Megalensia Story 4: A Banqueter Reports

Reclining young man from the lid of a sarcophagus.
A learned young man reclines on a couch, holding a scroll in his left hand with a wax tablet open in front of him. Detail from a Roman sarcophagus. Gallery of the Candelabrum, Vatican Museum. © Barbara MacManus (2003). VRoma.

It is the second day before the Nones of April, the first day of the Ludi Megalenses, the festival of the goddess Magna Mater.[i] I’m in the home of Senator M. Divius Serreptitius, participating in the banquet to honour the goddess. Next to me is the senator’s son – Lucius, I believe – barely yet a man. This is the first time he’s joined us at one of these banquets.

“You are Marcus Ginantonicus, are you not?” he asks. I nod, and Lucius continues, “My father speaks highly of you; he believes you will be a power in Rome one day. This is the first time I have been allowed to participate in the evening festivities; I had hoped to spend the day enjoying the festival in the city, but a recent injury kept me at home. Would you discuss the day’s activities with me?”

I agree to his request, happy to have a lively discussion with an attentive student.

“The festival begins, as is customary, with a sacrifice to the Great Goddess. I watched earlier today, on the Palatine Hill, as the pure white heifer, the designated sacrifice for Magna Mater, was brought to the altar.[ii] The curule aedile performed the sacrifice, being the magistrate in charge of the festival; a position to which I hope to be elected to soon.[iii] The best portion of the sacrifice was burned in the sacrificial brazier, to be taken to the goddess, along with a portion of the moretum , primitive food for a primitive goddess, as the poets say.[iv] Once the sacrifice was completed the shows began, spread out throughout the surrounding area, some reenacting stories of the goddess and her cult, as is appropriate for her festival.[v] However, the shows pale in comparison to the surrounding buildings, especially today the temple of the goddess herself, resplendent in white marble, rebuilt only a few years ago by our esteemed princeps.[vi] His house is next to the goddess’ temple, where he lies with his wife, Livia, the ‘Mother of Rome’, as some call her.[vii]

Marble statuette of Cybele.

Marble statuette of Cybele. C1st-2nd CE. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Ann Raia (2006). Vroma.

“But greater than all of this is the spectacle that began next. The procession of the goddess’ statue through the streets of Rome is distinctly lacking in proper decorum, yet fascinating all the same.[viii] The goddess is carried upon a litter showing her in her lion-drawn chariot; the tale goes that those lions were once two lovers, transformed by the goddess as punishment for their deeds.[ix]

“The galli, the goddess’ Phrygian priests, bore her through the streets, dressed in long yellow robes, with long flowing hair, covered in extravagant jewelry, and some of them with the stains of blood from self-flagellation.” [x]

The boy interrupted, “This defiling of the body – is it true that they make themselves less than men?”[xi]

“It is.” I reply.

“Does that not disqualify them from holding priestly office?” [xii]

“For any proper Roman priesthood that would be true, but we must remember that they are not Roman; that’s why they, and their rites, are confined to the temple.[xiii] Only during the procession do they bring such barbaric methods of worship out of the temple compound.

“Now back to the procession; I’m always impressed by the cacophony of sound that accompanies it. The priests carry drums, cymbals and pipes, blaring music over the noise of the crowd.[xiv] No mean feat, for many people turn out to line the way and throw their offerings of bronze and silver to the goddess and her begging priests.”

“Why do the priests beg alms from the people? No other priest would do such a thing.” The boy asks.

“I’m afraid I don’t know, perhaps because it’s tradition. However, I do know why the people give offerings of money to the goddess. The old temple to Magna Mater, built by Metellus, was paid for by the contributions of the people; so to this day we give money to the goddess in memory of Roman piety.[xv]

“The goddess was followed by a group of men in armour, who danced and howled in time with the music, their armour clanging, while they threw their heads about, making the plumes on their helmets swing from side to side. Those men represent the Curetes and Corybantes, the men who covered the cries of the newborn Jupiter, hiding him from Saturn.[xvi]

“The procession wound its way past where I stood, to continue around the streets of Rome, while I retired home to prepare for this banquet. These sodalitates are where we Romans of noble birth dine in the goddess’ honour.”[xvii]

Our conversation winds to a close, along with the evening’s festivities. I bid my farewells to my host and make my way home to my family.

