Mars is the god of war in Roman religion and mythology, and his Greek counterpart is Ares. Though he is primarily known as the god of war, he is also known as a guardian of agriculture, the god of spring, fertility, virility, and growth in nature. Mars is one of the most feared gods as the second most important god in Roman history following Jupiter, and he is also the military god most celebrated by the Roman army.
Mars is considered the son of Jupiter and Juno. According to the Roman poet Ovidius, Jupiter had previously given birth to his daughter, Minerva, through his forehead using only his mind. Jealous that he did not need a woman’s help, Juno sought the help of Flora, the goddess of vegetation, so that she may bear a child without a man’s help. Flora gave Juno a magic flower, and Juno became pregnant just by touching it. Ovid relayed that Mars’ birth marked the first of a new month of a new year, now known as March. Until the reign of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome circa 700 BC, March was the first month of every year and signified the time for the resumption of war. The story of Mars’ birth attributes to his reputation as a god of the spring and agriculture. According to Roman mythology, Mars had a love affair with Venus, the goddess of love, and fathered Cupid, Fuga, and Timor. Fuga and Timor became known as the personifications of flight and fear, and Mars is typically depicted going into battle accompanied by them. Venus was already married, and her husband cast a net over their bed to catch Mars and Venus together. After other relationships, Mars fell in love with Rhea Silvia, also known as the Vestal Ilia. Together, they had twins Romulus and Remus, considered the legendary fathers of the city of Rome. For this reason, Romans consider themselves “sons of Mars.”
Mars is celebrated twice through the calendar year – the first of March, signifying his birth and the start of spring, and the 19th of October, when the weapons of Roman soldiers were ritually purified and stored for winter. During these festivals, chariot races and animal sacrifices were the primary attractions. Generally, these were held in Mars’ main temple in Rome: the Campus Martius, “Field of Mars”, or the exercising ground of the army. Mars also had another temple in Rome: the Porta Capena, where Mars’ sacred spears are kept. Like many deities, Mars is associated with sacred animals; his is the wolf and the woodpecker. The wolf is particularly important because according to Roman mythology, Mars and Rhea Silvia’s twins, Romulus and Remus, were abandoned in the woods by a begrudged family member. Mars sent a wolf to guide them and watch over them. Romulus and Remus, essentially raised by a pack of wolves, went on to build the city of Rome. Because of this, the wolf is a popular symbol of Rome. According to lore, the woodpecker also helped Mars’ sons by bringing them nourishment.
Mars is typically portrayed in full battle armor, wearing the Roman crested helmet and armed with a shield and a spear. He is often associated with Bellona, the Roman goddess of war; she is usually seen in pictures riding in his chariot by his side. Mars, as the embodiment of masculine aggression and war, is often depicted nude or semi-nude but is rarely seen without his weapons.
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