Sacrifices in Roman religion

David Stell [Severinus]


The only obligations that governed any individual ritual was that it had to be celebrated on a particular date and in the traditional order. The context of the ritual was crucial. The theology behind the rituals can be observed in:

  • The name of the deity
  • The epithets applied to the deity
  • Objects surrounding the image of the deity
  • Any ritual actions performed around it.

There were three different categories used in public sacrifice defined by aspects of the celebrant's behaviour:-

A] The Ritus Romanus - According to myth it was established by Aeneas

  • Head covered when sacrificing (except to Saturn)
  • Sacrifices are preceded by a preliminary ritual to cause a particular type of division of the victim.

B] The Ritus Graecus - Performed for cults imported to Rome from the Greek lands (e.g. Hercules/Heracles)
Heads were not veiled, but crowned with laurel wreaths
Often accompanied by a musical accompaniment or hymn sung by a choir
Lectisternia and supplications (although there is no evidence that these were exclusive to the Greek rite)

C] Peregrina sacra - These are a special group not belonging to either of the main rites. They were celebrated in accordance with the (unknown) customs of their homelands. Examples include Aesculapius, Cybele, and parts of the cult of Ceres. We don't know if these forms were used in the provinces but in any case the distinction was becoming blurred by the end of the Republic.


A sacrifice was central to most religious acts. There were dozens of ways of sacrificing correctly depending on:

  • Type of sacrifice
  • The context
  • Deity to be honoured
  • The ritual scenario of the festival

Sacrifices could be of:

  • Incense
  • Liquids ~ e.g. Wine, milk, honey, oil
  • Plants ~ including produce of plants like flour and cakes
  • Animals ~ mostly cattle, sheep and pigs but some goats and a few dogs although these last would profane most sacrifices

What was a sacrifice?

A complex rite in an open space, performed in the presence of the community, celebrated in front of the temple close to the altar. In a domestic cult it took place in a 'public' area of the house eg. the atrium or peristyle before an altar (fixed or moveable)

Private sacrifices to do with divination or magic took place in isolated, seldom visited places (e.g. a quiet room, a necropolis).

Offered by those in authority in the community or their designated substitute. The celebrant was assisted by attendants and slaves responsible for all the manual work involved. Rituals (both public & private) usually started at sunrise but sacrifices associated with magic and/or gods of the underworld took place at night and often in secrecy. According to the Roman rite male gods received castrated male victims (except Mars, Neptune, Janus and the genius who were offered intact males). Goddesses received female victims. The age of the victim could be used to express the hierarchy of the deities or celebrants. In general adult animals (maiores) were most suitable for public cults.
Deities of the upper world received white animals and those of the underworld or associated with night (e.g.Pluto) got dark coated victims Vulcan & Robigo received red haired animals. In some cases Tellus and Ceres were offered pregnant cows. Pigs were mostly used for expiations and the funerary cult.
Other special cases included: A dog to Robigo (25th April), a white cockerel to Aesculapius, in domestic cult according to family tradition and in rituals involving magic where exotic animals were frequently used.

  • Plant offerings brought along in baskets
  • Liquids in jugs
  • Incense in small boxes
  • Vegetables - unknown if or how prepared

Festus in his De uerborum significatione (p.289 in ed. Lindsay) also mentions

  • Far - a wheat variety
  • Polenta - boiled barley flour
  • Leavened bread
  • Dried figs
  • Meat - beef or lamb
  • Cheeses
  • Mutton
  • Alica - boiled grain
  • Sesame seeds
  • Oil
  • Scaly fish - except for squatum
  • Mola salsa - salted flour used constantly in public sacrifices and prepared by the Vestals at Lupercalia (15th Feb), Vestalia (9th June), and the Ides of September (13th). It is not known if this was used outside Rome.

Virtually nothing is known about provincial sacrifices



Celebrants and assistants bathed or washed themselves. They put on ceremonial robes (for the Ritus Romanus this would be the laena or the toga pura tied to leave the arms free by cinctus Gabinus (Gabine knot). Animal victims selected to match the deity honoured, victims washed and adorned with ribbons & fillets of red & white wool, horns gilded and/or decorated with metal discs. The backs of cattle and pigs were decorated with a dorsuale, a richly embroidered blanket.

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 their intention.

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 offering
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 I strike?"(agone)
  • 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:

1. Incense
2. Wine
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.

Mithraic feasts The internal layout of Mithraia similar to a triclinium suggests that feasts played a significant part in the cult.
Mutitationes Feasts associated with the Megalesian Games (4th to 10th April) in honour of the Magna Mater.
Taurobolea 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
Theurgy 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.
Human sacrifice 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 people.



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:

Euocatio 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] from Carthage)
Deuotio 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
Defixio 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 by Rome.



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