ancient Roman deity, in importance second only to Jupiter. Little is
known of his original character, and that character (chiefly from the
cult at Rome) is variously interpreted. It is clear that by historical
times he had developed into a god of war; in Roman literature he was
protector of Rome, a nation proud in war.
Mars’s festivals at Rome occurred in
the spring and the fall—the beginning and the end of both the
agricultural and the military seasons. The month of March, which was
named after him, was especially filled with festivals wholly or
partially in his honour; the members of the ancient priesthood of the
Salii, who were particularly associated with Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus,
came out several times during the month to dance their ceremonial war
dance in old-fashioned armour and chant a hymn to the gods. October was
also an important month for Mars. At the festival of the October Horse
on October 15, a two-horse chariot race was held in the Campus Martius,
and on October 19 the Armilustrium marked the purification of the arms
of war and their storage for the winter. The god was invoked in the
ancient hymn of the Arval Brothers, whose religious duties had as their
object to keep off enemies of all kinds from crops and herds.
Until the time of Augustus, Mars had
only two temples at Rome: one was in the Campus Martius, the exercising
ground of the army; the other was outside the Porta Capena. Within the
city there was a sacrarium (“shrine,” or “sanctuary”) of Mars in the
regia, originally the king’s house, in which the sacred spears of Mars
were kept; upon the outbreak of war the consul had to shake the spears
saying, “Mars vigila” (“Mars, wake up!”).
Under Augustus the worship of Mars at
Rome gained a new impetus; not only was he traditional guardian of the
military affairs of the Roman state but, as Mars Ultor (“Mars the
Avenger”), he became the personal guardian of the emperor in his role as
avenger of Caesar. His worship at times rivaled that of Capitoline
Jupiter, and about ad 250 Mars became the most prominent of the di
militares (“military gods”) worshiped by the Roman legions. In
literature and art he is hardly distinguished from the Greek Ares.
There are several Roman myths about
Mars. In one, Hera bore him, without Zeus, at the touch of a magic herb
given her by Flora. In another, he was the father of Romulus and Remus
by Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. Ovid, in Fasti, tells of Mars’s attempt
to seduce Minerva. In the only purely Roman myth, he is tricked into
marrying the aged Anna Perenna.