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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of Roman Studies
Vol. 2 (1912), pp34‑52

The text is in the public domain:
James Smith Reid died in 1926.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p34 Human Sacrifices at Rome
and Other Notes on Roman Religion

By Professor J. S. Reid, M.A. Litt.D. LL.D.

I. There is in Pliny, XXVIII.12, seq. a famous statement to the effect that his own age had seen human sacrifice carried out in the Forum Boarium: "nostra aetas vidit." The whole subject of the ritual offering of men's lives to the gods at Rome in the historical period is full of interest and has been, of course, much discussed, but statements about it continue to be made by writers of authority, which appear to be very dubious when the ancient evidence is rigorously scrutinised. Pliny introduces the theme in a curious manner, not directly, but in order to illustrate the practical efficacy of the precatio, when a venerable religious formula is uttered with all the due accompaniments. He instances the devotio of Decius, father and son, and the story of the vestal Tuccia, who, when accused of impurity, addressed a deprecatio to her goddess, and successfully carried a sieve full of water from the Tiber to the forum. (Unfortunately Livy seems to have recorded her condemnation.) Pliny then proceeds: "boario vero in foro Graecum Graecamque defossos aut aliarum gentium cum quibus tum res essetº etiam nostra aetas vidit. Cuius sacri precationem qua solet praeire quindecimvirum conlegi magister si quis legat, profecto vim carminum fateatur, omnia ea adprobantibus octingentorum triginta annorum eventibus."a He concludes with a reference to certain precationes employed by vestals, whereby slaves who desired to run away from the city were rendered unable to escape. It will be seen that human sacrifice is here introduced only in an incidental and secondary fashion. Scholars of eminence, both early and recent, Wissowa for example, have deduced from the passage an annual ceremony of immolation. But a close examination of the words will show that the inference is not justified. A yearly celebration of the kind could not fail to be notorious, and the expression "etiam nostra aetas vidit" could not suitably be applied to it. Further, the words "cum quibus tum res esset" clearly point to an intermittent and irregular sacrifice, performed at times of crisis caused by war. Again, the mention of 830 years, taken in connexion with the context, means no more than this: that the precatio, at whatever date it might have been uttered, had proved itself permanently effectual; that is, the prayer that the state might be saved by the ritual had been granted by the gods. No stress can be laid on the present verb solet, which merely means that whenever the offering is made, p35the particular formula is used. It may be noted that, having demonstrated the practical force of the precatio, Pliny turns to prodigies (ostenta) and proves their validity by historical examples.

The view which I have taken of this passage is strengthened by an examination of another in the same author. In III.12, 13 we read: "exstant certe et apud Italas gentes vestigia eius in XII tabulis nostris aliisque argumentis quae priore volumine exposui: DCLVII demum anno urbis, Cn. Cornelio Lentulo P. Licinio Crasso consulibus, senatus consultum factum est ne homo immolaretur, palamque fit in tempus illud ut sacra prodigiosa celebratio." The word eius refers to medical magic, which Pliny had just discussed. He next proceeds to mention the practices of the Druids, interdicted by a decree of the senate in the reign of Tiberius. Then he says: "Britannia hodieque eam (rather ea) attonita celebrat tantis caerimoniis ut dedisse Persis videri possit. Adeo ista toto mundo consensere quamquam discordi et sibi ignoto. Nec satis aestimari potest quantum Romanis debeatur, qui sustulere monstra in quibus occidere hominem religiosissimum erat, mandi vero saluberrimum." Is it possible that Pliny could have written in this vein, if a Graecus et Graeca with a Gallus et Galla were being offered up to the gods every year at Rome, as many distinguished scholars have believed? The same consideration applies with even greater force to some reflexions made by Cicero in his speech for Fonteius, §31. He denounces the barbarity of the Gauls in maintaining human sacrifice, employing language which would be passing strange if the Gauls could have retorted that a Gaulish man and woman were actually immolated every year at a spot not far from that on which the orator stood while delivering his attack. The date of the resolution of the senate to which Pliny makes reference is 97 B.C. Possibly the text of the clause "palamque fit in tempus illud ut sacra prodigiosa celebratio" is corrupt. As it stands the meaning appears to be "the practice down to that time clearly occurred as a solemn ceremony in expiation of prodigies." In the proper text there may have been some hint at antique Roman practice. The allusion to prodigies suits things Roman better than things Gaulish, and it would be strange if Pliny were not reminded by his own words hominem occidere religiosissimum of ancient Roman examples which might seem to detract from the credit assigned to Rome. At any rate Pliny clearly implies that neither at Rome nor outside after 97 B.C. was the ritual of human sacrifice tolerated by the Roman government. To go back to the first passage quoted from Pliny, I think it may be said that a comparison of it with the second passage raises just suspicion of the reading etiam nostra aetas. The author may have written etiam nostra civitas. It is indeed not too much to say that the clause cum quibus tum res erat is incompatible with the reading aetas.

