Prev | Next | Contents


We have noticed two different, if not opposing, tendencies in Roman religious experience since the disappearance of the kingship. First, there was a tendency towards the reception of new and more emotional forms of worship, under the direction of the Sibylline books and their keepers; secondly, we have seen how, in the hands of pontifices and augurs, religious practice became gradually so highly formularised and secularised that the real religious instinct is hardly discernible in it, except indeed in the degraded form of scruple as to the exact performance of the ritual laid down. There was also, towards the end of that period, a third tendency beginning to show itself, which was eventually to complete the paralysis of the old religion--a tendency to neglect and despise the old religious forms. This need not surprise us, if we keep in mind two facts: (1) that Rome is now continually in close contact with Greece and her life and thought; (2) that it seems to be inevitable in western civilisation that a hard and fast system of religious rule should eventually arouse rebellion in certain minds. Already there are a few signs that the regulations of the ius divinum are not invariably treated with respect.

As long ago as 293 B.C. and the last struggle with the Samnites, we find a trace of this neglect or carelessness. One of the chicken-keepers (pullarii) reported falsely to the consul Papirius that the sacred chickens had given good omen in their eating: this was discovered by a young nephew of Papirius, "iuvenis ante doctrinam deos spernentem natus," as Livy calls him, and came to the consul's ears. Papirius' reception of the news was characteristic of the way in which a Roman could combine practical common-sense with the formal respect claimed by his ius divinum; he declared that the omen had been reported to him as good, and therefore "populo Romano exercituique egregium auspicium est." The umpire had decided favourably for him, and there was an end of the matter, except indeed that that umpire was placed in the forefront of the battle that the gods might punish him themselves, and there of course he died.[655] A generation later we have a case of far more pronounced contempt in the familiar story of P. Claudius Pulcher and his colleague Junius, each of whom lost a Roman fleet after neglecting the warning of the pullarius: of Claudius it is told that he had the sacred chickens thrown into the sea.[656] Another well-known story is that of Flaminius, the democrat consul who, as we shall learn directly, was defeated and killed at Trasimene after leaving Rome with none of his religious duties performed.[657] The famous Marcellus of this second Punic war, though himself an "augur optimus," according to Cicero, declined to act upon an auspicium ex acuminibus--electric sparks seen at the end of the soldiers' spears--and was accustomed to ride in his litter with blinds drawn, so that he should not see any evil omen.[658] Assuredly the transition from superstition to reason had its ludicrous side even in public life.

But it is not the gradual approach of rationalism that is the subject of this lecture. For years after the death of Flaminius we have no trace of it: that was no time for speculating, and it would have been dangerous. The religious history of the time, as recorded by Livy, shows on the contrary that religio in the old sense of the word is once more occupying the Roman mind--the sense of awe in the presence of the Unknown, the sense of sin or of duties omitted, or merely a vague sense of terror that suggested recourse to the supernatural. No wonder: for though Italy had been invaded within the memory of living man, it was not then invaded by one who had sworn to his father in infancy to destroy the enemy root and branch. Instinctively both Romans and loyal Italians knew that they were face to face with a struggle for life and death. It is hard for us to realise the terror of the situation as it must have been in those days of slow communication and doubtful news. It is to Livy's credit that he recognised it fully, and all who look on history as something more than wars and battles must be eternally grateful to him for searching the records of the pontifices for evidence of a people's emotion and the means taken to soothe it. Polybius has nothing to tell us of this but a few generalisations, drawn from his own experience a century later.[659] In all essential attributes of a Roman historian Livy is far the better of the two. I propose to follow his guidance in trying to gain some knowledge of the revived religio of the age and the way in which it was dealt with by the authorities.

It is in the winter of 218-17, when Hannibal was wintering in north Italy after his victory at the Trebbia, that Livy first brings the matter before us.[660] He uses the word I have just now and so often used: men's minds were moti in religionem, and they reported many prodigia which were uncritically accepted by the vulgar. He begins with Rome, and here it is worth noting that these portents issue from the crowded haunts of the markets, the forum olitorium, and the forum boarium, both close to the river and the quays. In the latter place, for example, an ox was said to have climbed to the third story of a house, whence it threw itself down, terrified by the panic of the inhabitants--a story which incidentally throws light on the housing of the lower population at the time.[661] Other wonders were announced from various parts of Italy,[662] and the decemviri were directed to have recourse to the Sibylline books, except for the procuratio of one miracle, common in a volcanic country, the fall of pebble-rain.[663] This had a procuratio to itself by settled custom, the novendiale sacrum,[664] an expiation parallel with that which, in the religion of the family, followed a birth or a death. For the rest, the whole city was subjected to lustratio,[665] and, in fact, the whole population was busy with the work. A lectisternium was ordered for Iuventas,[666] the deity of the young recruits, a supplicatio for Hercules at one of his temples, and five special victims were ordered for Genius--directions which have been variously interpreted. I am disposed to think of them as referring to the capacity of the State to increase its male population in the face of military peril. That the authorities were looking ahead is clear from the fact next stated, that one of the praetors had to undertake a special vow if the State should survive for ten years. These measures, ordered by the books, "magna ex parte levaverant religione animos." Unfortunately, the wayward consul Flaminius spoilt their endeavours by wilfully neglecting his religious duties at the Capitol, and also at the Alban mount, where he should have presided at the Latin festival, and hurrying secretly to the seat of war, lest his command should be interfered with by the aristocrats.

Spring came on, and with the immediate prospect of a crisis the religio broke out afresh.[667] Marvels were reported from Sicily and Sardinia, as well as Italy and Rome. We need not trouble ourselves with them, except so far as to note that one, at least, was pure invention; at Falerii, where there was an oracle by lots,[668] one tablet fell out of the bundle with the words written on it, Mavors telum suum concutit. The mental explanation of all this is lost to us;[669] it would be interesting to know how the reports really originated and were conveyed to Rome. That a widely spread religio is really indicated we can hardly doubt. The steps taken to soothe it, the religious prescriptions, are of more value to us. The Senate received the reports, and the consul then introduced the question of procuration. Besides decreeing, no doubt with the sanction of the pontifices, certain ordinary measures, the Senate referred the matter to the decemviri and the Sibylline books. A fulmen, weighing fifty pounds, was awarded to Jupiter, and gifts of silver to his consorts in the Capitoline temple. Then follow directions which show that the religio of women was to be particularly cared for. Juno Regina of the Aventine was to have a tribute collected by matrons, and she and the famous Juno Sospita of Lanuvium were to have special sacrifices; and it is probable that another Juno Regina, she of Ardea, was the object of a sacrifice, which the decemviri themselves undertook in the forum of that city.[670] This prominence of Juno may be a counterpart, I think, to the special attention shown to Hercules and Genius in the previous winter.[671] And it is interesting to notice that the libertinae were directed to collect money for their own goddess Feronia.[672]

It is evident that Livy, in detailing these directions from the books of the pontifices,[673] took them in the chronological order in which they were to be carried out; for the day sacred to Juno Regina of the Aventine is September 1, that of Feronia November 13, and the last instruction he mentions is in December, when Saturnus was to have a sacrifice and lectisternium at his own temple in the forum (prepared by senators), and a convivium publicum. This meant, we note with interest, the Graecising of this old Roman cult, which now took the form which is so familiar to us of public rejoicing by all classes, including slaves.[674] But long before these dates the terrible disaster of Trasimene had forced the Senate, at the urgent persuasion of the dictator Fabius, to have recourse to the sacred books again.[675] Never before had they been so frequently consulted; the ordinary piacula of the pontifices were not thought of; a consul had grievously broken the pax deorum, and what remedy was possible no Roman authority could tell. The prescriptions of the books were many and various; the most interesting of them is the famous ver sacrum, an old Italian custom, already referred to, but here prescribed by a Greek authority. This was submitted to the people in Comitia, and carried with quaint provisions suited to protect them against any unconscious mistake in carrying out the vow, such as might produce further religio. We will only notice that though, according to the old tradition, it was to Mars that the Italian stocks were wont in time of famine and distress to dedicate the whole agricultural produce of the year, together with the male children born that spring,[676] in this crisis it is to Jupiter that the vow is made. It is the Roman people only who here make the vow, and they make it, I doubt not, to that great Jupiter of the Capitol who for 300 years has been their guardian, and in whose temple are kept the sacred books that ordered it.[677]