Interior of the Theatre of Marcellus

Model of the interior of the Theatre of Marcellus, Museum of Roman Civilization. © Barbara McManus (2003). VRoma.

For the middle five days of the Ludi Megalenses the festivities centre on the ludi scaenici - theatrical shows. The traditional plays, by playwrights such as Terence and Plautus, are not to everyone’s taste these days.[xviii] I went to see Terence’s The Eunuch today in the Theatre of Marcellus – a fitting play, I thought, considering the nature of Magna Mater’s priests.[xix] I had a good seat, near the front, just behind the senators, and was just getting into the story when the plebs behind began getting restless.[xx] I turned to see what was happening and noticed people scrabbling to leave; apparently they were reacting to a rumour that there was a gladiatorial fight elsewhere. The plebs always prefer exciting spectacles.[xxi] Still, at least they only cause minor disturbances; apparently many years ago the aedile Clodius actually allowed slaves into the theatre, which naturally ended in chaos and violence.[xxii]

These days the traditional plays are being pushed aside by mime shows, which are more popular due to their crude themes of sex and violence. I tend to avoid these in order to uphold my reputation as a respectable and sincere man, since I’m keen to run for office in the near future.

Today is the fourth day before the Ides of April, the final day of the Ludi Megalenses.[xxiii] This morning my son, Cassius, asked me why today was the climax of the festival. I was pleased that he showed an interest in the original motives of the celebration; the crowds often forget to think of this in their excitement. Still, I can’t blame the aediles for putting on big spectacles; it certainly doesn’t harm their reputations! I explained that today was the anniversary of the dedication of Magna Mater’s original temple, and that the festival began on the anniversary of her arrival in Rome, after it was prophesied in the Sibylline Books that if she was brought here she would expel our enemies.[xxiv]

As paterfamilias I must ensure that my children are respectful of the gods.[xxv] Hence, this morning I took them up to the Palatine to the goddess’ temple in order to leave her a votive offering as thanks for keeping our family healthy and prosperous.[xxvi] Cassius noticed that amongst the gifts that had been left there were a few small, carved figures he did not recognise. He is bright despite his youth, so I thought him mature enough to hear the explanation for these now:

Attis and Cybele

Magna Mater stands to left of Attis while a female worshipper and her daughter approach on the right. Votive relief from Asia Minor, C2nd BCE. Archaeological Museum, Venice. © Ann Raia (2007), VRoma.

“This figure is Attis, a god from Magna Mater’s homeland. He pledged his loyalty to her, so when he foolishly betrayed her with a nymph he was driven by guilt to castrate himself.[xxvii] He’s not part of our religion because his self-mutilation is unacceptable to us Romans, but obviously some people have chosen to honour Magna Mater by dedicating his image despite that.” [xxviii]

We strolled down the Palatine hill to the Forum area. Crowds swarmed in anticipation of the imminent procession of the gods. Some people follow the procession along as it progresses from the Capitol, through the Forums and over to the Circus Maximus.[xxix] We waited further along the course so that we could get into the circus ahead of these crowds – the chariot races are not a spectacle anyone wants to miss! Soon we heard the approaching parade, thanks to the music of lyres and flutes. Although a parade of the gods is common to most of our festivals, it seemed especially fitting today, as Magna Mater is the “Great Mother of the Gods”. I hoisted my daughter onto my shoulders and she delighted in seeing the gods’ gold and silver vessels displayed, then finally the statues of the gods themselves carried upon men’s shoulders. She correctly picked out Winged Victory, followed by Neptune, Mars, Apollo, Minerva, Ceres, Bacchus, Venus, Castor and Pollux. It was noticeable from the cheering that most people favoured specific gods.[xxx]

We then shuffled towards the Circus Maximus; a difficult task since everyone was heading the same way.[xxxi] The chariot races are the biggest event of the festival, and even those who cannot get into the Circus place bets. It’s a great family event as men and women sit together, unlike in the theatre. My children were especially excited to glimpse Caesar himself, an old man now, but no less impressive, and still enjoying the games like everybody else.[xxxii]

So, the Ludi Megalensis came to a close with a spectacular day, successfully honouring Magna Mater. This festival is soon followed by the Cerialia, so the excitement and spectacles shall continue! [xxxiii]


[i] The Roman dating system worked by counting the number of days before the Kalends (1st), the Nones (5th or 7th) and the Ides (13th or 15th) of the month. The Romans also counted inclusively. Hence, the first day of the Ludi Megalensis, which was two days before the Nones of April, the Nones of April falling on the 5th, was the 4th of April because the Nones itself was counted as one of the two days.

