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Cult Ritual Killings in Ancient Rome

Ancient Roman writers claimed that human sacrifices were made during Rome's early history. After the Romans were defeated at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., a battle that allowed an army from Carthage to temporarily occupy a large part of Italy, the Romans resorted to human sacrifice. 'A Gaulish man and a Gaulish woman and a Greek man and a Greek woman were buried alive under the Forum Boarium,' wrote the Roman writer Titus Livius (died A.D. 17) in his book 'History of Rome' (translation by Canon Roberts). PHOTO/TEXT: LiveScience.com/Shutterstock

This is Part III of our three-part series on human sacrifice and extreme debauchery in the ancient world. See Part I: “Rome’s Own Version of an ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ Cult: Bacchanalia Runs Amok“; and Part II: “Scholars Finally Confirm Ancient Carthage was Involved in Child Sacrifice.”


As with Carthage, there is a distortion of history when it comes to Rome. This society was very much into the sacrifice of animals. They tried to pin human sacrifice on foes, such as the Druids and Gauls.

Pliny the Elder (23–78 C.E.) writes, “A decree forbidding human sacrifices was passed by the senate [in 97 BCE]; from which period the celebration of these horrid rites ceased in public, and, for some time, altogether.”

However, more privately, the well-being of the state of Rome depended upon discipline and the performance of cult rituals.

The Romans believed that in order to maintain the favored status of the gods, they needed to perform ritual killings. Sacrificial murder was a violation of established Roman law, but ritual killing offered a loophole, such as if it was prescribed by the gods or involved the killing of foreigners and slaves, who were not Roman citizens.

Celia Schultz, professor of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, notes a distinction the Romans made between sacrifice and ritual killing. They sacrificed people in a way that tried to encompass a large range of gods and goddesses to get the optimal outcome. The Romans strove to please all of their gods in order to avoid paying for a snub with a particularly harsh winter or general bad luck.

If the killing was kept away from Roman citizens, or if the victim was killed according to the edicts of the gods, then the Romans were “technically” not engaging in the otherwise barbaric practice of human sacrifice.

Prior to abolition, there was a series of live burials of Gauls and Greeks, in the BCE years of 228, 216 and 114. Live burials occurred in the Forum Boarium. The ritual nature was not real clear, and the primary purpose may have been terror.

Rome’s Forum Boarium is home to the Temple of Hercules and Temple of Vesta. PHOTO: Rome.net

Later as criminals and slaves were used, as gladiators and foils of gladiators in a religious context they were sacrificed to the Manes on behalf of the deceased. The Etruscans were credited by the Romans for introducing gladiatorial contests to Rome. These were actually executions that incorporated a ritual sacrificial agenda.

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IMAGE: ItalianTribune.com

The Romans also seemed to combine eugenics with what is called “prodigy.” These are supernatural signs of the gods being displeased, according to many documents. Wanting to mend their tainted relationship with the gods, the Romans would search for unnatural phenomena that would be the reason for the gods’ anger.

The ancient historian Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) mentioned a series of prodigies that occurred in Rome. The events started with rocks falling from the sky, lightning striking a temple, a river of blood, a wolf attack in the city, and culminates with a deformed infant being born in Rome around 207 BCE.

Livy wrote, “There had been born a child as large as a four-year-old … it was uncertain whether male or female. Soothsayers summoned from Etruria said it was a terrible and loathsome portent; it must be removed from Roman territory, far from contact with earth, and drowned in the sea.”

In fact, most deformed infants were placed in boxes and thrown into the sea as means of an offering. Sending them out to sea was a way to purify their land, removing the offenses from the earth entirely. They were sent to their deaths in a way that removed them from Rome, casting them away from the land. These children were not supposed to exist. Hermaphrodites in particular were targeted. Unlike Carthage, the Romans appeared to have no interest in sacrifice of healthy children.

The Romans did not partake in but allowed ritual killing in a grove dedicated to the Goddess Diana some 20 miles outside Rome. Diana was the goddess of slaves. This ritual involved slaves fighting to the death, indicating ritual killing through combat, either to become protector or to maintain the status quo. This ritual was known as Rex Nemorensis. The survivor of the duel would become Rex (king) of the grove or the new leader of the slave community. Strabo, in his work “Geography,” called this ceremony “Scythic.”

