Livy provides no evidence that any further actions were taken in 213 B.C.E., and no persons seem to have been arrested or executed in connection with these activities, as occurred almost thirty years later during the suppression of the Bacchanalia. Presumably, by simply confiscating the texts they effected the suppression they desired. Nevertheless, it is clear from these events that at least as early as the late third century such practitioners of foreign rites, as well as their religious knowledge in book form, had come to be perceived as potentially dangerous to traditional religion and society and, therefore, could be subject to government repression. As the suppression of the Bacchanalia indicates, the Roman state was willing to take even more severe measures when circumstances seemed to call for them.

The Burning of the Books of Numa: Rome’s First Bookburning

This kind of repression is evident also in actions against other religious writings, which were likewise regarded as a threat to traditional religious practices. The earliest recorded incident of this sort occurred shortly after the suppression of the Bacchanalia and should be seen in light of those events. Although the sources agree on few specific details, the basic facts are not disputed. Two stone chests were discovered in 181 B.C.E. at the foot of the Ianiculum hill near Rome on land belonging to a Roman scribe. One was marked as containing the body of Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius, and the other, his books.35 Numa, as noted above, was credited by later Romans with establishing much of the public religion of the Romans through the institution of cults, rites, and priesthoods.36 No remains were found in the first chest, while in the second, a number of books were found in remarkably good condition.

Half of these books were written in Latin and concerned with pontifical law, that is, the established religious customs of the Roman state, while the others were written in Greek and were connected with some system of knowledge. According to Valerius Antias, a Roman historian who wrote in the first century B.C.E., these others were concerned with Pythagorean philosophy.37 Numa was believed by many Romans to have been a student of Pythagoras, the famed philosopher and holy man who had lived and taught in southern Italy and was associated with the cities of Croton and Metapontum. However, Numa died in the early seventh century, while Pythagoras did not arrive in Italy until around 530 B.C.E., a discrepancy that led Cicero, Livy, and others to reject any connection.38 That is not to suggest, however, that these writings were not concerned with Pythagoreanism. They certainly could have been.

Pythagorean pseudepigrapha, writings on Pythagorean themes, many attributed to Pythagoras’s best-known disciples or even to the sage himself, are known to have been circulating in Italy from the third century B.C.E.39 Nor was Pythagoras unknown at Rome in this period, his statue had even been erected there during the Samnite War (298–290 B.C.E.) following the consultation of the Delphic oracle.40 Many scholars have concluded that they were a “bold forgery”, as did the Senate at the time.41 Upon deliberation, these books were deemed incompatible with established religion.42 They were burned by the praetor Quintus Petellius in the comitium and in the sight of the people.43 According to Valerius Maximus, victimarii were employed to prepare the bonfire and burn the books. These sacrificial attendants, or sacrificial slaughterers, assisted the person in charge of a sacrifice with the prayers and symbolic acts that preceded the ritual killing of the sacrificial animal. When these preliminary activities had been concluded, the victimarii performed the actual killing and butchering. Their participation highlights the fact that the destruction of these books was similar to the act of religious censorship that occurred in 213 B.C.E. recounted above, and yet it was also something much more. By the use of religious officials to kindle the fire and perform the other tasks involved, this act of religious censorship became a sacred ceremony, or even a sacrifice.44

Why would fire be used in these circumstances? Surely these books, which were deemed so dangerous to established religion that they should be destroyed, were not a pure and unblemished gift to the gods, as would be the case for almost any appropriate sacrifice. The connection between bookburning and sacrifice merits a closer examination. As Walter Burkert has explained for animal sacrifices in Greek religion, sacrifice was at its heart a form of ritualized, theatricalized aggression.45 Theatricalized aggression, according to Burkert, served to create a community out of the participants and witnesses and thus accomplished the function of preserving the social structure. Surely burning these books in this manner could be understood to be an act of ritualized aggression by which the Roman authorities intended to preserve order in a time of crisis and upheaval, but why fire?

