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: 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