As Rome grew and expanded from a small settlement to a great empire, engulfing many peoples and cultures, its religion underwent perhaps the most drastic changes of any aspect of Roman life.
In early Rome, its inhabitants associated certain god-like spirits and supernatural powers with almost everything in nature. Though these spirits did not have human forms, they regularly received sacrifices.
When the empire extended, Romans encountered the beliefs of other cultures, and the spirits were gradually replaced by new gods. In the largely Greek tradition, these Roman gods were shaped like men and women, yet much larger and stronger and, above all, immortal. According to myth, many of these gods lived in great palaces in summo Olympo -- on top of Olympus, the mountain of the gods. While some of the gods of everyday objects were worshipped at small, household shrines -- notably Vesta, goddess of the hearth -- many were represented by priests and priestesses and worshipped at gigantic temples and monuments.
No doubt, this is the period in Roman religion which is most memorable and familiar to us today. Indeed, every planet but our own is named after a mythological character, and numerous constellations (derived from stella, meaning star in Latin) have their origins in Roman mythology. You can read stories about some of the characters we see in the sky, like Jupiter, Orion, Andromeda and Cassiopeia.
Later, in the fourth century BCE, Emperor Constantine the Great brought Christianity to the Roman empire and the worship of these various gods all but ceased.
In The Online Planetarium Show, we have attempted to preserve some of the splendor of Roman mythology by illustrating how its characters still remain in astronomy today. For each myth we have highlighted here, we have written our version, trying as much as possible to follow tradition. We have even sprinkled interesting Latin phrases throughout to remind you that you speak a great deal of Latin yourself!