By Sheila Cook - Volunteer Guide

Venus goes back beyond Roman times; she is one of the major deities in the Roman pantheon, a native goddess combined with the Greek Aphrodite. In myth, she is the daughter of Jupiter by the wife of Vulcan but her original incarnation had been as a fertility goddess. She was born from the waves and sea foam and there are numerous ancient representations of her as a blonde nymph in a seashell, often with attendant Cupids. The Romans named the brightest planet in the night sky visible to the naked eye after her, and the universal symbol for female depicts her hand mirror.

Her name is identical to the Latin noun venus (sexual love); the Latin word venenum (poison or venom) is also related, originally meaning ‘love potion’. This shows the seductive side of her nature, but while it was only fitting to venerate Venus if you were looking for love, you still needed to be careful or you could end up with a venereal disease

One of my favourite appearances of Venus in antiquity is in ‘A Day at the Races’ by Ovid. This short book is worth reading for the social detail, the vivid and exciting atmosphere with heightened emotions portrayed, as well as being a masterclass in seduction ancient-Roman-style.  The poet has gone there with the intent of seducing a woman, as the racetrack was the only place of entertainment in Rome where men and women were not seated separately. He describes the procession of deities before the chariot racing begins and begs Venus’s indulgence for her help in his erotic venture. He says he will cheer:

 ‘for you, charming Venus, and the boy

with the powerful bow: Goddess, help this venture

and change my new girl’s mind! Let her agree to be loved!

She nodded, and gave me a favourable sign.

What the goddess promised, I ask you to promise:

don’t talk of Venus, you’ll be a greater goddess.

I swear to you, by the crowd and the gods’ procession,

I want you to be my girl for all time!  (Ovid Amores 3.2)

 

(Gods were supposed to show they consented to a favour asked of them by nodding their head, and Ovid happily imagines that her statue bobbing up and down as it was carried in the procession has agreed to his request.)

Claimed as the mother of Aeneas and the beginning of the Julian bloodline, Venus is presented as the yielding, watery female element, the counterpart to Vulcan and Mars, who are active and fiery. She can give military victory, sexual success, good fortune and prosperity. Because she arose from the waves, she was also viewed as the divine protector of mariners. Her sacred month was April and her signs included roses, and myrtle, which was thought to be a particularly potent aphrodisiac. As goddess of love and sex, Venus played an essential role at Roman prenuptial rites and wedding nights, so myrtle and roses were used in bridal bouquets. On the night before her wedding a bride would offer her dolls and other toys either to the Lares, the household gods, or to Venus.

Venus figurines made of pipeclay have been found at both Carvoran and Vindolanda. These were not specifically associated with the military but are often found in settlements with a greater mix of civilians and families. They are frequently found broken at the neck and/or lower legs. It has been suggested that this was a deliberate ritual practice, and as Venus was the goddess of love and fertility perhaps the owner was looking for love.

Like other major Roman deities, Venus took many forms, being often fused with other goddesses into a syncretic deity. She had universally recognised classic powers but also distinctive local traits, and various spheres of influence, several of which had their own festival day. Here are a few of the epithets and responsibilities she was given:

  • Venus Cloacina (Venus the Purifier) had responsibility along with the Etruscan water goddess Cloacina, for the Cloaca Maxima, Rome's main sewer.
  • Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother) a goddess of motherhood and domesticity. As previously mentioned, she was viewed as a personal ancestress of Julius Caesar and in more general terms the divine forebear of the Romans.
  • Venus Kallipygos (Venus with the beautiful buttocks). No further comment necessary.
  • Venus Physica (Venus Naturist) This epithet viewed Venus as a universal, natural creative force informing the physical world. She is addressed as Alma Venus (Nurturing Venus) by Lucretius in the introductory lines of De Rerum Natura.
  • Venus Verticordia (Venus the Changer of Hearts). The agony aunt of antiquity. Women and men alike asked for her help in affairs of the heart, and this is how we commonly think of her today. Veneralia was held in her honour on April 1st.

We turn now to Cupid, the other half of this dynamic duo. He was the god who embodied desire, the counterpart of the Greek god Eros and the equivalent of Amor in Latin poetry. According to myth, he was the son of Mercury and Venus. His name comes from the personification of Latin cupido (love or desire). However, he had no temples or religious practices independent of other deities such as Venus. Cupid was generally viewed as benevolent, on account of the happiness he imparted to couples both human and divine. At the worst he was considered mischievous in his matchmaking, with Venus sometimes being the instigator of this mischief. (However, in some images she is depicted scolding or even spanking him due to his naughty nature!)

He is often portrayed as a winged infant carrying a bow and a quiver with two kinds of arrows, or darts, one with a sharp golden point, and the other with a blunt tip of lead. These arrows were symbolic of love’s power and they could strike someone without their knowledge. A person wounded by a golden arrow was filled with uncontrollable desire, but someone struck by the lead one felt only the desire to flee.

 

On gems and other surviving pieces, Cupid is usually shown being playful, sometimes driving a hoop, throwing darts, catching a butterfly, or flirting with a nymph. He is often depicted with his mother playing a horn or a lyre. He was sometimes portrayed wearing armour, perhaps to suggest ironic parallels between warfare and romance. Several Cupid intaglios have been found at Vindolanda, two of which show him hunting.  Both of these depict scenes which evoke a feeling of abundance and prosperity. Two further Vindolanda intaglios show him riding on a dolphin, and it is believed that this represents him carrying the soul of the deceased to the underworld, as the dolphin was the only animal able to cross the sea to the Blessed Isles.  At Vindolanda this gem may have been chosen by someone who had a connection to the sea or someone who hoped for a better afterlife.

Several representations, especially frescoes, show more than one Cupid at a time, often colluding. As an example, they are depicted in a frieze at Pompeii as metalworkers and taking part in a chariot race (and crashing the chariot).  In the wall painting at the House of the Cupids at Pompeii we can see a bearded old man stooping to examine a small cage containing Cupids, only to discover that two have escaped. They’ve made straight for his young wife leaning against a nearby wall.  One of them is hiding behind her skirts in a rather suggestive manner while the other offers her two crowns, symbolising the kingdom of love she will soon rule with her secret lover.

These days Cupid is a universal mascot of Valentine’s Day, a cheeky cherub shooting arrows at people to make them lovesick, and Venus is still seen as the essence of femininity. Their roles haven’t really changed since classical times, and they are still very much a part of popular culture.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project 

Sources

Ovid, Amores 3

Beard M, Pompeii, London 2008

Birley B and Green E Vindolanda Jewellery Report

Butterworth A  Pompeii the living city, London 2005

Laurence R

Shelton J-A, As the Romans Did (source book), OUP 1998

Websites etc

Wikipedia

Encyclopaedia Britannica