Ceres and the Festival of Cerialia

By Patricia Gillespie – Volunteer

Who was Ceres?

The answer has its roots, literally, in the development of plants and agriculture, which took place about 10,000 years ago as the climate warmed after the last Ice Age.  People started to cultivate plants that would feed them throughout the year and give them more security of supply.  They could be less reliant on hunting and gathering wild plants and berries.  This happened in many different places in the world at more or less the same time.  In the grasslands between Syria and Iraq, known as the Fertile Crescent, ancient peoples started to select suitable grasses to grow like barley and wheat.  They picked strong plants with the biggest ears and seed heads that would produce a bountiful crop Footnote 1.

Farmers came to believe that their prosperity was dependent on the spirits that presided over the growth of crops and the weather, elements which were often capricious and unpredictable:  They believed that these spirits needed to be placated, honoured and worshipped to ensure seasonal growth and good harvests.

Red, oval imprint of the goddess Ceres.

From ancient Sumer, Anatolia and Egypt comes archaeological evidence that cultures were developing alongside improvements in agriculture. From 2,500 BC, the Egyptians depict growing and harvesting wheat, making bread and offering it to the priest. Egypt became a major supplier of wheat to Rome in Ancient times Footnote 2.

The farming of wheat and the supply of it became the mainstay of the Roman economy, underpinning the success of the Roman Army and burgeoning of the Roman Empire.

In Rome, the goddess Ceres became the divine embodiment of agriculture and the development of cereal crops, particularly spelt wheat. She oversaw ploughing into the earth (the province of the Roman Earth goddess Tellus) as well as sowing and the nurturing of seed. She released the creative and regenerative power of the earth. She was also guardian of marriage. As an earth goddess Ceres received a sacrifice to purify the house after a funeral and was also associated with the underworld and boundaries between the living and the dead.

Ceres was the daughter of Saturn and Ops. She was one of Rome’s most important goddesses. She married her brother Jupiter and their daughter was called Proserpina.

Ceres became identified with the Greek earth goddess, Demeter, at the time a devastating famine was raging in the land in 499 or 496 BC. The dictator, Aulus Postumius Albus consulted the Sibylline Books of Destiny (a collection of prophecies in rhyme written in Greek), looking for help Footnote 3.

The Sibylline Books of Destiny contained the ecstatic utterances of the Cybele, and were a constant source and inspiration of Greek and Etruscan religion as well as Roman Footnote 4.

The Sibylline Books recommended that the worship of DemeterIacchus (Dionysus/Bacchus) and Kore (Persephone, daughter of Demeter) – Greek deities associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries – should be identified with the Roman gods CeresLiber and Libera and that they should be propitiated. Postumius then vowed to these gods that if the crops would improve, he would build temples to them and establish annual sacrifices in their honour.  The Gods rewarded him and the crops and trade flourished. Consequently, a temple was built to Ceres, Liber and Libera on the Aventine Hill in Rome, which was dedicated by the consul Spurius Cassius in 493 BC Footnote 3.

Liber was a god of viticulture and wine, fertility and freedom (we use the words liberation, libation).  Liber came to be identified with Iacchus/Dionysus/Bacchus.  Libera was Liber’s female counterpart.

Murals in the Villa of the Mysteries excavated in Pompeii depict the rituals of the cult of Dionysus, of which Pompeii was the centre. The god was often depicted wearing an ivy wreath and his worshippers, the Bacchae, were said to chew ivy as an aid to attaining frenzy.

Temple to Ceres

Ceres, Liber and Libera were known as the Aventine triad and the Temple of Ceres, on the Aventine Hill in Rome, may have had three cellas (shrines) for its three deities.

Ceres had her own flamen, the flamen Cerialia.  In ancient Rome, a flamen was a priest devoted exclusively to the worship of one deity; the name derives from a root meaning ‘he who burns offerings’.  And today we use the word flame. The Temple of Ceres had priestesses, always brought from southern Italy, and the prayers were said in Greek. This female link harks back to the origins of the myth of Demeter when Persephone (Proserpina) was abducted by Hades whilst playing with nymphs in a lake near Mount Etna in Sicily. The Temple of Ceres was also headquarters of the plebeian aediles (Aediles Cereris) (aedes, temple edifice, or public building), men who supervised the temple, public buildings and the Festival of Cerialia, the festival connected with Ceres.

The Temple of Ceres was very rich and decorated with many works of art, featuring the Greek artists Gorgasus and Damophilus. When the temple was rebuilt, their paintings and reliefs were removed and framed to adorn the new building Footnote 3.

Roman Citizens were divided into two classes, patricians and plebeians (plebs). Patricians were the upper class elite – wealthy landowners, while the Plebeians were the commoners or lower class.

