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).

Megalensia Story 5: A Visitor from Greece

Triclinium (Roman dining room) museum reconstruction

Reconstruction of a triclinium (dining room of a Roman villa) in the Munich Bavarian State Archaeological Collection. The wood and bronze dining couches are based on finds from Pompeii, and Herculaneum ( C1st CE), as is the colour of the simply decorated walls. The mosaic floor is from a Roman villa (C3rd CE) from Kraiburg am Inn.

Principle Characters

Optimus Primus – an upper class Roman  

Megatronius – a guest of Optimus, an educated Greek from Halicarnassus  

Ferrus Hidus – an upper class Roman, the host 


A slave led me   and my friend, Optimus Primus, into a large and lavishly decorated triclinium. “Ah, Optimus! So glad you and your Greek friend could join us!” exclaimed a rather portly man introduced to me as our host, Ferrus Hidus. “Please, sit! Eat!”

As I moved to recline on a large, and apparently empty couch, Optimus grasped me by the shoulder and smiled, “Not there friend: that seat is reserved for the goddess, Magna Mater.[i] I must apologise, you have travelled all the way from Halicarnassus and I should be entertaining you in my own house, but you must understand that it is a tradition of the Megalensia for the aristocracy, like myself, to dine at each other’s homes and offer hospitality to each other.”[ii] Ferrus smiled over his goblet of wine, “I too must apologise, I would have much preferred to lay on a more extravagant affair but, alas, the authorities only allow me to spend a limited amount. Far less than I can afford of course!” he chuckled.[iii]

I turned and joined Optimus on a separate couch by the window. I noticed a slave bringing in a platter loaded with a green paste. I asked Optimus about this unusual dish. “That is moretum my friend. It is a mixture of cheese, herbs and spices offered to the goddess as thanks for her gift of herbs and the like back in our ancestors’ primitive past.”[iv]

“Ah, I see. So it is similar to the offering we saw the priests make in the temple this morning – after the procession when the statue of the goddess was placed there?”[v]

Cybele's procession from a fresco in Pompeii

Cybele's procession from the front wall of the House of Venus and the Four Gods, Pompeii. © Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble (2009).

Optimus nodded, and asked me what I thought of the events of the past few days. I thought back to my arrival in Rome the previous day and the difference between the atmosphere on the day before and on today, the opening day of the festival. The procession itself was a colourful affair.[vi] The statue of the goddess, the Magna Mater riding her chariot pulled by two lions, was carried on a litter by her priests and the way before her was strewn with gold, silver and rose blossoms.[vii] The priests themselves seemed to be in a passionate frenzy, singing Greek hymns, banging drums and tambourines, playing flutes and trumpets.[viii] As well as this they seemed to be beating themselves, and their clothes were stained with their blood. It was quite a frightening sight.

“The streets certainly came alive today, Optimus, I have never seen the like before! However I did notice a distinct lack of Roman participants in the procession itself.”  

Optimus laughed, ‘Yes, have you ever seen anything as decidedly un -Roman? We do not take part in the procession itself, we do not lower ourselves to that level of debauchery; instead we hold these pleasant banquets, these sodalitates where we can worship as Romans should.”  

“I don’t think I entirely understand the situation here Optimus. What is the purpose of this festival? When did it arrive in Rome, and what on earth has happened to those foreign priests?!” I asked.  

‘Well, it all goes back to the wars with Hannibal; you must be familiar with this period of our history? During the war, I think it was about two-hundred years ago when Hannibal had crossed into Italy, an interesting section was discovered in the Sibylline Books by the Quimdecimviri which stated that our mother was missing.[ix] The Delphic Oracle was consulted and she declared that the only way to drive out a foreign enemy from our land was to bring the Idaean Mother, the ‘Mother of the gods’, to Rome.[x] It was decided to send for Cybele, from the ridges of Ida in Phrygia, where she was originally worshipped. Obviously, the Senate followed the oracle’s instructions to the letter, not wanting to inadvertently affect the outcome of the war, and so the black stone, which represents the Great Mother,[xi] came by ship and was met by the Vestal Virgins and the ‘best of men’ as stipulated by the Sibylline prophecy and the Delphic Oracle. The Senate chose Publius Scipio, the son of the famous general, although if I was around at the time I would have liked to have seen what it was exactly that made him ‘the most worthy’.” [xii]  

“The story seems familiar,” I mused, “does that not relate to the story of that priestess? I forget her name.”  

Claudia Syntyche's altar to Cybele

A 1st century AD marble altar dedicated by Claudia Syntyche to Cybele with a relief depicting Claudia Quinta Rome, Museo Montemartini (Capitoline Museums). ©Ann Raia (2004). VRoma.

“Ah yes, the story of Claudia Quinta, the Vestal Virgin! She was accused of… being, well, less than virginal, shall we say?” We both chuckled and he continued, “As I said the oracle decreed that Magna Mater must be received by chaste hands and many Roman citizens, as well as the Vestal Virgins and the Senate, had gathered to watch her arrive. Now, apparently there was some trouble getting the ship into the harbour and no matter how hard or how many men pulled on the rope, it was to no avail. Claudia Quinta, in an attempt to clear her name, called upon the goddess to prove her innocence, because you know how harsh the punishment is if a Virgin is found to have broken her vow of chastity.[xiii] Then the woman pulled lightly on the rope of the ship and the ship followed her up the river! Well, that’s how the story goes anyway.[xiv] Until we could build her a proper temple she was placed in the Temple of Victory for thirteen years. Now she has her own place on the Palatine, as you saw.” 

I wondered out loud as to whether there were any women allowed to take part in this cult nowadays. “Indeed there are, you may have seen some – Phyrgian women, not Roman women – taking part in the sacrificial ceremonies and in the procession itself.” Optimus explained, “They are known as the sacerdotes, both they and the galli have to be sanctified by the Quindecimviri sacris Faciundis.”[xv]

 “The galli?” I queried, “Oh, you mean those crazy priests – I assume she brought them with her?”

Optimus grimaced, “Unfortunately so. As we Romans are forbidden to participate in the cult, as priests or in the procession, we must accept such vulgar and foreign behaviour.[xvi] Although I assume the Senate had no idea initially that we would have to put up with such things, I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with it if I’d had a say!”

“Hear hear!” burbled Ferrus as he leered at a passing slave girl.  

“Anyway… their odd behaviour is only the start of it. Apparently when the galli enter into the priesthood they castrate themselves,” he shuddered “never mind performing self-flagellation!”[xvii]  

I shivered inwardly, horrified at the thought. “How positively repulsive, why would they do such a thing!?”  

Attis, consort of Cybele

The Phrygian cap and elaborately curled hair of this marble bust suggest Attis, the consort of the goddess Cybele. Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2003). VRoma.

“It stems back to the story of Attis who was Cybele’s consort. There are numerous stories about them but the most common version seems to involve Attis having an affair with a nymph: in her anger Cybele beat the nymph and drove Attis into a frenzy in which he thrashed his body and castrated himself with a sharp rock!” [xviii] Optimus finished with a look of disgust, “Thank the gods no noble Romans will ever take part!”

“I think we had better change the subject, as you are starting to put me off my food!” I exclaimed.  

“Oh well, in that case I had better not mention the Day of Blood, which occurs on the ninth day before the Kalends of Aprilis, when the galli beat themselves excessively as part of their worship.”[xix] Optimus said innocently, tucking into his Lucanian boar.[xx]  

Feeling slightly ill, I again attempted to change the subject, this time with more success. “Indeed not, I am certainly glad I missed that! Now, how about our itinerary for the next few days?”  

“All in good time! The festival isn’t over yet!” Optimus explained. “So far you’ve just seen the opening day, the day which represents the official anniversary of the arrival of the Magna Mater stone into Rome. We have numerous events to attend over the next six days before we celebrate the anniversary of the day her temple on the Palatine was dedicated.”[xxi]  

Comic masks mosaic

C2nd CE mosaic of comic masks of a young girl and a slave. National Archaeological Museum, Naples. © Barbara MacManus (2003). VRoma.

