Roman Women

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In these modern times and in Christian countries, we are accustomed to seeing religious matters take a more prominent place in the life of the women than in that of the men. This is because our form of religion concerns itself more with the emotions and with those subjects which appeal to sentiment than it does with the practical affairs of life. Wherever the details or the appliances of worship are brought into intimate relation with the common occupations in which a people are engaged, it at once becomes less peculiarly the province of women. For instance, where there is union between Church and State, according to the extent to which that union exists, and owing to the fact that women are to a large extent shut out of the management of State affairs, the Church more particularly engages the attention of the male portion of the population. Also, where, as in Asia, an undertaking is supposed to be liable to miscarriage unless entered into conformably with the prevailing religious rites, men are less likely to be negligent in paying their respects to the gods. When, as in mediæval Europe, every phase of human activity was under the supervision of the Church, the arts finding in it a large proportion of their subject matter, and every transaction needing its sanction, woman's influence in religion was much less predominant than it now is. All of which goes to show that there is less of material self-seeking in feminine worship than in that of men.

Never was the intimate relation between the material and the spiritual more strongly accentuated than in ancient Rome. The acts of the gods and goddesses were a part of the lives of the people. Nothing existed or came to pass in State, society, or private life without its cause being attributed to the supernatural. The consequence was that every Roman citizen looked upon the worship of his deities as a practical duty, the neglect of which entailed practical consequences. At the same time, the possession by woman of an important place in religion was assured, not only by her nature, but also by the fact that reverence for the supernatural was conjoined with every phase of life. Worship was no less a private interest than a public affair. It entered into everything. Consequently, a woman's religious duties and privileges were exactly coextensive with the activities of her life. According to Roman theology, the supernatural world was the precise counterpart of the natural world. Everything had its special deity. There were the powerful gods and goddesses who presided over the national interests, over war and peace, prosperity and chastisement, counsel and justice; there were the divinities who were to be depended upon for the natural phenomena, the seasons, the weather, germination, and harvest; there were also minor spirits upon whose pleasure depended the success of every human action.

According to the Roman conception, nothing took place without the assistance of some special divinity whose province it was to further that particular form of activity. It is said that Varro, at the close of the era of the Republic, was able to enumerate thirty thousand of these gods and goddesses. Roman life, public and private, was never for a moment dissociated from religion. The Senate met for deliberation in the temple of Jupiter; an important part of the general's duty on the battlefield was to invoke the god of war; the infliction of punishment on wrong-doers was a sacrifice to offended deity; all public entertainments were held in honor of the gods; all the ordered events in an individual's life were religious ceremonies; for even a family meal was not supposed to be partaken of without a portion being set apart for the household gods; and always on entering a house reverence was first made to the Lares. Hence it necessarily followed that the part woman took in religion was commensurate with her part in Roman life. It can hardly be said that her position in this respect was a subordinate one. If Mars, the god of battle, was the central object of Roman worship, an equal devotion was paid to Vesta at the communal hearth which symbolized the existence and the well-being of the city; and as it was more particularly the province of men to invoke the warlike deity, so from among the women, who were the home-keepers, were selected the honored guardians of the sacred fire. It is also important to observe another fact. Though there were priests appointed to conduct the ceremonies of public worship, they were in no sense intermediaries. Every suppliant addressed himself directly to the divinity. He might consider it to his advantage to consult the professional men, who were skilled in the knowledge of how most persuasively to approach the gods; but the act of intercession was each person's own affair, and did not need the intervention of a proxy. Therefore, the women were as free to address the gods as were the men; and, in fact, in the many matters which concerned their sex particularly, and in other things in which it seemed fitting, they alone could properly do so.

Bespeaking the favor of a particular deity consisted in paying that god more or less extra attention; generally it was a very simple process. There is in existence a painting, found at Rome, which represents two women offering incense to Mars, their husbands probably being absent with the army. Each of these matrons has brought a portable altar, and into the rising flames, before a small figure of the deity, they are dropping the fragrant oblation. This sacrifice may have taken place in the open air; probably in the Forum. Thus easy was it for women to pay their devotions and to invoke protection for those in whose welfare they were interested. The practical Romans looked upon their relations to the deities as partaking somewhat of the nature of commerce; for a certain amount of attention they were justified in expecting a corresponding amount of protection. They even practised what might truly be called pious frauds upon the powers whom they worshipped. In certain cases, it seemed to them that, inasmuch as the gods could not make use of the reality, an inexpensive substitute might well take its place. For instance, it is a relief to know that the yearly sacrifice of men which the Vestals made to Father Tiber from the Sublician Bridge had nothing in it more human than representations of men made out of osiers; but when we read of the heads of poppies and even onions being presented to Jupiter, in order that he might practise his thunderbolts upon them, instead of upon the heads of the citizens, the instinct of self-preservation is more apparent than is the reasoning faculty which they attributed to the god. The Romans studied economy in their religion. Their meat offerings constituted the family meal; and a pig seemed to them the more proper object to sacrifice to the gods, in that its flesh was a favorite article of diet with themselves.

