How Did The Significance Of Athena Changed When She Was Adopted By The Romans

Categories: GreeceMyths

The Classical Greek era was known to be a period of advancements. From philosophy and math to art and literature, the Ancient Greeks made profound contributions to humanity’s body of knowledge that still remain highly influential to the world today. The thoughts of philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle dominated the world for hundreds of centuries. Geometrical ideas and concepts of mathematicians like Euclid, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, laid the foundation of modern-day math. In the world of art and literature, Ancient Greece was revered for its contributions in theater.

Theater played an important role in the lives of Ancient Greeks. What we today refer to as classical Greek theater began and continued as performances for religious festivals in Athens to honor their pantheon of gods and goddesses. The masterpieces of various playwrights introduced other civilizations to the world of theater and set the basis for modern drama. For instance, the literary device “irony” was first presented by Sophocles in his work Oedipus Rex.

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Neighboring the Greeks were the Romans. Contrary to the Greeks, who were known to have flourished intellectually and artistically, the Romans were famous for their military achievements. Not only did military conquests help Rome grow in both size and power, but they also led to increased contact with neighboring civilizations, such as the Greeks, from which the Romans benefited greatly.

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were quick to incorporate new and more advanced ideas into their culture and assimilate, or “Romanize,” people they came into contact with.

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Such incorporations can be seen in Roman theatre, architecture, and mythology. For instance, Roman theater was modeled after Greek theater, however, Roman dramas were primarily for entertainment purposes. Other resemblances can be seen in architectural design, like the well known Colosseum. Last but not least, despite the differences in names, strong similarities can be observed between Roman and Greek gods and goddesses.

The early Romans had their own pantheon of gods, but their ideas were greatly influenced by the Greeks and their mythologies. While some Roman gods shared characteristics with their Greek counterparts, others were simply adopted. For instance, the three predominant deities, after being incorporated by the Romans, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades were renamed Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto. In addition to a simple change of name, there were also shifts in their level of importance, standing in the divine hierarchy, as well as their given roles. Ares, for example, was renamed Mars. Though he remained as the god of war, his significance and status rose exponentially, considering that the Romans were known for militarism. Some scholars even considered him to be the second most important deity after Jupiter. Changes like these were made to reflect the differences between Greek and Roman cultures.

Upon the many adopted gods is the pair Athena and Minerva. The Greek goddess Athena, also known as Athene or Pallas, is often regarded as the goddess of wisdom and war, protectress, and the patron of the city of Athens. Many believed that her intelligence was owed to her unique birth. In Greek mythology, Athena was born fully grown and armed from Zeus' head with a split from Hephaistos’s axe. Seeing that head is the only body part that harvests intelligence and knowledge, Athena earned her reputation of being sagacious and became the goddess of wisdom. Her use of wisdom can best be seen in Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus desperately tries to return home. Throughout Odysseus’s journey home, Athena takes on various forms of different people to interact with Odysseus, acts as his divine counselor, and facilitates his eventual return to Penelope and Telemachus, his wife and son. In addition, Athena also assists Telemachus in his search for his father through manipulating her image and disguising herself as Mentes, the lord of Taphians, and an old friend of Odysseus and guiding him throughout much of his journey in the form of Mentor.

Another role of Athena is the goddess of war. Unlike Ares, also a god of war who valued solely blood lust, Athena “represented the intellectual and civilized side of war and the virtues of justice and skill” , and was known for leading strategic warfare. In fact, in Homer’s Iliad, she is often seen as a figure that inspires and fights alongside the Greek heroes and as a sign of victory and glory. Athena is often depicted wearing a golden helmet and clad in full armour with a long spear in one hand and an aegis in the other. The aegis was the goatskin shield of Athena. In the center of the shield is the head of the Gorgon, more specifically Medusa, given to Athena by Perseus with the power to petrify people. Qualities leading to victory are shown through these items, with the long spear symbolizing assault, the aegis representing protection, and the helmet indicating wisdom and strategy.

As one of the twelve Olympians and the favourite child of Zeus, Athena was considered one of the most important of the deities. Due to her patronage of Athens, which she won in a competition with Poseidon and spawned the first olive tree, she was widely worshipped and eventually even emerged as a city goddess. In Athens, the greatest festival of all was the Panathenaic festival, which was formed to honor and celebrate the birthday of Athena. During the festival, hundreds of people march towards the Acropolis, where temples dedicated to Athena were built, bringing along with them numerous sacrifices. Because of this festival, Athenians were brought together to celebrate once every four years, which also made Athena a symbol of unity. Furthermore, Athena’s impact wasn’t limited to only Athenians. She impacted people all over Ancient Greece. For example, many Ancient Greek women look up to Athena as their model and stood up to fight for their rights.

