By Jackie James - - Volunteer Guide

Who was Bellona

Until the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the mid 4th century, Rome was essentially polytheistic i.e. the Romans believed in and worshipped many gods, with festivals being celebrated and sacrifices being offered throughout the year.

Like much else in Roman life, status was paramount: the importantgods, such as Jupiter (Best and Greatest) were honoured with official festivals, Feriae, which generally took place within or around specified temples. These were collective celebrations, recognised by the entire community, organised or supervised by the Senate, funded by public money and allocated a specific date in the official Roman calendar. 

Public celebrations, Sacra Publica, were not bestowed on the more minor' gods, who failed to make it onto the official calendar. These gods were honoured by individuals and families in private ceremonies within households or public spaces. Wealthy devotees, keen to impress, may have hosted large public spectacles.

The list, if such a thing existed, of Roman gods was neither closed nor exclusive and the polytheistic Romans thought nothing of adopting, as their own, useful gods worshipped in captured provinces, although these did not feature on the official calendar.

Given the importance of military success to the Romans, one would expect that a war Goddess such as Bellona would be a well documented major deity. Although honoured by an annual Feriae celebrated on June 3rd, her origins are obscure with little documented evidence for her cult in pre-republican Rome. There are many brief mentions of Bellona by ancient writers and historians; Livy records multiple senatorial meetings within her temple and her exploits are mentioned by several 1st century Roman poets; Ovid, Virgil, Tibullus, Statius, Martial and Juvenal (see appendix). Modern scholarly articles are also few and far between and although inscriptions recovered within Rome and throughout the Roman Empire provide some detail, there are gaps in our knowledge.

Bellona is generally depicted wearing a military helmet and armour whilst carrying a shield and brandishing either a spear, a sword, a bloody whip or a blood red torch. However, such depiction is the work of post Roman artists as no original artwork survives. This portrayal may originate from the 1st century poetic writings detailing her penchant for frenzied bloodlust, social subversion, chaos and mindless slaughter.

Bellona was variously associated with Mars, the Roman God of War, as his spouse, sibling and/or charioteer, holding the reins with bloody hands. She is also identified with Nerio, an ancient Roman war goddess and cult partner of Mars. She may have been sired by Jupiter, the God of Sky and Thunder and King of the Ancient Roman Gods. Her counterpart in Ancient Greece was the Goddess Enyo and in Cappodocia (modern day central Turkey) the Goddess Ma. Her representation was sufficient to capture the imagination of William Shakespeare in Macbeth.

Assisted by that most disloyal traitor 
The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict, 
Till that Bellona's bridegroom, lapp'd in proof, 
Confronted him with self-comparisons,
Point against point rebellious, arm ’gainst arm,
Curbing his lavish spirit; and, to conclude, 
The victory fell on us.

Macbeth Act 1, Scene 2.

It would seem that Bellona was an ancient Italian Goddess associated with Bellum (war) whose cult over time and via her association with the Cappodocian Ma became more bloody, more orgiastic, more frenetic. Her priests/cult members/guilds appear to have encompassed Hastiferi and Bellonari. The latter were the more fanatical cult members who participated actively in the festival held around the time of the Spring Equinox (21-25 March) the Dies Sanguinis or Day of Blood festival. This involved some gruesome practices: priests of the Goddess Cybele would flog themselves, those of the God Attis would castrate themselves and the Bellonari would cut their limbs with sharp knives. The blood would be sprinkled on spectators, offered to the Goddess Bellona with an invocation to release her war fury and drunk by the Bellonari to increase their frenzy. The Hastiferi, a priestly college of Rome who served the cult of Bellona, appear to have taken a less active part in the procession and were the spear bearers of Bellona.

