Official Roman culture privileged only patrician males as priestly officiants. Temple sacrifices began with a priest calling out: "Away with the foreigner, the prisoner in chains, the woman, the girl!" These people were forbidden to attend the sacrifices. [Paulus Diaconis, in Scheid, 379] Men controlled all temple functions of the state, even in most of the goddess temples. Only in the temples of Fortuna Muliebris and Bona Dea did priestesses have full rein. [Scheid, 378, 390]

Older female-oriented customs survived as quirks in the system. For example, women carried their sisters' children into the temple of Mater Matuta, and the names of paternal relatives were never pronounced in the precincts of Ceres, though the male flamen cerealis presided over her state cult. [Briffault, 429] Ancient Italic inscriptions show that priestesses had originally led the rites of Ceres, and by the 3rd century BCE the infusion of Eleusinian mysteries from southern Italy once again put a female sacerdos cerealis at the head of a congregation of women celebrants. Roman sources emphasize that this was an exclusively female office. [Spaeth, 3, 20, 59, 103-4]

Rome's official priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, exemplified the code of patria potestas. Here the the paterfamilias was the pontifex maximus, who represented the state at Rome's official hearth. This high priest picked out the Vestal Virgins from groups of twenty aristocratic girls, pointing to his choices with the words, "I seize you, beloved."

The Vestal priestesses served thirty-year terms. They learned during the first ten years, performed the duties in the next ten, and in the last, taught the next generation. Only then were the women free to leave and to marry. The office of high priestess rotated among those who chose to remain. Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. [Young; Worsfold, 21-3. Later, as it got harder to recruit Vestals, plebian girls were admitted, then daughters of freedmen]

The Vestals had certain privileges. Unlike other women, they were empowered to manage their affairs without a male ward and to make wills. They were given front seats at the games, while other women were banished to the farthest seats. Vestals could testify without taking an oath. They were entrusted with treaties, wills, and other important documents, even treasure. A person going to execution was spared if he met a Vestal on the way. Vestals also had the unique right to be buried in the city. But for some this burial was involuntary, and it preceded their death. [Worsfold, 46-51]

For the Vestals also had severe liabilities. The pontifex maximus had the power to strip and flog them for lesser violations of the code, such as allowing the fire to go out. Plutarch wrote that "sometimes the Pontifex Maximus gave them the discipline naked, in some dark place and under cover of a veil; but she that broke her vow of chastity was buried alive by the Colline Gate." [Ibid, 59-60] The priests tightly wrapped her in veils that muffled any protest, bound her into a litter, and carried her to the city walls. There, in the "Field of Sin," she was immured in an underground cell, its steps removed, and the earthworks mounded over her. [Goodrich, 270-76; Worsfold, 60]

The earliest Vestals, at Alba Longa, were whipped to death for sex under any circumstances. This was the fate of Rhea Silvia, the ancestral mother of Rome, even though her virginity was lost through rape. [Worsfold, 62] The Roman king Tarquin instituted the punishment of live burial, which he inflicted on the priestess Pinaria. But whipping with rods sometimes preceded the immuration, as was done to Urbinia in 471 BCE. [Worsfold, 62]

Records show at least 22 vestals accused of breaking the chastity vow. Eighteen of them were buried in the city wall, two committed suicide. There is no record of death for the others; one, the vestal Rubria, was raped by Nero, the other forced to marry the mad emperor Heliogabalus, who soon cast her off. Less exalted men were put to death for having relations with Vestals. [Ibid, 71-3]

Spurious accusations were leveled for a variety of reasons. Minucia fell under suspicion for her rich dress, and so did Postumia, who also got in trouble "for her wit" unbefitting a maiden, according to Livy. Postumia was sternly warned "to leave her sports, taunts and merry conceits," but Minucia was buried alive. [Ibid, 62, 66; Goodrich 283] Aemilia, Licinia, Martia were executed after being denounced by the servant of a barbarian horseman. A few Vestals were acquitted. Some cleared themselves through ordeals; the Vestal Tuccia established her innocence by carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve. [Augustine, De Civitate Dei, X, 16, in Worsfold, 69]

In times of disaster and crisis, Romans blamed impure behavior by the Vestals for the city's calamities. [Pomeroy] Their horrific executions acted as symbolic purgations of the city, much like witch burnings. Emperors found the spectacle politically useful. Domitian ordered the High Vestal Cornelia to be buried alive in 81 CE, refusing to allow her to defend herself. Pliny the Younger explained that "Domitian hoped to make his reign illustrious by such an example." Caracalla (211-17) also buried Vestals alive "pretending they had lost their virginity." [Herodian, in Worsfold, 61, 71-2]

These official murders give little reason to wonder at Plutarch's report that Roman priests performed rites in the "Field of Sin" to placate the spirits of executed vestals.



