HST6074: Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses

Jupiter sala di Cerere Palazzo Vecchio © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

15 credits (Semester 2018-19: Spring)

Module Leader 2018-19: Dr Chris Mowat

Module Summary

"[The Greeks] had an extensive range of divine images in store, and boasted an uncommon capacity of evoking different identities of a god in rapidly shifting perspectives, generating (seemingly) incompatible statements to the distress of the modern observer. By switching between diverse registers of ordering, for instance (but not only) between the worlds of myth and cult, or between national (Hellenic), local (of the polis), and personal or group-religiosity (e.g. in henotheistic forms of religion), they managed to elude the chaotic potential of the Greek pantheon. For them the idea that there is one Zeus with many different epithets (predicates, functions, localities) was no less valid than the idea that there are many different Zeuses varying according to myth, cult, place. (Late) modern scholars as a rule have serious difficulties in handling such coincidentiae oppositorum and hence tend to ignore, downplay, smooth out or deny the inherent inconsistencies. Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, could cope with their inconsistent gods by avoiding mixing up their different contextual registers." - Henk Versnel, Coping with the Gods, pp. 6-7.

The Greeks and the Romans were, like the great majority of peoples in the ancient world, polytheist, i.e. they had many gods and goddesses. These divinities were omnipresent, and they played important roles from essential issues of public interest to the most mundane aspects of human life. In this module we will explore how we should understand these divinities, looking at different ancient sources, including mythological stories, temples, cults and votive gifts. We will consider the relationship between Roman and Greek divinities, placed very early in an established system of mutual translations (e.g. Venus = Aphrodite). We will also examine how modern scholars have looked at ancient gods and goddesses. The two main historiographical approaches to ancient gods have been either studying all the evidence on a specific divinity in a monograph, or considering groups of divinities as structures. We will see the advantages and the disadvantages of both approaches, and discuss alternative methodologies, such as considering gods and goddesses through their association with concepts. Finally, we will see how allegory has allowed ancient gods to survive antiquity and thrive in Medieval and Renaissance art and literature.

Module aims

This modules aims to:

  1. Examine and discuss how ancient gods and goddesses were experienced, 'lived', and understood in Greek and Roman societies through the analysis and the comparison of ancient sources
  2. Assess historiographical interpretations of ancient gods, interpretations which have struggled to cope with varying, and occasionally conflicting meanings attached to ancient gods and goddesses against the evidence, placed as they were in a continuous conceptual tension between unity (the one Zeus, Zeus and Iuppiter as the same god, etc), and multiplicity (Zeus Balileus as a distinguished persona from Zeus Meilichios, and Zeus at Olympia distinguished from Zeus at Dodona etc)
  3. Analyse how ancient gods and goddesses have survived antiquity through allegory, thanks to one of their main characteristics, i.e. their association with concepts.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, a student will be able to:

  1. Analyse a variety of different ancient sources and properly contextualise and critically compare them. (Aims 1, 2, 3)
  2. Identify modern historiographical models and debates on ancient divinities (A2, 3)
  3. Independently produce an original work on a specific aspect of a chosen ancient divinity (A1, 2)
  4. Construct and defend source-based arguments in oral and written form (A1).


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two-hour classes. The first class will present an introduction to the aims of the course and an overview of sources and historiographical reconstructions on ancient gods and goddesses (LO1, 2). Every student will have at this point to choose her or his own "tutelary god" that (s)he will focus on in subsequent sessions. The next three classes will focus on divinities in translations between the Roman and the Greek world, on the importance of local contexts to determine divine personae, and on the specialisations of each god or goddess. In each session you will be asked to look at sources on your own "tutelary" god or goddess and relate the topic of each session to him/her (LO3, 4). The final session will be dedicated to allegory and how ancient gods have survived the death of their cults through their relationship with concepts (LO2). Individual tutorial contact will help define your essay and presentation in terms of source material and argument.



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will write a paper concerning your "tutelary divinity", chosen at the beginning of the course. The papers will focus on the chosen divinities, and could consider how their cult developed in a specific city, comparatively across a broader region, or could study their relationships with other gods or goddesses (LO1, 2, 3, 4). You will work with your divinity also in presentations during the classes, and this will represent non-summative assessment (LO4). Continuous feedback and feedforward will be provided throughout the discussions in all sessions.


Selected reading

  • J.N. Bremmer, A. Erskine (eds.), The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations, Edinburgh (2010)
  • M. Detienne, Apollon le couteau à la main, Paris (1998)
  • M. Lipka, Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach, Leiden-Boston (2009)
  • R. Parker, On Greek Religion, Ithaca 2011, pp. 64-102
  • H. Versnel, Coping with the Gods, Leiden-Boston (2011)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.