Romans: Livy, Pliny, Plutarch, and Dio on Roman human sacrifice of Gauls and Greeks (late first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Romans: Livy, Pliny, Plutarch, and Dio on Roman human sacrifice of Gauls and Greeks (late first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 10, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=20093.

Ancient authors: Livy (late first century BCE), Roman History 22.57.6 (link); Pliny the Elder (mid-first century CE), Natural History 28.10-13 and 30.12-13 (link); Plutarch (early second century CE), Roman Questions 32, 83 (link); Plutarch, Marcellus 3 (link); Dio Cassius (early third century CE), Roman History, book 12, fragment via Zonaras’ twelfth century CE summary at 8.19-20 (link).

Comments: Gathered here are several accounts from the time of emperor Augustus or later of supposed human sacrifice of foreigners – Celts/Gauls and Greeks – performed by Romans on three occasions in an earlier age (placed in the years 228, 216, and 114 BCE). These are usually reported by these authors as exceptional or anomalous, and in several cases official consultation of the Sibylline books was viewed as the impetus. These later authors offer interpretations formulated a century or more after the incidents they claim to explain (see Várhelyi). For example, there is the view that this rite served to counter current enemies, as in Pliny, or the view that this was a defense against potential future invasions, as in Dio Cassius. These or other claims from many years after are not likely to help us understand the original practices themselves, then.

What is most important for us here is the ethnographic significance that these authors give to this information. By the time of these authors, the charge of engaging in human sacrifice (along with the idea of eating human flesh in the accompanying meal) was a common mud-slinging tactic in portraying foreign peoples as savage or barbarian, and sometimes this accusation had more practical imperialistic purposes in justifying conquest or the destruction of peoples, as in the case of Celtic Druids (e.g. Julius Caesar [link]; Diodoros [link]). For a full list of examples on this site, go to this link (coming soon). This is what makes these incidents of “civilized” Romans involved in “savage” practices in the past so noteworthy or paradoxical for these ancient Roman and Greek authors.

Of course, Jesus adherents aiming to counter the accusation that they themselves engaged in human sacrifice sometimes called up similar stories of human sacrifice by Romans or other peoples as a retorsion (e.g. Minucius Felix – link).

Works consulted: C.E. Schultz, “The Romans and Ritual Murder,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78 (2010): 516–41; Z. Várhelyi, “The Specters of Roman Imperialism: The Live Burials of Gauls and Greeks at Rome,” Classical Antiquity 26 (2007): 277–304 (link).

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Livy (late first century BCE)

[Sacrificial burial of two Gauls and two Greeks in response to a portent]

(22.57.6) For, over and above these serious disasters, considerable alarm was created by portents which occurred [ca. 216 BCE]. Two Vestal virgins, Opimia and Floronia, were found guilty of unchastity. One was buried alive, as is the custom, at the Colline Gate, and the other committed suicide. L. Cantilius, one of the high-priestly secretaries, now called “minor high priests,” who had been guilty with Floronia, was scourged in the Comitium by the supreme high priest so severely that he died under it. This act of wickedness, coming as it did amongst so many disasters, was, as often happens, regarded as a portent, and the commission of ten men (decemvirs) were ordered to consult the sacred books. Q. Fabius Pictor was sent to consult the oracle of Delphi as to what forms of prayer and supplication they were to use to propitiate the gods, and what was to be the end of all these terrible disasters. Meanwhile, in obedience to the books of destiny, some strange and unusual sacrifices were made, human sacrifices amongst them. A male Gaul and a female Gaul and a Greek man and a Greek woman were buried alive under the cattle market (Forum Boarium). They were lowered into a stone vault, which had on a previous occasion also been polluted by human victims, a practice most repulsive to Roman feelings.

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Pliny the Elder

[Reference to the prayer recited in the sacrificial burial of a Greek man and woman and others during war in the process of discerning between ineffective (foreign) and effective (Roman) verbal or chanted formulas and prayers]

(Natural History 28-10-13) Among the remedies derived from man, the first raises a most important question, and one never settled: Do words and chanting of songs (incantamenta carminum) have any effect? If they have, it would be right and proper to give the credit to humankind. As individuals, however, all our wisest men reject belief in them [i.e. chants of Persian Magians and others], although as a body the public at all times believes in them unconsciously.