The state religion permitted a few other women to act as priestesses, but under tight controls. It usually required them to be patrician matrons still married to their first husband (univirae, or "one-man women"). The office of flaminica Dialis (priestess of Jupiter), though restricted to this category of women, was unusual in being part of a priestly couple. The flamen could not sleep away from her for more than three consecutive nights, and lost his office if his wife died. She wore the red veil of Roman brides and officiated at ceremonies in honor of Juno every month. [Scheid, 401] Like the Vestals, the flaminica enjoyed a suspension of male guardianship. [Lefko/Fant, 191]

The officially-sanctioned ceremonies upheld women's legal status as dependent minors. Roman women made offerings to Fortuna Virilis on August 1st so that their blemishes would be hidden from the male gaze. The rite aimed to "regain the loss of the waning affection and the desire of men for their wives or mistresses." [Fasti IV, 133ff, in Webster, 171fn177]

State goddesses like Mater Matuta and Fortuna Primigenia embodied patrician norms in elevating matrons of rank and mothers of sons over other women. Some of their rites replicated rigid Roman class hierarchies. In the Matralia rites, noble, univirae matrons took a slave into the temple of Mater Matuta, in order to drive her out in a fury "with slaps and blows." [quote from Olmsted, 251; Scheid, 386, 405]

Though barred from most official temple culture, ordinary Roman women celebrated their own rites commemorating birth, harvest, and death. They laid out offering tables for Juno Lucina for a week following every birth. (Newly initiated Vestal priestesses offered locks of their hair to this same goddess, hanging them from a tree sacred to her.) [Palmer,19]

Every woman could offer sacrifice, burn incense, pour the libation, play instruments, dance, and sing magic formulas for all the rites of the life cycle... she could sing the dirges [nenia] and make the gesture [planctus] appropriate for calling out to the deceased [conclamatio]. She could carry out the immemorially old customs of primitive faith. [Drinker, 146]

Italian women kept the ancient goddess veneration alive in its pre-Roman sanctuaries. Wreath-crowned votaries carried torches to Diana's temple at Nemi, where a volcanic lake was surrounded on three sides by forested cliffs. A bronze priestess pouring libation shows the cultural mix at Nemi circa 125 BCE: she wears an Italianate diadem, Greek robes and a Celtic torc. [Brendel, 428-9] Diana Nemorensis ("of the grove") was related to the Celtic forest goddesses venerated at Nemetona, Nemetobriga, Arnemetia.

The lake at Nemi was called the Mirror of Diana, and was fed by the spring of Egeria, another goddess worshipped there. [Darrah, 28]. Women came to Egeria's sanctuary to pray for children and easy birth: "Almost countless clay models of the uterus have been found near her shrine, together with the torch, the symbol of midwives and of the Mater Matuta, who in the early hours of the morning opened the uterus and bade the baby come forth." [Hurd-Mead, circa 49] The sanctuary of Nemi at Aricia remained an important center of goddess veneration under the empire. Its priestesses welcomed the votaries of Isis, and a relief found at the site depicts African women dancing in ecstasy before the goddess.

Another major religious center was the Roman temple of Diana on the Aventine Hill. An ancient bronze pillar stood there, inscribed with the Aventine canon: laws governing the festivals of all Latin cities. Every hearth in Italy celebrated the festival of Diana on August 13th. The goddess had another grove at Tibur, where she was called Opifera, "help-bringing." [Palmer, 58, 77]

This was also a title of the "good goddess" Bona Dea, whose temples nourished a culture of female sovereignty and resistance. Tradition said that women built the sanctuary of Bona Dea in the distant past, and its association with the women's mysteries endured. [Drinker; Goodrich, 256] No men were allowed in this temple or the nearby temple of Diana, the headquarters of plebian women. Diana was seen as a protector of the oppressed classes, especially the enslaved. This was true of Bona Dea and Ceres as well. [Spaeth, 92, identifies Ceres as a plebeian goddess.]

Bona Dea's temple in Rome was built over a cave where priestesses kept sacred serpents. An ancient source says that these snakes "neither felt nor inspired fear." Statues of the goddess show a snake coiling around her right arm, drinking from an offering bowl in her hand. Her left arm cradles a cornucopia, the attribute of Fortuna and Terra Mater. The priestesses of Bona Dea kept an herbarium: "... all kinds of herbs are found in her temple, from which the priestesses mostly make medicines which they distribute..." [Hurd-Mead, 49; Scheid, 391-400, 1st quote 391; 2nd quote, Brouwer, 224]

At the sanctuary of Bona Dea in Paestum archaeologists have discovered body images "left by cured or ailing women" along with quantities of wine cups. "Over the centuries, her intercession was variously sought for such purposes as healing, fertility, being freed from slavery, fruitfulness in agriculture and for the protection of the entire Roman people." [Pace]

Inscriptions shower Bona Dea with titles: Caelestis, Augusta, Sancta ("holy"), Heia, Regina Triumphali, Lucifera ("light-bringing"), Obsequens ("well-disposed"), Opifera ("aid-bringing"), Pagana, Agrestis and Sevina (goddess of the fields and of seeds). As Domina ("lady"), she is thanked for healing an eye disease. She is linked to other goddesses: Fortuna, Ceres, Juno, the Parcae, Hygeia, and Venus Cnidia. [Brouwer, 236, 346, 376, 388-92, 416, 419, titles; 235, 315, 312, 413-19 on goddesses]

Bona Dea was itself a title, not the actual name of the goddess, which was taboo. Servius wrote that "it was forbidden to call her by her name." Devotees knew her as Fenta Fauna or Fenta Fatua. As Fauna, Bona Dea was depicted as an old woman with pointed ears holding a serpent. The title Fatua, though Latin, was also taken by goddesses of southern Gaul. Fenta was the name of a Gaulish goat-goddess the Romans called Caprina Galla. Her Roman counterpart was Juno Caprotina, who wore a goatskin cloak and drove a chariot drawn by goats. Enslaved women were prominent among her devotees. [Brouwer, 221; Palmer, 167, 16, 35]

