To What Extent Were Roman Myths About Their Gods Influenced by Greek Mythology Essay

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¶ … Greek Mythology on Roman Mythology

Because of the similarities between Greek and Roman mythology, many people assume that Greek and Roman gods are identical and their religious beliefs were the same. Ironically enough, the author's first real exposure to the fact that there are critical, very important differences between Greek and Roman mythology came, not as the result of a comparative religions course or other type of formal study, but as the result of reading Rick Riordan's young adult novels which feature Roman and Greek gods and highlight the similarities and differences in those belief systems. The differences seem to highlight some of the critical differences in Greek and Roman society, which had different levels of patriarchal influence and different approaches to war and peace. However, the numerous differences between the two different mythological approaches does not negate the fact that Roman mythology was very heavily influenced by Greek Mythology.

It is important to understand some history in order to understand how and why Rome was influenced by Greek religious practices. While they are considered mythology to modern people, it is important to keep in mind that, during that time, they were considered religious practices and were not looked upon as mythology or fiction. Greek mythology, although it focused on a hierarchy of deities, also allowed for the presence of demi-gods, who were a combination of human and god. This had a political component. Under Alexander, "the monarch and his consort were worshipped as deities in their lifetime, rather than being posthumously heroised as demigods" as occurred in other contemporaneous societies, like Egypt (Jones & Pennick 1997, p.23). This was the religious background that existed at the time that Rome expanded its empire into Greece, incorporating Greek religious traditions into the existing Roman religion.

What is interesting is that early Roman religious tradition, prior to the introduction of Greek gods and deities from other areas of the expanding Roman Empire, was somewhat of a naturalistic religion. "The early Romans worshipped their deities without images. Indeed, they seem to have worshipped them without personification of any kind. The basic Roman belief seems to have been in numen or supernatural power rather than in personified spirits" (Jones & Pennick 1997, p.34). Therefore, as Roman religious practices incorporated belief from the lands where the Roman Empire expanded, there was no conflict between deities as one might have seen if early Roman religion had its own established deities. Instead, the deities in conquered lands could be seen as a personification of supernatural ideas and norms that already existed in ancient Rome.

Moreover, although they both would have been transmitted largely through oral tradition, it is important to differentiate between folk tales and myths. "The folk tale is for entertainment. The myth is for spiritual instruction" (Campbell & Moyer 1988, p.59). Therefore, even though both Greek and Roman mythology contain a number of heroic stories, those stories play a different role than simple folk tales. In fact, the most uniquely Roman of all of the Greek and Roman myths is probably better identified as a folk tale, although it contains some link to the gods. This myth would be the story of Romulus and Remus. According to that myth, Mars raped a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia, and impregnated her. She gave birth to Romulus and Remus, and left the boys to die. They were found by a she-wolf, who suckled them and kept them alive. Eventually the boys were found by a shepherd and raised by his family. "When the boys grew up, they founded a new city, which was to become Rome, at the place where they had been saved from death as babies" (Cavendish 1980, p.140). Romulus eventually murdered his brother, then went on to further establish the city of Rome. Given that this myth explains the beginning of the city of Rome, it comes as no surprise that there is not an analogous Greek myth.

"The Etruscans as well as the Greeks brought new gods and new rites to the Romans. Lacking their own mythology, the Romans eventually absorbed all 12 Greek Olympians into their pantheon" (What life was like 1997, p.125). Therefore, in many ways ancient Roman religious beliefs are impossible to separate from ancient Greek religious beliefs. However, it is important to keep in mind that Roman religious beliefs also incorporated beliefs from other nations. While the Etruscans were the most notable, the Roman Empire was vast and had contact with a wide variety of different cultures. Therefore, in addition to Greek gods and goddesses, Roman mythology incorporated Egyptian and Asian gods and goddesses, most notably Cybele and Isis, as well as traditional Greek deities.

Of course, it is worth noting that Roman religion owed as much to the Etruscans as it did to the ancient Greeks. Etruscan religious practices may have referenced some of the Greek deities, but it had a far more fatalistic. In fact, "Etruscan society seems to have acknowledged a fatalism which was not shared by the other cultures of the northern Mediterranean. Individuals did not always fight against death and endings, but by contrast saw themselves as powerless to oppose these" (Jones & Pennick 1997, p.29). Roman religious beliefs reflected many of these Etruscan norms. However, as the gods began to emerge as part of Roman religious tradition, the most notable of them came from the Greek tradition. "It seems that the first great god of the Romans was Mars" who was derived from the Greek god, Aries (Parrinder 1983, p.164). Mars served multiple functions when he was first personified, and only eventually evolved into the war-god image that is familiarly associated with the idea of Mars. However, while Mars may have been the first personified deity to be associated with Roman religion, he did not become the head of the Roman pantheon of gods. Two other gods served as part of the original trinity of Roman named deities: Mars, Quirinus, and Jupiter. While Jupiter and Mars had direct comparisons in Greek mythology, Aries and Zeus, Quirinus was much more uniquely Roman. However, as in Greek mythology, Jupiter became the head of the gods.

What this development suggests is that the incorporation of Greek mythology into Roman religious practices was a gradual practice. This process of incorporation helps explain why some elements of Roman mythology are almost indistinguishable from Greek mythology, while other elements are strikingly different. "Some of the deities were identical with Greek gods as originating from the same Indo-European deity. As Zeus is Dyaus, so Jupiter is Diupiter, Father Dyaus. Others like Hercules (Heracles) or Apollo, were taken over directly from the Greek settlements" (Parrinder 1983, p.165). This difference suggests that in some ways Greek and Roman mythology were drawing on the same Indo-European roots for their development, while in other ways the Romans were simply wholly incorporating existing Greek myths. "As contact with the Greeks developed, further identifications were made. Juno naturally was one with Hera. Minerva became Pallas Athene, Diana Artemis, Venus Aphrodite, Mercury Hermes, Neptune Poseidon, Vulcan Hephaestus, Ceres Demeter, Liber Dionysus, and so on" (Parrinder 1983, p.165). Especially in areas where there was no existing deity from any other incorporated religious tradition, the Romans were able to simply incorporate existing Greek myths. However, that was not always the case. "Sometimes the transition was easy, but Venus and Mercury experienced a considerable metamorphosis. With the change the legends adhering to the Greek deity became attached to the Roman" (Parrinder 1983, p.165).

However, Greek and Roman culture were different in many ways, which meant that they viewed the gods differently, even in instances where the Roman gods were directly taken from Greek predecessors. First, it is important to understand that Roman mythology took from the Greek gods that existed at the time that the Roman Empire spread into Greece. Therefore, the Titans, who played a very important role in Greek mythology, especially in foundation stories, did not play a role in Roman religion. "It happens that many, even of the very early Greek myths, were quite foreign to the Romans. To this class, belong, for instance, the myths that describe the conflict between Uranos and his sons: Kronos devouring his children to escape, as he thought, being dethroned by them, and Zeus placing his father, Kronos, in durance in Tartaros" (Murray 1998, p.18). This reflects the notion that Rome was absorbing existing religions, while Greek mythology was the result of the creation and imagination of the Greek people.

The idea of a culture encouraging imagination and the creation of the pantheon of gods in contrast with a culture lacking that basic imagination actually helps explain some of the tension and transition between the Greek and Roman mythologies. Greek culture was far more permissive of abandon, including its religious practices. "With regard to the ceremonies which accompanied the worship of certain gods, we observe the same great difference between the two nations, and would cite as an example the wild unrestrained conduct of those who took part in the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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