“There are numerous plays, shows and games to entertain us,” he continued, “Including a number of up and coming comic playwrights in whom I am most interested. Did you know that a number of Terence’s plays were first staged at the Megalensia? [xxii] There are some less cultured entertainments for the common people, such as rope dancers, as well as the shows. Yes, well, not to worry; these games are more scenic than circus, so they should appeal to even your delicate sensibilities.”[xxiii]  

I smiled sheepishly, “You know I have never been one for blood and guts. Where are these shows held?”  

“There are some held on the Palatine itself, in view of the goddess.[xxiv] There is limited space there but as my esteemed guest you will have the privilege of seating. The rest are held in various theatres, but on the last day of the festival there are no shows but the Ludi Megalenses are held in the Circus Maximus. Now, they are a sight to behold.” enthused Optimus.  

“Who is allowed to take part in those games? Are they open to slaves or foreigners?” I asked, trying to get a more in-depth picture of what the events involved.  

“No, certainly not!” exclaimed Optimus, “The games are for free Romans only, especially the aristocracy and senators, who hold privileged seats.[xxv] We like to retain our important role throughout the festival month of Aprilis, like with these banquets we hold for each other. I must warn you, both plays and games are a rather solemn, religious affair, although they haven’t always been free of scandal… After all it was at the Ludi Megalenses that Clodius and his slaves committed sacrilege and caused the ruckus that offended Cicero so much.”[xxvi]

“Aye!” Ferrus interjected drunkenly, “Taking away from the sheer solemnity and importance of the occasion. How dare he burst in like that, and with slaves too!” At that very moment the tapestry hanging from the ceiling fell down with a crash, covering the table and its spread with black dust. Ferrus cried out in anguish, “My banquet is ruined! Alas, cruel fate, how you play with the lives of us mere mortals!”[xxvii]  

Optimus and I glanced at each other and agreed it was time to leave. Heading through the atrium to the street outside, Ferrus’ cries of anguish echoing in our ears, I thought about the morrow and the performances we were to see.  

“Come along, Megatronius - we’ll go by a metroon on the way back to my home and you can pay your respects privately to Magna Mater if you wish.”[xxviii] said Optimus, and I followed him down the alley onto the main road.


[i] The pulvinar is a special couch reserved for the goddess as though she were physically present. The word pulvinar is also applied to the emperor’s box at the games, where the statues of the gods were placed after they were brought into the Circus in a procession.

[ii] For details on this cf. Ovid Fasti IV.353-356.  

[iii] In 161BCE the Senate had placed a limit on the spending at these functions in an attempt to cut back on over-indulgence and extravagance. For the restrictions and their presumed purpose, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Vol.2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 49.  

[iv] Ovid (Fasti IV.367-373) states that moretum represents the primitive food of early civilisation given in homage to Cybele for being amongst the first of the gods.

[v] The ceremony opened with an offering of moretum at the temple of Magna Mater; this was made by a praetor in the time of Augustus. See H. H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 98.

[vi] Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities II.19) mentions coloured robes.

[vii] Ovid (Fasti IV.215-219) explains that as wild beasts would submit to her power, owing to her position as goddess of nature, the strength of her power is shown by her domination of lions in particular. Both gold and silver appear in Lucretius’ account ( De Rerum Natura II.600ff.), as discussed by W. W. Fowler (1899) The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: an introduction to the study of the religion of the Romans, London: 99.  

[viii] Ovid, Fasti IV.183-184.

[ix] The exact date was 204BCE, during the Hannibalic Wars between Carthage and Rome. The Sibylline Books, which held prophecies given by the Sibyl and which were very valuable, had been introduced to Rome during the reign of Tarquinius (Dionysius of Halicarnassus II.62). The Quindecemviri were a board of fifteen men who had oversight of ritual observances, ‘as when the Magna Mater was brought to Rome’ (M. T. Boatwright, R. J. A. Talbert & D. J. Gargola (2004), The Romans From Village to Empire, Oxford: 249).  

[x] The Idaean Mother, Cybele, Magna Mater (the Great Mother) and Mater Matuta were all names for the same goddess, who is credited with being the ‘Mother of the gods’ (Ovid Fasti IV.259ff).  

[xi] The Black Stone was a holy stone that represented Cybele, and Rome had negotiate its release and relocation. See M. Rostovtzeff (1927) A History of the Ancient World: Rome, New York: 104.  

[xii] Optimus’ sentiment is the same as that expressed by Livy in his History, where Livy states that he does not know specifically why Publius Scipio was chosen (Livy 39.14).

[xiii] For breaching her vow of chastity a Vestal Virgin was buried alive.  

[xiv] This version of the story is taken from Ovid, Fasti IV.305-330.

[xv] Romans were not allowed to take part in any of the processional activities, nor were they allowed to be priests of Magna Mater until the reign of Claudius, at which time the restrictions were lifted and her worship, including the mystery cult aspects, became fully part of the state religion: L. & R. Adkins (1996) Dictionary of Roman Religion, Oxford: 138.  

[xvi] Ovid (Fasti IV.363-365) claims that the galli were named after the River Gallus (in Turkey) whose waters reputedly drove the drinker mad. Adkins (n.[xv]) suggests the name could also come from the Latin for cockerel, which was their symbol.

[xvii] In Catullus’ poem on Attis (Catullus 63) Attis is female (possibly because the poem represents the relationship between Catullus and his lover Lesbia, see R. R. Nauta and A. Harder (2005) Catullus 63, Leiden). Other versions of the Attis myth incorporate the myth of Agdistis, a hermaphrodite demon from which the Olympian gods – in an attempt to stop its destructive behaviour – cut the male reproductive organs. The castrated Agdistis became Cybele and the severed male organs became Attis. It is this story that is most likely to have inspired the actions of the galli, their self-castrations and self-flagellation.

[xviii] On the Quindecemviri, see Adkins (n.[xv]): 188.  

[xix] The ‘Day of Blood’ (Dies Sanguinis) fell on 24th March. Part of the ceremony involved the followers of Magna Mater emulating Attis and castrating themselves with instruments such as flint blades, Adkins (n.[xv]): 188.  

[xx] Lucania is a district in the south of Italy.  

[xxi] The opening day of the festival, 4th April, was the anniversary of Magna Mater’s arrival in Rome in 204BCE. The celebrations continued until the 10th of April, which was the anniversary of the dedication of Magna Mater’s temple on the Palatine Hill in 191BCE. Further details, see Adkins (n.[xv]): 139.  

[xxii] At least four plays by Terence and one play by Plautus were performed at the Megalensia. See, Scullard (n.[v]): 98.  

[xxiii] Ludi scaenici (‘scenic games’) were theatrical events rather than gladiatorial games (ludi).

[xxiv] The steps of the goddess’ temple on the Palatine, which housed her black stone, were used as seating for theatrical performances during the Ludi Megalenses.  

[xxv] The games in the Circus Maximus were only open to free Romans, and the senatorial and non-senatorial classes were segregated (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 12.24, as discussed by M. J. Vermaseren (1977) Cybele and Attis: the myth and the cult, London 1977: 124).  

[xxvi] Publius Clodius Pulcher and a group of slaves burst into the Circus Maximus during the Ludi Megalenses in 55BCE and caused a riot (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 12.24). His actions were made worse by the fact that not only did this insult the gods but he was also at that time the curule aedile, a position which involved taking charge of the festival.  

[xxvii] Ferrus’ comment pays homage to Horace (Satire 2.8) and reflects an ancient tendency to resort to quotation in extremis.  

[xxviii] A metroon is one of the shrines dedicated to the worship of Magna Mater which were to be found throughout the streets of Rome according to Adkins (n.[xv]): 139.

Megalensia Story 3: An Upwardly Mobile Roman Matrona

April 4th in the consulship of Dolabella and Silanus (763 ab urbe condita)
Dear Diary,  
A gallus from a tomb relief

Tomb portrait of a gallus with equipment including cymbals, tympanum, double flute and a whip of knuckle bones. C2nd CE, Rome. Capitoline Museum, Rome.

