Three, three, three…what is it with people and the number three? The Celts have their three realms, the Christians have the Holy Trinity, the Hindus have the trio of Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu, the Greeks have the three Fates, the –
Yeah. I’ll just stop while I’m ahead – I’m sure you guys get the idea.
Obviously, following this pattern, the Romans should have been no strangers to the power of the number three. And guess what?
Along with the group of 12 Dii Consentes, the Romans honored triads of deities who were very important to the state. And guess how many of these triads there were?
Did you guess 3? you did? Oh, you smart cookie, you!
These triads were, like all other things, given names: there was the Aventine Triad, the Archaic Triad, and, the most famous, the Capitoline Triad.
The cult of the Aventine Triad was established in 493 BCE on where else but the Aventine Hill. This was the so-called “plebeian triad”, both because the deities worshiped were popular with the plebeians and because the Aventine was traditionally the plebeian’s/people’s hill. During a time of famine, war, and threatened plebeian secession from the city, the then-dictator Aulus Postumius vowed a temple to be built to the three deities of the plebeians – the temple was built, and the famine and dissension ended.
The deities of the Aventine Triad were Ceres, Liber, and Libera. Ceres is the well-known goddess of grain and agriculture, Liber is a god of wine, freedom, and fertility associated (and later assimilated) with Bacchus, and Libera is a goddess of fertility and the female counterpart to Libera – she was later associated with Persephone/Proserpina.
The Archaic Triad is a sort of proto-Capitoline Triad. The original deities were Iuppiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Scant resources are available for information on the Archaic Triad: in fact, really only fragments from Servius, Polybius, Livy, Plutarch, and Festus give us any idea of the existence of this triad.
Georges Dumezil, always ready to leap to the call of his love-affair with the so-called “Proto Indo-European religion”, thinks that these deities symbolized the major stereotypical roles of the high offices of that religion. According to him, Iuppiter was a stand-in for the king, Mars your standard deity of war, and Quirinus the deity sacred to and the protector of the average Joe people.
Finally, the Capitoline Triad is the later version of the Archaic Triad. Iuppiter still held his place as the sovereign, but Mars and Quirinus were pushed aside to make room for Minerva and Iuno. These deities were honored in temples known as capitolia throughout the Roman world, but the main temple was the Temple of Capitoline Iuppiter, the Best and the Greatest (aedes Iovis Optimi Maximi Capitolini). Each deity had their own cella, or room of the cult statue, within this temple.
Apparently, this is a mirror of the sacred Etruscan triad of Tinia, Menrva, and Uni.