The ancient Roman and Indian civilizations each developed a rich mythological tradition that was woven into every aspect of daily life. Both ancient civilizations left a vast legacy and although the Roman Empire was largely superseded by Christianity, the ancient Indian civilization continued to evolve, adopting new concepts and ideas, and is still very much present in modern India.
Despite the huge geographical distances and the differences in culture on the surface, both ancient Roman and Indian mythologies have many notable things in common. One of the most striking similarities between the two cultures is the large pantheon of gods and goddesses, each one with its own unique powers and attributes. These similarities, and others, suggest a shared understanding of the world that transcended cultural boundaries.
While it’s generally agreed that these two giant civilizations emerged and developed in isolation, the surprising amount of similarities and shared characteristics between the mythologies of ancient Rome and India are enough to at least cast doubt on this assumption.
What Is Comparative Mythology?
Comparative mythology is a way of comparing different cultures by looking for shared characteristics, motifs and themes in their mythologies. By comparing the mythologies of two seemingly distinct cultures you can often find surprising similarities and overlapping worldviews. When you compare the mythologies of different groups you can often learn more about how they developed and, in some cases, discover lost historical links between seemingly distinct civilizations. A number of different conclusions can be ascertained from the similarities that emerge.
Similarities in the mythologies of two separate civilizations could indicate that they share a common origin. It could be, for example, that many thousands of years ago one civilization split apart and created two new civilizations that continued to develop in isolation from one another. After the original civilization split, both new cultures may have retained elements of their formerly shared mythology.
In other cases, a younger civilization may come into contact with an older one. As often happens, when a less developed culture comes into contact with a more advanced one, the younger culture may imitate or begin to take on some of the older civilization’s myths and legends.
Alternatively, similarities in the mythologies of two distinct civilizations could point towards a universally shared understanding of human nature. Similarities in mythologies could suggest that all humans, no matter where they live, can independently find similar answers to life’s most difficult questions – such as what happens when we die, where did we come from and who or what controls the heavens and the universe.
Contact Between Ancient Roman And Indian Civilizations.
According to most historians, the Roman and Indian civilizations developed their own independent mythologies long before they came into contact with one another. However, the Roman and Indian civilizations were certainly in contact with one another more than 2,000 years ago.
The first documented trade relations between ancient Rome and India occurred during the reign of Rome’s first Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD and did a great deal to expand the influence of the fledgling Roman empire. At first, trade between Rome and India began with caravans that traveled overland but later, following the conquest of Egypt by Augustus, a direct maritime trade route was also established between the two great civilizations.
Further evidence of trade links between ancient Rome and India was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii by an Italian scholar, Amedeo Maiuri, in 1938. Amongst the ruins, he discovered an incredibly well-preserved statuette of Lakshmi, an Indian goddess who represents fertility and feminine beauty.
The city of Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which means that this statuette of Indian origin must predate that. It also indicates that trade relations between Rome and India were already well established before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Similarities Between Roman And Indian Mythologies.
The following are some of the key similarities between Roman and Indian mythologies. NOTE: When I am referring to Indian mythologies, I am primarily referring to Vedic Indian mythology.
The Pantheon Of Gods And Goddesses.
Ancient Rome and India both have a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Each god or goddess has unique attributes and plays a different role in daily life. Both cultures have deities and demi-gods who are associated with elements such as the earth, sea and the sky as well as gods and goddesses that symbolize concepts such as love, war and beauty.
|Roman God||Indian God||Similarities|
|Jupiter||Indra||King of the Gods, associated with lightning and thunder.|
|Mars||Kartikeya||God of War. Both are known for their bravery and martial skill.|
|Venus||Parvathi||Goddess of Love and Beauty. Both are associated with marriage and fertility.|
|Mercury||Hanuman||Messenger of the Gods. Both are known for wit and wisdom.|
|Saturn||Yama||God of Death. Both are associated with justice, law and punishment.|
|Neptune||Varuna||God of the Sea. Both are associated with rain, sky and storms.|
|Apollo||Surya||Sun God. Both are associated with knowledge and light.|
|Juno||Sakthi||Goddess of Motherhood. Associated with nurturing, compassion and protecting the young.|
|Vesta||Agni||God of Fire. Associated with the hearth and the home.|
|Bacchus||Varuni||God of Wine.|
While it can be argued that any developed civilization would create myths around similar concepts, the underlying conception of a pantheon of gods is not universal and illustrates an interesting parallel between the ancient Roman and Indian cultures.
Similarities In The Creation Myths.
Creation myths are one of the most important aspects of any culture, even in today’s scientifically oriented world. Both the Roman and Indian creation myths share certain similarities that are worth noting. There is more than one creation myth in both Rome and India that can be compared.
In the deepest sense, both cultures attribute the creation of the world to a deity. In Rome, the god Jupiter is said to have defeated the Titans in order to create the world. In Indian mythology, the god Brahma created the world by dropping a seed into the primal ocean. This seed transformed into a golden egg from which Brahma was reborn leaving the remaining shell of the egg to become the world.
While both these myths do share a common underlying concept, there are other creation myths that have more similarities. For instance, Rome was said to have been founded or created, by the god Romulus. Romulus was raised and suckled by a she-wolf. In India, there is a creation story that relates to the divine bovine goddess, Surabhi, who provides sustenance to all living beings.
