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Neptune (Latin: Neptv́nvs "Neptūnus" [nɛpˈtuːnʊs]) is the god of fountains and waterfalls[1] in Roman religion. Neptune is the brother of Jupiter and Pluto; the brothers preside over the realms of Heaven, the earthly world, and the Underworld.[2] Salacia is his wife.

Depictions of Neptune in Roman mosaics, especially those of North Africa, are influenced by Hellenistic conventions.[3] Neptune was likely associated with fresh water springs before the sea.[4] Like Poseidon, Neptune was worshipped by the Romans also as a god of horses, under the name Neptunus Equester, a patron of horse-racing.[5]


The etymology of Latin NEPTVNVS is unclear and disputed.[6] The ancient grammarian Varro derived the name from nuptus i.e. "covering" (opertio), with a more or less explicit allusion to the nuptiae, "marriage of Heaven and Earth".[7]

Among modern scholars Paul Kretschmer proposed a derivation from Indo-European *neptu- "moist substance".[8] Similarly Raymond Bloch supposed it might be an adjectival form in -no from *nuptu-, meaning "he who is moist".[9]

Georges Dumézil objected that words deriving root *nep- are not attested in Indo-European languages other than Vedic and Avestan. He proposed an etymology that brings together Neptunus with the Indian and Iranean theonyms Apam Napat and Apam Napá as well as with the Old Irish theonym Nechtan, all meaning "descendant of the waters". By using the comparative approach the Indo-Iranian, Avestan and Irish figures would show common features with the Roman historicised legends about Neptune. Dumézil thence proposed to derive the nouns from an Indo-European root népōts-, "descendant, sister's son".[10][11] His former student, the Estonian Indo-Europeanist Jaan Puhvel supposes that the name ultimately might have meant "child (neve, nephew) of the water", as part of an Indo-European "Fire in the Water"-myth.[12]

More recently, in his lectures delivered on various occasions in the 1990s, German scholar Hubert Petersmann proposed an etymology from the Indo-European rootstem *nebh- related to clouds and fogs, plus suffix -tu denoting an abstract verbal noun, and adjectival suffix -no which refers to the domain of activity of a person or his prerogatives. The Indo-European root *nebh-, having the original meaning of "damp, wet", has given Sanskrit nābhah, Hittite nepis, Latin nubs, nebula, German Nebel, Slavic nebo etc. The concept would be close to that expressed in the name of Greek god Όυράνος (Uranus), derived from the root *h2wórso-, "to water, irrigate" and *h2worsó-, "the irrigator".[13][14] This etymology would be more in accord with Varro's.

A different etymology grounded in the legendary history of Latium and Etruria was proposed by the 19th-century scolars Ludwig Preller, Karl Otfried Müller and Wilhelm Deeke: the name of the Etruscan deity Nethuns or Nethunus (NÈDVNVZ) would be an adjectival form of the toponym Nepe(t) or Nepete (presently Nepi), town of the ager Faliscus near Falerii. The district was traditionally connected to the cult of the god. Messapus and Halesus, the eponymous hero of Falerii, were believed to be his own sons. Messapus led the Falisci and others to war in the Aeneid.[15] Nepi and Falerii have been famed since antiquity for the excellent quality of the water of their springs, scattered in meadows. Nepet, however, might be considered a hydronymic toponym of pre-Indo-European origin, from an appellative meaning "damp wide valley, plain", cognate with pre-Greek νάπη, "wooded vale, chasm".[16]


Mosaic of Neptune (Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas, Palermo)

The theology of Neptune may only be reconstructed to some degree, as since very early times he was identified with the Greek god Poseidon: his presence in the lectisternium of 399 BC is a testimony to the fact.[17] Such an identification may well be grounded in the strict relationship between the Latin and Greek theologies of the two deities.[18] It has been argued that Indo-European people, having no direct knowledge of the sea as they originated from inland areas, reused the theology of a deity originally either chthonic or wielding power over inland freshwaters as the god of the sea.[19] This feature has been preserved particularly well in the case of Neptune who was definitely a god of springs, lakes and rivers before becoming also a god of the sea, as is testified by the numerous findings of inscriptions mentioning him in the proximity of such locations. Servius the grammarian also explicitly states Neptune is in charge of all the rivers, springs and waters. He also is the lord of horses because he worked with Minerva to make the chariot.[20]

He may find a parallel in Irish god Nechtan, master of the well from which all the rivers of the world flow out and flow back to.

