Who is Bellona and Was She More Powerful than Mars? Piecing Together the Identity of the Mysterious Ancient Roman Goddess of War
In his History, Livy reported that during a critical part of the battle against the Samnites in 296 BCE, the general Appius Claudius was seen in the front lines raising his hands as he uttered a prayer, “Bellona, if you grant us victory today, I promise to build you a temple.” This prayer was proven to be effective as the Romans proceeded to capture and plunder the Samnite camp, bringing a massive amount of booty to their own soldiers.
Bust of Bellona, Brussels, Belgium (MichelWal/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
More than a thousand years later, Shakespeare introduced Macbeth as a violent and brave warrior when the Thane of Ross calls him "Bellona's bridegroom," placing her as the equivalent of Mars himself!
Statue of Mars in Germany (Mbdortmund/ Public Domain )
Mistaken Identities & Gruesome Blood Rituals
Bellona was considered an equivalent of the Hellenistic Cappadocian goddess, Ma. Ma has been interpreted as a "mother" goddess and compared to Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, also known as the Magna Mater (“Great Mother”) by the ancient Romans. Cybele’s college of priests ( Galli), who were required to castrate themselves to worship her, were considered sacred. Bellona’s college of priests ( Bellonarii) also instituted the prominent feature of deeply cutting their own flesh and sprinkling their blood on the spectators for Bellona’s fanatical rites, which was called dies sanguinis (“the day of blood”). Being the equivalent of the Magna Mater herself should have placed Bellona equal, if not higher, in status to Mars.
Statue of an Archigallus, high priest of Cybele, 2nd-3rd century AD (left) ( Public Domain ), and a dedication to the goddess Ma with the imprint of a bare foot, first century BC (right). ( Public Domain )
However, for such an important goddess, information about Bellona is surprisingly limited and what we know about her function is also contradictory. Her other equivalents are commonly said to be either Greek’s Enyo or ancient Roman’s Nerio. Enyo, the goddess of war, terror and bloodshed, often accompanied Ares into battle and was responsible for orchestrating the destruction of cities. Nerio was an ancient Roman war goddess who personified valor. Also a partner of Mars in ancient cult practices, Nerio was identified with the goddess Bellona or, later, with the goddess Minerva.
This is fine and well, but does not give us a clear idea of Bellona’s character; to know more about this mysterious ancient goddess, we will need to compare her forms and functions to those of other goddesses.
How to Recognize a Goddess: The Roles of Victoria, Nemesis and Bellona
Although in his Roman depictions Mars reveals himself in varied forms and was known by a great variety of names, it is generally quite easy to recognize the god of war. However, the goddesses who appeared at his side on inscriptions and in sculptures are not always so easy to identify. The best one can expect is for a goddess to be named without any distinctive traits, which makes us still unsure of her identity. It is therefore understandable to misidentify Victoria, Nemesis and Bellona— all three of whom have been associated with Mars one way or the other.
Victoria, sculpted by Friedrich Drake, Berlin, Germany. ( Lichtjäger/CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The winged and beautiful Victoria is a natural companion for Mars as her role was to bestow the palm of victory to the winning side, thus deciding the resolution of a conflict and crowning the winner. Many inscriptions honoring Mars and Victoria together in Rome were left by the Equites Singulares Augusti - the Emperor’s Horse Guard, a cavalry unit of the military. In fact, the joint cult of Mars and Victoria is typical of military zones such as the Germanic Limes (line of frontier fortifications), the Danube, Britain and Numidia.
Marie de Medicis as Bellona, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1621. ( Public Domain )
As Victoria represents the happy outcome of conflicts, she is naturally associated with the peace achieved after the conflict is over. Bellona’s role and appearance seems to be the opposite, as she is placed in the battle itself, riding her chariot and watching over the very act of fighting.
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Top Image: Bellona with Romulus and Remus; detail. ( Public Domain )