ritual performed by vestal virgins

Romans showed their respect and reverence of the gods in their prayers, offerings, and festivals. The prayers were addressed to the gods for the purpose of obtaining favors, and were often accompanied by vows. The religious offerings consisted either of the fruits of the earth, such as flowers, wine, milk, and honey; or the sacrifices of domestic animals, such as oxen, sheep, and swine. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\]

The festivals which were celebrated in honor of the gods were very numerous and were scattered through the different months of the year. The old Roman calendar contained a long list of these festival days. The new year began with March and was consecrated to Mars and celebrated with war festivals. Other religious festivals were devoted to the sowing of the seed, the gathering of the harvest, and similar events which belonged to the life of an agricultural people such as the early Romans were. \~\

Romans from the earliest times of their existence practiced a purifying ritual called Lupercalia. Priests sacrificed goats and a dog at the Lupercal, the cave where legend says Romulus and Remus were suckled, and their blood was smeared on two youths. Young women were whipped across their shoulders in the belief it bestowed fertility. The rite was performed in mid February at an altar near Lapis Niger, a sacred site paved with black stones near the Roman Forum until A.D. 494 when it was banned by the pope.

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: “The actual substance of the Roman state religion lay in ritual rather than individual belief, and was collective rather than personal. The rituals consisted of festivals, offerings (often of food or wine) and animal sacrifices. These rituals had to be carried out regularly and correctly in order to retain the favour of the gods towards the state, household or individual. The absence of strong elements of personal belief, salvation and morality in the Roman state religion may be one of the reasons why certain kinds of philosophy (like that of Stoicism) and non-state cults (like Isis-worship or Mithraism, for example - see image 8) were popular alongside the state religion. [Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Sacrifices in Ancient Rome

preparation for a Roman sacrifice

Romans held sacrifices in which a bull, a sheep and a pig were offered. There was even a word to describe it ( suovetaurilia ) which was made by combining the Roman words for the three animals. Oxen were also sacrificed. Clement of Alexandria wrote in “Stromata” (c. A.D. 200): “Sacrifices were devised by men, I do think, as a pretext for eating meals of meat.”

Both the Greeks and Romans salted their sacrifice victims before their throats were cut. Roman senators vied among themselves to see who could get the most blood on their togas during the sacrifice of steer, thinking it would prevent death. A 1,500-year-old earthenware vase that was once thought show human dismemberment actually depicted an ancient bronze statue assembly line.

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: ““A sculpted relief of c. AD 176-80, depicts the emperor Marcus Aurelius offering a sacrifice. He is veiled as a priest, and stands by a small altar, along with the bull that is to be sacrificed, a flute-player and (to the right) the victimarius, who actually killed the animal, with his axe. Between the emperor and the bull is a priest, a flamen, who can be identified by his distinctive headgear, which has a spike on it. |::|[Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

“Typically these rituals were performed out of doors - Roman temples were not places for group worship like modern churches, mosques or synagogues are, but were store-houses for a statue of the god, and for equipment connected with the cult. Sacrifices generally took place on an altar in front of the temple. One relief shows a temple in the background, probably the Capitoline temple of Jupiter, in Rome, with its three doors to the rooms dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.” |::|

Military Sacrifice in Ancient Rome

Livy (59 B.C. - A.D. 17) wrote in “History of Rome” VIII, 9, 1-11: “The Roman consuls before leading their troops into battle offered sacrifices. it is said that the soothsayer pointed out to Decius that the head of the liver was wounded on the friendly side; but that the victim was in all other respects acceptable to the gods, and that the sacrifice of Manlius had been greatly successful. “it is well enough,” said Decius, “if my colleague has received favourable tokens.” in the formation already described they advanced into the field. Manlius commanded the right wing, Decius the left. in the beginning the strength of the combatants and their ardour were equal on both sides; but after a time the Roman hastati on the left, unable to withstand the pressure of the Latins, fell back upon the principes. in the confusion of this movement Decius the consul called out to Marcus Valerius in a loud voice: “we have need of Heaven's help, Marcus Valerius. come therefore, state pontiff of the Roman People, dictate the words, that I may devote myself to save the legions.” [Source: Titus Livius (Livy), “The History of Rome,” Book 8. Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1926,]

The pontiff bade him don the purple —bordered toga, and with veiled head and one hand thrust out from the toga and touching his chin, stand upon a spear that was laid under his feet, and say as follows:“janus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, divine Novensiles, divine Indigites, ye gods in whose power are both we and our enemies, and you, divine Manes, —I invoke and worship you, I beseech and crave your favour, that you prosper the might and the victory of the Roman People of the Quirites, and visit the foes of the Roman People of the Quirites with fear, shuddering, and death. As I have pronounced the words, even so in behalf of the republic of the Roman People of the Quirites, and of the army, the legions, the auxiliaries of the Roman People of the Quirites, do I devote the legions and auxiliaries of the enemy, together with myself, to the divine Manes and to Earth.”

