|Marble head of Mars Ultor (c. 2nd century CE)|
Simply put, Mars is the God of war, specifically the violence of the warrior within the context of war (Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, at 156). Naturally he is a patron God of the military, but also of less favourably viewed forms of violence, such as banditry, as Apuleius makes clear in The Golden Ass when the leader of a band of robbers says:
“‘Well now, we’re going to sell the girl and since we’re going to recruit new associates, why not make an offering to Mars the Comrade, though we have no animal fit for the sacrifice, and not even enough wine for a proper drinking bout. Grant me ten of you then, and that should be sufficient to raid the nearest village and furnish a … banquet for us all.’
Then he departed, while the rest set about building a large fire, and piled up an altar of green turf to the god Mars.
Later the leader and his men returned, driving a flock of sheep and goats, and carrying skins of wine. They picked out a large shaggy old he-goat and sacrificed it to Mars the Companion and Comrade. Instantly the preparations for a luxurious banquet began [Apuleius, The Golden Ass, bk VII].”
However, Mars has another side, which is as potent as it is wholly male. He is not just a destructive force, nor even just protective, as we might expect, but also life-giving – he is virile in every sense. The ancient authors of Rome continually refer to Mars as “Mars Pater” (Father Mars), and there are two myths that ancient Romans seemed to especially associate with Mars, and neither of them involves violence. Instead they involve sex, and sex of a kind that should be shameful (for they involve rape and adultery) but somehow is not. The first myth is told again and again by the ancient authors, but Ovid tells it best:
“Vestal [virgin / priestess] Silvia one morning … was fetching water to wash the holy things. She came to where the bank sloped softly with its path, and removed the earthen jar from her head … As she sat, shady willows and melodious birds bred sleep, and the water’s gentle murmur. Seductive peace stole over languid eyes; her hand becomes limp and slips from her chin. Mars sees her, desires what he sees, takes what he desires; divine power made his rape unfelt. Sleep departs, she lies freighted; there was now, of course, in her guts the Roman city’s founder [Ovid, Fasti, bk III].”
“… a royal priestess, Ilia [ie, the Vestal priestess Silvia], heavy with child, shall bear Mars twins. Then Romulus will further the race, proud in his nurse the she-wolf’s tawny pelt, and found the walls of Mars, and call the people Romans, from his own name [Virgil, The Aeneid, bk I].”
“Wolf of Mars, the best of nurses to our State, what towers have sprung from your milk [Propertius, The Elegies, bk IV]!”
In every conceivable sense this story sets out Mars as the divine ancestor of Rome. He provides the seed, and his sacred totem animal provides the nourishment.