OMG: The Seaweed is Always Greener

Neptune (not the planet but the other one) was the Roman god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses. He is the son of Saturn and the brother of Jupiter and Pluto.  In Greece he’d been known as Poseidon, but it took the Romans a little longer than usual to catch on to him—about as much longer as it took them to come up with the idea of boats that is. Early Romans were like cats, they hated to get wet. Finally, during the imperial period (31 BC to 476 AD) Neptune had his heyday, when Rome finally learned to rule the seas.

Because the average Roman wanted to be a sailor about as much as Hannibal’s elephants had wanted to go over the Alps, Neptune had originally been associated with freshwater springs. The Neptunalia was a festival celebrated on July 23rd each year (any guesses as to what god it was named for?) that glorified the role of fresh water springs during the summer heat. It was a time of merrymaking where men and women were allowed to mingle, and there were more than a few wet toga contests. A bull was also sacrificed to Neptune since one of the Roman myths claimed he was the creator of the first bull. Somehow, Neptune was not insulted by the slaughter of one of his creations. Another myth says that after Jupiter granted Neptune rule over the islands and the sea, he was forced to kick him out of heaven because the greedy twit was conspiring against him. Neptune fled to Troy where he helped to build the city walls. But when he was denied what he believed to be an appropriate reward, he proved his nasty streak by sending a sea monster to demolish the city he had just built. Ancient Roman survival tip: do not double cross, betray, or otherwise piss off a god.

Historians and linguists have spent years arguing over the etymology of Neptune’s name. Definitions range from nuptiae, “marriage of heaven and earth,” to nuptu, “he who is moist.” Unfortunately, nobody knows what is accurate except for the Romans, and they’re dead.

Neptune is usually portrayed as a bearded, powerfully-built man in the prime of life. (Have you noticed that very few gods choose to appear old, knobble-kneed, and somewhat balding?) Or just picture King Trident from The Little Mermaid sans tail. You can tell him apart from his brother Jupiter (equally buff for an old man, but with a penchant for electrocuting those who piss him off) by the trident he usually carries. If the statue has both arms missing, your guess is as good as mine.


OMG: Lucretia and the Death of an Era

Of all Rome’s morbidly depressing legends, that of Lucretia is one of the worst. Lucretia was the ideal Roman woman: virtuous, stoic, chaste bloodthirsty, and valued her honor more than her life. (You can tell that this story was written by a man, can’t you). Anyway, poor Lucretia was the wife of Lucius Tarquinus Collatinus, the governor of Collatia, and the daughter of Spurius Lucretius, a prefect and chief magistrate of Rome. Needless to say, this meant she was pretty well connected.

Which means it was incredibly stupid for Sextus Tarquinus (son of Tarquinus Superbus, remember what happened to him?) to try what happened next. Sextus was beating up barbarians at the siege of Ardea with Collatinus—Lucretia’s husband. Over the course of some friendly drinking, Collatinus got to bragging about what an amazing wife he had. Sextus, being the son of the king, decided it was his privilege to find out just how wonderful Lucretia was for himself. Sneaking away from the siege, he rode over to Collatia and announced his intention to stay the night as a guest. Although her husband was away from home, Lucretia gave him a royal welcome.

Taking the welcome a little too far, Sextus crept into Lucretia’s bedchamber that night and offered her two choices: sleep with him, or he would kill her and one of her slaves and claim he had caught them having an affair. Finding she couldn’t live with the second choice, literally, Lucretia gave in. The next day Sextus left and Lucretia decided to take matters into her own hands. Dressing entirely in black, she traveled to her father’s house in Rome and confessed everything. Then she asked for Sextus’s head on a platter (I wish I could say figuratively, but the Romans were bloodthirsty little bastards, so who knows.) Now killing a king is no easy matter—look at Caesar, he had no crown and it still took sixty men to kill him—so her father was in a bit of a quandary. While he and the rest of the men were dithering, Lucretia pulled out a dagger and stabbed herself in the heart, killing herself to erase the shame of her rape. (Definitely written by a man.)

