A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome

A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome

by Meghan J. DiLuzio


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A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome by Meghan J. DiLuzio

A Place at the Altar illuminates a previously underappreciated dimension of religion in ancient Rome: the role of priestesses in civic cult. Demonstrating that priestesses had a central place in public rituals and institutions, Meghan DiLuzio emphasizes the complex, gender-inclusive nature of Roman priesthood. In ancient Rome, priestly service was a cooperative endeavor, requiring men and women, husbands and wives, and elite Romans and slaves to work together to manage the community's relationship with its gods.

Like their male colleagues, priestesses offered sacrifices on behalf of the Roman people, and prayed for the community’s well-being. As they carried out their ritual obligations, they were assisted by female cult personnel, many of them slave women. DiLuzio explores the central role of the Vestal Virgins and shows that they occupied just one type of priestly office open to women. Some priestesses, including the flaminica Dialis, the regina sacrorum, and the wives of the curial priests, served as part of priestly couples. Others, such as the priestesses of Ceres and Fortuna Muliebris, were largely autonomous.

A Place at the Altar offers a fresh understanding of how the women of ancient Rome played a leading role in public cult.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691169576
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Meghan J. DiLuzio is assistant professor of classics at Baylor University.

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A Place at the Altar

Priestesses In Republican Rome

By Meghan J. DiLuzio


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8303-5


The Flamen and Flaminica Dialis

In the midst of the notorious Sullan proscriptions in late 82 BC, Rome's new dictator L. Cornelius Sulla (cos. 88, 80 BC) ordered a young C. Julius Caesar (cos. 59 BC) to divorce his wife, Cornelia, the daughter of Sulla's bitter enemy, L. Cornelius Cinna (cos. 86, 85, 84 BC). Caesar refused the demand and was promptly added to the list of the proscribed. He fled Rome, took refuge in Sabine territory, was discovered and arrested by Sulla's henchmen, but managed to escape by bribing his captors. Even though Sulla eventually granted his fellow patrician a pardon, Caesar remained in a self-imposed exile until the dictator's death in 78 BC. Roman historians have generally focused on the political implications of Caesar's decision not to divorce Cornelia. In the civil wars that rocked the decade of the eighties BC, Caesar presumably sympathized with the allies of his uncle Marius and his father-in-law Cinna. His refusal to renounce his affiliation with the Cinnan faction can be read as a sharp, if somewhat foolhardy, rebuke of Sulla and his new regime.

Without diminishing the political implications of this episode, we should consider the possibility that Caesar denied the dictator's request for religious reasons as well. Evidence suggests that he had been serving as flamen Dialis since 84 BC at the latest. The flamonium Diale was a prestigious priesthood dedicated to Jupiter and open only to patricians married by a ritual known as confarreatio. The occupant of this office was bound by a number of cumbersome social and religious sanctions, including one that was directly related to Caesar's situation in 82 BC. The marriage of a flamen, Aulus Gellius tells us, could not lawfully be dissolved except by death (matrimonium flaminis nisi morte dirimi ius non est, N.A. 10.15.23). If Caesar had renounced Cornelia, he would have forfeited his position as flamen Dialis as well.

Caesar's dilemma illuminates a central, defining feature of the priesthood under consideration in this chapter. The flamen Dialis was not permitted to divorce his wife. But why was divorce prohibited? It was not primarily a legal or even a moral issue; the Romans regarded divorce as improper and even irresponsible, but it was never strictly forbidden and occurred often enough among the elite. The answer to this fundamental question lies instead in the sophisticated and characteristically Roman structure of the priesthood. A flamen could not dissolve his marriage because the flaminate of Jupiter did not belong to him alone, but to his wife the flaminica as well.

As I show in this chapter, the flamen and flaminica Dialis served the gods together as priest and priestess of Jupiter. Until fairly recently, however, modern scholars have either denied or heavily qualified the official priestly status of the flaminica Dialis, describing her instead as the Roman equivalent of the pastor's wife. This analogy is inappropriate in light of the ancient evidence for her status and religious activities. Though modern ministry wives are expected to fulfill a wide variety of informal roles within their religious communities, they lack a title or official status within the religious hierarchy. Sociologists tend to describe this phenomenon, in which a wife gains vicarious achievement through her husband's professional position, as a "two-person single career." The flaminate, on the other hand, was closer to the "coordinated career" model, or what is sometimes known as the "two-body problem" in academic circles. The flaminica was the wife of a priest and a priestess in her own right, a dual role that is aptly captured by an excerpt from Paul the Deacon's epitome of the lexicon of Festus:

flammeo vestimento flaminica utebatur, id est Dialis uxor et Iovis sacerdos, cui telum fulminis eodem erat colore. (82L)

The flammeum was a garment used by the flaminica, that is, the wife of the flamen Dialis and the sacerdos of Jove, whose thunderbolt was the same color.