p36 The only other supposed testimony to the regular sacrifice is to be found in Plutarch's life of Marcellus, c. 3. Referring to the assumed institution of the ceremony in 226 B.C. during the Gallic war, he says that the panic which then seized on the Romans was exhibited by "τὰ περὶ τὰς θυσίας καινοτομούμενα. βαρβαρικὸν γὰρ οὐδὲν οὐδ᾽ ἔκφυλον ἐπιτηδεύοντες, ἀλλ᾽ ὡς ἔνι μάλιστα ταῖς δοξαῖς Ἑλληνικῶς διακείμενοι καὶ πράως πρὸς τὰ θεῖα, τότε τοῦ πολέμου συμπεσόντος ἠναγκάσθησαν εἶξαι λογίοις τισὶν ἐκ τῶν Σιβυλλείων, καὶ δύο μὲν Ἕλληνας, ἄνδρα καὶ γυναῖκα, δύο δὲ Γαλάτας ὁμοίως ἐν τῇ καλουμένῃ βοῶν ἀγορᾷ κατορύξαι ζῶντας, οἷς ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ Νοεμβρίῳ μηνὶ δρῶσιν Ἕλλησι καὶ Γαλάταις ἀπορρήτους καὶ ἀθεάτους ἱερουργίας." Plutarch's meaning here is far from explicit; but the natural interpretation is, not that the actual killing of 226 B.C. was regularly repeated, but that it was replaced by a yearly observance of a sacredly mystical character, to which spectators were not admitted. The dative οἷς is hardly construable; something like ἐξ οὗ might have been expected. If the other datives are correct the sense must be that the secret rite had some kind of reference to Greeks and Gauls. The want of lucidity is rendered more striking by a consideration of the eighty-third of Plutarch's Quaestiones Romanae. It is there told how a report came to Rome that a people called "Bletonesioi" had sacrificed a man to their gods. The Romans sent for their officers (ἄρχοντας), intending to punish them. But they proved that their action was in accordance with their own laws. So they were dismissed unpunished, but were "prevented" from observing their law in future. Plutarch thinks that the Romans acted strangely, because they themselves not many years before had buried alive in the Forum Boarium a Greek man and a Greek woman, along with a Gaulish man and a Gaulish woman, in obedience to a Sibylline oracle. It will be observed that the Romans are here presumed not to have repeated the experiment of 226 B.C. Plutarch seeks for an explanation of the conduct of the Romans towards these barbarians. Did they think it impious to make such an offering to the gods, while they considered it necessary to make it to the "daimones," that is, to the divinities of nether world? Or was the ritual regarded as unlawful when it rested on custom and law (ἔθει καὶ νόμῳ), yet nevertheless a duty when enjoined by the Sibylline books? Then Plutarch tells an extraordinary story of a portent. A maiden named "Elbia" (that is, Helvia) was killed by lightning in such a way that the prophets (μάντεις) interpreted it as indicating unchastity among the vestals. A slave, whose master Butetius was implicated, betrayed the guilt of three of the priestesses. The Sibylline books were consulted and it was found that these events were foreshadowed in them and that human sacrifice was demanded as an expiation. The tale of Helvia is told p37by Orosius from Livy's sixty-third book, and by Obsequens with other details, but it is referred definitely to the year 114 B.C. The expiatory offering, however, according to Livy, was not sacrifice of foreigners, but, more naturally, the erection of a temple to Venus, "changer of hearts" (Verticordia). Evidently Plutarch places the three events, the case of 226 B.C., that of the "Bletonesioi," and that of Helvia near together in point of date. It will be presently seen how he came to connect human immolation with the story of Helvia.

The admonition of the "Bletonesioi" is recorded by no other writer. Barbarous tribes sometimes sacrificed a human being in order to propitiate their gods at the outset of a war, and it may have been inferred that these particular barbarians were meditating hostility to Rome. It is recorded that Servius Galba in Spain, at a time when the Lusitanians had concluded peace, made an attack on them without warning, because he had heard that they had immolated a man and a horse "suo ritu."1 Is the mysterious name "Bletonesioi" a corruption for "Λουσιτανοί"? Envoys of the Lusitanians were present in Rome when Galba was denounced for his treatment of the nation. He mentioned this sacrifice in a speech which Livy described, and the ambassadors would naturally be asked to explain the circumstance. One point in Plutarch's statement may be noticed, that he places the Roman interdiction of the horrible practice very much earlier in time than Pliny. And although Plutarch was shocked because the Romans deserted their "Hellenic" principles in 226 B.C. he had no word of reprobation for the ritual murder of three beautiful Persian captives just before the battle of Salamis, as recounted by him in the thirtieth chapter of his biography of Themistocles, and again in the ninth chapter of his life of Aristides. His authority was the historian Phaneas of Eresos in Lesbos, pupil of Aristotle, and fellow townsman of Theophrastus. In the life of Pelopidas, cc. 21, f. Plutarch tells how a supposed divine injunction to sacrifice a maiden was satisfied by the substitution of an animal, after a debate about the attitude of the gods towards human sacrifice.

The most famous of the alleged examples of the dark superstition at Rome is of course that which is stated to have taken place after the battle of Cannae. Livy2 depicts a panic among the people on account of the defeats suffered at the hands of Hannibal, and of "the other portents," especially the proved impurity of two vestals. One "sub terra, uti mos est, ante portam Collinam necata fuerat;" the other committed suicide, and a minor priest who was compromised was flogged to death in the comitium. The "Decemviri," as they then were, had orders to consult their books, and also Fabius p38Pictor, the annalist, was sent to Delphi to ask by what expiations the gods might be appeased, and the run of calamity stopped. Before he could return, "ex fatalibus libris sacrificia aliquot facta"; then comes a sacrifice like that attributed to 226 B.C. by Plutarch alone. It may well be asked whether he did not transfer the story of 216 to the year 226. It was thought, Livy says, that the gods were sufficiently placated by the offering, "minime Romano sacro." These words resemble closely some used by Plutarch. Livy does not state which of the "libri fatales" were consulted. In this connexion the Sibylline oracles are always mentioned. Some scholars, however, prefer to believe that they were on this occasion the Etruscan books.