According to ancient sources, the classical hero Orestes came to Nemi and established a cult of Diana here. His priest was known as the Rex Nemorensis, a runaway slave who could succeed his predecessor only by killing him in a duel, after having grabbed a branch of mistletoe from an oak tree in the grove preceding the sanctuary. TEXT/PHOTO: ItalianGems.wordpress.com

The idea here was passage to a new king, or rebirth as the old Rex, would be slain by the next Rex. The funeral took place with the body on an altar; and afterward, the new Rex would take the bones and ashes of the old Rex down into a cave to send to the underworld. There was also a symbolic marriage between the Goddess Diana and the Rex.

This is the notion of the sacred kingSir James George Frazer identified — or invented — the concept of the sacred king in his study “The Golden Bough“(1890–1915), the title of which refers to the myth of the Rex Nemorensis. Frazer gives numerous examples, and was an inspiration for the myth and ritual school (aka ritual from myth).

The king might also be designated to suffer and atone for his people, meaning that the sacral king could be the pre-ordained victim in a human sacrifice, either killed at the end of his term in the position, or sacrificed in a time of crisis. Modern-day nothing-to-see-here, move-along pajama scholars poo poo this thinking as well. Maybe they are right this time, as sacrifice, divine or otherwise, seems starkly missing among those that rule. But that doesn’t mean the ancients didn’t accept the myth.

The Vestal Virgins worshiped the Goddess Vesta. Vesta was the goddess that provided fire and her importance to the Romans required the Vestal Virgins to maintain a temple at the center of the city. Vesta’s fire was kept lit to honor and please the goddess, so she would provide fire for the people. This position of responsibility required Vestal Virgins to stay true to their name and be chaste and unmarried for 30 years, offering sacrifices and performing rituals under the law of the House of Vesta.

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Painting of Vestal Virgins, the keepers of the flame, in the Temple of Vesta, Rome

There were severe punishments for Vestal Virgins who dishonored their vows. If deemed unchaste, she would be interred in an underground cell; but because the Romans did not allow burials within the city, the Vestal Virgins were given water and bread. This interment shows that the Romans attempted to avoid what they considered human sacrifice, because they gave the Virgins rations to live for a short time; but with the interment, they passed the buck into the hands of Vesta. When the Vestal Virgins violated their vows to Vesta, the Romans had to act to keep Rome in Vesta’s favor.

Roman Cult of Mithras

Human sacrifice remained a powerful religious force in Roman Empire long after its actual practice had been legally 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. Jesus Christ was totally in line with the long-standing sacrificial death and resurrection mythical concept.

The dark ceremonies of most of these mystery religious societies mimed death and resurrection. This was done in the most extravagant manner. In some ceremonies, candidates were buried or encased in a sarcophagus. Alternatively, the candidates were symbolically drowned or decapitated.

In imitation of the Orphic myth of Dionysus Zagreus, a rite was held in which the heart of a victim, supposedly a human child, was roasted and distributed among the participants to be eaten. Sparagmos is to “tear, rend, pull to pieces”, or mangling, usually in a Dionysian context. The image at right is wall painting from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Nothing to see here, move along?

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Roman god Saturn

In the Dionysus and Isis mysteries, the initiation was sometimes accomplished by a “sacred marriage,” or a sacral copulation.  Dionysiac, or Bacchic, societies flourished in the whole empire. Supposedly, these secret rites consisted of a bloodless sacrifice and mimicking death — but that is really an open question. Logic would suggest otherwise. This was an era when life was cheap, and some people were slaves and expendable. Who would enforce against an organized and ruthless secret cult?

From Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.37: “After Dionysos had demonstrated to the Thebans that he was a god, he went to Argos where again he drove the women mad when the people did not pay him honour, and up in the mountains the women fed on the flesh of the babies suckling at their breasts.”

Here is another example of Bacchic-Dionysiac fun and games.

The mystery secret societies did not differentiate between religious associations and private or political clubs. They were one in the same, and they demonstrated a certain ruthlessness. Whoever would abandon the common political cause would be denounced by his former friends for having committed a crime against religion, and many witnesses against him would be at hand.

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