Now, Collatinus and his friend Brutus (a relative of the king) happened to drop by and were met with the fresh corpse of his wife.  After much hair tearing and chest pounding, Collatinus said, “is this a dagger I see before me?” (Sorry, wrong play.) He then swore an oath by Mars and all the gods to take down Tarquinus and his sons, and to never again let them or anyone else rule Rome. Then, still holding the dagger, he made everybody else take the oath too. Voluntarily. It was all very dramatic. Carrying Lucretia’s bloody corpse, they marched to the Roman Forum. Here they began whining about the king and recruiting an army to free the land from tyranny. Oddly enough, Caesar’s assassination several hundred years later follows the death of Lucretia fairly closely. Apparently Romans had a thing for speeches made over bloody bodies in the name of freedom from tyranny. Except with Lucretia, Brutus was one of the good guys.

Brutus, being a distant relative of the king, had enough power to call together the curiae, a group of patricians who ratified decrees of the king. This made their revolutionary group suddenly become legal. And now that he had a captive audience, literally, revolutionary recruits were holding the city gates, Brutus gave them the talk. First, he asked everyone to stop calling him by his nickname, Dullard. He promised that he’d only been pretending to be a bumbling fool to keep Tarquinus from finding a more permanent solution for a potential rival. The people might not have bought it, but it made for good street theater so they stayed. Brutus then reminded them that the king not only sucked at being king, but he had murdered the last king to get there. And Rome shouldn’t be ruled by corrupt murderers (Romulus being an exception—besides he was raised by a wolf so it wasn’t his fault). Instead, Rome should be ruled by the people (read: patricians) led by a pair of consuls (read: him and his buddy Collatinus).  

Everyone was getting a little tired by this point, and the corpse was starting to smell, so they put it to a vote. The Republic won. Rome would never again have a hereditary king. Even the later emperors were elected and not hereditary, although everyone knew the elections were probably rigged. But that was okay too.

Tarquinus Superbus and his sons heard what was up and fled Rome, going back home to Tarquinii. Superbus spent the rest of his life mucking about with Etruscan politics instead—and people wonder why there aren’t any Etruscans left today…

OMG: Those Sobbin’ Women

After Romulus and Remus (and a fairly long poem called the Aeneid which is neither memorable nor interesting and suspiciously Greek) the most important legend of founding of Rome is the Rape of the Sabine Women. And no, this post will not be rated R. Get your mind out of the gutter. At this time, rape did not mean anything sexual, but rather was derived from the Latin word “rapito” meaning abduction or kidnapping. Despite this, Renaissance artists still liked to portray this scene with nude figures locked in passionate “struggles.” I’m looking at you, Giambologna.

As the myth goes, shortly after Romulus founded Rome and conveniently gained a band of followers who had never existed until the moment he needed them, he realized that a large band of men, while all well and good, does not a population sustain. He needed to find some women, fast. So he tried to negotiate with the nearby Sabines to allow Roman men to intermarry with Sabine women. Of course, the Sabines saw no reason to help the Romans grow so they could take over the world, and said no.

Romulus was not happy about this, and started making up gods to complain to. Of course, these were really just Greek gods with new names slapped on, but since it was pretty hard to top the Greeks for myth making, the Romans didn’t even try. Unfortunately, Neptune (Poseidon) failed to smite the Sabines, so Romulus decided to do it himself. He declared a festival in honor of Neptune Equester (Poseidon on a horse) and invited all of the neighboring tribes to celebrate it too. And as soon as everyone was gathered, relaxed, and more than a little bit drunk, the Romans grabbed the women, fought of the men, and ran.

