Roman Republic

Temple of Magna Mater (191 BC)

According to Livy, in 205 BC, towards the end of the Second Punic War:

  1. “The state was ... suddenly occupied with religious matters following the discovery of a prediction in the Sibylline Books, ... according to which:

  2. ‘Whenever a foreign enemy brings war into the land of Italy, he may be driven out of Italy and conquer if the mater Idaea (the mother goddess of Mount Ida in the Troad] should be brought from Pessinus [in  modern Anatolia] to Rome”, (‘History of Rome’, 29: 10: 4-5).

The Romans sent ambassadors, first to Delphi and then to the court of King Attalus I of Pergamum, who

  1. “... received [them] graciously, and conducted them to Pessinus in Phrygia, where he presented them with a sacred stone that, according to the inhabitants, was the Mother of the Gods, and invited them convey it to Rome”, (‘History of Rome’, 29: 11: 7-8).

The sacred stone duly arrived off the coast of Italy in 204 BC.  For reasons that Livy could not understand, the young P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica was chosen as the ‘best man’:

  1. “... to go to Ostia, attended by all the matrons, to meet the goddess: [he was instructed] to receive her from the ship himself and, when landed, to place her in the hands of the matrons  ... [Then], passing her from one to another in orderly succession, [the matrons] conveyed her into the temple of Victory, in the Palatine on [12th] April, which was made a holiday.  Crowds carried presents to the goddess ... There was [also] a banquet of the gods, and games called the Megalesian”, (‘History of Rome’, 29: 14: 10-14).

According to Livy, :

  1. “... the censors, M. Livius Salinator and C. Claudius Nero let the contract for the building [of a new temple to the Magna Mater], in accordance with instructions from the Senate”, (‘History of Rome’, 36: 36: 4). 

As Eric Orlin (referenced below, 1997, at p. 143) pointed out, since the import of the goddess was a collective endeavour, it would be natural for the serving censors to commission her new temple.  Livy then recorded that, in 191 BC:

  1. “... after the lapse of 13 years, [the urban praetor], M. Junius Brutus dedicated it.  According to Valerius Antias, the games that were held on the occasion of its dedication were the first scenic games ever given [in Rome], and were called the Megalesia”, (‘History of Rome’, 36: 36: 4).

As Corey Brennan (referenced below, at p. 124) pointed out, it is noteworthy that the urban praetor dedicated the temple, despite the fact that both of the consuls (P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, who had collected the goddess at Ostia 13 years earlier and M. Acilius Glabrio) were in the city at the time.  He observed that the reason for this might have been purely practical: Nascia was already celebrating his own votive games and Glabrio was preparing to go to war.  However, he also noted that a passage from Dionysius of Halicarnassus suggests that the custom of praetors presiding over the rites of the goddess had been established in 204 BC, when the cult arrive in Rome: Dionysius observed that:

  1. “... even though [the Romans have occasionally] introduced certain rites from abroad in pursuance of oracles, they celebrate them in accordance with their own traditions, after banishing all fabulous clap-trap.  The rites of the Idaean goddess are a case in point: for the praetors perform sacrifices and celebrated games in her honour every year according to the Roman custom, [albeit that] the priest and priestess of the goddess are Phrygians ...”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 2: 19: 3-4).

There are two relevant entries in the fasti Praenestini:

  1. 4th April:

  2. “The games of the mater deum magna Idaea (Great  Mother of the Gods for Mount Ida) ... [are celebrated] because, when goddess was summoned by the Sibylline Books, she moved her home from Phrygia to Rome.”

  3. Thus, although the games that had been held for the first time on 12th April 204 BC, they were subsequently moved to 4th April.

  4. 10th April:

  5. “Games are held in the Circus for the Great  Mother of the Gods for Mount Ida on the Palatine, because on this day her temple was dedicated.

  6. Thus, Brutus had dedicated the temple on 10th April 191 BC.

Cult of the Magna Mater in Rome

As noted above, the formal name for the goddess in Rome was mater deum magna Idaea (the mother of the gods of Mount Ida).  This leads us to recall that Homer referred to:

  1. “... Aeneas, whom fair Aphrodite conceived to Anchises, [King of Troy], among the spurs of Ida”, (‘Iliad’, 2:  820-1). 

Thus, one might  have expected that the Romans would have associated the cult of the goddess with Aeneas, the founder of the city, from the time of its introduction to Rome.  However, as Erich Gruen (referenced below, 1990, at p. 16) pointed out, most of the surviving annalistic sources (including Livy, above) assert that the stone that represented the goddess came from:

  1. “The temple-state of Pessinus, [which] was situated near the border between Galatia and Greater Phrygia, a very long way from Pergamum [and Mount Ida in the Troiad].”