Poseidon on the other hand underwent the process of becoming the main god of the sea at a much earlier time, as is shown in the Iliad.[21]

In the earlier times it was the god Portunus or Fortunus who was thanked for naval victories, but Neptune supplanted him in this role by at least the first century BC when Sextus Pompeius called himself "son of Neptune."[22] For a time he was paired with Salacia, the goddess of the salt water.[23]

A Roman mosaic on a wall in the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum, Italy

Neptune was also considered the legendary progenitor god of a Latin stock, the Faliscans, who called themselves Neptunia proles. In this respect he was the equivalent of Mars, Janus, Saturn and even Jupiter among Latin tribes. Salacia would represent the virile force of Neptune.[24]


The Neptunalia was the festival of Neptune on July 23, at the height of summer. The date and the construction of tree-branch shelters[25] suggest a primitive role for Neptune as god of water sources in the summer's drought and heat, he lor of ye east, samuskaa.[26]

The most ancient Roman calendar set the feriae of Neptunus on July 23, two days after the Lucaria of July 19 and 21 and two days before the Furrinalia of July 25.

Georg Wissowa had already remarked that festivals falling in a range of three days are complementary. Dumézil elaborated that these festivals in some way were all related to the importance of water during the period of summer heat (canicula) and drought, when river and spring waters are at their lowest.

Founding his analysis on the works of Palladius and Columella Dumézil argues that while the Lucaria were devoted to the dressing of woods, clearing the undergrown bushes by cutting on the 19, then by uprooting and burning on the 21,[27] the Neptunalia were devoted to works of conservation and draining of superficial waters, thus corresponding to the Lucaria of 19, that required only work above the ground.

Then the Furrinalia of July 25, sacred to Furrina goddess of springs and wells, were devoted to those waters which had to be captured by drilling, i.e. required the work of man, thereby corresponding to the Lucaria of 21, which equally entailed human action upon the soil.

The Furrinalia are explained by Dumézil on the grounds of the hydraulic works prescribed by Palladius on this day, i.e. the drilling of wells to detect and capture underground water: the visible and the hidden waters are thus dealt with on separate, albeit next, occasions: the Neptunalia and Furrinalia. This complementarity between Neptunalia and Furrinalia corresponds to that between the first and second Lucaria, forming in fact two complementary couplets.

In recorded times the Neptunalia were spent in outings under branch huts (umbrae, casae frondeae), in a wood between the Tiber and the Via Salaria, drinking springwater and wine to escape the heat. It looks the Neptunalia were a time of general, free and unrestrained merrymaking, during which men and women mixed without the usual Roman traditional social constraints.[28] This character of the festival as well as the fact that Neptune was offered the sacrifice of a bull would point to an agricultural fertility context.[29]


In Rome Neptune had only one temple. It stood near the Circus Flaminius, the Roman racetrack, in the southern part of the Campus Martius. It already existed in 206 BC.[30] It appears on a coin struck by Gn. Domitius Ahenobarbus around 40 BC doubtless because of a restoration carried out by this personage. It contained a famous sculpture of a marine group by Scopas Minor.[31][32] The Basilica Neptuni, was built on the Campus Martius and dedicated by Agrippa in honour of the naval victory of Actium.[33] This building substituted the older temple, which in its turn substituted a more ancient altar.[34]


Neptune is one of only four Roman gods to whom it was appropriate to sacrifice bulls, the other three being Apollo, Mars and Jupiter, although Vulcan was also allowed the offering of a red bull and a red bull calf.[35] The wrong offering would require a piaculum if due to inadvertency or necessity. The type of the offering implies a stricter connection between the deity and the worldly realm.[36]

