Rome’s Mystery Goddess: Bona Dea and Her Cult 

“[C]um fuget a templis oculos Bona Diva virorum, praeterquam siquos illa venire iubet.” (“Bona Dea bars the eyes of men from her temple, except such as she bids come there herself.”) – Ovid, Ars Amatoria

[Bona Dea]

This week I thought we’d jump back into some ancient festivals, and coming up next week on December 3rd is the winter festival of the Roman goddess Bona Dea, so I thought we’d take a look at this enigmatic deity and her history, such as we know it. But don’t worry, what Bona Dea lacks in mythology and personality she more than makes up for in obscure rites, gender conflict, and an explosive religio-political scandal that led to a high-profile blasphemy trial, an even higher-profile divorce, and almost pulled down the goddess in the aftermath. Buckle up, Virginia…

But first things first, Bona Dea is really the goddess’ title, not her name, literally meaning “The Good Goddess.” Technically we don’t know her real name, nor her origin. If she was a Latin synthesis of a Greek import, she might be an Italian version of Demeter; or she may have been an aspect of another Roman deity like Ops (Rhea), Terra (Gaia), or Ceres (Demeter again). She may have also been a Latin version of the Anatolian Near East goddess Cybele, but she was usually referred to as Magna Mater (“The Great Mother”) by the Romans and that is not generally one of Bona Dea’s epithets. Unlike, say, the god Hades, whose epithets were used to avoid drawing attention to oneself in the eyes of the lord of the underworld, Bona Dea’s epithets were mainly a sign of respect and to protect her divinity by shrouding her name. Aside from the one we’ve been using, she was also called Feminea Dea (“The Women’s Goddess”), Laudanda Dea (“The Goddess Worthy of Praise”), and simply Sancta (“The Holy One”).

[See how Magna Mater’s iconography is similar to Bona Dea’s]

But all of these goddesses were agricultural earth mothers, and the connection with Demeter and Cybele in particular is likely, given that Bona Dea’s cult was entirely female-driven and the extent of its rites were carefully guarded by the women of Rome much in the way Demeter’s Eleusinian Mysteries were from outsiders. This is part of the reason our information about the goddess and her worship is so scanty—Roman men are virtually our sole (save for Sulpicia) documentation source of anything regarding ancient Rome and as you can see from my Ovid flavor text, they were summarily barred from the goddess’ temple or her worship. But this is why we don’t know the goddess’ “real name”, which was something only women were supposedly told.

On a side note, scholars seem puzzled by Ovid’s suggestion that Bona Dea might make an exception to this no-boys-allowed rule, but I can almost guarantee you that this is just Ovid Being Ovid (i.e., “She says no, but every puella’s got a price…”). Also, this quote comes out of the Ars Amatoria, where everyone’s acting naughty and nothing that the poet says should be taken at face value. Ovid was probably just using his forum in his how-to guide for adultery and other shenanigans to cheekily give voice to a common Roman male fantasy that the goddess’ rites were simply a good cover by which respectable women could meet their lovers and generally act out. But its this sanctified feminine secrecy, and the men’s preoccupation with it, that will eventually drop everyone in hot water, the goddess herself included.

[I get all of my serious religious information from shirtless poets]

But in the meantime, the men went to work retrofitting an identity on Bona Dea that put her more firmly in the cosmology of Roman belief. There was a vague consensus among them that she was the goddess Fauna, a rustic deity who was the daughter, wife, or sister (sometimes all three at once) of the agricultural god Faunus, the son of Picus, the legendary first king of the Latins. Largely pastoral deities who nurtured the land and its animals, the Fauti, as they were known collectively, are also gifted with the power of prophecy, which they can tap into under the influence of wine in a divine stupor (try out that excuse the next time you imbibe too much…). The Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) says this comes from the Latin fari (“to prophesy”), or fando (“to speak”). This view of the Fauti as a brand of holy fools also led to their epithets of Faunus Fatuus /Fauna Fenta (“The Foolish”).

Wine also plays a part in the late mythology developed for Fauna. In one version, she is mortal and forbidden to drink wine, but does so anyway, and Faunus thrashes her to death with a myrtle switch, though afterwords he regrets this and deifies her. In the version where she is his daughter, Faunus gets Fauna drunk in the aims of sleeping with her, but in spite of her altered state she refuses even though he beats her with a myrtle switch, though he eventually succeeds when she falls asleep and Faunus changes himself into a snake to have intercourse with her. The myths reflect the little knowledge Roman men had of Bona Dea’s rites, which involved strong, sacrificial-strength wine (ordinarily forbidden to women) and the presence of non-venomous snakes in her temples. Myrtle was sacred to Ceres/Demeter, but also to Venus/Aphrodite, the mother of the Romans through Aeneas, so if that was used in Bona Dea’s worship, it was likely to tie her back to these other goddesses (or to signal that she was an avatar of one or the other).

Aside from her guises as a mother goddess and as a nature deity, Bona Dea also seems to have had a care for the womanly sphere of the hearth and home. As a result, the overseers of her cult on some administrative level were the Vestals, the virgin priestesses who served the hearth goddess Vesta (Hestia). This was probably because among their other sacred duties, the Vestals were trained to study and uphold the religious rituals of the city that male priests were forbidden to know. Since Bona Dea doesn’t seem to have had a dedicated college of priestesses to carry out this function, by right it would fallen to the Vestals to maintain the proper sacraments and ritual purity of her worship so that Rome would be protected from divine misfortune.

