Roman Republic

Latin Cults

Cult of Feronia

Sabine Territory

Aureus (RIC I (second edition) Augustus 286)

Obverse: Bust of Feronia with diadem, legend TVRPILIANVS IIIVIR FERO|

Reverse:two laurel branches flanking oak-wreath, legend CAESAR AVGVSTVS

© The Trustees of the British Museum

According to Varro (‘On the Latin Language’, 5: 74), Feronia was originally a Sabine goddess.  This was also apparently the view of the moneyer P. Petronius Turpilianus, who advertised his Sabine origins by depicting Feronia on the obverses of a series of eight coins that he issued in or soon after 19 BC, one of which is illustrated above.

Lucas Feroniae

Mount Soracte and the Lucus Feroniae

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

According to Livy (‘History of Rome’, 1: 30: 5), after Tullus Hostilius, the third king of Rome (traditionally 672-642 BC) had defeated Alba, he declared war on the Sabines, alleging that they had seized Roman traders in a crowded market at the fanum Feroniae (shrine of Feronia).  Dionysius of Halicarnasus gave a more elaborate account of this event, in which he described the commercial activities that took place here on the festivals of the goddess:

  1. “People used to come to this sanctuary from the neighbouring cities on the appointed festival days, many of them performing vows and offering sacrifice to the goddess.  Many merchants, artisans and husbandmen also attended, with the purpose of selling their wares during the festive gathering.  Indeed, the fairs that were held here were more celebrated than those held anywhere else in Italy”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 3: 32: 1-2).

These records indicate that, in Roman tradition, the sanctuary of Feronia and the market that was held there were of archaic origin.  Livy made three further references to this shrine in his account of the Second Punic War:

  1. in 211 BC, Hannibal plundered the lucus Feroniae, which the people of Capena and others living close by had endowed with a considerable amount of gold and silver, and to which they brought their first fruits (‘History of Rome’, 26: 11: 8-9); and

  2. prodigies occurred at the lucus Feroniae in the territory of Capena in 210 BC (‘History of Rome’, 27: 4: 14) and 196 BC (‘History of Rome’, 33: 26: 8).

Strabo (‘Geography’, 5: 2: 9, see below) placed the city and sacred precinct of Feronia at the foot of Mount Soracte.  The precise location of this sanctuary came to light in 1952, when excavations at Scorano, near modern Capena, brought to light the base of a statue (still in situ) that contained an inscription (AE 1954, 0162) from the 1st century AD, which commemorated Titus Nasidius Messor, duovir of the colony of Julia Felix Lucus Feroniae, which, according to Laurence Keppie (referenced below, at p. 168), had probably been founded after Actium (31 BC).  Pliny the Elder placed this colony in Etruria, the seventh of  new Italian regions designated by Augustus:

  1. “In the interior, we have the colonies of Falisca quae cognominatur Etruscorum [presumably in Faliscan territory, - see below]; Lucus Feroniae; [Russellae; Saena; and Sutrium]”, (‘Natural History’, 3: 8).

According to Massimilliano di Fazio (referenced below, 2012, at pp. 340-1), the cult site itself was securely identified close to this later colony: the Eagle database contains eight inscriptions from this site dating from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BC that recorded votive offerings to ‘Feronea’ (a spelling only found at this location).  Other archeological evidence indicated that the area was frequented from at least the archaic period and into the Imperial period.  As we might have expected from the documentary evidence presented above, the sanctuary was on the border of the territories of the Sabines, Latins and Capenates, and close to the important trade route along the Via Salaria.

Feronia and Soranus Apollo

Footpath from Lucus Feroniae, over Monte Soratte

Adapted from Google Maps

Soranus Apollo

Virgil (ca. 19 BC) described an archaic battle in which Arruns, an ally of Aeneas, set out to kill the Volscian warrior princess Camilla.  Arruns first sought aid from Apollo, the guardian of Mount Soracte with the following prayer:

  1. “Apollo, highest of the gods (summe deum), guardian of holy Soracte, we are you foremost worshippers.  The blaze of the pine wood heap is fed for us while we, your devotees (cultores), pass through the fire in strength of faith and plant our steps on the deep embers.  Almighty father (pater ... omnipotens), grant that this disgrace [i.e., the threat from Camilla] be effaced by our arms”, (‘Aeneid’, 11: 785, based on the translation by Henry Rushton Fairclough, referenced below, at p. 291).

Virgil thus described Apollo of Mount Soracte as the highest of the gods and the almighty father.  Servius (4th century AD), in his commentary on this passage (‘ad Aeneid’, 11: 785), glossed ‘summe deum’ as Jupiter.  Massimilliano di Fazio (referenced below, 2013b, at p. 235-6) observed that:

  1. “The god that the young Arrunte invokes is not a ‘normal" Apollo: he is the highest of the gods and the guardian of Mount Soracte.  ... Servius’ commentary seems [to indicate a link] between Soranus [see the rest of the commentary below], Apollo and Jupiter.  In reality, [Virgil probably envisaged] a single [summe deum] whom the Faliscans and Capenates knew as  Soranus, and whose characteristics were such that, under Roman influence, [he became] ... assimilated as a young Jupiter ...”, (my translation).

Virgil characterised Arruns as one of the cultores of Apollo of Mount Soracte, which probably indicated that he belonged to a group of worshippers who were formally associated with the cult.  He described a ritual that they performed  in the honour of the god, which involved their walking through fire.  Pliny the Elder (ca. 79 AD) explained that the cultores of Apollo of Mount Soracte came from:

  1. “... a few families in the territory of Faleri ... named the Hirpi, who walk over a charred pile of logs without being scorched at the yearly sacrifice to Apollo near Mount Soracte (ad montem Soracte), and who consequently enjoy exemption under a perpetual decree of the Senate from military service and all other burdens”, (‘Natural History’, 7: 192, translated by Harris Rackham, referenced below, at p. 519).

Two inscriptions that were found on or near Mount Soracte constitute the only surviving evidence for the cult dedicated to a god called Soranus Apollo in Italy:

  1. the now-lost CIL XI 7485, which was on what was probably the base of a small votive offering : C. Varius Hermes/ Sancto Sorano/ Apollini pro sal(ute) sua ... ; and

  2. AE 1992, 0594, from the marble base of a small votive offering that was found near the church of San Silvestro on the summit, which is now in the sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie on the mountain: Sorano/ Apollini/ d(onum) d(edit)/ Ti. Caei(us) Atim[etus.  This inscription has been dated to the 1st century AD.

According to Ivan Di Stefano Manzell (referenced below, 1992, at p. 162), the first of these inscriptions was found on land owned by the Trocci family at Passo della Regina, near Via Flaminia, and preserved in Palazzo Trocchi (now Palazzo Canforo) at Civita Castellana (the site of Falerii Veteres).  I have marked the likely location of this find spot on the map above.   We might reasonably assume from the evidence considered so far that:

  1. Apollo of Mount Soracte (Virgil and Pliny the Elder) and Soranus Apollo (CIL XI 7485 and AE 1992, 0594) referred to the same cult;

  2. Servius was correct when he suggested that, at least by Virgil’s time, this local deity was seen as a form of Jupiter

  3. this cult was closely associated with Mount Soracte;

  4. cultores of this cult offered a ritual sacrifice to this god somewhere on or near the mountain, and this involved their walking on fire; and

  5. the name of the college of cultores contained the word ‘Hirpi’ (which Pliny believed was given to the select families at Falerii from which its member were selected).

Servius (‘ad Aeneid’, 11: 785) had a more exotic description of the cult on Monte Soracte, much of which need not detain us: the salient points can be summarised as follows:

  1. sacrifice to Dis Pater was originally performed on the mountain because it was sacred to the chthonic Di Manes;

  2. according to tradition, one such sacrifice was interrupted when wolves stole the entrails of the sacrificed victim from the fire, and this gave rise to the ritual described by Virgil, in which the cultores walked on fire; and

  3. these cultores were called hirpi Sorani (wolves of Soranus): hirpi was the Sabine word for wolves and Soranus meant Dis Pater, so the hirpi Sorani were the wolves of Dis Pater.

Massimilliano di Fazio (referenced below, 2013, at p. 238) argued that the enormity of the wolves’ putative theft the entrails of the sacrificed animal arose because it had been sacrificed to Dis Pater: in this context.  He cited John Scheid (referenced below, 2005, at pp. 261-2), who established that, according to tradition, the archaic lud Tauri had been established in Rome in order to propitiate Dis Pater, after some parts of the bulls that had been sacrificed to him had subsequently been sold for human consumption, a practice that was forbidden for animals sacrificed to the gods of the underworld.  In other words, for Servius, the hirpi Sorani performed the fire-walking ritual in propitiation for the wolves’ violation of the sacrificial remains that had belonged to Soranus/ Dis Pater.  Di Fazio (as above,  citing Giovanni Colonna, referenced below, in a paper that I have not been able to consult directly) argued that that three of the gods named by Servius, Soranus, Apollo and Dis Pater, probably derived from Suri, an Etruscan god of the underworld who was recorded in inscriptions from at least the 6th century BC: he was known by the Faliscans as Soranus (Roman Dis Pater) and at Cumae as Aplu, an underworld version of Apollo.  On this hypothesis, the names of words Soranus (applied to Apollo) and Soracte (applied to his mountain) would both have been derived from the Etruscan Suri.

Strabo (ca. 7 BC) associated the fire-walking ritual with Feronia and her sanctuary:

  1. “The city of Feronia, at the foot of Mount Soracte, is named for a certain native goddess who is greatly honoured by the surrounding peoples.  Her sacred precinct is in the place, and it has remarkable ceremonies: for, those who are possessed by this goddess walk with bare feet through a great heap of embers and ashes without suffering, and a multitude of people come together at the same time, for the sake not only of attending the festival, which is held here every year, but also of seeing the aforesaid spectacle”, (‘Geography’, 5: 2: 9).

Strabo is the only one of our surviving sources who claimed that the ritual was performed at the Lucus Feroniae, by people who were ‘possessed’ by Feronia (which could mean either that they were devoted to Feronia or that they belonged in some way to her sanctuary).  Scholars generally agree that he was mistaken in locating the ritual here: for example, John Scheid (referenced below, 2016, at p. 81-2) suggested that he had taken some of his information from a putative document in which the Lucus Feroniae and the sanctuary of Soranus Apollo of Mount Soracte had both been assigned to the new triumviral colony at Lucus Feroniae.

However, it is possible that Lucus Feroniae was not the only colony founded near Mount Soracte at this time:

  1. Pliny the Elder recorded another colony at Falisca quae cognominatur Etruscorum; and

  2. the Liber Coloniarum recorded that land:

  3. “... at Colonia Iunonia quae appellatur Faliscos was allocated by triumvirs ...”, (see Brian Campbell, referenced below, at pp. 170-1).

Campbell observed (at note 43, p. 408) that the name ‘Iunonia’ probably derived from the local cult of Juno Curitis, and its inclusion here adds weight to the hypothesis that this was a reference to a triumviral colony.  Ivan Di Stefano Manzell (referenced below, 1990, at p. 354) argued that the title ‘colonia’ here:

  1. “... does not, as far as we know, indicate a legal entity, but rather to the simple nucleus of veteran viritane settlers, probably subsequent to the expropriation of land [in the triumviral period] ...”, (my translation).

At the time that these two authors were writing, there was no known archeological evidence for this putative colony.  However, more recently, Gabriele Cifani (referenced below, at pp. 27-36)  published evidence for a pattern of land division in the plain at Gargarasi (to the northeast of Falerii Veteres, between a surviving stretch of Via Flaminia and the Tiber) that probably indicated the viritane settlement of Roman citizens here on land that was confiscated after the destruction of Falerii Nova in 241 BC: he illustrated (at figure 10, p. 34 and figure 11, p. 35) a pattern of allotments in modules of 8 actus along Via Flaminia, which had been built some twenty years later.  He also noted (at p. 36) that the reference in the Liber Coloniarum (above) of  boundary markers set at 240 and 480 pedes (equal to 2 and 4 actus), implicitly refers to submultiples of the 8 actus modules.  In other words, the triumviral Colonia Iunonia recorded in the Liber Coloniarum could have been located on this centuriated area.  A passage by Strabo provides some support for this hypothesis: having included Falerii and ‘Faliscum’ in a list of small towns in Etruria, he observed that:

“Some ... call the Falerii, not ‘Etruscans’ but ‘Falisci’,  a special and distinct tribe; again, others call Faliscum a city with its own language while, for others. it refers to Aequum Faliscum, which is situated on Via Flaminia, between Ocriculum and Rome”, (‘Geography’, 5: 2: 9).

It is possible that the inscription CIL XI 7485, which was apparently found at Passo della Regina, near Via Flaminia, originally came from this colony.

Punta di Leano, Terracina

Bust of a goddess, probably Feronia  ( late 2nd century BC),

from Punta di Leano, outside Terracina, now in the Museo Civico Pio Capponi, Terracina

Read more: 

Cifani G., “Per una Definizione dei Falisci, tra Identità, Cultura e Territorio”, in:

  1. Cifani G. (editor), “Tra Roma e l’Etruria: Cultura, Identità e Territorio dei Falisci”, (2013) Rome, at pp. 1-54

Di Fazio M.(2013a), “Feronia. Spazi e Tempi di una Dea dell'Italia Centrale Antica”, (2013) Rome

Di Fazio M.(2013b), “Gli Hirpi del Soratte”, in:

  1. Cifani G. (editor), “Tra Roma e l’Etruria: Cultura, Identità e Territorio dei Falisci”, (2013) Rome, at pp. 231-64

Di Fazio M., “Feronia. The Role of an Italic Goddess in the Process of Cultural Integration in Republican Italy”, in:

  1. Roselaar S. (editor), “Processes of Integration and Identity Formation in the Roman Republic”, (2012) Leiden and Boston, at pp. 337-54

Colonna G., “L’ Apollo di Pyrgi, Sur/Suri (il ‘Nero’) e l’Apollo Sourios”, Studi Etruschi, 63 (2009) 101-34

Scheid J., “Rome et les Grands Lieux de Culte d’ Italie”, in:

  1. Vigourt A. et al. (editors), “Pouvoir et Religion dans le Monde Romain: en Hommage à Jean-Pierre Martin”, (2006) Paris, pp. 75-88

Scheid J., “Quand Faire c'est Croire: Les Rites Sacrificiels des Romains”, (2005) Paris

Campbell, B., “The Writings of the Roman Land Surveyors: Introduction, Text, Translation and Commentary”, (2000) London 

Boccali L., “Esempio di Organizzazione delle Fonti Antiche per la Ricostruzione del Quadro della Vita Religiosa di una Città e del suo Territorio in Età Preromana e Romana: Tarracina”, Cahiers du Centre Gustave Glotz, 8:1 (1997) 181–222

Di Stefano Manzella I., “Nuova Dedica a Soranus Apollo e Altre Iscrizioni dal Soratte”, Mélanges de l'École Française de Rome. Antiquité, 104:1 (1992) 159-67.

Di Stefano Manzella I., “Lo  Stato Giuridico di Falerii Novi dalla Fondazione al III Secolo d.C.”, in:

  1. Maetzke G. et al. (editors), “La Civiltà dei Falisci: Atti del XV Convegno di Studi Etruschi ed Italici, Civita Castellana, 28-31 Maggio 1987”, (1990) Florence, at p. 341-68 

Keppie L., “Colonisation and Veteran Settlement in Italy, 47–14 BC”, (1983) Rome

Rackham H. (translator), “Pliny: Natural History, Volume II, Books 3-7”, (1942) Cambridge MA

Rushton Fairclough H. (translator), “Virgil: Aeneid, Books 7-12; Appendix Vergiliana”, (1918) Cambridge MA

Warde Fowler W., “Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic”, (1899) London

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