In many instances, the Romans committed, as they believed, the fortunes of the State to the religious zeal of the women. There were several divine protectresses whose worship was the exclusive duty of the gentler sex. The most important of all was Vesta; to permit her sacred flame to expire was one of the greatest of public calamities. The fact that these offices held by women were looked upon by the Romans as of exceeding importance could but reflect a dignity upon womanhood and enhance the respect in which the sex was held. In fact, though women held no recognized place in civil and State affairs, in religion they attained much nearer to equal rights with the men. If a man were a priest, his wife was a priestess. So firmly did women assert the authority gained through possession of religious office, that in the reign of Tiberius it was deemed necessary to pass a law that in things sacred the priestess of Jupiter should be subject to her husband.

One of the most interesting features of Roman religion was the worship of Vesta and the institution of an order of virgins devoted to her service. Nothing more clearly illustrates than this the fact that Roman religion was suggested by racial customs. A study of the earliest history of the Aryan race shows that during the migrations of the tribes it would naturally fall to the duty of the young girls to kindle the camp fire whenever their people stopped to rest; and as the primitive method of procuring fire by rubbing together dry sticks rendered this no easy matter, it was important to preserve the flame when once it was produced. Then, too, the camp fire signified much; it stood for comfort, sustenance, health, family, and social community; it was either the source or the representation of the best in primeval life. The bright flame was to the tribesmen a beneficent deity, a goddess, of course; for by it the work of women was especially furthered--a chastity-loving goddess, for what so pure as fire? Hence the idea that virgins, such as those who enkindle the useful flame, should attend the communal hearth consecrated to the honor of the divinity and symbolical of the life of the tribe.

Numa Pompilius, the second of Rome's legendary kings, is said, as already mentioned, to have instituted the college of the Vestal Virgins and to have formulated the rules of the life to which they were bound. It seems probable, however, that the order was more ancient than even the city itself; reaching back, as has been indicated, to the prehistoric time when the ancestors of the Latin tribes migrated from the common Aryan home. At first the Roman Vestals were four in number, two for each of the original Roman tribes, the Ramnes and the Tities; after the addition of the Luceres, the number was increased to six. Maidens were made Vestals when between six and ten years of age. Whenever a vacancy occurred, the chief pontiff chose twenty girls from the patrician order, care being taken to select only those who were in perfect health, free from the least physical blemish, and showing promise of future beauty. Then the casting of lots was resorted to, in order that the goddess herself might have an opportunity to designate which of the number should be selected as her priestess. The maiden to whom fell this fortune gave her right hand to the pontiff, who said: "I take thee; thou shalt be priestess of Vesta, and shalt perform the sacred rites for the safety of the Roman people." Then the girl was conducted to the house of the sacred virgins, who cut off her hair and clothed her in the white robes of the order. The ceremony in many respects corresponded to that of the modern nun in taking the veil. The term of consecration was thirty years, thus giving the votaries ten years in which to learn their duties, ten for the practice of them as serving members, and ten in which they governed the order and enjoyed the highest honors in its gift. After thirty years, the Vestals were at liberty to return to their families, or to marry, if they so desired; but advantage was rarely taken of this permission, they preferring the service of the goddess to whom they had vowed their virginity.