A cool breeze from the east carries with it the faint sounds of the procession.[i] Even at a distance, the clamour of beating drums and tambourines was enough to wake me from my afternoon nap. All this excitement on the other side of the Palatine is certainly due to the opening day of the Megalensia.[ii] Every April, from 4th to 10th , Rome witnesses this bizarre but important festival. Personally, I have never been given the chance to attend the opening procession, for not only am I forbidden to partake in such events but I would certainly be fearful of what I might see. Acts of flamboyant dedication, self-flagellation and mutilated priests are exotic elements to which we Romans are not accustomed. No decent Roman would ever join in such a procession for it would contradict his very essence. Oh, but how I would love to take a peek at the Galli – the priests – in their full glory and also to gaze upon the grand statue of the Great Mother during the celebrations.[iii] The Phrygian element of this festival would be a treat to witness; it would truly be a glimpse into the Idaean Goddess’ origins.[iv]   

I am looking forward to hearing a detailed description later because, as it was a festival day, I allowed a few of my slave-girls to take the day off and they were keen to attend the procession – and no doubt squander their meager earnings by tossing their coins into it [v]– and also to witness the offering of moretum to the goddess.[vi] The tasks of the day have then been left to me, such as readying my outfits for the day and – more  importantly – for the banquet later on this evening.[vii] A few months ago I acquired a beautiful red silken tunic from North Africa and I was very keen to show my peers what a delightful gift had been bestowed on me. To my annoyance my husband, Honoratus, has suggested I opt for a plainer style. Frugality, it seems, is the theme of the evening, and although I knew this to be the case, tonight is the first banquet I will ever have attended in honour of the Mother Goddess. I honestly doubt that a banquet can be modest!   

Augustan silver relief skyphos (cup). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Augustan silver skyphos (cup) with relief decoration of cupids. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Especially as a banquet is but an elaborate collection of the city’s finest… However, with such a humble budget for the meal it does seem that the emphasis of the evening is indeed to promote the archaic Roman virtues that we all know so well but so rarely abide by. I mean to say: to have neither foreign wine nor a large selection of meats is unusual, but when that is combined with an incomplete set of silverware – it is shaping up to be quite a quaint evening!   

Really it is Honoratus and his side of the family that are involved in the sodales associated with the cult of Cybele.[viii] While I am not of patrician birth and am still learning the inner workings of elite inner circles, I am fortunate that I was well educated and my parents sought to provide me with knowledge fit for a man. As a child, I learnt about the Roman pantheon, the Olympians and other strange, exotic gods from foreign lands. I honour Jupiter and Apollo to the best of my ability, but I have always been fascinated with the idea of the foreign god, the unknown god, the god from beyond the boundaries… I have read enough poetry to appreciate that I am not alone in this! At least my fascination means that I know much of the history of the cult [ix] and the famous heroes of its past, like Claudia Quinta.[x] Not to mention the many afternoons I have spent reading Virgil and contemplating Rome’s colourful history.[xi] The poet of the Aeneid was not afraid to suggest that Cybele, a foreign deity, played a crucial part in establishing Rome’s future – and nor am I! Indeed, that handsome Augustus seems to wholeheartedly commend the role of cults from afar. One hopes that by building that splendid temple to Cybele so close to his palace complex, he has not made his patron god Apollo jealous…[xii] I wonder, might that be a topic of conversation this evening?   

My husband talks a lot about the ludicrous habits of foreigners and their elaborate manner of celebrating and worshipping their gods. No doubt that will be a hot topic at the banquet! My good friend Atia was telling me how, after last year’s banquet, there was quite a scandal involving some of the host’s slaves being involved in acts of self-mutilation! I do hope that my slave-girls will not fall victim to any such hysteria from seeing the procession. We would certainly lose face amongst our friends and my husband would not appreciate the shame it would bring on the household. Oh, dear, I wonder: was I foolish to let them go? No, no, I am sure it will all be fine; rather I must look forward to the next few days.   

How I love to watch the plays! [xiii] In past years the citizens of Rome enjoyed the delightful works of Terence and Plautus, which I have read myself and appreciated.[xiv] However, as far as I can remember, the plays of the Megalensia have seemed to be primarily focused on political satire. What a bore! Well, even that should prove to be more interesting than the games.[xv]   

Chariot accident. Circus Maximus. Mid. 1st century CE.

A chariot collides with the turning post (meta) in the Circus Maximus. Terracotta relief plaque mid. 1st century CE. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. © Barbara McManus (2006) VRoma.

 I am not a fan of all those equestrian competitions, which I partially blame for my husband’s over-enthusiastic attendance at the games. He can spend hours discussing the finer details of every single event! I have no idea how he knows so much about the condition of an individual team’s horses, well, so long as they’re Blues or Greens – ‘the oldest and best teams, don’t you know!’. I think that the exclusion of slaves from the games might also play a role in Honoratus’s over-enthusiasm for them – he’d be mortified to be betting on the same team as a slave! He can be such a typical elitist snob sometimes… But he’s my elitist snob – and I can hear his footsteps as he creeps along the colonnade to wake me from my nap…   

Till later!   


[i] The procession of Cybele was clearly a very prominent part of Cybele’s festival, and it displays to us how she was worshipped using Roman and foreign rites simultaneously. Ovid and Lucretius give us full accounts of the procession during the late 1st century BC era, although we can see (especially in Lucretius) a latent racism towards the Easterners’ practice. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (II.19.4) also makes a distinction between the two sides of the festival:   

…the praetors perform sacrifices and celebrate games in her honour every year according to Roman customs, but the priest and priestess of the goddess are Phrygians, and it is they who carry her image in procession through the city, begging alms in her honour.   

Ovid (Fasti 4.183-187) places the procession on the first day of the festival, and describes the noisy and very foreign parade in some detail:   

Eunuchs will march and thump their hollow drums, and cymbals clashed on cymbals will give out their tinkling notes: seated on the unmanly necks of her attendants, the goddess herself will be borne with howls through the streets in the City’s midst. 

Parker points out that Ovid is suggesting in his description that although the Romans should have been watching the procession, they should hurry afterwards to partake in their own, Roman festivities (H. Parker (1997), Greek Gods in Italy in Ovid’s Fasti, Lampeter: 130). Lucretius’ description (On the Nature of the Universe 2.640ff) is very similar, and again there is a great emphasis on the noise made by the procession.   

[ii] The Megalensia was a Roman festival of the Goddess Cybele that took place from April 4th until April 10th. The games were set up as an annual commemoration of her arrival into Rome on April 4th 204 B.C. The festivities of this important celebration included a procession of the Goddess by her Phrygian priesthood, the hosting of banquets by noble Romans, plays, games in the Circus Maximus, and processions. It was one of three festivals celebrated for Cybele throughout the year (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: 170).   

[iii] The name Galli is derived from the Gallus River in Phrygia. (Ovid Fasti 4.364) and was the name given to Cybele’s castrated priests, a tradition that was most probably related to the myth of Attis, the lover of Cybele who was driven mad by her and castrated himself after he was unfaithful (Ovid, Fasti 220ff). Catullus also provides this poetic version of the story of Attis (Catullus 63) but Lucretius explains the tradition behind Attis’ castration differently, as being a symbol of disgraced children (Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe 2.640). Material remains lead us to believe that a cult of Attis also existed in Rome (M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume 1: a History, Cambridge: 98).   

[iv] Cybele, or Magna Mater deorum Idaea, was the goddess of the personified earth. Worshipped throughout Asia Minor and Greece in a number of forms, Cybele was incorporated into the Roman pantheon with a resulting duality of identity which is manifested in her cult. Although she was a foreign import, Cybele was very much a part of Rome’s history because of the Romans’ Trojan origins and this is emphasized by Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ comment that despite the ‘necessity of worshipping their ancestral gods according to the customs of their respective countries, yet the city has never officially adopted any of these foreign practices’ (2.19.3).   

[v] They strew her path all along the route with a lavish largesse of copper and silver.’ (Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe 2.655). The custom of throwing coins to the procession was, according to Ovid, started after the temple had burned down in 111BC and was being restored by Metellus; apparently coins were thrown as donations towards the cost, making the restoration a community project, and the tradition stuck from then on (Ovid, Fasti, 4.350).   

[vi] Moretum was a dish of herbs offered to Cybele outside her temple. This unusual tradition is explained in Ovid: “white cheese is mixed with pounded herbs, that the ancient goddess may know the ancient foods.” (Ovid, Fasti 4.371). Ovid was not the only poet to immortalise this traditional Roman foodstuff in verse and others, e.g. Virgil, go into its preparation in considerable detail.   

