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. 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
…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]
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]
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.