The official name of Magna Mater at Rome was Magna Deum Mater Idaea, which translates as ‘the great Idaean mother of the gods’ (T. P. Wiseman (1984), ‘Cybele, Vergil and Augustus’ in T. Woodman and D. West (eds.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge, 117-28: 120).

[ii] The general rule in Roman sacrifice was that heavenly deities received white sarifices, while underworld deities received black sacrifices.

[iii] Four aediles (two curule and two plebii) were superintendents of buildings (including being responsible for the care of the streets, pavements, and sewers), distributors of the corn dole, supervisors of public lands and pasture, superintendents of buying and selling (including markets and weights and measures) and responsible for religious observance (i.e. seeing that no new deities or religious rites were introduced into the city and that ancient feasts and festivals were celebrated). Curule aediles were particularly responsible for the celebration of the Ludi magni (or Romani), scenici, and Megalenses (Livy 31.50 and scholia to the plays of Terence).

Two curule aediles were elected each year from 365BCE; the year in which the plebian aediles refused to extend the celebrations of the ludi maximi to four days from three (Livy 6.42). The curule aediles were originally elected from among patricians over thirty-six years of age, then alternately from among patricians and plebeians, then indifferently from both (Livy 7.1). The office of curule aedlie is a non-essential stage on the cursus honorum, usually held between a quaestorship and a praetorship because of its potential to increase the public profile of its holder through the duties of the office and its distinctive privileges, such as holding games and taking precedence in speaking in the Senate. Examples of curule aediles who invested heavily to gain maximum benefit from the office are Julius Caesar (Plutarch Caesar 5), Publius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther and Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, whose expenditure was not limited to the games, but extended to the repair of walls, dockyards, ports and aqueducts (Cicero On Duties 2..17; Pliny Natural History 33.3, 36.15).

[iv] Moretum was dish made of herbs and cheese that were ground together in a mortar: the mode of preparation gave the dish its name. The poet referred to is Ovid (Fasti 4.367-72).

[v] See, R. J. Littlewood (1981), ‘Poetic Artistry and Dynamic Politics: Ovid at the Ludi Megalenses (Fasti 4.179-372)’, Classical Quarterly 31, 381-395: 387.

[vi] The temple of Magna Mater burned down in 3CE. Augustus had the temple rebuilt, an achievement Augustus records for posterity in Res Gestae 4.19. See, Littlewood (n.[v]: 387.

[vii] For the location of Augustus’ palace in this context, Wiseman (n.[i]): 125-6. Livia Augusta was sometimes associated with Cybele and she even appeared in some artistic representations with a turreted crown, tympanum and ears of corn, which were all used as the traditional identifying attributes of the goddess, see Littlewood (n.[v]): 384.

[viii] The Megalensia was supposed to be a highly respectable public festival (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 24). However, the procession of the goddess’ statue was led by the cult’s Phrygian priests, and had a very un-Roman atmosphere. Roman citizens were banned from participating as anything other than spectators (Dionysius of Halicarnassus II.19.2). These sources and the ‘un-Roman atmosphere’ are discussed by T. P. Wiseman (1985) Catullus and his World: a reappraisal, Cambridge, 201-2.

[ix] The story of the transformation is treated by Ovid (Metamorphoses 10.560-706).

[x] On the appearance of the galli, see M. Beard (1994) ‘The Roman and the Foreign: the cult of the “Great Mother” in Imperial Rome’ in N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (eds), Shamanism, History, and the State, Michigan, 164-90: 164.

[xi] The galli, Magna Mater’s Phrygian priests, were all eunuchs. Self-castration was an integral part of the Phrygian rites of the goddess. Nevertheless, it was frowned upon by the Romans and it was in fact illegal for a Roman to partake in it (Dionysius of Halicarnassus II.19.4-5).

[xii] Roman priests had to be bodily ‘whole’. Physical defects were seen as impure and only those who were pure were suitable to serve the gods. Further, see Beard (n.[x]): 165.

[xiii] See, M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998) Religions of Rome Volume I: a history, Cambridge: 97.

