Bellona: The Roman Goddess of War and Artistic Muse
Linked to war, destruction, conquest, and bloodlust, Bellona was a mighty figure in the ancient Roman pantheon of gods. As a personification of war, Bellona became quite a popular figure in the arts of later ages. The image of the goddess, decked out in armor and wearing a plumed helmet while carrying a shield and brandishing a sword or spear, has graced many paintings and inspired poetry, music, and literature.
She is commonly associated with Mars, the Roman god of war, and had counterparts in other areas of the ancient Mediterranean world. Enyo, the personified spirit of war, for instance, was her equivalent in ancient Greece, whilst the people of Anatolia worshipped a similar goddess known as Ma.
‘Bellona’ (1633) by Rembrandt. (Public Domain)
Bellona is believed to be the offspring of Jupiter and Jove. As the goddess of war, she is also closely associated to Mars, though this relationship is ambiguous. She has been variously referred to as his wife, sister, daughter, or charioteer. In some cases, she has also been identified with Neria, another ancient war goddess who was the cult partner of Mars.
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It has been speculated that the goddess was originally a deity of the Sabine people, an Italic tribe that once inhabited Central Italy. When Rome was founded, some of the Sabines migrated to the new city and brought Bellona along with them. It is recorded that the first temple dedicated to Bellona was built by the Romans in 296 BC.
‘Bellona Presenting the Reins of his Horses to Mars’, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, 1766, in the Princeton University Art Museum. (Public Domain)
In that year, the Romans were at war with the Samnites, and the consul, Appius Claudius Caecus (nicknamed ‘the blind’), vowed to build a temple in honor of the goddess. This vow was fulfilled, and a temple to Bellona was erected in the southern part of the Campus Martius, not far from the Circus Flaminius.
The Temple of Bellona
The Campus Martius was located outside the city walls of Rome, and, as its name suggests, was dedicated to Mars. Hence, this area was closely associated with soldiers and the army. The importance of the Temple of Bellona, with regards to military matters, can be seen in the fact that it was the place where the Roman Senate would meet generals who were victorious in their campaigns before their Triumphs. It was also at the Temple of Bellona that war would be officially declared.
Bellona with Romulus and Remus by Alessandro Turchi. (Public Domain)
There was a column in front of the temple which signified Rome’s frontier and the area around the temple was regarded as foreign soil, thus a symbolic representation of the enemy’s lands. By throwing a javelin over this column in the direction of the enemy’s territory, war was officially declared. As the temple grounds were not considered to be Roman soil, the Temple of Bellona was also used to receive foreign ambassadors, since they were not allowed to proceed beyond the city walls.
The Temple podium. (Public Domain)
Bellona was served by a group of priests known as the Bellonarii. The 24th of March was known as dies sanguinis (meaning ‘day of blood’), during which the Bellonarii partook in rituals that involved the shedding of human blood. These priests would wound their own arms and legs, collect the blood that flowed, and either offered it to the goddess, or drank it themselves to enter a war-like fury. In later times, such rituals were reduced to symbolic acts.
Depicting a Goddess of War
It seems that no representation of Bellona in artworks have survived from the Roman period. It is from later European cultures that her depictions are found. These include paintings and sculptures where she is often depicted as a woman in a plumed helmet, clad in armor, and carrying a sword or spear and a shield.
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A statue of the Roman war goddess Bellona by the German Rococo sculptor Johann Baptist Straub, 1770. (Public Domain)
Apart from the visual arts, this goddess of war also appears in the performing arts, as well as in literature. For instance, she appears in the Prologue of Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes galants, whilst Shakespeare refers to her in several of his plays, including Macbeth and Henry IV, Part I.
Modern representation of Bellona, without the plumed helmet. (CC BY SA)
Top Image: Modern representation of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. Source: Tomtomss/Deviant Art
By Wu Mingren
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