Neptune is the Roman god of the sea and the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Poseidon. He was originally a god of fresh water and became associated with Poseidon early on in Roman history. He lives in a golden palace at the bottom of the sea, where he holds court over sea gods and goddesses, sea nymphs and sea creatures.
He is the son of Saturn (the Roman counterpart of Cronus) and Ops (the Roman counterpart of Rhea). His brother is Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus from Greek mythology and, therefore, the most powerful god in the Roman pantheon. Neptune was considered the second most powerful god in Roman mythology.
Birth & Family
Afraid that his children would become more powerful than him, Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, swallowed Neptune and his siblings. Ops, the Roman goddess of earth and fertility, did everything she could to save her children, and Neptune and his siblings were vomited back up after Saturn took an emetic.
According to Homer (c. 750 BCE), the brothers Neptune, Jupiter and Pluto (the Roman counterpart of Hades) drew lots to decide which part of the world they would rule over. Neptune drew lots for the sea, Pluto for the underworld, and Jupiter for the sky and heavens. Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) states that Jupiter assigned honours to all the deities after he became king of the gods. Neptune was mostly loyal to his brother Jupiter; however, on one occasion, he conspired with Juno (the Roman equivalent of Hera) and Minerva (the Roman counterpart of Athena) to overthrow him and put him in chains. For this disobedience, Jupiter punished him and banished him to the sea.
Neptune was married to Salacia (the Roman equivalent of the water goddess Amphitrite). Together they had several children, including Triton, Rhodes, Proteus and Benthesikyme. However, like his brother Jupiter, Neptune had many love affairs that resulted in children. He made love to the goddess Ceres when she was in the form of a mare, and she gave birth to a foal called Arion, who would sometimes pull his father's chariot along the surface of the sea. Tyro, the daughter of Salmoneus, slept with Neptune when he was in the form of a river god and gave birth to two sons named Pelias and Neleus. The Cyclops Polyphemus was the son of Neptune and the sea nymph Thoosa. He also fathered the giants Otus and Ephialtes with Iphimedeia.
Appearance & Powers
Neptune was portrayed with dark hair and draped in a richly coloured azure or sea-green mantle. According to Ovid (43 BCE to 17 CE), Neptune always had a sullen expression, while Virgil (70-19 BCE) wrote that he had a mild demeanour and that even when he was angered, he had a look of serenity and majesty on his face. He held a three-pronged trident which possessed extraordinary powers. Neptune used this trident to smash rocks, make waves, create new bodies of water, and call forth fierce storms.
He rode on a dolphin or a giant sea shell alongside his wife. They were pulled by whales and seahorses and were always accompanied by sea gods, goddesses, a large crowd of sea nymphs and Triton, their son. Dolphins and other creatures of the deep would dive out of the water and play around the god. Triton would go before Neptune and blow on his seashell trumpet to calm the waves and announce the god's arrival.
The wrath of the sea was calmed by Neptune, ruler of ocean, who, laying his trident aside, summoned the sea-green Triton, who rose from the deep, displaying his barnacle-crusted shoulders. Neptune gave him an order to sound trumpet calls on his conch shell to recall, as if by a signal, the rivers and waves to their places. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.330-335).
Neptune & King Laomedon
After Neptune had attempted to overthrow Jupiter and put him in chains, his punishment was to serve a mortal. Neptune wandered the earth, trying to find employment. On his way to Troy, Neptune came across Jupiter's son, Phoebus (the Roman equivalent of Apollo), who had also angered Jupiter and was sentenced to carry out the same punishment as Neptune. Reaching Troy, they approached King Laomedon, and Phoebus offered his services as a shepherd while Neptune offered to build tall walls of stone all around the city. They were promised rewards from King Laomedon in return for their hard work.
The two gods immediately got to work and assisted one another to lighten their workloads. While Neptune built his wall, Phoebus would play on his flute, charming the stones and making them move into place without Neptune having to lift them. Once the walls were built, Neptune and Phoebus went to King Laomedon and asked for their promised reward. However, King Laomedon refused to give them anything, which shocked and angered the gods. So they left Troy, swearing to bring ruin upon the city, and so they did; Phoebus sent a deadly plague, and Neptune sent a flood to overwhelm the city. Out of this flood came a monstrous creature.