[vii] Part of the festivities included Roman nobles holding banquets. It is suggested that these were symbolic of the ‘changing homes’ of Cybele: as Cybele moved from Asia to Rome, so a ‘changing homes’ was undergone by the Romans through visiting other people’s houses (Ovid, Fasti 4.360). It has been suggested that the tradition was the invention of the dining clubs (sodales) which are talked about by Cicero, and that such clubs were possibly not just confined to the Roman elite (E. Fantham (1998), Ovid Fasti VI, Cambridge: 162). There was also a clear element of frugality in the banquet, with laws being passed to restrict the money spent during the meal (H. H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 99). This very much fits in with the idea of traditional Romans being frugal and frugality being a virtue.   

[viii] Although Cybele was accepted as a very important goddess in Rome, there appears to have been a very prominent distrust of the foreign aspects of her cult. Imported from Asia Minor, Cybele’s entourage included such spectacles as eunuch priests which were previously unknown and abhorrent to some Romans. Hence, regulations were passed that limited the cult and provided different forms of worship. The Romans celebrated Cybele in traditional Roman ways whereas her foreign priests and followers were allowed their lavish and ecstatic procession once a year. No Roman citizen was allowed to participate in that procession or become a priest of Cybele (K. Summers (1999), ‘Lucretius’ Roman Cybele’ in E. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis, and Related Cults, New York, 337-365: 355). Our sources make it possible to conclude that although the cult was very important in Rome, it needed to be kept at a ‘safe distance’ due to the foreign nature of much of the practices (P. Borgeaud (2004), Mother of the Gods: from Cybele to the Virgin Mary, Baltimore: 27).   

[ix] Cybele was brought to Rome in 204BC during the Second Punic War, after a consultation of the Sibylline Books (E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, New York: 5). Apparently Rome had been suffering from showers of stones at the time (Borgeaud, n.[viii]: 58), and the city was also facing the threat of Hannibal’s imminent arrival. The Sibylline Books prophesied that Rome would only be able to purge a foreign foe from her soil (in this case, Hannibal) by bringing Cybele over from Phrygia. The Delphic Oracle confirmed this prophecy. Cybele’s advent is well-documented in ancient sources (e.g. Ovid Fasti 4.247-349), although most are from at least one hundred years after the event. The consistency between the sources suggests the existence of a common story surrounding her arrival. The Eastern origins of her cult were apparent from the outset, with her foreign entourage and Greek rites and hymns used (see Beard, North, & Price, n.[iii]: 27, on the normal introduction or foundation of cults with the application of Greek rites following consultation of the Sibylline Books). Cybele was brought to Rome in the form of a black rock, of which pieces were allegedly incorporated into her cult statue (R. J. Littlewood (1981), ‘Poetic Artistry and Dynamic Politics: Ovid at the Ludi Megalenses (Fasti 4.179-372)’, Classical Quarterly 31, 381-395: 383).   

[x] Upon her arrival in Italy, it was stipulated that Cybele be met by the vir optimus, P. Scipio Nasica. (Gruen, n.[ix]: 6). Both P. Scipio Nasica and Claudia Quinta played a major part in the arrival procession of Cybele and appear in (Ovid’s Fasti 4.340ff).   

Claudia Quinta, a woman of noble birth but a notorious reputation, is one of the main figures in the story of Cybele’s journey to Rome. According to sources, the goddess’ boat became stuck in the Tiber mud. Claudia Quinta swore an oath on her chastity that she would be able to save Cybele. She managed to set the boat free and Cybele continued her journey to Rome, whilst proving Claudia’s innocence. Claudia Quinta became an important part of the initial procession of Cybele, and was subsequently honoured with statues within Cybele’s sanctuary. Such iconography was still very apparent during the Augustan period, largely due to the fact that Augustus’ wife, Livia, could trace her ancestry back to Claudia Quinta and much was made of this connection (Littlewood, n.[ix]: 384).   

[xi] The theme of Rome’s Trojan origins, especially with regards to Cybele, is particularly prominent in Virgil’s Aeneid. Her first appearance is in Book 2, when Creusa (the wife of Rome’s ‘founding father’, Aeneas) becomes her priestess: ‘the Great Mother of the Gods keeps me here in this land of Troy’ (Aeneid 2.788), highlighting her prominence from the outset. Ovid undertakes to explain why Cybele did not come along with Aeneas but came later when needed, which shows a degree of continuity between the texts of the time (Fasti 4.250ff).   

[xii] Upon Cybele’s arrival in Rome in 204BC she was temporarily housed in the Temple of Victory. Her temple on the Palatine was completed in 191BC (J. Scheid (2003), An Introduction to Roman Religion, Edinburgh: 198). It was rebuilt by Augustus in AD3, after an alleged prodigy and a fire (Littlewood, n.[ix]: 383), as part of his extensive religious revival (Res Gestae 19). Augustus’ own house was on the Palatine, next door to the temple of Apollo and very close to Cybele’s temple, a position which highlighted his piety and close connection with the gods. Augustus’ connection with Rome’s Trojan origins and the gods themselves, due to his identity as one of the patrician Julii (descended from Aeneas’ son, Iulus, and through him the goddess Venus), was explicitly used by Augustus throughout his reign to highlight his divine favour. Rebuilding Cybele’s temple was one way of strengthening this connection.   

[xiii] The putting on of plays as part of the festivities was started in 191BC (Littlewood, n.[ix]: 387). There was a strict segregation of the social classes for this part of the festivity, also for the games in the Circus Maximus, with Senators being kept separate from the rest of the audience (Beard, North, & Price, n.[iii]: 97). Ovid claims that the plays took place on April 6th (Fasti 4.377-387), but other sources suggest that plays took place on the last day of the festivities (April 10th). The theatre was probably outside the temple of Cybele (Scullard, n. [vii]:98).   

[xiv] Terence and Plautus, the most well-known Roman playwrights, had plays performed at the Megalensia. We know of at least four plays by Terence that were performed between 166BC and 161BC and one play by Plautus. Of other specific plays little is known, although it is thought that over time the entertainment became less high-brow as mime took hold (Scullard, n. [vii]: 98).   

[xv] According to Ovid (Fasti 4.389-393), the last day of the festivities included another procession (this time not by the Phrygian Priests) and concluded with games (ludi). Scullard suggests that the games took place in the Circus Maximus and included a number of sports and chariot races (Scullard, n. [vii]: 98-101).

Megalensia: An Introduction

Cybele and her Festival: Origins, Practice and Ambivalent Status

From the sources, we can piece together the following information about the origins and practices of the festival of Cybele and about the ambivalent approach adopted by the Romans towards her cult.

Cybele/ the Magna Mater was a Phrygian deity who entered Rome in the latter part of the 3rd century B.C. In 205 B.C., during the second Punic War, the Sibylline Books prophesied a victory for the Romans against Hannibal if they transferred from Asia Minor to Rome ‘the Idaean mother’. Understanding this to be Cybele, the Romans duly brought to Rome the sacred stone that was the symbol of the goddess, and they established it on the Palatine hill in 204 B.C. A temple to Cybele was then completed in 191 B.C. and an annual festival took place in Rome from that point.

The festival took place on six consecutive days, from 4th – 10th (II Non. – IV Id. Apr), and we are aware of several activities that took place during this time. There are displays in the Circus and plays performed on the Palatine in front of temple of Magna Mater (especially on the third day, 6th April). The doors of the temple of Magna Mater are open to the public, who bring a gift of moretum (a type of herb cheese spread) to the goddess. The goddess’ eunuch priests, the galli, range the streets in bright regalia asking for alms. And the Roman elite hold banquets for each other.

As a foreign deity introduced to Rome to solve a major Roman military problem, the Roman attitude towards Cybele and her cult would have been mixed. On the positive side, as well as the aid she brought Rome, Cybele could boast Phrygian, and hence Trojan, ancestry; she had apparently saved a vestal virgin, Claudia Quinta, from a false charge of violating her chastity; and she was publicly endorsed by the Emperor Augustus, who brought her temple close to his own residence on the Palatine (her temple was restored in A.D. 3). But there was also a negative side which pertained to the goddess’ priests and their activities during the festival. Romans would have shown contempt for eunuch (‘half-man’) priests, as this would have be seen as a perversion of gender and sex. Their antics during the festival, which included self-flagellation/ castration, frenzied dance and music, all in brightly-coloured costume, would have sat uneasily with the traditional Roman sense of restraint and austerity. Hence the Roman requirement was to respect, but not participate directly in, the procession that occurred during the festival.