Fire, of course, was omnipresent in Roman religion as it was among the Greeks: the doorway of interaction between gods and men hinged on fire.46 Theophrastos, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Lyceum, recognized that among all elements fire has the most special powers.47 However, despite this acknowledgement of fire’s universal importance and others, it does not appear to have ever been made the subject of a comprehensive examination by any ancient author.48 We must therefore rely on hypotheses and analogies. William D. Furley, who has made a study of the use of fire in ancient Greek religion, has argued that the burning of an animal in a sacrificial fire effected a separation from the past for the sacrificer to make way for the new.49 Thus the burning of these texts could be seen to serve as a sort of rite of separation and purification.50

As Burkert also noted, the execution of criminals at festivals corresponded to a sacrificial ritual too.51 According to a law attributed to Romulus, a traitor died “as a sacrifice to Zeus of the Underworld” (wJ~ qu`ma tou` katacqonivou Diov~).52 This has been interpreted as punishment by crucifixion, but it certainly indicates that forms of punishment could clearly be understood as sacrifice in Roman law and religious practice during the Republican period.53 For the Romans, punishment by burning (known by such Latin terms as crematio, vivicomburium, vivus uri/exuri/incendi, and igni necare) was one of three summa supplicia, or “aggravated forms of the death penalty.”54 This form of punishment was very rare during the Republic and early Empire; however, it was prescribed as a punishment (for arson) as early as the Twelve Tables, and in later periods it is recorded as the proper punishment for those found guilt of sacrilege, sorcery and other occult practices, and for enemies of the state.55 Certainly, the sacrificial aspect seems to be present in the manner of the destruction of these books and their destruction should probably be understood in this way.

Fire’s destructive potential is unmistakable to all who see and experience it. The location of this bookburning in the comitium, the chief place of political assembly in republican Rome, located north of the forum Romanum, no doubt made certain that many did. It had been consecrated as a templum, a sacred ground for performing important state functions, which suggests that this was too. The fact that Livy notes that it occurred “in sight of the people” further served to make this ceremony into a public event, a spectacle, which would have wide and lasting dissemination. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, festivals in which the fires were kindled on open-air altars were known to be impressive ceremonies.56

The importance of spectacles in Roman society is well known and the role played by many rites, festivals, games, and other presentations in promoting social cohesion and group identity has been discussed above in the Introduction.57 Like those other public ceremonies, burning these books made it into a spectacle, one expressing a very powerful religious message. Some scholars, such as Eric Orlin, have seen this action by the Senate, and in fact all of the Senate’s actions in 181 B.C.E. as measures intended to restore social harmony and confidence in the governmental officials following the turbulent years that had preceded it.58 As Orlin notes, that same year a temple was dedicated to the Sicilian Venus Erycina, whose cult was known for its associations with sexuality and temple prostitution; however, it was accepted into the official state religion “because it came to Rome through the mediation of the Senate.”59 Interestingly, in the context of these times, a temple to the goddess Pietas, the deified personification of the ideal Roman attitude of duty towards the gods, was dedicated in 181 B.C.E., this same year.60 It is exceedingly unfortunate for those wishing to piece together the Roman response to the growing influence of foreign cults and foreign beliefs and practices that so little mention of these events survives from the late Republican era.61 There are a handful of passing references to other episodes from the Republic during which foreign beliefs and practices were suppressed; however no other bookburnings are recorded in the existing sources.62



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.


35 On the discovery of the books of Numa, see Liv. 40.29.3–14; Plin. H.N. 13.84–87; Varro in Aug. C.D. 7.34; Val. Max. 1.1.12; Plut. Numa 22.2–5; Lactant. Div. Inst. 1.22.5–8; ps. Aur. Vict. De Viris Illust. 3.3.

36 See above, pp. 34–5.

37 Plutarch, Numa 22.

38 See Cicero, Resp. 2.28–29; and Liv. 1.18.1–2.

39 See Walter Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, trans. Edwin L. Minar, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 166–92, 218; and Charles  H. Kahn, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001), 74–83, 141.