In this passage, Paul explains that the flaminica, whose veil mimicked the hue of Jupiter's lightning bolt, was not only the wife (uxor) of the flamen Dialis, but also the priestess (sacerdos) of Jove.

The flaminate of Jupiter was a joint priesthood shared by a husband and a wife and as such it requires an entirely different interpretive model from the one traditionally applied to male priests at Rome. It is the aim of this chapter, therefore, to reconstruct the flaminica's ritual activities and to establish a new framework for understanding them. The ancient evidence, though often intractable, demonstrates that the flaminica Dialis was a religious official in her own right with her own role, both in separate rituals that she was responsible for independently and in rituals that she shared with her husband the flamen. A fresh consideration of household religion at Rome and the role of women within domestic cult also suggests, moreover, that joint priesthoods like the flaminate were the product of a characteristically Roman preference for cooperation between men and women in the practice of public and private religion. The religious realm not only allowed women to exercise an unusual degree of autonomy, but actually required them to do so on behalf of their households and, in the case of elite priestesses like the flaminica Dialis, on behalf of the community as a whole.

Ritual practice constituted Roman women as agents. At the same time, however, it reinforced the proper gendered identities to which they were expected to conform. The flaminica Dialis may have had her own title and official role within public cult, but she was still subordinate to her husband. The final section of the chapter explores this tension, analyzing how the flaminate participated in the social and historical construction of gender categories and gender ideologies.

Becoming the Flamen and Flaminica Dialis

During the historical period, the pontifex maximus chose a new flamen Dialis from a list of three nominees that had been prepared in advance by the members of the pontifical college. Before making his selection, the pontifex maximus presumably scrutinized each candidate's qualifications in order to ensure that he and his wife were fit to serve. The flamen, like his fellow flamines maiores and the rex sacrorum (king of the sacred rites), was required to be a patrician and the child of a confarreate marriage. Above all, however, the flamen and flaminica themselves had to be living in a marriage concluded by the rite of confarreatio. The ceremony took its name from the cake of far (emmer wheat) that was offered to Jupiter Farreus and then shared by the bride and groom. The antiquarians tell us that this sacrifice created manus (the controlling hand). In Roman law, the term manus expressed a relationship between a husband and wife based on the power of the former over the latter. A woman who entered manus left the patria potestas (paternal power) of her paterfamilias (male head of the household) and entered the legal authority of her new husband. She became a member of his kinship group and was granted the same legal rights as a daughter.

For the flaminica Dialis, the religious implications of marriage by confarreatio may have been even more significant than the legal consequences. A woman married with manus was a member of her husband's religious community and a full participant in his family rites (sacra familiaria). The transfer of a new wife's allegiance from her natal cult to that of her husband's family began on her wedding day. During the procession to the groom's house (domum deductio), the bride offered a coin at the local compital shrine announcing her presence to the Lares compitales and indicating her intention to join the local religious community of which her husband was already a member. When she arrived at her new home, she placed a coin for the Lares familiares on the hearth and offered prayers to the household genius. The creation of manus, therefore, ensured that the flamen and flaminica Dialis belonged to the same community of worshippers in every sphere of religious activity.

Though the popularity of confarreatio waned during the late Republic, it remained a requirement for the flamen and flaminica Dialis well into the imperial period. The insistence on this form of marriage may have been connected to the religious consequences of manus. Consider, for example, Tiberius' quandary in AD 23, when he was unable to find three candidates for the flaminate of Jupiter who had been born into a confarreate marriage. According to Tacitus, the princeps and pontifex maximus complained that many families had abandoned confarreatio due to negligence (incuria) and a desire to avoid the difficulties inherent in the ceremony itself. What is perhaps even more important, however, he claimed that the legal consequences of confarreatio, namely the fact that a woman married in this way came into the legal authority of her husband, were unpopular.

Tiberius eventually inaugurated Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, the son of the previous flamen Dialis. In order to rectify the untenable situation he had faced, however, Tiberius asked the senate to redefine the legal consequences of the rite of confarreatio:

igitur tractatis religionibus placitum instituto flaminum nihil demutari: sed lata lex qua flaminica Dialis sacrorum causa in potestate viri, cetera promisco feminarum iure ageret. (Tac. Ann. 4.16.3)

It was decided, therefore, when the question of impediments had been examined, that nothing be altered in the established practice of the flamines; but a law was passed whereby the flaminica Dialis should be in the legal power (potestas) of her husband for the purpose of the sacred rites (sacra), but should enjoy the usual legal standing of women in other matters.

By granting the flaminica Dialis a legal standing commensurate with that of her married peers, Tiberius and the senate were able to retain confarreate marriage as a precondition for entrance to the flaminate of Jupiter. The ritual import of the mandate remained untouched: she came into the legal authority (in potestate) of her husband for the sake of the sacred rites alone (sacrorum causa).

