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Did the Ancient Greeks and Romans Worship the Same Gods?

Depiction of Jupiter from Roman city of Heruclaneum
Depiction of Jupiter from Roman city of Herculaneum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Modern sources often speak of Greco-Roman mythology. The reason for this expression is that both Greek and Roman mythology are intricately linked. In fact, the Romans, as is known, adopted their gods directly from the Greeks. At least, that is what most scientists claim. The reality, however, is more complicated.

Similar Greek and Roman gods

Undoubtedly, there are numerous similarities between Greek and Roman gods. Reading any ancient mythological text makes this very clear. The ancient Greek stories about Zeus, for example, are very similar to the ancient Roman accounts of Jupiter. They have essentially the same roles, families, and similar epithets.

Similarly, ancient Roman accounts of the demigod Hercules are basically identical to ancient Greek accounts about the demigod Heracles. In this case, the names are so similar that they are obviously related.

In many cases, the Greeks would even refer to their own gods by the names of the Roman equivalents, depending on the era and language. This shows that the Greeks and Romans definitely recognized the two pantheons as essentially one and the same.

Common origins

zeus of orticoli
Zeus of Otricoli Ancient Roman copy of Hellenistic Original. credit: Public Domain

However, this does not necessarily mean that the Romans simply took the Greek gods and gave them different names, as people sometimes assume. In at least some cases (although not all), the reason for the extensive similarities is because both gods shared a common origin.

This is the case with Zeus and Jupiter, one of the most famous examples of an apparently-copied god. In reality, the Roman worship of Jupiter was originally independent of the Greek worship of Zeus. Both Jupiter and Zeus had a common origin. They were originally the same sky god, the “Daylight-Sky Father.” Linguists have reconstructed his name as “Dyḗus ph₂tḗr” (Zeus Father – Greek: Ζευς Πάτερ).

This god was worshipped among many Indo-European peoples, which is why we can find versions of him in the mythologies of nations all across the ancient world. Among the Greeks, solely the first part of his name was preserved, evolving into Zeus. For proto-Italics, however, the ‘D’ disappeared and the rest of the name evolved into “Iupiter.”

Roman gods in Greek stories

Nonetheless, this does not mean that the similarities between Greek and Roman gods are entirely due to common origins. Even in the example of Zeus and Jupiter, the Romans did take some things from the Greeks.

In particular, the Romans tended to adopt stories, or mythological accounts, from Greek mythology. It appears that the Romans did not ascribe many mythological accounts to their own gods. If they did, they have mostly been lost. Yet, it does appear that the gods the Romans worshipped were primarily viewed as personified attributes of different parts of the world. Generally speaking, they did not have actual stories about activities and doings of those gods like the ancient Greeks did.

Therefore, scholars believe the Romans did take many of the Greek myths and apply them to their own gods. Although the gods themselves did not come from the Greeks, most of the mythological stories apparently did.

Genuine Greek gods in Roman mythology

Greek mythology god Apollo
Apollo in the temple of Zeus. Credit: wikimedia commons / Egisto Sani cc by 2.0

There are, nevertheless, some instances of Romans adopting entire gods from the Greek pantheon rather than just the relevant stories. One such example is Apollo for whom there was no clear equivalent in the existing Roman pantheon.

Likewise, as per the Roman god Aesculapius’ name, he was a version of the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius. Regarding this Greek god, the Encyclopedia Britannica explains: “In 293 BC his cult spread to Rome, where he was worshiped as Aesculapius.”

Hence, although most gods with striking similarities are simply a result of common origins, there are a few genuine examples of the Romans directly replicating Greek gods.

When did this happen?

As we can see from the quotation from the Encyclopedia Britannica, at least one example of the Romans copying the Greek gods occurred in the third century BCE. However, other examples of this same phenomenon happened at different times.

For example, the Romans adopted the worship of Apollo very early in their history. We know that the Etruscans, early neighbors of the Romans, worshipped Apollo at least as early as the sixth century BCE. Many scholars believe his worship spread to the Etruscans through the Romans, although the opposite is equally possible.

In many cases, the adoption of Greek mythological accounts likely occurred in this early period. There was a Greek presence in Italy from as early as the eighth century BCE, and the Etruscans also had plenty of direct influence from the Greeks. In fact, as indicated by genetic studies, many of them may have actually been of Greek descent.

Therefore, from both the Greeks and the Etruscans in Italy, there was inevitably considerable influence in terms of Greek mythology among the Romans from quite an early period.

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