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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
A Description of the Trajan Column
by John Hungerford Pollen

printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode,
printers to Queen Victoria
London, 1874

Text and engravings are in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Sacrifices and religious rites

Few circumstances in the conduct of the Dacian war will strike the student of these sculptures more forcibly than the piety or the religious zeal of Trajan. His careful attention to religious observances was of more importance than the speeches, which the emperor, though a man of Cromwellian simplicity in many respects, was fond of making to his soldiers.

Trajan's religiousness, at least his earnest desire to fulfil all the required rites throughout his campaign, was thoroughly in accordance with the belief of a powerful and sagacious ruler, that the true welfare of the empire and the success of any important enterprise, such as the conquest and annexation of the great Danubian provinces, depended not a little on the careful adherence to good old precedents in religious belief and practice. He neglected no means of a material or military kind likely to be available for securing his victories, but at the same time he seems to have been firmly convinced that much of the chances of war, after every precaution, remains in suspense, and could be inclined to this side or that at the pleasure of the gods.

Trajan also instituted sacrifices after his victories, and rites for the dead, in honour of those who had fallen in the campaign. He is himself in these sculptures the chief agent in the sacrificial rites. This was in his character of Pontifex Maximus. In earlier ages that office was elective.63 Priests of different worships, such as that of Jupiter, Quirinus, &c. were enrolled in colleges, corporations, or chapters, and filled up vacancies each in their own body. There were besides heads elected to each. The kings in the early years of Rome were sacrificial kings besides, and supreme in matters of worship. Under the republic this union of sacred and political power was dissolved. It had begun with Numa, who kept the chief religious offices in his own house and was present at all important religious sacrifices; but its hereditary possession then came to an end. The priesthoods were still as before in the hands of great Patrician families, but the high priesthood was transferred to the Gentes, who had long possessed the right of filling up inferior dignities. According to Roman ideas the genuine rites (and the greatest stress was laid in the exact observance of traditional ceremonies) were something propagated in Gentes, and their comprehension could not be transferred to aliens. Much, too, of the worship was secret, and the possession of secrets so useful  p58 to the maintenance of the Roman power would be dangerous in the hands of strangers or enemies. The religious functions hitherto discharged by the kings passed to the Rex sacrorum, a sacrificial king created for the purpose. He was excluded from government offices, stripped of political power, and was chosen by the colleges of pontiffs and augurs. He was under the jurisdiction of the Pontifex Maximus, though superior to him in his religious character. The Pontifex Maximus was the highest authority, and as nothing was done by the State, either in filling up offices, proclaiming war, or making peace without special public religious acts of sacrifice, his power grew to be very great, for everything depended not on the pious intentions of the worshippers, but on the exact administration of the rites, after which the gods invoked were bound to render the help required of them.

Up to the time of Augustus the several colleges remained independant. Caesar was exalted by the Roman Senate to a seat in the hierarchy of the gods as a descendant of Venus. He was called Jupiter. A temple was decreed to him and Clementia64 on account of his mildness, in which the deities extended their hands to each other. Antony became the Flamen of the new Jupiter. He had not, however, a temple dedicated to himself. Augustus during his lifetime would not allow of his own worship, at any rate in Italy. After his death his apotheosis took place, and his worship commanded even colleges of worshippers. He took care to add to his imperial dignity, as soon as that was secure, the solid addition of that of Pontifex Maximus. It was the keystone of his power, and descended to his imperial successors. All colleges of priests were under them. Augustus filled benefices, nominated the Vestal virgins, decided on the authority of books of augury and soothsaying, interpreted prodigies, always matters of superstitious observance, and consulted and decided on those of the Sibylline books. In all religious cases, and over all causes and persons, and all cases of religious offences he was supreme. The power, too, of the Pontifex Maximus hitherto confined to Rome, was now extended over the world. Pliny the younger, accordingly consults Trajan65 as to the legality of removing an ancient shrine dedicated to the mother of the gods in his government of Bithynia.