“Having uttered this prayer he bade the lictors go to Titus Manlius and lose no time in announcing to his colleague that he had devoted himself for the good of the army. he then girded himself with the Gabinian cincture, and vaulting, armed, upon his horse, plunged into the thick of the enemy, a conspicuous object from either army and of an aspect more august than a man's, as though sent from heaven to expiate all anger of the gods, and to tum aside destruction from his people and bring it on their adversaries. Thus every terror and dread attended him, and throwing the Latin front into disarray, spread afterwards throughout their entire host. This was most clearly seen in that, wherever he rode, men cowered as though blasted by some baleful star; but when he fell beneath a rain of missiles, from that instant there was no more doubt of the consternation of the Latin cohorts, which everywhere abandoned the field in flight. At the same time the Romans —their spirits relieved of religious fears —pressed on as though the signal had just then for the first time been given, and delivered a fresh attack; for the rorarii were running out between the antepilani and were joining their strength to that of the hastati and the principles, and the triarii, kneeling on the right knee, were waiting till the consul signed to them to rise.”

Household Shrines and Family Worship in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The pater familias was the household priest and in charge of the family worship; he was assisted by his wife and children. The Lar Familiaris was the protecting spirit of the household in town and country. In the country, too, the Lares were the guardian spirits of the fields and were worshiped at the crossroads (compita) by the owners and tenants of the lands that met there. In town, too, the Lares Compitales were worshiped at street-corner shrines in the various vici or precincts. For the single Lar of the Republican period we later find two. Pompeian household shrines show frequent examples of this. They are represented as boys dressed in belted tunics, stepping lightly as if in dance, a bowl in the right hand, a jug upraised in the left. In place of the old Penates, the protecting spirits of the store-closet, these shrines show images of such of the great gods as each family chose to honor in its private devotions. The Genius of the pater familias may be represented in such shrines as a man with the toga drawn over his head as for worship. Often, however, at Pompeii the Genius is represented by a serpent. In such shrines we find two, one bearded, for the Genius of the father, the other for the Iuno of the wife. Vesta was worshiped at the hearth as the spirit of the fire that was necessary for man’s existence. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

seated Jupiter found in a Pompeii house

“The shrine, originally in the atrium when that was the room where the household lived and worked, followed the hearth to the separate kitchen, though examples of shrines are found in the garden or peristyle and occasion ally in the atrium or other rooms. |+|

“The devout prayed and sacrificed every morning, but the usual time for the family devotions was the pause at the cena before the secunda mensa, when offerings to the household gods were made.The Kalends, Nones, and Ides were sacred to the Lares. On these days garlands were hung over the hearth, the Lares were crowned with garlands, and simple offerings were made. Incense and wine were usual offerings; a pig was sacrificed when possible. Horace has a pretty picture of the “rustic Phidyle” who crowns her little Lares with rosemary and myrtle, and offers incense, new grain, and a “greedy pig.” The family were also bound to keep up the rites in honor of the dead. All family occasions from birth to death were accompanied by the proper rites. Strong religious feeling clung to the family rites and country festivals even when the state religion had stiffened into formalism and many Romans were reaching after strange gods. |+|

“The gens or clan of which the family formed a part had its own rites. The maintenance of these sacra was considered necessary not merely for the clan itself, but for the welfare of the State, which might suffer from the god’s displeasure if the rites should be neglected.” |+|

Prayer of Scipio Africanus

Livy (59 B.C. - A.D. 17) wrote in “History of Rome” XXIX, 27, 1-4: “When the day dawned Scipio on his flagship, after silence had been secured by a herald, prayed: “Ye gods and goddesses who inhabit seas and lands, I pray and beseech you that whatever under my authority has been done, is being done, and shall henceforth be done, may prosper for me, for the Roman people and the commons, for allies and Latins who by land, by sea, and by rivers follow the lead, authority and auspices of the Roman people and of myself; and that ye lend your kind aid to all those acts and make them bear good fruit; that when the foe has been vanquished, ye bring the victors home with me safe and sound, adorned with spoils, laden with booty, and in triumph; that ye grant power to punish opponents and enemies; and that ye bestow upon the Roman people and upon me the power to visit upon the state of the Carthaginians the fate that the people of Carthage have endeavoured to visit upon our state.”