[Graphic: Fenta Fauna giving the breast to a goat amidst dancing, music-making women. Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii]

The names Fatua and Fauna are both associated with oracular cults. The name Fatua comes from fatuari, "to speak for," implying prophetic utterances inspired by the goddess, with overtones of the Fatae, goddesses of destiny. Fauna and Faunus were linked to prophecies spoken in ecstatic or intoxicated states. The rites of Bona Dea were celebrated with wine, music and "revelry." [Brouwer, 369: see also 335, where Pliny links intoxication and stupor with the language of prophecy] The serpent coiled around her arm had prophetic significance (as with the Pythia) and symbolized healing power (as with the Greek goddess Hygeia).

Cornelius Labeo equated the "Good Goddess" with Earth and Maia and Ops, as the source of all life, caring and help for living things. He noted that she was likened to Juno and Proserpina and Hecate and Semele. Bona Dea had two festivals, one on May 1st -- a date that never relinquished its link with the pagan mysteries -- and a nocturnal, movable feast around December 3. The May rites included the sacrifice of a pregnant sow, traditionally offered to Terra Mater and Ceres. Matrons wearing purple headbands roasted the pig on the hearth, offering its bacon to Bona Dea with libations. The eldest woman presided, while young women took part in public games. [Labeo from Macrobius, in Brouwer, 224; 351; Scheid, 391]

Cicero knew of no cult older than Bona Dea's. [Brouwer, 257] He and other writers portrayed it as restricted to patrician women, a claim dramatically contradicted by the epigraphic evidence. Inscriptions show freed slaves as the single largest category of Bona Dea devotees-- and priestesses. Plebians are well-represented too. Lower-class devotees dedicated hundreds of inscriptions to Bona Dea at altars, wells, and sanctuaries, as well as donating mirrors, basins, sacrificial tables, and temple repairs. [Brouwer, 256-7, 262ff, 281ff presents masses of evidence against the patrician claims.]

The literary sources also emphasize that all males were excluded from the mysteries of Bona Dea, including animals, and male images were covered up during rites held in homes. And there is no question that the Bona Dea rituals took place in female space. But men also dedicated offerings to the "Good Goddess," and a few are even listed as priests. [Ibid, 281, 255-8] Whatever men were admitted to the rites were certainly selected by the women,and participated on their terms.

[Graphic: One of hundreds of Bona Dea images with a snake coiled around her arm]

Mythology illuminates this emphasis on Bona Dea as a women's goddess. She is actually called Feminea Dea, and her mythology highlights the Roman oppression of women. She was a goddess of entranced prophecy linked to archaic shrines of the Fatae at Albunea, the seat of the Tiburtine sibyl. Lactantius alludes to her prophecies: "... she was called Fatua since she used to foretell women their fate, as Faunus did men." [Brower 216] And it was the priests of Faunus who took over the Albunean oracle from the female sibyls.

Fenta Fauna is called the wife, or daughter, or sister of Faunus. His exact relation to her is less important than his abuse of power: he beats her to death with myrtle sticks. Plutarch explains that her husband, the seer Faunus, killed her in this manner when he discovered she had been secretly been drinking wine-- a pleasure forbidden to women under the old Roman law. Caning was a traditional Roman punishment of wives. Arnobius repeats the same story, using the name Fenta Fatua. [Brouwer, 356, 196, 233]

Lactantius summed up the revisionist account of the goddess, claiming that she owed her divinity to her batterer who, repenting of killing his wife, "conferred divine honor on her..." Another patrician interpretation converted the subversive women's mysteries into a mindless embrace of the conventional patrician code of female seclusion. Varro attributed women's veneration of Bona Dea to her great modesty, so intense "that no man, except her husband, has ever seen her during her lifetime or has ever heard her name." Servius agreed, making Faunus' daughter "the chastest of all women and well-trained in all skills." [Brouwer, 218, 221]

Macrobius reported another version with another theme of female oppression: Faunus tried to force his daughter to have sex with him, and beat her with myrtle twigs when she resisted. He prevailed over her by turning into a serpent and penetrated her in this form. [Brouwer, 224] By all accounts, Fauna struggles against a male in authority over her, who responds with violence.

All sources agree that myrtle twigs were forbidden in the precincts of Bona Dea, and that her rites involved a vessel of wine covered with a cloth, always referred to as the honey-jar, and its contents as milk. [Arnobius, in Brouwer, 216, Macrobius, in 224] Wine was a sacrament, as in the Dionysian mysteries. The tabooed mention of wine harks back to the role its prohibition to women played in the primary myth of Fenta Fauna, who was put to death for drinking it, as demanded by old Roman law.