The principal duty of the Vestals was to preserve the fire which burned day and night on the altar of their divinity. If through rare mischance it became extinguished, it was the rule that the sacred flame might only be rekindled by rubbing together pieces of wood from a particular tree which was resorted to with great and solemn ceremony. Later, however, there was adopted the method of concentrating the rays of the sun in a vase of burnished metal. The Vestals had other important functions, chief of which were the offering of certain sacrifices and the protection of records and important documents as well as of the venerable relics of the city. These were preserved in the most secret part of the temple; and among them were the fetiches which were said to have been brought to Troy by Dardanus, and from Troy to Italy by Æneas. These were believed by the Romans to be the guaranties for the existence of the Empire. No one but the Chief Vestal was permitted to enter the inner sanctuary, where they were kept. It is no wonder that, as the functions committed to their charge were believed to be fraught with such tremendous import to the State, to these priestesses was paid a respect as great if not greater than any Roman official might claim. They were most carefully guarded against insult or offence, anyone offering such being punished with death. Whenever a Vestal appeared in public, she was preceded by a lictor, before whom everyone made way, even the highest officer of the State. The fasces were always lowered in her presence. She was free from that guardianship by male relatives to which all other Roman women were subject. Consequently, a Vestal not only could receive legacies, but also enjoyed an untrammelled right in the disposal of her property. In a court of justice she could make a deposition without being required to take the oath. At all public games and religious banquets she had the seat of honor. If a criminal, even on the way to execution, met her by accident in the street, he was immediately set free.

On the other hand, if their privileges were great, the discipline was severe. If they transgressed the minor rules of the order, chastisement was administered by the Chief Vestal. If she herself were the offender, or if the offence were something of so serious a nature as permitting the extinction of the sacred fire, the delinquent maiden was stripped and then scourged by the chief pontiff in the gloom of a darkened room. If a Vestal broke her vow of chastity, a horrible death awaited her. In a place called campus sceleratus--the accursed field--an underground chamber was prepared. This chamber was carefully furnished with a bed, a lamp, a small quantity of oil, bread, water, and milk. The victim was placed upon a bier and borne with funeral pomp to the place of doom. There, in the presence of the multitude, after the priest had uttered certain prayers, the Vestal descended into her living tomb. The vault was quickly covered, and then roofed with brick; the earth was replaced and carefully levelled; thus all traces of the death chamber were obliterated, and the unfortunate victim was left to her fate. The witnesses of the execution turned away from the spot in the belief that the death of the criminal would avert dire evils from themselves and their families.

Though it may be they are not sufficiently well attested to preclude the doubt that the innocent were sometimes sacrificed, it is interesting to note that there are occasions on record when Vesta came to the rescue of her servants. Dionysius relates how, when Æmilia was about to be punished for intrusting the sacred fire to a novice, who let it go out, the Vestal, having first prayed to the goddess, tore a strip from her robe and cast it upon the ashes, when the fire immediately blazed up. Tuccia, who was accused of violating her vow of continence, appealed to the goddess and said: "O Vesta, if I have ever approached thee with clean hands, grant me a sign to prove my innocence." Then, as though by inspiration, she took a sieve, and going to the Tiber brought it back full of water, thus showing that miracles are never lacking in any religion when its votaries in after ages have sufficient faith to believe in them. This occurrence was made the subject of the engraving on the seal of the order, a specimen of which has been preserved to the present time. In the fourth century before Christ, Postumia was charged with a like offence. She succeeded in proving her innocence without summoning the gods as witnesses; but the chief pontiff, "by the instruction of the college, commanded her to refrain from indiscreet mirth, and to dress with more regard to sanctity than elegance."

The temple of Vesta stood at the east end of the Forum, the site being well authenticated by the ruins which remain. Tradition held that the first temple was built by Numa; this was destroyed in B.C. 390, when the city was burned by the Gauls. It was afterward rebuilt no less than four times, always on the exact site, the same form and size being adhered to. It was small and circular in shape, the domed roof being supported on columns which surrounded the inner wall. In the interior was the low, round altar where burned continually the sacred fire, to the care of which the virgin priestesses were devoted. The house in which the Vestals resided stood behind the temple, toward the Palatine hill. A few years ago, excavations were made in the accumulated soil at the foot of the hill, and a rich reward was gained in the discovery of this house, in a remarkably fine state of preservation. It has the large atrium, common to ancient Roman houses, and into which the rooms open from all sides. The stairs remain, and many of the rooms on the upper floor are still intact. That the Vestals lived in luxurious style is attested by the richness of the decorations and by the remains of bathrooms and hot-air flues. The latter were used for heating Roman buildings from a furnace, very much in the same manner as the method to which we are accustomed. That which interests us far more than anything else about this house, however, is the fact that there were found in it a large number of statues representing the Vestals themselves. Each statue originally stood upon a pedestal bearing the name and a dedicatory inscription. Presumably, the faces and the figures do not flatter the sacred maidens, for they are neither beautiful nor graceful; but they give us their names, and, what is perhaps of still greater interest, they represent the Vestal dress. This consisted of a long gown, with a cord around the waist, knotted in front. Over this there is a large mantle, so arranged as to be drawn over the head like a hood; this falls in great folds, with heavy tassels at the corners. Around the head is the characteristic diadem-like band of wool which always distinguished the Vestals, and was to them what the veil is to a nun. The feet are covered with boots of some soft material. The inscriptions on the pedestals are dated, the latest date being that of A.D. 364. This pedestal is particularly interesting because of the fact that the Vestal's name has been defaced, not, however, by an act of purposeless vandalism. It was evidently done with deliberate intent to obliterate the name; for the initial "C" has been left, in order that, though she were disowned, the identity of the offending virgin might not be forgotten. She was Claudia, who became a convert to the Christian faith.

