Human sacrifice in Ancient Rome
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
By the Late Republic the Romans came to be as horrified by the practice of human sacrifice as any modern might be. The practice of human sacrifice was prohibited by senatorial decree in 97 BCE under the consulship of P. Licinius Crassus. The Romans afterward proscribed the practice by the different peoples they conquered, regarding the practice as barbaric and distinguishing their own civilization from those outside the empire.

The first instance of this is with Licinius Crassus in Further Spain where he was governor (96-93 BCE).The Romans accused the Carthaginians of sacrificing infants, a question still being debated by historians.1 The Romans made similar accusations in later times against the Druids, Jews and Christians, and unpopular emperors like Egalabalus. Horace’s portrayal of Medea and especially of Canidia employed scenes of human sacrifice as a way of denigrating the use of magic and witchcraft. Likewise Pliny the Elder, on discussing the origins of magic among the Persians, uses the practice of human sacrifice to distinguish it as un-Roman (Natural History XXX.1-2, 12-15).

So in different ways Roman abhorrence towards human sacrifice came to be regarded as what set themselves apart as a sophisticated, civilized people from those who were barbarians. That was true of the literate elite at least. The literate elite of Rome had come to admire the Greeks, by which they measured themselves, yet recognized in the stories of Andromeda and Iphigenia that human sacrifice had been practiced even in that high culture. They also looked into their own past and noted where their ancestors had employed human sacrifice.

In some of the rituals of the religio romana there are traces of practices that allude to an earlier time when human sacrifices were probably made.2 On 15 May, for example, the Vestal Virgins were involved in a processional ceremony where they would toss rush puppets (Argei) from the Pons Suplicius. Roman scholars and antiquarians tried to explain the practice as a rite honoring the Greek followers of Hercules who had come with him to Italy. But Cicero refers to the more common belief among the Romans that the puppets were used in substitution for an older practice of sacrificing old men (Pro Roscio Amerino 35, 100). A similar practice was made at the Feriae Latinatae at the end of April, where puppets were hung in trees in substitution for an earlier practice of sacrificing young boys.

Such vestiges in Roman ritual points to the practice of human sacrifice among the Latins prior to the founding of Rome, and perhaps at Rome in the archaic period. Aspects of gladiatorial contests and early Roman law also point to an earlier time when human sacrifice was practiced. Gladiatorial contests were first introduced in Rome in 264 BCE (Livy IX.40.17, Pliny the Elder, N.H. 35.52). These were held in honor of the dead, originally as a religious pageant. The participants originally entered these contests voluntarily, enacting a mythical struggle, and rarely ending in death. But later as criminals and slaves were used, the death of gladiators in a religious context held the aspect of being a sacrifice to the Manes on behalf of the deceased. The Etruscans were credited by the Romans for introducing gladiatorial contests to Rome, but probably the practice originated with the Sabellians.3

From the very early Republic there are examples from Roman law where criminals were considered to be sacer, that is, “given to the gods.” One example is found in the Twelve Tablets where a patron who defrauds his clients is held to be sacer (Tabula VIII). The boundaries between civil law and religious laws were not distinct in those earlier times. The laws were considered to have been handed down by the gods, and those who broke the laws were therefore considered to have violated sacred prescriptions. Especially in matters of violating oaths, or moving boundary markers, violating the sacred bonds of the society which were safeguarded by the gods, the guilty were judged to be executed in order to restore the divine order, and in that sense might be considered as sacrificial victims. But there were also other occasions during the later Republic when human sacrifices were specifically made.