The Megalensia follows shortly after the Festival of Attis (22-25 March), during which a procession displays the statue of Cybele, accompanied by music; the statue of Cybele was later washed and brought back in procession.

Some Controversies and Opinions

Why exactly was Cybele brought to Rome? Assistance against Hannibal? Part of a climate of adopting Greek rituals/ oracles? A desire to ‘bring home’ a deity of Trojan ancestry?

How ‘foreign’ was the ritual in Augustus’ time? Were there two different and distinct rituals, a ‘Roman’ one and a ‘foreign’ one (with Romans unable to take part in the ‘foreign’ procession)? Did one ritual give way to the other through time?

What relation is Attis to Cybele’s cult? Was he introduced into Rome with/ at the same time as Cybele? Did he act as a model for the self-castration of Cybele’s priests?

Major Ancient Sources

CICERO, On the Response of the Haruspices, 22-28

LUCRETIUS, On the Nature of the Things, 2.600-43


LIVY, 29.10, 29.14


OVID, Fasti, 4.179-372

Modern Scholarship

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

M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume I: A History, Cambridge, 96-8, 164-6

G. Dumézil (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago, 484-9

E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek and Roman Culture and Policy, Leiden, 5-33

R.J. Littlewood (1981), “Poetic Artistry and Dynastic Politics: Ovid and the Ludi Megalenses (Ovid Fasti 4.179-372), Classical Quarterly 31, 381-95

J.F. Miller (1991), Ovid’s Elegiac Festivals: Studies in the Fasti, Frankfurt, 82-90

H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 97-101

K. Summers (1996), “Lucretius’ Roman Cybele”, in E. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 337-66

M.J. Vermaseren (1977), Cybele and Attis: the Myth and the Cult, London

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

T.P. Wiseman (1985), Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, Cambridge, 198-206

Megalensia Story 2: The Goddess Cybele Herself

The goddess Cybele, wearing a mural crown and holding a patera and tympanum, detail from a bronze fountain sculpture of a chariot group. Second half of the 2nd century BC. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. ©Barbara McManus (2007). VRoma.

The goddess Cybele, wearing a mural crown and holding a patera and tympanum, detail from a bronze fountain sculpture of a chariot group. Second half of the 2nd century BC. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. ©Barbara McManus (2007). VRoma.

It was a sunny morning and I awoke with an excited feeling in the pit of my stomach. For a moment I didn’t remember why, then, I realised: it was the second day before the Nones of April… the first day of the Megalensia! This is one of the festivals where the Romans worship me, Cybele, the mother of all the gods.[i] Today is the anniversary of the first day I came to Rome. I’ve now been worshipped here for over 200 years; I did not emigrate from Troy with Aeneas, along with the other gods, but was brought to Rome during the troubled years when the Roman people were battling against Hannibal.[ii]

Stretching, I realised that the noise that had awoken me was the sound of cymbals; the mortals had already begun their celebrations. Thinking fondly of my son Jupiter, whom I had kept secret from Saturn with just such a racket,[iii] I went down to my temple to receive my sacrifice. Gosh, my temple looks so much more beautiful since Augustus repaired it after that unfortunate incident with that awful fire… [iv] Of course, I did consider putting it out but, given how shabby the temple was beginning to look, I thought it was time for a new one. I did save the statue of Claudia Quinta,[v] whose name I cleared the day I arrived in the first of many good things I have done for those Romans who trust in me.

Seated invisibly on the couch set aside for me, I happily accepted the offer of moretum from the current praetor – I’ve given up learning their names, from my immortal view point their time in office seems to flash by! [vi] As the oldest of the goddesses I prefer this more traditional offering, the pomp and ceremony of some of the sacrifices today seems rather over-the-top when I remember the limited resources the Romans had at their disposal when I first arrived during the Hannibalic war.

Tomb portrait of a gallus

Tomb portrait of a gallus in full regalia with cymbals, tympanum, Phrygian flute and other ritual objects. 2nd century AD. Capitoline Museum, Rome.

After receiving all my offerings at my temple, I stepped out to enjoy the raucous procession taking place. I glanced across the street at Augustus’ palace. From my point of view, Augustus has done a lot of good for Rome, and he’s been rather selective as to whom among the other deities he has honoured, which is rather flattering – but no less than my due, if I do say so myself! [vii] I stood unnoticed among the Roman citizens watching my long haired priests dance past.[viii] Listening to the chat around me, I was reminded how alien this kind of public frenzy is to these staid mortals: of the Roman gods only Bacchus seems to know how to whip up a good celebration, perhaps it’s because he didn’t come from here originally either…[ix] Some of the snatches of overheard conversation made me laugh – one woman was trying to comfort her young son who had been frightened to tears by the sight of my blood-spattered priests in their saffron robes, I suppose they don’t look much like the dull priests dressed all in whites and purples that most of my Romans favour.[x] All the same they all good-naturedly threw coins to my priests, even though it isn’t their usual practice.[xi]

Cybele, chariot and lions from a bronze fountain group

The goddess Cybele in a chariot drawn by lions. This is a large bronze fountain sculpture group and waterspouts originally projected from the lions' mouths. Second half of the 2nd century BC. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. ©Barbara McManus (2007). VRoma.

As I watched my image being carried past, I reflected on what a poor likeness it is of me and how the crown they depict is nowhere near as impressive as my actual one.[xii] Oh well, at least my lions are beautifully carved! [xiii] If they ever replace the statue itself I shall make sure the artist is divinely inspired by my great-granddaughters, the muses: I’m sure I don’t know what they were up to when this one was being made! [xiv]

Overhearing a Roman woman complaining about the discordant sound of my hymns of praise, I really couldn’t understand what she was talking about.[xv] I know it’s very different from Roman music but an exciting, invigorating, medley of drums, flutes and cymbals is exactly what is needed to inspire a proper divine frenzy in my worshippers. I think it’s a shame that some boring Roman officials keep trying to control things; some of the Roman citizens lining the route look like they are dying to join in and dance along with the Galli. It would do them good to loosen up and join them in ecstatic dance, that’s how I really like to be celebrated!

I then hurried back to my temple for the games and theatrical performances, which I enjoy watching. I have such a good view of the games that some of the mortals sat themselves down on the steps leading to my temple – lucky I don’t mind sharing! These games are always well attended, as they are the first of the year, very suitable for me as the first of the goddesses! After the games, I watched the theatrical performances, a later but enjoyable addition to my festival, and which go on for the whole six days of the festival.

A mosaic scene from New Comedy

Mosaic signed by Dioskurides of Samos depicting a scene from a comedy in which two women consult a sorceress. From the so-called “villa of Cicero” in Pompeii, 1st century AD. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. © Barbara McManus (2003). VRoma.

You may think that the stone theatre looks far more impressive than the temporary wooden ones ever did.[xvi] But it has bad memories for me because the first year we used it there was an outbreak of mob violence led by Clodius, which totally ruined my festival for me. I never forgave Clodius for that.[xvii] The performance today was another of those tedious mimes – I find them so dull because the plot is usually the same, involving a husband, his faithless wife, and her lover. I don’t understand why the audience love the mimes so much, when they can be so base, obviously my taste is much more refined. I remember, many years ago, the sophisticated comedies of the mortals Terence and Plautus, but they were before mimes became popular…[xviii] Plautus’ Pseudolus became my particular favourite when I saw its first performance at the games – that play made me laugh so hard that it gave me stitch. The performance of Roscius as Ballio the pimp was magnificent and absolutely hilarious, though I would never expected anything less from one of Rome’s finest actors.[xix]

Before going to bed, I decided to look in on some of the feasts taking place in my honour in various patrician households. Ever since they were the ones to greet me on my arrival in Rome, they’ve kept control of this part of my festival and won’t even allow their own slaves to take part. Despite the official limits on silverware and the cost of food, some of the houses have really delectable feasts. Of course, it would be very hard to enforce the laws and since Augustus took over no one has tried, so it’s easier for them to impress me. It’s so funny – these mortals visit each others’ houses for these dinners to try to change their own luck, just as I changed the luck of Rome by moving here from Troy. Still, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and who knows, I just might do it someday…

By the time I can retire to sleep I’m exhausted, but looking forward to another five days of feasting and watching yet more games and theatrical performances. It’s such a shame that it all comes to and end with the anniversary of the dedication of my beautiful new temple on the fourth day before the Ides of April – well, until next year!


