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Eirene, the Ancient Greek Goddess of Peace

The goddess Eirene symbolized peace in the ancient Greek world. Worshiped as Pax by the Romans, her depictions often showed the fruitfulness and plenty that are the result of peace. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Eirene, the ancient Greek Goddess of peace, is less well-known than the god of war, Ares, who in his Roman guise of Mars was an ubiquitous deity invoked by men who went to war.

Perhaps this is an unfortunate reflection on our human culture, perhaps not. After all, Ares was not a common deity in the Greek pantheon either, representing as he did the absolute worst aspects of warfare.

Eirene, or Irene, was the daughter of Zeus, the father of all the gods on Mt. Olympus, and Themis, the personification of justice and good counsel. She and her two sisters Eunomia (order) and Dike (Justice) comprised the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons.

Greek goddess of peace Eirene one of the Horae, the three Seasons of Spring, Summer and Autumn

According to Homer’s “lliad,” the Horae are also the guardians of the gates to Mount Olympus. This is why Eirene is also considered a goddess of entrance ways, reflected in the seasons perhaps as “gateways” to the next season.

Eirene was always depicted in art as a beautiful young woman who often carried a cornucopia, scepter, and a torch, or rhyton.

She was particularly well regarded by the citizens of Athens. After a naval victory over Sparta in 375 BC, the Athenians established a cult of Peace, erecting altars to her. They held an annual state sacrifice to her after 371 BC to commemorate the Common Peace of that year and set up a statue in her honor in the Agora of Athens.

The statue was created in bronze by Cephisodotus the Elder, likely the father or uncle of the famous sculptor Praxiteles. It was a beloved statue of the Athenians, who depicted it on their vases and coinage.

“Allegory of Peace,” by Jacob Jordaens, featuring the goddess of peace. Museu Victor Balaguer/ Public Domain

Although the statue is now tragically lost, it was copied in marble by the Romans; one of the best surviving copies is in the Munich Glyptothek. This version of Eirene depicts the goddess carrying a child on her left arm who is Plutus, the god of plenty and the son of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.

Peace’s missing right hand once held a scepter. She is shown gazing lovingly at Plutus, who is looking back at her. The statue is an allegory for Plenty prospering under the protection of Peace; it constituted a public appeal to good sense.

Hesiod used the epithet Hora Thallo which means “green shoot” to describe Eirene, in another connection of hers to springtime.

The three Horae were also the maintainers of law and order that all societies depend upon.

Worship of Eirene appears to stretch back as far as the early Bronze Age; devotion to her peaked during the rise of the Athenian empire and the Peloponnesian War, when the populace must have been wracked with worry about their futures.

Eirene coin
The goddess of peace Pax is shown on a coin known as an Antonianus, issued during the reign of Emperor Maximian. Credit: Hermann Junghans /CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Roman republic coins may have alluded to Pax, their version of the goddess Eirene, before 44 BC but in only using the goddess’ symbols; none specifically included her image or called her by name until after 44 BC. The first depictions of Pax seen on coinage in the Roman world were on denarii minted in 137 BC to commemorate a treaty between Rome and Epirus after the Samnite wars.

These coins showed a woman surrounded by farm animals, including pigs; on the obverse side two soldiers face each other while holding a pig for sacrifice.

Eirene/Pax was the patroness of wealth and prosperity as well, since because in times of peace people have the opportunity to plow the fields and engage in trading — whereas war, as can still be seen today, tragically — only makes for famine and destruction.

Some historians believe the Roman word for peace (pax), derived from “pacisci,” was seen as more of a pact which concluded a war and led to a surrender or alliance with another faction rather than today’s notion of peace as the lack of war.

Peace in those times was seen as the submission to Roman superiority; it was the outcome of war, not its absence.

Worship of the ancient Greek goddess Eirene transmutated to Pax was made popular during the rule of the emperor Augustus, who cannily used her imagery to help stabilize the empire after the years of turmoil and civil war during the late republic.

Augustus commissioned an altar of peace in her honor on the on the Campus Martius called Ara Pacis; later, the emperor Vespasian built a temple dedicated to her on called the Templum Pacis.