Temples to Bellona

The ancient Bellona may, originally, have been a Goddess of the central Italian Sabine tribe some members of which migrated to Rome following its foundation in 753 BC. The Roman scholar, Varro (116 - 27 BC) records that in early Latin the Goddess was named Duellona and war was termed duello thus emphasizing her ancient roots. Bellonas Sabine roots are reinforced by the building of the first recorded temple dedicated to Bellona by a Sabine. During the 3rd Samnite War (298 - 290 BC) the consul, Appius Claudius Caecus faced a combined force of Etruscans, Gauls and Samnites in Southern Etruria (modern day central Italy). Livy reports that Appius Claudius lifted up his hands to heaven so as to be visible to those around him and offered up a prayer Bellona, if thou wilt grant us victory today, I, in return vow a temple to thee. Throughout the battle, during which Livy suggests that Appius Claudius displayed a courage equal to the whole army, he repeatedly invoked Bellona the victorious. A great victory ensued and, true to his word, on his return to Rome, Appius Claudius built the temple of Bellona in the southern Campus Martius (dedicated to the God Mars, an associate of Bellona), near the Circus Flaminus.

Bellona, if thou wilt grant us victory today, I, in return vow a temple to thee.

The temple lay just outside the walls of Rome and enjoyed a close relationship with the republican Senate who frequently used the temple for meetings particularly when war was an agenda item. The temple and its surrounds became central to the process by which Rome declared war upon a foreign state. In front of the temple, a small pillar, columella, lay within a plot of land which a soldier of Pyrrhus was forced to buy, thus rendering the plot foreign territory. An official declaration of war was made when one of the Fetialis hurled a spear into this enemy territory. The Fetialis was a college of priests involved in diplomacy whose functions included ensuring that Rome only engaged in just wars: the Roman mos maiorum (see appendix) did not recognise the right of aggression or a desire for more territory as just causes for war. If a foreign community was thought to have done Rome harm, the Fetialis would demand compensation. If this failed to materialise a ceremonial blood coloured spear would be thrown directly into enemy territory. This practice was first recorded in 280 BC when war was declared against Pyrrhus and is mentioned both by Ovid and by Livy. Although it may have been the custom in earlier times for the Fetialis to travel to the frontier of the foreign power to hurl the spear, as Rome expanded this became impractical hence the modified fetial process at the Temple of Bellona.

Being situated outside the walls of Rome, the Temple of Bellona could be used by the Senate to welcome returning, victorious Roman generals who hoped to be awarded a triumph so were reluctant to enter the city as to do so would mean surrender of their Imperium (the authority to control a military unit). The temple was also used by the Senate when meeting foreign ambassadors forbidden to enter the city of Rome and was, by far, the most important of the Temples of Bellona within republican Rome.

A second temple dedicated to Bellona Rufilia may have been located in the Augustan Region lll and is known from the tombstone of a priest described as ab Isis Serapis (the main street of Regio lll) ab adem Bellone Rufiliae - the latter may refer to the builder of the temple, thought to be Publius Cornelius Rufinus, who as consul in 290 BC was victorious against the Samnites. The priest is described as fanaticus (meaning carried away by a god, raving about, possessed, fanatic) - a term applied to the Bellonari.

The presence of two other temples within Rome dedicated to Bellona are implied from inscriptions: A temple to Bellona Insulensis probably stood on the Tiber Island - this is deduced from a tombstone set up by Apidia Ma who seemingly sold sacred vessels at this temple, which was likely dedicated to Bellonas Cappodocian counterpart, the Goddess Ma. The fourth temple, dedicated to Bellona Pulvinensis was located in Regio Vl near the Porta Collina, the Colline Gate, and stood on a terraced embankment within a grove. Known only from inscriptions, it may have been built by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 82 BC after the battle of the Porta Collina and was also linked to the Cappodocian Ma-Bellona. Pulvinensis may refer to a ceremonial couch on which the image of the Goddess was displayed or to the siting of the temple on an embankment. In 1872, during work for the foundation of the Ministero delle Finanze adjacent to the Porta Collina, two monuments of Bellona were uncovered: an inscription on the foot of a statuette featuring a female clad in a long dress and an inscription referring to the vicus Bellonae on a marble tablet.