The glorification of virginity in the Vestal order must have helped to sustain the high moral tone which prevailed among the women of early Rome. They constantly beheld, in the very centre of the civic life, a group of maidens who held a position of surpassing honor as a reward for absolute purity of character. Although celibacy was not esteemed for its own sake, nor in any instance save that of the votaries of Vesta and Ceres, in them it could but be effective as an example of virtue. And when to the sanctity essential to the office was added the personal reputation of those virgins whose fame for holiness was augmented by many years of devotion, the influence must have been all in favor of good morals. What need, it may pertinently be asked, had the Roman women to worship at the shrine of the goddess of chastity, when they had Occia, who, as Tacitus informs us, presided over the Vestals for fifty-seven years with the greatest sanctity? That such an example was not more effective than it really was must be attributed to the fact that the maids and matrons of Rome considered, as is quite consistent with human wont in all times, that the supererogatory virtue of the Vestals atoned for any deficiencies in their own. It may be that this attribution of a vicarious character thereto partly accounts for the high valuation set upon Vestal virginity. And though a time came when an untarnished reputation was contentedly dispensed with elsewhere, it was still rigidly demanded in the house of Vesta.

Yet, despite all this care, the order was not entirely immune from the counteracting influence of the times. As Roman morals relaxed, it became a less infrequent thing for scandals derogatory to the reputation of the Vestals to be whispered through the city. Toward the close of the Republic, an intrigue with one of these maidens was considered by the young nobility as all the more attractive on account of the difficulty and danger accompanying it; and there is evidence to support the belief that the attempt was not always unsuccessful. When Rome became infected with the turpitude which marked its decadence, the college of Vesta did not escape. There were occasions, however, down to the latest pagan times, when the priestesses were violently brought to a consciousness of the requirements of their office; as when Domitian severely punished them for delinquencies which, strange to say, had been overlooked by Vespasian and Titus.

Another cult closely affecting the feminine portion of Roman society was the worship of Ceres, one of the twelve great deities of the Capitol. She was the goddess of corn and the harvest, the mythical daughter of Saturn and Vesta, and, like her divine mother, demanded a virgin priestess; and the women who were devoted to her service enjoyed privileges almost equal to those of the Vestals. The Romans paid her great adoration, and her festival, lasting eight days, was celebrated by the matrons every year during the month of April. They bore lighted torches, in commemoration of the myth which describes the goddess as lighting torches at the flames of Mount Ætna, to go in search of Proserpine, her daughter, who had been carried off by Pluto. It was required of all the matrons who took part in her mysteries that they should undergo an initiation; to attend the festival without first being initiated was punishable with death.

As the Roman women worshipped Vesta and Ceres, so they also paid reverence to Bona Dea, the good goddess, who blessed matrimonial unions with fruitfulness. In her character, as conceived in the earliest times, was exemplified that chastity which at first was estimated so highly and later abandoned so lightly. The myth regarding her states that, after her marriage, she was seen by no man except her husband. In allusion to this, her festival was celebrated at night by the Roman matrons, in the houses of the highest officers of the State. On such occasions, the man of the house left his abode in the evening, and with him was sent forth every male creature. All the statues of men that were in the house were carefully veiled, and for that night the women were in sole possession. As to the nature of the ceremonies, we have no very definite information; for, though they were not always safe from male intrusion, the matrons seem at least to have succeeded well in preserving the secret of their mysteries; but, as the Roman method of doing honor to the gods always included entertainment for the worshippers, we may take it for granted that the festival of Bona Dea consisted principally of banqueting, music, and games. It is alleged, however, that in later times these developed into practices far less innocent.