Among the many obscurities attending these tales there is the problem why a Graecus et Graeca should have been immolated in obedience to the Sibylline oracles, which were Greek in character, but the puzzle is not so serious as has been imagined. Anything and everything could be squeezed out of the Sibyls' verses, which were attributed to them just because they were as riddling as those of Lycophron. Many interpretations authoritatively given can have had little or no relation to the wording of the lines; for instance the statements that the oracular verses forbade Manlius in 189 B.C. to carry his army across the Taurus range; and that in 56 B.C. they vetoed the restoration of the Egyptian king by force of arms; and that in 44 B.C. they declared a king to be needed at Rome if the Romans were to conquer the Parthians. More worthy of attention is the impression conveyed by Pliny that the victims were bound to be members of a nation with which, at the time, the Romans were at war. The sacrifice of Gauls would be intelligible on this principle, both in 226 and in 216 B.C., but the sacrifice of Greeks would be very strange at either date. In 226 Romans were posing as champions of Greek national interests, after their attack on the Adriatic pirates, and this situation was not changed in 216. The war with Macedonia was then approaching and, as Strabo said, "Macedonia too is Hellas"; but Rome wanted Greek allies and in any case the ancient evidence forbids us to connect an offering of human victims in 216 with the enmity of Philip. Still less probability is there in the explanation given by Diels in his Sibyllinische Blätter, p86. He supposes the starting point to have been the alleged defection of Gelo, the son of Hiero, from the Romans after the battle of Cannae. Now, according to the evidence, Gelo died very soon after the battle and before his father. He therefore could have had no time to commit any overt act. The Romans could never have contemplated going to war with Hiero, their faithful ally of half a century, at a moment of supreme difficulty, because reports had arrived that his son's loyalty was sapped. Indeed, Niese and others are justified in casting suspicion on the story about p39Gelo, who was joint ruler with his father and, with this pretended exception, acted in harmony with his father's policy. Gelo has probably been made responsible for the sins of his son Hieronymus. Wissowa supposes that at some remote time the sacrifice of the Graecus et Graeca had become stereotyped; a somewhat arbitrary assumption. The belief of Pliny and others that the nationality of the victims was changed according to the war is not borne out by the particular examples which the ancient authorities present. Greeks and Gauls are concerned, and no other peoples.

Another matter that arrests attention is the curious correlation of impurity among the vestals with the human sacrifice. The sin of the priestesses might well have been held to be expiated by their own suffering; why the further execution of four foreigners was needed is hard to understand. The mere fact that the Romans were at war when the circumstance occurred is an insufficient explanation; they nearly always were at war. If the tales about 226 and 216 were derived from an early annalist, like Fabius Pictor, we should be compelled to believe that real cause underlies the unnatural correlation. But it is just as likely that Livy and his successors delved here in the later strata of annalism, deposits in large part of rhetoric and imagination. The observation that there was a walled chamber under ground in the Forum Boarium and a similar chamber before the Colline gate, both presumed to be used for expiatory human sacrifice, would easily lead to the interweaving of stories about the two. Annalists and antiquarians at Rome readily drew inferences from coincidences like that which Fluelen used to prove the likeness between Macedon and Monmouth. From what has been said above it appears not improbable that some late annalistic writer misled Livy, Pliny and Plutarch into the belief that the four victims were offered up on the occasion of the scandals about the vestals in 216 and in 114 B.C., which Plutarch placed much earlier.

But we may well go further and inquire whether there is any truth whatever in the tales which we have been examining. If there is any substance in Plutarch's statement, mentioned above, concerning an annual mysterious ceremony substituted for the actual sacrifice, and performed, as he seems to have thought, in the underground vault in the Forum Boarium, late inventions concerning its origin may easily have arisen. Puppets may have played a part in the ceremony, as in that of the "Argei," and others at Rome. Wherever dolls appeared in later ritual, an original actual sacrifice was apt to be deduced. It was so with the oscilla which Virgil mentions in his Georgics, and with the maniae that figured at the Compitalia, and with the sigilla, characteristic of the Saturnalia. Many analogies show that the deduction was unsound. Primitive people are known to have often supposed p40ab initio that the gods might be propitiated by the mimicry of human sacrifice. The famous maxim of Servius, in his comment on Virgil's Aeneid, II.116: "sciendum in sacris simulata pro veris accipi" had a peculiarly wide application in Roman religion. In passing, I may observe that Mr. Fowler's arguments in his recent volume for an early origin of the ceremony of the "Argei" seem to me to be irrefutable. Most ill-based is Wissowa's theory that in 217, for the first time, twenty-seven Greeks were actually immolated and that the ritual was carried on by means of dolls ever after. If the Romans did really offer up all these Greeks in 217, why did they want to sacrifice one Greek man and one Greek woman in 216? Superstitious panic was aggravated in the latter year. The natural thing would have been to carry the real slaughter further, instead of mimicking the main part of it by the substitution of images. The acceptance of puppets by the gods is vividly illustrated by a portion of the lore concerned with the devotio, as described by Livy, VIII, c. 10. A general might devote to Tellus and the Manes any one in his army, in order to ensure the destruction of the enemy. If the person selected was not killed in the encounter, it sufficed to fashion a figure of a man, seven feet high or more, to bury it in the ground, and to make an ordinary piacular offering. Wissowa himself, in speaking of the ver sacrum of the Italic peoples, whereby young men were consecrated to the god Mamers, and sent forth to conquer a new home, remarks on the idea that the youths would in more primitive times have been ritually killed, and rightly calls the notion "blosse Konstruktion." A similar "Konstruktion" in ancient days may have given rise to the legend of Mettius Curtius.

The question has often been raised whether the execution of the vestals is to be regarded as their immolation to the offended divinity whom they served. Indeed the theory has often been advanced that among primitive peoples executions were regularly piacular. The problem is too intricate for discussion here, but the fact that the blood of the vestals was not shed points rather to the secular character of the punishment. The mode of killing which is chosen is suitable for what was in essence a family affair, the vestals being in a sense the daughters of the great state family, who did service round the state hearth similar to which was rendered by the unmarried daughters of a private family. The pontifex maximus is in a position analogous to that of a father who orders a daughter to be put to death. In such cases there was a natural shrinking from the effusion of blood. This is shown in the antique Roman punishment for parricidium, when the guilty person was sewn up in a sack with a cock, an ape, a dog, and a serpent, and drowned. With a similar tenderness, the Christian Church handed over the condemned heretic to the secular power with an entreaty that his p41blood might not be outpoured; and the secular power was careful to adopt some form of execution (often burning) which was strictly in harmony with the request. It is difficult to imagine a reason for not shedding the blood of aliens with whom Rome might be at war.