[i] The Megalensia was the main festival associated with Cybele, but there was another festival dedicated to her that took place between the 15th and 27th of March.

[ii] Cybele was first introduced to Rome in 204BC during the war against Hannibal. Livy gives the most extensive description of this in History of Rome 29.10-14. He claims that there were an ‘unusual number of showers of stones’ in 205BC, which led to the Sibylline Books being consulted. These oracles stated that if a foreign foe was ever attacking the Romans in Italy then that foe could be driven off if the Great Mother (Magna Mater) was brought from Pessinus to Rome. The Romans duly sent some emissaries, who stopped first at Delphi, where they received a prophecy that the best and noblest men in Rome should be waiting to receive the goddess, and then went on to King Attalus, who gave them the sacred stone known as ‘the Mother of the Gods’. Livy concludes with the emissaries returning to Rome in triumph and, during the goddess’ reception, the reputation of one of the matrons, Claudia Quinta, was restored.

Ovid’s account (Fasti 4.247-348) elaborates on the story of the briefly mentioned Claudia Quinta (see below, n.[v]) and his account also differs slightly from Livy’s in some details. According to Ovid, the goddess was brought from Mount Ida and the stone was only handed over to the Romans when the goddess herself intervened.

The discrepancy about where the sacred stone was retrieved from is probably due to the fact that while Cybele’s principal shrine was located in Pessinus it was important for Augustus that she be brought from her shrine on Mount Ida near Troy, where Virgil recounts Augustus’ ancestor Aeneas and the other Trojans gathering prior to them setting out for Italy in order to found the Roman people. For Augustus’ interest in Cybele, see T. P. Wiseman (1984), ‘Cybele, Vergil and Augustus’ in T. Woodman and D. West (eds), Poetry and Politcs in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge: 117-28.

All accounts consistently present the date of the consultation of the Sibylline books as 205BC and the reason for it as concern over the prodigies caused by the Hannibalic War. However, by that date the Romans were optimistic about their chances of victory, so it is possible that the introduction of Cybele was a political exercise intended to reassert Rome’s Trojan origins.

[iii] According to Ovid, the reason Cybele was praised in hymns accompanied by loud drums and cymbals relates to the myth surrounding Jupiter’s birth (Fasti 4.193-215), which was taken from Greek mythology. Cybele’s husband, Saturn, had received a prophecy that he would be vanquished by one of his children so, as his children were immortal and could not be killed, he swallowed each at birth. Cybele got wise to this and when Jupiter was born gave Saturn a stone to swallow instead. She then kept Jupiter hidden until he was old enough to challenge his father. She covered his cries as a baby with the sound of drums and cymbals.

[iv] For the fire of AD3, which destroyed Cybele’s temple, and the associated portents, see R. J. Littlewood (1981), ‘Poetic Artistry and Dynastic Politics: Ovid and the Ludi Megalenses (Ovid Fasti 4.179-372)’, Classical Quarterly 31, 381-95: 383.

Claudia Syntyche's altar to Cybele

A 1st century AD marble altar dedicated by Claudia Syntyche to Cybele with a relief depicting Claudia Quinta. Rome, Museo Montemartini (Capitoline Museums). ©Ann Raia (2004). VRoma.

[v] Claudia Quinta was one of the Roman matrons who went to meet the ship bringing the sacred stone. When the ship got stuck in the Tiber, which was shallow due to a drought, and then could not be moved she stepped forward and said that she would move the ship. She asked the goddess to help her do this if she was chaste. She proceeded to pull the ship easily up the river to Rome, proving her innocence and rebutting all rumours to the contrary. The most detailed account of this story is provided by Ovid (Fasti 4.291-348).

[vi] This offering was initially made by an aedile but by the time of Augustus it was more usual for one of the praetors to make the offering.

[vii] Augustus renovated a huge number of temples, but although the propaganda around him claimed that he had ‘restored all temples’ he actually concentrated on those of a number of gods that he seemed to consider closest to him and used the connection to promote himself. For example, Apollo was honoured – with a new temple on the Palatine next door to Augustus’ palace – because he had been Augustus’ patron deity before and during the battle of Actium. In this way Augustus could promote an ideal of himself as a man who was not only descended from gods and founder-figures (he traced his ancestry through the Julii to Aeneas, a founder of the Roman people, and through him to the goddess Venus) but also favoured by them.

[viii] Roman citizens could not take part in the procession. It appears that this was part of an attempt by officials to control the spread and excesses of a cult that would have seemed dangerously oriental to many, despite its official sanction. Further on control measures relating to the cult, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Vol. 1: A History, Cambridge: 96-8.

[ix] Bacchus was the Roman god of wine; he was associated with the Greek god Dionysus, who traditionally came to Greece from central Asia. Surrendering to a Bacchic frenzy, in which the worshipper was effectively possessed by the god, was an important part of his rites.

[x] The priests of Cybele, known as Galli, castrated themselves and practised self-flagellation, behaviour that was supposed to be related to the myth of Attis. Attis was Cybele’s young male consort, who was driven mad by her and castrated himself in the ensuing frenzy. Catullus 63 recounts Attis’ frenzy for a Roman audience and Ovid (Fasti 4.221-244) explains that Cybele drove Attis mad because of her jealousy after he fell in love with a nymph after swearing to remain true to Cybele. For the relationship between actual practice and myth, see M. J. Vermaseren (1977), Cybele and Attis: the myth and the cult, London.

[xi] Most priesthoods were held by members of the elite, who were trying to increase their political influence and so, rather than asking citizens for money, they acted as public benefactors. The Galli were imported oriental priests, however, and were allowed to ask for donations, at least according to Ovid (Fasti 4.350-352). Apparently this tradition started with Metellus, who had dedicated the original temple to Cybele and had asked for donations from citizens to help with the cost.

[xii] In Ovid the crown worn by Cybele was to honour the fact that she gave towers to the first cities (Fasti 4.219-221).

[xiii] At Fasti 4.215-218 Ovid claims that Cybele’s carriage was drawn by lions because she was the first to tame them, but in Metamorphoses 10.683-704 Ovid says that the two lions that draw her chariot are the humans Hippomenes and Atalanta, both of whom were transformed into lions by Cybele for desecrating her sanctuary.

[xiv] The muses are credited by Ovid as the source of his information about the reasoning underlying particular aspects of her festival (Fasti 4.191-193).

[xv] Eastern music would have sounded strange to Roman ears.

[xvi] The first stone theatre was built in 55BC.

[xvii] Clodius was the man who desecrated the rituals by getting a gang of slaves to attack citizens who were watching the performances (Cicero, De Haruspicum Responsis 22).

[xviii] The literary standard of production declined over the years and mime became increasingly popular.

[xix] Quintus Roscius Gallus (died 62BC) was the most famous comic actor of his day at Rome, although he also played tragic roles. He frequently played the part of Ballio the pimp in Pseudolus. Though handsome, he had a squint and to hide it he is reported to have introduced into Rome the wearing of masks when acting, only wigs having been worn previously. The name of Roscius is sometimes used is English to designate a great actor.

Megalensia Story 1: A Father-and-Son Commentary

Part I: 4th April        


Greetings and Salutations! I’m Nonius and I’m here to tell you about the Megalensia – a festival in honour of the Phyrgian goddess Cybele celebrated in April every year – from my point of view. Although my son Philodemus may have conflicting opinions…[i]       


The Roman dish 'moretum'. Photo by Bullenwächter (2006).


He’s quite right there! Unlike my father, I look forward to this exciting time of year. As a poet and philosopher, I believe I have a deeper understanding of the necessity of this celebration.       


After receiving the honour of being chosen as aedile this year, I have undertaken many responsibilities vital to the running of the Roman state.[ii] One of my many duties consists of commencing this foreign festival by offering the Great Mother moretum and a traditional Roman sacrifice outside her temple on the Palatine Hill.[iii] Whether or not this strange offering is sufficient enough is not for me to decide. This is tradition and tradition is important to the state.