But the authorities were determined to make now a supreme effort to still the alarm, and to restore the people to cheerfulness. They went on to vow ludi magni, i.e. extra games beside the usual yearly ludi Romani, at a cost of 333,333 and one-third asses, three being the sacred number. Then a supplicatio was decreed, which was attended not only by the urban population, but by crowds from the country, and for three days the decemviri superintended a lectisternium on a grand scale, such as had never been seen in Rome before, in which twelve deities in pairs, Roman and Greek indistinguishable from each other, were seen reclining on cushions. If Wissowa interprets this rightly,[678] as I think he does, it marks a turning-point in the religious history of Rome. The old distinction between di indigetes and di novensiles now vanishes for good; the showy Greek ritual is applied alike to Roman and to Greek deities; the Sibylline books have conquered the ius divinum, and the decemviri in religious matters are more trusted physicians than the pontifices. The old Roman State religion, which we have been so long examining, may be said henceforward to exist only in the form of dead bones, which even Augustus will hardly be able to make live.

So far, however, all had been orderly and dignified. But after Cannae we begin to divine that the stress of disaster is telling more severely on the nervous fibre of the people. Two Vestals were found guilty of adultery always a suspicious event; in such times a wicked rumour once spread would have its own way. One killed herself; the other was buried alive at the Colline gate. A scriba pontificis, who had seduced one of them, was beaten to death by the pontifex maximus. Such a violation of the pax deorum was itself a prodigium, and again the books were consulted, and an embassy was sent to Delphi with Fabius Pictor as leader.[679] Greece is looming ever larger in the eyes of the frightened Roman.

Under such circumstances it is hardly astonishing to read of a new (or almost new) and horrible rite, in which a Greek man and woman and a Gallic man and woman (slaves, no doubt) were buried alive in the forum boarium in a hole closed by a big stone, which had already, says Livy, been used for human victims--"minime Romano sacro." As in the case of the Vestals, blood-shedding is avoided, but the death is all the more horrible. What are we to make of such barbarism? Technically, it must have been a sacrifice to Tellus and the Manes, like the devotio of Decius, and like that also, it probably had in it a substratum of magic.[680] As regards the choice of victims it baffles us, for if we can understand the selection of a Gallic pair at a time when the Gauls of North Italy were taking Hannibal's side, it is not so easy to see why the Greeks were just now the objects of public animosity. Diels has suggested that Gelo, son of Hiero of Syracuse, deserted Rome for Carthage after Cannae,[681] and wanting a better explanation we may accept this, and imagine, if we can, that the cruel death of a pair of Greek slaves need not be taken as expressing any general feeling of antagonism or hatred for things Greek. But, after all, the most astonishing fact in the whole story is this--that the abominable practice lasted into the Empire; Pliny, at least, emphatically states that his own age had seen it, and heard the solemn form of prayer which the magister of the quindecemviri used to dictate over the victims.[682] Pliny, we may note, also speaks of the forum boarium as the scene of the sacrifice, where also the first gladiatorial games were exhibited.[683] Rome was already accustomed to see horrors there.