It is not necessary in this place to give any detailed account of the vast number of regular and periodical sacrifices  p59 required by law and custom in Rome itself. Not only the seasons required that particular gods should receive sacrifices and lectisternia (dinners laid out for them with seats covered with rich materials prepared for their use), but at every fresh conquest of a city it was the custom solemnly to invite the gods worshipped in it to desert those abodes and transfer their worship to Rome, where the conqueror undertook to offer them a more complete and sumptuous devotion. In later times, and after the return of Trajan from the Dacian campaigns, processions were prolonged during many days, and the demands of public worship became excessive. It was a ruling idea in the Roman mind that no god should be left out or done injustice to, as there might be no saying when or how he would retaliate such neglect. It was the business of the Pontifex to meet religious emergencies of all sorts. There was little poetry in the Roman religion, and the position of Greek mythology in the literature of Rome is no measure of any similar hold over the religious thoughts or observances of Romans. The system of the Roman gods was a most faithful mirror, reflecting every act of public as well as private life with perfect accuracy. Whatever the Roman undertook, a special deity was sure to be at hand; whatever happened in nature among the beasts, such as good or bad fortune in agriculture, or monstrous births, in vegetable or in human life, a god had done it, and the immediate requirements of public and of private life were the soul and principle of growth of the Roman religious system. Thus in two or three instances, Nos. XVI, CVIII, we see the interference of divinities to decide difficult actions, or to give to the Romans light by the rising of sun or moon, when fighting in dangerous defiles, where, no doubt, the barbarians might have gained important advantages from ambushes and from their knowledge of the ground.

Once Jupiter interferes with thunder and lightning, perhaps when the Dacians are meant to be represented in overpowering numbers, reminding us of the storms preceding the battles of Crecy, Agincourt, and Waterloo, though Jupiter was not invoked on either of those occasions.

From the date of the laws of the 12 tables, each deity had appropriate animals. White cattle, with gilded horns, were sacrificed to Jupiter Capitolinus, but no bull or ram. A bull could only be sacrificed to Apollo, Neptune, or Mars. Asses, cocks, and horses were also sacrificed to Mars. Swine to almost all agrarian deities. To Mars, Ceres, and Tellus, these animals were sacrificed in imprecations and on concluding treaties. To the gods of the infernal regions black  p60 animals were offered with their necks bowed downwards, and their blood was poured into a hole dug on purpose. These various selections of animals, cakes, fruit, &c., are seen in many of Trajan's sacrifices. White cattle, sheep, and swine were the beasts most frequently offered.

Mars had originally been a favourite deity at Rome, and was guardian of flocks and herds as well as god of war, and the sacrifice of lustration or purification offered to Mars was called Suovetaurilia, the animals being swine, sheep, and bulls. They were conducted three times round the whole people and sacrificed to Mars. These are the sacrifices most frequently represented on the column. The animals are always sculptured with the utmost fidelity to nature. In these sacrifices, if the entrails did not give favourable signs of the appeasement of the deity, the sacrifice had to be repeated till they did. In Cato66 the formula given is, "Father Mars, if anything in the previous sacrifice has been not to your mind, so now do I propitiate thee by this new sacrifice." Caesar after a hundred sacrifices could not, on the day of his assassination, arrive at a favourable appearance of the entrails.a

Special attention had to be paid to the choice of victims. The length of the tail was to be considered. No calf was fit, of which the tail did not reach the joint of the leg. In a sheep the tail was not to be pointed, the tongue cloven, nor the ear black.67 An ox was to be white. If he had spots they must be rubbed with white chalk.68 It was a bad sign during the sacrifice if the ox bellowed on reaching the altar or after receiving its death wound, or ran away. The popae or victimarii are seen in these sculptures with an axe or mace intended to stun the animal at the first blow, so as to avoid the danger of such accidents. The fillets, bands, or stole, with which it was tied, had to be taken off at the altar, and the popa held it by one of its horns, as anything fastened to it was of bad import. So also it was unfavourable if the animal did not bleed copiously or sprinkled its blood on the assistants, or did not fall in the right position, or if the portions to be burnt burnt ill, or the flames did not ascend straight up to heaven.

