The Pagan Gods You Never Heard Of

It seems that most adults are vaguely familiar with ancient Greek and Roman mythology, but our knowledge tends to be pretty rusty since it usually stems from those books we read back in the 5th or 6th grade. Yes, Jupiter and Juno, Minerva and Venus are names we can still recognize. But not all Roman gods and goddesses are that well known.

For instance, back in elementary school you probably didn’t learn that ancient Romans believed that every river had its own god, did you? These less famous gods are actually easy to spot, once you know the artistic rules that governed the ancient sculptors working to depict them.

River gods are always male, and always old and bearded. (Why? You’re not the only one asking that question! The fact is, nobody knows.) And statues of river gods, which are generally humongous, invariably show them sprawled sideways, leaning on one arm; this was apparently meant to show that the long, flowing river came from the god as its source.

IMG_5791Now that you’ve got the basics, it should be a simple matter to identify what this statue is meant to represent, even though we’re not sure exactly which river he’s supposed to be. Known since the Middle Ages as Marforio, this colossus stood in almost the exact center of Rome until it was somehow hauled up the hill and into one of Rome’s major museums of antiquities. It is estimated to date from the 100’s A.D., making him a lot older than he already looks!

Meanwhile, across town in the Vatican Museums stands this exquisite masterpiece, representing the Nile River. It is thought that the 16 little kiddies who frolic all over him are meant to represent the 16 cubits which the Nile regularly rises when in flood–although nobody can be completely sure. This lovely work was found in the 1500’s, buried not too far from the Pantheon. You never know what you’ll find when you start digging in an ancient city…


As we’ve said before, it’s hard to appreciate an artwork if you don’t understand what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so handy to visit Rome’s great museums with a knowledgeable guide! You can wander around the galleries feeling lost and confused–or you can get a reliable explanation of what it is you’re looking at. Which would you rather choose?