altars for Hercules

“Immediately after this prayer a victim was slain and Scipio threw the organs raw into the sea, as is customary, and by a trumpet gave the signal to sail. A favouring wind sufficiently strong quickly carried them out of sight of land. And after mid-day they encountered a fog, so that with difficulty could they avoid collisions between the ships. In the open sea the wind was gentler. Through the following night the same fog held; and when the sun was up, it was dispersed and the wind increased in force. Already they were in sight of land. Not very long afterwards the pilot told Scipio that Africa was not more than five miles away; that they sighted the Promontory of Mercury; if he should order him to steer for that, the entire fleet would soon be in port. Scipio, now that the land was visible, after a prayer to the gods that his sight of Africa might be a blessing to the state and to himself, gave orders to make sail and to seek another landing-place for the ships farther down. They were running before the same wind; but at about the same time as on the preceding day a fog appeared cutting off the sight of land, and under the weight of fog the wind dropped. Then night added to all their uncertainties; so they cast anchor, that the ships might not collide or drift onto the shore. When day dawned the same wind sprang up and by dispelling the fog revealed the whole African coast. Scipio inquired what the nearest promontory was, and upon being told it was called Cape of the Fair God, he said “A welcome omen! steer your ships this way!” There the fleet came into port and all the troops were disembarked.

“That the passage was successful and free from alarm and disorder I have accepted on the authority of many Greek and Latin writers. Coelius alone describes all the terrors of weather and waves —everything short of saying that the ships were overwhelmed by the seas. He relates that finally the fleet was swept by the storm away from Africa to the island of Aegimurus and that from there the proper course was regained with difficulty; and that as the ships were all but sinking the soldiers, without waiting for an order from the general, made their way to the shore in small boats, as though they had been shipwrecked, with no arms and in the greatest disorder.”

Criticism of Prayer

“Persius Flaccus was a Stoic, a satirist, and a wealthy member of the knightly class. In his poems, which exist as one book, he supports robust taste over artifice, and attacks popular ideas about prayer - especially those who request worldly goods rather than virtue. In Satire II (A.D. 60) he wrote: “Mark this day, Macrinus, with a white stone, which, with auspicious omen, augments your fleeting years. Pour out the wine to your Genius! You at least do not with mercenary prayer ask for what you could not intrust to the gods unless taken aside. But a great proportion of our nobles will make libations with a silent censer. It is not easy for every one to remove from the temples his murmur and low whispers, and live with undisguised prayers. "A sound mind, a good name, integrity"---for these he prays aloud, and so that his neighbor may hear. But in his inmost breast, and beneath his breath, he murmurs thus, "Oh that my uncle would evaporate! what a splendid funeral! and oh that by Hercules' good favor a jar of silver would ring beneath my rake! or, would that I could wipe out my ward, whose heels I tread on as next heir! For he is scrofulous, and swollen with acrid bile. This is the third wife that Nerius is now taking home!"---That you may pray for these things with due holiness, you plunge your head twice or thrice of a morning in Tiber's eddies, and purge away the defilements of night in the running stream. [Source: The Satires of Juvenal, Persius, Sulpicia, and Lucilius, translated by Lewis Evans (London: Bell & Daldy, 1869), pp. 217-224]

tool used in sacrifices

“Think Jupiter has forgiven you, because, when he thunders, the oak is riven with his sacred bolt than you and all your house? Or because you did not, at the bidding of the entrails of the sheep, and Ergenna, lie in the sacred grove a dread bidental to be shunned of all, that therefore he gives you his insensate beard to pluck? Or what is the bribe by which you would win over the ears of the gods? With lungs, and greasy chitterlings?

“You ask vigor for your sinews, and a frame that will insure old age. Well, so be it. But rich dishes and fat sausages prevent the gods from assenting to these prayers, and baffle Jove himself. You are eager to amass a fortune, by sacrificing a bull and court Mercury's favor by his entrails. "Grant that my household gods may make me lucky! Grant me cattle, and increase to my flocks! How can that be, poor wretch, while so many cauls of thy heifers melt in the flames? Yet still he strives to gain his point by means of entrails and rich cakes. "Now my land, and now my sheepfold teems. Now, surely now, it will be granted! "Until, baffled and hopeless, his sestertius at the very bottom of his money-chest sighs in vain.

“Were I to offer you goblets of silver and presents embossed with rich gold, you would perspire with delight, and your heart, palpitating with joy in your left breast, would force even the tear-drops from your eyes. And hence it is the idea enters your mind of covering the sacred faces of the gods with triumphal gold. Oh! souls bowed down to earth! and void of aught celestial! Of what avail is it to introduce into the temples of the gods these our modes of feeling, and estimate what is acceptable to them by referring to our own accursed flesh. This has dyed the fleece of Calabria with the vitiated purple. To scrape the pearl from its shell, and from the crude ore to smelt out the veins of the glowing mass; this carnal nature bids. She sins in truth. She sins. Still from her vice gains some emolument.”

