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.
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]
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.
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.
[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.