As we have now reached the climax of the religious panic of these years, I may pause here for a moment to refer to an interesting matter which I mentioned in my third lecture. At this very time, if we accept Wissowa's conjecture, the twenty-seven puppets of straw known as Argei, which were thrown over the pons sublicius by the Vestals on the ides of May, were being substituted as surrogates for the sacrifice by drowning of the same number of Greeks (Argei); an atrocity which he fancies actually took place somewhere in the interval between the first and second Punic wars, under orders found in the Sibylline books.[684] All scholars know that there were in the four regions of the old city twenty-seven (or twenty-four) chapels, sacella, which were also called Argei, and have caused great trouble to topographers and archaeologists.[685] To complete his hypothesis, Wissowa conjectures that these too date from this same age, and were distributed over the city in order to take away the miasma caused by some great pestilence or other trouble, of which, owing to the loss of Livy's second decade, we have no information. But neither have we a scrap of information about the building of the chapels, or the drowning of the twenty-seven Greeks, an atrocity so abominable that the only way in which we might conceivably account for its disappearance in the records would be the hypothesis of a conspiracy of silence, an impossible thing at Rome. The loss of Livy's second decade cannot of itself be an explanation; such an event is just what an epitomator would have seized on, yet there is no trace of it in the surviving epitomes, nor in any other author who may have had Livy before him. Varro knew nothing of it, so far as we can tell; where he refers to the Argei he makes no mention of such an astonishing origin either of puppets or chapels. If there had been a record in the books of the pontifices, it is impossible to imagine that he was not aware of it.

On the contrary, he quotes no official record, but a line of Ennius which attributes the origin of the Argei to Numa:[686]

libaque fictores Argeos et tutulatos.

Now Ennius was born in 239[687] B.C., and was, therefore, living when the whole astonishing business began. How does he come to ascribe to Numa institutions which were to himself exactly as the building of the Forth Bridge might be to an Edinburgh man of middle age? Why, too, if these institutions were of such recent date, did the Romans of the last two centuries B.C. invent all sorts of wild explanations of them, at which Wissowa very properly scoffs? It is for him to explain why these explanations were needed. It is inconceivable that in a large city, with colleges of priests preserving religious traditions and formulae, all memory of the remarkable origin of sacella and puppets should have so completely vanished as to leave room for the growth of such a crop of explanations. These will be found in my Roman Festivals, p. 112, and whoever reads them will conclude at once, I am sure, that the Romans knew nothing at all about the true history of the Argei. We may still class this curious ceremony with some of the primitive magical or quasi-magical rites of the ancient settlement. We are not entitled to cite it as an example of the growing savagery of this trying period; and if it be argued that it is an example rather of humanity, because for the original victims straw puppets were substituted, the answer is that even if we were to grant the human sacrifice, the surrogation of puppets is a most unlikely thing to have happened.[688] It is a rare practice; Wissowa himself judiciously rejects it as an explanation of such objects as oscilla and maniae. You cannot adopt it when you choose, to explain a difficulty, and then reject it when you choose. Why, one may ask, was this humane method not applied also to the two pairs of Gauls and Greeks just mentioned? But I need not pursue the subject further; we may be satisfied to reflect that from an anthropological point of view the Argei need never have been anything more than puppets.[689]

But to return to the religious history of the war. It would seem that the extraordinary series of performances ordered during the depression and despair that followed Cannae had succeeded for the time in quieting the religio. Fabius Pictor too had returned from Delphi,[690] and brought home in what seems to be hexameter verse instructions as to the worship of certain deities, with injunctions to the Romans to send gifts to the Pythian Apollo if prosperity should return to them, and ending with the significant words, "lasciviam (disorderly excitement) a vobis prohibete," which may be interpreted as "keep quiet, and do not get into a religious panic." The hexameters were Greek, but were translated for the benefit of the people; and Fabius publicly told how he had himself obeyed the voice of the oracle by sacrificing to the deities it named, and had worn the wreath, the sign that he was accomplishing religious work, during the whole of his journey home. This wreath he now deposited on the altar of Apollo. This was in 216, and it is remarkable that we hear of no new outbreak of prodigia, the normal symptom of religio, till the next year. Then we have a list; as Livy says,[691] "simplices et religiosi homines" were ready with them at any time. A panic arose in Rome, not strictly of a religious kind, which shows the nervousness of the population; a rumour went about that an army had been seen on the Janiculum, but men who were on the spot refuted it. In this case the Sibylline books were not consulted, but Etruscan haruspices were called in, who simply ordered a supplicatio of the new kind, at the pulvinaria. This is the first, or almost the first instance of these experts being consulted; earlier statements of the kind are probably apocryphal, as I pointed out in the last lecture. It is not clear why the authorities had recourse to them at this moment; but I am inclined to think that the old remedies even of the Sibylline books and their keepers were getting stale, and that while it was thought undesirable to excite the people by new rites, it was felt that the familiar ones might gain some new prestige by being recommended by new experts. The old prescription, given by a new physician, may gain in authority. The next year again, 213, brought another crop of prodigia, but Livy dismisses them with the simple words, "His procuratis ex decreto pontificum."[692] It is reasonable to suppose that a reaction was taking place in the minds of the senators and pontifices, and that they were determined to take as little notice as possible of disturbing symptoms, relying on the prestige of the Delphic oracle, and acting on its advice to suppress lascivia.

