The Names of Mars
It is from the Roman god Mars that the fourth planet of the Solar System derives its present name. The origin of the name is uncertain.
Possibly, along with Ares, it is connected with the Sanskrit
mar and the Vedic maruts, meaning "storm divinities",
or the Greek root meaning "to carry away". According
to other speculation it comes from the root mar or mas,
meaning the generative force, for Mars was the god of springtime
and fertility before he was the god of war. Still another possible
meaning of mar was "to shine". The most ancient
forms of the name were "Maurs", "Mavors",
and "Marmar", which were later contracted to "Mars".
The god was called "Mamers" in the Oscan language, from
which the Mamertine tribe derived its name. Another nominally
Martian tribe were the Marsi. The name had still other forms
-- "Marspiter" and "Maspiter" -- which were
created by adding the word pater, meaning "father",
to the name of the god, for legend had it that Mars was the father
of Romulus, the first Roman. During this early period of the
Roman culture, Mars was also known by the surname "Silvanus",
meaning "belonging to a wood or forest". Later, Mars
was surnamed "Gradivus", which has been translated as
"he who precedes the army in battle". In the late 1st
century B.C., the emperor Augustus erected the Temple of Mars
Ultor ("Mars the Avenger") in Rome, to give thanks to
the god for his victory over the assassins of his adoptive father,
Gaius Julius Caesar.
Surnames of Mars
|Gradivus||he who precedes
|Silvanus||he who belongs to the forest
Origin and Character
Just as the Greeks likened their Ares to the Egyptian war god
Anhur when they encountered that older civilization, so the Romans
identified their own Mars with the war god of the more established
Greek culture. However, to call Mars the Roman god of war is a gross oversimplification, for he also had very unwarlike attributes. The comparison of Mars to the Greek Ares is wholly superficial, for their characters could hardly have been more dissimilar. Whereas Ares was treacherous, cowardly, lustful, savage, and malevolent,
his Roman cousin was, faithful, valorous, honorable, noble, and
benevolent. Thus Mars has more in common with the Norse god Tyr than with Ares.
Mars was unquestionably the most Roman of the gods, for unlike
the other major deities of Rome, the worship of Mars was never
much affected by foreign influences as the Empire expanded and
the city became more cosmopolitan. Partially this was no doubt
due to the fact that the Greeks reviled their own war god and
thus he was not an important part of the Greek religion that otherwise
so heavily influenced Roman worship. On the other hand, because
of Mars' original character and duties in Roman tradition, they
saw him as their protector rather than as the malefactor of all
mankind. Also, since Mars was the father of Romulus, the first
Roman, the people of Rome considered themselves to be the children
of Mars -- Martians in the sense of being connected in lineage
to the god. Finally, as the Roman state became more militarized,
the cult of Mars assumed greater importance, surpassing even that
of Jupiter. It may be said that, although Jupiter was the king
of the Roman gods, Mars ascended to the prime ministry of the
Roman Pantheon, thus assuming the more active role with regard
to the affairs of men.
The birth of Mars differed from that of Ares in that Mars was
the son of the queen of heaven alone. In a passage of Ovid, Juno
conceived Mars without Jupiter's aid, using a flower with fertile
properties which the goddess Flora obtained for her. Mars was literally a flower child. This botanical
origin was symbolic of the Roman god's very different character
and purpose, for unlike Ares, Mars did not begin his existence
as a war god, but only acquired this attribute later as the Roman
people felt the need for a supernatural defender of their fortune
on the battlefield. Unlikely though it may seem to those who are
acquainted with him only as the war god he later became, in the
beginning Mars was rather the god of vegetation and fertility,
which was of course very appropriate to the circumstances of his
conception. He was the protector of agriculture who lived in
forests and mountains. The first month of the Roman calendar,
Martius, which originally began on the vernal equinox, honored
the god and marked the annual return of life to the Earth, as
this was the season for planting crops.