We know of three instances, recorded by Livy and Plutarch, where a ritual human sacrifice was performed at Rome. Two pairs of Gauls and Greeks, a man and a woman each, were buried alive in the Forum Boarium. The instances recorded took place in the years 228, 216 and 113 BCE. In each case these sacrifices were made in response to instructions taken from the Sibylline Books. The sacrifices seem to have been made to the Manes and Dii Inferi. Plutarch (Roman Questions 83) noted the Roman attitude that disapproved of other peoples making human sacrifice to the gods, and wondered, "Did they (the Romans) think it impious to sacrifice human beings to the gods, but necessary to sacrifice them to the Manes? We hear of Vestal Virgins being buried alive too, usually on the excuse that they had broken their vows of chastity.. In the year 483 BCE Vestal Oppia was so buried as unchaste, but Livy (2.42) makes clear that this was really a sacrifice made to appease the gods when bad omens appeared. The same seems to be the case in the execution of Vestal Cornelia by Domitian (Pliny the Younger, Epistle 4.11). The burials of the Gauls and Greeks in 216 and 113 followed shortly after the burials of Vestal Virgins. It is thought that these burials were connected in a common ceremony of propitiation to the Manes.

Other instances where the Romans clearly employed human sacrifice is in the devotio of Roman generals, sacrificing themselves to the Manes, as did Decius Mus in 340 BCE (Livy VII.9.1-10). By a special rite the general first offered himself to the gods, then charged headlong into the enemy. If he did not happen to die, then to fulfill his vow a larger than life statue of himself was to be buried in substitution (Livy VIII.10.12), just as in the use of the argei puppets. Victims of human sacrifice, certain criminals, and some suicides were prohibited from being cremated. They could only be buried. That too may point to the distinction made in Plutarch's question, that human sacrifices were made to the Manes and Dii Inferi rather than to the Di consentes and the celestial gods.

A very interesting case of human sacrifice occurred in the Regal period that involved the sanctifying of the pomerium. When Servius expanded the city walls, a sacrifice was made of four individuals, buried beneath the old pomerium wall that encircled the Palatine Hill. Those bodies were only recently discovered after Carandini discovered the old Palatine pomerium wall. The four tombs included the usual ritual elements, dating to about 650 BCE. Tomb 1 was an adult male; age 30-40, with his head inclined and arms at his side. Along with him were buried two amphorae, a collana (necklace), one plate and two fibulae. Tomb 2 was a child laid in a sleeping position, along with one small amphora and two fibula. Tomb 3 was a young adult male aged 16-18, laid out like the older male. He was buried with one amphora; a large cup, two little cups, two plates, two pieces of bronze and one ring, all placed on the left side of the tomb. Tomb 4 was a female laid out in a fetal position, and oriented in a different direction from all the others. She was buried along with one amphora. These sacrifices were made because the old wall was being violated in the process of extending the pomerium with the new Servian Wall.

There is no record to indicate that such a sacrifice was made when Sulla expanded the pomerium walls, but there is that possibility. When Augustus refounded the city four small columns were buried near the house of M. Aemilius Scaurus that are related to the Servian sacrifices. Excavations have not been completed, but the pomerium wall found by Carandini near the Arch of Constantius, if extended towards the Arch of Titus, comes to Aemilius' house north of the Arch of Titus, separated by the Clivio Palatina where the columns were found between 1862-1866. Column A is now missing, only its registration number and description is known. On it was inscribed "Marspiter." Column B is 48 cm in height, 13 cm in diameter, and inscribed "Remureine." This has been interpreted as "in memory of Remus" and relates the sacrifices to the legend that Remus was sacrificed to sanctify Romulus' pomerium. (One of the 31 versions on how Remus died.) Column C was 67 cm in height, 18 cm in diameter, inscribed "Anabestas," thought to be from the Greek anabasio, meaning "to go up." Column D is the most interesting. It is 49 cm in height, 20 cm in diameter. Inscribed in archaic Latin, it has "FERTER RESIUS REXAE QUI COLUS IS PREMIUS IUS FETIALE PARAUIT INDE P(OPULUS) R(OMANUS) DISCIPLEMAM EXCEPIT." "It is said that they turned up the Kings of Distaff. Under the authority of the Fetiales, in the name of the Roman people, they were sealed."

