1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mars (deity)

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MARS (Mavors, Marmar, Marspiter or Maspiter), after Jupiter the most important deity of the Roman state, and one who, unlike most Roman deities, was never so much affected by foreign influences as to lose his essentially Roman and Italian character. Traces of his worship are found in all parts of central and southern Italy, in Umbria, Picenum, Samnium, and in one or two Etruscan cities, as well as in Latium; and in several communities, as we learn from Ovid (Fasti, 3.93 seq.), he gave his name to a month, as at Rome to the first month of the old Roman year. We know little of the character of his cult except at Rome, and even at Rome it has been variously interpreted. He has been explained as a sun-god, a god of wind and storm, a god of the year and a god of vegetation; and he has been compared with Apollo by Roscher (Apollo, and Mars, 1873, and in the article “Mars” in his Lexicon of Mythology). But in historical times his chief function at Rome was to protect the state in war, and it is as a god of war that he is known to all readers of Roman literature. So entirely did this characteristic get the better of all others, that his name came to be used as a synonym for bellum; and in the latest and most careful of all accounts of the Roman religion he is pronounced to have been from first to last a god of war only (see Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, p. 129 seq.).

Until the time of Augustus Mars had but two temples at Rome, and both are connected with warlike operations. One of these was originally only an altar; it was in the Campus Martius, the exercising-ground of the army. The other was outside the Porta Capena, the gate through which the army marched on its way to campaigns to the south: here too each year the Equites met in order to start in procession through the city (Dion. Hal. 6. 13). Each of these sites was outside the pomerium, and this has been explained to mean that the war-god “must be kept at a distance” (Carter, Religion of Numa, p. 19). But in the heart of the city there was a sacrarium of Mars in the regia, originally the king’s house, in which the sacred spears of Mars were kept, and the fact that on the outbreak of war the consul had to shake these spears, saying as he did it, Mars vigila (“Mars, wake up!”), shows that the god was believed to reside here in some spiritual sense. If the spears moved of themselves, the omen was bad and called for expiation. The ancilia, or sacred shields, also formed part of this symbolic armoury of the Roman state: they were carried in procession by the Salii (q.v.) or dancing warrior-priests of Mars on several occasions during the month of March up to the 23rd (tubilustrium), when the military trumpets (tubae) were lustrated: and again in October to the 19th (armilustrium), when both the ancilia and the arms of the exercitus were purified and put away for the winter. During the four months of the Italian winter the worship of Mars seems at a standstill: we have no trace of it in the calendar or in Roman literature. His activity is all in the warm season, i.e. in the season of warfare. It is only at the end of February that we find indications of the coming force of the Mars-cult in the month which bears his name: Quirinus, who was probably the Mars of the community settled on the Quirinal Hill, and had his twelve Salii corresponding to those of the Palatine Mars, held his festival on the 17th of February, and on the 27th was the first festival called Equirria, the second being on the 14th of March. The name indicates horse-racing; horses were bred and used at Rome chiefly for military purposes, and it is possible to see here, as in the Equirria of the 14th of March, which we know was a festival of Mars (W. W. Fowler, Roman Festivals, p. 44), an exercise of the war-horses, accompanied with sacrifice to Mars, preparatory to the opening of the season of arms.

There is thus abundant evidence, based on the ancient calendars and the features of the cult, that Mars was all along a deity especially connected with warfare; and it is hardly necessary to add proof of a less convincing kind, e.g. that the wolf, his special animal, is a warlike beast, or that Nerio, a female deity who may anciently have been coupled with him, seems to be etymologically “the strong one,” or that he is in legend the father of Romulus the warlike king and founder of the Roman army, as compared with Numa, who instituted the Roman law and religion. Enough has been said to show why Mars should have become exclusively a god of war, even if the Roman state in its advance in the conquest of other peoples had not given a continual impulse to this aspect of the cult. In founding his famous temple of Mars Ultor (the avenger of Caesar) in the Forum Augusti, Augustus gave a new turn to this worship, and for a time it seems to have been a rival of that of the Capitoline Jupiter (see Carter, Religion of Numa, p. 174 seq.), and late in the period of the empire Mars became the most prominent of the di militares worshipped by the Roman legions.