A shrine to Bellona, on the Capitoline Hill, was inadvertently destroyed in 48 BC when the Temples of Isis and Serapis were removed. Jars containing human flesh were found following destruction of the shrine; this and the hill-top site would be compatible with the orgiastic worship of Ma-Bellona and it is possible that the shrine was, like the aforementioned temple, built by Sulla. It is worth noting that the introduction of Ma-Bellona to Rome increased the association of Bellona with other Eastern deities such as Cybele (known as Magna Mater in Rome), Attis and Isis with worship becoming increasingly bloody and exoticised.

Sulla and Bellona

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 - 78 BC), known for his military prowess, his feud with his former mentor, the general Marius and for reviving the office of dictator in 81 BC is perhaps the most famous devotee of Bellona. During his rise up the cursus honorum he spent time as propraetor in Cappodocia where he likely encountered the Goddess Ma. Some of his victories are said to have been preceded by visitations from Bellona: in 88 BC Sulla marched from Nola (a town in modern day Naples, Southern Italy) to confront his enemies in Rome. Bellona appeared to him in a dream, named his foes and advised him to eliminate them individually. In his dream Sulla accomplished this using Bellonas thunderbolt. On another occasion, the slave of an enemy general, claiming divine inspiration brought tidings of victory to Sulla from Bellona. Following the battle of the Porta Collina Sulla chaired a meeting of the Senate in the Temple of Bellona carefully orchestrating the timing of the meeting to coincide with his order for the execution of 6000 prisoners to take place in the Villa Publica in full earshot of the assembled Senators. Rightly known as an infamous butcher, Sulla and Ma-Bellona were well matched. 

Bellona Inscpriptions 

As mentioned above, no Roman artwork portraying Bellona has survived however seven inscriptions relating to her worship have been identified in Rome. One of the earlier ones found in the Forum of Augustus refers to the war against Pyrrhus and five inscriptions reference Aedem Bellonae, Bellonas dwelling or shrine.

Temples and inscriptions honouring Bellona have also been identified outside Rome including in Ostia, the port of Rome, where a small, back-street, red brick temple dating to the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117 - 138 AD) and an inscription from 140 AD were discovered. In Numidia (north-west Africa) an inscription records two Bellonari and renovation of decor within the temple. Further afield in Britannia outside the legionary fortress of Eboracum (York), a temple to Bellona predated but stood with the palace established by Septimius Severus during his early 3rd century British campaign.

Further provincial inscriptions have been found in places such as Alesia, Gallia, Lugdunensis and Germania Superior (see appendix). Many of the inscriptions also honour Mars and Virtus, a specific ancient Roman virtue encompassing valour, manliness, excellence, courage and strength: such inscriptions are often attributable to military men or military families. However, devotion to Bellona was not confined to the army and devotees included city and town officials, private individuals, families and social groups who were, at their own expense, willing to rebuild, restore and renovate her shrines and temples. Some were following instructions, visu iussus (orders) or ex iussu (commands) received whilst dreaming. Nearer to home, an inscription from Old Carlisle set up by Rufinus Augustae, a praefectus alae (cavalry commander) and his son, dedicated an altar to Bellona.

Although the evidence does suggest widespread recognition of Bellona throughout the Roman empire until the 4th century AD when Christianity became the official religion, the importance of Bellona both altered and decreased as time progressed. The association between Ma-Bellona and the bloodthirsty Sulla coloured the perception of more traditional Romans. During the reign of Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD), the power and importance of the Senate, to whom Bellona was important, was lessened. Augustus vowed a temple to Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger, in 42 BC during the Philippi campaign undertaken to avenge his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar. For a variety of reasons, this temple constructed within the newly built Forum of Augustus was not dedicated until 2 BC. Subsequently, a range of functions particularly relating to war and triumphs were transferred to the Temple of Mars Ultor thereby negating the roles of other temples including those of Bellona. Today, although once an impressive structure, all that remains is a denuded core of imperial period concrete.

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


*Iddeng Jon W. 2012, What is a Graeco-Roman Festival? A Polythetic Approach’  in J. Rasmus Brundt & Jon W. Iddeng (eds), Greek & Roman Festivals. Content, Meaning & Practice, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, pp. 19-21.

