Burning like a silver flame: The Mother of Rome and the Patroness of ancient Wine Festivals

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A medallion painting from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii, Italy, depicting the Greco-Roman goddess Venus; it is dated to the 1st century BC.

Originally the early Latin goddess of vegetation, a patroness of vineyards and gardens, Venus became deliberately associated with the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and assumed many of her aspects. The name of Venus then became interchangeable with Aphrodite as most of the tales of these two goddesses are identical. However, like every Roman gods with their Greek counterparts, there were differences. Venus arguably became more popular in ancient Rome, and became more ingrained in the city life. She took on the aspect of a gracious Mother Goddess full of pure love as well as assuming the divine responsibility for domestic bliss and procreation.

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” Venus and Mars Bathing “, by Giulio Romano  (1499 – 1546)
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“Venus Genitrix”, Roman Imperial copy (late first-early second century AD)

Venus was also the ancestress of the Julian family of Rome which included great men such as Julius and Augustus Caesar. Anchises, a prince from Dardania and ally to Troy, was seduced by Venus who disguised herself as a Phrygian princess, only revealing her divine identity nine months later as she presented Anchises with their son Aeneas. Guided by his divine mother, Aeneas was fated to found Rome. Aeneas’ son Ascanius was credited as the ancestor of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus along with the Julian family.

In 217 BCE, the Sibyline oracle suggested that if Rome, which at that time was losing the Second Punic War, could persuade Venus Eyrcina (Venus of Eryx) to change her allegiance from the Carthagian Silician allies to the Romans, the war would be won. Rome then laid siege to Eryx, offered the goddess a magnificent temple and took her image back to Rome. It was this foreign image that eventually became Rome’s Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother).

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” Triumph of Venus “, by Francesco del Cossa (1436 – 1477)

At the end of the Roman Republic, some Romans laid claim to Venus’ favor and competed for it. Sulla adopted the name Felix (“lucky”) and accredited Venus Felix to his divine favor, Pompey dedicated a temple to Venus Victris (“Venus of Victory”) in 55 BCE  and Hadrian dedicated a temple to Venus in 139 CE, making her the protective mother of the Roman state.

Roman theology presents Venus as the yielding, watery female principle which is essential to the generation and balance of life. Balanced by the more active and fiery Vulcan and Mars, Venus absorbs and tempers the male essence, thus uniting the opposites of male and female in mutual affection. She embraces several otherwise quite disparate functions such as military victory, sexual prowess, good fortune and general prosperity.

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“Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus”, by Guy Head painted c.1771

In April 1, Veneralia was held in honour of Venus Verticordia (“Venus the Changer of Hearts”) and Fortuna Virilis (Virile Good Fortune) whose cult was probably by far the older of the two. Venus Verticordia was invented in 220 BC, in response to advice from a Sibylline oracle during Rome’s Punic Wars when a series of prodigies was taken to signify divine displeasure at sexual offenses among Romans of every category and class, including several men and three Vestal Virgins. Her statue was dedicated by a young woman, chosen as the most pudica (sexually pure) in Rome by a committee of Roman matrons. At first, this statue was probably housed in the temple of Fortuna Virilis, perhaps as divine reinforcement against the perceived moral and religious failings of its cult. Venus Verticordia was given her own temple in 114 BCE. She was meant to persuade Romans of both sexes and every class, whether married or unmarried, to cherish the traditional sexual proprieties and morality known to please the gods and benefit the State. During her rites, her image was taken from her temple to the men’s baths, where it was undressed and washed in warm water by her female attendants, then garlanded with myrtle. Women and men asked Venus Verticordia’s help in affairs of the heart, sex, betrothal and marriage.

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A little of what is left from the temple of Venus, Pompei 2015

In April 23, the ancient Romans celebrated vinalia urbana, a wine festival shared by Venus and Jupiter, the king of the gods himself. While Venus was patron of “profane” wine, for everyday human use. Jupiter was patron of the strongest, purest, sacrificial grade wine, and controlled the weather on which the autumn grape-harvest would depend. At this festival, men and women alike drank the new vintage of ordinary, non-sacral wine in honour of Venus, whose powers had provided humankind with this gift. Upper-class women gathered at Venus’s Capitoline temple, where a libation of the previous year’s vintage, sacred to Jupiter, was poured into a nearby ditch. Common girls (vulgares puellae) and prostitutes gathered at Venus’ temple just outside the Colline gate, where they offered her myrtle, mint, and rushes concealed in rose-bunches and asked her for “beauty and popular favour”, and to be made “charming and witty”.