Heroes And Demigods.
Both Roman and Indian mythology are full of heroes and demigods who are born with exceptional strength, abilities and bravery. These heroes and demigods often have to face the gods and overcome fate in order to achieve their goals to benefit mankind.
For example, Hercules, a Roman hero, had to use his strength and bravery to succeed in a similar way to the Indian heroes Bhima and Arjuna. These special heroes are chosen by the gods to act on humanity’s behalf, taking huge responsibilities onto their shoulders. They also act as role models for people in their day-to-day lives.
One of the main purposes of mythology is to teach people moral lessons in a way that they can understand, even if they cannot read or write and have no formal education. Both Roman and Indian mythology contains countless moral tales that caution against certain courses of action and show the benefits of living a virtuous life.
For example, the Roman moral tale of King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold, is similar in its moral content to the Indian moral story of King Nahusha and the dangers of pride.
The Cyclical Nature Of Time.
Time is one of the hardest concepts to understand but in both Roman and Indian mythology it was considered to be circular in nature. This means that the world, and the universe, go through repeated cycles of creation and destruction.
The Roman concept of the Grand Year, from which the modern English term ‘grandeur’ is derived, is extremely similar to the Indian concept of the Yuga cycle. When time is viewed as a circular event it also leads to the understanding that all things are in constant flux, a concept that both ancient Rome and Greece shared with ancient India. This concept is reflected in the cyclical nature of the life of all living beings, the tides and the seasons, as well as the movements of the stars and heavens.
The Use Of Allegory.
The use of allegories in myth plays a huge role in both ancient Rome and India. Allegories are an effective way of conveying deeper truths about life and teaching lessons about concepts that are otherwise very difficult to explain.
The gods and goddesses of the pantheon are frequently used in an allegorical sense to symbolize aspects of human life, struggle and success. The heroes, demigods and even the villains are also used in an allegorical way to explain transcendental concepts as well as more practical lessons about bravery, temptation and virtue.
For instance, the great warrior Aeneas, in Roman mythology, is often considered to be an allegory for the Roman people themselves and demonstrates the values of virtues such as courage, duty and perseverance. In Indian mythology, the god Vishnu can be viewed as an allegory of a savior figure who manifests in different forms to defeat evil and restore balance. In both cases, people can learn how to live better lives by taking on the characteristics of these important mythical figures in their daily dealings.
Life after death is a fundamental belief in both Roman and Indian mythologies. In both cases, death is not seen as the end of the human experience but rather the gateway to new experiences.
In Roman mythology, the afterlife was considered to be a place of judgment where the souls of the dead were weighed and their future fates were determined. The souls that were deemed worthy were sent to Elysium, a heavenly realm, while the souls that were condemned would spend eternity in Tartarus, the underworld.
In Indian mythology, the afterlife was also a place of judgment which was followed by reincarnation. Instead of being sent to a heavenly or hellish realm for eternity after death, the actions of a soul in life would determine the type of life that the soul would return to in their next incarnation.
Nature worship and reverence for the living world are an essential part of Roman and Indian mythology. Nature and its cycles are seen as manifestations of the gods and goddesses and are therefore venerated and treated with great respect.
In Roman mythology, the concept of the ‘genius loci’, or the ‘spirit of a place’, was understood to be the result of the presence of a spirit, god, or demigod. The land, sun, sky, ocean and other natural elements were celebrated with annual festivals, such as the harvest festival in honor of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
In Indian mythology, nature is revered because it is thought that all things contain a divine presence. In this way, nature is seen as a physical manifestation of the divine and so rituals and offerings are conducted to venerate the gods and goddesses that created the natural world. For example, a ritual honoring Surya celebrates the rising of the sun.
The idea that justice is divine is present in both Roman and Indian mythology. This is because in both mythologies the gods and goddesses are responsible for dispensing justice in the form of punishments and rewards, depending on the actions of the humans in question.
In Roman mythology, justice is symbolized by the goddess Justitia. She is represented as holding the scales of justice which she uses to balance good and evil. In Indian mythology, the concept of divine justice is usually represented by Karma, a process that determines the future rebirths of people depending on their actions in life.
Mythology in ancient Rome and India was deeply integrated into daily life. As a consequence, it was seen as vital to interact with the divine and conduct ritualistic festivals to celebrate and venerate the gods and goddesses at certain times of the year.
In Roman culture, some of the most important annual festivals included the harvest festival which was dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and the festival of Saturnalia, to honor the god Saturn and the winter solstice. In Indian mythology, the festivals were also connected with specific gods and goddesses. Some of the major annual festivals include Diwali, which celebrates the victory of light over dark, and Holi, which celebrates the arrival of spring and the new season of growth.
The Influence ON The Modern Western World.
Many of the major psychologists in the West such as Carl Jung drew heavily on Greek, Roman and Indian mythology in their psychological writings. Carl Jung is one of the most influential psychologists of all time and his work has transformed the way that people in the West view the operations of the mind. In many ways, his work would have been impossible if it weren’t for the depth of understanding that is conveyed through the ancient Roman and Indian mythologies.
Mythology Played Many Roles In Ancient Rome And India.
Mythology is an incredibly complex and multifaceted part of any civilization. In ancient Roman and Indian cultures, mythology helped to create a good moral foundation for society and was present in all aspects of daily life.