 p61  Sacrificial ceremonial shown on the column

The pontiff veiled himself in the Cinctus Gabinus, that is with the toga drawn over the head after the fashion of Gabii: and after bathing in spring water, washing his hands clean, was dressed entirely in white so as to be externally pure. The toga and even the shoes were white. The animal had a libation of wine or water poured upon his head, and was qualified if it moved or trembled during this action. Far (meal) and salt were sprinkled on each victim, on the sacrificial knives, and on the altar. Next the pontiff cut off hair from the forehead of the victim as a consecration of the whole animal, and this bunch of hair, with incense and a libation of wine, was thrown into the fire, as will be seen in the sacrifices so often represented during the second Dacian campaign. A wine flagon, a dish, a box, or small vase of incense are seen on every occasion of sacrifice in the bas-reliefs. The smoke and crackling decided the success of the sacrifice. After this the priest ordered the victimarius to slaughter the animal. It was stunned and the head held upwards69 if the sacrifice was to a god of the heavens, and the knife struck upwards from below; or the head was held downwards, and the animal was struck from above if the sacrifice was to a god of the inferno.

The blood was poured on the altar, the beast was incensed and sprinkled with wine and disjointed. The entrails could not be touched. They were taken out with knives and, if favourable, burnt. This action began with a libation of wine on the part of the officials, and the priest sprinkled the entrails with wine, meal and incense before consumption in the fire. The other portions of the animals always belonged to the assisting priest. A cake made of far was always added to the burnt offerings. and various fruits representing the produce of the first fruits of the earth. These are to be distinguished on many of the altars in these bas-reliefs. A sacrifice to propitiate Neptune was offered on the shore, as in No. LXIII, and the assistants stood with their feet in the water a certain way from the mark of the height of the tide. After this a circuit was made of the fleet in a boat so as to purify the entire expedition, and all engaged in it.

It will be noticed that the priests and assistants, one of whom is always a camillus, or youthful acolyte of noble  p62 family in close personal attendance on the pontifex, are crowned with leaves. The dresses of the assistants have a fringe of gold, even those of the popae and victimarii, these latter strip to the waist before immolating the victim, so as to save their dress from the risks of staining or pollution with blood.

The sacrifices generally take place in the front of the camp, in the Praetorian quarter. Besides the double flutes usually played, we see on more than one occasion both the buccina and the tuba sounding vigorously, so as to drown any sounds or interrupting voices, where the bystanders are composed of mixed multitudes, not only of troops of various nationalities, but of settlers, citizens, women, often including many Dacian and mixed races, inhabiting the military stations and colonies.

As the Roman held with all his might to the exactness of observances, to the accurate performance of every gesture, or even look, enjoined in the ancient books, the least particle of the rite was of the greatest importance, and had to be looked to with a painful accuracy and anxious vigilance. So that the gods must be compelled to lend themselves to the will of man, for instance, to desert a favourite city and give it as a prize to the besiegers. A single omission or word out of place attracted a guilt that required a special expiation, or made the repetition of the whole sacrificial act inevitable. It sometimes happened that a sacrifice had to be repeated 30 times, because a mistake had been made every time, or an unlucky circumstance had occurred.70 But the inward intention, or the devotion of the heart, or even the indifference or incredulity of the worshipper, were matters not essential. According to Pliny71 one priest was required to read or repeat the formula to the principal official, and a crowd of several will be noticed, ready to remind or prompt the emperor on every occasion on which the subject occurs on the column. They are all eagerly watching the actions of the sacrificing pontiff, and careful to remind him of every point as the ceremony goes on. Another priest had to keep silence amongst the hearers, and this is seen in the acts and gestures specially of one in the composition numbered No. LXV. Flutes were kept playing during the entire ceremony to prevent any other sound or word being heard. Experience had proved according to Pliny, that as often as a noise or word of bad omen was heard during the repetition  p63 of the prayers and the fulfillment of the required acts, or any error committed in the prayer itself, some calamitous augury was sure to be discerned in the entrails of the victim. Sometimes if after all ceremonies fulfilled, as at the death of Germanicus, sacrifice proved ineffectual, temples were pelted with stones, altars overthrown, or the Lares turned out of the house. In prayers of general importance affecting the welfare of the state, such as those offered during the war, Jupiter Capitolinus was first invoked. But it does not seem to have been always clear to which god the sacrifice should be offered, and in that case the form was "Be thou god or goddess!" Gods such as Jupiter, and goddesses as in a figure sculptured on the column thought to be Diana, Hecate, or Aurora, are invoked, whose help might be required by the rising of the moon or breaking of the day.

