By Pat Hirst -  Volunteer Guide

The Festival

There’s no prizes for guessing which of the many Roman gods was celebrated on 23rd and 24th of July in the Roman calendar: Neptune is probably one of the more well-known gods in the Roman pantheon, is still part of the lexicon of the English language and has been used as a trope for the sea(s) in numerous literary works. Yet despite his fame, very little is known about the festival celebrated in his honour, other than crowds camped for two days in the Circus Flaminius, constructing shelters (umbrae) from branches and leaves, and in all probability having a riotous time. The poet Horace, however, was a killjoy and preferred to stay at home (Odes 3.28) with ‘…a girlfriend and a bottle of superior wine…’. Perhaps he would have changed his mind after a period of lockdown such as we have recently experienced!

Ancient calendars describe the days as Nept. ludi et feriae - Neptune’s games and festivals. Entertainment would have probably included horse racing, with competitors racing round the track and circling ‘turning posts’ (metas) at either end of the Circus, a feat made doubly difficult by not having stirrups!

The God Neptune

Originally, Neptune was the god of springs and fresh water, but in 399BC, he was adopted by the Roman people as the god of the sea and served much the same purpose as the earlier Greek god Poseidon, though he never acquired the same status as his Greek counterpart. He was never a ruling deity and was not represented in either the Archaic Triad of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus (the deified figure of Romulus, the founder of Rome) or the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, although he was brother to Pluto, Jupiter, and Juno, and one of the twelve main deities recognised by the Romans. Previously the Titan Oceanus had been the god of seas and rivers, notably the enormous river that was thought to surround the world and from which all rivers and streams were believed to flow.

For most people it was too terrifying to contemplate travelling beyond this river in the belief that the underworld was on the other side. It is the enormous statue of Oceanus, not Neptune, that has graced the Trevi fountain in Rome since 1762, now situated at the spot where the Aqua Virgo is said to have brought water to the junction of three of Rome’s streets in 19BC. Perhaps the expansion of Rome across the seas was the catalyst for promoting the importance of Neptune. In earlier times, Fortunus had been credited with victories at sea, but with an ever-expanding empire and adventurous forays across uncharted waters, was it felt the time was right for a dedicated god of these seas and oceans to protect sailors?

Our image of Neptune has been heavily influenced by the Renaissance painters, who variously portrayed him as an old, muscular, bearded, naked man riding the oceans holding the reins of a one, two or four-horse chariot or sea shell, and carrying a trident, with which legend says he not only commanded the waves, but also summoned earthquakes: this was a gift from Cyclops. He was said to be extremely bad tempered. He usually had dolphins in attendance, and sometimes had hippocampi instead of horses (hippocampi were half horse, half fish: the fountain in the Vindolanda quadrangle is crowned by a hippocampus). Some paintings also depict Neptune carrying a net over one arm, making him reminiscent of the Retiarius gladiator. Many of these early paintings reflect the image of Neptune on a sestertius of Augustus from the late first century BC, though it is not known how these painters knew about the coin.

Neptune also had a wife, Salacia, who was associated with Amphitrite, queen of the sea and wife of Poseidon. However, he was said to be extremely lecherous and had numerous affairs. One of his sons was Triton, and all in all, he had seven divine daughters, and 5 mortal stepdaughters. Salacia, the ‘official wife’, was the goddess of spring water, and her name gives us the words salt (strangely for a goddess of fresh water), and also salacious, though there is nothing in ancient texts to suggest she was any such thing, unlike her husband.

Worshiping Neptune

In 25 BC, a temple to Neptune was built near the Circus Flaminius in the Campus Martius. This location was on the flood plain of the River Tiber, so flooded regularly at high tide. How apt for a sea god!

The timing of Neptunalia coincided with the moon being furthest from the earth, when its influence on waves and tides was at its weakest. However, as there is no evidence for steps leading to the entrance, in all probability the temple was only accessible by boat - again very fitting for the worship of a sea god.

The association of the Circus Flaminius with horses and horse racing undoubtedly influenced Neptune’s role as patron of horses and horse racing, and in this role, he was worshipped as Neptunus Equester. Indeed, some myths credit Neptune with the creation of the horse, which he gave to the people of Rome. His popularity soared after Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa built a basilica in his honour near the site of the Pantheon after his victory at the sea battle of Actium in 31BC, and his defeat of Mark Antony. There was also a sanctuary to Neptune where a spring rose from between the Aventine and Palatine hills.

Yet, despite Neptune being one of the popular Roman gods, and one of only three gods to whom a bull could be sacrificed, (if you discount the cult of Mithras, Mars and Apollo were the other two), the festival of Neptunalia remains an enigma. As it was held in high summer when drought might have been a problem, it was possibly to ask for Neptune’s help in making sure that the streams and rivers didn’t dry up, rain came as expected in early autumn to irrigate the land, and water the newly planted crops. Slaves were left to tend, mend and construct irrigation channels to aid water flow when the autumn rains came.

Yet, despite Neptune being one of the popular Roman gods, and one of only three to whom a bull could be sacrificed, (if you discount the cult of Mithras, Mars and Apollo were the other two), the festival of Neptunalia remains an enigma.  As it was held in high summer when drought was a distinct possibility, was it to ensure Neptune’s help in making sure the streams and rivers didn’t dry up, and the autumn rain came as expected to water the newly sown crops?  It was of course, the job of slaves to tend, mend and construct irrigation channels to aid water flow - usually at the hottest time of year.

In the mid-19th century, the 8th planet (the ‘blue’ planet), was named after Neptune, and one of its moons after his son, Triton.  Even Vindolanda didn’t escape the cult: an altar bearing the inscription ‘To the god Neptune…set up this altar’ (Deo Neptuno ara(m) (p)-os(uit) ( )NO) was found sometime before 1832, but is now lost unfortunately (RIB 1694).  If you find it, would you please let us know?

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



New World Encyclopaedia, 2008



Varro, De lingua Latina vi.19">Neptune</a>  - Gods & Goddesses, April 05, 2021

The Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classical Stories, Philip Matyszak