Once these preparations were complete a procession moved to the
altar of the deity to be honoured. Ritual dismissal of intruders
(e.g. women, dogs & foreigners). Sacrifice began to flute music
Preface (praefatio) - Ritual washing of hands by celebrant
and those offering the sacrifice. incense & wine are poured
into a fire burning in a round portable hearth or brazier. This
in some way represents the identity of the celebrant and thus the
community involved. Incense represents the immortality of the gods
& their superiority. Wine represents divine sovereignty. Most
sources don't identify the gods honoured by the praefatio.
Cato says that it was Jupiter, Janus and Vesta.
Sometimes the deity to whom the sacrifice was being made seems
to have been included It may even have been addressed to all interested
deities with one or two being named in particular. The wording of
the praefatio summarised the rites to follow and explained
Thus the Praefatio represents respectful salutation acknowledging
the principal qualities of the god and is effectively an invitation
to attend the sacrifice. The immolatio: consecrating the
After the praefatio a herald calls for silence [ favete
linguis] The celebrant moved on to the immolatio of the victim
In the Roman rite
Celebrant covers his head with his toga, the celebrant pours a little
wine on the victims brow from a patera and the back with mola salsa.
An acolyte removes the ribbons & decorations and the celebrant
runs the sacrificial knife along its spine.
In the Greek rite
Celebrant scattered a few grains of wheat and drops of water on
the victim's head. Celebrant burned a few hairs plucked from the
victim's brow in the sacrificial fire. This proclaims the consecration
of the victim. The action with the knife symbolically passes the
victim from human to divine property. Mola salsa represents
human food, wine the sovereignty of the gods.
At this point the celebrant turns right towards the
cult statue and a carefully written prayer is offered (See Prayer
below). Any mistake here invalidates the entire ritual which must
be started again.
- The victim had to indicate consent by lowering its head, so
it was usually tied by a harness to a ring at the foot of the
altar so that the sacrificiator could encourage it to make the
gesture of acquiescence.
- The popa standing to the right of the victim then asks "do
- Celebrant orders him to act (agere)
For cattle the popa would then strike the
victim on the head with a hammer to stun it and force it to its
knees A cultrarius (knife man) would then cut its throat
holding the head up if the victim is sacrificed to gods of the upper
world or down if to gods of the underworld. Some of the blood was
occasionally caught in a patera for later use in the ritual.
Any sign of fear or panic by the victim or other disturbances were
forbidden and if they occurred were an unfavourable omen for the
celebrant (and community). To avoid this animals were frequently
given drugged fodder before the ritual
If everything had gone well so far the victim was laid on its back
and cut open by the cultrarius. The exta (entrails)
were then carefully removed for examination by the celebrant and
the haruspex to see if the offering was accepted by the god.
The acceptance (litatio) was indicated by normal condition
of the exta (liver, lungs, gall bladder, peritoneum&
heart). If all were normal the sacrifice was accepted and the ritual
continued. If there was any abnormality it was rejected and the
ritual annulled, everything had to be started again. This continued
until an acceptable victim was found (usque ad litationem). In some
sacrifices the exta were examined in accordance with the Etruscan
tradition with a view to divining the future (haruspicatio)
The victim was then divided up. The portion belonging to the gods
(exta as the seat of life) was prepared:
- Bovine victims - set to cook in a pot
- Sheep, pigs etc - grilled on skewers.
When cooked they were cut up into small pieces (prosecta)
sometimes with other parts of the victim's flesh and sprinkled with
mola salsa and wine. The prosecta were then put on the altar to
be consumed (porricere) by the gods.
Offerings to aquatic deities were tossed into water, those to chthonic
deities (e.g. the Lares) or deities of the underworld were thrown
on the ground or into a ditch where they were burnt.
All these processes were accompanied by prayers that stated unambiguously
1] Who was making the offering,
2] Who the recipient was
3] Who would benefit from the ritual.
This is a basic sacrificial offering. They could
be much more elaborately prepared as meatballs or some other dish.
Sacrificial victims to gods of the underworld had to be completely
consumed by fire (a holocaust) since mortals can't eat with the
dead or their gods. A holocaust was also used to gain influence
over the deity to whom it was offered.
The Sacrificial Banquet
When the offering was consumed in flames the remainder of the victim
was rendered profane by the celebrant "seizing" it by
laying his hands upon it. This made it once more suitable for human
consumption; the same procedure was used for offerings of liquids,
grain, etc. This represented a gift (sportula) from the god
to the community akin to a patron's gift to his clients.