Before passing away from the subject of human sacrifice, I will examine two famous stories, one of Caesar and the other of Augustus. Cassius Dio, XLIII, c. 24, the only authority, recites a strange event of the year 46 B.C. Caesar had just celebrated his fourfold triumph and was spending money lavishly on exhibitions of all sorts. Among other things he had a curtain placed in the theatre to protect the spectators from sun, and some said it was made of silk. The soldiers raised an uproar, objecting to unusual expenditure for the benefit of others than themselves. Caesar suddenly came on them and, having arrested a man with his own hand, gave him over to punishment. Then two men were slain with something like sacrificial forms (ἐν τρόπῳ τινὶ ἱερουργίας) in the Campus Martius, the pontifices and the flamen of Mars being present. Dio could find no reason for this proceeding. The Sibyl, he said, had made no pronouncement bearing on the case. The victims' heads were fixed on the wall of the Regia. The fact that the head of the "October horse" was nailed on the same wall (but only when in the contest for its possession the inhabitants of the Sacra Via had overcome those of the Subura) and also the presence of the flamen of Mars, have led some writers to think that the forms of the sacrifice of the "October horse" were imitated in the punishment of the soldiers. But resemblances between the two performances are not very marked; many features of the October ceremony were not reproduced in the case of the soldiers. And it is impossible to guess a reason for any imitation, or indeed for the treatment of the soldiers' offence as one directed against heaven. Christian writers often scornfully comment on the fact that the ludi were in some sort sacred services, but disorder committed in connexion with them was never punished as sacrilege. The retribution exacted by Caesar remains profoundly mysterious. Was the outrage treated as one offered to the person of the pontifex maximus? Again there are no parallels. It seems most probable that there has been some great error in the transmission of the information to Dio, or some serious misconception on his part. The foundation of the fable may be that Caesar, being pontifex maximus, and the Regia being his official residence, was present at a purely military execution which took place near the ara Martis in the campus Martius. There is no authority outside the passage of Dio (obviously poor evidence) for the notion that either pontifex or the flamen of Mars had anything to do with the ceremony of the "October horse"; though the statement is generally made (as by Wissowa).

There is also much darkness surrounding the other story, that p42of the so‑called arae Perusinae. If the accounts are substantially true, we have a black chapter in the history of Augustus, blacker perhaps in some respects than that which concerns the proscriptions. The most detailed record of the surrender of Perusia in 41 B.C. is to be found in Appian's Civil War, V, cc. 48, f. The distinguished Romans who were made prisoners, that is the members of the Roman senate and the equites, were placed in charge of Octavian's friends and his legates. Then the natives of Perusia were summoned, with the exception of the local senators, and were pardoned. The decuriones of Perusia were at first merely kept in custody, but not long after, they were destroyed, excepting a certain L. Aemilius. He owed his safety to having, as juror, given his vote "openly" in favour of condemning Caesar's murderers. He had exhorted the other jurors to vote with him, thus "loosing themselves from an abomination" (ἐκλυομένους μύσος). The story is interesting as an illustration of the manner in which the trials under the lex Pedia were carried on. This L. Aemilius was in all probability a Roman eques at least; he may also have been a decurio of Perusia. Appian goes on to describe the accidental burning of the noble old city, which disappointed the soldiers of their plunder. The inhabits, who with a tenacity characteristic of the ancient civic commonwealth, set to work to reconstitute their patria, chose for their municipal divinity Vulcan, in place of Juno, who had presided over them before. We learn from Appian and Dio that shrines of Vulcan and Juno alone escaped the conflagration and that Octavian, admonished by a dream, removed Juno's to Rome. Appian says that Octavian made an agreement with the citizens who survived (ἐσπένδετο ἅπασιν), but the army never ceased crying out until they were destroyed. Taken literally this would mean a general massacre, but the writer goes on to say confusedly that those killed were special enemies of Octavian, Cannutius and C. Flavius and Clodius Bithynicus and "the rest." Appian appears to have mixed up the accounts of the treatment of the local and non-local prisoners. Cannutius is the tribune of 44 B.C. who then and since had been in the forefront of politics. He is not likely have been a decurio of Perusia. The same may be said of Clodius and of Flavius, who had been a legate of M. Brutus. The general impression one gets from Appian (who mentions no numbers) is that nearly all the captives who were not inhabitants of city were pardoned, and that nearly all who were natives of the town were executed; but the whole account is misty. Dio3 has a brief description. First he mentions that L. Arruntius and "certain others" received pardon, but the majority of the senators and knights who were captured were put to death. It is important p43to observe that the remaining particulars are introduced by the vague expression "λόγος γε ἔχει." Three hundred knights and senators were brought before an altar consecrated to "divus Iulius" and were sacrificed (ἐτύθησαν). There is no mention of any mock-religious ceremony. Nothing special is said of local decuriones; it is merely asserted that the greater number of those who were taken prisoners, both "Perusines and others" perished, but we infer from Appian that the rank and file of the garrison were allowed to live.