[xiv] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.618-9.

[xv] Ovid, Fasti 4.350-3.

[xvi] In Roman myth Saturn is said to have eaten his newborn children in order to prevent any of them dethroning him. Upon the birth of Jupiter, Rhea, Saturn’s wife, tricked Saturn into eating a rock and hid Jupiter in a cave on Mt. Ida, the home of Magna Mater. The Curetes and Corybantes used their armour and ecstatic shouts to create enough noise to cover baby Jupiter’s cries and hide him from his father (Ovid, Fasti 4.195-214).

[xvii] Sodalitates are ‘associations’ for the purpose of maintaining a cult. With the introduction of the cult of Magna Mater in 204BCE a sodalitas (or a number of sodalitates) was instituted and these ‘associations’  used to feast together during the ludi Megalenses (Cicero, de Senectu 3. 45).

[xviii] Terence was a 2nd century BC Roman playwright who adapted 4th century BCE Greek comedies for a Roman audience. His comedies were popular for centuries and all six of his known plays still survive. Further, see S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth (2004), The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation, Oxford: 706-8.

Plautus was another 2nd century BC Roman playwright. His comedies were performed in Rome until at least the time of Horace. Further, see S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth (2004), The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation, Oxford: 538, 544.

[xix] The Theatre of Marcellus was finished by Augustus by 13BC and dedicated to Augustus’ deceased nephew and son-in-law, Marcellus. It held 14,000 spectators.

[xx] Senators and other important public figures took the front seats in the theatre, the next fourteen rows were reserved for the next rank of social class (the equites, or ‘knights’), with the plebeians behind them. Further, see L. Casson (1998), Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, Baltimore: 100.

[xxi] Terence’s Mother-in-Law features a prologue in which the producer of the play describes interruptions to the performance from rival acts. See discussion by V. M. Warrior (2006), Roman Religion, Cambridge: 72-3.

[xxii] Publius Clodius Pulcher was a curule aedile in 56BCE. He further dishonoured Magna Mater by selling Pessinus, the main shrine and original home of Cybele, and ejecting the priest from the shrine itself (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 22-28).

[xxiii] The Ides of April fell on the 13th. Hence, the fourth day before the Ides would have been the 10th.

[xxiv] The goddess’ symbol, a sacred stone, was transported from Phrygia to Rome in 205-4BCE, see Warrior (n.[xxi]): 83. It was met by Publius Cornelius Scipio and Claudia Quinta (Livy 29.10).

The Sibylline Books were a collection of prophecies, allegedly by the Sibyl of Cumae, that were consulted for advice by the quindecemviri at times of political strife or in order to interpret prodigies (see Warrior (n.[xxi]): 12, 49. In this case the consultation was prompted by the Second Punic War – Rome was under threat from the Carthaginian forces of Hannibal – and the prodigies of ‘frequent showers of stones’ (Livy 29.10).

[xxv] The paterfamilias was the head of a Roman household and as such was responsible for ensuring that the family’s religious observances were carried out correctly.

[xxvi] Votive offering are gifts dedicated to a god as thanks or payment; see Warrior (n.[xxi]): 148).

[xxvii] The story of Attis is recounted, in more adult terms, by Ovid (Fasti 4.223-44).

[xxviii] The offerings are usually of low quality, which suggests that they came from poorer citizens (Warrior (n.[xxi]): 85).

[xxix] The procession went through the Forum Romanum (Rome’s political centre), the Velabrum (an old river route) and the Forum Boarium (the oldest Roman Forum). The Circus Maximus was an arena for chariot racing built by Julius Caesar in 46BC; it seated 150,000 people. Further, see J. Grout (2008) Circus Maximus: 1.

[xxx] Ovid, Amores 3.2.43-59.

[xxxi] Ovid, Fasti 4.391-2.

[xxxii] Augustus Caesar (63BCE-14CE), would have been seated in the pulvinar, which was a shrine and imperial box that he had had built into the side of the Palatine Hill. This is also where the statues of the gods would have been taken at the end of the procession, see Grout (n.[xxix]): 1.

[xxxiii] The Cerialia was a festival honouring the goddess Ceres, who was particularly associated with agriculture and the corn harvest. It started on 11th or 12th April and finished on 19th (Ovid, Fasti 4.395ff).