Because the Romans are stodgy, moral, and no fun, there was absolutely no hanky-panky with the now abducted women. Instead Romulus very carefully told each woman that she had a choice, and if she wanted to marry a Roman she would be granted civic and property rights, the same as her husband (whatever happened to that?). Of course, having just been abducted, the women didn’t have too high an opinion of the Roman men, but somehow they all accepted.

This pissed off the Sabine men, and they decided to over-run Rome with their armies before they had a chance to breed like rabbits. The governor of Capitoline hill’s daughter, Tarpeia, agreed to open the city gates to them in exchange for “what they bore on their arms”. She expected gold bracelets, instead they crushed her to death with their shields, proving Romulus wasn’t the only tricky bastard out there. (The poor girl only wanted her property rights.)

The Romans tried to retake the Capitoline hill, failed, promised to build a temple to Jupiter, and tried again—this time with divine right on their side. The Sabine men were just about to promise to build a bigger temple when the women put their foot down. Running between the two battling groups, they said “enough is enough.” If the Sabine fathers wanted to fight the Roman husbands, they could damn well do it in a civilized fashion by out-drinking each other on the holidays. And thus, the tension between in-laws was born. Mostly reconciled, the Sabines and Romans merged into one big happy kingdom.

Oh My Gods: The Capitoline Triad


Before he was tossed out on his backside, Tarquinius Superbus built one main temple to the gods on Capitoline Hill in Rome. It was called the Capitolium, and while the Romans thought it was pretty good, there are some things even great architecture can’t save.

The Capitolium housed the big three in Roman mythology, also known as the Capitoline triad. This consisted of head honcho Jupiter, his wife Juno, and their daughter Minerva. Smaller temples, called Capitolia (are you sensing a trend here?) were built on hills throughout the provinces. So basically these gods had a lot of clout. Like all families that don’t get along, each of the gods had their own chamber within the Capitolium.

Jupiter was the king of the gods, the patron deity of Rome, and a lightning happy little bastard. Many high school students still confuse him with his Greek counterpart, Zeus. As a sky-god, Jupiter was first associated with wine festivals, and then became associated with war and victory. (Romans eventually learned a more productive order was war, victory, then wine.) Zeus had an official cult which offered him a castrated white ox with gilded horns in order to curry favor. I guess Jupiter enjoyed taking the bull by the balls.

Juno was the queen of the gods and kept an eye on all the women of Rome. Like any modern woman, she did it all and was the goddess of marriage, fertility, and sovereignty. She was also beloved by the military, proving once and for all that all is fair in love and war.

Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and was credited with inventing almost everything crafty. While she was revered throughout the empire, only in Rome itself did she inherit the war-like tendencies of her parents. This probably says more about the Romans than it doesn’t. Today Minerva has been appropriated by most universities and Harry Potter.

OMG: The Founding Foundlings

This entire delusion people call the Roman Empire actually began with two children who were so terrible that civilization was forced to give up on them, and left them in the woods to die.  Unfortunately for civilization, they were found by a wolf who, in complete defiance of the laws of nature, adopted the twins as her own.  This went along quite well for a time, but eventually the boys discovered that they were not wolves, but men, and there was no use in pretending any differently. 

So in a vain effort to rediscover their heritage they decided to do what all men do.  That is, to find a beautiful piece of countryside, erect crude dwellings without building codes, and pollute the waterways with a blatant disregard for sanitation or common sense. They were going to build a city.

Of course, at the first slight hitch in their plans things got a bit out of hand and Remus rather forcibly kicked the bucket.  After thirty seconds of feeling rather sorry about this, Romulus forgot about silly things such as brotherly love, declared himself the winner, and marched of to build his city, which in the most egotistical way he named Rome.

So using the instincts nurtured in his unusual upbringing, Romulus found himself a perfectly dreadful spot on the Tiber River, kicked out a few Etruscans, and called it home sweet home.  Overnight, the city popped up, Romulus disappeared, and no one could ever figure out which part of this story was the most ridiculous.  And thus, a great empire was born.