The accounts given by Velleius4 and Suetonius5 differ remarkably. Velleius mentions only the pardon extended to L. Antonius, the cruelty applied to the Perusines "rather by the anger of the soldiers than with the consent of the general," and the burning of the city. Suetonius describes Octavian as inflicting death on "very many," and as savagely cutting short appeals for mercy by shouting "You must die." Then he goes on: "Some authors write [note the vagueness] that three hundred men were chosen from among those of the two orders who had surrendered, and on the Ides of March these were brought to the shrine of divus Iulius and slaughtered more hostiarum." He adds that some people were found to declare that Octavian had made an arrangement with L. Antonius to bring about the war, in order to see who were his secret opponents, and from a desire to confiscate their property and pay his soldiers. Suetonius is the only writer excepting Dio who gives the definite number three hundred. His bias against Octavian is obvious; obvious also is the fact that the "some writers" to whom he refers gave free rein to their imagination. Velleius and Appian agree in blaming not Octavian but the soldiers for the executions. If mock sacrifice really took place, it was their work. They may have dragged victims before the altar of Caesar. Their ardent desire to avenge him is attested by some of the sling bullets discovered on the site. These were launched into town inscribed "divom Iulium." That there were as many as three hundred Roman senators and knights in the garrison is hard to believe, but the "some writers" of Suetonius and Dio too imagined that there were very many more. The introduction of the Ides of March must be a dramatic fabrication. Yet Gardthausen relies on it as proving that the fall of Perusia did not take place till the end of February in the year 30. "Die Scheusslichkeit des perusinischen Menschenopfers verliert etwas von dem Abstossenden wenn die Iden des März vor der Thür standen, und Caesar seine Opfer nicht erst zwei volle Monate im Kerker schmachten liess." But whatever was done must have been done soon after the surrender, and not fifteen days or more later. The cold-bloodness of the operation is not much diminished by p44substituting fifteen days for two months. It is easy to see reasons why Gardthausen could not go beyond the end of February, but any one who reads Appian's recital of the desperate sally made by the garrison on the last day of 41 will find it difficult to believe that the town held out for two months longer or indeed for more than a few days. It is supposed that a passage in Appian6 is in favour of a later date. It is to the effect that Mark Antony left Alexandria "in the spring" and travelled to Tyre, whence he took ship for Asia, and heard on his way news of the fall of Perusia, but the fact that he went by land to Tyre rather shows that he was much in advance of the ordinary season for sailing; and a voyage along the coast, and from island to island, in the winter time was not so very uncommon.

I have still to speak of Seneca's most nebulous phrase arae Perusinae.7 It is a mere allusion, without any details. The context is curious. The arae Perusinae, the proscriptions, the battle of Actium, and the struggle with Sextus Pompeius, are all treated as equally examples of Octavian's crudelitas. After these events he was clement; "ego vero clementiam non voco lassam crudelitatem." It is by combining Seneca's expression arae Perusinae with the tale in Suetonius that historians have drawn a picture of Octavian performing a deliberate ritual sacrifice of three hundred Roman senators and equites. I have shown how the colours of the picture fade and become almost indistinguishable when the sources are carefully examined. It would not be surprising if this "Menschenopfer" were wholly and completely a fiction. Around the person of every emperor there sprang up two rank crops of literature, one eulogistic, the other vilificatory. It would be no more astonishing that Seneca should accept a falsity of the sort than it is to find Tacitus treating as possibly true many outrageous accusations. For example, he leaves it an open question whether Livia compassed the death of her husband's two grandsons. How easily the fable of ritual human sacrifice springs into existence is demonstrated by innumerable facts. Pagans charged early Christians with it, and early Christians charged pagans in the same way. A formidable array of Christian writers mention an annual sacrifice of a bestiarius or criminal at the altar of Iuppiter Latiaris on the occasion of the feriae Latinae. So monstrously improbable is the allegation that hardly any competent scholar has brought himself to believe it. The same crime is in some parts of the world even now charged by Christians on Jews and credited. It may be said that the death of gladiators was a sort of religious immolation, since the practice, introduced from Etruria, was intended to appease the spirits of the dead; and for centuries at Rome the ludi gladiatorii were nominally connected p45with departed persons, but the link with religion was not felt; and human sacrifice in the proper sense is a very different thing.

II. I now turn to a passage of Varro which has been much discussed. It is preserved by Augustine, De Civ. Dei, IV, c. 32, who writes thus: "dicit enim (Varro) de generationibus deorum magis ad poetas quam ad physicos fuisse populos inclinatos, et ideo et sexum et generationes deorum maiores suos, id est veteres credidisse Romanos et eorum constituisse coniugia."

It is notorious that the more the matter is examined, the less appearance is there in the ancient Roman religion of marriages between divinities. On that account the passage just quoted has attracted the attention of a number of writers, including Dr. Frazer and Mr. Warde Fowler, in his Gifford Lectures, now published with the title The Religious Experience of the Roman People. Varro cannot have been unaware that the idea of divine matrimony was of comparatively recent introduction at Rome, and although maiores is a vague term, it is odd that he should have used it without a warning that still earlier maiores were of a different way of thinking. It seems certain to me that Augustine misunderstood what he found in Varro's text, unless he suppose that the clause id est . . . Romanos is a gloss. The words point to Varro having written not maiores nostri but maiores mei, and by this expression he must have meant, not the ancestors of the Roman people, but his own literary predecessors who had written about religion, and these need not even have been Romans, or have been addressing themselves specially to Roman notions about things divine. For the use of maiores to indicate intellectual progenitors I may refer to Cicero, Academ. II, § 80, and my note on the passage. Also in Ep. 44, § 3, Seneca, addressing Lucilius, calls Socrates, Plato and Cleanthes his friend's "ancestors" (maiores); and Apuleius, Florida, init. speaks of "maior meus Socrates." So πρόγονος and πατήρ are often employed by Greek writers, from Plato onwards. In Athenaeus, 160C, the rich man at whose house the deipnosophists are assembled describes Varro himself as his "προπάτωρ."