A prospective flaminica had to be a univira (one-man woman), that is, she could not have been married to another man before she wed the flamen. She was not, however, required to be a patrician by birth, presumably because confarreatio created manus. A woman who entered manus transferred herself from her natal family to the family of her new husband, becoming a member of his kinship group for religious purposes with the same legal rights as a daughter. Simply put, a plebeian woman who came into her husband's manus through marriage by confarreatio became a member of his patrician family. The social status of a prospective flaminica's natal family was of little significance; only her relationship to the prospective flamen mattered.

Once he had made his decision, the pontifex maximus ritually "seized" his chosen candidate in a ceremony known as the captio and oversaw his inauguration in the comitia calata (convoked assembly), a nonvoting assembly that met on the Capitoline Hill. The central rites of the inauguratio (inauguration) were performed by an augur, who asked for Jupiter's approval of the candidate and, provided the correct signs were observed, declared the flamen fully inaugurated. Although the ancient sources are silent on the matter, the flaminica Dialis presumably participated in the inauguration ceremony as well. The inauguratio was the crucial moment when the candidate, up to this point an average Roman citizen, became a flamen with all the attendant privileges and responsibilities. His wife and fellow priest would have undergone a simultaneous change in status, and may even have been officially inaugurated alongside her husband. Both the prohibition against divorce and the provision requiring the flamen to abdicate his position if the flaminica predeceased him suggest that the couple was regarded as a unified entity, rather than as two individual priests. A new flamen Dialis, in other words, could not be installed in office without his flaminica.

At the very least, it appears that flamines and flaminicae celebrated their elevation to religious office together. Publicia, the wife of L. Cornelius Lentulus Niger (pr. ca. 61 BC), was present at a sumptuous banquet in honor of his inauguration as flamen Martialis (priest of Mars) and is explicitly described as the new flaminica. Lentulus and Publicia had both undergone a change in status and, quite appropriately, are identified by their flaminical titles. The celebration, which was attended by the flaminica's mother and four Vestals, her new colleagues in the extended pontifical college, belonged to Publicia as well as to her husband. Macrobius, who offers the vignette as an example of late republican excess, quotes from the digest of the pontifex maximus Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius (cos. 80 BC), an authoritative source and a guest at the banquet in question. This glimpse of life in the pontifical college is unparalleled in extant literary sources, but there were undoubtedly many other occasions like it, where new flamines and flaminicae publicly commemorated an important transition in their shared life.

Serving the Gods Together

Following the inauguratio and the celebratory banquet, the flamen and flaminica Dialis began a life of joint religious service. Plutarch emphasizes the cooperative nature of the priesthood:


Why did the priest of Zeus [i.e., the flamen Dialis] resign his office when his wife died, as Ateius has recorded? Is it because a man who has taken a wife and then lost his spouse is more unfortunate than one who has not married? For the household of a married man is complete, but that of a man who, having taken a wife, then loses her is not only incomplete, but also incapacitated. Or is it because the wife participates in her husband's sacred ministry, since there are many sacred rites (hiera) that he cannot perform without the assistance of his wife?

Following the format he adopts throughout the Quaestiones, Plutarch offers two alternative answers to the question he has raised. The first emphasizes the stigma attached to a widower, whom Plutarch regards as more unfortunate ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) than a man who has never married, since his household is incomplete ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and no longer self-sufficient. The second suggestion, which is very likely the one that Plutarch finds most compelling, focuses instead on the nature of the institution: the flamen resigned his office because his priesthood was incomplete without her. The flaminica served alongside her husband, assisting him with his ritual obligations and performing others on her own in her capacity as the priestess of Jupiter. The range of duties belonging to the flaminate required its occupants always to act in concert. The flamen and flaminica Dialis complemented one another, and as a result, their partnership was greater than the sum of its parts.

Indeed, later in the same passage, Plutarch notes, "one might wonder less at this [i.e., the flamen's resignation] if he observes also that the death of one of the censors compelled the other to resign his office" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Quaest. Rom. 50 = Mor. 276e). Despite the myriad differences between the censorship and the flaminate, these offices shared one important regulation. Neither a censor nor a flamen could continue in office after the death of his colleague. This point of correspondence underscores the fundamentally cooperative nature of the flaminate and the official character of the flaminica's position within the religious system.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction 1

1 The Flamen and Flaminica Dialis 17

2 Priestly Couples 52

3 Salian Virgins, Sacerdotes, and Ministrae 79

4 The Vestal Virgins 119

5 The Costume of the Vestal Virgins 154

6 The Ritual Activities of the Vestal Virgins 185

7 The Vestal Virgins in Roman Politics 223

Conclusion 240

Bibliography 245

Index 273

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