In domestic sacrifices during a meal it is the other way round;
the householder is the host and the god the guest who receives the
sportula. The guiding principle in sacrificial banquets is hierarchy
& privilege, celebrants and those making the offering consumed
their portion first, paid for at public expense
At some festivals certain social groups also feasted at public expense
(e.g. the Senate). Priests enjoyed the same privilege as did flute
players (and possibly the parisiti of Apollo ~ a troop of sacred
actors); all this implies that others paid unless a benefactor paid
for them. The most important people got the best cuts.
In the context of smaller groups everyone partook but if the sacrifice
was on behalf of all the People only representatives of each tribe
would partake. The records of the Arval Brethren reveal that
a banquet to the gods had two courses:
1. Meat from the victim.
2. Sweet wine and cakes.
During these banquets the deity's statue was garlanded
and perfumed. Throughout these ceremonies humans could by action
or words remind the god of his or her function and ask favours.
Where a cult centre contained more than one deity, those not the
focuses of the sacrifice were offered subsidiary smaller sacrifices
thus making them guests of the principal deity. Between the first
and second courses of either public or private feasts another small
sacrifice was made of:
3. Elements of the banquet
4. Other specially chosen items
These were made to the Lares, Penates, and
from the late 1st century A.D. to the genius Augusti.
The order of who ate first depended on the setting:
In a temple - the gods ate first then the mortals, in a house -
the mortals ate first then the gods.
Other sacrificial rites
Lectisternia - a banquet held by the family heads inviting
neighbours and passers-by. This demonstrated the hospitality being
offered to the gods to thank or appease them. It was celebrated
from 399 B.C. onwards by recommendation of a Sibylline oracle.
Sacrificial banquets in which several deities (six or twelve)
were installed on dining couches or chairs in a consecrated place.
Goddesses took part on chairs (sellisternia) like Roman matrons
it was initially intended to restore concord between the gods and
the Roman People.
Another variant marked the birth of a noble child - set up in the
atrium to Juno Lucina, Hercules and a couch for Pilumnus
and Picumnus (divine protectors of mothers after birth). Lectisternia
developed from Greek banquets between men and gods (theoxeny).
Most cult sites & festivals came to arrange their own lectisternia.
The ceremony was very picturesque & represented an alternative
or a complement to traditional sacrificial banquets
A ritual to beg for help in times of trouble or give thanks for
a victory or success. . A truly ancient ritual in which Roman men
would wear wreaths and carry laurel branches. They were accompanied
around all the cult sites of the city by their wives and children
to supplicate the gods they prostrated themselves at each shrine.
Incense and wine were offered to each god. Matronae knelt
on the ground and swept it with their hair. During the empire supplications
acquired an association with the Imperial cult, supplication extended
the ritual of praefatio to all Rome's gods and was celebrated by
all citizens present.
||The internal layout of Mithraia
similar to a triclinium suggests that feasts played a significant
part in the cult.
||Feasts associated with the
Megalesian Games (4th to 10th April) in honour of the Magna
||Introduced through the cult of
Magna Mater from the 2nd century A.D. This was a sacrifice
involving the submission of the victim rather than its assent.
|Magic related sacrifices
||These were extremely frowned upon
because: they inflicted physical or material damage on others
for the benefit of the celebrant and they subjected a deity
and/or another citizen to the will of the celebrant or his client.
Such conduct breached concepts of civic liberties and represented
a crime of uiolentia
||Considered slightly less obnoxious
than magic, but still distrusted. This did not constitute a
crime of uiolentia. It gained specially privileged relations
with a god.
||Extremely rare but not unknown
[although made illegal in 97 B.C. it may have continued until
the late 1st century AD.] Consisting of ritual consignment of
'hostile' races to the gods of the underworld, a man and a woman
of Gallic and Greek origin were buried alive in the Forum Boarium.
Dedication of the population of a besieged town through the
ritual of deuotio to the gods of the underworld was effectively
another form of human sacrifice. These all shifted the basis
of the human/immortal relationship away from one of civic liberty
to one where the gods are given absolute control over non-Roman
Was closely linked to ritual action it was often formulated as imperatives
(i.e. as official instructions from magistrates). Prayer was performative
and mistakes could not be corrected, unlike incorrect actions, which
could through a piaculum (expiatory sacrifice). Once uttered they
had their effect for good or ill which is why they were read from
texts. Gestures could be ambiguous, words could not. Great care
was taken over the correct names of the deities involved, the beneficiaries
and the exact effect desired. This was particularly important in
rites designed to force a deity to provide a service, prayer was
not to provide metaphysical or spiritual basis for the ritual, nor
to explain it; it was simply to express it in words.