This injustice, and the battery and rape of Fauna, symbolized women's oppression to the votaries of Bona Dea. Patriarchy was the reason for the exclusion of men from the rites, and the desire to preserve the ancient mysteries from further appropriation. Along the same lines, Macrobius compared Bona Dea to Medea, another wronged woman who was deified: "... no man may enter her temple on account of the wrong she suffered at the hands of her thankless husband Jason." [Brouwer, 224]

Bona Dea was the only old Roman deity who admitted freed slaves to the priesthood, as did the foreign religions of Kybele, Isis, and Mithras. No social distinction between ex-slaves and the freeborn was evident in the veneration of Bona Dea. Many devotees and magistrae (priestesses) were of foreign origin. They formed collegia that, in addition to celebrating the rites, functioned as social clubs and burial societies. [Ibid, 258 fn25, 373] Neighborhoods were named after the goddess; one source has "the women of the Bona Dea quarter" treated to mead and cakes. [Brouwer, 385]

Festivals and shrines of Diana and the Bona Dea became the focus of a female culture of resistance that encompassed oppressed classes and foreigners. To the unease of patrician men, matrons of rank, prostitutes, poor women, and slaves participated together in the rites of Bona Dea and in the increasingly popular African and Asian religions. Tibullus warned husbands: "Be on your guard whenever she goes out and says she is going to visit Bona Dea's sanctuary, forbidden for men." [Brouwer, 177]

Men of the senatorial class were hostile to the mystery religions. These sodalities were considered all the more subversive for welcoming "despised sectors of society, such as women and slaves." Senator Cassius Longinus denounced large households with foreign slaves whose religion was different than their masters. Over a century later, Juvenal complained about the Syrians and other foreigners pouring into Rome. [L/W, 109-10]

Rome was repressing foreign religions as early as 213 BCE, according to Livy. [Vermaseren, 38] The Senate interdicted the Mysteries twice during the Republic, in 186 BCE and again in 64 CE, when Augustus abolished all the collegia. They came back, but the state tried to keep them under a tight rein. [Brouwer, 374]

The center of the ecstatic Mysteries was the Aventine hill. This rural part of the city was home to some of Rome's oldest temples, such as those of Carmenta, Mercury, and Diana. It was the headquarters of Bona Dea, where plebeian worship of the Aventine triad -- Ceres, Liber and Libera -- thrived. Many foreigners settled in this commoners' quarter, bringing their own religions. The Aventine became the center of multicultural cross-pollination of deities, rites and symbols. [Pailler, 42, 130]

Among them were very old deities of pre-Roman Latium. The goddess Ops was honored in the Consualia, celebrating the storage of harvested grain, on the Aventine. [Pouthier, 103fn] Worshippers of the goddess Stimula ("goad") entered into divine possession in a sacred wood at the bottom of Aventine hill, along the Tiber river. Stimula was eventually syncretized with Ceres (interchangeable with Tellus and Ops) and with Semele, the mother of Dionysos. (A fresco in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompei depicts her as a winged being who whips a kneeling devotee with a cane.)[Pailler, 251, 94, 133-4]

[Graphic: Ceres-Demeter with serpents, grain, and poppies]

Many newcomers to the Aventine were of nationalities defeated and deported by the Romans, especially Etruscans and Campanians. The southerners brought in Eleusinian, Dionysian and Orphic rituals from their homeland, which the Romans called Magna Graecia. Most of the priestesses of Ceres came from this region.

In the supplications of the ritus Graecus, great processions of singing women wound their way along the Tiber to the Aventine temple of Juno. These rites blended easily with the Aventine cults of Ceres, Stimula and Mater Matuta. [Pailler, 250, 278-9, 131, 6, 10; Scheid, 394] On certain days the women raised a lamentation at every crossroads, as Ceres had cried out and, wrote Servius, "just as in [the rite] of Isis." [Spaeth, 107]

The mystery religion that emerged from this fusion came to be called the Bacchanalia. A growing number of Roman women were attracted to the rites, where they stepped outside of male control and into a ceremonial world led by women: "Always in Dionysian initiation scenes, it is women who act as the leaders and initiators: the women have control of the veiled men or boys who are evidently the neophytes." [Godwin, 41] The majority of initiates were female.

Titus Livy acknowledged that these mysteries "had at first been a woman's sanctuary, and ordinarily no man was admitted... usually matrons were chosen in turn to act as priestesses." [Paillier, XIII, 8] This statement, of course, contradicted Livy's own claim that the whole thing had been started by a low-born Greek man. Unfortunately, his transparently biased account is virtually the sole historical source on the first mass witch hunt. Livy presents the official senatorial rationale for the "pitiless repression" that stamped out the matres bacchicae in 186 BCE. [Ibid, 14, 596]



Evil omens preceded the storm. The Capitoline temple of Ops was struck by lightning. There were prodigies: a rain of stones, spectral fires, and a hermaphrodite was found -- and killed -- in Umbria. [Pouthier, 139] Suddenly, leading patricians were accusing the Bacchanals of poisoning, ritual murder, sexual deviance, and treason. As Livy tells it, the celebrants feasted, drank wine and

... all feelings of shame extinguished, they abandoned themselves to all kinds of debauchery... not limited to faceless coupling of male and female... also poisonings and internal murders, to the point that sometimes the body could not even be found for burial... This violence was hidden by the shouts and noise of the drums and cymbals so that none of the cries for help could be heard... There is no crime or misdeed which they have not committed. There is more debauch between men than with women. [Pailler]

Already, in the second century BCE, major charges of the European witch hunt are already being used to suppress a popular religion: secret nocturnal meetings; with women in the leading roles; who initiate their children into the cult; in ecstatic rites with music, dancing and cries; celebrating a feast followed by debauched orgies; the highlighting of gay sex; allegations of ritual murder and other terrible crimes.