III. In his recent volume on The Religious Experience of the Roman People, p33, Mr. Warde Fowler deals with the following passage of Paulus, ex F. 117: "laureati milites sequebantur currum triumphantis ut quasi purgati a caede humana intrarent urbem. Itaque eandem laurum omnibus suffitionibus adhiberi solitum erat, vel quod medicamento siccissima sit, vel quod omni tempore viret, ut similiter res publica floret." The notion that the laurel, as borne in the triumph, was purificatory, is interesting, and seems to be accepted by Mr. Fowler. To me it appears mere guesswork, one of a number of current imaginations. Pliny, N. H. XV, §§ 133‑5, discusses the custom of placing laurel on the lances and pila of the p46soldiers in the triumphal procession, and on the despatches of the generals announcing victory, and on the fasces carried before them. He rejects the idea of purification from slaughter, and attributes it to the famous lawyer and antiquary, Masurius Sabinus, who, like Festus, probably drew it from Verrius Flaccus.

Pliny himself prefers to believe that the use of the laurel at the triumph was due to the ancient relations of Rome with the Delphic oracle, but even the regular employment of the laurel in the triumphal cortège seems to have been established at a comparatively late time. Pliny, XV, §§ 126, seq. says that the first man who ever enjoyed an ovation, Postumius Tubertus, entered the city wearing a crown of myrtle, because he had won a bloodless victory, and that every subsequent "ovator" had worn it (obviously though blood had been shed) excepting M. Crassus, who wore laurel, after his defeat of the slaves and Spartacus. The bloodless victory of Postumius (consul in 505 B.C.) is an Aetiological explanation of the custom of using myrtle, the plant of Venus, in the ovatio. Pliny further quotes Masurius Sabinus as an authority for the statement that myrtle, not laurel, had been worn in the triumphal chariot, and L. Piso the annalist for another statement that Papirius Maso, maternal grandfather of the younger Africanus, used it when he, without precedent, voted himself a triumph on the Alban mount. He afterwards wore a myrtle chaplet at the ludi circenses. A M. Valerius, Pliny says, "qui et hoc voverat" (a doubtful phrase), wore two crowns, one of myrtle and one of laurel. The story about Papirius Maso seemed puzzling to some antiquarians, who invented a tale that he wore the myrtle because his victory had been won in campis Murteis in Sardinia.8 It can hardly be supposed that the Romans ever regarded the triumph as in any way a lustral ceremony. The lustratio is a means of putting away guilt and winning favour from the gods; but an army which has just been vouchsafed a victory in answer to vows has ample proof that the countenance of heaven has been secured, and the shedding of blood in a iustum bellum did not, to the Roman mind, call for purification. Whether the lustratio of the army in the field for the purpose of securing victory came in late and was a Greek rite by origin, as Bouché-Leclercq and others believe, may be doubted, for reasons that I cannot give here. But it was not the taint of blood which this lustratio removed. It was rather the superstitious fear of coming disaster. The lustrum performed by the censors was practically a lustratio exercitus, but we have no means of telling how far back in history it existed.

The attribution of lustral virtue to plants and herbs seems not to be originally Roman, excepting as used for burning (suffimenta). The two means of purification were water and fire. Branches of p47laurel or myrtle or olive were used for dipping into water and distributing it at lustral observances, but the earlier practice must have been to employ for scattering the drops the instrument which is seen among the insignia of the pontifices. The appearance of the branch (περιρραντήριον) would come in with the Graecus ritus. Pliny, XV.119, although he had rejected the idea that the laurel in the soldiers' hands had purificatory virtue, yet curiously says that the Romans and Sabines "cum propter raptas virgines dimicare voluissent," were purified "myrtea verbena." Here there had been no blood taint, but only a desire to kill. It is likely that the entry of the myrtle into the fable of the rape of the Sabine women was due to its connexion with the worship of Venus.

IV. Pliny's use of the word verbena shows that it had become a general term for a herb of lustral value. Its earliest use was of course in connexion with the fetiales, and scholars generally, Mr. Fowler included, have supposed that they carried verbena with them to avert evil. It is extremely doubtful whether this was the original Roman idea. The old ceremonies had fallen out of use long before Pliny wrote, and the pronouncements of the late writers about them are somewhat confused. Varro, ap. Non. p258, 18, says the verbena was "caduceus, pacis signum, nam Mercuri virgam possumus aestimare." It is obvious that verbena and caduceus can have had originally nothing to do with each other, but, possibly owing to Varro's authority, the mistaken idea became current. The lawyer Marcianus, in Dig. I.8.8, only makes a comparison between the sagmina of the fetiales and the καρυκεῖα of Greek envoys. How early the Romans adopted the caduceus as an emblem of the envoy cannot be said; but Livy introduces it in quite early times. There is a curious confusion in Isidor. Orig. VIII.11.48, where it is stated that among the Romans fetiales proclaimed war, while caduceatores the negotiations for peace.

The herbs carried by the fetiales can never have been, like the caduceus, visible examples of their function as ambassadors. Two names are given to the herbs, verbena used ordinarily in the singular, and sagmina used only in the plural. Pliny in XXV.105, seq. speaks of a common medicinal plant which he calls hierabotane and verbenaca and identifies with verbena, saying that legati are wont to carry it to the enemy. The word sagmina he takes to be identical in meaning: XXII.5, "sagmina in remediis publicis fuere et in sacris legationibusque verbenae. Certe utroque nomine idem significatur, hoc est gramen ex arce cum sua terra evolsum." Livy, in I.24, gives the forms gone through before the fetiales started on their mission. The pater patratus asks the king for sagmina, and he answers "puram tollito." Then the pater patratus takes graminis herbam puram from the arx. Just what is meant by pura in this connexion cannot be determined. p48In this passage verbena does not occur. When at the end of the Second Punic War fetiales were ordered to proceed to Africa to make peace, the precise duties of their office had so fallen into oblivion that they were obliged to ask the senate for information. Then (Livy, XXX.42.9) "Senatus consultum factum est in haec verba: ut privos lapides silices privasque verbenas secum ferrent: ut, ubi praetor Romanus eis imperaret ut foedus ferirent, illi praetorem sagmina poscerent. Herbae id genus ex arce sumptum fetialibus dari solet." Here the praetor acts as successor to the rex. But it was often supposed that only one of the fetiales carried the verbena, and that he was called verbenarius (Varro, ap. Non. 528, and Plin. XXII.5). This appears to be a deduction from the equation of verbena with caduceus; for with an embassy there went one caduceator whose functions were like those of the mediaeval herald.

