Sacrifices in Roman religion
David Stell [Severinus]
There were three different categories used in public sacrifice defined by aspects of the celebrant's behaviour:-
A] The Ritus Romanus - According
to myth it was established by Aeneas
B] The Ritus Graecus -
Performed for cults imported to Rome from the Greek lands (e.g.
C] Peregrina sacra - These are a special group not belonging to either of the main rites. They were celebrated in accordance with the (unknown) customs of their homelands. Examples include Aesculapius, Cybele, and parts of the cult of Ceres. We don't know if these forms were used in the provinces but in any case the distinction was becoming blurred by the end of the Republic.
Sacrifices could be of:
What was a sacrifice?
Private sacrifices to do with divination or magic took place in isolated, seldom visited places (e.g. a quiet room, a necropolis).
Offered by those in authority in the community or
their designated substitute. The celebrant was assisted by attendants
and slaves responsible for all the manual work involved. Rituals
(both public & private) usually started at sunrise but sacrifices
associated with magic and/or gods of the underworld took place at
night and often in secrecy. According to the Roman rite male gods
received castrated male victims (except Mars, Neptune, Janus
and the genius who were offered intact males). Goddesses received
female victims. The age of the victim could be used to express the
hierarchy of the deities or celebrants. In general adult animals
(maiores) were most suitable for public cults.
Festus in his De uerborum significatione (p.289
in ed. Lindsay) also mentions
Virtually nothing is known about provincial sacrifices
Once these preparations were complete a procession moved to the
altar of the deity to be honoured. Ritual dismissal of intruders
(e.g. women, dogs & foreigners). Sacrifice began to flute music
Preface (praefatio) - Ritual washing of hands by celebrant and those offering the sacrifice. incense & wine are poured into a fire burning in a round portable hearth or brazier. This in some way represents the identity of the celebrant and thus the community involved. Incense represents the immortality of the gods & their superiority. Wine represents divine sovereignty. Most sources don't identify the gods honoured by the praefatio. Cato says that it was Jupiter, Janus and Vesta.
Sometimes the deity to whom the sacrifice was being made seems
to have been included It may even have been addressed to all interested
deities with one or two being named in particular. The wording of
the praefatio summarised the rites to follow and explained
In the Roman rite
In the Greek rite
At this point the celebrant turns right towards the
cult statue and a carefully written prayer is offered (See Prayer
below). Any mistake here invalidates the entire ritual which must
be started again.
For cattle the popa would then strike the
victim on the head with a hammer to stun it and force it to its
knees A cultrarius (knife man) would then cut its throat
holding the head up if the victim is sacrificed to gods of the upper
world or down if to gods of the underworld. Some of the blood was
occasionally caught in a patera for later use in the ritual.
When cooked they were cut up into small pieces (prosecta)
sometimes with other parts of the victim's flesh and sprinkled with
mola salsa and wine. The prosecta were then put on the altar to
be consumed (porricere) by the gods.
This is a basic sacrificial offering. They could
be much more elaborately prepared as meatballs or some other dish.
Sacrificial victims to gods of the underworld had to be completely
consumed by fire (a holocaust) since mortals can't eat with the
dead or their gods. A holocaust was also used to gain influence
over the deity to whom it was offered.
The Sacrificial Banquet
During these banquets the deity's statue was garlanded and perfumed. Throughout these ceremonies humans could by action or words remind the god of his or her function and ask favours. Where a cult centre contained more than one deity, those not the focuses of the sacrifice were offered subsidiary smaller sacrifices thus making them guests of the principal deity. Between the first and second courses of either public or private feasts another small sacrifice was made of:1. Incense
3. Elements of the banquet
4. Other specially chosen items
These were made to the Lares, Penates, and from the late 1st century A.D. to the genius Augusti.
The order of who ate first depended on the setting:
In a temple - the gods ate first then the mortals, in a house -
the mortals ate first then the gods.
Other sacrificial rites
|Mithraic feasts||The internal layout of Mithraia similar to a triclinium suggests that feasts played a significant part in the cult.|
|Mutitationes||Feasts associated with the Megalesian Games (4th to 10th April) in honour of the Magna Mater.|
|Taurobolea||Introduced through the cult of Magna Mater from the 2nd century A.D. This was a sacrifice involving the submission of the victim rather than its assent.|
|Magic related sacrifices||These were extremely frowned upon because: they inflicted physical or material damage on others for the benefit of the celebrant and they subjected a deity and/or another citizen to the will of the celebrant or his client. Such conduct breached concepts of civic liberties and represented a crime of uiolentia|
|Theurgy||Considered slightly less obnoxious than magic, but still distrusted. This did not constitute a crime of uiolentia. It gained specially privileged relations with a god.|
|Human sacrifice||Extremely rare but not unknown [although made illegal in 97 B.C. it may have continued until the late 1st century AD.] Consisting of ritual consignment of 'hostile' races to the gods of the underworld, a man and a woman of Gallic and Greek origin were buried alive in the Forum Boarium. Dedication of the population of a besieged town through the ritual of deuotio to the gods of the underworld was effectively another form of human sacrifice. These all shifted the basis of the human/immortal relationship away from one of civic liberty to one where the gods are given absolute control over non-Roman people.|
Special vows included:
|Euocatio||A public ritual luring the gods of an enemy into the Roman camp during a siege through a promise to set up a cult residence among the Romans (e.g. Juno Regina of the Aventine was evoked from Veii and Tanit [Celestis] from Carthage)|
|Deuotio||Used in both public and private life the ritual vowed the lives of the enemy to Tellus & the Di Manes. During the siege of 146 B.C. the people of Carthage were vowed to Veiovis, Dispater and the Di Mane. A variant included a Roman (oneself) in the vow; the individual would then seek death in battle. By devoting living people to chthonic deities/ gods of the underworld they were consigned to death. The terms were that the gods accepted the lives of the consecrated people in return for wiping out Rome's enemies Deuotio to gods of the upper world is also recorded|
|Defixio||A variant of deuotio frequently used in private life to vow personal enemies to the gods of the underworld, the votive contract was inscribed on lead tablets (lamellae) sometimes rolled and pinned with a nail. Lamellae were buried in tombs so the Di Manes could read them and pass on the contents to the gods of the underworld (Germanicus' death in A.D. 19 was believed to be as a result of a defixio) Devotions could quite freely be made of enemies, but if fellow citizens were thus marked for death this was considered reprehensible and a criminal act.|
|Foedus & Clarigatio||Treaty and diplomatic claims for reparation A fetial priest devoted himself and the Roman people to Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus should the terms of a treaty be broken by Rome.|
Bakker, J.T. (1994) Living and Working with the Gods, Amsterdam,
Dumezil, G. (1970) Archaic Roman Religion,Vols.1 & 2, Chicago,
University of Chicago Press
*Ogilvie, R.M., (1969) The Romans and their Gods, London, Chatto