The Roman counterpart of Athena is Minerva. After being adopted by the Romans, Athena was renamed Minerva and changed to fit their culture better. “While serving essentially the same function as the Greek Athena, she does take on certain attributes in Roman culture that are new. Some of these are due to the apparent existence of an early Eturscan deity, Menerva, who was associated with more domestic issues than the Greek Athena” (Spence, Sarah.). For instance, she was no longer the goddess of war, as that role was given to another goddess Bellona. Instead, she took on some roles of Athena and kept some roles of Menerva, ranging from wisdom, handicrafts, professions, the arts in general, medicine, and later, war. Because of her various roles, she was called the “goddess of a thousand works” .

Minerva was most commonly known for being the goddess of handicrafts, which is shown in Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Minerva is introduced as the goddess of weaving, and when a talented young lady Arachne “firmly maintains that she was not taught by Minerva, the goddess of weaving, and is superior to her, she challenges Arachne to a weaving contest due to her disrespectfulness. Minerva’s tapestry shows her victory over the contest with Neptune as well as four other images of gods transforming mortals into animals, while Arachne’s tapestry shows images of mortals being mistreated by gods, which infuriated Minerva. Unable to accept her defeat, Minerva starts hitting Arachne with a piece of wood from her loom, and eventually drives Arachne to hang herself. Instead of letting her die, however, Minerva takes pity on her and transforms her into a spider, which ironically punishes her by having her and her descendants weave forever. Not only did this story show Minerva’s role as the goddess of handicrafts and weaving, it also showed her irrationality that did not exist in Athena. Compared to Athena, Ovid’s portrayal of Minerva appeared to be more quick-tempered and easily irritated.

In addition to Metamorphoses, Ovid also wrote The Tristia, a collection of letters written in couplets during his exile from Rome.“The poem opens with a prayer to Minerva: As there is now, may there ever be, for me, I pray, blonde Minerva’s protection, and my ship bears her name from her painted helm. Whether she needs sails, she runs well under the slightest breeze, or if it’s the oar that’s needed, the rowers rush her journey onward.”Minerva not only protects this ship, but is also the key reference in the ship’s construction. In fact, Ovid named this ship Minerva. Through the opening poem, it can be inferred that Minerva also symbolizes protection. In addition to Ovid, Emperor Domitan also claimed her protection and had a temple dedicated to her in Nerva Forum, which brought the worship of Minerva to its greatest peak in Rome.

Over time, Minerva’s importance grew within the Roman pantheon, took on the role of protectress, and became more and more impactful. As her importance grew, more people started worshipping her. As mentioned earlier, Minerva was also known as the goddess of professions and the arts in general, which made her shrine located on the Aventine a meeting place for craftsmen, poets, and actors. Eventually, guilds of actors and poets formed and made the temple on the Aventine hill a place for offerings as well as an important center of the arts. Later, when she became the goddess of war, she also became the patron of the Quinquatrus festival, which was originally Mars’s and marks the beginning of the Roman army campaign season. Statues of her can be spotted outside of educational establishments.

Despite all the differences, there are still many shared characteristics. Minerva, just like Athena, was born fully born and clothed in armor from the head of Jupiter, the Roman counterpart of Zeus. They both took on similar roles, like the goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and war, and were renowned for their chastity. Though Minerva didn’t start on top of the hierarchy of the gods and goddesses like Athena, she eventually rose up and was worshipped as one of the Capitoline Triad, the three supreme leaders of the Roman pantheon. Furthermore, the mythologies they appeared in were also similar, such as the competition over Athens and origin of the gorgon on Aegis. Last but not least, they share the same symbols, which are owls which symbolize wisdom and watchfulness.

Athena was one of the many goddesses that the Romans had adopted from the Greeks. Upon the adoption, many aspects of Athena changed, including her roles, the way she was depicted, and her impact on her followers, yet she still holds many similar characteristics as Minerva. While Athena was the goddess of war and wisdom, protectress, and the patron of Athens, Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, handicrafts, professions, the arts in general, medicine, and later, war. In the eyes of Homer, Athena appeared to be a wise and sagacious deity, whereas in Ovid’s eyes, Minerva seemed more of an irritable and hot-headed goddess. Because of their differences in roles, Minerva’s followers consisted mostly of poets, artists, and craftsmen, unlike Athena whose followers were primarily Athenians and the general public. Apart from the differences, there were also certain traits that they share, such as their origins, standing in the hierarchy, and mythologies involved in, and symbols.

Updated: Feb 28, 2024
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How Did The Significance Of Athena Changed When She Was Adopted By The Romans. (2024, Feb 28). Retrieved from

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