There is a curious absence of the sacral element in the formulae. The proceeds seem to be thoroughly secular. They are regulated by a magistrate invested with the imperium. The herbs are specially said to be taken from the arx, not the Capitolium. Wissowa (Handbuch, p104) says the arx was a "Kultstätte" of Iuppiter. There appears to be no evidence for the statement. It was mainly an open area, and the sacred buildings on it, the temple of Iuno Moneta, and the shrines of Veiovis and Concordia can have had nothing to do with the fetiales. The arx was the part of the hill where herbs were free to grow, and that is the reason for the mention of it. The auguraculum here was a grassy spot, suitable for the augurs, because their view of the sky was not interrupted by buildings. What then was the purport of the verbena or sagmina? The best view (represented rather rarely in the modern literature of the subject) is that these herbs stood for the soil of Rome, which the fetiales symbolically carried with them. This seems to be clearly indicated by the importance attached to the taking up of the earth at the root along with the plant. I shall endeavour to show presently that the silex has the same signification. The fetiales had to keep in this manner in touch with their own country, when they made their demands or concluded their treaty. Parallels are easy to find. We may, for instance, compare the consecration of a piece of foreign ground as Roman soil when a consul wanted to nominate a dictator. Also it was once a custom at Rome, in a dispute about land, that a clod from the estate should be produced in court, so that the dispute was in theory conducted in re praesenti. Before leaving the verbena, I may note one error about it which has been prevalent. Virgil is responsible for it, and his commentator Servius added and abetted him. The expression in Aen. XII.120: "verbena tempore vincti," is surely unhistoric. Servius, who just before had been commenting on Virgil's inaccuracies with regard to usages and ceremonies, defines verbena as "proprie herba sacra loco sacro Capitolii," with which p49the fetiales and the pater patratus were crowned, and the misstatement has been repeated by modern scholars of repute. Servius goes on to say that verbena is employed abusive for any sacred plant, and quotes Terence's ex hac ara verbenas sume, mentioning that the passage in Menander named the myrtle (Andria, 4.3.11). The passage shows how the original meaning of verbena had been extended as early as Terence's time, and reminds us of the myrtea verbena of Livy.

V. Now as to the silex which the fetiales carried with them. There has been considerable diversity in the interpretation of it, both among ancient and among modern writers. That it was a superstitious survival from the stone age seems to be now generally agreed. The matter is not beyond doubt. For the common statement that the silex was taken from the temple of Iuppiter Feretrius there is very little evidence. We find in Paul. ex F. 92: "Feretrius Iuppiter dictus a ferendo, quod pacem ferre putaretur; ex cuius templo sumebant sceptrum per quod iurarent, et lapidem silicem, qui foedus ferirent." Pseudo-Servius on Aen. VIII.641 only says that the victim sacrificed by fetiales in concluding peace was struck with a lapis silex because they believed it to be antiqui Iovis signum. It is supposed (Wissowa, p103) that the worship of Iuppiter Feretrius remained aniconic and that the god was represented by a silex; but the only testimony quoted is that of Festus in the passage given above, and it is altogether inadequate. Yet on this many speculations have been based as to the form of silex. The ancients were quite at sea about the original meaning of Feretrius. Most connected it with ferire in some way or other, and because, in striking the porca with the silex, the fetialis invoked Iuppiter, they imagined an intimate connexion between Iuppiter Feretrius and stone; and they were the more ready to do so because silex was sometimes taken to be a symbol of lightning. It seems ludicrous to suppose that the fetiales carried with them the representation of the divinity and left the temple empty of his visible presence. And what a blunder the senate committed in 200 B.C. when they ordered each of the fetiales who went to Africa to take a silex with him! Marquardt and some other writers speak indeed of silices as preserved in the temple of Iuppiter Feretrius; which contravenes the idea of the one silex taken to be the symbol of the god. Some scholars have dreamed that the silex in the ceremony of the fetiales mentions that Iuppiter himself was regarded as the real maker of the treaty. This opinion is founded mainly on a line of Virgil (Aen. XII.206): "Audiat haec genitor, qui foedera fulmine sancit"; which proves nothing. In his comment on that line Servius has a further development of the mythical rapport between the stone and the god. He begins by assuming that Iuppiter Feretrius was represented in his temple by a statue, which the fetiales in the early days carried with them p50on their journeys. Then (no wonder!) they found the practice taediosum, and contented themselves with the sceptrum which the statue had in its hand. Servius says further, quite absurdly, that in the context of the Virgilian line Latinus has the sceptre not as king but as pater patruus. Servius at all events knew nothing of the supposed silex which was the τύπος of the god. The notion of the sceptre, which also appears in Paul. Ex F. 92, quoted above, is apparently a distortion of the idea that the verbena was a caduceus. That the stone was at the outset no more sacred than the verbena seems to me highly probable. It may have been a sacrificial knife of immemorial pattern and proper to use on the occasion, but not otherwise sacrosanct, or it may have been a stone picked up on the arx, like the verbena, and its function may in part have been the same as that of the verbena, to represent the native land. Even if the phrase "lapis Capitolinus" which Augustine, C. D. II.29, places side by side with Vestalis focus, does refer to the temple of Iuppiter Feretrius, which is doubtful, the writer is of no real authority in such a matter.