The only missing ingredients are the devil -- christianity had not yet come into being -- cannibalism, shapeshifting and flight. These last three already existed in stereotypes of the strix (screech-owl-witch) and were, in fact, used to persecute individual witches, as Roman literature tells us. But they had yet to be fused into the emerging ideology of a massive social conspiracy. The female-led Mysteries, however, were already being cast as a fast-growing sect threatening Roman society and morality itself.

Livy assured his readers that this scourge had spread like a contagious plague from Etruria to Rome. The numbers of the Bacchanals were growing rapidly, so that they had become "an immense multitude, already almost a second people..." Worst of all, Roman youth were being initiated into this cult, and even nobles participated in it.

[Grahic: Ceremonial marble throne with serpent, cloak, and lion's feet, 25 BCE - 100 CE. A Roman relief portrayed such a throne at Kybele's temple, and another stood at her roadside shrine in Corinth. These pagan thrones were the models for bishops' cathedra.]

Suspiciously, the official story shows this extensive and dangerous cult being discovered only by accident, under high suspect circumstances. The charges originate with the youth Aebutius and his concubine Hispala, a freedwoman. His stepfather had wasted his inheritance and his mother had thrown him out of the house after he refused her plans to initiate him (or so he said) into the Bacchanalia.

One possibile scenario is that the step-father was plotting to cast Aebutius as a furiosus (possessed) in order to gain legal control of his paternal estate. [Ibid, 586-7] In any case, the youth had motivations for revenge. The story says that his mistress had warned him not to join, saying that terrible depravaties went on in the Mysteries. Aebutius went to his father's sister, and she advised him to go to the consul Postumius with his story. The consul's sister summoned Hispala, who almost fainted in terror when she saw the high officials waiting for her.

Again, Livy's account has an uncanny resemblance to 16th-century witch trial transcripts: the officials order the trembling Hispala to "never fear, tell the truth, tell what goes on in the sacred wood of Stimula, during the nocturnal ceremonies of the Bacchantes." She remained speechless for awhile, finally saying that she had only gone as a child many years ago. She refused to say more, but the consul said that she would not be pardoned if she didn't tell.

The combination of coercion, fear, and the admonition to "tell the truth" is chillingly similar to medieval inquisitorial procedure, which in fact followed the Roman model of trial by torture. Livy's account is not from the perspective of the vulnerable Hispala, but of her patrician interrogators. The "informant" is their terrified prisoner. And so "Hispala's" story of the Bacchanals unfolds according to their agenda: how those who won't stand for infamous crimes "are immolated as victims," and how the highest mark of devotion is not to hold anything as evil.

Elements of the true rites are visible here and there, though presented in a negative light. The matrons "predict the future with frenetic contortions" and rush down to the Tiber river, plunging their torches into the water and take them out still burning (a feat accomplished by mixing chemicals into the tar). The leader is Paculla Annia, a southern priestess from Campania. Livy claimed that she had changed policy (in 188 BCE) by admitting men-- though it seems clear that men had participated before that-- and increased the frequency of the rites.

Having fulfilled the officials' demands, Hispala fell at their feet and begged them to let her go, but they weren't through with her yet. They locked her in a room in the house of the consul's sister, removing the outside staircase as a precautionary measure. The consul brought the matter before the senate, which ordered an "extraordinary investigation" into the nocturnal assemblies and "clandestine conjurations." The quaestio extra ordine permitted torture and stripped defendants of any right to appeal. It was the same provision of Roman law, resurrected by medieval canonists, that later fueled the great European witch hunts.) [Ibid, 253-7]

The Senate offered a reward to anyone who denounced participants in the Bacchanalia. Officials were ordered to "seek out the priests of these cults, whether men or women," in Rome and in the provinces. Edicts outlawed any meetings of initiates of the mysteries "or any religious ceremony of the same kind." Devotees were to be arrested, and vigilant watch kept for secret rites or meetings.

[Graphic: Ceres bearing torches. Initiates carried them in nocturnal processions of the Mysteries, and they symbolized midwives as well as Ceres.]

A public assembly was called. Consul Postumius reminded the men of Rome that the only true gods were those of their ancestors, not "those of perverse foreign ceremonies which, as if under the furies' goad [here he refers to the trance goddess Stimula] prompt their minds to every crime and sexual depravity." He added that his description could only hint at the abominations that the Bacchanals had committed:

In the first place, most of them are women, and this was the source of the evil; then, men resembling women, violators and rapists [!?!?] and fanatics hardened by sleeplessness, tumult, and nocturnal shoutings.

Postumius said the conspiracy was still small enough to crush, but growing day by day. He deplored the mixing of males and females at these gatherings, and the initiation of Roman boys. How can youth enrolled under such a banner be made into soldiers? Should debauched men from an obscene sanctuary be the ones to fight for your women and children's chastity? "It would be less serious if their turpitude had only made them effeminate," but they were guilty of much more. The consul summed up with a staggering accusation:

"All the crimes committed in these last years, whether sexual, treasonous, or criminal, came from this sanctuary, and from it alone."