It was necessary to repeat the forms of words in some instances three times, in others nine. Vows were often pronounced in critical moments by the Romans, before a battle or storm out loud, so as to secure the favour of the deity and increase the fervour and confidence of troops.72 Altars, temples, and the institution of public games were often vowed on such occasions. Many of the buildings and institutions of Trajan were probably fulfilments of vows made openly on such occasions. Sometimes great sacrifices, share in spoils, the best of the armour taken, festal games, libations, lectisternia, feasts of meat, &c., to the gods were then vowed. Trajan on his return and after his last Dacian war carried into execution such vows in the fullest manner. Ten thousand gladiators were paired in the amphitheatre, eleven thousand beasts were slain in sacrifices, and the public games and ceremonies lasted 120 days.73 The sacrifices of the early Roman state had mostly been offered with reference to agriculture, and burnt corn,º confarreatio, was one of the commonest offerings, though the beasts of the flock were the principal. These were sacrifices of atonement, and are the objects offered in the representations on the column. Besides sacrificing the life of the animal to satisfy the justice or vengeance of the gods, and offering corn, fruit, bread and wine, there was a further object in the death of animals, viz., the inspection of their entrails, from which auguries were obtained and inquiries made into the will of the gods. p64 


The Emperor Trajan is usually seen holding a crooked staff in his hand, this is the lituus (derived from lito, to obtain good auguries in the sacrifice), a divining rod. The emperor had supreme authority, in his character of Pontifex Maximus, to interpret the auguries. With this instrument the old aruspices, who divined from the flight of birds, used to mark off an imaginary division of the heavens, which had to be watched perhaps for twenty-four hours. The Etruscans, however, were the most renowned aruspices, and introduced the entispicia, a most favourite and mystic system, by which all sorts of accidental convolutions of the entrails of victims were consulted. The liver was an important organ: if the right lobe was wanting, if it shrunk in boiling, if some of the veins were very large, these were bad signs. Fissures or indentations in the examined parts were of various interpretations. Credence is said to have been given to superstitions of this astonishing kind, even since the renaissance in the sixteenth century. The old Romans pushed their superstitions on auguries to an incredible extent. Not only entrails of victims, but prodigies, were eagerly consulted, and all were taken into careful consideration by the senate, and by rulers as exact and orthodox as Trajan. Besides eclipses and other phenomena of the sun and moon, unusual rainbows, shooting stars, abortive births of man or beast were significant of good or evil. "There were showers of stones, earth, chalk, and ashes, idols shed tears or sweated blood, oxen spoke, men were changed into women, cocks into hens,"74 and other prodigies too numerous to mention, and all Rome waited for the interpretation of these wonders. It will be readily understood that on a long and difficult expedition, accidents, surprises, unusual phenomena in the sky, or the earth, or in the water, were sure to occur, and that to satisfy his own mind and the superstitious fears of his troops, a wise commander, such as Trajan, carefully made good his ground by the use of the resources at the command of the state religion.

The Author's Notes:

63 Döllinger, Jew and Gentile, B. VII.

64 Döllinger, Jew and Gentile, VII. 1.

65 Ep. X.73, 74.º

66 De Re R. 1141.

67 Plin. H. N. VIII.70.

68 Juvenal, X.66.

69 See a bas-relief in the British Museum representing the sacrifice of a bull with the head in this position after being brought to its knees by a blow.

70 Döllinger, ib.

71 H. N. 28.

72 Non est meum si mugiat Africis malus procellis, ad miseras preces decurrere et votis pacisci, &c. — Hor. Od. III.29.59.

73 Dion. Cass. LXVII.15.

74 Döllinger, VII.

Thayer's Note:

a You don't have to believe this if I don't; and indeed I don't, since 100 sacrifices would have in themselves taken all day and prevented Caesar from ever having gone anywhere, even to get assassinated.

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