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The Pantheon

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The temple in Rome dedicated to all the major gods was called 'The Pantheon'. It was named after the word used for the entire collection of all the Roman gods.
The Romans believed in many different gods and goddesses. For everything imaginable they had a god or goddess in charge. Mars for example was the god of war. This meant he was good at fighting and it meant that he had most of all the soldiers at heart. A Roman soldier would hence most likely pray to Mars for strength in battle.
But Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, intelligence and learning. Not many soldiers would ask her for help. But perhaps a schoolboy would ask her to help him learn his grammar or understand his maths better !
Or the emperor would ask her to give him wisdom so that he might rule the country wisely.
And so, the Romans indeed had hundreds of different gods. This entire collection of all their gods was called the Pantheon.

 

A strange Mix

The Romans gods were from a strange mixture of influences. Before Rome became a big city, the area around it, called Latium, was settled my superstitious villagers, the Latins, who believed in many gods and spirits. As Rome grew into a city and began to become more powerful it came into contact with the Greeks, who had a complex Pantheon of their own. It seems that the Roman gods were a mix of those two main influences; Latin and Greek. In many cases the Romans found there was a Latin and a Greek god for one and the same thing. They tended to take the two and make them one. So for example, Vulcan, was the old Latin god of fire. But the Greeks had a god called Hephaistos, who was very similar. And so the Romans just mixed the two together and made them one. Paintings or statues of Vulcan generally showed him as a blacksmith, like the Greek Hephaistos, but his name still was the Latin Vulcan.

Some of the main Roman Gods
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Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
  Capitoline Museums,
Rome
Jupiter
He was the master of the gods and the main god of the Romans. In his hand he held thunderbolts which he could hurl from the sky.
Juno
She was the wife of Jupiter, the goddess of women and fertility. Her symbols were a pomegranate and a peacock.
Mars
He was the god of war, the strongest and most fearsome god, except for Jupiter.
Venus
She was the goddess of love and beauty.
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Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
  Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
Minerva
She was the goddess of wisdom, learning, art crafts and industry. Her symbol was the owl.
Neptune
He was the powerful god of the sea. His symbol was the trident.
Ceres
She was the goddess of the harvest, always depicted carrying a bundle of grain.
Vulcan
He was the blacksmith of the gods and a god of the underworld. If he stoked his furness too hard volcanos might erupt. He was the god of blacksmiths and volcanos.
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Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
 
Diana
She was the goddess of hunting and a goddess of the moon.
Bacchus
He was the god of wine and partying. Naturally, he was one of Rome's most popular gods.
Mercury
He was the messenger of the gods. the wings on his helmet and sandals allowed him to travel very quickly to wherever a god might send him. He was the god of travellers and tradesmen.
Vesta
She was the goddess of the hearth and home. She was very important to Romans. In her temple a flame was always kept burning as in the 'hearth of Rome' the flame should never go out.

British Museum
London
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A little Lares figurine
The Household Spirits

In Roman religion every household had its own personal spirits which protected it. The lares were the spirits of the family's ancestors. And the penates were kind spirits who garded the larder. Little figurines of these spirits were kept in a small household shrine, called the lararium. The spirits would be worshipped by the family on special days. Bits of food or wine might be sacrificed to them.

 

New Gods, New Religions

With the vast size of the empire, there was of course many new gods from distant civilizations which the Romans learnt about. Romans didn't tend to think that only their gods were the right ones. If they heard of other peoples' gods they would think that these were real gods who watched over other parts of the world and whom they had simply not yet heard about. And so as they learned about these new gods, new temples were built to these new arrivals in the Roman pantheon.

Later, 'imported' gods
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Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
Capitoline Museums,
Rome
Vatican Museums,
Vatican City
Isis
She was the Egyptian goddess of the earth. Her worship entailed elaborate and exotic rituals.
Pan
He was the Greek god of the mountains, half goat half man. Always carrying the pipes with him, we know today as 'pan-pipes'.
Mithras
He was the god of light from Persia. He was always depicted slaying the holy bull, and so giving life to the earth. He had many followers in the Roman army. So much so, that he is often referred to as the soldiers' god.

 

Christianity

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Constantine
Capitoline Museums
Rome
In the year AD 312 something very important happened, something which should change Roman religion forever. The emperor Constantine the Great said he had had a sign from the god of the Christians in a dream in the night before he had an important battle. Emperor Constantine won this battle and thereafter showed his gratitude to the Christian god by turning his entire empire over to this new religion.

So, successful was emperor Constantine at this conversion that the Roman empire remained Christian forever. If the countries of the western world are largely Christian today, then it is because of emperor Constantine's

 
   
 
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