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.