The only remedy, urged Postumius, was the harshest repression: a hunt for the wicked devotees of the Mysteries, followed by mass executions. Roman men must reject any members of their families who had "fallen into this debauch and madness." Long ago, he reminded the assembled men, their forefathers had ordered the judges to keep foreign rites and diviners out of Rome. These "depraved" alien religions are the cause of "every form of crime and lust." So Romans should not be disturbed by religious sentiments when they see the Bacchanals under attack. Nor are their assemblies lawful: "Your ancestors did not wish you to come together without a legitimate authority in control of the crowd." The repression about to take place has received the gods' blessing, declared the consul, and every good citizen must carry out its orders.

Panic swept Rome, then all Italy. The night of the speech, many people trying to flee the city were arrested by guards posted at the city gates. Thousands more were denounced. Some known initiates, male and female, killed themselves. Others succeeded in escaping from Rome; many of those denounced could not be found. Officials staged dragnet searches and inquests in the suburbs.

There were rumored to be more than 7,000 conjurari. Recent initiates were imprisoned, but all the rest -- thousands of people -- were condemned to death. The state followed the old policy of allowing men to punish female relatives in the privacy of the home. [Robson, 40; Pomeroy, 160]

"The convicted women are turned over to their relatives or to those in whose hands they are [male guardians], so that they will punish them in private; if there is no one to carry out the execution, it will be done in public."

In other words, those who hesitated to put their female kin to death faced the certainty that the state would do it for them, disgracing their manhood. A bloodbath ensued of which no further details were recorded, carried out in secret by the paterfamilias against sisters, daughters, wives, and slaves.

No mention is made of Paculla's fate, though she must have died a terrible death. Her sons were arrested as leaders and tortured into denouncing others, who were duly executed. The senate erected a stone forbidding all secret assemblies and empowering the authorities to stamp them out. They further enacted a proscription of diviners and foreign magicians. Senators rewarded Aebutius and Hispalla out of the public treasury, promoting her to a higher social rank so the couple could legally marry.

Instead of being cowed by collective punishment, the survivors seem to have retaliated; in the following years (184-80 BCE) numerous matrons were accused of poisoning their husbands. This was not the first time such charges would be brought in Rome, and it was far from being the last. [Scheid, 399, mentions similar charges in 331 and 153 BCE.] Husband-poisoning was still a problem in 17th-century Italy, at the height of the early modern witch hunts.

Rome extended its repression of the mystery cults into the provinces. In Apulia, Toynbee writes of a"witch-hunt of bacchanals on the run" in 185-4 BCE. The crackdown triggered riots of slaves and shepherds, linked to "remnants of the Bacchanalia." The Roman consul's severe reprisals were not enough to prevent a recurrence. Meanwhile, thousands fled for their lives. Rome was still stamping out the last embers of southern resistance in 181 BCE. [Pailler, 301-6, 276-7, 298. He cites C. Gallini's theory that the Bacchic cult was a liberation movement of the marginalized, from "below." She ties it to "slave conspiraces" in Etruria. R. Turcan brings in Osco-Campanians' rage at the Roman conquest in 211. Ibid, 107]

But the rulers of Rome ultimately failed to wipe out the Mysteries. They were eventually forced to concede legal status and citizenship to the priestesses of Ceres, in return for their acting on the state's behalf. They became the only females, other than the Vestals, in charge of a state-supported cult. [Pomeroy, in Spaeth, 105] But the price of this concession was a diminished sphere of unsupervised female ritual action. Cicero's treatise on Laws (2. 21) lays out the official position:

Let there not be nocturnal sacrifices by women, except those which are made on behalf of the people according to proper form; nor let anyone initiate anyone [female], except as is customary to Ceres in the Greek ritual. [Spaeth, 105]



By the time of the Republic, the sibyls had become mythical figures, and educated men struggled to reconstruct what the lost Sibylline books might have contained. The common people, who were confirmed wearers of amulets and consulters of soothsayers, regularly sought out witches. [Lane, 203; Scheid, 397] Multitudes of diviners and healers practiced their professions in the countryside and in the slums of Rome, Alexandria and Marseilles. Many writers refer to street prophetesses called pythonissae. [Lane, 208]

[Graphic: Peasant consulting a street diviner at Pompeii.]

These common witches were despised by elite Roman men, who are our only source of information about them. Many writers disparaged "old women's superstition." [Scheid, 397] Artemidorus of Daldis was looked down on for associating with "street diviners." [Lane, 155. Modern writers perpetuate similar negative views of the ordinary Roman witch; Cumont, 187, called them "equivocal beggar-women who plied their miserable trades in the lowest quarter of the slums."]

One historian of Roman culture remarks that women's magic was seen as "the antithesis of lawful religion." [Scheid, 400] Yet even the hostile literary sources show witches using the repertoire of the priestess: chanting invocations, pouring libations and making offerings to Hecate and other goddesses. These religious acts were seen as threatening coming from the most oppressed members of Roman society: common women, slaves, and freedwomen. Their invocation of the ancestral dead was especially tabooed, as a privilege restricted to the paterfamilias.