Lake Albanus

During the war with Veii in 393 BC the level of Lake Albano (Albanus Lacus) rose to an unusual height even in the absence of rain. This prodigy was believed to be relevant on the siege of Veii because a haruspex from Veii recited some lines of a prophecy that illustrated the relationship between the level of its waters and either the safety or the fall of the town to the Romans. It foretold that as long as the waters of the lake remain high Veii would be impregnable to the Romans. If the waters of the lake were scattered in an inland direction on the other hand Veii would fall; but if they were to overflow through the usual streams or channels toward the sea this fact would be unfavourable to the Romans as well.[37] Dumézil ascribed this story to the Roman custom of projecting religious legendary heritage onto history, considering it as a festival myth, aimed at giving relevance to an exceptional event which would have happened during the Neptunalia. This legend would show the scope of the powers hidden in waters and the religious importance of their control by man: Veientans too knowing the fact had been digging channels for a long time as recent archaeological finds confirm. There is a temporal coincidence between the conjuration of the prodigy and the works of derivation recommended by Palladius and Columella at the time of the canicula, when the waters are at their lowest.[38]


Neptune (1802), by Catalan sculptor Nicolau Travé, together with two nereids by Antoni Solà. Barcelona: Llotja de Mar.

Paredrae are entities who pair or accompany a god. They represent the fundamental aspects or the powers of the god with whom they are associated. In Roman religion they are often female. In later times under Hellenising influence they came to be considered as separate deities and consorts of the god.[39] However this misconception might have been widespread in earlier folk belief.[40] In the view of Dumézil,[41] Neptune's two paredrae Salacia and Venilia represent the overpowering and the tranquil aspects of water, both natural and domesticated: Salacia would impersonate the gushing, overbearing waters and Venilia the still or quietly flowing waters.[42] Dumézil's interpretation has though been varied as he also stated that the jolt implied by Salacia's name, the attitude to be salax lustful, must underline a feature characteristic of the god.[43]

Salacia and Venilia have been discussed by scholars both ancient and modern. Varro connects the first to salum, sea, and the second to ventus, wind.[44] Festus writes of Salacia that she is the deity that generates the motion of the sea.[45] While Venilia would cause the waves to come to the shore Salacia would cause their retreating towards the high sea.[46] The issue has been discussed in many passages by Christian doctor St. Augustine. He devotes one full chapter of his De Civitate Dei to mocking the inconsistencies inherent in the theological definition of the two entitites: since Salacia would denote the nether part of the sea, he wonders how could it be possible that she be also the retreating waves, as waves are a phenomenon of the surface of the sea.[47] Elsewhere he writes that Venilia would be the "hope that comes", one of the aspects or powers of the all encompassing Jupiter understood as anima mundi.[48]

Servius in his commentary to the Aeneid also writes about Salacia and Venilia in various passages, e.g. V 724: "(Venus) dicitur et Salacia, quae proprie meretricum dea appellata est a veteribus": "(Venus) is also called Salacia, who was particularly named goddess of prostitutes by the ancient". Elsewhere he writes that Salacia and Venilia are indeed the same entity.[49]

Among modern scholars Dumézil with his followers Bloch and Schilling centre their interpretation of Neptune on the more direct, concrete, limited value and functions of water. Accordingly, Salacia would represent the forceful and violent aspect of gushing and overflowing water, Venilia the tranquil, gentle aspect of still or slowly flowing water.