Temple of Vesta and Early Roman Rituals

Vesta was the spirit of the hearth. The temple that honored her was one of the most important in Rome. The famed Vestal Virgins tended her shrine The six virgins who watched the eternal flame of Rome, which burned for more than a thousand years, were ordained at the age of seven and lived in pampered but secluded luxury. As long as they remained pure, they were among the most respected women in Rome.

The Upper Forum in Rome (Colosseum-side entrance of the Forum) contains the House of Vestal Virgins, The Temple of Vesta the Temple of Antonius and Fustina (near the Basilica of Maxentius. The House of Vestal Virgins (near Palantine Hill, next to the Temple of Castor and Pollex) is a sprawling 55-room complex with statues of virgin priestess. The statue whose name has been scratched is believed to belong to a virgin who converted to Christianity. The Temple of Vesta (Temple of the Vestal Virgins) is a restored circular buildings where vestal virgins performed rituals and tended Rome's eternal flame for more than a thousand years. Across the square from the temple is the Regia, where Rome's highest priest had his office.

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: “One of the most important of the old cults was that of Vesta, the goddess of the household hearth. From quite an early date her cult became a state one, and her circular temple in the Roman Forum contained a fire that represented the collective hearth of the Roman state. This was tended by Vestal Virgins, six women chosen in childhood and bound to the cult for 30 years each. They lived in a communal house next to the temple. The courtyard of this house contained statues of some of the chief Vestal Virgins.” [Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Plutarch wrote in “Life of Numa”: “The original constitution of the priests, called Pontifices, is ascribed unto Numa, and he himself was, it is said, the first of them; and that they have the name of Pontifices from pons ["bridge"], or, thus, "bridge-makers." The sacrifices performed on the bridge were among the most sacred and ancient, and the keeping and repairing of the bridge attached, like any other public sacred office, to the priesthood. It was accounted not simply unlawful, but a positive sacrilege, to pull down the wooden bridge; which moreover is said, in obedience to an oracle, to have been built entirely of timber and fastened with wooden pins, without nails or cramps of iron.

“After Numa had in this manner instituted these several orders of priests, he erected, near the temple of Vesta, what is called to this day the Regia, or king's house, where he spent the most part of his time, performing divine service, instructing the priests, or conversing with them on sacred subjects. He had another house upon the Mount Quirinalis, the site of which they show to this day. In all public processions and solemn prayers, criers were sent before to give notice to the people that they should forbear their work, and rest [The people were not bound to stop working on religious holidays; but the priests must not see them work. Therefore, the crier was sent ahead when the priests passed to warn the people to cease their labor just for the moment. Anyone beheld working by the priest was subject to a fine]. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127) “Lives”, written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

vestal virgin ritual

“Numa ordered that fish which have no scales, except the scar, should not be offered to the gods. He ordered each person to draw a line around his own real property and to set stones on the boundaries, such stones being consecrated to Jupiter Terminus. But if anyone destroyed or displaced the boundary stones, the person who had done this would be sacrificed to the god. He ordained that the funeral pyre should not be sprinkled with wine, not that libations be made to the gods with wine from unpruned vines. Among other laws he made: A concubine shall not touch the Altar of Juno, and if she does, she shall sacrifice, with her hair unbound, a ewe lamb to Juno; If a man is killed by lightning, the proper burial rite shall not be performed--those who disobey this will be sacrificed to Jupiter; Priests should have their hair cut with only bronze shears.

“January was so called from [the god] Janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war. For this Janus, whether in remote antiquity he were a demi-god or a king, was certainly a great lover of civil and social unity, and one who reclaimed men from brutal and savage living; for which reason they figure him with two faces, to represent the two states and conditions out of the one of which he brought mankind to lead them into the other. His temple at Rome has two gates, which they call the Gates of War, because they stand open in the time of war, and shut in the times of peace; of which latter there was very seldom an example, for, as the Roman state was enlarged and extended, it was so encompassed with barbarous nations and enemies to be resisted that it was seldom or never at peace. Only in the time of Augustus Caesar, after he had overcome Antony, this temple was shut; as likewise once before, when Marcus Atilius and Titus Manlius were consuls [Davis: in 235 B.C., shortly after the close of the First Punic War]; but then it was not long before, wars breaking out, the gates were again opened. But, during the reign of Numa, those gates were never seen open a single day, but continued constantly shut for a space of forty-three years together; such an entire and universal cessation of war existed “

