The ancient Greek and Roman gods are often virtually indistinguishable, but the two neighboring Mediterranean civilizations perceived their respective gods of war, Ares and Mars, very differently.
Mars was a patron deity of Rome and was beloved by its people. In contrast, the Greeks had a more ambiguous relationship with Ares, a god they sometimes regarded with suspicion and distaste.
Ares, a shunned god?
As a martial deity, he embodied aspects of war like courage and honor, but also bloodlust and savagery. According to Robert Graves, “All his fellow immortals hate him, from Zeus and Hera downwards.”
The god of war was beloved only by his sister Eris, who would spread rumors and jealousy to incite war. Hades, the god of the underworld, was also more fond of Ares because of his eagerness to populate his realm with the dead.
Aphrodite was the other major exception to the Olympians’ hatred for Ares. The two deities are depicted in mythology as forbidden lovers. However, Aphrodite’s husband Hephaestus once caught them in the act and insnared them in a special net he had crafted. He then invited the other gods to laugh at them in their compromised state.
Despite his position as the god of war, Ares was often bested by other deities, or even demigods and mortals. Athena, the goddess of wisdom but also of war, bested him on at least two occasions in battle. The mortal hero Diomedes struck him during the Trojan War and Heracles forced him to flee to Olympus.
The ancient Greeks themselves appear to have regarded Ares with a similar disdain to that held by the Olympians. Worship of Athena in times of war may have taken precedence over Ares. The goddess placed a greater emphasis on strategy and tactics than the sheer brutality and force favored by Ares.
The Greek belief that Ares was born in Thrace, and not somewhere in the immediate Hellenic world, may have reflected a desire to disassociate the brutal god of war from Hellenism.
Mars, the embodiment of Roman virtue
The Romans were much fonder of their chief martial deity. Mars was born to Jupiter and Juno, the Roman equivalents of Zeus and Hera. He was the god of war, but also an agricultural deity.
Mars’ duality as a war god and an agricultural deity seems contradictory but it may reflect the early ideals of the Roman Republic.
Until the Marian reforms established a professional standing army, Rome’s mostly agriculturally-based citizenry would form the core of the army in times of need. Early Roman ideals reflected this duality between farming and military service.
The Romans associated Mars with “virtus“, a particular virtue associated with courage, manliness, and excellence. One of his sacred animals, the wolf, was also a symbol of Rome. Romulus (Rome’s founder) and Remus were raised by a she-wolf until they were discovered by humans in Roman mythology.
Given the Romans’ affinity with Mars, he is depicted in a more flattering light in Roman mythology. The relationship between Mars and Venus, the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, was a common motif in Roman art. However, the adulterous connotations were dropped. The two lovers were sometimes also implied to be married.
Sacrifice and worship
Both the Greeks and Romans offered an animal sacrifice to their gods, Ares and Mars being no exceptions. The edible parts of the animal would be eaten by worshippers, whereas the entrails would be offered to the gods.
The Romans would typically offer Mars a pig, a bull, and a ram. Sometimes a horse was sacrificed, which was quite an unusual practice in Roman religion. The gods would rarely receive inedible animals.
In ancient Greece, worship of Ares may have been most widespread in Lacedaemon, the home of the Spartans. The Spartans dedicated their lives to martial mastery, so an affinity for the god of war is unsurprising.
The Spartans practiced specific sacrificial customs to honor Ares and may have regarded the god of war in a better light than other Greeks. The Cretans, who were also from the Doric branch of Greeks, may have shared this view.
According to Plutarch, “Whenever [the Spartans] overcome their enemies by outgeneralling them, they sacrifice a bull to Ares, but when the victory is gained in open conflict, they offer a cock, thus trying to make their leaders habitually not merely fighters but tacticians as well.”
Another custom attributed to the Spartans is recorded by Pausanias. According to Pausanias, the Spartans chained a statue of Ares within the temple of Enyalios to capture the spirit of victory and warfare within their city.
The Romans, also a highly martial people, dedicated several important places to Mars. The most famous was a two square kilometers stretch of land between the city of Rome and the River Tiber.
This space was called the Campus Martius, or “Field of Mars”. The field was dedicated to the god of war and gradually became the home of various temples and civic spaces. It was an important religious site but it also played a major role in Roman politics.
The legacy of Greco-Roman civilization is closely associated with advancements in philosophy, science, architecture, and the arts. However, both civilizations were well-versed in war.
The disdain apparently felt by many ancient Greeks towards Ares can be inferred from his less-than-flattering portrayal in mythology and literature. However, there is no simple explanation for this.
The Homeric ideals of the Iliad are remarkably similar to the Roman ideals of virtus. Mars embodied these ideals for the Romans but in many Greek myths, Ares falls short. Zeus even calls him a “double-faced liar” in the Iliad.
A possible explanation is that for the Greeks, Ares embodied the unwelcome and brutal aspects of war, whereas Athena, preferred by many as a martial deity, provided the appropriate wisdom to triumph.