This month, originally the first in the year, is named after Mars, the God of War. He was the son of Jupiter and Juno, the king and queen of the gods, and was generally represented in a shining suit of armour, with a plumed helmet on his head, a spear in one hand, and a shield in the other. His chariot was driven by the Goddess of War, Bellona, who also watched over his safety in battle; for the gods often took part in the battles which were constantly raging on the earth. During the great fight between the gods and the giants to decide who was to rule the world, Mars was captured by two of the giants, who bound him with iron chains and kept watch over him day and night. After over a year of captivity, he was freed by the clever god Mercury, who succeeded in loosening the chains so silently that the giants heard no sound. Mars also took part in the Trojan War, when he was actually wounded.
Mars was loved by Venus, the Goddess of Beauty, but wishing to keep their love a secret from the other gods, they met only during the night, and Mars appointed his servant Alectryon to keep watch and to call him before the sun rose as he did not wish Apollo, the Sun God, to see them. One night Alectryon fell asleep, and so was too late to warn Mars of the sun’s approach. Apollo saw them from his chariot as he drove across the sky, and told Vulcan, the God of Fire, who caught them in a net of steel, and thus held them prisoner while the other gods made fun of them. As soon as he was set free, Mars, who was filled with anger against Alectryon for failing in his duty, changed him into a cock, and driving him into a farmyard, condemned him to give warning every day of the sun’s rising–a fanciful explanation why
“the cock with lively din,
Scatters the rear of darkness thin”.
The gods, though they themselves were immortal–that is, could never die, nor even grow old–yet sometimes married mortal, the men or women whom they found on the earth, and Mars fell in love with a beautiful girl named Ilia, who had given up her life to serving in the temple of Vesta, the Goddess of Fire. It was the duty of these priestesses of Vesta to guard the fire which continually burned on the altar of the goddess, for the safety of the people was thought to depend on this sacred flame. No Vestal, as these priestesses were called, was allowed to marry, under penalty of death. Ilia, however, in spite of her solemn promise, consented to marry Mars, and keeping her marriage a secret, continued to live in the temple. In the course of time, she had two sons, Romulus and Remus. Her father and mother, hearing that she had broken her vow, ordered the full punishment of her crime to be carried out; the mother was buried alive, and the children were left in the forest to be killed by the wild beasts.
Thus, Ilia perished, but the children were wonderfully saved, so the story tells us, by a wolf, who cared for them as if they had been her own young. They were soon after found by a shepherd, who took them to his home, where they grew up to be strong and brave men. As soon as they had reached manhood they left their home and went out into the world to seek their fortune. Coming to a beautiful country of hills and valleys, they decided to build a great city; but before they had even finished the outer walls, they quarrelled about the name which was to be given to it when it was built. Romulus lost his temper and struck his brother, Remus so that he fell dead to the ground. With the help of a band of wicked and cruel men like himself, Romulus at last succeeded in building a city, which, called Rome, after its founder’s name, was to become one of the most famous cities the world has ever known.
Romulus became the first king of Rome, but he ruled so harshly that the senators, the chief men of the city, determined to rid themselves of him. During an eclipse of the sun, which darkened the city just at the time when Romulus and the senators were assembled in the marketplace, the senators fell on the king with their swords and slew him. They then cut his body into small pieces, which they hid beneath their cloaks. When the light returned and the people found that their king had disappeared, the senators told them that Romulus had been carried off by the gods to Mount Olympus, and ordered a temple to be built in his honour on one of the seven hills of Rome.
Mars took the city of Rome under his special protection and is said to have sent a shield from heaven, during a time of plague, as a sign that he would always watch over the city. The Romans, afraid lest the shield should be stolen, had eleven other shields made, so like the first that only the priests who guarded them in the temple of Mars could tell which was the one sent from heaven. These priests were called Salii, the Leapers, because they danced war dances when, during the month of March, the shields were carried in a procession through the streets of Rome.
To Mars, as the God of War, the Romans naturally turned for help in war-time, and a Roman general, before setting out, went into the temple of Mars and, touching the sacred shield with the point of his spear, cried “Mars, watch over us!”
The training-ground of the Roman soldiers was called Campus Martius (the Field of Mars), in honour of the God of War, and it was commonly believed that Mars himself led their army into battle and helped to give them the victory. March was named after Mars because of its rough and boisterous weather, and we find the same idea in the minds of the Angles and Saxons, who called it Hlythmonath–the loud or stormy month. Another name for it was Lenctenmonath, the lengthening month because it is during March that the days rapidly become longer.