*Nelson de Paiva Bondioli. 2017, Roman Religion in the Time of Augustus. Numen 42(1), pp. 49-63.

*Scheid John. 2012, The Festivals of the Forum Boarium Area. Reflections on the Construction of Complex Representations of Roman Identityin J Rasmus Brundt & Jon W. Iddeng (eds), Greek & Roman Festivals. Content, Meaning & Practice, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, pp. 289-290.

Richard M. Eastman. 1982, Is it time to translate Shakespere?English Journal, 71(3), pp. 41-46.

*Lloyd-Morgan Glenys. 1996, Nemesis and Bellona: A preliminary study of two neglected goddessesin Sandra Billington & Miranda Green (eds), The Concept of the Goddess, pp 124-126.

*Titus Livius (Livy). 1912, The History of Rome: 10, (19). Translated by Rev Canon Roberts.

*Palmer Robert E.A. 1975, The Neighbourhood of Sullan Bellona at the Colline Gate. Mélanges de l’École Français de Rome  Antiquité 87(2), pp. 653-665.

*L. Richardson, jr. 1992, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 57-58.

*L. Richardson, jr. 1992, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 94.

*Plutarch, 1916, Life of SullaIn The Parallel Lives. 19, pp. 425-433 [Online] Available at https:/

*Davies, R. W. Some Cumbrian Inscriptions.” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, vol. 22, 1976, pp. 179–183. JSTOR, Accessed 23 May 2021.

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*Mingren Wu. 2018. Bellona: The Roman Goddess of War and Artistic Muse. [Online] Available at

*Thomas Wiedmann. 1986, The Fetiales: A Reconsideration. Classical Quarterly 36 (ii), pp.478-490.

*Ovid. 2000, Fasti, Penquin Classics. Ed. A.J. Boyle & R.D. Woodward. 6 pp. 205-208.

*Daniel J. Taylor. 2017, Varro and the Teaching of Latin. The Classical Outlook, 92(1), p 10.

*Jaime Alvar. 2008, Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salavation and Ethics in the Cult of Cybele, Isis and Mithrasin Richard Gordon (ed), The Ritual Systems, Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, (4), pp 282-289.

*Rich, J. W. ‘Augustus's Parthian Honours, the Temple of Mars Ultor and the Arch in the Forum Romanum.Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. 66, 1998, pp. 71128. JSTOR, Accessed 22 May 2021.


Varro: Marcus Terrentius Varro, Roman Scholar, 116 BC - 27 BC.

Virgil: Publius Vergilius Maro, Roman Poet, 70 BC - 19 BC.

Livy: Titus Livius, Roman Historian, 64/59 BC - 12/17 AD.

Tibullis: Albius Tibullius, Roman Poet, 55 BC - 19 BC.

Ovid: Publius Ovidius Naso, Roman Poet, 43 BC - 17/18 AD.

Seneca: Lucius Annaeus Senneca the younger, Roman Stoic, Philosopher, Tutor to Emperor Nero (54 AD - 68 AD), 4 BC - 65 AD.

Martial: Marcus Valerius Martialis, Roman Poet, 38/41 AD - 102/104 AD.

Statius: Publius Papinius Statius, Roman Poet, 45 AD - 96 AD.

Juvenal: Decimus Junius Juvenalis, Roman Poet, Born 1st century AD - died 2nd century AD.

Pyrrhus: King of Greek tribe of Molossians & later King of Epirus (north west Greece). One os the strongest opponents of early Rome. Died 272 BC.

Alesia: modern day Alise-Sainte-Reine, Burgundy, France.

Gallia: Roman Gaul encompassed modern day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, parts of northern Italy, The Netherlands and Germany.

Lugdunensis: province within Roman Gaul; the capital of which was Lugdunum, modern day Lyon.

Germania Superior: modern day western Switzerland, the French Jura and Alsace regions and southwest Germany.

Mos maiorum: represented the conservation of ancestral customs and traditions and was an essential part of the Romansself-image and discourse. It encompassed the principles, behaviour and social norms that affected private, political and military life.