The sacrificial bull approaches the Temple of Magna Mater

The sacrificial bull approaches the Temple of Magna Mater. E. Petersen (1902), Ara Pacis Augustae, (Vienna) plates 3 and 7 as modified by M. Grunow (2000). VRoma.

From here I can see the humble home of Augustus, rightfully next door to his favourite god Apollo. I can also see down to the Circus Maximus: Cybele is surely one of the most fortunate goddesses in being able to witness at all times the spectacle at the Circus.  


Now these seven days have begun,[iv] we can get on with my favourite part of the festival, the procession.[v]       

I am going to watch the procession from outside my house because we are lucky enough to live on its route, but I suspect my father will disapprove and decide to keep safe, behind the closed doors of his study.       

In the midday heat, I try to find the perfect spot – one with shade and a good view. As I look around, I sense a mixture of apprehension and excitement in the air, as the crowd does not know quite what to expect. By Jove, here comes the statue now![vi] Crowned Cybele is sitting so majestically on her throne, with her faithful lions leading her chariot. Her beauty is clear, despite her lack of facial features (in contrast to other traditional cult statues): the face of Cybele is the embodiment of Cybele herself, the precious black stone.[vii] Even in the noisy din our hearts are silenced by her mute expression. This sacred object, resting on the shoulders of her strange, emasculated Galli,[viii] leads the crazed procession. Although the Galli look effeminate, they have more courage than I have – I can’t even imagine the pain of deliberately and voluntarily castrating yourself. To see such piety and devotion is surely an admirable thing, is it not? My ears are met by the thundering drums and clashing cymbals.[ix] Amongst this frenzied music I can pick out the familiar tones of the raucous horns.[x]       


Even within the sturdy walls of my study, I cannot escape the din of the frenzied pandemonium! [xi]       


My father may disapprove but even the revered poet Horace in his Odes appreciates this hysteria and tries to recreate it for his dinner guests in his poetry.[xii] I think that the exuberant noise is complimented by the Greek hymns, sung by the galli.[xiii] I am lucky to be able to understand them, but I am better educated than most present, so in the main they fall on deaf ears.       


Not only can I not shut out the noise of these barbaric instruments but now I have to endure their alien hymns! If I had it my way, they would all be singing Catullus’ Attis which gives a true description of this nauseating cult.[xiv]       


A gallus is coming over to me now brandishing his bloody knife,[xv] causing the children nearby to run away in terror. However as for us philhellenes, these ritualistic symbols do not phase us. On the opposing side of the street I catch sight of another two galli with arms outstretched, imploring the spectators for alms.[xvi] I looked down to retrieve some money, and as I returned my gaze to the procession I found my vision was obscured by thousands of delicate and colourful rose petals. I could still make out the statue, now even more fantastic, curtained in a cloud of vibrant shades.       

As the procession comes to an end, the look of relief on the faces of some of my countrymen is undeniable.       


Come inside my rebellious son, it is time to prepare for the real celebrations!       


The real celebrations have already happened, and you missed them! But yes, I will come in to help you prepare for the evening’s banquet.[xvii]       


After such a long day, it is a relief to be finally sitting down at this civilised meal. I am honoured to be hosting it this year for my fellow patricians. If only we did not have these silly restrictions on food, then I could be more extravagant.[xviii] Back in the day of my ancestors this was an opportunity to show off our luxurious tastes…       

Dearest friends, join with me now in offering this libation on the first day of this festival to the god of doorways and beginnings, Janus…       


Excuse me, noble father, you seem to be forgetting the significance of Cybele on this important day: should we not be toasting to her?       


Hasn’t Cybele been worshipped enough already? Janus is a god within the ius divinium. [xix]    


But our princeps, who resides next door to Cybele, clearly wants us to recognise her importance in the founding of Rome. The late Vergil in his greatest work ensures Cybele’s significance by having her aid Aeneas in his formidable feat of establishing the Roman people in Italy.       


I am not one to contradict our wonderful princeps… So, prove to me then, my son, why is this foreign goddess of so much importance?”       


I call upon the Muses to help me explain to a man who will never understand, an impossible task… as impossible as changing the currents of the sea! Grant me divine supervision whilst I recall the highly polished words of Vergil:[xx]       

At the time when, on Phrygian Ida, Aeneas was beginning       

To build a fleet and preparing to venture forth on the deep sea,       

Cybele herself, mother of the gods, is said to have made       

This appeal to mighty Jupiter:-       

“Grant me, my son, what I ask.       

What your dear mother asks, who helped you into power in Olympus.       

I had a forest of pine trees, cherished for many a year…       

…This did I gladly give to the Dardanan prince, when he needed       

A fleet…     

…may they find it a blessing they came from my mountain.”        


Who am I to disagree with Vergil, let alone the princeps? I can already feel a change in my attitude to this goddess… Let’s drink to Cybele… Great Mother, I hope the games and plays entertain you over the next six days.[xxi]       

Roman terracotta figurines of mime actors

C1st CE Roman terracotta figurines of mime actors. British Museum, London. © Barabara MacManus (1999). VRoma.


In my opinion she would have preferred the higher literary standards of the original plays, but now standards have dropped, the licentious mimes put on currently are almost insulting… [xxii]      


Part II: 10th April      


Here, Philodemus, stand next to me – I have a great position, right next to the entrance of the Circus Maximus. From here we will be able to see the full procession,[xxiii] in its golden glory, as the festival comes to its end.      


I don’t see why this is so special. It doesn’t matter where we stand, since this procession is like all the rest — not a touch on the excitement of the other day.      


Don’t be so dismissive of your heritage! You’re just tired from the last six days of festivities… Oh, look! Here they come! Led by a winged Victory, who looks like she is ready to fly! Look! There’s my old friend Quintus, carrying the golden statue of Neptune and just behind, Mars in all his fierce glory, and here is Augustus’ personal patron deity, Apollo.      


Fatherrrrr, be quiet! I know how to recognise the gods!      


Oh look, and here’s Minerva along with Ceres and Bacchus….      


Hmm… yeah, Bacchus, your personal patron deity for sure …      


Now comes Pollux and Castor and, finally, beautiful Venus, the divine ancestor of our princeps; that means that the procession is over son, let’s go and take our seats at the chariot races.[xxiv]      

The Greens victorious!

A victorious charioteer for the Greens holding a palm branch. 3rd century AD mosaic, Madrid Archaeological Museum. © Susan Bonvallet, 2001. VRoma

I have spent much time organising these, so I don’t want to miss any! Especially as I’ve put 100 denarii down on green this year, so let’s see if Fortune is on my side. I hope the crowd does not get too boisterous; it would not reflect well on our family.      


Look, there’s Sextus, the praetor, about to signal the start of the races. Hurry!      



Although these games and plays put on by our people are fantastic fun, I am still intrigued by the origins and practices of this eastern cult. I’m not too sure about castrating myself, but I would give my right arm to witness the orgiastic frenzy of this mysterious cult: those Phrygians don’t know how lucky they are!      


I understand why this foreign deity is over here, after helping us defeat Hannibal, but I’m glad that she is the only foreign goddess that we formally worship as a city.    


[i] Nonius and Philodemus are entirely fictitious. Nonius is named after the consul of AD8, but his character has been adapted to make him a conservative and the aedile of AD10. Philodemus’ name is taken from the author of a surviving epitaph that shows tolerant affection for the cult of Cybele: the epitaph is reproduced and discussed in T. P. Wiseman (1985), Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, Cambridge: 204. Philodemus has been made into a poet and philosopher, making him much more open-minded and well-read in contemporary poetry than his father. These two characters show the two most extreme opinions that the Romans would have had held about this festival.   

[ii] An aedile is a magistrate in charge of games, buildings and roads in Rome.   

[iii] Moretum is a type of herb/cheese spread that the Romans ate with bread. It was typically made by crushing herbs, fresh cheese, salt, oil and vinegar together in a mortar (hence the name), but different kinds of nuts were sometimes added.   

The sacrifice is recounted in detail by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.19).   

[iv] It is thought that the introduction of the cult of Cybele was a response to the dire circumstances of the invasion of Italy during the Hannibalic War, which stimulated the search for divine assistance against the Carthaginians (see, E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, Leiden: 5). According to Livy a prophecy in the Sybilline Books read that ‘if ever a foreign foe should invade the land of Italy, he should be driven out and defeated if the Idaean Mother should be brought from Pessinus to Rome’ (Livy 29.20.4-6). The festival lasted from 4th April, marking the goddess’ arrival in the city of Rome in 204BC, to 10th April, which marked the dedication of her temple. This means the festival lasts seven days, by the Roman principle of inclusive counting.   

