Roman Mythological Creatures

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

In this lesson, you will learn about some of the more well-known creatures from Roman mythology. In certain cases, you will see how the Roman version of a mythological creature differs from its Greek counterpart.

Roman and Greek Mythology: Is There a Difference?

Very much so, but to answer that question adequately, it is important to look at how the Romans viewed mythology before their encounter with the Greeks. Before having any contact with the Greeks, the Romans did have gods and goddesses, as well as some minor beings, that they worshipped. However, they did not have very many myths, or stories, that they placed these divinities within.

The gods were meant to be worshipped as part of the average, daily routine of the Romans. It was only after they encountered the fantastic writings and epics of the Greeks, that the Romans decided to place their own gods and goddesses within a mythology. What happened was that the Romans made their gods and goddesses fit into the mythology already established by the Greeks, often by replacing the names of the Greek deities with those of their own. In many cases, this also involved drastically reshaping the personalities of some of these gods and goddesses. The same can be said for certain creatures in Roman mythology. Furthermore, once the Romans began to connect to the mythology of the Greeks, they added to it with some of their own myths and creatures.

Mythical Menagerie of the Romans

Cacus: Cacus was introduced to Roman mythology through Virgil in his work, the Aeneid, and by Ovid through his Fasti, a book explaining Roman festivals and the origins of the gods. According to them, Cacus was a fire-breathing giant who lived on the Aventine hill, which was one of the seven hills of Rome. He was considered to be the son of Vulcan, god of fire and the forge, and despite breathing fire and making trouble in the local village, he was a world-class shepherd.

In the myth mentioning Cacus, Hercules had just stolen the cattle of Geryon when Cacus decided to steal some of them from Hercules. He dragged the cattle away by their tails so that Hercules could not find them by following their hoof prints. However, the remaining cattle made a ruckus as they later neared Cacus's cave with Hercules. The cattle inside the cave called out in return, alerting Hercules to their location. Hercules slayed Cacus and retrieved the cattle.

Hercules slaying Cacus
Hercules slaying Cacus

Fauns: The Romans associated their idea of the faun with the Greek satyr. However, our conception of the satyr actually comes from the image of the Roman faun. In Greek art, satyrs were depicted as men with horse's ears and tails. The Roman fauns were men with the legs and horns of a goat. This image would last in Western culture and was later used in the Middle Ages in Christian depictions of Satan. Fauns in Roman myth are forest spirits who like to have fun, dance, and play the flute.

A typical faun in Roman mythology
A typical faun in Roman mythology.

Basilisk: Pliny the Elder was one of the first writers to introduce the basilisk to Western Civilization. In his Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedia on, among other things, the animals of the world, he describes the basilisk as being a serpent living in North Africa, in the Greek city of Cyrene. Among its notable features was its ability to kill any living thing by touch or its poisonous breath, which could also scorch the land. The basilisk was only a foot in length and could slither with its head upright. Its only weakness was the smell of a weasel, and thus, the only way to kill it was by throwing it in a weasel hole. The two would ultimately kill each other. Today, many believe this legend was inspired by the belief that cobras and mongooses were natural enemies.

Ethiopian Pegasus: Pliny the Elder also wrote about a creature he named the Ethiopian Pegasus. Like its Greek counterpart, it was a horse with wings. However, it additionally had antelope-like horns, making it unique to Ethiopia, according to Pliny.

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