Juvenal says: "The secrets of Bona Dea are well known. When the music excites them and they are inflamed with it and the wine, these Mænads of Priapus rush wildly around, and whirl their locks and howl." Then he goes on to accuse the participators in these celebrations of the most depraved excesses. But Juvenal's shafts of satire are not so greatly characterized by the sharpness of their point as by the force with which they are launched; and it is very apparent that, in order to make his invectives tell, he never hesitated in resorting to exaggeration. While all authorities agree that the rites employed in the worship of Bona Dea were accompanied in later times by unlicensed conduct on the part of the matrons, history gives no very conclusive proof of the veracity of the accusation. There is the intrusion of Clodius in the house of Julius Cæsar on such an occasion; but to cite this as evidence does not materially substantiate the charge, for the only woman who seemed willing to consent to his presence was Pompeia, and she did not have an opportunity to meet him, as the others very promptly drove him from the house.

The continual degeneration of Roman morals will compel us later on to depict a social life in which there is little to relieve the monotony of misconduct; hence it is only giving the Roman woman the full advantage of everything that may be said in her favor, if we glance back at an incident which happened in the times when virtuous matrons were still the rule and not the exception. In B.C. 295, the Senate, in order to avert evils predicted by the omens, decreed that two days should be spent in religious devotions. Livy relates that at this time a disagreement arose among the matrons who were worshipping at the Temple of Patrician Chastity. It is illustrative of the fact that it is difficult for women--though possibly the criticism should not be confined to their sex--to be faultless in essentials without being censorious in indifferent matters. We will allow the Roman historian to tell the story in his own fashion. "Virginia, daughter of Aulus, a patrician, but married to Volumnius the consul, a plebeian, was excluded by the other matrons from sharing in the sacred rites, because she had married out of the patrician order. A short altercation ensued, which was afterward, through the intemperance of passion incident to the sex, kindled into a flame of contention. Virginia boasted with truth that she had a right to enter the Temple of Patrician Chastity, as being of patrician birth and chaste in her character, and, besides, the wife of one husband, to whom she was betrothed a virgin, and, moreover, she had no reason to be dissatisfied either with her husband, his exploits, or his honors. To her high-spirited words she added importance by an extraordinary act. She enclosed with a partition a part of her house, of a size sufficient for a small shrine, and there erected an altar. Then, calling together the plebeian matrons, and complaining of the injurious behavior of the patrician ladies, she said: 'This altar I dedicate to Plebeian Chastity, and exhort you that the same degree of emulation which prevails among the men of the State on the point of valor may be maintained by the women on the point of virtue; and that you contribute your best care that this altar may have the credit of being attended with a greater degree of sanctity and by chaster women than the other, if possible.' Solemn rites were performed at this altar under almost the same regulations as those of the more ancient one, no person being allowed the privilege of taking part in the sacrifices unless a woman of approved chastity, and who was the wife of one husband."

Livy goes on to relate that the plebeian shrine did not maintain the high standard set by its founder; for it afterward received women who were very far from living up to the rules originally laid down. It eventually passed out of existence; but that the patrician temple of chastity stood as a rebuke to the license of later generations is shown by Juvenal when he says: "With what sort of scorn Tullia snuffs the air when she passes the ancient altar of chastity."

The piety of the Roman women added many to the great number of temples erected for the worship of the gods, and sacred edifices consecrated to goddesses were numerous. Sometimes temples were built by the State for the especial use of women. After the wrath of Coriolanus was appeased by women's instrumentality, the Temple of Female Fortune was presented to them as a reward. Another temple was consecrated to Fortuna virilis. The function of this goddess at first was to preserve to wives the affections of their husbands; but, as times changed, the divinity also forfeited her former good character, and degenerated into a patroness of the most unprincipled coquettes. This temple is one of the ancient edifices which have been preserved and turned to modern uses; for over a thousand years it has served as a Christian church, under the name of Saint Mary of Egypt. It belongs to Armenians of the Roman Catholic faith who reside in Rome; and the thought suggests itself that that vicissitude is not entirely inappropriate which has brought to pass that the temple, where ancient courtesans sought the aid of the goddess of chance, is now dedicated to Mary, the famous penitent of Egypt.