Early Roman Rituals

On the early Roman planting ritual, Cato the Elder wrote (c. 160 B.C.): “Make the offering for the oxen when the pear trees bloom; then begin the spring ploughing. Plough first the spots which are dry and sandy. Then, the heavier and wetter the spots are, the later they should be ploughed. The offering is to be made in this way: Offer to Jupiter Dapalis a cup of wine of whatever size you wish. Observe the day as a holiday for the oxen, their drivers, and those who make the offering. When you make the offering, say as follows: "Jupiter Dapalis, since it is due and proper that a cup of wine be offered you, in my home among my family, for your sacred feast; for that reason, be honored by this feast that is offered you." Wash your hands, and then take the wine and say: "Jupiter Dapalis, be honored by this feast that is offered to you and be honored by the wine that is placed before you." If you wish, make an offering to Vesta. The feast of Jupiter consists of roasted meat and an urn of wine. Present it to Jupiter religiously, in the proper form. After the offering is made, plant millet, panic grass, garlic, and lentils. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II, pp. 9-15; 289]

On the early Roman harvesting ritual, Cato the Elder wrote (c. 160 B.C.): “Before the harvest the sacrifice of the pig must be offered in this manner: Offer a sow as porca praecidanea to Ceres before you harvest spelt, wheat, barley, beans, and rape seed. Offer a prayer, with incense and wine, to Janus, Jupiter and Juno, before offering the sow. Offer a pile of cakes to Janus, saying, "Father Janus, in offering these cakes to you, I humbly pray that you will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then make an offering of cake to Jupiter with these words: "In offering you this cake, O Jupiter, I humbly pray that you, pleased with this offering, will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then present the wine to Janus, saying: "Father Janus, as I have prayed humbly in offering you the cakes, so may you in the same way be honored by this wine now placed before you." Then pray to Jupiter thus: "Jupiter, may you be honored in accepting this cake; may you be honored in accepting the wine placed before you." Then sacrifice the porca praecidanea. When the entrails have been removed, make an offering of cakes to Janus, and pray in the same way as you have prayed before. Offer a cake to Jupiter, praying just as before. In the same way offer wine to Janus and offer wine to Jupiter, in the same way as before in offering the pile of cakes, and in the consecration of the cake. Afterward offer the entrails and wine to Ceres.

Certificate of Having Sacrificed to the Gods (A.D. 250): “To the Commissioners of Sacrifice of the Village of Alexander's Island [Province of Egypt]: From Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the Village of Alexander's Island, aged 72 years: ---scar on his right eyebrow. I have always sacrificed regularly to the gods, and now, in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have done sacrifice, and poured the drink offering, and tasted of the sacrifices, and I request you to certify the same. Farewell. -----Handed in by me, Aurelius Diogenes. -----I certify that I saw him sacrificing [signature obliterated]. Done in the first year of the Emperor, Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, second of the month Epith. [June 26, 250 A.D.]


Priest of Jupiter

On The Flamen Dialis, Cicero wrote (c. 50 B.C.): “A great many ceremonies are imposed upon the Flamen Dialis [the priest of Jupiter], and also many restraints, about which we read in the books On The Public Priesthoods and also in Book I of Fabius Pictor's work. Among them I recall the following: 1) It is forbidden the Flamen Dialis to ride a horse; 2) It is likewise forbidden him to view the classes arrayed outside the pomerium [the sacred boundary of Rome], i.e., armed and in battle order---hence only rarely is the Flamen Dialis made a Consul, since the conduct of wars is entrusted to the Consuls; 3) It is likewise forbidden for him ever to take an oath by Jupiter; 4) Iit is likewise forbidden for him to wear a ring, unless it is cut through and empty; 5) It is also forbidden to carry out fire from the flaminia, i.e., the Flamen Dialis' house, except for a sacral purpose; 6) if a prisoner in chains enters the house he must be released and the chains must be carried up through the opening in the roof above the atrium or living room onto the roof tiles and dropped down from there into the street; [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II, pp. 9-15; 289]

“7) He must have no knot in his head gear or in his girdle or in any other part of his attire; 8) If anyone is being led away to be flogged and falls at his feet as a suppliant, it is forbidden to flog him that day; 9) The hair of the Flamen Dialis is not to be cut, except by a freeman; 10) It is customary for the Flamen neither to touch nor even to name a female goat, or raw meat, ivy, or beans; 11) He must not walk under a trellis for vines; 12) The feet of the bed on which he lies must have a thin coating of clay, and he must not be away from this bed for three successive nights, nor is it lawful for anyone else to sleep in this bed; 13) At the foot of his bed there must be a box containing a little pile of sacrificial cakes; 14) The nail trimmings and hair of the Dialis must be buried in the ground beneath a healthy tree; 15) Every day is a holy day for the Dialis; 16) He must not go outdoors without a head-covering---this is now allowed indoors, but only recently by decree of the pontiffs, as Masurius Sabinus has stated; it is also said that some of the other ceremonies have been remitted and cancelled; 17) It is not lawful for him to touch bread made with yeast; 18) His underwear cannot be taken off except in covered places, lest he appear nude under the open sky, which is the same as under the eye of Jove; 19) No one else outranks him in the seating at a banquet except the Rex Sacrorum; 20) If he loses his wife, he must resign his office; 21) His marriage cannot be dissolved except by death; 21) He never enters a burying ground, he never touches a corpse---he is, however, permitted to attend a funeral.