[v] Evidence for a procession in which Romans were not allowed to participate: Lucretius On the Nature of Things 2.625, Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.19.3-5, Ovid Fasti 4.185-6. In contrast to Lucretius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ovid records the procession as the opening event of the festival, but this is probably a deliberate misrepresentation of the festival in order to juxtapose Roman traditions and Phrygian rituals, thereby emphasising the differences between the two: as concluded by J. F. Miller (1991), Ovid’s Elegiac Festivals: Studies in the Fasti, Frankfurt: 83. For the contrasting historical accuracy of Lucretius, see K. Summers (1996), ‘Lucretius’ Roman Cybele’, in E. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 337-66: 342-3.   

[vi] The various kinds of tangible evidence for the statue (including literary evidence from Lucretius On the Nature of things 2.601-28, depictions on coins and the remains of the decapitated statue itself are discussed in Summers (n.[v]: 342-5). In 78BC M. Volteius minted five denarii, one of which depicts Cybele – looking very much like a statue – wearing a turreted crown, seated on a throne on a chariot pulled by two lions. The reverse of a gold aureus of about 43BC also shows Cybele seated on a throne in a chariot drawn by lions. Miller (n.[v]: 84) refers to the statue in relation to Ovid’s portrayal of Cybele.   

[vii] The black stone that was believed to be the goddess herself was placed into the head of the statue, which had been hollowed out for the purpose: see, Summers (n.[v]: 363-4).   

[viii] The Galli are eunuch priests; the singular of Galli is Gallus. Cybele was associated in myth and cult with a young male, Attis, who – in a mad frenzy, caused by Magna Mater as a result of her angry jealousy over his love for another woman – castrated himself: for the story, see J. March (2001, rev.), ‘Cybele’ in Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology, London and New York: 230-231. This myth is acknowledged by Ovid in his Fasti in the explanation of the origins and customs of the Megalensia (4.223-46). The Galli, with their flowing hair, extravagant jewellery and long yellow silken robes, portray Attis’ frenzy, even mimicking his self-castration: Ovid Fasti 4.221, Juvenal Satires 6.511-16, 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. A possible 4th century AD Romano-British Gallus was found buried at Catterick in 2002, see the BBC News story.   

[ix] The instruments used appear to have been stretched tympana, hollow symbala, raucous horns and hollow tibia: Lucretius On the Nature of things 2.600ff., Ovid Fasti 4.183-6, Summers (n..[v]: 358). According to Diogenes Tragicus (TrGF 45 F 1.3), the Greeks and Phrygians used the rhombus (often translated as ‘bull-roarer’) in their practice of the cult. Both the Greeks and Romans considered the sound of the rhombus to be an efficacious love charm (e.g. Ovid Amores 1.8.6-7) and Greek authors often attest its use in various mystery religions including the Dionysian rites and the Eleusinian Mysteries. For the exclusion of the rhombus from the instruments used by the Romans during Cybele’s festival, despite the evidence of Diogenes Tragicus, see Summers (n.[v]: 359).   

[x] There is no evidence for the raucous horn in the Greek or Phrygian practice of the cult and the instrument itself was adopted by the Romans from the Etruscans. The Romans used it for military and athletic functions as well as at assemblies, funerals and weddings. Literary evidence from Lucretius supports its use in the Roman practice of the cult and Summers (n.[v]: 361) concludes that the Romans found it natural to add the raucous horn they used in other private and public religious ceremonies to the already existing collection of instruments.   

[xi] Lucretius (On the Nature of things 2.600ff.) observes that a frenzied state was reached through the hubbub of the procession and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.19.3-5) states that Roman citizens had no part in this, cf. n.[v].   

[xii] Horace Odes 3.19.18, Summers (n.[v]: 362-3).   

[xiii] Beard (n.[viii]: 168) points out that the cult of Magna Mater was characterized by frenetic singing and dancing, so these should definitely have occurred during her annual festival. Ovid describes the procession of the Galli, recounting how they ‘howled along the city’s major streets’ (Fasti 4.186); the word ‘howled’ indicates a loud and wild kind of song, very different to the Romans’ elegant hymns; which would emphasise the foreign origins of both the cult and the festival.   

[xiv] Wiseman (n.[i]: 200) points out that Catullus’ Attis may provide evidence for a hymn sung by the Galli not only because the poem is in Galliambic meter – the meter used for hymns to Cybele by her eunuch priests – but also because it reproduces the form of a hymn with a lengthy narrative preceding a short prayer at the end. However, Wiseman (n.[i]: 201) argues that the poem cannot actually be a hymn, because the Goddess’ power is acknowledged as being merciless and Catullus presents the castration of Attis as an act denying freedom, civilisation and even humanity. We believe that Catullus uses the hymn format to present an exaggerated version of the gruesome rights of the myth that may have been representative of a common attitude towards this aspect of the cult among Romans.   

[xv] Galli carried knives with them in the procession (Lucretius On the Nature of Things 2.625), which may have been symbols of their castration and thus their devotion to the cult, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Vol.2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 49.   

[xvi] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.19.3-5, Ovid Fasti 4.350, Lucretius On the Nature of Things 2.626.   

[xvii] A banquet hosted by the patrician families for other members of the patrician class was held on the night of 4th April. M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Vol. I: A History, Cambridge: 97, suggests that these banquets originated from the sodalites (aristocratic clubs) that were established in 204BC when the cult was first brought to Rome and that it is likely that these clubs were responsible for controlling the cult in Rome.   

[xviii] By a decree of the Senate in 161BC the patrician hosts had to swear before the current consuls that they would not spend over 120 asses per head on the dinner (not counting the flour, wine and vegetables). Further, the hosts were forbidden from serving foreign wine and were not to exhibit more than 120lbs of silverware. For the restrictions, see also Beard, North & Price (n.[xv]: 49). Dumézil (n.[iv]: 488-9) suggests that the restrictions of 161BC arose from the mutationes (banquets) having become events at which Roman patricians were competing to show off their wealth and success by serving refined Eastern dishes and the rarest wines from Greece. Dumézil considers, therefore, that the restrictions would have resulted in these celebrations of Magna Mater losing all sense of their original Greek orgia. On Greek orgia, see Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 2.24.   

[xix] The ius divinium (“divine law”) was a part of the ius civile, the law of the Roman city-state.   

‘[J]ust as the ius civile, exclusive of the ius divinum, regulated the relations of citizen to citizen, so did the ius divinum regulate the relations of the citizen to the deities of the community. The priesthoods administering this law consisted not of sacrificing priests, attached to the cult of a particular god and temple, but of lay officials in charge of that part of the law of the State.’   

(W. W. Fowler (1908) Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero, London: 114).   

[xx] There are many important and indicative passages in Virgil’s Aeneid that stress the significance Cybele had over the founding of Rome, an idea examined extensively by T. P. Wiseman (1977), ‘Cybele, Virgil, and Augustus’ in T. Woodman D. West (eds.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge: 117-128. He points out that only three passages of the Aeneid reflect the superstitious Roman attitude towards Cybele (depicting a sinister foreign goddess served by contemptible half-men attendants: 4.215-17, 9.614-20, 12.97-100) and concludes that the rest depict Cybele as a saviour and miracle-worker who was indispensable in Aeneas’ mission (Wiseman, n.xix: 119-120). In addition, Miller (n.[v]: 85) notes the importance of a passage in the Underworld scene (Virgil, Aeneid 6.781-87), where Cybele is depicted as a metaphor for Rome itself; her dominion over the gods reflects Rome’s power over the world.   

[xxi] Virgil Aeneid 9.77-92.   

[xxii] Evidence for the games comes from Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.19.3-5. Cicero tells us where the games took place, saying: ‘our ancestors had decreed that the games be held on the Palatine in front of the temple in the very sight of Mater Magna herself’ (Cicero On the Response of Haruspices 2.25).    

[xxiii] Ovid, Fasti 4.391; Ars Amatoria 3.2.43ff..   

[xxiv] Ovid Fasti 4.392.