It was customary in imperial Rome for temples to be erected in honor of the emperors, but the memory of only one woman was ever thus celebrated; and in this case the devotion of the husband, rather than worthiness on the part of his wife, is indicated. This was the temple of Faustina, built after her death by the noble Antoninus Pius. If the historians of the time can be relied upon in the matter, there were no qualities in Faustina save her beauty which her imperial husband could justly commemorate. But Antoninus thought differently; and, in the history of the emperors, there is certainly nothing so affecting as the sanctity in which, to the day of his death, he held her memory. However faulty Faustina may have been, surely she was as worthy of being deified as most of the emperors who received that honor. This, undoubtedly, was the thought of her husband, who was too much of a philosopher to believe seriously in any of the Roman deities, human or supernatural. He simply adopted the popular method in his desire to pay the highest honor possible to his wife. This temple, parts of which still remain, was also used as a church during the Middle Ages; but its chief interest at the present day is found in the numerous ancient scribblings that have been discovered upon its columns and their bases.

During the earlier years of the Republic, religion had an extremely good effect upon the morals of the people. Men dared not invoke the aid of Jove in an unjust cause; women could hope for favors at the hands of Vesta, Ceres, or Bona Dea only by pledging the rectitude of their conduct. But as the people lived continually in the fear of the gods, their religion was more effective as a police institution than it was productive as a source of comfort. As is inevitable with all religions, the spirit demanded new forms before the people became conscious that the old were outgrown; and the time came when Roman worship became nothing more than tiresome, uninteresting ceremonies, which were conducted with incredibly slavish care respecting niceties of ritual. This ceased to appeal to the heart, and could no longer commend itself convincingly to the mind. Hence, when foreign deities and new forms of worship came to Rome in the triumphal processions of the victorious generals, the people were ready to receive them with that hope which always welcomes untried possibilities.

A new deity ushered into their well-filled pantheon always seemed to the Romans a valuable acquisition. A god in Rome was a god for Rome; and to extend cordial hospitality to all known divinities was a part of the national policy. As the conquering armies carried the fame of Rome further in the world, the women at home had an ever-widening range of divinities at whose altars they might make supplication for the success of the warriors. The city at last became as cosmopolitan in its pantheon as in its population. If the matrons tired of, or were disappointed with, time-honored Vesta and Ceres, they might turn to the passion-exciting rites of the Syrian Astarte, to the weird ceremonies of the Phrygian Cybele, or to the more intellectual mysteries of the Egyptian Isis. When Veii was captured, the most highly valued spoil was the statue of Matuta; and as fortune had forsaken the city, the goddess seemed content to depart with it. So at least the Romans believed; for they asserted that when the deity was asked if she were willing to take up her abode at Rome, she assented with a perceptible nod of the head. This was considered a piece of good fortune of almost equal worth with the gain of the city. The worship of Matuta being more peculiarly the function of the women, the fact that they outdid the men in their rejoicing is thus accounted for, history informing us that they crowded the temples to give thanks even before the people were ordered to do so by the Senate. Only married women, and of these only the freeborn, were allowed in the temple of Matuta, except when they carried thither their children for the blessing of the goddess.

But the first marked deterioration of the ancient Roman worship through the influence of foreign rites occurred with the advent of the Idæan Mother. In B.C. 203, the Romans, at the command of the Sybilline oracles, sent to Asia Minor for the famous Phrygian deity Cybele, the mythical mother of the gods. The Senate was required to appoint the most virtuous man in the Republic to the duty of receiving the image of the goddess. This honor was awarded to Publius Scipio; but it was reserved to a matron to derive from the incident a more lasting fame and a greater present advantage. The women of Rome went to Ostia to escort the deity to the city. The legend narrates that the vessel bearing the image ran upon a shoal at the mouth of the Tiber, and all efforts to get it off proved ineffectual. One of the noblest of the matrons present was Claudia Quinta. Whether justly or otherwise, this lady had been brought under suspicion in regard to her conduct. Seeing in the predicament of the goddess a grand opportunity, she adventured her reputation upon a daring chance for vindication. Making her way to the side of the vessel, it being close to the bank, she supplicated the divine mother to bear witness to her virtue by following the persuasion of her chaste hands. Then she fastened her girdle to the prow of the boat, and, to the wonder of all and to the overthrow of her slanderers, the vessel easily yielded to her slight exertion. As a proof of the truth of this, following generations could point to the statue of Claudia which the men of the time erected at the door of the temple of Cybele.