There are however certain features in the Mars cult which make it probable that this god was not entirely warlike in character. He seems, in early times, at least, to have been also associated with agriculture; and this is in harmony with the facts: (1) that the season of arms is also the season of the growth, ripening and harvesting of the crops; (2) that the early Roman community was an agricultural as well as a military one, as is indicated in its religious calendar (Fowler, Roman Festivals, p. 334). Thus Mars 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 (Henzen, Acta Fratr. Arv. p. 26, 1874; Wordsworth, Fragments and Specimens of Early Latin, p. 385 seq.); and his association here with the Lares (q.v.) proves that he is not regarded as a war-god who could avert the raid of an enemy. Still more striking is the invocation of Mars (with the cult-title Silvanus) in the yearly lustration of his land by the Roman farmer (Cato, De re rustica, 141), where it is not a human enemy, but disease, and all unwholesome influences, which the god is besought to avert from the farm and land, plantations and flocks. Three times the procession went round the land, reciting prayers and driving the victims to be sacrificed, viz. ox, sheep and pig (suovetaurilia), representing the farmer’s most valuable stock. We can hardly doubt that in the state ceremony of the Ambarvalia, i.e. the lustratio of the ager romanus in its earliest form, the same god was invoked and the same ritual used (Fowler, op. cit. p. 124 seq.). Again in the curious ritual of the sacrifice to Mars of the October horse (Oct. 15: Fowler op. cit. 241), though the animal was undoubtedly a war-horse, the head was cut off and decked with cakes, as we are told (Paul. Diac. 220) ob frugum eventum. Even Quirinus, the form of Mars worshipped in the Quirinal community, is not without an association with agricultural perils, for it was his flamen who sacrificed the victims at the Robigalia on the 25th of April, when the spirit of the mildew (robigus) was invoked to spare the corn (Ovid, Fasti, 4. 901 seq.).

War and agriculture are thus the two factors of human life and experience which are unquestionably prominent in the cult of Mars, and explain his importance in a community like that of Rome: and there is no need, in a short account of this religious conception, to determine whether he was by origin a solar deity, a storm-god, or a vegetation-spirit. His name gives us no help, its etymology is uncertain (Roscher in Mythological Lexicon, s.v. “Mars,” p. 2436). But we are safe in conjecturing that Mars first came into prominence among the Latins and kindred peoples in the course of their long struggle for settlements among the mountains and forests of Italy. The clearing of primeval woodland, the perils of agriculture from the raids of enemies and of wild beasts, and from the ravages of disease, are all indicated in the later Mars cult. The wolf and the woodpecker, denizens of the forest, always remained his sacred animals, and were believed in Italian legend to have led the Piceni and Hirpini to their places of settlement. Mars is specially associated with the early foundation legends of Italy, as was the case at Rome: and it was to him that the ver sacrum was dedicated, i.e. the entire produce of a spring, including the children born then, who were eventually driven forth from their homes to form new settlements elsewhere (Roscher in Lex. Myth. 2411). The fierce character of the god, gained no doubt in this period of struggle and danger, never entirely left him. Even in the hymn of the Fratres Arvales he is the “fierce Mars” (fere Mars), and in the prayer of Cato’s farmer, though he has become “Father Mars,” he is Silvanus (q.v.), the dweller in the woodland which surrounded the agricultural clearing.

See Roscher in Myth. Lex. s.v. 2385 seq.; Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, p. 129 seq.; Preller, Römische Mythologie, ed. Jordan, i. 332 seq.; Fowler, Roman Festivals, p. 33 seq.  (W. W. F.*)