Romans: Dionysios on the supposed Roman refusal of barbarian and Phrygian customs (late first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Romans: Dionysios on the supposed Roman refusal of barbarian and Phrygian customs (late first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 15, 2023,

Ancient authors: Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 2.18-20 (link); Livy, History of Rome 29.10-11 (link).

Comments: Dionysios (or: DIonysius) from Halikarnassos in western Asia Minor is a Greek author with a high interest in Roman Antiquities (written in the late first century BCE). In another post (link), I have dealt with one of the most crucial aspects of Dionysios’ approach: his attempt to establish that the Romans were in fact actually Greeks (rather than a mixture of barbarians) who had migrated to Italy and that, therefore, one could observe many Greek customs in Roman practices up till his present. The other side of the coin with this argument is that Roman customs are, for Dionysios, definitely not derivative of barbarian customs (such as those of Umbrians or Ligurians in the case of Italy), since they preserve early, more pure Greek customs instead. But as the passage below starts to demonstrate, this theme of distancing Romans from any foreign (“barbarian”) influence continues in various ways within the narrative. In this case, Dionysios interprets the practice of the Phrygian mother goddess’ rites (first introduced around 205 BCE) in a way that keeps Romans a safe distance from “ridiculous” foreign practices. He claims that only Phrygian immigrants in Rome fully participate in the cult of this Phrygian goddess rather than Romans themselves, due to the requirements of his argument. Overall this provides a glimpse into a particular Greek’s imagination about the relationship between Romans, Greeks, and other foreign peoples.

On the other hand, Livy’s roughly contemporary account of Rome’s reception of the Mother goddess from Phrygia (writing after 29 BCE, also presented below) – in the context of an epidemic within the Roman army in the war with Carthage (ca. 204 BCE) – is more straightforward and takes it for granted that, at crucial moments, the Romans adopted specific foreign deities. In this particular case (as with the case of Asklepios’ previous reception), Livy does not pause to struggle with the implications of Romans adopting such foreign customs under difficult circumstances, at least. In this scenario, this is clearly not a cult imported merely for Phrygian immigrants at Rome, as Dionysios implies.

Source of translation: E. Cary, The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 7 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937-50), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland; B.O. Foster, F. Gardner, and E.T. Sage, Livy, volumes 1-11, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919-1936), public domain (Foster [vols. 1-5] passed away in 1938, Gardner [vols. 6-8] in 1955, and Sage [vols. 9, 11] in 1936), adapted by Harland.



Book 2

[Romulus’ superior customs]

18 (1) It is not only these institutions of Romulus [legendary first king of Rome, sometimes placed in the eight century BCE] that I admire, but also those which I am going to relate. He understood that the good government of cities was due to certain causes which all leaders talk about but few succeed in making effective: first, the favour of the gods, the enjoyment of which gives success to men’s every enterprise; next, moderation and justice, as a result of which the citizens, being less disposed to injure one another, are more harmonious, and make honour, rather than the most shameful pleasures, the measure of their happiness; and, lastly, bravery in war, which renders the other virtues also useful to their possessors. (2) Romulus thought that none of these advantages is the effect of chance, but recognized that good laws and the emulation of worthy pursuits render a city pious, temperate, devoted to justice, and brave in war. He took great care, therefore, to encourage these, beginning with the worship of the gods and revered spirits. He established temples, sacred precincts and altars, arranged for the setting up of statues, determined the representations and symbols of the gods, and declared their powers, the beneficent gifts which they have made to mankind, the particular festivals that should be celebrated in honour of each god or genius, the sacrifices with which they delight to be honoured by men, as well as the holidays, festal assemblies, days of rest, and everything alike of that nature, in all of which he followed the best customs in use among the Greeks. (3) But he rejected all the traditional myths concerning the gods that contain blasphemies or slanders against them, looking upon these as wicked, useless and indecent, and unworthy, not only of the gods, but even of good men. He accustomed people both to think and to speak the best of the gods and to attribute to them no conduct unworthy of their blessed nature.

[Absence of ridiculous myths]

19 (1) In fact, there is no tradition among the Romans either of Caelus being castrated by his own sons or of Saturn destroying his own offspring to secure himself from their attempts or of Jupiter dethroning Saturn and confining his own father in the dungeon of Tartarus, or, indeed, of wars, wounds, or bonds of the gods, or of their servitude among men. (2) Furthermore, no festival is observed among them as a day of mourning or by the wearing of black garments and the beating of breasts and the lamentations of women because of the disappearance of deities, such as the Greeks perform in commemorating the rape of Persephone and the adventures of Dionysos and all the other things of a similar kind.

[Absence of ridiculous rites]

One will see among them, even though their manners are now corrupted, no ecstatic transports, no Korybantic frenzies, no gatherings, no bacchic rites or secret mysteries, no all-night vigils of men and women together in the temples, nor any other ridiculous things of this kind. Rather, in all their words and actions with respect to the gods a reverence is shown such as is seen among neither Greeks nor barbarians.