Victor Duruy, commenting on the change wrought by these new divinities, says, "they gave a new cast to the religious convictions of people to whom a very crude form of worship had so long sufficed. Born in the scorching East, these deities required savage rites and pious orgies. Dramatic spectacles, intoxicating ceremonies, affected violently the dull Roman mind, and excited religious frenzy; for the first time the Roman felt those transports which, according to the character of the doctrine and the condition of the mind, produce effects diametrically opposite,--absolute purity of life, or the excess of debauchery sanctified by religious belief." Lucretius bears testimony to the truth of this in the vivid picture he draws of the extravagancies which characterized the festival of Cybele. He describes her attendants in their pageants through the streets, dancing with ropes, leaping about to the sound of horrid music, while blood streams from their self-inflicted wounds. How this affected the women may be gathered from Juvenal, who pictures this furious chorus entering a house, and the priest threatening the matron with coming disasters, which she willingly seeks to avert with costly offerings. In another place he refers to the temple of "the imported mother of the gods" as being frequented by the abandoned women, who took part in the orgies performed in her honor. That the women were more addicted than the men to the worship of foreign deities is perhaps suggested by a passage in Tibullus. The poet is away from Rome, and sick. He complains: "There is no Delia here, who, when she was about to let me go from the city, first consulted all the gods.... Everything prognosticated my return, yet nothing could hinder her from weeping and turning to look after me as I went.... What does your Isis for me now, Delia? What avail me those brazen sistra of hers so often shaken by your hand? Now, goddess, succor me; for that man may be healed by thee is proved by many a picture in thy temples. Let my Delia, dressed in linen, sit before thy sacred doors, performing vigils vowed for me; and twice a day, with hair unbound, let her recite thy due praises. But be it my lot to celebrate my native Penates, and to offer monthly incense to my ancient Lar."

But the most injurious of all the foreign superstitions was the Bacchanalian cult, which was introduced into Rome during the second century before Christ by a lowborn Greek from Etruria. He professed himself to be a priest in charge of secret nocturnal rites. By appealing to the very worst propensities of which human nature is capable, he soon gathered around him a large following of men and women, and these included representatives of the noblest families. They engaged in certain religious performances; but the chief attraction was an unrestrained indulgence in wine, feasting, and passion. Naturally, this organization also became a hotbed for every sort of crime, including murder and conspiracy. Owing to the pledge of secrecy extorted from the initiates, the contagion had spread to a prodigious extent before it came to the notice of the Senate. In the manner of its discovery, we have an interesting drama which throws light, not only upon the matter itself, but also reveals somewhat of the position of a certain class of Roman women, of which history takes little personal account.

Publius Æbutius was a young man of knightly rank, whose father was dead and whose mother, Duronia, had married again. His stepfather, having abused the property of Æbutius, and being unwilling to give an account, conspired with the unnatural mother so to manage that her son would not be in a position to demand an accounting. They agreed that the Bacchanalian rites were the only way to effect the ruin of the young man. Accordingly, his mother informed him that during his sickness she had vowed that, if through the kindness of the gods he should recover, she would initiate him into the rites of the Bacchanalians. She instructed him for ten days how to prepare himself, and promised that on the tenth she would conduct him to the place of meeting. The youth very innocently agreed to this, thinking that it was only the due of the gods by whose favor he enjoyed his restored health. All would have gone as his mother desired, had it not been for the fact that he had formed a strong attachment for a courtesan named Hispala Fecenia. This young freedwoman was of a character far superior to the mode of life into which she had been forced while still a slave. Hispala knew more of the world than did Æbutius; and when he informed her that he was about to be initiated into the rites of the Bacchanalians, she declared that it would be better for him and also for her to lose their lives than that he should do such a thing. She told him that when she was a slave she had been taken to those rites by her mistress, though since her emancipation she had been exceedingly careful to avoid the place. She said that she knew it to be the haunt of all kinds of debauchery. Before they parted, the young man gave her his solemn promise that he would keep clear of those rites. The result of his adherence to this was that his mother and stepfather drove him from home, and he was goaded into telling the whole affair to the Consul Postumius, after first taking counsel with his aunt Æbutia.