The location where these columns were found, beneath the Clivio Palatina, is where legend claimed Remus "crossed the pomerium." Columns A and D were laid inside the pomerium, connecting them with the divine, where columns B and C were laid outside and connected with the auctor of the violation, or with the military forces meant to defend the pomerium and the city, yet prohibited from entering it itself or allowing enemies to enter as well. These four Augustan columns are thought to either commemorate the four Servian sacrificial victims, or to have been buried in substitution of sacrificial victims. Either way, it implies that a ritual of human sacrifice was made to the gods for their assistance in defending the city of Rome, and that such a sacrifice was connected to the legend of Remus, that he sacrificed himself or was killed by Celer in defense of the pomerium.

Human sacrifice remained a powerful religious symbol in the religio romana long after its actual practice had been abandoned. As a mythic motif the practice is found in the mystery religions that entered Rome from the East. The mortal Hercules dying on a burning wheel became immortal to enter Olympus. Osiris, or Serapis, as a mortal king dies and is resurrected to become the divine judge of the dead. In the myths of Attis, Tammuz, and Adonis, with Mithras, Proserpina, and others, the theme of death and resurrection into the divine became the central feature of the mysteries. Its symbolism was even carried over into the Christian sects where the crucifixion of Jesus was regarded as a human sacrifice. Its ritual significance for the religio romana may extend to Remus. Bloody Remus appears to Faustulus and Acca in a dream (Ovid, Fasti 5.455-474). Elsewhere he appears to his grandmother Juno, again in the bloody guise of a sacrifice. In both instances Remus is contrasted with Romulus who was apotheosized as Quirinus. Romulus of the celestial gods joins with his father Mars and grandfather Jupiter, while Remus became associated with the Manes and the Dii Inferi.
  1. Archaeology Odyssey Nov/Dec 2000, pp. 28-31: M’Hamed Hassine Fantar, Director of Research at the Institute of National Cultural Heritage, Tunisia, argues that the Tophet at Carthage was a cemetery for stillborns and infants who had died of natural causes. Lawrence E. Stager, Professor of Archaeology of Israel and Director of the Semitic Museum at Harvard University, who directed the excavations of the Tophet in the 1970’s, gives the more accepted view based on ancient texts that infant sacrifice was practiced by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Stager is joined by Joseph Greene, Assistant Director of the Semitic Museum, a member of Stager’s team in the excavations of Carthage, and author of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Punic Project Excavations: Child Sacrifice in the Context of Carthaginian Religion: Excavations in the Tophet.
  2. Religions of Rome, Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, University Press, Cambridge, 1998; Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, H.H. Scullard, Thames & Hudson, London, 1981; The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, W.W. Fowler, MacMillian, London 1899; Archaic Roman Religion, George Dumezil, trans. P. Krapp, Chicago University, Chicago, 1970.
  3. Samnium and the Samnites, E.T. Salmon, Cambridge University Press, N.Y. 1967.
Modern sources
  • The Mystery Religions, S. Angus, Dover Publications, inc., N.Y., 1975.
  • Religions of Rome, Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, University Press, Cambridge, 1998.
  • The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, W.W. Fowler, MacMillian, London 1899.
  • Archaic Roman Religion, George Dumezil, trans. P. Krapp, Chicago University, Chicago, 1970.
  • Samnium and the Samnites, E.T. Salmon, Cambridge University Press, N.Y. 1967.
  • Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, H.H. Scullard, Thames &Hudson, London, 1981.
Ancient sources
  • Pro Roscio Amerino, M. Tullius Cicero.
  • Ab Urbe Condita, Livy.
  • Fasti, Ovidius Naso.
  • Metamorphoses, Ovidius Naso.
  • Natural History, Pliny the Elder.
  • Roman Questions, Plutarch.
  • Aeneid, Virgil.
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