By Peter Carney - Volunteer Guide

You probably expect the Roman god of war to be ferocious. Some kind of superman type figure with flashing eyes, sharpened teeth and bloodthirsty expression, maybe carrying a battle axe and lightning bolts. You’d be wrong. Instead, we have a plain, but good looking dude in ancient armour and a clumsy tall helmet. Roman gods have animals associated with them and naturally you would expect Mars animals to be warlike and predatory. One of Mars’ animals is a wolf but the other… is a woodpecker. A woodpecker? Where’s the aggression, where’s the fighting prowess, where’s the martial spirit?

It’s not that Mars is unimportant, he’s one of the main three gods in the entire Roman pantheon along with Jupiter and Juno. War is a big deal in the Roman Empire, but Mars is also the god of agriculture. So Mars’ role in the pantheon is not only to be the protector of fighters, but also the protector of food. Food is an even bigger deal than war.

It’s difficult for us now in our secular age to really appreciate just how attentive the Romans were to religious rituals. ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ as L P Hartley so aptly put it. Looking at it from a ‘present’ perspective, one could say that the Romans were ‘superstitious’. The Romans believed they had a divine mission to conquer and rule. The Empire’s success reinforced this idea of the gods being with them, around them, permeating everything. The bigger and wealthier the Empire became, the more religious (or superstitious) they became, and the temples grew ever grander and more ornate. Perhaps a parallel with modern day politics? As   governments feel they must ‘follow the science’, the Romans felt their religious beliefs helped them along the right path, or, to put it more simply: ignore the gods at your peril.

Politics and religion were inseparable in the Empire mainly because everyone believed they were. When everyone believes something that makes it true. The gods must be appeased to keep things going so everyone’s lives revolve around them. The entire calendar and indeed everyday existence was infused with religion. The Emperor himself is the ‘Pontifex Maximus’ – the bridge between gods and people. Anyone proposing there might be one god or even no gods at all was dangerously subversive.

Mars then takes his place in the pantheon and has two important briefs. He gets the entire month of March named after him. March is an important time, it’s both the beginning of Spring and the planting season and the start of the military campaigning season. It’s the New Year (perhaps more appropriate than having the new year in the middle of Winter) and the ‘Kalends’ of March, that is March the first, is Mars big day.

Mars is so important that he doesn’t just get one day and gets several in ‘his’ month. All holydays were probably a good excuse for not going to work and perhaps breaking open a bottle or two. They also helped keep track of time, and of seasonal tasks such as planting, harvesting, selling certain items, and buying others. But in all this hustle and bustle of ‘utilitarian’ holydays, the Romans were careful not to omit the appropriate sacrifice or a trip to the temple. They need to keep a god as powerful as Mars onside. 

The top person in charge of keeping Mars onside was his own high priest, the ‘Flamen Martialis’. A powerful patrician, probably with the ear of the emperor. He organised the ‘Salii’. Traditionally this was 12 high born young men who, according to Dionysius of Halicarnasus, went leaping, dancing and generally parading around the city in ancient republican armour with its figure of eight shield. They put on a show, lead the singing then retired to a banquet. The main duty of the Flamen Martialis though was to sanctify the weapons of war that are represented by sacred spears kept by the Pontifex Maximus called the regia. He or the commander of the army about to depart for battle shakes the regia vigorously shouting ‘Mars Vigilia’. Apparently, it wasn’t allowed for those officiating to leave the environs and Dionysius relates how in 191BC the army, having already departed, was on the other side of the Hellespont but its general was forbidden to join them.

Of course, Mars wasn’t the only god involved in agriculture, vegetation and fertility. All these fields were too important to be left to just one and others such as Saturn and Ceres were worshiped as well. It may seem perverse for Mars to be participating in both war and agriculture but there was a close relation between the army and the land. For example, the conquering of land had a huge impact on agriculture and the availability of agricultural produce in turn had a huge impact on keeping the soldiers fed.

Mars also had holydays in October. The end of the campaigning season and harvest time. One of these was a horse race, the Roman equivalent of the Derby, held in the fields of Mars or the Campus Martius. No doubt the occasion of great excitement and you can imagine large wagers on the various mounts. But instead of being lauded in the Forum, the winning horse was decapitated as a sacrifice to Mars.

Small bronze plaque from Vindolanda showing a two horse chariot race.

Over the years, the usual legends that every god acquires built up around Mars. He’s supposed to have raped the Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia in a dream, who then gave birth to Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome). This explains the wolf and the woodpecker. The wolf succoured the twins and the woodpecker brought them food. To the Romans, this meant Mars was the divine father of the city and would come to their aid in times of need. Later Mars fell in love with Minerva and asked the goddess of New Year and time, Anna Perenna how to approach her. Anna wanted Mars for herself and tricked him into marrying her pretending to be Minerva in disguise. Not very perceptive these gods sometimes. This story was commemorated every year on the ides of March when it was permitted for young women to sing risqué songs and generally bamboozle men.

There is plenty of evidence for the worship of Mars in Britain generally and along the frontier in particular. At Vindolanda there is a statuette of him naked and his ancient shield and spear missing but wearing his distinctive helmet. There are also a couple of intaglios one clearer than the other. In the clearer one he’s naked again but with his shield, spear and helmet. He would have imparted strength and power to the soldier wearing the ring. There is also a brooch in the Roman Army museum belonging to one Quintus Solinus where Mars isn’t naked this time but is wearing his ancient armour along with the usual spear, shield and helmet.

Q. Solinus brooch from Vindolanda and on display at the Roman Army Museum.

The general feeling with Mars is that he isn’t the bloodthirsty aggressor that Ares was in the Greek world but more of a protector. He purified both at the beginning and end of the campaigning and growing seasons rather than fought alongside the men. Without his guardianship battles would be lost and drought ensue. So March the first is not just an occasion for fun in the streets but pay attention to Mars as well. You’ll need him over the coming months.

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


Religions of the Roman Empire; Ferguson

Classical Mythology; Geddes and Grosset

Mars the Lustral God; Rosivach

The Worship of Mars; Hoerber

Roman Jewellery from Vindolanda; Birley and Greene