For a time Mars was both an agricultural and military deity, thus
symbolizing the duality of the Roman citizen as both farmer and
soldier. Eventually, Mars transferred his agricultural duties
to Ceres and Liber, and his chief concern became that of protecting
the Roman state in war, much as among mortals the defense of the
state passed out of the hands of a militia -- temporarily raised
from the agrarian citizenry to meet an immediate threat -- and
instead became the responsibility of a huge standing army of professional
The circle with an arrow positioned diagonally upwards, , is one of the most common ideograms in Western culture. It stands for the planet Mars and for the male gender. Quite early a relation arose between this sign and the metal for weapons, iron. As a result this sign is often used on maps to indicate iron mines. The Mars sign was also used in early chemistry to represent zinc, although this metal is more often found represented with one of the symbols for Jupiter. Another symbol for Mars in alchemy was .
As the planet Mars takes a little less than two years to circle the sun, in botany the Mars sign has come to represent plants with a two-year growing cycle.
The sign has also been used as a time sign to signify morning. In the US system of hobo signs, and in the boy-scout signal systems of certain countries, it means "go this way". With the circle filled, , it is used in military contexts to denote a grenade thrower or mortar.
Sacred Animals and Plants
Several animals were sacred to Mars: the woodpecker, the horse
and the wolf, whose image frequently appears in the sanctuaries
of the god; it was a she-wolf who had nursed Romulus and Remus.
Among the plants and trees which were dedicated to him were the
fig-tree, the oak, the dog-wood, the laurel and the bean.
Associated Deities and Mortals
The character of "Quirinus", the earliest Latin war
god, was eventually melded with that of Mars. His origin is uncertain, and there is also little known about his cult. He was worshipped by the Sabines, an old Italian people who lived north-east of Rome. They had a fortified
settlement near Rome, the Quirinal, which was named after their god. Later, when Rome expanded, this settlement was absorbed by the city, and Quirinus became, together with Jupiter and Mars, the god of the
state. He was usually depicted as a bearded man who wears clothing that is part clerical and part military. His sacred plant is the myrtle. Several etymologies
are suggested for this name: that it was from an adjective meaning
"wielder of the spear", that it came from the Sabine
capital city of Cures, or that it derived from the curia,
the ancient political subdivision of the Roman state. He has
also been explained as originally being the oak-god (from quercus),
and that the body of men known as the Quirites, the earliest
name of the burgesses of Rome, were literally the men of the oaken
spear. Combined in the phrase populus Romanus Quirites,
it denoted the individual citizen as contrasted with the community.
In Roman law, ius Quiritium signified full Roman citizenship.
In political speeches, the general citizenry were addressed as
Quirites. Rome's Quirinal Hill was named for this deity.
In the time of Numa, Quirinus, like Mars, was both a war god and
a nature god, alike protector of the military fortunes of the
state and of the agricultural fortunes of the farmer. By the
end of the Republic, he had become identified with the deified
Romulus, son of Mars.
Nerio, an ancient female deity whose name meant "the strong
one", may have been connected in some way with the early
worship of Mars. Old Roman formulae of prayer mention a Hora
Quirini, his female cult associate, afterwards identified
with Hersilia, wife of Romulus. Another deity with which he was
associated in his agricultural persona was Robigus, who preserved
corn from the blight.
As the god of war, Mars was accompanied in battle by the warrior
goddesses Bellona and Vacuna; by the gods Pavor and Pallor, who
spread terror through the ranks of the enemy; by Fuga and Timor,
the personifications of flight and fear; and by Honos and Virtus,
who bestowed honor and instilled courage in the Roman soldiers.
After the battle, the triumphant war god celebrated victory with
the goddesses Vitula and Victoria. Discordia, the goddess of strife and discord whi is identified with the Greek Eris, also belonged to his retinue.
Bellona, popular among the Roman soldiers, was variously given
as his wife or sister, or less often, his daughter. Originally known as Duellona, her attribute is a sword, and she is depicted wearing a helmet
and armed with a spear and a torch. She could be of Etruscan origin,
and is identified with the Greek Enyo.