The fear of female power is reflected in Virgil's description of a priestess at the temple of the Hesperides: "She engages with her incantations to bring at pleasure peace to minds or to fill them with heavy cares; to stop the flow of rivers and turn back the stars in their courses; she arouses the nocturnal ghosts; you will see the earth groan beneath her feet and the trees descend from the mountains." [Lea, 109]

[Graphic: Triple Hecate altar, Pergamum. Bronze, 200-500 CE.]

Though the priestess possesses vast power, she is repeatedly described as wielding it in opposition to its natural movement, to destructive effect. Witches are described in identical terms, in a litany repeated by Ovid, Horace, Tibullus and Lucan: they turn the course of rivers, summon clouds, winds and storms, and dispel them. [Mora, 167-8] Seneca's maga roams hidden forests in bare feet, brings rain, holds back the tide. [Menendez-Pelayo, I 299]

In Horace, the witch Folia "enchants the stars and moon, and snatches them from the sky." The fascinatrix in Tibullus also drives the lights from the sky. He depicts her rending the earth with her chants, calling up the dead and devouring bones from funeral pyres. Lucan calls the Thessalian witches "... a race hateful to the gods, cunning in ways to defile the heavens," with the power to "turn the constellations off course and perverse fixed laws of nature." [Weyer, in Mora, 167]

Roman writers understood male domination to be part of that fixed order, which witchcraft subverted. The same was true of slaves; Columella counseled masters to forbid their slaves to consult sagae ("wisewomen.") Horace described the witch Canidia as having learned from the conquered Sabine and Marsi tribes, as well as from an old woman of Paelignia. [Tavenner, 26, 23] The lines of transmission ran along groups subordinate by gender, class and ethnicity.

The salient tools of Roman witchcraft are verbae et herbae: "words and herbs." [Tavenner, 30] In Virgil, the witch searches for "flourishing herbs," clipping them with brass sickles by moonlight. [Weyer, in Mora, 168] Horace's Canidia and Sagana gather magic herbs, wearing cords with love-knots on their arms. They make wool and wax images, and use incantations to bend men to their will. [Tavenner, 17-19] Theocritus depicts the Greek witch Simeta invoking the moon goddess to help women whose lovers desert them.

Some writers described witches taking off their clothes, burning incense, and rubbing oil on their bodies. This rite gave them the power to shapeshift, acquiring beaks and wings, and to fly through the night. [Baroja, 35] Such witches were called strix, "screech owls," or strigae in the plural.

In the Metamorphoses, Lucius peeked through the door while Pamphile stripped and rubbed her body with unguent, speaking charms to the lamp. Then "she shook all parts of her body, and as they gently moved, behold, I perceived a plume of feathers did burgeon out upon them, strong wings did grow, her nose became more crooked and hard, her nails turned into claws, and so Pamphile became an owl." When Lucius followed suit, he was turned into an ass. Pamphila returned to human form by drinking and bathing in anise-laurel potion. [Tavenner, 35; Lea, 170]

The Roman idea of strigae rubbing their naked bodies with mysterious oils that gave them the power to shapeshift and fly was resurrected in the Renaissance witch hunts. Another influential factor was the idea, expressed in late Roman sources, of Diana as the leader of witches who shapeshift and fly by night, or ride on magical animals. [Pocs, 10]

Forbidden female sexuality loomed large in Latin witchcraft. Even Apuleius wrote of the lusty witch Pamphile that "she burned unnaturally,"and turned those who spurned her "filthy desire" into animals or stones. His other witch, Meroë, is Nubian, named for the ancient capital of Sudan. Apuleius described her as a wanton old woman who turned her ex-lover into a beaver, a rival innkeeper into a frog, and a lawyer who slandered her into a ram. "When the men of her village called a council to devise means of punishing her, she uttered her incantations and evoked the spirits of the dead so effectively that each man was barred in his home for two days." Meroë avenged herself on the headman by sending him and his house through the sky to a distant place. [Tavenner, 31-3]

Some scholars think Horace's unflattering caricature of the witch Canidia in the Satires was inspired by his antipathy to Gratidia, a perfume-seller from Naples. [Baroja, 33-35] He also got off a shot at Folia, another famous Neopolitan witch, showing her taking part in a nefarious ceremony in which four witches bury a boy alive up to his chin, starving him with food just out of reach. His liver and marrow, full of longing, were supposed to have been used in a potion to control a lover. [Epode V, in Tavenner, 20-1]

Lucan makes similar accusations in his Pharsalia. He portrays the witch Erichtho as using corpses, body parts and ashes, even as killing the living as pact of demonic pacts, tearing infants from the womb. Thin, pale, with unbound hair, she lives in deserted tombs. "When about to raise the prophetic spirit she ties back her hair with a wreath of vipers." [Tavenner, 30]

A story by Petronius offers a description of folk witchcraft with a more authentic ring. A little old woman cured a man's impotence with a multicolored skein: "She drew from her bosom a magic cord twisted together with threads of various colors, and wound it around my neck." Mixing spittle and dust on his forehead, she instructed him to spit three times, and to cast an enchanted, purple-wrapped pebble into the folds of his robe thrice. Then she massaged his mid-parts, making the cure manifest. [Tavenner, 37]

