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Temple of Great Mother

Temple of Great Mother

The Great Mother (Magna Mater, Cybele) was associated with Aeneas, the legendary Trojan prince and ancestor of the Romans. Her temple on the Palatine was begun in 204 B.C. during the Hannibalic War. A Roman embassy brought from Pessinus (Turkey) the goddess's remarkable image: a black stone. The temple was dedicated in 191 B.C. Augustus rebuilt it after a fire in 3 B.C. Each April 4, the temple hosted a theater festival. The priests, called “Galli,” were eunuchs. Until Claudius (10 B.C.-54 A.D.), they had to be foreigners. On festival days, they paraded the cult statue through the city. Some chanted, others played cymbals and timbrels or blew horns. The statue of the goddess found here can be seen in the Palatine Museum.

Aedes Magna Mater

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 324-325.

The famous temple on the Palatine erected after 204 B.C. when the Roman embassy brought from Pessinus the pointed black stone (acus) which represented the goddess (Liv. XXIX.37.2; XXXVI.36; de vir. ill. 46.3; Prudent. Mart. Rom. 206; Serv. ad Aen. VII.188). It was dedicated on 11th April, 191 B.C., by the praetor M. Junius Brutus, on which occasion the ludi Megalenses were instituted (Liv. loc. cit.; Fast. Praen. ap. CIL I2 pp235, 314-315, cf. p251 = VI.32498; Fast. Ant. ap. NS 1921, 91) and celebrated in front of the temple (Cic. de har. resp. 24; cf. for site Ov. Fast. II.55; Mart. VII.73.3). It was burned in 111 B.C., when the statue of Quinta Cloelia within it was uninjured, restored by a Metellus, probably the consul of 110 B.C., burned again and restored by Augustus in 3 A.D. (Val. Max. I.8.11; Obseq. 99; Ov. Fast. IV.347-348; Mon. Anc. IV.8), and was standing unharmed in the fourth century (Not. Reg. X). It is referred to incidentally under date of 38 B.C. (Cass. Dio XLVIII.43.4), by Juvenal (IX.23) as a place of assignation, and in the third century (Hist. Aug. Claud. 4; Aurel. 1). The stone needle itself is described by a late writer (Arnob. adv. gentes VII.49) as small and set in a silver statue of the goddess (cf. Herodianus ab exc. d. Marci I.11; Arnob. V.5). It was perhaps removed by Elagabalus to his temple (q.v.) on the Palatine (Hist. Aug. Elag. 3; cf. LR 134-138; but cf. BC 1883, 211; HJ 53-54, n44).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    59. The Lupercal Cave. Sources.


    Our ancestors wanted the Megalesian games to be performed and celebrated in front of the Temple of Magna Mater, under the very gaze of the goddess.

    Cicero, Response of the Soothsayers 24

    61. The Temple of the Great Mother Goddess (Magna Mater). Commentary.

    The origins of the worship of the Great Mother in Rome are, as with so many temples in Rome, ascribed to a crisis in war time. Having trouble defeating Hannibal, on the advice of the Sibylline Books the Romans imported the goddess from Asia Minor, where she was worshipped under the names of both Cybele and the Great Mother (the Greek word for “great” is Megale; hence the “Megalesian” games in her honor). The goddess's connection with victory in war (as the motivation for importing her) is strengthened by the location of her temple beside the Temple of Victory, which was in fact her home until her temple was finished.

    This much sounds very Roman, but there were at least two unusual features about the worship of the Great Mother. First, her cult-image was not a statue but simply a black stone [61.2], which was set onto an enthroned statue of the goddess in the place of a representational head. (A headless statue, flanked by two lions, was found near her temple and is on display in the Palatine Antiquarium).

    Secondly, her yearly rites in Rome were led by non-Roman priests who continued to come from Phrygia and who, in becoming devotees of the goddess, had castrated themselves, after the pattern of Attis, a mythological prototype of the devotees of Cybele. Catullus responded to the strangeness of her worship with one of the more imaginative poems in Latin literature [61.12], which attempts to get inside the head of young Attis “the morning after” his ecstatic initiation; perhaps, after his affair with Lesbia, Catullus himself could identify. At any rate, the excerpt is interesting for its dichotomy of urban and wilderness landscapes, which parallels the careful ritual divisions between Roman and foreign participants, as described by Dionysius of Halicarnassus [61.11].

    61. The Temple of the Great Mother Goddess (Magna Mater). Sources.


    At that time [in 205 BC] a sudden religious fear overtook the Romans when, after the frequent volcanic showers of stone that year, they consulted the Sibylline books and found an oracle stating that any foreign enemy who attacked Italy could be driven out of Italy and defeated only if the Mother of Mt. Ida was brought to Rome from Pessinus.… The Roman ambassadors went to King Attalus of Pergamum, who received them kindly and led them to Pessinus in Phrygia [central Turkey]. There he presented them with the sacred stone that the natives say is the Mother of the Gods, and he invited the Romans to take it back to Rome.

