To understand the images of the Roman gods, a brief explanation of their chief characteristics and their role in Roman religion is necessary.
A polytheistic religion
The term "polytheism" comes from the Greek words poly, meaning "many" and theos, meaning "god", and characterises religions which have several gods. It was used relatively early (in the Ist century BC in the writings of Greek author Philo of Alexandria) to differentiate the Jewish "monotheistic" religion from the other ancient religions, notably Greek and Roman. The latter featured a whole host of gods, each with his or her own attributes. Certain currents of thought or cults within this system manifested a tendency to unify these gods into one superior being (notably represented in the 3rd century AD by the god Sol), thereby becoming "henotheistic" rather than "monotheistic".
(photo vénus monnaie) The word "anthopomorphic" also comes from the Greek - (anthropos, meaning "human", and morphe meaning "form") - and characterises beings with human shape. Anthropomorphism is best illustrated by the Greek and Roman religions. The gods were portrayed as human men or women, but were taller, more handsome, stronger, and did not age. This coin features an image of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, who remained eternally young and beautiful.
Anthropomorphism was not limited to the gods’ appearance, however. They were subject to certain natural laws identical to those of the human world: they could reproduce, and they needed food. Their diet consisted of a special substance called ambrosia, but also of human offerings, especially the smoke from food burned during sacrifices. They were also subject to mortal emotions such as love, jealousy, and anger. Unlike humans, however, they were immortal and enjoyed a blessed existence, free of human misery.
The definition of each god
The Romans considered their gods to be active powers rather than impersonal spirits. To invoke a particular god was to call on a power with highly specific characteristics. Each deity was assigned to a particular sphere of activity, and had a principal name indicating his or her general character. This first name was often followed by another which specified the function justifying the invocation of the god at a given moment. So, as we shall see, the goddess Venus could be Victrix (who brought victory in battle), Genetrix (goddess of fertility), Marina (protectress of sailors), etc.
So each god had a role, and together they formed a hierarchy very similar to that of a human society. At the top was Jupiter, the king of the gods; he was surrounded by a group of major gods, the Olympians, followed by a host of lesser gods who helped the major deities fulfil their functions. These lesser gods had a very limited sphere of activity, which was indicated by their names. In the Roman world, many of these gods bore the name of the abstract notion they represented (Fortune, Abundance, etc).
The major Roman gods were the direct descendants of the deities of the Greek pantheon. The Romans adopted much of Greek mythology, giving Roman names to the Greek gods : Zeus thus became Jupiter, also king of the gods. Certain gods nevertheless acquired a whole Roman tradition ; the supreme Roman god was Capitoline Jupiter, who lived on the Capitoline Hill in Rome and protected the Roman people.
The expansion of the pantheon and "translation"
Unlike the Christian religion, the Greek and Roman religions were not founded on an original holy text. Certain texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey obviously played a major role in the construction of these religions, but they by no means had the status of the Bible. A major consequence of this was that the gods constituted a pantheon which, rather than being static, could expand as the Greeks and Romans felt the need to import gods from elsewhere.
In addition to this expansion of the pantheon, the Greek and Roman religions underwent a process called "translation" or interpretatio romana. This consisted of assimilating gods of different origins, on the basis of similarities in their functions and chief characteristics. When Caesar referred to the Gallic gods, for example, he gave them the names of Roman gods (Mercury, Mars, Apollo), as he recognised features which made them the equivalents of those deities.
As a result of these factors, the Roman religion featured a host of deities: some were direct descendants of Greek mythology, other resulted from a blend of the two traditions, and others were typically Roman.
The gods among men
In the eyes of the Romans, these many gods were materially present in certain places which were devoted to them. Each major god was entitled to a temple which always contained his or her statue (simulacrum in Latin). A temple of this type (perhaps the temple of Capitoline Jupiter) can be seen on this coin from the Republican period, now in the Rouen museum. The places devoted to the gods were not always so monumental, however. In houses, for example, an area was always devoted to the gods who protected the hearth, and this area (called a lararium) was often a simple niche in a wall where statuettes representing the gods were placed. Likewise, in public spaces, there was always an area devoted to the protective gods.
For the Greeks and Romans, the gods were omnipresent in daily life. Every action - especially every public action - required the gods’ approval. The days and years were thus punctuated by a series of codified rituals which were scrupulously performed to ensure the continuation of the "contract" between mortals and gods. But it is important to remember that the Roman religion itself evolved over time, and that the meaning and value of these rituals at any given period was perhaps not exactly the same for each individual. The main thing was that every Roman citizen should respect the long-established traditions and rituals which had ensured Rome the unfailing support of the gods, resulting in its influence throughout the world.