Mars, the God of War

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Mars is, in Roman and Italic religion, the god of war and duels and, according to the most archaic mythology, also of thunder, rain, and fertility.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

Similar to the Greek deity Ares, over time he absorbed all its attributes until he was completely identified with it. He was the foremost of the military gods worshipped by the Roman army. He was the son of Jupiter and Juno. The majority of his celebrations took place in March, the month that bears his name (Latin Martius), and in October, the start of the military campaigning season and the conclusion of the growing season.

Numa, the supposedly peace-loving semi-legendary second king of Rome, is said to have erected Mars’ shrine on the Campus Martius, the area of Rome that bears his name. Mars was a father (pater) to the Roman people and symbolized military might as a means of securing peace. Mars was the father of Romulus and Remus in the mythical ancestry and building of Rome through his rape of Rhea Silvia. Venus was the heavenly mother of the hero Aeneas, who is remembered as the Trojan exile who “founded” Rome several generations before Romulus built down the city walls. His love connection with Venus symbolically unified two disparate stories of Rome’s birth.

A nude statue of Mars in a garden setting, depicted on a wall painting from Pompeii

Mars may eventually be a thematic reflection of the thunderer-like Proto-Indo-European deity Perkwunos.

Typically, Jupiter and Juno are thought to be the parents of Mars. He was the sole son of Juno in Ovid’s account of Mars’ lineage. When Jupiter gave birth to Minerva from his forehead, he had violated the traditional role of mothers (or mind). Juno did the same and asked Flora, a goddess, for counsel. When Flora tried a magic flower on a cow, it instantly turned fecund (Latin: flos, plural: flores, a masculine term). Using her thumb, Flora ritualistically selected a flower, placed it on Juno’s abdomen, and fertilized her. For the birth, Juno withdrew to Thrace and the Marmara coast.

For poets and philosophers, the combination of Venus and Mars was more alluring, and the coupling frequently appeared in works of art. As a type of virtue (virtus) or life energy (vis), virility is one of Mars’ primary traits. As a protector of agriculture, he focuses his efforts on fostering the circumstances necessary for crops to develop, which may entail fighting off invading natural forces.

Mars’s enigmatic ties to the wild forests reveal his capacity for ferocity. He may have started out as a deity of the wild, existing outside of human bounds and so deserving of worship. The woodpecker, the wolf, and the bear were the wild creatures most holy to Mars, and according to Roman folklore, they constantly resided in the same slopes and wooded areas.

Featured image: Colossal statue of Mars (Pyrrhus). Marble, Roman artwork

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