The first Megalesian Festival and the dedication of the Temple of Magna Mater on Palatine Hill.


11 April 191 BCE in Ancient Rome, at the end of the first Megalesian Festival, the Temple of Magna Mater was dedicated on Palatine Hill.

“Let the sky turn three times on its axis,
Let the Sun three times yoke and loose his horses,
And the Berecyntian flute will begin sounding
Its curved horn, it will be the Idaean Mother’s feast.
Eunuchs will march, and sound the hollow drums,
And cymbal will clash with cymbal, in ringing tones:
Seated on the soft necks of her servants, she’ll be carried
With howling, through the midst of the City streets.
The stage is set: the games are calling. Watch, then,
Quirites, and let those legal wars in the fora cease.
I’d like to ask many things, but I’m made fearful
By shrill clash of bronze, and curved flute’s dreadful drone.
‘Lend me someone to ask, goddess.’“ (Ovid “Fasti”).




A Bronze statuette of Cybele on a cart drawn by lions from the 2nd half of the 2nd century CE,
now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art*




Rome was over the worst, admittedly, in 204 BCE, 12 years after the disaster of Cannae. However, after the latest crop failure, war with Macedonia looming again and Hannibal’s army being still in Italy, somebody came up with the bright idea to consult the Sibylline Books again, the first time since the battle, when two Greeks and two Gauls were buried alive in the forum, albeit an act that had no immediate results in regards to immediate welfare of the Republic. This time, the oracle read that Rome lacked a mother, Delphi was consulted for further advice and the result was that fist-sized black meteorite on Mount Ida in Phrygia, said to incorporate the goddess Cybele, the Magna Mater or Great Mother, was meant and that the cult object had to be brought to Rome, and pronto. An embassy set out for King Attalos’ court at Pergamum to negotiate, since Phrygia in Asia Minor was not yet a Roman province. After a bit of haggling and divine intervention, the stone was finally on its way to Rome. The welcoming committee Ostia, allegedly made up of all married women of the city and the male haute-volée, though, was in for a bit of a disappointment when the ship carrying Cybele’s stone ran aground in the mouth of the Tiber at Ostia. “… like an island fixed in mid-ocean“, according to Ovid, the vessel could not be moved, until a lady named Claudia Quinta stepped forth, lately fallen from grace in Roman society for her a bit too elegant dresses and coiffures along with her gift of the gap and her habit of giving lippy answers to Latian dignitaries. She conducted a bizarre ritual on the banks of the river, the crowd assumed that she finally had lost the plot altogether, took the ship’s tow line, fastened it to her belt and tugged her up the river to Rome, the stone found its first resting place embedded in a silver statue of the goddess in the Temple of Victory on the Palatine Hill, Claudia Quinta was a national heroine and Hannibal quitted Italy during the next year.



Claudia Quinta pulling her stunt, as imagined by Lambert Lombard during the 16th century


Thirteen years later, in 191 BCE, the Megalesia, the festival in honour of Magna Mater, was celebrated for the first time in Rome with circus games, chariot races and, for the more educationally minded, theatre performances along with feasts in the family circle. On April 11th, when the Ludi Megalenses were over, Magna Mater got her own temple on the Palatine. The place burned down for the first time in 111 BCE, was rebuilt twice, the last time by Augustus in the usual lavish imperial style, aedem Matris Magnae in Palatio feci, I built the temple of Magna Mater on the Palatine. The shrine allegedly remained in use until 394 CE when it was closed and demolished by order of Emperor Theodosius in the course of Christianity becoming the state religion. Remains of the temple include the fundament, column capitals, parts of a larger-than-life female sitting statue and the stone paws of lions, the goddess’s usual companions and the tales of rather outré Asiatic ritual acts and a caste of self-castrated priests, the Galli, who did an annual procession on the “Day of Blood” on March 24th, cross-dressed as women and mutilating themselves further. Whether their senior priest, the Archigallus, was a eunuch or if the other Galli in Rome ever were, is highly dubitable, since self-mutilation was forbidden under Roman law. If the Taurobolium, the ordination of the priests in a bath of bulls’ blood ever happened the way the Christian author Prudentius described it during the 4th century is rather improbable as well, since Taurobolium altars that were found look rather like other Roman altars and give no hints of underground pits with bulls slaughtered on top of them on a latticed lid to flood the priest below. The bull sacrifices along with Cybele’s Phrygian origins and the Phrygian garb worn by her initiates, the trousers and the famous cap, later called liberty cap during the French Revolution, brings her close to the worship of Mithras, though, and maybe some hints of the Magna Mater and her black meteorite have survived in the Black Madonna, worshipped all across the Christian world to this day.



Funerary relief of an Archigallus from Lavinium, mid-2nd century CE


The goddess is shown with her usual attributes, a patera (libation bowl) in her right hand and a large tympanum (drum) in her left. But instead of flanking her throne as they normally do, here the two oversized lions pull a chariot. This elaborate group comes from a fountain, in which spouts projected from the open mouths of the lions. The original cart, harness, and throne no longer survive; the rear left wheel is a nineteenth-century restoration.“ (Quote and image found on: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/246700)

And more about the Roman Magna Mater on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybele