violence, because he is linked so closely with sex and seminality. Further, he has an agricultural aspect, as a known prayer by the Arval Brothers, ancient Roman priests responsible for carrying out rituals in furtherance of the fertility of fields, attests to:
“Help us, Lares! [said x 3] …. Marmar [Mars], let not plague or ruin attack the multitude [said x 3] … Be filled, fierce Mars. Leap the threshold. Halt, wild one [said x 3; at this point perhaps the priests leap into the air as they dance their processional hymn. The leaping would be imitative magic to make crops leap up and grow high] … By turns call on all the Gods of sowing [said x 3] … Help us, Marmor [Mars, said x 3] … Triumph! [said x 3] [3rd century CE inscription of a prayer on a marble tablet, made by the Arval Brothers, cited in Shelton, As the Romans Did, at 372-273].”
Going back to an earlier age, Cato records an ancient prayer to Mars:
The following is the formula for purifying land … Make a prayer with wine to Janus and Jupiter, and say: ‘Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia [triple animal sacrifice] to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars, to the same intent deign to accept the offering of these suckling offering [of pig, lamb and calf]’ [Cato On Agriculture].”
This is not what we expect of  the God who is merely the “God of war” or the “God of violence”. He seems also to be an active force of masculine potency and virility. Contemporary scholar, Turcan explains the ritual as follows:
“This was … a preventative ritual, to some extent prophylactic but also for the promotion of growth and prosperity. Here Mars takes on the three functions (religious, warlike and productive) of Indo-European society, since he exorcises, drives out, evil ‘by sweeping’ (averrunces …) … before ensuring abundance and good health [Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, at 41].”
Mars and warfare
Restored bronze statue of Mars. Source: classic.cca-roma.org
In all of this there is no getting way from the God’s martial aspect. The purification ritual described by Cato was not just an agricultural rite, it was also performed on armies before battle (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook, at 152), and Mars was associated with many other military rituals. For example, the annual sacrifice of a horse to Mars (known as the “October horse”) may, according to one ancient source be “intended to make the crops prosper”, but clearly it was also “a war-ritual, connected with other October ceremonies concerned with the return of the army from its year’s campaigning” (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History, at 47).
“Warfare was … sanctified by the rituals of the old calendar or festivals. In March – which had originally been the first month of the year – there was an interconnected set of festivals, mostly directed towards the God Mars (after whom the month was, and still is, named); and there was a corresponding set in October, somewhat less elaborate. On both occasions a central role was played by the priesthood of Salii, founded according to Roman myth by Numa to guard the sacred shields – the ancilia. The priests were all patricians, formed into two groups, of Mars and Quirinus [Quirinus is the name under which the deified Romulus was worshipped] respectively; on their festival days they danced through the streets, dressed in the distinctive armour of archaic foot-soldiers. Whatever these ceremonies originally meant (and on this there is considerable argument), there can be little doubt that, at least by the fifth century BC, they represented a celebration of the annual rhythm of war-making: marking the preparation for a new season of war in March; and in October marking the end of the season, and putting aside of arms for the winter. In early Rome (when Rome’s enemies were still conveniently close at hand) warfare was the summertime activity of a part-time citizen army, fighting under their annual magistrates.  
The actual conduct of warfare was also set within a religious context. Fighting was always preceded by consultation of the Gods and by sacrifices whose rejection by the Gods would imply a warning not to join battle. Essentially, the participants in the warfare would seek advantage by establishing a better relationship with the Gods and greater claims to divine favour. Sacrifices were held, even in expectation of war, in order to obtain confirmation of the divine attitude; at the opening of the campaign, the ritual of the fetial [ie, group of official State] priests was … intended to ensure that the war was acceptable to the Gods as a ‘just war’; even in the midst of battle, vows were taken to induce the Gods to look favourably or to desert the enemy … religion and religious ritual penetrated the area of warfare ... [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History, at 43-44].”
The implication of all this is quite simply that, like everything else in the universe, war is sacred; or at least it has a sacred dimension, and Mars is the foremost deity of this sacred force. Further, as descendants of Mars, when ancient Romans went into battle they channeled something that was considered both divine and innate, for war was their birthright, their inheritance from Father Mars.

The historical importance of Mars
The fact that the first month of the Roman calendar was originally that belonging to Mars (March) confirms the importance of his role from the very start of Roman history. While we are on the subject of Rome’s traditional calendar, we note that Tuesday was named in his honour: the original Latin name for this day, Martis dies, translates literally as “the day of Mars”. We know also that Mars was part of the original Godly triad of Rome, along with Jupiter and Quirinus (Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, at 159) – this is before the more well known Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. 