Some rituals included hymns (carmena) sometimes sung to a
musical accompaniment (e.g. processions of the Salii and
the sacrifice to Dea Dia, in expiatory ceremonies recommended
by the Sibylline books and at the end of the Secular Games). Hymns
are not strictly prayers but rather works of art to please the gods,
they could be addressed to several at once, prayers could not.
Frequently vows were the cause of offerings, dedications, sacrifices
& games. They were contracts with the deity, settlement of which
was conditional on the god bringing about the desired outcome.
Official vows sometimes fell on fixed dates (e.g. 1st January when
consuls made vows to the Capitoline Triad). After the reign
of Tiberius vows for the health of the emperor and his family
were made on 3rd January by many social groups, this also happened
in coloniae, municipia, and foreign peregrini cities of the empire.
The Censors took vows every five years Consuls and legati leaving
Rome on campaign made vows for victory and safe return.
Many examples of private vows exist against the hazards of life.
Vows made in the name of the Roman People had to be ratified by
the Senate otherwise they only bound the author of the vow. A special
vow for dire times existed known as a uer sacrum (consecrated spring)
This consecrated all animals born in the spring of the year when
the desired outcome occurred (e.g. as in 217 BC after the defeat
by Hannibal at Cannae) Because it effected the property
of all Romans the Senate ruled that it should be pronounced by all
citizens in the Forum.
Vows could be annulled (e.g. Titus' vow of 3rd Jan 81 A.D.
on his death in Sept of that year).
The new emperor could be commended to the gods on his accession
pending the next 3rd January .The exact terms of votive contracts
were carefully checked and recorded. Public vows were recorded in
the records of magistrates and priests and announced in public.
Private vows were recorded on tablets sometimes posted at cult sites
or at the foot of the cult statue of the relevant god.
Special vows included:
||A public ritual luring the gods of an enemy
into the Roman camp during a siege through a promise to set
up a cult residence among the Romans (e.g. Juno Regina
of the Aventine was evoked from Veii and Tanit [Celestis]
||Used in both public and private life the ritual
vowed the lives of the enemy to Tellus & the Di Manes.
During the siege of 146 B.C. the people of Carthage were vowed
to Veiovis, Dispater and the Di Mane. A variant
included a Roman (oneself) in the vow; the individual would
then seek death in battle. By devoting living people to chthonic
deities/ gods of the underworld they were consigned to death.
The terms were that the gods accepted the lives of the consecrated
people in return for wiping out Rome's enemies Deuotio
to gods of the upper world is also recorded
||A variant of deuotio frequently used
in private life to vow personal enemies to the gods of the underworld,
the votive contract was inscribed on lead tablets (lamellae)
sometimes rolled and pinned with a nail. Lamellae were
buried in tombs so the Di Manes could read them and pass
on the contents to the gods of the underworld (Germanicus'
death in A.D. 19 was believed to be as a result of a defixio)
Devotions could quite freely be made of enemies, but if fellow
citizens were thus marked for death this was considered reprehensible
and a criminal act.
|Foedus & Clarigatio
||Treaty and diplomatic claims for reparation
A fetial priest devoted himself and the Roman people to Jupiter,
Mars and Quirinus should the terms of a treaty be broken
Bakker, J.T. (1994) Living and Working with the Gods, Amsterdam,
*Beard, M., North, J., Price, S. (1998) Religions of Rome Vol. 1
A history,Vol.2 A Sourcebook, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Dumezil, G. (1970) Archaic Roman Religion,Vols.1 & 2, Chicago,
University of Chicago Press
*Gardner, J.F. & Wiedemann,T. (1991) The Roman Household, A
Sourcebook, London & New York, Routledge (GW)
*Harmon, D.P. (1978) The Family Festivals of Rome, Berlin &
New York, Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt (ANRW) II,
16.2 1592 - 1603
*Ogilvie, R.M., (1969) The Romans and their Gods, London, Chatto
*Orr, D.G., (1978) Roman Domestic Religion: The evidence of the
Household Shrines, Berlin & New York, ANRW II, 16.2, 1557 -
*Scheid, J., (2003) An introduction to Roman Religion, Edinburgh,
Edinburgh University Press
*Treggiari, S., (1991) Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the time
of Cicero to the time of Ulpian, Oxford University Press (In Offprints
Collection p.105 - 115)
*Frazier, J.G., (1996)(trans.) Ovid - Fasti, London & Cambridge
(Mass.),Harvard University Press
*Graves, R., (1957)(trans.) Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars, Harmondsworth,
*Michie, J., (1969)(trans.) Catullus - The poems of Catullus, St.
*Rackham, H., (1951)(trans.) Cicero - The Nature of the Gods, London
& Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press
*Watts, A.E., (1961)(trans.) Propertius - The Poems of Sextus Propertius,
Chichester, Centaur Press