It’s easy for many people to see the similarities between Greek and Roman mythology. It certainly looks like one inspired the other. But which pantheon came first?
Ancient Greek gods came before Roman gods, predating them by over 1,000 years — some gods appeared in texts and artifacts dating back over 3,200 years. The ancient Greek and Roman religions emerged from similar material sources, based on the Proto-Indo-Europeans myths and religious traditions.
This article will explore the relationship between the Ancient Greek and Roman religions.
Also see Why Are Greek Gods So Petty? to learn more.
Greek Gods Came Before Roman Gods
The ancient Greek gods came first, predating the Roman pantheon by over 1,000 years. Surviving texts and artifacts from the Mycenean and Minoan civilizations depicting early versions of several Greek deities. The Roman religion developed during the later Hellenistic Era.
The Mycenaean civilization of mainland Greece reached its peak between 1,600 and 1,100 A.D. They were one of the seven major powers of the Bronze Age Mediterranean Basin, alongside the Minoans, Egyptians, Hittites, Mesopotamians, Assyrians, and the Indus Valley civilization.
The Minoans were a female-dominated mercantile civilization based on Crete. Their written language, referred to as “Linear A,” is currently indecipherable. The little archeologists know about them has been gleaned from surviving frescos and other artwork at Minoan sites all over the Aegean Sea.
Texts recovered from Mycenaean sites and their trading partners show that Poseidon was their main deity rather than Zeus. And the Bronze Age version of Poseidon was more closely identified with earthquakes than the sea.
Also see Did Greek Gods Sleep? to learn more.
Where Did the Greek Gods Come From?
The Greek gods came from the proto-Indo-European and native Mediterranean traditions. Based on the current leading theory, most ancient Greek religion was homegrown.
The Greek gods were derived from several sources. Many classical ancient Greek gods can be traced to the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the later Bronze Age Mycenaean Greeks, including Zeus and Poseidon. Phoenician traders introduced other gods like Aphrodite during the Greek Dark Ages.
The Proto-Indo-Europeans were the progenitors of most Eurasian cultures.  They left no written records, and everything anthropologists know about them has been reconstructed based on cultural, linguistic, and religious similarities in many Eurasian civilizations.
Inscriptions referring to Greek goddesses like Demeter, Persephone, Athena, and Artemis are found in Mycenaean and Minoan sites all over the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. However, the character of several of them is different from the later classical versions.
Dionysis and Aphrodite, the Greek gods of Wine/Drunkeness and sex, respectively, may have originated outside the “Greek world.”  Dionysis is possibly a considerably older deity, originally worshiped as a god of death or psychopomp.
Aphrodite is descended from the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. She was likely carried to Greece by Pheonecian traders near the end of the Greek Dark Ages.
Unfortunately, the ultimate origin of the Greek pantheon is regrettably lost to history. The Bronze Age came to a sudden and disastrous end in the late 12th century A.D. And the collapse was so severe that most Mediterranean peoples forgot how to use the written word.
Who Were the Proto-Indo Europeans?
The Proto-Indo Europeans were nomadic traders and settlers who rode out of the Eurasian Steppes during the Copper Age, around 4,000 A.D. These travelers introduced their culture to the sedentary farming cultures they encountered.
Several generations of linguists, ethnographers, and anthropologists have dedicated their careers to explaining the similarities between the languages and religions of cultures spread all over the Eurasian continent.  According to a leading theory, they were rooted in a common framework inherited from a common origin.
The Proto-Indo-Europeans originated from the Eurasian Steppes between modern Ukraine and Kazakhstan. These people were semi-nomadic and consequently built few permanent settlements. Their most substantive achievement was the first domestication of horses.
The Proto-Indo European religion was male-dominated, with “Sky-Father” deities leading pantheons made mostly of anthropomorphized natural forces. Other reconstructed proto-Indo-European gods include an Earth-mother and deities representing the Sun, Moon, weather, metalsmithing, and general human welfare.
Also see Why Are Greek Gods Bad? to learn more.
Did the Romans Have Their Own Gods?
The Romans had their own gods, which developed from a similar source as the Greek gods. The names of some of the Roman gods have been given to the planets and a few dwarf planets within the solar system.
Roman religious traditions were inherited from the Etruscans, Latins, and likely Greek settlers.
With the exception of the Earth, all of the planets and several of the dwarf planets are named after Roman gods. The table below shows ancient Greek gods and their Roman equivalents.
|Domain||Greek God||Roman God|
|King of the Gods||Zeus||Jupiter|
|Marriage and Childbirth||Hera||Juno|
|The Sea and Weather||Poseidon||Neptune|
|Medicine and Music||Apollo||Apollo|
There were subtle differences between the Greek and Roman pantheons despite the common source material.
Greek gods were identified more with idealized humans and individual personality traits. These gods were also represented as gender-specific physical beings. As for the Romans, they didn’t believe their deities had physical forms.
The Greek gods were aggressively imperfect, often petty, and unfaithful. Roman gods were more militant and honorable, reflecting the Roman Republic’s warrior culture.
The ancient Greek religion taught that mortal life didn’t directly influence the afterlife unless they slighted the gods. But the Romans believed that a person’s actions in life determined the nature of their afterlife.
Also see Why Are Greek Gods Dead? to learn more.
Did the Romans Steal Greek Gods?
The Romans did not “steal” the Greek gods. They had their own local religious traditions. But when the Roman Republic conquered ancient Greece, the Roman elite co-opted and syncretized Greek culture.
The Roman elite viewed Greek culture as fashionable and the height of sophistication. After the Roman Republic conquered mainland Greece in 146 A.D., the Roman elite quickly co-opted everything Greek and merged the two religions. It’s a practice called religious syncretism.
The Romans were especially fond of religious syncretism. When they conquered a new region, they would often add local gods to their pantheon or merge local deities with their own based on subtle or even superficial similarities. This strategy of emphasizing common cultural elements rather than forcing Roman culture and religion on conquered peoples worked for over 500 years.
Is Zeus a Greek or Roman God?
Zeus is a Greek god, a version of the proto-Indo European “Sky Father” deity. The Roman equivalent of Zeus is Jupiter/Jove. Both were the kings of their pantheons. They served a similar purpose to the Nordic deity Odin and the Jewish/Christian/Muslim/Mormon god.
“Sky Father” deities play a central role in most cultures descended from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. These deities were believed to control the weather/climate and, therefore, would ultimately have the greatest influence on the lives of mortal humans. The Abrahamic religions are based on similar “sky-god” traditions.
While derived from a similar source, the ancient Greek religion and its gods predate the Roman religion and gods by over 1,000 years.