During the Republic, The Temple of Ceres became a centre of plebeian activities. This followed the start, in 493 BC, of the ‘Struggle of the Orders’ a centuries long conflict, in which the plebeians eventually won the freedom to share power equally with the patricians, with the establishment of plebeian tribunes, legal recognition of their institutions, and the power to make laws in an assembly organised by tribes. Footnote 6  The Temple of Ceres became a repository for archives, including copies of senatus consulta and, later, copies of plebiscitia Footnote 3. Some experts think of Ceres as goddess of the plebeians, but this isn’t substantiated in ancient texts. The Romans believed that the tribunes of the plebs were under the protection of Ceres. The Ceres cult was associated with the notion of libertas, the fundamental principle of the Roman state Footnote 6.

The Temple of Ceres became a centre of food distribution to the poor and possessed the right of asylum.

The Temple and the goddess were linked with laws governing land division and private property rights. According to Livy 10.23.13, in 292 BC money from fines collected from violators of pasturage laws was used by the aediles to hold games for Ceres and offer golden bowls at her temple, and he cites several examples of the use of fines money to benefit the temple. Pliny NH18.12 writes that the 5th century law code included a provision that anyone who cut down another’s crops or used them for pasturage was to be hanged and offered as a sacrifice to Ceres. Pliny regards this as a more severe sentence than that for murder Footnote 6.

The Temple of Ceres was struck by lightning in 206 BC and again in 84 BC and was destroyed in a fire of 31 BC.  It was rebuilt by Augustus and dedicated in AD 17 by Tiberius. It was still standing in the fourth century, and its ruins probably lie beneath the present Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the Forum Boarium.

Polybius held the view that Roman religion was spectacular and staged, and that the celebrations and public ceremonies were vital to control the masses (Jon W. Iddeng) Footnote 7. Festivals confirmed the world order and everyone’s place in it, and they unified people under Roman rule. The key celebrants were often the political leaders.

Roman religion was polytheistic, with sacrifice and festivals, of which there were many, dedicated to the various gods in their respective temples. But religion was also a very individual private practice, using ritual and without dogmas or creeds.

The Temple of Ceres featured prominently in the Festival of Cerialia.  It was one of several temples in the Forum Boarium, an area located beside the banks of the river Tiber, close to the Circus Maximus and the Aventine Hill. The Forum Boarium was home to the biggest meat and fish market in ancient Rome and was connected to Hercules, whose mythology goes back to pre-Roman history.  He is the god of travellers, especially commercial travel by men, and a sacrifice was made to the God before a commercial journey was undertaken to secure the God’s protection. After a successful commercial enterprise a decuma of the profits was offered to the god, whose temple was situated in the middle of the Roman harbour. Women were excluded from the rituals in the Temple of Hercules. On the other hand, men were excluded from the cult of the Graeca Sacra of Ceres, as with other festivals and celebrations connected to female deities in the Forum Boarium. Footnote 8

Hercules and Ceres were honoured together on 21st December with a sacrifice – a pregnant sow, bread and Mulsum, a sweet wine infused with honey.  Footnote 8

Festival of Cerialia

Ceres was celebrated at the Festival of Cerialia, from 12th to 19th April just after the Megalensia, the celebration of Cybele, the Great Mother. The Cerialia was established before 202 BC and became an annual event in the charge of the plebeian aediles. It was celebrated in the Forum Boarium and Circus Maximus in Rome.

Festivals were vivid and colourful events with their own traditions and character, but there would also be some elements in common. Priests or priestesses performed the sacred cult rituals in the temple, often in secret, keeping records of the ritual programme, the sacred objects and texts. Blood sacrifices (thysia sacrificium) were central to most festivals: pig, sheep, goat and oxen being the most popular animals sacrificed. Iddeng says: ‘It seems that Christian emperors and authorities went right to the heart of pagan celebration when sacrifices were forbidden.’ And prayer to the divine powers was intertwined with the sacrifice – to benefit the community, the people, and those ruling over them. And then feasting. Meat from the sacrifice at Festivals was distributed not only to the priests, but sometimes also to the assembled citizens – but to men only!  Imagine ritual images of the goddess Ceres, Liber and Libera ‘being paraded in the streets and showered with garlands or flowers’ (John W Iddeng). Imagine a staged performance – a ‘happening’ with music, dances and drama Footnote 7.

The Festival of Cerealia was organised by the plebeian adediles and opened with a horse-race in the Circus Maximus near the Temple.  It also included circus games (ludi cirenses) and theatrical religious events (ludi scaenici). There were games in the Circus Maximus in Rome on the final day of the Festival (Ludi Ceriales). The importance of the Ludi Cereales, among the duties of the plebeian aediles, is confirmed by Cicero, who called the games ‘most holy’ (Sanctissimi), insisting that they must be celebrated ‘with the greatest care and solemnity’.  Ovid speaks of the chaste and solemn games of Ceres, compared with the goddess Flora’s which were bawdy and lewd!

One of the cult rituals on the last day of the Cerialia was to let foxes loose in the Circus Maximus with burning torches tied to their tails – perhaps to symbolise protecting crops from disease and vermin or the warmth and vigour needed for their growth.