Prostitutes, who were experts on birth control, abortion, love spells, and healing, were strongly connected with witches in the Roman mind. Ovid created a witch character who was a procuress (lena, a word often used to connote witch in Latin). [Tavenner, 25] He named her Dipsas ("thirsty one"), portraying her as "a drunken and spiteful old lady." She knew herbs and magical substances, flew by night as a bird, and conjured spirits of the dead. [Baroja, 33-35]

Midwives were another group that Roman writers, including Plautus, Ovid, and Terence, disparaged and ridiculed. Herbalists and wisewomen were often called "poisoners," (veneficae) and even women physicians (medicae, obstetricae, sagae) "were often classed with abortionists and poisoners." [Hurd-Mead, 51-4] The Cornelian law under Sulla (81 BCE) included contraceptives and potency mixtures in its prohibition of "poisoned drinks." [Ranke-Heinemann, 69] About a century later, Juvenal slammed women for promiscuity and laziness, which he called the "evils of a long peace." He condemned rich women for using contraceptive and abortifacient drugs, but advised husbands not to interfere lest their wives give birth to the child of an Ethiopian. [L/F, 154-5]

A Roman law of the 200s CE ordered exile for a wife who attempted abortion against the father's wishes, for her defiance of paternal privilege. Women who attempted abortions were suspected of trying to cover up illicit love affairs. But the paterfamilias was empowered to force abortions on his wives and slaves. [R-H, 69; Lane, 347; Rouselle, 308-9, 320] And not only that: while Roman law punished women for contraception and abortion, it allowed fathers -- and only fathers -- to put to death live babies they did not want: girls, the disabled, and babies whose paternity they denied. Customarily they killed them by exposure to the elements. Almost all these infanticides were directed at girls. Mothers had no legal standing to oppose them.

Yet within this patriarchal reality of fathers ordering babies' deaths, it was females who were being blamed as mythical child-killers. Charges that the strigae murdered babies were widespread in imperial Roman society. Ovid has them rob nursing infants from their cradles and destroy them. In Pliny, striges kill babies by suckling them at their poisonous breasts. [Bonomo, 41-2] A lower-class character in Petronius tells how strigae beat up a strong man and then substituted a straw doll for a child. He says that there are certain very wise women who are able to overthrow the natural order of things by night. [Baroja, 33-43]

The idea of witches challenging male domination is already well-developed, as is the eruption of violence against elder women believed to have these powers. Horace's Epodes indicate that Romans already accused witches of putting murdered children into brews with toads' blood (a claim revived by Renaissance demonologists). He refers to old women chased through the streets and stoned by crowds. [Baroja, 33-43] An epitaph for the boy Iucundus, circa 20 CE, blames his death on witches, accusing them of killing him for magical purposes. [Lefko/Fant, 255; Horace: Epodes 5.]

The Twelve Tables prescribed death for those who practiced sorcery against others' crops. Later laws targeted those who practiced incantations or gave poisonous drugs (often this meant contraceptives or abortafacients). [Ewen, 1-2] We know of Roman women condemned to death for incantations and sorcery. [R. Pettazoni, in Bonomo, 481, fn17] But traditionally their executions (alternatively, whipping with rods) took place in secrecy, at the hands of male relatives, husbands or guardians. Thus the persecution of common witches is under history's water line, having been considered unremarkable and not worth recording, unlike the repression of elite philosophers or male magicians.

Witchcraft encompassed social rebellion. Imperial Roman law used torture in inquisitio into female adultery, poisoning and sorcery. [Russell, 152] Women and slaves were the main targets of this repression. Slaveholders feared plots and poisoning and sorcery by their slaves and wives. [Lea; Schaff; Russell, 152]

Rome was burning witches and magicians at the stake before the christian era, and crucified those who participated in their rites. Prophets were beaten and expelled from Rome, and imprisoned or deported if they returned. [Paul, Sent. 5,21,1; Hunter 1068] Not infrequently they were beaten to death. [Garnsey, 110]

Nero severely persecuted magicians and intellectuals: "the distinctive garment of the philosopher was sufficient to bring its wearer before the tribunals." The Chaldean sage Musonius was imprisoned. Caracalla punished people who wore amulet pendants to prevent fevers. The state burned thousands of books of magic, and executed their owners or, if they were of high rank, deported them. [Lea, 392-3; Bonomo, 45]

Emperors feared their enemies would engage in divination about their death, or magic to bring about the end of their reign. In early Roman law only these magical acts were punished by the death penalty, but once opened, the breach widened rapidly. [Garnsey, 110] Magic was punished by crucifixion or exposure to animals in the arena.

In 172 BCE the emperor had a number of wizards burned in Rome, at the urging of Mecenate, along with two thousand books of magic. Random mentions show a magician thrown off the Rupe Tarpea, another flogged and killed under Tiberius. Claudius, Vitellius, Vespasian and other emperors issued edicts against "mathematicians" (astrologers and numerologists). [Bonomo, 45] People were often tried for magic on the basis of accusations made by paid informers. [Webster, 135]

Religious repression was another link in the chain of patrician domination. The Senate used the death penalty to repress "new kinds of worship, unknown to custom or reason, disturbing weaker minds." Men of rank were given a lighter penalty, as usual, escaping with exile. [Hunter, 1068] The mass executions of the "Bacchanals" in 186 BCE had failed to halt the spread of foreign mystery cults, but followers of the African or Anatolian goddess religions remained at risk.

Copyright 2000 Max Dashu

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