Meanwhile, in a later (imperial) age:
“The temple of Mars Ultor [Mars the Avenger] … formed the centrepiece of Augustus’ new forum, built next to the forum of Caesar and dedicated in 2 BC. Plans for the temple originated in a vow Augustus allegedly took in 42 BC, when he defeated the murderers of his father. But the emphasis on Mars as the ‘Avenger’ also evoked Augustus’ vengeance on the Parthians in 20 BC; the standards lost by Crassus in his defeat at the hands of the Parthians were recovered and placed in the inner-most shrine of the temple. This allusion to contemporary achievements against foreign foes was reinforced by the military functions prescribed for the temple from its foundation. Military commanders were to set off from the temple, the senate was to meet in it to vote triumphs, and victorious generals were to dedicate to Mars the symbols of their triumphs [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1; A History, at 199].” 
None of this is to downplay what war, and Mars’ role in it, really is. Virgil describes Mars as one who “rages” and is “blood-drenched” (The Aeneid, bks VIII and XII). Horace tells us Mars is “cruel” and “sanguinary” (The Odes). Propertius describes him as “rapacious” (The Elegies, bk IV) and Statius records that he has a “rough embrace” (Silvae, bk I), which reminds us of another famous story about Rome’s founding fathers – the rape of the Sabine women. According to which, quite literally, Rome was founded through violence and rape. Do not cringe when you read these words, for every great nation (at least in Europe) was founded thus and it was the way of the Indo-European fathers to glorify war in an age when war meant survival and prosperity. If early Romans had been pacifists there would have been no Romans. They would have been slaughtered (or enslaved) by their neighbours. The truth of history is that we, children of Rome or not, are all indebted to war heroes for our existence. Without their wars and their violence and their victory we could not live as we do and we would not, without their vigour and their sexuality, be who we are, for they are our ancestors. To the victors go the spoils, and the descendants, and the Romans knew this:
“Mars himself empowers your hands, men! Now let each remember his wife and home, now recall the great actions, the glories of our fathers. And let’s meet them [the enemy] ... Fortune favours the brave [Virgil, The Aeneid, bk X].”
Detail of "Mars restrained by Cupid" by Gibson (c. 1820)
We know that Roman wars led not only to the Roman Empire, which so profoundly made its mark on Europe and elsewhere, but also to the Roman peace, the Pax Romana, which was one of the greatest achievements of Rome. This is how Mars and Venus come together and this is how we understand that Mars is as potent and virile as he is brutal and violent, yes, but in the polytheistic world view, machismo (Mars) is one thing, love (Venus) another, and they each have a legitimate role to play in the context of the entirety of the cosmos. In a sense, Mars embodies (traditional ideas about dominant) male sexuality and Venus embodies female sexuality – when they come together they make a divine pair who are not just the ancestors of the Romans but every one of us.

So we see that Mars is indeed a God of violence and war, but his nature is not wholly destructive, for often enough he creates the conditions within which peace can thrive, at which point he becomes a God of male vigour, sexual potency and virility. It is not surprising to learn that traditionally blood offerings were made to him, as well as associated offerings such as meat and (presumably red) wine. However we know also that spelt was offered to him in ancient times, and if we want to make non-perishable offerings it is probably safe to assume that weapons, and objects of war made of iron, will be pleasing to the God. As Mars is a God strongly associated with masculinity it seems that traditionally women do not partake in certain rites that honour him. As Cato tells us:
Perform the vow for the health of the cattle as follows: Make an offering to Mars Silvanus [the reference to Silvanus denotes that we are dealing with a rustic aspect of Mars] in the forest during the daytime for each head of cattle: 3 pounds of meal [wheat / spelt], 4½ pounds of bacon, 4½ pounds of [fresh] meat, and 3 pints of wine. You may place the viands in one vessel, and the wine likewise in one vessel. Either a slave or a free man may make this offering. After the ceremony is over, consume the offering on the spot at once. A woman may not take part in this offering or see how it is performed [Cato, On Agriculture].”*
I want to leave off with a story which demonstrates well the mentality of the ancient Roman mindset, including both the reverence they had for Mars, and also their piety, which in this context means acknowledging omens.
“[A deer] pursued  by a wolf appears between the two armies [one Gallic, the other Roman] … The hind moves toward the Gallic lines, the wolf toward the Roman lines. The latter open in front of it, while the Gauls kill the hind. By killing the animal dedicated to Diana, as a Roman soldier called out, they called down judgment upon themselves in the form of forced retreat and the destruction of their army. In contrast the wolf of Mars left the confrontation victorious and unscathed, reminding the Romans that they were, they and their founder (Romulus), worthy descendants of Mars [de Cazanove, “Pre-Roman Italy, Before and Under the Romans”, in Rüpke (Ed), A Companion to Roman Religion at 44].”

*Note that men were, in turn, excluded from some rites associated with particular Goddesses, such as certain rites in honour of Vesta, the virgin Goddess of fire, and Bona Dea, a Goddess of the fruitful earth. This is not to say that violence is wholly a male domain - Bellona, is a Goddess of violence and war, as is Minerva.

  • Apuleius, The Golden Asspoetryintranslation.com (translated by Kline)
  • Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History, Cambridge Uni Press
  • Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge Uni Press
  • britannica.com (Encyclopedia Britannica)
  • Cato On Agriculture, penelope.uchicago.edu (translated by Hooper and Ash)    
  • Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Oxford World's Classics (translated by Walsh)   
  • Horace, The Odesgutenberg.org (translated by Smart)    
  • Horace, The Odespoetryintranslation.com (translated by Kline)
  • Livy, History of Rome, University of Virginia Library (translated by Roberts)
  • Ovid, The Art of Love, The Modern Library (translated by Michie)    
  • Ovid, Fasti, Penguin Classics (translated by Boyle and Woodard)
  • Propertius, The Elegiesyorku.ca (translated by Kline) 
  • Rüpke (Ed), A Companion to Roman Religion, John Wiley and Sons
  • Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana University Press
  • Shelton, As the Romans Did (2nd ed), Oxford University Press    
  • Statius, Silvae, poetryintranslation.com (translated by Kline)
  • Tibullus, Nemesispoetryintranslation.com (translated by Kline)
  • Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, Routledge    
  • Virgil, The Aeneid, poetryintranslation.com (translated by Kline)    
"Mars and Venus" by hellstern.deviantart.com

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.


  1. A well documented and well written post (as usual).

    1. Thank you – I really enjoyed writing it as I learned so much. I got the idea that I should do this when I discovered that plagiarism the other week - I had a bit of Mars Ultor in me for a few days there and it seems to have served me well. Sometimes we need to get aggressive – it can be a good thing – even if we want to be peaceful most of the time.
      Pax et Fortuna:)