Pax Eirine Ara Pacis
A depiction of that most historian believe is the Greek goddess of Peace Eirene, or Pax, in the form of a mother goddess with twins on the Ara Pacis, the monument to peace in Rome. Credit: CenozoicEra /Public Domain

Pax had a festival held for her every January 3. In art she is commonly depicted holding out olive branches as a peace offering, as well as her usual caduceus, cornucopia, corn and a scepter. Pax is also often associated with spring since her sisters represent all the seasons.

Pax was also shown with twins, most likely as a way to represent domestic harmony and fruitfulness achieved through the Pax Romana.

Cows, pigs and sheep imagery on the Ara Pacis showed the abundance of food and animals during the Pax Romana; these animals were also regularly sacrificed to Pax in an effort to assure peace.

The Pax Romana

Worship of Pax peaked during Augustus Caesar’s reign and the early empire.

Pax also appeared on the coinage of the time, with Augustus on the other side. Some argue that Pax could have been used more of a political slogan than an actual goddess, inspiring a pact to end the civil war and to bring prosperity back to the empire through the new imperial system.

Augustus often used religious events and expressions to enforce his political messages. His construction of the Ara Pacis symbolized peace for the Roman citizens under his rule; in addition, some colonies were renamed after the goddess and Augustus himself, such as Pax Julia being renamed Pax Augusta in ancient Lusitania.

Augustus also attempted to establish a cult of Pax in the provinces such as in Spain and Gaul, similar to what he did with the imperial cult.

His reign emphasized the notion of peace for both Roman citizens and recently subjugated peoples as a way to bring solidarity to the early empire — and to consolidate his power.

The imperial message may have been meant to communicate the idea that Roman subjects enjoyed the goddess Pax and her benefits only because of the rule of Augustus — and the strength of his armies.

The linking between emperor and Pax or her equivalent was not a new idea, however; it had Greek origins, with Alexander the Great and later with Pompey and Julius Caesar.

Augustus’ successors during the Julio-Claudian dynasty would continue to stress this concept, but Pax’s image would slowly be altered during the reign of Claudius when she became more of a winged figure.

Worship of Pax continued with Emperor Vespasian, who established the Flavian dynasty and ended the civil war and instability of the “Year of the Four Emperors.” Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis in AD 75 in her honor and continued linking the goddess Pax to the god Janus, as seen in the construction of the temple Janus Quadrifrons near the Forum Pacis.

The closing of the gates of Janus was seen as the conclusion of war and the start of peace, which Augustus did in his first years as emperor.

Pax and peace would later become synonymous with Augustus in the period known as Pax Augusta; later scholars would refer to this time of peace as the Pax Romana; but all that meant was that stability and peace was achieved through the power of the emperor to limit unrest inside the empire and defeat foreign threats.

Decline of Worship and the effect of Christianity on the worship of Eirene / Pax

During the latter days of the  Roman empire and the Pax Romana, conquered peoples were integrated into society, the slaves were freed, and the empire no longer had reason to be violent with its pacified people. Rebellions and piracy had died down, and the empire had been consolidated and stabilized under Emperor Hadrian.

This led contemporary writers such as Plutarch to write “so far as peace is concerned the peoples have no need of statesmanship at present; for all war, both Greek and foreign, has been banished from among us and has disappeared.”

New spiritual leadership was increasingly being found in Christianity as well, although of course that spread surreptitiously at first. The Pax Romana ultimately had an effect on the adoption and acceptance of Christianity’s peaceful teachings, despite the large-scale persecutions of the new sect; Eirini was in effect replaced by Jesus Christ as a symbol of peace over time.

Eusebius, a church leader in the 4th century, wrote “it was not by mere human accident but of God’s arrangement that the universal empire of peace came in time for the universal religion of peace.” The Roman “peace” at the time, however, still included a good deal of  violence, and military raids into barbarian territories in Parthia and Germania were still going on.

The Christian religion had an effect on the changing of the perception of the word ‘peace’ in the Roman world wherein it was transformed into a demilitarized one more akin to today’s understanding of the word peace.


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