In fact the sacrifice of victims without a prayer is supposed to have no effect [i.e. the following are effective prayers in the Roman context]. Without a prayer the gods are also not thought to be properly consulted. Moreover, there is one form of words for getting favourable omens, another for averting evil, and yet another for a commendation. We see also that our chief magistrates have adopted fixed formulas for their prayers. Furthermore, in order to prevent the omission of any word or the misplacement of a word a reader dictates beforehand the prayer from a script, another attendant is appointed as a guard to keep watch, and yet another person is put in charge to maintain strict silence. Also, a piper plays so that nothing but the prayer is heard. Remarkable instances of both kinds of interference are on record: cases when the noise of actual ill omens has ruined the prayer, or when a mistake has been made in the prayer itself; then suddenly the head of the liver, or the heart, has disappeared from the entrails, or these have been doubled, while the victim was standing. There has come down to us a striking example of ritual in that with which the Decians, father and son, devoted themselves. Also extant is the plea of innocence uttered by the Vestal Tuccia when, accused of unchastity, she carried water in a sieve, in the 609th year of the city [of Rome]. Actually, even our own age [i.e. in historical memory?] witnessed a Greek man and a Greek woman buried alive in the cattle-market (Forum Boarium), and victims from other peoples with whom at the time we were at war. The prayer used at this ceremony is customarily dictated by the magistrate of the association (collegium) of the fifteen priests (quindecimviri) [responsible for keeping and consulting the Sibylline books]. If one reads it, one is forced to admit that there is power in ritual formulas, since the events of eight hundred and thirty years demonstrates this for all of them. . . [omitted remainder of effective verbal formulas / prayers].

[Reference to senatorial edict of ca. 97 BCE forbidding human sacrifice in the context of Pliny’s discussion of the spread of Persian Magian skill to other peoples, including Italians and Druids among Gauls / Celts]

Among Italian descent groups (gentes) there also still certainly exist traces in the Twelve Tables, as is proved by my own evidence and the other evidence presented in an earlier Book [28.17]. It was not until the six hundred and fifty-seventh year of the city [Rome; i.e. 97 BCE] that in the consulship of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus and Publius Licinius Crassus there was passed a resolution of the Senate forbidding human sacrifice (homo immolaretur). So up until that date it is clear that such abominable rites were practised. The two Gallic provinces certainly possessed it, and that continues in living memory. For the principate of Tiberius Caesar [14-37 CE] did away with their Druids, this group (genus) of prophets and medicine men.

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Plutarch (early second century)

[Roman custom as a survival of the practice of sacrificing Greeks]

(Roman Questions 32) Why is it that in the month of May at the time of the full moon they [Romans] throw into the river from the Sublicius bridge figures of men, calling the images thrown Argives [i.e. Argei]?

Is it because in ancient days the barbarians who lived in these parts used to destroy the Greeks whom they captured in this way? However, Herakles, who was much admired by them, put an end to their murder of foreigners (xenoktonia) and taught them to throw figures into the river, in imitation of their custom which was based on fear of lower spirits (deisidaimonia). In the old days, men used to call all Greeks alike “Argives”; however, it may actually be the case that, since the Arkadians regarded the Argives also as their enemies because of their immediate proximity, when Euandros and his men​ fled from Greece and settled there [near Rome], they continued to preserve their ancient feud and enmity.

[Roman approach to the Bletonesians’ practice of human sacrifice]

(Roman Questions 83) When the Romans learned that the barbarians called Bletonesians [or: Vettonians, in Iberia / Spain] had sacrificed a man to the gods, why did they send for the tribal rulers with intent to punish them, yet when it was made plain that they [Romans] had done the same in accordance with a certain custom, why did the Romans set them at liberty, but forbid the practice for the future?

Yet Romans themselves, not many years before, had buried alive two men and two women, two of them Greeks, two Galatians [Gauls] in the place called the cattle market (Forum Boarium). It certainly seems strange that they themselves would do this and yet rebuke barbarians on the ground that they were acting with impiety.

[Roman sacrifice of two Greeks and two Galatians called for by the Sibylline oracles]

Did they think it was impious to sacrifice men to the gods (theoi), but necessary to sacrifice them to the lower spirits (daimones)? Or did they believe that men who did this by tradition and custom were making a mistake, whereas they themselves did it by command of the Sibylline books?

