In his History, Livy reported that in a critical part of the battle against the Samnites in 296 BCE, the general Appius Claudius was seen in the front lines raising his hands as he uttered a prayer, “Bellona, if you grant us victory today, I promise to build you a temple.” This prayer was proven to be effective as the Romans proceeded to capture and plundered the Samnite camp, giving a massive amount of booty to their own sodiers. Bellona was considered as an equivalent of the Hellenistic Cappadocian goddess Ma. Ma has been interpreted as a “mother” goddess and compared to Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, also known as the Magna Mater (“Great Mother”) by the ancient Romans. Cybele’s college of priests (Galli), who were required to castrate themselves to worship her, were considered sacred. Bellona’s college of priests (Bellonarii) also instituted the prominent feature of deeply cutting their own flesh and sprinkle their blood on the spectators for Bellona’s fanatical rites which was called dies sanguinis (“the day of blood”). Being the equivalent of the Magna Mater herself should have placed Bellona equal, if not higher, in status to Mars.
However, for such an important goddess, information about Bellona is surprisingly limited and what we know about her function is also contradictory. Her other equivalents are commonly said to be either Greek’s Enyo or ancient Roman’s Nerio. Enyo, the goddess of war, terror and bloodshed, often accompanies Ares into battle and is responsible for orchestrating the destruction of cities. Nerio was an ancient Roman war goddess who personifies valor. Also a partner of Mars in ancient cult practices, Nerio was identified with the goddess Bellona or, later, with the goddess Minerva. These information do not give us a clear idea of Bellona’s character. However, to know more about this mysterious ancient goddess, we will still need to relate her and what we can find out about her functions to those of other goddesses.
Although in his Roman depictions Mars reveals himself in varied forms and known by a great number of names, it is generally quite easy to recognize the god of war. However, the goddess who appears at his side on inscriptions and in sculptures are not always easy to identify. The best one can expect is for the goddess to be named without any distinctive traits which makes us still unsure of the goddess’ identity. It is therefore understandable to misidentify Victoria, Nemesis and Bellona – all three of whom have been associated with Mars one way or the other.
The winged and beautiful Victoria is a natural companion for Mars as her role is bestow the palm of victory to the winning side, thus deciding the resolution of a conflict and crown the winner. Many inscriptions honoring Mars and Victoria together in Rome were left by the Equites Singulares Augusti – the Emperor’s Horse Guard, a cavalry unit of the military. In fact, the joint cult of Mars and Victoria is typical of military zones such as the Germanic limes, the Danube, Britain and Numidia.
As Victoria represents the happy outcome of conflicts, she is naturally associated with the peace achieved after the conflict is over. Bellona’s role and appearance seems to be the opposite as she is placed in the battle itself, riding her chariot and watching over the very act of fighting. Bellona either wears a helmet or bares her head from which snakes grow instead of hair, which would leave room for one to suggest that an unidentified statue of Bellona could also be that of Minerva or Medusa. Symbolically, we may have the image of Bellona as the goddess who occupies two heroic ideals of strength (symbolized by the helmet) and immortality (symbolized by the snakes).
Nemesis holds a middle course between the extremes of behavior represented by Victoria and Bellona. Nemesis may also have been the oldest of the three goddesses. One of the earliest references to Nemesis can be found in two lines of Hesiod’s Theogony, dated to the end of the eighth century BCE, that says “Then deadly night gave birth to Nemesis, that pain to Gods and men.” (Hesiod, Theogony, lines 222–3). However, like the other two goddesses, Nemesis has her own attributes which leaves room for some misidentification. These attributes include a winged wheel and the gryphon, which she is said to have shared with Apollo and Artemis. An example of a Hadrianic coin minted at Alexandria in 137 CE shows a seated female gryphon in a shrine with one paw resting on a wheel, suggesting that Nemesis was worshiped in Alexandria – however, this depiction would have also leave room for one to suggest that it was Artemis who was worshiped there.
Latin inscriptions referring to Nemesis occur more frequently as those referring to Bellona. This may be due in part to Nemesis being an older goddess. Both Bellona and Nemesis were honored by priests, officials, military men and private individuals in towns and cities. More honor was paid to Nemesis by soldiers and civilians in the northern frontier provinces of Pannonia, Moesia and Dacia. As she was the goddess of Justice, Nemesis could be seen to be holding the fate of individuals in her hands which leads to the need to invoke her help in times of peril as well as in one’s daily life. For example, there is a lead curse-tablet from the Caerleon amphitheatre asking for her retribution against a thief who had stolen a cloak and pair of boots which confirms her role as arbiter and mediator.
If Nemesis can claim seniority with her Greek ancestry going back to at least the late eighth century BCE, Bellona came considerably later. Bellona’s name is mentioned in Ovid’s Fasti which reported the extraterritorial status of Bellona’s temple at Campus Martius. The first known temple built to her honor was the one promised by general Appius Claudius Caecus in 296 BCE and situated near the Circus Flaminius. The temple was placed just outside the walls of Rome and fulfilled mainly three functions: it was used both as a meeting place for the senate, to receive foreign ambassadors who were not to be admitted into the city or to welcome returning Roman generals. Another temple to Bellona is thought to have been outside the area of the fortress and colony at Eboracum (York), which was established there by Septimus Severus for his British campaign. In each case Bellona’s worshipers were prepared to rebuild, restore and renovate her shrines and temples at their own cost.