“Almost the same ceremonial rules belong to the Flaminica Dialis [i.e., his wife ]. They say that she observes certain other and different ones, for example, that she wears a dyed gown, and that she has a twig from a fruitful tree tucked in her veil, and that it is forbidden for her to ascend more than three rungs of a ladder and even that when she goes to the Argei Festival [when twenty-four puppets were thrown into the Tiber] she must neither comb her head nor arrange her hair.

Livy wrote in “History of Rome” (c. A.D. 10): “There is an ancient instruction written in archaic letters which runs: "Let him who is the Praetor Maximus fasten a nail on the Ides of September." This notice was fastened up on the right side of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, next to the chapel of Minerva. This nail is said to have marked the number of the year--written records being scarce in those days--and was for that reason placed under the protection of Minerva because she was the inventor of numbers. Cincius, a careful student of monuments of this kind, asserts that at Volsinii also nails were fastened in the Temple of Nortia, an Etruscan goddess, to indicate the number of the year. It was in accordance with this direction that the consul Horatius dedicated the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the year following the expulsion of the kings; from the Consuls the ceremony of fastening the nails passed to the Dictators, because they possessed greater authority. As the custom had been subsequently dropped, it was felt to be of sufficient importance to require the appointment of a Dictator. L. Manlius was accordingly nominated, but, regarding his appointment as due to political rather than to religious reasons and eager to command in the war with the Hernici, he caused a very angry feeling among the men liable to serve by the inconsiderate way in which he conducted the enrolment. At last, in consequence of the unanimous resistance offered by the tribunes of the plebs, he gave way, either voluntarily or through compulsion, and laid down his Dictatorship. Since then, this rite has been performed by the Rex Sacrorum. [Source: Livy, “The History of Rome,” by Titus Livius, translated by D. Spillan and Cyrus Edmonds, (New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1892)]

religious procession

Rituals at the Dedication of the Temple of Jupiter

“In 70 A.D. Vespasian ordered the restoration of the Temple of Jupiter the Best and Greatest on the Capitoline Hill. The event was recorded by Tacitus in an account which gives some idea of the ceremonies of the state religion, and its intense conservatism. Tacitus (b.56/57-after 117 A.D.) wrote in A.D. 70: “The work of rebuilding the Capitol was assigned by him to Lucius Vestinius, a man of the Equestrian order, who, however, for high character and reputation ranked among the nobles. The soothsayers whom he assembled directed that the remains of the old shrine should be removed to the marshes, and the new temple raised on the original site. The Gods, they said, forbade the old form to be changed. [Source: Tacitus: “Histories,” Book 4. liii., Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Full text online at]

“On the 21st of June, beneath a cloudless sky, the entire space devoted to the sacred enclosure was encompassed with chaplets and garlands. Soldiers, who bore auspicious names, entered the precincts with sacred boughs. Then the vestal virgins, with a troop of boys and girls, whose fathers and mothers were still living, sprinkled the whole space with water drawn from the fountains and rivers. After this, Helvidius Priscus, the praetor, first purified the spot with the usual sacrifice of a sow, a sheep, and a bull, and duly placed the entrails on turf; then, in terms dictated by Publius Aelianus, the high-priest, besought Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, and the tutelary deities of the place, to prosper the undertaking, and to lend their divine help to raise the abodes which the piety of men had founded for them.

“He then touched the wreaths, which were wound round the foundation stone and entwined with the ropes, while at the same moment all the other magistrates of the State, the Priests, the Senators, the Knights, and a number of the citizens, with zeal and joy uniting their efforts, dragged the huge stone along. Contributions of gold and silver and virgin ores, never smelted in the furnace, but still in their natural state, were showered on the foundations. The soothsayers had previously directed that no stone or gold which had been intended for any other purpose should profane the work. Additional height was given to the structure; this was the only variation which religion would permit, and the one feature which had been thought wanting in the splendour of the old temple.”

