This semester I worked as a research intern on the City of Rome project, investigating a Roman priesthood known as the quindecemviri (the ‘fifteen men’, although they actually numbered beyond sixteen by the imperial period). These priests were responsible for overseeing the centennial ludi saeculares festival, certifying foreign cults, and guarding and interpreting the Sibylline Oracles (Montgomery 2012: 451, Gordon 1990: 245, Parke 1988: 139; Beard 1990: 19-21).
One of the most interesting topics that arose during my research into these priests was the taurobolium ritual. Seven of the twenty-nine quindecemvir inscriptions I studied this semester mentioned the taurobolium. Of these, four also mentioned the criobolium. Here is a typical example of an inscriptions describing a quindecemvir carrying out taurobolium and criobolium:
“… Clodius Hermogenianus Caesarius, a most distinguished man, proconsul of Africa, prefect of the city of Rome, quindecemvir sacris faciundis, having carried out taurobolium and criobolium fourteen [days before] the Kalends of August [19th July 374], for the divinities of the air, and by the guardian of his own mind, the altar spoke by our lord Gratianus Augustus, the third, and Flavius Aequitius, the consuls.”
– (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum VI 499)
But what exactly is the taurobolium, and what significance did it hold for its ancient practitioners? The first clue is in the name: taurus means ‘bull’ or ‘ox’ in Latin, so it doesn’t take much of stretch to infer that the taurobolium is an example of the Roman tradition of religious animal sacrifice. This is reinforced by the existence of several extant sacrificial altars bearing bovine iconography which were used in the ritual (fig. 1). The fourth and fifth century Christian apologist Prudentius provides a detailed description of what is almost certainly the taurobolium ritual, though he doesn’t refer to it by name. The graphic nature of his narration may be partly attributed to his strong personal views on paganism:
“The high priest, you know, goes down into a trench dug deep in the ground to be made holy … Above him they lay planks to make a stage … When the beast for sacrifice has been stationed here, they cut his breast open with a consecrated hunting-spear and the great wound disgorges a stream of hot blood, pouring on the plank-bridge below a steaming river which spreads billowing out. Then through the many ways afforded by the thousand chinks it passes in a shower, dripping a foul rain, and the priest in the pit below catches it, holding his filthy head to meet every drop and getting his robe and his whole body covered with corruption …”
The taurobolium was closely connected with the cults of Attis and particularly of Cybele/Magna Mater, the ‘Great Mother’ (fig. 2); five of the twenty-three quindecemviri in my study were also involved in the latter cult. The purpose of the taurobolium is thought to have been the purification of an initiate of the Magna Mater cult with the blood of the sacrificed ram (Magie 1924: 119). Some initiates chose to undertake taurobolium on their birthdays to emphasise the importance of the transition (CIL II 5260, XIII 573; Anné Épigraphique 1956 #255). One taurobolium inscription containing the phrase in aeternum renatus (“reborn forever”; CIL VI 510, c.f. CIL V 6961-2) may even suggest that the ritual was thought to guarantee a blessed afterlife (Forsythe 2012: 79). However, contrary to the notion of a single, definitive moment of transition, some Romans undertook the taurobolium more than once: twenty years seems to have been a popular interval (CIL X 1596, VI 502, VI 504, VI 512). Some inscriptions also suggest that one could perform taurobolium on behalf of a whole community rather than a single individual, and there is some evidence that the imperial government offered incentives for the wealthy to do so (CIL VIII.8203, Fragmenta Vaticana s.148, Forsyth 2012: 104-5).
Unfortunately, the Magna Mater cult’s infamous secrecy has caused the details of its beliefs and practices to be largely lost to history (Forsythe 2012: 78), although it is thought to have been brought to Rome from Asia Minor in 205 BCE on the advice of the quindecemviri – or decemviri (“ten men”) as they were then called (Livy XXIX.10.4-11.8, 14.1-4; Ovid Fasti IV.247-348) – who continued to oversee it throughout its history. The connection with Anatolia may have fuelled its popularity by playing to the Romans’ belief in their Trojan ancestry (Forsyth 2012: 84-5). The cult’s popularity is attested by the existence of over one hundred inscriptions recording taurobolium rituals, far beyond the handful that happened to overlap with the quindecemviri inscriptions in my study (Forsythe 2012: 79).
Despite its apparent popularity, the taurobolium is not mentioned in many ancient literary sources besides Prudentius. The anonymous author of Historia Augusta reports that the third-century Severan emperor Elagabalus “adopted the worship of the Great Mother and celebrated the rite of the taurabolium” (Historia Augusta: Antoninus Elagabalus VII). In the case of its close cousin, the criobolium, the evidence is even thinner on the ground. Besides the inscriptional evidence such as Clodius’ inscriptions showing its ties to the cult, very little is known of its nature or function. In our current state of knowledge, it seems safe to assume that it was also a form of initiation into this fascinating branch of Roman religion. Like the cult of the Magna Mater and the quindecemviri themselves, these rituals declined and eventually disappeared following the Christianisation of the Roman empire over the course of the fourth century and beyond.
Beard, M. (1990), “Priesthood in the Roman Republic”, in M. Beard and J. North (eds.) Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World, Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.P., pp. 19-48.
Forsythe, G. (2012), Time in Roman religion: one thousand years of religious history, Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Gordon, R. (1990), “Religion in the Roman Empire: the civic compromise and its limits”, in M. Beard and J. North (eds.) Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World, Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.P., pp. 233-57.
Magie, D. (trans.) (1924), Historia Augusta, Volume II: Caracalla. Geta. Opellius Macrinus. Diadumenianus. Elagabalus. Severus Alexander. The Two Maximini. The Three Gordians. Maximus and Balbinus, Loeb Classical Library 140. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.P.
Montgomery, J.A. (2012), “quindecemviri sacris faciundis”, in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary: Fourth Edition, Oxford: Oxford U.P., p. 1251.
Parke, H.W. (1988), Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity, London: Routledge.