However, as noted above, the importation of new practices and beliefs could potentially create friction with the Roman need to uphold and preserve the rites handed down to them by their ancestors. Near the conclusion of the Second Punic War (in 205 B.C.E.), the Anatolian goddess Cybele, the Magna Mater, was vowed a temple in Rome. She was introduced into Rome in the form of a black stone the following year, brought from her cult center at Pergamon.17 By 194 B.C.E., a temple had been built on the Palatine hill and games instituted in her honor. However, the apparent openness to foreign cults and practices that had so characterized the third century seems to have come to an end by the late 200s. Shortly after the Great Mother was brought to Rome, certain regulations were established aimed at limiting participation by Romans in this cult and segregating its Phrygian priests from the general population.18 The reason for this change  is unclear, but may have had something to do with the “foreignness” of the cult as it was practiced in Asia Minor. There, the goddess was served by self-castrated priests; its rites were accompanied by “barbarous” music, dancing, and chanting, which induced ecstatic states in participants. When these made their appearance at Rome, they were likely seen as out of step with Roman practices and thus circumscribed by the authorities, but not excluded. As these examples indicate, the Romans were open to the possibility of importing religious cults and practices from their neighbors, especially when political or social crises indicated that extraordinary measures needed to be taken to ensure the survival and prosperity of Rome.

In these circumstances, as in any, the Senate and magistrates of the Roman government sought to maintain control over such innovations and to manage them within the existing framework of religious practices. “[A]t least until the middle Republic, there is no sign in Rome of any specifically religious groups: groups, that is, of men or women who had decided to join together principally on grounds of religious choice.”19 When expressly religious groups began to develop in this period, however, the tension between tradition and innovation could come to a flashpoint of violence. This is highlighted in the accounts of the suppression of foreign religious beliefs, cults, and ritual specialists found in writers of the Republic and early Empire, some of which will be discussed below.

213 B.C.E.: The First Act of Roman Religious Censorship Within the history of Rome composed by Livy is evidence that the Senate and magistrates of the Republic did punish groups or individuals for importing foreign beliefs and practices to the city on several occasions, although the details of these events are often vague. In some instances, state-sponsored repression entailed the expulsion or execution of foreign ritual technicians and the confiscation, destruction, and even burning of their texts. The earliest known incident occurred in 213 B.C.E., when, as Livy states, “sacrificial priests and prophets captivated the imaginations of the people” and many persons abandoned traditional religious practices and turned instead to offering sacrifices and prayers according to foreign rites.20 These events occurred during the difficult days of the Second Punic War (218–201 B.C.E.), when Hannibal’s army had invaded the Italian peninsula and handed the Romans several serious military setbacks.21 As the Carthaginians raged throughout the countryside with veritable impunity, numerous refugees were forced into the city of Rome.22 As Livy explains, the longer the war dragged on under such difficulties, the more people turned to foreign practices, even in public.23 At first, the authorities turned a blind eye to these activities, but following  official complaints the aediles and tresviri nocturni were ordered to disperse these gatherings. When they attempted to expel participants from the forum, they were driven off by the threat of violence.24 The Senate charged the praetor urbanus, Marcus Aemilius, with the task of “freeing the people of such superstitions” and he decreed in the assembly that all persons in possession of books containing prophecies, forms of prayers, or written formulae for the performance of rituals must surrender them to him by an appointed date.25 A second injunction prohibited anyone from performing sacrifices in a public or sacred place according to any new or foreign ritual.

In this incident, the war seems to have caused such serious economic and social disruption for the Romans and their allies that many turned to offering rites and prayers according to foreign customs. These were presumably administered by foreign ritual specialists, sacrificuli ac vates, who kept their rites in books. As the decrees handed down by the praetor indicate, it was these practitioners who the Roman authorities sought to suppress. Who were they and what sorts of rites and books did they make use of that the government took such action? Sacrificial priests and prophets appear to have been a type known at Rome by the middle Republic, frequently seen in the forum or in the vicinity of the circus, where they offered to conduct purification rites, forms of divination, and private initiations into the mysteries. The famous suppression of the Bacchanalia, which occurred in 186 B.C.E. and following, provides some additional details by way of comparison. Although bookburning does not seem to have occurred in the actions taken against the mystery cult devoted to Dionysos/Bacchus, there are notable similarities.26 Livy describes the priests of the Bacchanalia with exactly the same terms as he used to describe the practitioners whose books were confiscated in 213—sacrificuli et vates.