[Apparent Roman adoption of barbarian rites]

(3) The thing which I myself have marvelled at most is that, notwithstanding the influx into Rome of innumerable peoples (ethnē) which are under every necessity of worshipping their ancestral gods according to the customs of their respective countries, the city still has never officially adopted any of those foreign practices, as has been the experience of many cities in the past. Rather, even though she has, in pursuance of oracles, introduced certain rites from abroad, she celebrates them in accordance with her own traditions, after banishing all fabulous elements.

[Example of the Mother goddess from Phrygia where Romans supposedly stay distanced from Phrygian customs]

The rites of the Idaian goddess​ [i.e. the mother goddess as worshipped on mount Ida near Troy] are a case in point. (4) For the praetors perform sacrifices and celebrated games in her honour every year according to the Roman customs, but the priest and priestess of the goddess are Phrygians, and it is they who carry her image in procession through  the city, begging alms in her name according to their custom, and wearing figures upon their breasts​ and striking their timbrels while their followers play tunes upon their flutes in honour of the Mother of the Gods.

(5) However, by a law and decree of the senate, no native Roman walks in procession through the city arrayed in a parti-coloured robe, begging alms or escorted by flute-players, or worships the god with the Phrygian ceremonies. So cautious are they about admitting any foreign religious customs and so great is their aversion to all pompous display that is wanting in decorum.

[Qualifications regarding Greek myths interpreted allegorically]

20 (1) Let no one imagine, however, that I am not sensible that some of the Greek myths are useful to humankind, part of them explaining, as they do, the works of Nature by allegories, others being designed as a consolation for human misfortunes, some freeing the mind of its agitations and terrors and clearing away unsound opinions, and others invented for some other useful purpose. (2) But, though I am as well acquainted as anyone with these matters, nevertheless my attitude toward the myths is one of caution, and I am more inclined to accept Romans’ discourses about the gods when I consider that the advantages from the Greek myths are slight and cannot be of profit to many, but only to those who have examined the end for which they are designed. This philosophic attitude is shared by few. The great multitude, unacquainted with philosophy, are prone to take these stories about the gods in the worse sense and to fall into one of two errors: they either despise the gods as buffeted by many misfortunes, or else refrain from none of the most shameful and lawless deeds when they see them attributed to the gods.

21 (1) But let the consideration of these matters be left to those who have set aside the theoretical part of philosophy exclusively for their contemplation. To return to the government established by Romulus . . . [remainder of the account of Romulus omitted].



Book 29

[Context of the epidemic and war with Carthage and seeking answers of what to do]

10 The time for the elections was already at hand when a letter from Publius Licinius, the consul, reached Rome, reporting that he and his army were suffering from a serious epidemic, and that they could not have held out if an equally violent or even more serious disease had not been visited upon the enemy. . . . The consul was permitted by the senate to do whatever he thought consistent with the public interest and his own conscience. At that time concerns about obligations to the gods (religio) had suddenly seized the citizens because in the Sibylline books, which were consulted on account of the frequent showers of stones that year, an oracle was found that, if ever a foreign enemy should invade the land of Italy, he could be driven out of Italy and defeated if the Idaian Mother should be brought from Pessinos to Rome. The discovery of that oracle by the decemvirs impressed the senators all the more because the ambassadors also who had carried a gift to Delphi reported that, when they offered sacrifices themselves to Pythian Apollo, the omens had been favourable. Likewise, from the oracle there had come a response that a much greater victory was in prospect for the Roman people than that from spoils of which they were bringing gifts. To the facts supporting that same hope the senators added Publius Scipio’s state of mind, virtually forecasting the end of the war, in that he demanded Africa as his province. And so, that they might sooner be in possession of the victory which foreshadowed itself in oracles, forecasts and responses, they planned and discussed what should be the method of transporting the goddess to Rome.

[Recent alliance with the Attalid rulership in Pergamon and reception of the Mother goddess]

11 In Asia the Roman people had as yet no allied states. They bore in mind, however, that Aesculapius also had previously been summoned from Greece on account of an epidemic, while there was still no treaty of alliance. They also bore in mind that, because of the joint war against Philip, they had at present already entered into friendly relations with king Attalos [of Pergamon in Asia Minor]. Thinking that he would do what he could for the sake of the Roman people, they decided to send ambassadors to him. These were Marcus Valerius Laevinus, who had been twice consul and had held a command in Greece, Marcus Caecilius Metellus, an ex-praetor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, an ex-aedile, and two former quaestors, Gnaeus Tremelius Flaccus and Marcus Valerius Falto. For them they chose to send five ships with five banks of oars so that, in keeping with the dignity of the Roman people, they might visit lands where the highest respect for the Roman name was to be won. The ambassadors on the voyage to Asia made their way up to Delphi and consulted the oracle, enquiring what hope of accomplishing the task for which they had been sent from home it foresaw for themselves and the Roman people. The response, they say, was that they should gain what they sought with the help of king Attalos, and that after conveying the goddess to Rome they were then to make sure that the best man at Rome should hospitably welcome her. They came to the king at Pergamon. He courteously received the ambassadors and, escorting them to Pessinos in Phrygia, presented them with the sacred stone which the inhabitants said was the Mother of the Gods, and instructed them to carry it away to Rome. Sent on in advance by the ambassadors, Marcus Valerius Falto brought the news that they were bringing the goddess, and that they must seek out the best man in the state to receive her with due hospitality.


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