But in this same year the lascivia broke out again with unprecedented force. The cause was not only, as Livy explains it, the dreary continuance of the war with varying success; if we read between the lines we may guess that the break-up of family life occasioned by the deaths of so many heads of houses and their sons, had opened the way for feminine excitement and for the introduction of external rites such as an old Roman paterfamilias would no more have tolerated than the pontifices themselves. "Tanta religio," says Livy,[693] "et ea magna ex parte externa, civitatem incessit, ut aut homines, aut dii repente alii viderentur facti"; it seemed as if the old religious system, in spite of all its highly formalised apparatus of expiation, was being deliberately set aside. "Nec iam in secreto modo atque intra parietes abolebantur Romani ritus: sed in publico etiam ac foro Capitolioque (this is the hardest cut of all) mulierum turba erat, nec sacrificantium nec precantium deos patrio more." To understand such an amazing religious rebellion against the ius divinum we must remember that 80,000 men had fallen at Cannae, besides great numbers in the two previous years, and that therefore the real effective human support of that ius had in great part given way. Private priests and prophets, vermin to be found all over the Graeco-Roman world, had captured for gain the minds of helpless women, and of the ruined and despairing population of the country now flocking into Rome. The aediles and triumviri capitales, responsible for the order of the city, could do nothing; the Senate had to commission the praetor urbanus to rid the people of these religiones. When in those days the Senate and magistrates took such a matter in hand, further rebellion was impossible. All we are told is that the praetor issued an edict ordering that all who possessed private forms of prophecy or prayer, or rules of sacrifice, should bring them to him before the kalends of April next; and that no one should sacrifice in public with any strange or foreign rite. I do not know that the wonderful good sense of this decree has ever been commented on. To take violent or cruel measures would have been dangerous in the extreme at such a psychological moment. Livy tells this story at the very end of the year 213, and the kalends of April referred to must be those of the next year; there was, therefore, plenty of time to obey the order, and in the meantime the excitement might subside of itself. The mischief was not absolutely and suddenly stopped; in private houses the new rites were allowed to go on,--a policy adhered to in time to come,--but the ius divinum of the Roman State, the public worship of the Roman deities, must not be tampered with. This wise policy seems to have succeeded for the time; for even after the capture of Tarentum by Hannibal, and the prospect of an attack in that direction from Macedonia, we do not hear of any renewed outbreak. Prodigia are reported as usual, but the remedy thought sufficient is only a single day's supplicatio and a sacrum novendiale. The consuls, however, in the true Roman spirit, devoted themselves for several days to religious duties before leaving Rome for their commands.