Victoria, the Roman personification of Victory, was worshipped especially by triumphant generals returning from battle. She was held in higher regard by the Romans than was her counterpart Nike by the Greeks,
and when in 382 A.D. her statue was removed by the emperor Gratianus there was much resistance in the pagan reactionary circles.
Being at first an honest farmer and later an honorable soldier, Mars did not have nearly the the plethora of paramours and progeny that Ares did. He may have taken only one mortal woman, the priestess Ilia (Rhea Silvia), on whom he fathered the twins Romulus and Remus.
Deities Associated with Mars
|Deity||Meaning or Function
|Bellona||the female warrior, consort of Mars
|Hora Quirini||consort of Quirinus|
|Minerva||wisdom, medicine, the arts, science and trade, and war|
|Nerio||the strong one
|Pallor||he who makes pale
|Pavor||he who rams down (pursues)
|Quirinus||wielder of the spear
Mortals Associated with Mars
|Remus||son of Mars and Ilia
|Ilia (Rhea Silvia)||mother of Romulus and Remus
|Romulus||son of Mars and Ilia
Temples and Priests
The sacrarium of Mars stood on the Palatine Hill in the
Roma Quadrata of Romulus, and was originally the residence of
the king. In some spiritual sense, the war god was believed to
reside there, and this is where his sacred spears and shields,
the symbolic armory of the Roman state, were kept. At first there
was only one shield, dropped from the sky by Mars to the second
Roman king Numa Pompilius as a token of his benevolence, but in
order to insure against theft or destruction, Numa had eleven
identical shields made. The twelve shields were then placed under
the stewardship of the Salii, a college of twelve priests
created by Numa for that purpose. The Salii ("jumpers"),
who served both Quirinus and Mars, derived their name from the
procession through the streets of the city which they completed
by jumping the entire way and singing the Carmen Saliare.
Primitively the rites of the Salii were intended to protect the
growth of plants. Mars' own priest was called the flamen Martialis.
In the Regia on the Forum Romanum, the hastae Martiae ("lances
of Mars") were kept. When these lances moved, it was seen
as a portent of war. Whenever war broke out, it was the consul's
ceremonial duty to shake the sacred spears and shout "Mars
vigila!" ("Mars, wake up!").
Despite the familial connection that the Roman people considered
themselves to have with Mars, until the time of Augustus, Mars
had no temples within Rome proper aside from the sacrarium
in the heart of the city. The Temple of Mars Gradivus ("he
who precedes the army in battle") was outside the Porta Capena,
the gate through which the army marched on its way to campaigns
to the south, and here too each year the Equites (knights)
met to begin their procession through the city. Another site,
originally only an altar, was in the Campus Martius, which was
the exercising ground of the army as well as for athletes. Both
of these last two sites were outside the pomerium, and
this has been explained to mean that the war god must be kept
at a distance. War was considered a force to be called upon when
needed, rather than one which should dominate the affairs of the
Roman state. In founding his temple to Mars Ultor (the "avenger"
of his grand-uncle Gaius Julius Caesar) in the Forum Augusti,
the emperor Augustus gave a new turn to the worship of Mars, and
for the first time the Martian cult began to rival that of Capitoline
Jupiter. Mars became the most prominent of the dei militares
(military deities) worshipped by the Roman legions, along with
Mithras, a deity of Indo-Iranian origin who was later introduced
into the Empire.
Bellona had a temple on the Capitolinus (inaugurated in 296 B.C.
and burned down in 48 B.C.), where, as an act of war, a spear was
cast against the distant enemy. She also had a temple on the Campus
Martius, where foreign dignitaries were received by the Senate.
The Columna Bellica was struck with a lance as a formal declaration
of war. Bellona's priests were recruited from gladiators.
According to Plutarch, Numa Pompilius "altered the order
of the months; for March, which was reckoned the first he put
into the third place; and January, which was the eleventh, he
made the first; and February, which was the twelfth and last,
. January was also called from Janus, and precedence
given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god
Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity
of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred
before those of war."