File:The Forum of Caesar (built near the Forum Romanum in Rome in 46 BC) and the Temple of Venus Genetrix, Imperial Forums, Rome (21101482544).jpg
The Forum of Caesar (built near the Forum Romanum in Rome in 46 BC) and the Temple of Venus Genetrix, Imperial Forums, Rome

In August 19, they celebrated another wine festival called vinalia rustica,  a rustic Latin festival of wine, vegetable growth and fertility. This was almost certainly Venus’ oldest festival and was associated with her earliest known form, Venus Obsequens. Kitchen and market-gardens, as well as vineyards were dedicated to her. 

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The circular temple dedicated to the Venus of Cnidus, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli 

A festival of Venus Genetrix (September 26) was held under state auspices from 46 BCE at her temple in the Forum of Caesar in fulfillment of a vow by Julius Caesar who claimed her personal favour as his divine patron and ancestral goddess of the Julian clan. Caesar dedicated the temple during his  quadruple triumph. At the same time, he was pontifex maximus and Rome’s senior magistrate; the festival is thought to mark the unprecedented promotion of a personal, family cult to one of the Roman state. Caesar’s heir, Augustus, made much of these personal and family associations with Venus as an Imperial deity. 

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Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Aphrodite and the Mystery of Passion

“Aphrodite” by ROOSDY

The thing about Aphrodite is that she is passionate. Ancient mythology gives us numerous instances where Aphrodite punished those who neglected her worship or resented her power, as well as others in which she favoured and protected those who did homage to her and recognized her sway. As Aphrodite is the goddess of love, we take it for granted that her “passion” will not stray far from her brand. We imagine her passing her passions along her many lovers. Without a lover, she became “jealous” and her passion is used as a reason for her anger and punishments to those who disrespected her. Aphrodite knows what she wants and she expects recognition.

Aphrodite embodies love and passion because she manages to successfully balance the two concepts. In fact, can we argue that in her depictions, Aphrodite is never that much more gorgeous than other goddesses such as Athena, Hera or Artemis? She must have had something extra that made people utterly charmed by her. That something extra was her passion.

We often misunderstand the word “passion” and associate it with love and desire. But passion goes beyond one’s feelings for another person. In fact, passion is anything that arouses enthusiasm. Aphrodite’s charm is her enthusiasm to those which arouses her interest. The reason why “bad boys” or the “manic pixie dream girls” are so popular is usually because they have a variety of other passions apart from their love-interests. One gets the feeling that there are more to them than meets the eye and they are never completely yours.

In a more unromantic sphere, a group of magistrates worshiping Aphrodite called gynaikonomoi (magistrates in charge of women) actually existed at Sparta. This magistracy was first attested at Sparta in an inscription from early first-century CE. In 230 BCE, the Athenian Council dedicated an inscription to Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite who is Common to all the People). Worshipers sought her blessings not for passionate love or a good marriage but for uniting the people of Athens in both personal relationships and the political realm. Other government bodies devoted to Aphrodite included agoranomoi (magistrates in charge of the marketplace), police officials, supervisors and registrars. Among many other names, Aphrodite is also called Nauarchis (guardian of the naval commanders).

Why did all these powerful people worship the seemingly man-hungry goddess? Simple. Because she was not man-hungry (or women-hungry, for that matter). She was life-hungry. She had a wide variety of interests and she was eager to get involved in making life more harmonious for everyone. Her epithets tell us of her involvement in social causes. These involvement is also on-brand for the goddess of love. Aphrodite carved out a role for herself as the keeper of  harmony of the groups in doing their business. Import-officers of Samos dedicated offerings to Aphrodite to “maintain their camaraderie and work together.” As if those were not ambitious enough, Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite also praises Aphrodite as ruling over all creations. If Aphrodite was a modern woman, she may well be one of those women who have it all.