For the tale is told that a certain young unmarried woman, Helvia, was struck by lightning while she was riding on horseback, and her horse was found lying stripped of its trappings. Helvia herself was naked because her tunic had been pulled far up, as if purposely. And her shoes, her rings, and her head-dress were scattered around here and there, and her open mouth allowed the tongue to protrude [ca. 114 bCE; cf. Julius Obsequens, Book of Prodigies 37; Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans 5.15.20-22]. The diviners (manteis) declared that it was a terrible disgrace for the Vestal Virgins, that this news would be spread far and wide, and that some terrible outrage would affect the knights (equestrians) as well. At that point, a barbarian slave of a certain knight gave information against three Vestal Virgins, Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia, that they had all been corrupted at about the same time, and that they had long entertained lovers, one of whom was Vetutius Barrus,​ the informer’s master [placed in 114 BCE by Livy, Periochae 63;  Asconius, Commentary on Cicero For Milo 32; Dio Cassius, Roman History 26, fragment 87.1-5; Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.10.5]. The Vestals, accordingly, were convicted and punished. However, since the their behaviour was plainly atrocious, it was resolved that the priests should consult the Sibylline books. They say that oracles were found foretelling that these events would come to pass as an annoyance to the Romans. The oracles also enjoined on the Romans that, to avert the impending disaster, they should offer as a sacrifice to certain strange and foreign lower spirits (daimones) two Greeks and two Galatians, buried alive on the spot.

[Sacrificial burial of two Greeks and two Galatians in the context of the Galatian threat]

(Life of Marcellus 3) After the first Carthaginian war had come to an end in its twenty-second year [ca. 241 BCE], Rome was called upon to renew the Galatian struggles. The Insubrians, a Celtic people inhabiting the area of Italy at the foot of the Alps – and a strong people even by themselves – called out their forces and sent for the assistance of mercenary Galatians called Gaisatians [ca. 225 BCE]. It seemed an amazing example of good fortune that the Celtic war did not break out while the Libyan [i.e. Carthaginian] war was raging. Rather, the Galatians, like a third champion sitting by and awaiting his turn with the victor, remained strictly quiet while the other two peoples were fighting. They Galatlians only stripped for combat when the victors were at liberty to receive their challenge. Nevertheless, the Romans were greatly alarmed by the proximity of their country to the enemy, with whom they would wage war so near their own boundaries and homes, as well as by the ancient renown of the Galatians, whom the Romans seem to have feared more than any other people. For Rome had once been taken by the Galatians and from that time on a Roman priest was legally exempt from military service only in case that no Galatian war happened again. The Romans’ alarm was also shown by their preparations for the war (neither before nor since that time, we are told, were there so many thousands of Romans armed once), and by the extraordinary sacrifices which they made to the gods. Even though the Romans have no barbarous or unnatural practices, but cherish towards their deities those mild and reverent sentiments which especially characterize Greek thought, at the time when this war burst upon them they were constrained to obey certain oracular commands from the Sibylline books to bury alive two Greeks, a man and a woman, and likewise two Galatians, in the place called the cattle-market (Forum Boarium). In memory of these victims, they still to this day perform mysterious and secret ceremonies in the month of November.

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Dio Cassius (early third century)

[Burial of two Gauls and Greeks in response to an oracle that those peoples would occupy Rome]

(book 12, via Zonaras’ summary, 8.19-20) In ancient times, the name Illyricum was applied to different regions, but later it was transferred to the interior of the mainland and to the region above Macedonia and the part of Thrace lying this side of Haimos mountain and next to Rhodope mountain. It lies between these mountains and the Alps, also between the river Aenus and the Ister, extending as far as the Euxine Sea; indeed, at some points it extends even beyond the Ister.

Since an oracle had once come to the Romans that Greeks and Galatians [Gauls in Latin terms] would occupy the city, two Galatians and likewise two Greeks, male and female, were buried alive in the Forum, in order that in this way destiny might seem to have fulfilled itself, and these foreigners, thus buried there, might be regarded as possessing a part of the city. After this the Sardinians, indignant because a Roman praetor was continually set over them, began an uprising; but they were again enslaved. The Insubrians, a Galatian descent group (genos), after securing allies from among their kinsmen beyond the Alps, turned their weapons against the Romans, and the latter were accordingly making preparations themselves [ca. 225 BCE] . . . [omitted remainder of the details regarding the clash with Galatians / Gauls].

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Source of translation: F.C. Babbitt, Plutarch: Moralia, 5 vols., LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-1936), public domain (Babbitt passed away in 1935); W.M. Roberts, Livy: The History of Rome (London: Dent and Sons, 1912), public domain; B. Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives, 11 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-1926), public domain, all adapted by Harland.

 

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