The silex appears strangely in a passage of Polybius (III.25), where his famous account is given of the treaties entered into by Rome with Carthage. In concluding the earliest treaty the Romans swore by "Δία λίθον κατά τι παλαιὸν ἔθος", but in the case of the third treaty, made at the time of the war with Pyrrhus, they swore by Ares (Mars) and Enyalius (probably meant for Quirinus). There is no trace anywhere else of any divinity but Iuppiter being invoked by the Romans to sanction a treaty, and the correctness of this part of the statement is inconceivable. Polybius goes on to explain "Δία λίθον." He who swears the oaths takes a stone in his hand and prays that if the oath be kept all blessings may accrue to him (personally), but if he thinks or does anything contrary to the oath, while all others concerned are loyal to their promise, in their respective countries, laws, lives, sacred rites and burials, he may alone be cast out, even as he now casts away the stone. Here we have a jumble of unparalleled and un-Roman phrases. A more thorough travesty of the ceremony actually performed by the fetiales can hardly be conceived. I am reminded of a sentence in Mr. Warde Fowler's recent volume (p316): comparing Polybius with Livy he says: "in all essential attributes of a Roman historian, Livy is far the better of the two." I heartily agree in this doctrine, and have been preaching it for many years.

As Mr. Strachan Davidson remarks in the introduction to his Passages from Polybius, it is extraordinary that the stone should be cast away, if it represents Iuppiter. Polybius has certainly confused two quite different formalities in which the silex played a part; the ceremonial of the fetiales, and a form of oath not necessarily connected with them, that form in relation to which the phrase Iovem lapidem p51iurare was employed; and he has not only confused the two but has introduced mythical embellishments. In Plutarch's life of Sulla, c. 10, the story of the oath which Sulla forced Cinna to take is given. Cinna went up to the Capitol, took a stone in his hand, and invoking curses on his own head if he did not preserve his loyalty to Sulla, prayed that in that case he might be ejected from the city (ἐκπεσεῖν τῆς πόλεως) even as the stone passed from his hand, and so he cast it on the ground. Allusions to this type of oath are few: nearly all seem to restrict it solemn public occasions. So Paul. ex F. 115: "Lapidem tenebant iuraturi per Iovem, haec verba dicentes: 'si sciens fallo, tum me Dispiter (i.e. Diespiter) salva urbe arceque bonis eiciat, ut ego hunc lapidem.' " The phrases vetustissimo ritu in Apul. De Deo Socr. V, and sanctissimum ius iurandum in Gell. I.21.4, point the same way. Even in Cic. Fam. VII.12.2, the form may not be connected with ordinary life. The letter is a jesting one addressed to Trebatius the lawyer who has become an Epicurean. Cicero asks how he can use certain legal phrases, which he interprets as conflicting with Epicurean principles. "Quo modo autem tibi placebit Iovem lapidem iurare, cum scias Iovem iratum esse nemini posse? Quid fiet porro populo Ulubrano, si tu statueris πολιτεύεσθαι non oportere?" Trebatius was an important personage in the proverbially petty town of Ulubrae, and the words Iovem lapidem iurare seem to refer to the high state affairs of that commonwealth. Commentators have generally connected the expression with what precedes and have supposed that Iovem lapidem iurare was an ordinary legal expression like communi dividundo, but in that case we should find it somewhere in legal literature, where it does not occur. One more passage in which the silex figures remains to be quoted. Livy, XXI, c. 45, depicts Hannibal, just before the battle of the Ticinus, as sacrificing a lamb with a silex, and calling on "Iuppiter and the other gods" to punish him if he breaks his promise to his allies. Livy cannot have thought that the silex in this kind of use was peculiarly Roman. Indeed, fetiales existed among many Italic peoples, and doubtless they all employed the silex; an additional reason for not connecting the Roman silex especially with Iuppiter Feretrius.

VI. One more question. Modern writers talk freely of a god called "Iuppiter Lapis." But the title has only been inferred from the formula Iovem lapidem iurare. It is found nowhere in ancient literature. Many ancient divinities owed their existence to tricks played by language, but in this case the creation is modern. We cannot be sure that when Polybius wrote "ὀμνύειν . . . Δία λίθον" as a rendering of Iovem lapidem iurare he believed the Romans to possess a divinity with such a name. This shadowy god has been usually identified with Iuppiter Feretrius, but the identification p52depends on the story, shown above to be very insecurely founded, that the silex used by the fetiales was taken from his temple. Rudorff (Röm. Feldmesser) believed Iuppiter Lapis to be a sort of double of Terminus, protecting boundary stones. The grammatical explanation of Iovem lapidem iurare is not easy. But there is much that is abnormal about the construction of archaic legal and other formulae. There seems to be a conjunction of accusatives a little like that found, e.g. in Ter. Phorm. 947: "argentum quod habes, condonamus te," and Afran. ap. Non. 497.29: "id aurum me condonat litteris."


The Author's Notes:

1 Livy, Epit. 49.

2 XXII, c. 57.

3 XLVIII, c.14.

4 II, c. 74.

5 Aug. c. 15.

6 V, c. 52.

7 De Clem. I, c. 11.

8 Paul. ex F. 144.


Thayer's Note:

a The Loeb Classical Library translation of the passage reads (my mark‑up):

Our own generation even saw [etiam nostra aetas vidit] buried alive in the Cattle Market a Greek man and a Greek woman, and victims from other peoples with whom at the time we were at war. The prayer used at this ceremony is wont [solet] to be dictated by the Master of the College of the Quindecemviri, and if one reads it one is forced to admit that there is power in ritual formulas, the events of eight hundred and thirty years showing this for all of them.


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