Ceremonies Performed by the Priest of Jupiter and His Wife

Aulus Gellius (A.D. 130-180) wrote in “Attic Nights,” book 10, chapter 15: “Ceremonies in great number are imposed upon the priest of Jupiter and also many abstentions, of which we read in the books written On the Public Priests; and they are also recorded in the first book of Fabius Pictor. Of these the following are in general what I remember: It is unlawful for the priest of Jupiter to ride upon a horse; it is also unlawful for him to see the “classes arrayed” outside the pomerium, that is, the army in battle array; hence the priest of Jupiter is rarely made consul, since wars were entrusted to the consuls; also it is always unlawful for the priest to take an oath; likewise to wear a ring, unless it be perforated and without a gem. It is against the law for fire to be taken from the flaminia, that is, from the home of the flamen Dialis, except for a sacred rite; if a person in fetters enter his house, he must be loosed, the bonds must be drawn up through the impluvium to the roof and from there let down into the street. He has no knot in his head-dress, girdle, or any other part of his dress; if anyone is being taken to be flogged and falls at his feet as a suppliant, it is unlawful for the man to be flogged on that day. Only a free man may cut the hair of the Dialis. It is not customary for the Dialis to touch, or even name, a she-goat, raw flesh, ivy, and beans. [Source: Aulus Gellius (A.D. 130-180) Attic Nights, book 10, chapter 15, Loeb Classics translation]

bird ritual performed a priest

“The priest of Jupiter must not pass under an arbour of vines. The feet of the couch on which he sleeps must be smeared with a thin coating of clay, and he must not sleep away from this bed for three nights in succession, and no other person must sleep in that bed. At the foot of his bed there should be a box with sacrificial cakes. The cuttings of the nails and hair of the Dialis must be buried in the earth under a fruitful tree. Every day is a holy day for the Dialis. He must not be in the open air without his cap; that he might go without it in the house has only recently been decided by the pontiffs, so Masurius Sabinus wrote, and it is said that some other ceremonies have been remitted and he has been excused from observing them.

““The priest of Jupiter” must not touch any bread fermented with yeast. He does not lay off his inner tunic except under cover, in order that he may not be naked in the open air, as it were under the eye of Jupiter. No other has a place at table above the flamen Dialis, except the rex sacrificulus. If the Dialis has lost his wife he abdicates his office. The marriage of the priest cannot be dissolved except by death. He never enters a place of burial, he never touches a dead body; but he is not forbidden to attend a funeral.

“The ceremonies of the priestess of Jupiter are about the same; they say that she observes other separate ones: for example, that she wears a dyed robe, that she has a twig from a fruitful tree in her head-dress, that it is forbidden for her to go up more than three rounds of a ladder, except the so called Greek ladders; also, when she goes to the Argei, that she neither combs her head nor dresses her hair.”

Activities at Greco-Roman Temples

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Hellas” ( c. A.D. 175): “They say that someone uninvited entered the shrine of Isis at Tithorea and died soon after...I heard the same thing from a Phoenician in regard to a temple of Isis at Coptos. [Source: Pausanias, Pausanias' Description of Greece, translated by A. R. Shilleto, (London: G. Bell, 1900)

Strabo wrote in “Geographia,” (c. 20 A.D.) about Greece around 550 B.C: “And the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves---prostitutes---whom both free men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these temple-prostitutes that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, "Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth."” [Ibid]

Philo Judaeus wrote in “De Providentia” (c. A.D. 20): “At Ascalon, I observed an enormous population of doves in the city-squares and in every house. When I asked the explanation, I was told they belonged to the great temple of Ascalon---where one can also see wild animals of every description, and it was forbidden by the gods to catch them.” [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed. “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 268, 289]

sacrifice procession

Plutarch wrote in “Moralia” (c. A.D. 110): “It's not the abundance of wine or the roasting of meat that makes the joy of sharing a table in a temple, but the good hope and belief that the god is present in his kindness and graciously accepts what is offered. [Source: Plutarch, Moralia, translated by Philemon Holland, (London: J.M. Dent, 1912).

1 Corinthians 8 (c. A.D. 56) from the New Testament reads: “So about the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, we know that "there is no idol in the world," and that "there is no God but one." ...But not all have this knowledge. There are some who have been so used to idolatry up until now that, when they eat meat sacrificed to idols, their conscience, which is weak, is defiled.....If someone sees you, with your knowledge, reclining at table in the temple of an idol, may not his conscience, too, weak as it is, be "built up" to eat the meat sacrificed to idols?