After certain inquiries, Hispala was brought into the presence of the consul, to whom she gave a full account of the origin of the mysteries. She said that, at first, the rites were performed only by women. No man was admitted. At that time, they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated, but only in the daytime. The matrons then used to be appointed priestesses in rotation. Paculla Minia, a Campanian, when priestess, rearranged the whole system, alleging that she did so by the direction of the gods. She introduced men, the first being her own sons; she changed the time of celebration from day to night; and instead of three days in the year, appointed five days in each month for initiation. From the time that the rites were made thus common, and the licentious freedom of the night was added, there was nothing wicked, nothing flagitious, that had not been practised among them. To think nothing unlawful was the grand maxim of their religion.

After Hispala had made this revelation, Postumius proceeded to lay the whole matter before the Senate. A vigorous prosecution of the Bacchanalians ensued; and it was found that over seven thousand men and women had taken the oath of the association, thus proving that the rapid growth of a religion gives no assurance of the truth of its doctrines or the purity of its principles. Those who were found to be most deeply stained by evil practices were put to death; many put an end to themselves, so as to avoid punishment at the hands of the authorities; the others were imprisoned. The women who were condemned were delivered to their relations, or to those under whose guardianship they were, to be punished in private; but if there did not appear any proper person of the kind to execute the sentence, the punishment was nevertheless inflicted, but in private and by a person appointed by the court.

The Senate also passed a vote, on the suggestion of the Consul Postumius, that the city quæstors should give to both Æbutius and Hispala a certain goodly sum of money out of the public treasury, as a reward for discovering the iniquitous Bacchanalian ceremonies. Æbutius was exempted from compulsory service in the army; and to Hispala it was granted that she should enjoy the unique privileges of disposing in any way she chose of her property; that she should be at liberty to wed a man of honorable birth, and that there should be no disgrace to him who should marry her; and that it should be the business of the consuls then in office, and of their successors, to take care that no injury should ever be offered to her.

Though the Bacchanalian abuses were thus strenuously dealt with by the Roman authorities, this and other like parasitical growths which fastened themselves upon the religious instincts of the people were not to be shaken off. Among the many noxious developments that crept over and eventually choked the life out of the sturdy ancient stock, we find every vicious substitute for religion known to the ante-Christian world. During the decadence of Rome, the ancient national religion became disintegrated and almost wholly superseded. Many of the empresses patronized the foreign orgiastic cults; and, taking the many-sided development of Roman religion as a whole, the strange spectacle is presented of a remarkable improvement in philosophy accompanying a great deterioration in morals. On the one hand, there were those who were struggling to a conception of the transcendental nature of the deity and the unity of nature; on the other hand were those who were doing in the name of the gods everything that is considered unworthy of humanity. And in all the evil fructification of base conceptions of religion, as well as in the knowledge of the higher philosophy, woman had her full share. No Roman woman was irreligious, however great the obliquity of her moral character, though sometimes her piety took a form so bizarre that the fact outruns imagination. Agrippina the Younger, for an example, was created priestess to the deified Claudius, whom she had cajoled into marrying her despite the fact that he was her uncle.

It must not be imagined, however, that because Roman religion developed these excesses through the infusion of Oriental superstitions, it came to be devoid of those uplifting influences which are the province of faith in the divine. There were never wanting those who, loving the good, the beautiful, and the true, supported their aspirations by their belief in the providence of deity; and the doctrine of a future life, though held only with much vacillation by the philosophers, was continually resorted to for comfort by the multitude. How widespread were these ideas, and how greatly similar to our own were the thoughts of those ancient Romans, are matters lost sight of by people who need no further reason for dismissing a religion from their consideration than the mere fact that it is pagan. Plutarch, who defended the dogma of the unity of God, of His providence, and of the immortality of the soul, wrote to his wife: "You know that there are those who persuade the multitude that the soul, when once freed from the body, suffers no inconvenience nor evil." The more positive, though less philosophical, faith of the people is illustrated by the words a mother carved upon the sepulchre of her child: "We are afflicted by a cruel wound; but thou, renewed in thy existence, livest in the Elysian fields. The gods order that he who has deserved the light of day should return under another form; this is a reward which thy goodness has gained thee. Now, in a flowery mead, the blessed, marked with the sacred seal, admit thee to the flock of Bacchus, where the Naiades, who bear the sacred baskets, claim thee as their companion in leading the solemn processions by the light of the torches." Except for somewhat of the imagery, and the pagan names, this woman's faith might easily be accepted as Christian.

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