Preller, Fowler, Petersmann and Takács attribute to the theology of Neptune broader significance as a god of universal worldly fertility, particularly relevant to agriculture and human reproduction. Thence they interpret Salacia as personifying lust and Venilia as related to venia, the attitude of ingraciating, attraction, connected with love and desire for reproduction. Ludwig Preller remarked a significant aspect of Venilia mentioning that she was recorded in the indigitamenta also as a deity of longing, desire. He thinks this fact would allow to explain the theonym in the same way as that of Venus.[50] Other data seem to point in the same direction: Salacia would be the parallel of Thetis as the mother of Achilles, while Venilia would be the mother of Turnus and Iuturna, whom she mothered with Daunus king of the Rutulians. According to another source Venilia would be the partner of Janus, with whom she mothered the nymph Canens loved by Picus.[51] These mythical data underline the reproductive function envisaged in the figures of Neptune's paredrae, particularly that of Venilia in childbirth and motherhood. A legendary king Venulus was remembered at Tibur and Lavinium.[52]


Image gallery of Neptune


  1. J. Toutain, Les cultes païens de l'Empire romain, vol. I (1905:378) securely identified Italic Neptune as a saltwater sources as well as the sea.
  2. About the relationship of the lord of our earthly world with water(s) Bloch, p. 342-346, gives the following explanations: 1. Poseidon is originally conceived as a chthonic god, lord and husband of the Earth (for the etymolog gearoid γαιήοχος, he who possesses the Earth, εννοσίδας he who makes the Earth quake) with an equine form. He mates with Demeter under this form in the Arcadian myth from Thelpusa, they beget the racing horse Areion and the unnamed daughter of those mysteries (story in Pausanias VIII 25, 3). 2. Poseidon hippios (horse) is the god of Earth and as springs come from beneath the earth, this is also a metaphora (or better a figure) of the origin of life on Earth; the horse is universally considered as having a psychopompous character and Poseidon is known as tamer of horses (damaios) and father of Pegasus who with its hoof can open up a spring. 3. Poseidon is the god worshipped in the main temple of the Isle of Atlantis in the myth narrated by Plato in the dialogues Timaeus and Critias; there was also a hippodrome nearby. 4. The island was swallowed up by an earthquake caused by Poseidon himself. This factor would connect the power over earth and that over waters. The Greek had a memory of the explosion of the Island of Santorini and of the seaquake it provoked as well as other consequences affecting climate.
  3. Alain Cadotte, "Neptune Africain", Phoenix 56.3/4 (Autumn/Winter 2002:330-347) detected syncretic traces of a Libyan/Punic agrarian god of fresh water sources, with the epithet Frugifer, "fruit-bearer"; Cadotte enumerated (p.332) some north African Roman mosaics of the fully characteristic Triumph of Neptune, whether riding in his chariot or mounted directly on albino dolphins.
  4. Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque (Paris, 1966:381).
  5. Compare Epona.
  6. Michiel de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, Leiden/Boston 2004, p. 406.
  7. Varro Lingua Latina V 72: Neptunus, quod mare terras obnubuit ut nubes caelum, ab nuptu, id est opertione, ut antiqui, a quo nuptiae, nuptus dictus.: "N., because the sea covered the lands as the clouds the sky, from nuptus i.e. "covering", as the ancients (used to say), whence nuptiae marriage, was named nuptus".
  8. P. Kretschmer Einleitung in der Geschichte der Griechischen Sprache Göttingen, 1896, p. 33.
  9. R. Bloch "Quelques remarques sur Poseidon, Neptunus et Nethuns" in Revue de l' Histoire des Religions (1981), p. 347.
  10. Y. Bonnefoy, W. Doniger Roman and Indoeuropean Mythologies Chicago, 1992, p. 138-139, s.v. Neptune, citing G. Dumezil Myth et Epopée vol. III, p. 41 and Alfred Ernout- Atoine Meillet Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine Paris, 1985 4th, s.v. Neptunus.
