Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sacrifice and Ritual in Ancient Rome


J. A. North notes that there is appears to have been no theological discussion or debate regarding the meaning or significance of the gods until the time of Cicero (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods [De Natura Deorum]). Although this may simply be a reflection of the nature of our surviving sources, North comments that it is possible such reflection simply did not occur. Likewise, there are numerous descriptions and visible material available to use regarding ritual sacrifice, however, there does not appear to have been any systematic interpretations of the significance of these rituals. This fact may be a consequence of the fact that there also exists no substantial body of mythology associated with individual rituals, which would give them some controls. Sources like Ovid are of little help also, because of his own creative interpretations concerning the intersection of myth and ritual. North thinks that the disparity between actions and meaning in Roman ritual practice, versus say Greek practice, is that the Romans do not possess a great deal of original mythology and have nothing comparable to Hesiod or Homer. “At least in its basic structure, Roman sacrifice is very similar to Greek, as the ancients themselves noticed (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 7. 72.15 ff.), but the similarity can justify only a cautious transferring of interpretation, since similar ritual actions may be understood quite differently in different social situations” (CAM 2:981).  

The Romans felt that the gods participated in every aspect of the city’s life, so constant vows, prayers, consultations, and sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were an integral part of the life of Rome. Not that the gods guaranteed success in one’s endeavors, but it was felt that apart from their support success was not to be had.  The gods “demanded piety, constant care and attention, and the scrupulous fulfillment of any obligations accepted. But in negotiations and ritual dealings, they accepted a role in which men—priests and magistrates—could to a great extent determine and define the terms of the deal. This assumption did not involve impiety or cynicism, but simply reflected the belief that the gods were not remote and beyond human comprehension; they were part of the rational community of which the city consisted, and for which senate and people, magistrates and priests were together responsible” (CAM 2:982-983).


The responsibility for maintaining the complex ritual practices and decisions about ritual proprieties lay with the college of priests.

The offices and responsibilities were divided as follows:
·         The augurs, for the auspices
o   ritual consultations of the gods before taking action
·         The fetiales
o   rituals of declaring war and making peace
·         The pontifices
o   sacrifices, burial rituals, and a wide range of other rituals

Strangely, it was very often the case that the priests did not carry out the rituals themselves. Normally, important rituals conducted on behalf of the city would have been performed by the city’s elected magistrates, especially the most senior of these, the consuls and praetors.

The Arval Brethren

The brethren were a group of priests who resided in the Regia and offered annual sacrifices for the harvest. Their inscribed records give us some of our fullest evidence concerning priestly rituals. Interestingly, the description of cultic rituals given by the Brethren demonstrates a considerable amount of change and innovation over the years. North speculates that this indicates that “error, forgetfulness or conscious amendment played their part, even when such consist recording was going on. This is surprising because we know from other evidence that Roman tradition showed an obsessive concern that ritual should be carried out with the greatest possible accuracy. The smallest mistake in the execution of the prescribed form was understood to be fatal to the success of the whole ritual sequence; so, if the wording of a prayer went wrong, not just the prayer but the whole ceremony might have to be repeated” (CAM 2:982). For example, if there was an error in the ritual conducted by a consul on his way to hold elections, the validity of the entire election might be challenged.  

The Frequency and Types of Cultic Acts and Rituals

Within the Roman religious system, there were different classes of ritual performance, there were:
·         Annual festivals
o   governed by ancient calendar and related to the agricultural, political and military year;
·         Rituals preceded major events
o   such as assemblies to pass laws, meetings of the senate, campaigns and battles, the making of treaties, or the declaration of war;
·         Rituals for the fulfillment of a vow
o   These could be either vows taken on behalf of the city or by private persons;
·         Family ceremonies
o   Rituals marking the occasions of an individual’s private life—birth, coming of age, marriage, death, and burial.

In Rome, ritual action preceded and accompanied all everyday public and private events.   

In the republican period, an important source of ritual action and ritual innovation was the annual routine of handling reports of portents and prodigies (prodigia). For example, each year the senate received reports from all over Italy concerning such events as “the birth of monsters, ‘blood,’ ‘milk,’ or ‘stones’ raining from the sky, strange noises or lights in the heavens, and so on. These were held to show some serious disruption in the right relationship between Rome and the gods” (CAM 2:982). Priests would hear these reports of such events and would then advise the senate on the appropriate course of action to avert the deleterious effects of the omen. The senate would then issue a decree for the ceremonial means of dealing with the situation to be undertaken. Dealing with the portents gave the Romans the opportunity to perform rituals of restitution.

The Celebration of Victory

The celebration included the triumph, which was a procession through the streets of Rome. The victorious general would have been dressed in the guise of the god Jupiter and rode his chariot through Rome stopping at the Capitoline Hill, where he conducted sacrifices to the god.

The Festival of the Lupercalia

The festival was conducted every February by the Luperci, who were special priests divided into two groups; one representing Romulus and the other Remus. The priests met at a sacred cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill, called the Lupercal. The Lupercal was supposedly the site where the she-wolf nursed the twin founders. There they would sacrifice a dog and several goats. The blood from the victims was then wiped from the knife onto the foreheads of two of the Luperci. They would then clean off the blood using wool dipped in milk, and after this, the two would laugh ritually. Following a feast, the Luperci, “dressed only in loincloths that they made from the skins of the sacrificial goats, ran through the streets in a circuit beginning and ending at Lupercal. As they ran they struck at the spectators with leather strips, also made from the skins of the slain goats. The name of the priests suggests lupus (wolf) and a possible interpretation is that the purpose was to guard the flocks of the early community from wolves; but our sources seem to suggest that it is either a purification ritual or one promoting the fertility of women” (CAM 2:983). Women struck by the running Luperci were supposed to be made fertile, while the blood ritual and the running of the circuit both suggest the warding off of dangers or polluting influences.

North notes that in many respects, the Lupercalia festival is characteristic of most Roman rituals. “First, it is strongly connected with a specific place in Rome and with specific historical—or pseudohistorical—tradition. The ritual has the function of marking out the place and recalling the tradition, thus annually reaffirming the importance of the link; The second important characteristic of Roman ritual is capacity to take on new levels of meaning as new situations arise.”


In almost all festivals and ceremonies in Rome, the central rite was an animal sacrifice.

The sacrifice itself involved a very complex ritual:
·         The ceremony opened with a procession in which the victim or victims, decorated for death, had to come willingly to the altar, placed generally outside the temple. Victims had to be of a high quality. They had to be of particular color for the type of deity; they had to be of the same sex as the receiving deity; sometimes their age was specified; and some deities required a particular species of victim.
·         The victim was then sanctified by sprinkling of meal and wine (the ritual was called immolation), and a prayer (precatio) was offered to the god or goddess to whom the sacrifice was to be made, always naming the divine recipient.
·         At some point in the sequence, incense was sprinkled into a fire.
·         The actual killing was not done by a priest or magistrate, but by special assistants; death had to be cleanly and swiftly achieved by an axe or knife at the neck, or both together.
·         The carcass was then butchered into specified cuts.The entrails were then examined for signs by specialist priests called “haruspices,” who might report that the god or goddess had not found the victim acceptable. At the stage of extispicy, it was not unusual for the victim to be rejected upon the inspection of the entrails; we are told of various defects of the internal organs that could lead to rejection. If this state of acceptance could not be reached it was deemed dangerous to proceed with action. After a defeat it was often rumored or conjectured that perlitatio had never been attained by the magistrate (Livy, 41.15). If the victim did pass this examination, the meat was cooked, certain cuts were offered to the god, and the rest of the meat was made available for a feast for worshippers and priests.    

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