A desperate Laomedon consulted an oracle who told him that the flood and plague would only end if a young maiden were sacrificed to the monster now and then. The young women in Troy drew lots, and to his despair, Laomedon's daughter Hesione drew the short lot. The great Greek hero Hercules just happened to be passing through Troy at this time. He answered Laomedon's pleas for help in return for the immortal horses that Jupiter had given the king. Hercules slayed the monster but was denied a reward like Phoebus and Neptune. Hercules was furious and vowed to seek revenge upon Laomedon. Upon his return to Troy, he killed the king, his family and his household, except for Hesione. In committing this vengeful act, Neptune's wish for revenge was carried out.
Neptune as the Creator of Horses
The ancient Greeks attributed the creation of horses to Neptune. Neptune and Minerva competed for the right to name the city built by Cecrops, the legendary king of Attica. The gods declared that whoever created the most useful object for humankind would win the right to name the city. Neptune struck his trident upon the ground and created a splendid horse to spring into existence, the first of its kind, while Minerva commanded a beautiful olive tree to rise from the earth.
The gods admired both gifts, but they decided that the olive tree would be more beneficial than a horse, and so the city became protected by Minerva. However, the magnificent horse remained, and in due time, many more horses were upon the earth. Neptune taught humanity how to ride them and how to make race courses for chariot races.
Neptune & King Minos
Another animal created by Neptune was the bull. Minos, who Neptune was fond of, had a great wish to be king of Crete. He believed that having the god's favour would win him the crown. He prayed to Neptune to send him a bull out of the sea so he could sacrifice it in honour of Neptune. Neptune answered his prayer by sending him the most magnificent bull ever seen. It was so beautiful that Minos could not stand to part from it. So he tricked Neptune by hiding it amongst a common herd of cattle and sacrificing another bull in its place.
Neptune punished Minos by making the bull too hard to handle. Before too long, he escaped, destroying everything in its wake, and just as soon as it appeared, the bull vanished into the wilderness, never to be seen again. In other traditions, Neptune punished Minos by making his wife, Pasiphaë, fall in love with the bull.
Neptune in the Aeneid
The Aeneid by Virgil is an epic poem in Roman literature that describes the adventures of the legendary founder of Rome: Aeneas, who survived the sack of Troy and who had a famous love affair with Dido, the queen of Carthage. In Book 1, Aeneas and his men runs into a fierce storm as they sail into the open seas and away from Sicily. Neptune is angered by the storm, which he knows has been sent by his cunning sister Juno, and calms the waters to help Aeneas and his men.
Before he had finished speaking he was calming the swell, dispersing the banked clouds and bringing back the sun. Triton and the sea nymph Cymothoe heaved and strained as they pushed the ships off jagged rocks, while Neptune himself lifted them out of the sandbanks with his trident and opened up the vast Syrtes, restraining the sea as he skimmed along with his chariot wheels touching the crests of the waves. (Virgil, Aeneid, 1.143-149).
In Book 5, Aeneas and his men once again sail into an angry storm. Aeneas asks Neptune what he has in store for them. Neptune replies, "great-hearted Aeneas, not if Jupiter himself gave me his guarantee, would I expect to reach Italy under a sky like this." (Virgil, Aeneid, 5.19-20). He recommends that Aeneas and his ships change course to safe shores, and he helps them reach safety. Throughout the Aeneid, Troy is referred to as "Neptune's Troy", referring to the fact that he had built Troy's strong stone walls for King Laomedon.
Worship & Legacy
The Romans were not big seafarers like the ancient Greeks were, and so Neptune never quite rose to the prominence that Poseidon did in Greek mythology. Neptune had one known temple dedicated to him, located between the Aventine and Palatine Hills in Rome, where a freshwater stream once flowed.
A festival was also held in honour of him. The Neptunalia was held on the 23rd of July every year, during the height of summer. The Romans made sacrifices to Neptune so he would ease their water shortages during the heat, and they held chariot races. All horses stopped working during this period, and they were adorned with wreaths of flowers. The usual feasting and drinking was also a popular pastime during the Neptunalia.
In keeping with the tradition of naming planets after Greek and Roman gods, the 8th planet in the solar system was named after Neptune, as suggested by the French astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier (1811-1877), who discovered the planet in 1846.