Reverent formalism

I’ve gone a bit too fast with my topics. Not everyone reading them agrees that Roman rituals were conservative to the extreme. To establish a foundation, I offer the following from Pliny, Natural History, XXVIII, 3, 10 ff:

“We also observe that our highest magistrates use certain formulas for their prayers; that not a single word may be omitted or pronounced out of its proper place; that it is the duty of one person to precede the official in reading the formula from a written ritual, of another to listen to every word, and of a third to see that silence is not ominously broken; meanwhile a musician performs on a flute in order to prevent any other words from being heard. There are, in fact, memorable instances recorded in our annals of cases where either the sacrifice has been interrupted, and thus blemished, by imprecations, or where a mistake has been made in the recitation of the formula . . . .”

Pliny goes on to cite examples of the efficacy of the set formula of the traditional rituals, adding in one example that the “potency of formulas” have “been proved effectual by the experience of 830 years.” He concludes by saying:

“If then these opinions are once accepted as truth, and if it is admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question. Our ancestors, no doubt, always entertained such a belief, and have even assured us, a thing by far the most difficult of all, that it is possible by such means to bring down lightning from heaven, as I have already mentioned on a more appropriate occasion.”

Pliny is here giving his opinion on a subject he acknowledges as arguable in his introduction to this section: “There arises first of all a question, one which is of the greatest importance and is always attended with the same uncertainty, namely, whether certain words, and the chanting of songs, have any efficacy or not.”

Pliny, therefore, is not arguing whether the formula of the public rituals is invariable, he is using that invariability and its success in the examples he cites as proof that the formulas work.

What Celetrus and I have been discussing over the past several months is not the question of whether the antique rituals used set formulae, but the larger question of how those rituals can be reasonably revived when the Sibylline Books in which they were written have been lost. And that, amici, is a question for another day.

The city not the empire

I am reminded by a series of messages on Nova Roma’s Main List that the sacra were performed in and for the city of Rome, not its Empire. This obvious point might have become obscured here, yet it I have not neglected it.

When I wrote a few days ago about the oddity of the Flamen Volturnalis living in Colorado and performing the rites for the Volturnalia, the oddness stems precisely from this blurring of the Roman city and its empire. The position of the other flamines in Nova Roma and similar organizations is no less odd.

The flamines served the ancient agricultural deities of the Romans. Volturnus, one of those gods, was the patron of the Tiber, and his great festival in late August was a harvest celebration. Like other flamines, the Flamen Volturnalis will have also performed daily rites in honor of the god he served. As a result of a pontifical revolution, at some early date, the Pontifex Maximus and his Collegium Pontificum took over the religio. Twelve of the 15 flamines were more or less disenfranchised by the new system. The customary view is that this happened about 350 BCE, when the city was becoming more important and eclipsing the surrounding countryside. The old agricultural gods therefore declined in importance and their flamines with them.

In the effort to revive the entire religio, organizations such as Nova Roma organize themselves along the lines of a virtual state, with the full panoply of elected magistrates. The argument given is that the sacra publica presuppose a state to serve. Yet, the flamines appointed to serve that state are appointed in order to perform agricultural rites for the benefit of the traditional Roman lands.

I do not see a way to argue that the old agricultural deities were conceived as universals by the Romans of antiquity. I note, however, that the cult of Volturnus seems to have been brought to Rome during the Samnite Wars (that is, sometime between 340 and 290 BCE), where it probably mingled with the cult of the local river deity, Tiberinus. We don’t know, but it is possible that Volturnus was a god of rivers and irrigation throughout the Roman lands. Nevertheless, I find no inscriptional evidence that Volturnus was equated with the river gods of the imperial provinces. Indeed, surviving inscriptions support the proposition that each river in the conquered lands had its own deity.

I note, too, that the Flamen Dialis, who was a priest of Iuppiter, was not allowed to spend a single night outside the city of Rome. This famous taboo has prevented the office from being filled in Nova Roma. And, the Pontifex Maximus was not permitted to leave Italy (although the rule was commonly violated after 131 BCE). We do not know enough about the other priests to know whether they might have lived under lesser but corresponding taboos.

Finally, it might be something of an oddity that a member of gens Ambrosia, a non-Roman gens, is serving as a flamen to one of the old agricultural deities. This fact does not trouble me particularly; the flamines minores could be plebeians, so I have no reason to think that they could not also be Roman citizens of foreign extraction.

How, then, can a Flamen Volturnalis live at a distance from the Roman lands, yet perform efficacious rites solely for the benefit of the traditional lands. And, why? Shouldn’t this office be reserved for someone who can perform the rites locally? (Remembering here that there were daily rites, as well as annual festivals.) It seems to me that flamines, at least, should live in or near Rome.

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