26 Apr 2016

Magna Mater


Roman (and foreign) writers from the late Republic until the age of emperor Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) have described the cult in Rome and her origins in different ways. Passages about Magna Mater from Catullus, Lucretius, Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, Ovid and Virgil have been read for this research. From these sources, one can get an idea of the sense of Roman identity in this period. By looking at different kinds of connections or the lack of connection between Phrygia and Rome that can be read from the primary literature, conclusions can be made about the way in which the eastern origin and eastern elements of the cult of the Mother Goddess in Rome contributed to a Roman Mediterranean identity in the period after her arrival until the early Empire.

To answer a research question that concerns Mediterranean identity, it is useful to approach the topic from a network perspective. From that perspective, the Roman identity can be seen as a centralized network with Rome as the core in many ways. Because of the huge conquest of new areas in the Mediterranean during the time of writing, the Romans saw themselves as the powerful centre of the Mediterranean world. This justifies the fetching of the Mother Goddess: in Ovid, the goddess speaks that ‘Rome is a place meet to be the resort of every God’. So Rome not only functioned as a political centre, but also as a religious centre of the Mediterranean. Rome adopted many gods from newly conquered areas, like the Egyptian Isis and the Greek Aesculapius. The Romanization of the worship of these adopted gods also serves as proof for the centralized Roman network: by imposing Roman elements to the worship of the gods, a sense of Roman ownership over these cults and the areas they were adopted from was created.

By using network theory, a clear idea can be given about the different types of ties that linked the place of the origin of Magna Mater and Rome as a result of the adoption the goddess. This provides a more nuanced view on the above described centralized network. Besides that, it helps explain the different versions that exist in primary and secondary sources about the place in Asia Minor Magna Mater was fetched from. 

In 205 BC, Rome was an ally of king Attalus I, the king of Pergamon in the war against Philip V of Macedon, who was allied with Hannibal. The view that the stone of Magna Mater was fetched from Pergamon can thus be explained in this context: king Attalus wanted to remain on good terms with Rome. The Roman imperial, centralized identity can be seen in the results of this alliance: in 133 BC, the kingdom of Pergamon became Roman territory. 

Writers like Ovid, Livy, Vergil, Catullus and Lucretius link the origins of the goddess in a mythical way to the Troad, the region where the once mighty city Troy was situated. Because Troy was the birth place of Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome, this link justifies the Roman ownership of Magna Mater and places Rome in a tradition of powerful centres of the Mediterranean world.

The Phrygian temple-state is named in many sources like Livy and Cicero as the place the stone of the goddess was taken from by the Romans. Not only the stone of Magna Mater was fetched, but also her Phrygian priests, called galli in Roman. The galli were believed to stand in direct contact with the goddess, but formed a threat for masculine Roman identity, because they were castrated and performed oriental rituals. That is why their ritual practices were confined to their temple and could not be practiced by Romans (as described by Dionysius of Halicarnassus). In this way, the religious tie between Rome and Phrygia formed an exception to the centralized network that characterizes Roman imperial identity: galli were (for example by Lucretius) seen as un-Roman, but Rome did depend on them for the worship of their newly adopted goddess.

From the Late Republic until the Early Empire, a shift can be seen in way the cult of Magna Mater contributed to a Roman identity. In the former period, the emphasis in literary sources (Catullus and Lucretius) on the foreign-ness of the cult shows that Asia Minor was not yet really seen as a part of the Roman Mediterranean territory. During the reign of Augustus, more confidence in the Roman imperial identity is shown: the Roman domination over Asia Minor is emphasized in writings from that period (like Livy, Vergil and Ovid), as well as the Romanization of the cult and the mythical origins of Rome and Magna Mater in the Troad. Thus we can conclude that there was a stronger sense of a Mediterranean identity that was ruled by Rome as a powerful centre in the Early Empire than in the Late Republic.
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