He noted that, if this reflected what had actually happened in 205 BC, then there was no implicit geographical link between the sacred stone on the one hand and Mount Ida and Aeneas on the other.  However, he argued (at p. 19) that:

  1. “A solution [to this apparent conundrum] is at hand.  For the Romans of the later Republic,  ... [the shrine at] Pessinus was the principal functioning shrine of the goddess in Asia Minor ... [However], that assumption need not bind us, ... [since] different circumstances had prevailed in 204 BC.”

Gruen pointed out (at p. 17) that Varro’s etymological conjecture might well have been closer to the truth.  The relevant Varronian passage reads as follows:

  1. “The Megalesia is so called from the Greeks, because, by direction of the Sibylline Books, [the cult of the Magna Mater] was brought from King Attalus of Pergama; there, near the city wall, was the Megalesion (that is, the temple of this goddess), whence she was brought to Rome”, (‘On the Latin Language’, 6: 15, translated by Roland Kent, referenced below, at p. 189)”.

Gruen pointed out (at p. 18) that this statement is:

  1. “... entirely consistent with the stone’s [putative] origin at Mount Ida.  [We might reasonably assume that] Attalus transferred it to Pergamum [before presenting it] to the legates of Rome.”

This association between the goddess and Aeneas was certainly not lost on the Augustan poets:

  1. Jacob Latham (referenced below, at pp. 104-5) pointed out that, in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, the goddess:

  2. “... guided the first steps of the Trojans from their desolated city to Italy [Aen. 2: 692–704].  Even the ships in which Aeneas and his crew set sail were made from[her] sacred pines ...  [Aen. 9: 77–91].”

  3. Later in the poem, these trees were specifically:

  4. “... the sacred pines of [Mount] Ida” (‘Aen.’, 10: 230).

  5. In his long poem relating to the rites of 4th April that celebrated  the arrival of the cult in Rome, Ovid recorded that, centuries earlier:

  6. “When Aeneas carried Troy to the Italian fields, the goddess almost followed the ships that bore the sacred things; but she felt that fate did not yet call for the intervention of her divinity in Latium, and she remained behind in her accustomed place”, (‘Fasti’ 4: 250-4, based on the translation of James Frazer, referenced below, at p. 207).

  7. Clearly, for Ovid, this accustomed place was on Mount Ida.

Erich Gruen (referenced below, 1990, at pp. 18-9) acknowledged that:

  1. “There is nothing to prove that these conceptions of the Augustan age had been fully formed [in 204 BC], when the Romans legates had brought home the sacred stone ... [that represented the goddess.  However, [at least three elements in the historical record]:

  2. the choice of this particular deity;

  3. the elaborate ceremonial [that attended her arrival in Rome]; and

  4. [her] elevation to a place of such honour and distinction on the Palatine itself;

  5. receive readiest explanation [in terms of] Rome’s reassertion of her Trojan origins.”

In a later book, Erich Gruen, referenced below, 1992, at pp. 46-7) linked this putative reassertion to the earlier transfer of the cult of Venus Erycina to Rome:

  1. “A temple of Venus Erycina rose on the Capitol in 215 BC [after Hannibal’s devastating victory over the Romans at Trasimene two years before].  The association with Aeneas, [the son of Venus/ Aphrodite] and Troy plainly provided the central ingredient in this move.  The cult had its origin in Sicilian Eryx, a site where ... Aeneas [was said to have] dedicated a shrine to his mother.”

  2. “[A decade later], when ... Roman success [in the Hannibalic war] seemed assured, the link with Troy gained still more attention: ... the cult of Magna Mater was transported from Mount Ida to Rome and established on the Palatine. ... [This] episode had diplomatic, military and religious implications.  But all were joined by the golden thread of the Trojan legend that announced Rome’s cultural credentials to the nations of the Hellenistic world.”

Read more:

Latham J., “‘Fabulous Clap-Trap’: Roman Masculinity, the Cult of Magna Mater, and Literary Constructions of the Galli at Rome from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity”, Journal of Religion,

92: 1 (2012) 84-122

Brennan T. C., “The Praetorship in the Roman Republic”, (2000) Oxford

Orlin E., “Temples, Religion and Politics in the Roman Republic”, (1997) Leiden, New York, Cologne

Gruen E. S., “The Advent of the Magna Mater”, in

  1. Gruen E. S. (editor), “Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy”, (1990) Berkeley, CA, at pp. 5-33

Kent R. (translator), “Varro: ‘On the Latin Language’: Vol. I: Books 5-7”, (1938) Cambridge MA

Frazer J. (translator), “Ovid: ‘Fasti’”, (1931), Cambridge MA

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