Seven inscriptions have been found in Rome relating to Bellona’s worship. One of the earlier inscriptions, found in the Forum of Augustus, refers back to the time of the Pyrrhic War (280 – 275 BCE). Five of these inscriptions reference Aedem Bellonae (“Bellona’s dwelling”). There are a number of inscriptions which have dedications to Bellona in association with Mars. Mars and Bellona are found on inscriptions from Alesia, Gallia Lugdunensis and Germany.
Seneca the Younger, in On Clemency, wrote that when Lucius Cornelius Sulla was presiding over the Senate in session at the Temple of Bellona, he ordered 7,000 Roman citizens to be killed for supporting the opposing faction in a civil war. When he heard the screams of the butchered men, Sulla said calmly to the terrified senators around him, “Let us continue our business, Senators; a few traitors are being executed by my orders.”
While Sulla may not be as famous as Julius Caesar, he did pave Caesar’s path to the dictatorship almost forty years later. Sulla became the first Roman to have conquered Rome in 88 BCE and repeated this feat six years later. He set a precedent of using military force to usurp control over Rome, which became a common pattern in the last decades of the republic. However, Sulla realized even before the Emperor Augustus that war took place not only on the battlefield, but also in the hearts of the people. Therefore, long before Augustus gained wide-spread admiration for his use of images for propaganda, Sulla already set the precedent in his own life time without using Mars.
Instead, Sulla utilized three goddesses, Venus, Fortuna and Bellona to gain the public’s affection. The three goddesses were popular enough to have had a set of roles and associations that Sulla would have found useful. In his turn, Sulla introduced more layers to the goddesses’ personalities. His eastern campaigns introduced him to regional characteristics of similar goddesses previously unfamiliar to most Romans, which he merged into the three goddesses. Therefore, Venus gained the more agressive elements of Aphrodite that were more common in Greece and Asia Minor but not in Rome. He combined Fortuna with its Greek equivalent Tyche, who is also a patron goddess of cities and kings, and he also merged the Cappadocian mother-goddess Ma into Bellona.
Venus went on to play a substantial role in Sulla’s propaganda. The Greeks accepted the Romans’ claim that they were descendants of Aeneas of Troy, son of Aphrodite, a claim used by the Romans to justify their interference with eastern affairs. Influenced by local eastern cults of war-like Aphrodite, Sulla established a connection between Venus and victory in the battlefield – something completely different from Venus’ peaceful image in Rome at the time, and something that would have been easier to achieve by using Mars’ image instead. However, Sulla’s later actions provided us with a good reason for this. Upon his return to Italy, Sulla displayed Venus on his coins. Venus’ support served to attest for Sulla’s loyalty to Rome, as it was clear to the people that the Mother of the Romans would want what was best for her children and would not have aided a treacherous general.
While Roman generals have already founded cults of Fortuna from the second century BCE, Sulla was the first general to claim Fortuna as his patroness. He seems to have been influenced by the Hellenistic idea that Tyche, the Greek equivalent of Fortuna, controls the fates of cities and kingdoms as well as of those who ruled them. Sulla may have adopted Fortuna as his patroness to strengthen his connection with Servius Tullius, the legendary Roman king and a protégé of the goddess as, despite being an usurper, Servius was portrayed in the late Republic as an important democratic legislator. Sulla, also accused of being an usurper, may have considered himself a second Servius and used the precedent to prove that he had no intention of becoming a tyrant.
Sulla’s decision to utilize Bellona was somewhat a personal one. An ancestor of Sulla’s is said to have founded a temple to Bellona and the family tradition might have played a part in Sulla’s decision to use Bellona in his propaganda. As both Bellona’s temples in Rome were found during the third Samnite War, Bellona was associated with war against the Samnites who led the resistance to Sulla upon his return to Italy.
The three goddesses and their roles in Roman politics evolved after Sulla’s death. The armed and victorious Venus became very popular and featured prominently in the propaganda of Pompey, Caesar, and Augustus. Fortuna was transformed from a goddess who occasionally aided generals in battle, to the patron-goddess of the leaders of the Republic – she later also became the patron-goddess to the principes. These changes are part of a trend of connecting cults and gods to individual leaders of which Sulla was a major contributor. Some prominent later examples are Julius Caesar who associated himself with the war-like Venus and Augustus who connected himself to both Venus and Mars. However, unlike Venus and Fortuna, Bellona was largely abandoned by Sulla’s successors, possibly due to her close connection with the dictator. After his death, Sulla became very unpopular and his successors wished to distance themselves from anything that might relate them to him. The role Bellona played in Sulla’s conquests of Rome, along with her violent rituals may have also thwarted her crossover into the mainstream of Roman propaganda, thus perhaps paving the way for Mars to play a bigger role in Roman politics.