Temples were also places that people made wishes and requests to the Gods, and in turn offered thanks if their requests were granted: Some temple inscriptions read:
1) Thanks to Minerva, that she restored my hair.
2) Thanks to Jupiter Leto, that my wife bore a child.
3) Thanks to Zeus Helios the Great Sarapis, Savior and Giver of wealth.
4) Thanks to Silvanus, from a vision, for freedom from slavery.
5) Thanks to Jupiter, that my taxes were lessened.
6) I pray for the safety of my colony and its senate and people, because Jupiter Best and Greatest by his numen tore out and rescued the names of the decurions that had been fixed to monuments by the unspeakable crime of that most wicked city-slave who refused to work. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed.,”The Library of Original Sources”, (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vols. II: The Greek World & III: The Roman World; The Bible (Douai-Rheims Version), (Baltimore: John Murphy Co., 1914)

Personal Piety, Mystery Cult Membership and Talisman

On personal piety in Rome, Lucius Apuleius (c.123-c.170 A.D.) wrote in Apologia 55-6: “ I might discourse at greater length on the nature and importance of such accusations, on the wide range for slander that this path opens for Aemilianus, on the floods of perspiration that this one poor handkerchief, contrary to its natural duty, will cause his innocent victims! But I will follow the course I have already pursued. I will acknowledge what there is no necessity for me to acknowledge, and will answer Aemilianus' questions. You ask, Aemilianus, what I had in that handkerchief. Although I might deny that I had deposited any handkerchief of mine in Pontianus' library, or even admitting that it was true enough that I did so deposit it, I might still deny that there was anything wrapped up in it. If I should take this line, you have no evidence or argument whereby to refute me, for there is no one who has ever handled it, and only one freedman, according to your own assertion, who has ever seen it. Still, as far as I am concerned I will admit the cloth to have been full to bursting. Imagine yourself, please, to be on the brink of a great discovery, like the comrades of Ulysses who thought they had found a treasure when they stole the bag that contained all the winds. Would you like me to tell you what I had wrapped up in a handkerchief and entrusted to the care of Pontianus' household gods? You shall have your will. [Source: “Apologia and Florida Of Apuleius of Madaura, translated by H.E.. Butler Fellow of New College, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1909,]

sacrifice table

“I have been initiated into various of the Greek mysteries, and preserve with the utmost care certain emblems and mementoes of my initiation with which the priests presented me. There is nothing abnormal or unheard of in this. Those of you here present who have been initiated into the mysteries of father Liber alone, know what you keep hidden at home, safe from all profane touch and the object of your silent veneration. But I, as I have said, moved by my religious fervour and my desire to know the truth, have learned mysteries of many a kind, rites in great number, and diverse ceremonies. This is no invention on the spur of the moment; nearly three years since, in a public discourse on the greatness of Aesculapius delivered by me during the first days of my residence at Oea, I made the same boast and recounted the number of the mysteries I knew. That discourse was thronged, has been read far and wide, is in all men's hands, and has won the affections of the pious inhabitants of Oea not so much through any eloquence of mine as because it treats of Aesculapius. Will any one, who chances to remember it, repeat the beginning of that particular passage in my discourse? You hear, Maximus, how many voices supply the words. I will order this same passage to be read aloud, since by the courteous expression of your face you show that you will not be displeased to hear it. (The passage is read aloud.)

“Can any one, who has the least remembrance of the nature of religious rites, be surprised that one who has been initiated into so many holy mysteries should preserve at home certain talismans associated with these ceremonies, and should wrap them in a linen cloth, the purest of coverings for holy things? For wool, produced by the most stolid of creatures and stripped from the sheep's back, the followers of Orpheus and Pythagoras are for that very reason forbidden to wear as being unholy and unclean. But flax, the purest of all growths and among the best of all the fruits of the earth, is used by the holy priests of Egypt, not only for clothing and raiment, but as a veil for sacred things. And yet I know that some persons, among them that fellow Aemilianus, think it a good jest to mock at things divine. For I learn from certain men of Oea who know him, that to this day he has never prayed to any god or frequented any temple, while if he chances to pass any shrine, he regards it as a crime to raise his hand to his lips in token of reverence. He has never given firstfruits of crops or vines or flocks to any of the gods of the farmer, who feed him and clothe him; his farm holds no shrine, no holy place, nor grove. But why do I speak of groves or shrines? Those who have been on his property say they never saw there one stone where offering of oil has been made, one bough where wreaths have been hung. As a result, two nicknames have been given him: he is called Charon, as I have said, on account of his truculence of spirit and of countenance, but he is also—and this is the name he prefers—called Mezentius, because he despises the gods. I therefore find it the easier to understand that he should regard my list of initiations in the light of a jest. It is even possible that, thanks to his rejection of things divine, he may be unable to induce himself to believe that it is true that I guard so reverently so many emblems and relics of mysterious rites. I care not a straw what Mezentius may think of me; but to others I make this announcement clearly and unshrinkingly. If any of you that are here present had any part with me in these same solemn ceremonies, give a sign and you shall hear what it is I keep thus. For no thought of personal safety shall induce me to reveal to the uninitiated the secrets that I have received and sworn to conceal.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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