This was at the beginning of the year 212. But after the Latin festival at the end of April we hear of a new religio, and a very curious one.[694] It looks as though certain Latin oracles, written in Saturnian verse, and attributed to an apocryphal vates of the suspicious name of Marcius, had got abroad in the panic of the previous year, and had been confiscated by the praetor urbanus charged, as we saw, with the suppression of religious mischief. He had handed them on to the new praetor urbanus of 212. One of them prophesied the disaster of Cannae which had already happened; the other gave directions for instituting games in honour of Apollo, including one which placed the religious part of these ludi in the hands of the decemviri. I strongly suspect that the whole transaction was a plan on the part of the Senate and the religious colleges, in order to quiet the minds of the people by a new religious festival in honour of a great deity of whose prestige every one had heard, for he had been long established in Rome; he is now to take a more worthy place there, to be incorporated in the ius divinum in a new sense, in gratitude perhaps for his recent advice given to Fabius Pictor at Delphi. Possibly also he is to be regarded here as the Greek deity of healing, though we do not hear of any pestilence at the time; but four years later it was in consequence of an epidemic that these ludi were renewed and made permanent. The main object of the moment was no doubt to amuse the people and occupy their minds. The whole population took part in the games, wearing wreaths as partakers in a sacred rite; the matrons were not left out; and every one kept his house door open and feasted before the eyes of his fellow-citizens.[695]

If it be asked why these games in honour of a Greek god should have been suggested by a Latin oracle, the answer is, I think, that the latter was used rather as a pretext for a pre-conceived plan; if it be true that the Marcian verses had won some prestige among the vulgar, it was an adroit stroke to invent one that might be used in this way. This is the only way in which we can satisfactorily account for the direction to the decemviri to undertake the necessary sacrifices. The government seizes a chance of taking the material of religio out of the hands of the vulgar and utilising it for its own purposes. It was clever too to give the alleged Latin oracles the sanction of the Graecus ritus; "decemviri Graeco ritu hostiis sacra faciant," says the oracle. The keepers consulted the sacred books as to the projected ludi, and henceforward, as it would seem, these Latin oracles were placed in their keeping to be added to the Sibylline books in the collection on the Capitol. The amalgamation of Roman and Greek religion is complete. If there were any doubt of it after the lectisternia to the twelve gods which we noticed just now, all such doubt is removed by the religious events of this year 212--that famous year in which Hannibal came within sight of Rome, and fell away again, never to return.

The student of Roman religious history, and of all religious psychology, as he follows carefully the extracts from the priestly records which Livy has embodied in his story of the last years of the great struggle, will find much to interest him. Even little things have here their significance. He will still find relics of the scruple about the minutiae of the ius divinum to which the Romans had become habituated under priestly rule--religio in that sense in which it is least really religious. He will find a Flamen Dialis resigning his priesthood because he had made a blunder in putting the exta of a victim on the altar;[696] only too ready, it may have been, to take an opportunity of getting free of those numerous taboos which deprived the priest of Jupiter of all possibility of active life. Such a conjecture finds support in the curious fact that his successor was a youth of such bad character that his relations induced the pontifex maximus to select him for the sacred post, in hopes that the restrictive discipline he would have to undergo might improve his morals and make him a better citizen.[697] About the later history of this youth I may have something to say in the next lecture. Again, we find religio of the scrupulous kind sadly worrying the stout old warrior Marcellus shortly before his death[698]: "Aliae atque aliae obiectae animo religiones tenebant." One of these religiones was a curious one; he had vowed a temple of Honos and Virtus--two deities together; and the pontifices made difficulties, insisting that two deities could not inhabit the same cella, for if it should be struck by lightning, how were you to tell, in conducting the procuratio, to which of them to sacrifice? The difficulty was solved by building two temples. Such quaintnesses of the old type of religious idea are thus still found, but they are becoming mere survivals.

The prodigia continue, and occasionally, as a new crisis in the war was known to be approaching, became exacerbated. In 208, just before the old consul Marcellus left the city to meet his death, he and his colleague were terribly pestered with them, and could not succeed in their sacrificing (litare). For many days they failed to secure the pax deorum.[699] When it was known that Hasdrubal was on his way from Spain, and that the greatest peril of the war was approaching, special steps were taken to make sure of that pax.[700] The pontifices ordered that twenty-seven maidens--a number of magical significance both in Greece and Italy[701]--should chant a carmen composed by the poet Livius Andronicus; and in the elaborate ritual that followed, as the result of the striking of the temple of Juno on the Aventine by lightning, the decemviri and haruspices from Etruria also had a share. The procession of the maidens, singing and dancing through the city till they reached the temple of Juno by the Clivus Publicius, was a new feature in ritual, and must have been a striking one. Doubtless it was all a part of a deliberate policy to keep the women of the city in good humour, and in touch with the religion of the State, instead of going after other gods, as they had already gone and were again to go with amazing and perilous fervour. For Juno Regina of the Aventine was their special deity; and in this case they were authorised--all matronae living within ten miles of the city--to contribute in money to a noble gift to the temple.