40 Pliny, H.N. 34.26.

41 See, for example, Clarence A. Forbes, “Books for the Burning,” TAPA 67 (1936): 114– 25.

42 See Liv. 39.16.9 and 40.29.11.

43 As Valerius Maximus relates this event, “They saw to the preservation of the Latin [texts] with all diligence, but the city praetor Quintus Petellius, by the Senate’s authority, burned the others publicly in a fire made by the sacrificial attendants because they were believed in part to pertain to the dissolution of religion. For the men of old did not want preserved that by which men’s minds might be turned away from the worship of the gods.” See Val. Max. 1.1.12.

44 Eric Orlin, “Why a Second Temple for Venus Erycina?” in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History X, ed. Carl Deroux. (Brussles: Latomus, 2000), 77; Andreas Willi, “Numa’s Dangerous Books: The Exegetic History of a Roman Forgery,” Museum Helveticum 55.3 (September 2003), 146.

45 Walter Burkert, Homo necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, trans. Peter Bing. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983), 22–48.

46 William D. Furley, Studies in the Use of Fire in Ancient Greek Religion (New York: Arno Press, 1981), 239.

47 Theophrastos, De igne, ed. and trans. Victor Coutant. (Assen: Royal Vangorcum Ltd., 1971), 1.

48 Johan Goudsblom, Fire and Civilization (London: Allen Lane, 1992), 98; see also, for example, Pliny, H.N. 36.10.

49 William D. Furley, Studies in the Use of Fire in Ancient Greek Religion, 238.

50 For a discussion of rites of purification and bookburning as a rite of purification, see Chapter 3 below, pp. 125–33.

51 Walter Burkert, Homo necans, 46.

52 Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 2.10.3. Holocausts, in which the sacrifice was burned completely in the fire, were frequently associated with chthonic deities. See Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 63.

53 See Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World, 39.

54 Peter Garnsey, Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 122–31.

55 On the punishment for arson in the Twelve Tables, see Dig. 47.9.9. Of course, Christians were burned alive in Rome during the persecution of Nero, for example, and elsewhere throughout the Roman Empire in the second through the fourth centuries. See Tac. Ann. 15.44; and Chapter 3, below, for later incidents. According the jurist Iulius Paulus, crematio was prescribed for magicians in the third century C.E. See Paulus, Sententiae 5.23.17.

56 Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 60–64, at 61. And no doubt fire festivals continued to be a part of the seasonal calendar of holidays and festivals, even into the early modern period. See Johan Goudsblom, Fire and Civilization, 132–34; and see Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French History (New York: Basic Books, 1984). 57 See Introduction, pp. 19–23.

58 Eric Orlin, “Why a Second Temple for Venus Erycina?” 81.

59 Eric Orlin, “Why a Second Temple for Venus Erycina?” 87.

60 Liv. 40.34.4.

61 Livy, arguably our most important source for both religious innovations and religious conflicts at Rome during the middle Republic, is incomplete and only the period from his narrative covering the years 219–167 B.C.E. are preserved.

62 In 139 B.C.E., for example, practitioners of astrology were expelled from the city and Italy during the period of growing social tensions over land reform that led up to the murders of the Gracchi brothers and to the Republic’s final century of political upheaval. The Senate viewed them as foreign troublemakers who could potentially kindle the smoldering fire of discontent among the poor and displaced into an open flame. See Val. Max. 1.3.3; Frederick H. Cramer, “Expulsion of Astrologers from ancient Rome,” C&M 12 (1951), 14–17; and idem, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1954), 57–8. Practitioners of the mysteries of Sabazios were also expelled this same year. From a reference to the cult in an oration written by Demosthenes in the later fourth century B.C.E., it is evident that its priests, like those of Dionysos and the Great Mother discussed above, also possessed books containing the cult’s rituals for purification, initiation, and other ceremonies. See Demosthenes, De Corona 258. On the rites of Sabazios, see also Iamblichos, De Mysteriis 3.9; and Sherman E. Johnson, “The Present State of Sabazios Research,” ANRW 2.17.3 (1984), 1599–1600.


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