Although the Romans did not have a large body of myths, several important Roman writers adapted Greek myths for use in their writings. Indeed, the Roman poet Ovid is the best source for many Greek myths, since he used many of them in his well-known poem the Metamorphoses. Other Roman writers mixed Greek myths with Roman history to create lasting traditions regarding the origin of Rome and the development of the Roman Republic*.
One of the most important Greek myths borrowed by Roman writers is the myth of the Trojan prince Aeneas. According to early Greek writers, Aeneas was a hero* of the Trojan War who traveled to Italy when the war was over. Writing in the 200s B.C., the Roman poet Naevius drew upon the Greek myth of Aeneas for his epic* poem the Punic War, in which he described the founding of Rome. About 200 years later, the Roman poet Vergil made Aeneas the main character of his great epic the Aeneid, and the historian Livy used the Aeneas myth to begin his history of Rome.
Vergil’s Aeneid tells of the destruction of the city of Troy by the Greeks and of Aeneas’s escape with a small band of Trojans. It includes the story of the Trojan horse, by which the Greeks were able to defeat the Trojans. The Greeks built a huge wooden horse, which they climbed inside and then moved outside the walls of Troy. A Greek prisoner in Troy persuaded the Trojans that the horse was sacred and would bring the Trojans good luck from the gods, so the Trojans pulled the horse within the city’s walls. At night while the Trojans slept, the Greeks climbed out of the horse and opened Troy’s gates so that the rest of the Greek forces could enter. Most of the Trojans were killed, and the city was burned. Aeneas and his small band of Trojans escaped, however. They then wandered to Italy and fought for land upon which to settle and start a new life. By the end of the poem, Aeneas has become successfully established in Italy and is soon to marry Lavinia, the daughter of a local king.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 b.c„ when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
Livy also describes Aeneas’s arrival in Italy in book 1 of his history of Rome. Many generations later, Livy added, a female descendant of Aeneas named Rhea Silvia had twin sons fathered by the Roman god Mars. Amulius, Rhea’s uncle, left the twins in the Tiber River to drown, but they were found and nursed by a mother wolf at the site of what was to become the city of Rome. The twins were soon discovered by a shepherd, who named them Romulus and Remus and raised them as his sons.
When they became adults, Livy continued, Romulus and Remus were told that they were the descendants of Aeneas. They established a new settlement in the region where they had been found as infants. During an argument over who should rule this new city, Romulus killed Remus. He named the city Rome, after himself. According to Livy, this was how Rome was founded. Livy continues by describing how Romulus founded the Senate and other institutions of the Republic. (See also Aeneid; Epic, Roman; Literature, Roman; Myths, Greek; Poetry, Roman.)
GREEK AND ROMAN GODS
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not create many myths. This may be because they did not think of their gods in human terms as did the Greeks. This changed in the 100s B.C., when the Roman poet Ennius adapted the myths associated with the Greek gods for the principal Roman gods. For example, the Roman goddess juno was given the myths that had been associated with Hera, the queen of the Greek gods. Similarly, Ennius represented Ares (the Greek god of war) as Mars, and Poseidon (the Greek god of the sea) as the Roman god Neptune. Ennius also added to the list of major Roman gods the Greek god Apollo, who had no Roman counterpart.