Most people of the ancient world were deeply religious. Their gods figured prominently into everything from the mundane aspects of their daily lives to the most critical decisions of law, foreign policy, and war. The Romans were no exception: they had a multitude of gods to whom they offered reverence and sacrifice.
The three mightiest gods of the Romans were Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Together they comprised what is known as the “Capitoline Triad.” All three were honored in the most sacred building in the Roman world — the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, a large structure high upon the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
Jupiter was the top god
Among these three gods, Jupiter was foremost, being the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus. While he assigned the seas to his brother Neptune and the underworld to his brother Pluto, he retained for himself domain over the earth, the sky and the heavens.
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He was often called Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter the best and greatest”). The visible instrument of his power was the lightning bolt, which he often is shown holding, ready to hurl.
Jupiter’s wife, Juno, was the queen of heaven, the equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera. Not only was she Jupiter’s consort, but as the daughter of Saturn — who was Jupiter’s father — she was also his sister.
She was worshipped in many ways, ranging from the goddess who oversaw marriage and childbirth to the one who was responsible for the coining of money. Rome’s empresses were especially prone to identify themselves with Juno, for she was their celestial counterpart.
Ranking only below Jupiter and Juno was Minerva. She was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena, after whom she is closely modeled.
She is said to have been born fully armed and armored, and of mature physique, emerging from the brain of Jupiter.
The fact that Minerva was born of Jupiter’s brain explains her elevated mental capacities, for she was the goddess of wisdom, reason and prudence, and she had special oversight over literature and science, as well as practical skills such as embroidery and weaving.
Each of these divinities had an animal familiar, by which they could be represented. Jupiter’s was the eagle, Juno’s the peacock, and Minerva’s the owl. These birds often appear with their respective divinity in artistic compositions, including on thousands of coin designs.
The association of these deities and their animals was so well understood that in some cases the presence of the deities was not even required. A wonderful example is a copper quadrans of the emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138 to 161), which shows on its reverse Jupiter’s eagle flanked by Minerva’s owl and Juno’s peacock with its feathers in splendor.