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Pallas Primamque Deorum: Minerva in Flavian Epic and Religion

Kira Jones

Emory University

The gods were inextricable from Roman life; as such, their relationship with humans has often been explored in Roman epic. Whether they were helping or hindering their presence was assured, especially in moments alluding to contemporary Roman figures. Virgil accentuates Venus’ role in Aeneas’ journey to Latium, framing her in such a way that her relation to Aeneas (and through him Augustus) was perfectly clear. Likewise, the frequent use of prophetic certainty regarding the future of Rome further highlights Jupiter’s approval of the Roman Empire and the actions of its people. Flavian epic is no different, but the Flavians themselves did not have a divine mythological ancestor to capitalize on. Vespasian famously laughed off attempts to link him to Hercules through an obscure ancestor and while Domitian was later accused of calling himself a son of Minerva, there is no evidence to support his doing so. Furthermore, artistic representations generally follow the convention of showing the imperial family in the guise of gods, referring to their role in Roman society, rather than as Jupiter or Hercules themselves.

While the Flavians may not have had a familial relation to the main Roman pantheon, they certainly had favorite gods. This paper looks at the increased presence and agency of Minerva in Flavian epic literature, primarily that of Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus, as reflective of her increased popularity in Flavian Rome. The Flavian Argonautica sees her take a much more active role than in previous versions, not only building the Argo herself but teaching navigation and calming the seas, the latter of which was a noted cultic function in Southern Italy and elsewhere. Valerius Flaccus’ insistence on using her Tritonia epithet in certain nautical situations also underscores both her critical role in the construction and operation of the Argo and her importance to Roman maritime trade and travel, a role that would be commemorated on Domitian’s second Minerva reverse type in 83CE. Minerva’s agency continues to be extolled by Silius Italicus as, rather than being a passive passenger in the trip to Latium, the Punica frames her as demanding that Diomedes take her, the palladium, to Italy so that she might have her cult established there. When Hannibal calls off his attack on Rome it is not because he fears the wrath of Jupiter, who has already called down a storm; rather, it is because he learns that Rome possesses the palladium and is thus under Minerva’s protection.

In Roman religion Minerva was not only a primary goddess of the state, but one who had deep roots in Latium and the Sabine region which the Flavians called home. She was linked with the Flavian victory at Judea and featured prominently in numismatic representations of Vespasian and Titus’ accession to the principate, namely as the palladium which Roma (or Minerva herself) hands to the respective emperors. Her popularity reached its peak under Domitian, who not only adopted her as his primary goddess but instituted new games, new cultic responsibilities, a new priesthood, and new temples in her name. In conclusion, Minerva’s increased agency and presence in Flavian epic reflects a growing interest her under Flavian rule.

Session/Panel Title

Epic Gods Imperial City: Religion and Ritual in Latin Epic from Beginnings to Late Antiquity

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