Hasdrubal was defeated and killed (207), and the danger passed away. Then, when the news reached Rome (if Livy's account may be relied on), there followed such an outburst of gratitude to the deities as we have never yet met with, and shall not meet with again in Roman history.[702] It was not only that the State ordered a supplicatio of three days thanksgiving; men and women alike took advantage of it to press in crowds to the temples, the materfamilias with her children, and in her finest robes: "cum omni solutae metu, perinde ac si debellatum foret, deis immortalibus grates agerent." I would draw attention to the fact that here is no mere fulfilment of a vow, of a bargain, as some will have it; in this moment of real religious emotion the first thought is one of thankfulness that the pax deorum is restored, and that the Power manifesting itself in the universe, though in the humble form of these dwellers in Roman temples, would permit the long-suffering people once more to feel themselves in right relation to him. As we go on with our studies in the two centuries that follow, let us bear this moment in mind; it will remind us that the religious instinct never entirely dies out in the heart of any people.

I would fain stop at this point, and have done with the war and its religious troubles; but there is one more event which cannot be omitted,--the solemn advent of a new deity, this time neither Greek nor Italian. After the Metaurus battle, the dreaded Hannibal yet remained in Italy, and so long as he was there the Romans could know no security. So far as religion could help them every possible means had been used; there seemed no expedient left. In 205 a pretext for inspecting the Sibylline books was found in an unusual burst of pebble-rain; and there, as it was given out, an oracle was deciphered, which foretold that Hannibal would have to leave Italy if the Magna Mater of Pessinus were brought to Rome.[703] In whose brain this idea originated we do not know, but it was a brilliant one. The eastern cult was wholly unknown at Rome, was something entirely new and strange, a fresh and hopeful prescription for an exhausted patient. The project was seized on with avidity, and supported by the influence of Delphi and of that strange soldier mystic the great Scipio.[704] The best man in the State was to receive the goddess, and when, after many months, she came to Italy in the form of a black stone, it was Scipio who was chosen for the duty. For Attalus, king of Pergamus, had consented to let her go from her Phrygian home; and when she arrived at Ostia, Scipio with all the Roman matrons went thither by land; alone he boarded the ship, received the goddess from her priests, and carried her to land, where the noblest women of the State received her,--received the black stone, that is,--and carried it in their arms in turns, while all Rome poured out to meet her, and burned incense at their doors as she passed by. And praying that she might enter willingly and propitiously into the city, they carried her into the temple of Victory on the Palatine on the 4th of April, henceforward to be a festal day, the popular Megalesia.

This Magna Mater was the first Oriental deity introduced into Rome, and the last deity introduced by the Sibylline books. It is probable that no Roman then knew much about the real nature of her cult and its noisy orgiastic character and other degrading features; it was sufficient to have found a new prescription, and once more to have given the people, and especially the women, a happy moment of hope and confidence. But the truth came out soon enough; and though the goddess must have her own priests, it was ordered by a Senatusconsultum that no Roman should take part in her service.[705] Though established in the heart of the city, and ere long to have her own temple, she was to continue a foreign deity outside the ius divinum. As such she belongs to those worships with which I am not called upon by the plan of these lectures to deal.

Hannibal withdrew at last from Italy, and in 202 the war came to an end. Looking at the divine inhabitants of the city in that year, we may see in them almost as much a colluvies nationum as in the human population itself. Under such circumstances neither the old City-state nor its religion could any longer continue to exist. The decay of the one reflects that of the other; the failure to trust the di indigetes, the constant desire to try new and foreign manifestations of divine power, were sure signs that the State was passing into a new phase. In the next two centuries Rome gained the world and lost her own soul.

Prev | Next | Contents