    When the ship carrying the Mother of Mt. Ida approached the mouth of the Tiber [in 204 BC], Publius Cornelius Scipio sailed out, as required, to the offshore waters to receive the goddess from her priests, and he brought her in to the shore where the leading matrons of Rome were waiting to receive the goddess. (Among these women the name of the Vestal Quinta Claudia is conspicuous, since her help in bringing the goddess to Rome caused her reputation for purity, until then apparently under some suspicion, to shine into posterity.) Passing the stone hand to hand in unbroken succession, the women sent the sacred stone on its way to Rome. The entire city poured out to watch. Incense-burners were placed at the doorways of homes all along the route, and when the stone passed, they lit incense and prayed that the goddess would enter Rome willingly and look upon them favorably. The matrons brought her to the Temple of Victory on the Palatine on April 12, her holy day, and a crowd of people brought the goddess gifts; a banquet for the gods was held, as well as games called the Megalesia.

    Livy, History 29.10.4-5; 11.7; 14.11-14


    They say that nothing else was transported from Phrygia by King Attalus besides a stone, and a smallish one at that, able to be carried by a single man without any strain. Its color is a deep black, and it has tiny irregularities in its shape. As we can all see today [c. AD 300] where it sits in place of a head on the statue itself of the Great Mother, it bears only the crudest resemblance to a face.

    Arnobius, Against the Pagans 7.49


    Not far downstream of Rome, the smoothly flowing Almo

    Meets the Tiber and loses it name to the larger river.

    Here in his purple robe the ancient priest of the goddess

    Washed her stone and sacred tools in the Almo's stream.

    Ovid, Fasti 4.337-340


    Down by the Almo, where they wash

    The eastern ore of the Mother …

    Martial, Epigrams 3.47.2


    They say that the summer harvest of the year in which the Mother of the Gods was brought to Rome was the biggest in ten years.

    Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia, 18.16


    The censors M. Livius and G. Claudius [in 204 BC] contracted the building of the Temple of the Great Mother on the Palatine.

    Livy, History 29.37.3


    At about the same time [in 191 BC] the Temple of the Great Mother of Mt. Ida was dedicated,…thirteen years after the temple was commissioned. Marcus Junius Brutus dedicated it, and games, called the Megalesia, were also established with the dedication. Valerius Antias says these games were the first to include dramatic performances.

    Livy, History 36.36.3-4


    The statue of Quinta Claudia that stood at the entrance to the Temple of the Mother of the Gods twice remained untouched by flames when that temple was destroyed by fire, once [in 111 BC] in the consulship of Scipio and Bestia and again [in AD 3] in the consulship of Servilius and Lamia.

    Valerius Maximus, Sayings 1.8.11


    I rebuilt the Temple of Magna Mater on the Palatine.

    Augustus, Achievements 19


    I wondered why the Megalesian games were the first

    To be held each year in Rome. But the Muse had sensed my query

    And answered: “The other gods, because she gave them birth,

    Yield and give the games of the Mother Goddess this pride of place.”

    Ovid, Fasti 4.357-360


    If on rare occasions Rome does introduce a foreign religious rites into the city, she nonetheless observes them according to her own customs, jettisoning the esoteric mythical nonsense. The worship of the Idaean Mother is a good example [of how the Romans deal with outlandish cults]. Every year the praetors perform sacrifices and hold games in her honor, in accordance with Roman customs, but both the priest and priestess of the goddess are Phrygians, and they are the ones who parade her image through the city, begging alms in the Mother's name as is their custom, wearing images around their chests, beating on drums and accompanied by the ritual flute music of their followers. By custom and a decree of the Senate, no native Roman begs alms for Cybele or parades to flute music in multi-colored robes or worships the goddess with ecstatic Phrygian rites.

    Dionysius, Early Rome 2.19.3-5


    [Attis, in a frenzy of worship, castrated himself

    And led a band of devotees to Cybele's wild mountain]

    But when the clear-eyed sun rose up with his golden face

    Illuminating sky, firm earth, and wild sea,

    Attis, unpossessed, saw where he was and what

    He wasn't, and spoke in torment to his homeland:

    “Is this really me in the forest, so far away from home,

    Away from forum, stadium, wrestling-ring and gym?

    I, who was once the star of the schoolyard and the pride of the ring,

    A serving-girl of the gods, Cybele's slave-girl?

    Now I can see and suffer, only now regret my loss!”

    But Cybele heard; unleashing the lions yoked to her cart,

    She lashed the one on the left, the foe of flocks, and said:

    “Be off! Attack that man! I want him wild again.

    See that the whip of fury drives him back to the woods,

    for thinking that he is free, for wanting to slip my rule.”

    O Great Goddess, Cybele, Mistress God of the Mountain,

    May the fury you inspire be distant from my home:

    Arouse your frenzy in others, drive others, not me, insane.

    Catullus, Poem 63 (selected lines)

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