All activity of the Martian cult was confined to the warmer months,
both because this was the season of growth and of warfare. The
most important Martian festivals were celebrated in late winter
and in the spring. The Quirinalia was celebrated on the
17th day of Februarius, the supposed day on which Romulus ascended
to heaven. The Feriae Marti was celebrated on the Kalends
of Martius, which on the original form of the Roman calendar was
the first day of the year. The Equirriae were two festivals
celebrated early in the year, on 27th of Februarius and the 14th
of Martius. The name Equirria indicates horse racing,
and of course horses were bred and used in Rome chiefly for military
purposes. Thus the Equirriae can be understood as exercises
of the war horses, accompanied with sacrifices to Mars, preparatory
to the opening of the season of arms. The Quinquatria occurred
on the 19th day of Martius, when both Minerva and Mars were worshipped.
The sacred shields, or ancilia, were carried in procession
by the Salii on several occasions during the month of Martius
up to the 23rd day, when the military trumpets (tubae)
were ceremonially cleansed (Tubilustrum). The Ambervalia,
celebrated on the 29th day of Maius, was another festival of purification,
in which Mars appeared as an agricultural god. The festival of
Mars was celebrated on 1 Junius, followed by the festival of Bellona
two days later. Minerva and Mars were again celebrated on the
Minor Quinquatrus, occurring on the 13th of Junius. The
month of Octobris was also sacred to Mars. A third equestrian
festival, the Equus October, was observed on the 15th day
of Octobris. The Armilustrium was held on 19 Octobris,
and on this day the weapons of the soldiers were ritually purified
and stored for winter. Every five years the Suovetaurilia
was held. During these fertility and cleansing rites, a pig (sus),
a sheep (ovis) and bull (taurus) were sacrificed.
During the four months of the Italian winter, the worship of Mars
was at a standstill.
Martian Festivals in Ancient Rome
||Original New Year's Day|
II Id. Mar.
XIV-X Kal. Iun.
||Festival of Minerva and Mars.|
X Kal. Iun.
||Lustration of trumpets.|
IV Kal. Iun.
III Non. Iun
||Festival of Minerva and Mars.|
XIV Kal. Nov.
||Lustration of shields.|
XIII Kal. Mar.
||Celebrated ascension of Romulus.|
III Kal. Mar.
The founding of the Roman state was connected with Mars and also
with Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, through her
Trojan son Aeneas. Virgil, writing in the time of the emperor
Augustus, recorded in Book 1 of the Aeneid how following
the destruction of Troy, Juno, the Roman Hera, bent on obliterating
the last vestiges of that vanquished city, ordered up a tempest
to disperse and shipwreck the fleet of the Trojan refugees led
by Aeneas. At the end of the day, the goddess of love and beauty
came to Jupiter with tears in her eyes, asking him if Aeneas still
had his protection and was destined to found a new and greater
city in Italy. The father smiled at the daughter, kissed her,
and reassured her that he had not changed his mind. He describedto her the events that would come to pass in Italy over the next
three centuries as the small band of Trojans struggled to build
a new kingdom:
"Three full centuries
That kingdom will be ruled by Hector's race,
Until the queen and priestess, Ilia,
Pregnant by Mars, will bear twin sons to him.
Afterward, happy in the tawny pelt
His nurse, the she-wolf, wears, young Romulus
Will take the leadership, build walls of Mars,
And call by his own name his people Romans.
For these I set no limits, world or time,
But make a gift of empire without end.
Juno, indeed, whose bitterness now fills
With fear and torment the sea and earth and sky,
Will mend her ways, and favor them as I do,
Lords of the world, the toga-bearing Romans."
Ilia was also known as Rhea Silvia. Silvia, like Silvanus,
means "of the forest". The name Rhea, however,
is Greek (the mother of Zeus).
Mars had no overt role in the Aeneid as Ares had in the
Illiad, but was perceived as a hidden force behind the
actions of men, an inspiration to and protector of the Trojans
who would in time beget the Romans. In Book 7, Vergil described
a Martian ceremony while also extolling the military exploits
of the Roman legions of his own time:
A solemn custom was observ'd of old,
Which Latium held, and now the Romans hold,
Their standard when in fighting fields they rear
Against the fierce Hyrcanians, or declare
The Scythian, Indian, or Arabian war;
Or from the boasting Parthians would regain
Their eagles, lost in Carrhae's bloody plain.
Two gates of steel (the name of Mars they bear,
And still are worship'd with religious fear)
Before his temple stand: the dire abode,
And the fear'd issues of the furious god,
Are fenc'd with brazen bolts; without the gates,
The wary guardian Janus doubly waits.
Then, when the sacred senate votes the wars,
The Roman consul their decree declares,
And in his robes the sounding gates unbars.
The youth in military shouts arise,
And the loud trumpets break the yielding skies.
These rites, of old by sov'reign princes us'd,
Were the king's office; but the king refus'd,
Deaf to their cries, nor would the gates unbar
Of sacred peace, or loose th' imprison'd war;
But hid his head, and, safe from loud alarms,
Abhorr'd the wicked ministry of arms.
Then heav'n's imperious queen shot down from high:
At her approach the brazen hinges fly;
The gates are forc'd, and ev'ry falling bar;
And, like a tempest, issues out the war.
There are several references to Mars in Book 8, one of which also
Inferior ministers, for Mars, repair
His broken axletrees and blunted war,
And send him forth again with furbish'd arms,
To wake the lazy war with trumpets' loud alarms.
The cave of Mars was dress'd with mossy greens:
There, by the wolf, were laid the martial twins.
Intrepid on her swelling dugs they hung;
The foster dam loll'd out her fawning tongue:
They suck'd secure, while, bending back her head,
She lick'd their tender limbs, and form'd them as they fed.
The dog Anubis barks, but barks in vain,
Nor longer dares oppose th' ethereal train.
Mars in the middle of the shining shield
Is grav'd, and strides along the liquid field.
The Dirae souse from heav'n with swift descent;
And Discord, dyed in blood, with garments rent,
Divides the prease: her steps Bellona treads,
And shakes her iron rod above their heads.
Livy's History of Rome records that during the Samnite
wars (circa 340 B.C.), the consul Decius offered himself to the
gods, including Mars, Quirinus, and Bellona:
"Janus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, New
Gods, Native Gods, deities who have power over us and our enemies,
and Gods of the Underworld: I supplicate and revere you, I seek
your favor and beseech you, that you prosper the might and victory
of the Roman people, the Quirites, and afflict the enemies of
the Roman people, the Quirites, with terror, dread, and death.
As I have pronounced the words, even so on behalf of the army,
the legions, and auxiliaries of the Roman nation of Quirites,
do I devote myself and with me the legions and auxiliaries of
our enemies to the gods of the Underworld and to Earth."
Representations in Art
Even the most Roman of the gods bowed to the overpowering Greek
influence in Roman art, in which he was hardly distinguishable
from Ares. Mythology in Roman religion was never as well developed
and elaborate as that of the Greeks, for very early in their history
the Romans identified their gods with those of the Greeks, and
they adopted Greek mythology into their own religion.
Later, the Greeks abandoned their Olympian deities of old, and
the Romans in turn also attached less importance to their indigenous
gods as other foreign cults, notably that of the Mithras, gained
in popularity. But the most Roman of the gods was also the most enduring
of the national gods, for when all the other Greek and Roman cults had
faded, that of Mars was one of the last rivals to Christianity.
Mars returned to the art world during the Renaissance, and has continued to be represented to the present time. However, in times far removed from the age when Roman religion was an integral part of state functions, he has occasionally been confused with Ares. Both Van Heemskerk's and Tintoretto's paintings actually portray the Greek legend of Ares and Aphrodite caught in Hephaestos's net.