In addition, Ceres was also worshipped, alongside Dea Dia, during the Ambarvalia, an agricultural fertility rite held on 29th May.  A bull, a sow and a sheep were sacrificed after the animals were led in procession twice around the fields, which gave the festival its name, ambio, meaning ‘I go around’ and arvum, field. Today we use the words amble and ambulatory Footnote 11.

 A fast in honour of Ceres (ieiunium Cereris) was held on 4th October, a tradition which began in 191 BC in the same year the Temple of Magna Mater was dedicated.

Legend tells how Ceres replaced acorns, an early food source, with grain. To acknowledge the former significance of the acorn, oak vegetation was worn at festivals in honour of Ceres and by reapers as they harvested. Oak wreaths were also worn by those taking part in the Mysteries of Eleusis at the temple of Demeter.

The poppy, symbol of sleep, death and the soothing of pain, as it yields opium, was connected with Ceres because it grows in wheat fields. Wheat and poppies growing together stand for life and death.

Temple of Ceres on Pliny’s estate

The Temple of Ceres on the Aventine hill in Rome was the most famous shrine to the goddess, but there were other temples to Ceres scattered about the countryside, as in this example from Pliny.

Pliny the Younger was born in the AD 60s at Como in northern Italy, close to the estate he later inherited from his uncle.  The letter explains Pliny’s fulfilment of his civic and religious duty, as well as giving an insight into pilgrimage and ritual in the Italian countryside.

Images of Ceres

Some late Republican images of Ceres recall her search for Proserpina.  Ceres bears a torch, sometimes two, and she rides on a chariot drawn by snakes. Sometimes she holds a caduceus, a symbol of Pax (Peace).  Later reliefs show her emerging from the earth, her arms entwined by snakes, her outstretched arms bearing poppies and wheat, her head crowned with fruits and berries Footnote 10.

An unmounted gemstone from Snettisham in Norfolk depicts Ceres clutching ears of corn, holding a tray of fruit and accompanied by an ant (often associated with Ceres). Ceres was a popular choice for gemstones and may be linked to the sculptures usually described as Mother Goddesses Footnote 11.

Some imperial coin images depict important female members of the Imperial family as Ceres, or with some of her attributes.  Ceres became a popular figure on many coin issues in the 40s BC, very likely reflecting public concern for libertas.  Roman coins with Ceres portrayed on the reverse are prolifically reported on the Portable Antiquities Scheme Register in Britain Footnote 12.

Evidence for the worship of Ceres on Hadrian’s Wall at Carvoran
The Ceres text, RIB 1791:

This altar is dedicated by Marcus Caecilius Donatianus, serving as tribune in the role of prefect, very possibly of the First cohort of Syrian Archers (Cohors 1 Hamiorum sagittariorum), which were stationed at Magna (Carvoran).  The stone mentions Dea Syria, linked with Mater Divum (Mother of the Gods, Cybele), Pax (Peace), Virtus (Virtue) and Ceres, as well as Virgo Caelestis, the goddess of Carthage.  

 With its poetic dedication, this is one of Carvoran’s gems and among the finest inscriptions found on Hadrian’s Wall.  Carvoran had a long association with the Syrian archers from Hamma, and there are four, possibly six, dedications at Carvoran from their commanding officers, a reminder of these skilled soldiers serving thousands of miles away from their homeland close to the Fertile Crescent, where one strand of agriculture began.

References:

1 MacGregor, Neil. (2010)  A History of the World in 100 Objects (Trustees of the British Museum and the BBC).

2 Slow Rise

3 Adkins, Lesley and Adkins, Roy A. (1996) Dictionary of Roman Religion (Facts on File Inc.)

Encyclopedia of World Mythology (1975) (Octopus Books Ltd)

5 Study.com

6 Pellam, Gregor (2014) Ceres, the Plebs, and ‘Libertas’ in the Roman Republic Historir: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte (Franz Steiner Verlag)

7 Rasmus Brandt, J & Iddeng, Jon W. Editors (2012) Greek and Roman Festivals Content, Meaning and Practice (Oxford University Press) What is a Graeco Roman Festival?: A Polythetic Approach John W Idding

8 Rasmus Brandt, J & Iddeng, Jon W. Editors (2012) Greek and Roman Festivals Content, Meaning and Practice (Oxford University Press) The Festivals of the Forum Boarium Area: Reflections on the Construction of Complex Representations of Roman Identity by John Scheid

9 Aldhouse-Green, Miranda (2018) Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain (Thames and Hudson)

10 Wikipedia

11 De La Bedoyere, Guy (2007) Gods with Thunderbolts: Religion in Roman Britain (Tempus Publishing Ltd)

12 Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database finds.org.uk

13 Birley, Robin (1998) The Fort at the Rock: Magna and Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall (The Vindolanda Trust)

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