A sacrificial priest and prophet of unknown Greek origin was said to have introduced this mystery cult into Rome from neighboring Etruria; another, a Campanian priestess named Annia Paculla, transformed the entire ceremony.27 The tremendous influence that the leaders of these Bacchic cells wielded within their religious communities also gravely concerned Roman officials.28 The cell leaders, as seen in Livy’s account, were itinerant religious specialists, whose expertise in conducting rituals of initiation and other rites, and quite probably in divination and other occult activities, endowed them with the personal authority to alter the rites to suit their own purposes and to demand intense loyalty from their followers.29 It was even reported that they had induced their followers to commit many heinous crimes.30 For these reasons, the Senate sanctioned measures that went far beyond what had occurred twenty-seven years earlier, calling for an extraordinary inquiry into this cult and the arrest of its priests and others suspected of participating in its alleged criminal activities. The investigation caused a panic throughout the city and the rest of Italy.31 In all, it was reported that more than seven thousand people had taken part in what the Roman government came to call a coniuratio, or conspiracy.32 An even greater number were said to have been executed than were imprisoned for their participation.33 All over Italy, many centers of Bacchic worship were destroyed and rites at other shrines strictly curtailed. Other, more localized suppressions followed two years later and again in 181 B.C.E.34


Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
The Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate
School of The Ohio State University
Daniel Christopher Sarefield, M.A.


17 Liv. 29.10.4–11.8, 14.5. 18 Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 2.19.4–5.

18 Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 2.19.4–5.

19 Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, Volume 1: A History, 42.

20 Liv. 25.1.8: Sacrificuli ac vates ceperant hominum mentes. For Livy’s description of this incident, see Liv. 25.1.6–12. 21 Notably, Hannibal crushed the Romans at Trebbia (218), Lake Trasimene (217), and Cannae (216) at the beginning of the war, leading some forty percent of Rome’s allies to defect. 22 Liv. 25.1.8. 23 Liv. 25.1.6.

24 See Rachel Feig Vishnia, State, Society and Popular Leaders in Mid-Republican Rome 241–167 BC (New York: Routledge, 1996), 109–10.

25 Liv. 25.1.11–12: Ubi potentius iam esse id malum apparuit quam ut minores per magistratus sedaretur, M. Aemilio praetori urbano negotium ab senatu datum est ut eis religionibus populum liberaret. Is et in contione senatus consultum recitavit et edixit ut quicumque libros vaticinos precationesve aut artem sacrificandi conscriptam haberet, eos libros omnis litterasque ad se ante kal. Apriles deferret, neu quis in publico sacrove loco novo aut externo ritu sacrificaret.

26 On mystery cults, see below, pp. 61–3.

27 Liv. 39.8.3–4: Graecus ignobilis in Etruriam primum venit . . . sacrificulus et vates. Annia Paculla: Liv. 39.13.8–14. According to Livy’s account, the priestess allowed men to be initiated for the first time, transferred the rites from day to night, and increased their frequency from three days a year to five days every month.

28 This is evident from the special attention given to dismantling the organizational structure of the Bacchic cells (their leadership, their membership and oaths of loyalty, their property and methods of funding) on the inscription that records the substance of the Senate’s decree that was discovered at Tirolo in Calabria. See ILS 18 = ILLRP 511 = CIL I² 581.

29 On the composition of Bacchic cells and their leaders in the Hellenistic period, see Walter Burkert, “Bacchic Teletai in the Hellenistic Age,” in Masks of Dionysus, eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Faroane. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 259–75.

30 Liv. 39.13.11.

31 Liv. 39.17.4.

32 Liv. 39.17.6; and by association, 39.41.6.

33 Liv. 39.18.5: Plures necati quam in vincula coniecta sunt.

34 Liv. 39.41.6–7; 40.19.9–11.

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