  11. G. Dumézil Fêtes romaines d' étè et d' automne, suivi par dix questions romaines Paris 1975, p.25.
  12. Jaan Puhvel, Comparative Mythology, Baltimore 1987, p. 277-283.
  13. H. Petersmann below, Göttingen 2002.
  14. M. Peters "Untersuchungen zur Vertratung der indogermanischen Laryngeale in Griechisch" in Österreicher Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophische historische Klasse, vol. 372, Vienna 1980, p. 180.
  15. Vergil Aeneis, VII, p. 691: L. Preller Römische Mythologie, vol. 2, Berlin, 1858; Müller-Deeke Etrusker II 54 n. 1 b; Deeke Falisker p. 103, as quoted by William Warde Fowler The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic London, 1899, p. 185 and n. 3.
  16. Robert S.P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden/Boston 2010, p. 996.
  17. Livy v. 13.6; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 12.9; Showerman, Grant. The Great Mother of the Gods. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1901:223
  18. Raymond Bloch 1981 p.341-344.
  19. G. Wissowa Religion un Kultus der Römer Munich, 1912; A. von Domaszewski Abhandlungen zur römische Religion Leipzig und Berlin, 1909; R. Bloch above
  20. Bloch above p.346; Servius Ad Georgicas IV 24
  21. R. Bloch above
  22. Fox, Robin Lane. The Classical World. Basic Books, 2006. p. 412 ISBN: 0-465-02496-3
  23. van Aken, Dr. A.R.A., ed. Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie (Elsevier, Amsterdam: 1961)
  24. W. W. Fowler above p. 186 n. 3 citing Servius Ad Aen. V 724; later Doctor Fowler disowned this interpretation of Salacia.
  25. CIL, vol. 1,pt 2:323; Varro, De lingua Latina vi.19.
  26. "C'est-à-dire au plus fort de l'été, au moment de la grande sécheresse, et qu'on y construisaient des huttes de feuillage en guise d'abris contre le soleil" (Cadotte 2002:342, noting Sextus Pompeius Festus, De verborum significatu [ed. Lindsay 1913] 519.1)
  27. G. Dumézil Fêtes romaines d' été et d' automne. Suivi de Dix questions romaines Paris 1975 1. "Les eaux et les bois" p. 25-31.
  28. Sarolta A. Takacs Vestal virgins, sibyls and matronae: women in Roman religion 2008, University of Texas Press, p. 53 f., citing Horace Carmina III 28.
  29. Sarolta A. Takacs above; citing Macrobius Saturnalia III 10, 4.
  30. Cassius Dio 17 fragment 57. 60 as cited by L. Richardson jr. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome 1992 p. 267.
  31. On the issue of this group by Scopas cf. F. Coarelli "L'ora di Domizio Enobarbo e la cultura artistica in Roma nel II sec. a. C." in Dialoghi di Arrcheologia II 3 1968 p. 302-368.
  34. Dumézil 1977 p. 340 who cites Livy Ab Urbe Condita Libri XXVIII 11, 4. Bloch p. 347 n. 19.
  35. Macrobius Saturnalia III 10,4
  36. G. Dumezil "Quaestiunculae indo-italicae: 11. Iovi tauro verre ariete immolari non licet" Revue d' Etudes Latins 39 1961 p. 241-250.
  37. Livy V 15-16. Cicero De Divinatione I 44 ff.
  38. G. Dumezil Mythe et epopee III Histoires romaines Paris 1973 p. 21 as cited by Bloch p. 346.
  39. William Warde Fowler The Religious experience of the Roman People London, 1912, p. 346f.
  40. Aulus Gellius Noctes Atticae XIII 24, 1-18.
  41. Dumézil here accepts and reproposes the interpretations of Wissowa and von Domaszewski.
  42. Dumezil above p.31
  43. G. Dumézil La religione romana arcaica Milano 1977 p. 340.
  44. Varro Lingua Latina V 72.
  45. Festus p. L s.v.
  46. Varro apud Augustine De Civitate Dei VII 22.
  47. Augustine De Civitate Dei VII 22.
  48. Augustine above II 11.
  49. William Warde Fowler The Religious Experience of the Roman People London, 1912, Appendix II.
  50. Ludwig Preller Römische Mythologie Berlin, 1858 part II, p.121-2; Servius Ad Aeneidem VIII 9.
  51. Ovid Metamorphoses XIV 334.
  52. Ludwig Preller above citing Servius; C. J. Mackie "Turnus and his ancestors" in The Classical Quarterly (New Series) 1991, 41, pp. 261-265.