[A denarius with a generic Vestal on its face]

It’s hard to tell from the statue above, but Bona Dea is usually depicted in a matron’s stola, with a cornucopia to represent her abundance and generosity, and a bowl from which she feeds a snake coiled around her arm representing her healing and regenerative powers. This combination of symbols, particularly the snake, is actually unique to the goddess and one of the few ways to really tell her apart from Magna Mater, etc., although later writers also speak of her being shown with a vine and specter (Macrobius, 5th c. AD), which might mean at a later point her worship merged with an aspect of Juno/Hera.

As for her official festivals, Bona Dea appears to have had two: one in the spring on May 1st, and the winter festival on December 3rd. The May festival was held in her temple on the Aventine hill in Rome, showing that least in her early years Bona Dea May have been seen as a goddess of the common people, the Aventine being a much more plebeian district through most of its history. Politically, it also may have been a source of power for the pleb tribunes, who would have been eager for a separate avenue for personal control of a religious scene, something usually denied to their class. Because religion and politics were always deeply intertwined in the Roman world; as we have talked about before, even the highest priestly office, the pontifex maximus, was an elected political position as opposed to a moral vocation. We don’t know for sure when the Aventine temple to Bona Dea was constructed, but Ovid places it in the 3rd century BC under the auspices of Claudia Quinta, who is credited with bringing Cybele’s worship to Rome during the troubled years that preceded Rome’s ultimate triumph in the Second Punic Wars, which would make sense if Bona Dea is somehow a part of Cybele. The Aventine festival is thought to have been relatively egalitarian, open to women of all classes, though at one point in the 120s BC it is thought the Vestals tried to regain a tighter rein on the cult by rededicating the temple altar, only to have the Senate quash this as unlawful in some way. However, this may be because the Vestal who made the rededication, Lincinia, was later executed for inchastity against her vows, rather than evidence that the Senate thought the Vestals were overstepping.

[Claudia Quinta towing Cybele’s ship dressed as a Vestal Virgin, Lambert Lombard (c. 16th century)]

The winter festival in December was a more private, elite affair, hosted by the wife of one of the elected senior magistrates, usually one of the consuls or praetors serving that year. Attended by other women of similar rank, the magistrate’s house was ritually cleansed, most especially by removing all men from the household, including any male animals or male portraits. The hostess and other women would then decorate the triclinium (dining room) with vine bowers and flowering plants, though myrtle was supposedly forbidden—perhaps because of its punishing roles in the Fauna myths, or it was verboten for an occult reason and the myths retroactively tried to explain that. Snake imagery was also prevalent. A separate couch was prepared for Bona Dea before a banquet table and the Vestals brought the goddess’ image from the Aventine temple to attend her celebration. The food prepared for the goddess was a sow and a libation of the aforementioned unmixed wine, the latter being euphemistically referred to as “milk” and served in a vessel called a mellarium (“honey pot”). Afterwards, the women celebrated late into the night with music, dance, and games amongst themselves. 

Despite the presence of the Vestals, the unusual nature of this festival always attracted the jealousy and prurience of Roman men, who were unused to respectable women staying out late drinking with their friends. They were convinced that their wives only said that myrtle was forbidden because they were actually using myrtle switches on each other like it was a drunken pop-up BDSM club. And they only said that men weren’t allowed to get their husbands out the front door and their boy toys in the back. Unfortunately, the shocking winter Bona Dea festival of 62 BC would do little to change their minds about what the ladies were really getting up to.

[Roman women just trying to have one night to themselves…]

That season, because he’d been elected a praetor, the winter festival was to be held in Julius’ home and co-hosted by the big guy’s Wife #2, Pompeia, and his mom, Aurelia. Well, it wasn’t his actual house because Caesar was also currently pontifex maximus, so he and household currently occupied the p.m.’s official residence, the Domus Publica on the Via Sacra. But on the night of December 3rd, Julius had decamped for the night (let’s be real, probably not too much of a hardship for General Roving Eye) and everything seemed to be going according to plan until Aurelia realized that one of their female musicians wasn’t who they said they were. A man, Publius Clodius Pulcher, had snuck into the house and breached the sacred prohibitions of Bona Dea’s cult. Aurelia hurried to stop the mysteries and cover the goddess’ cult objects to preserve their secrecy. Clodius was kicked out, but the damage was done. Bona Dea’s rites were officially vitiated, a Latin term used by the augurs to declare a ritual had been defective (vitium meaning “defect”). It could also mean “impediment”, which indicated what Romans believed would be the result of improperly performed rituals. When rites were defective, the gods would not protect Rome from misfortune and everything from political instability to plague might be the result. The Vestals redid the goddess’ rites to appease her for this affront, but seeing how Bona Dea had been insulted in the house of the pontifex maximus, the very person the entire city relied on to police exactly this kind of thing, there was no way Caesar or the Senate could let this slide. Which in a way was kind of convenient, because there were a lot of people interested in making life very precarious for Clodius Pulcher.

But just who the heck was Clodius Pulcher? The short answer was a notorious rabble-rousing Populare politician, and the longer answer is the guy you’ve never heard of who is somehow connected to half of my interminable character list for both of my books (and the next one). He’s like the Roman Georges Danton and the Roman Kevin Bacon.

But since we must always identify a Roman by his family, Clodius Pulcher is above everything, a member of the Claudii gens. Which tells you, as part of one of Rome’s oldest families, that he was very much a patrician. But Clodius was also kind of a black sheep who seems to have spent most of his life infuriating one person or another as he tried to cut the widest political swath possible. The first we hear of Clodius, he’s a twenty-year-old punk accusing future traitor-to-the-Republic Catiline of adultery with a Vestal (a capital offense) for no apparent reason other than to stir up trouble. Catiline is acquitted of this particular offense and Cato the Younger is so incensed he makes it so Clodius pretty much has to leave Rome until things cool down. During this time, he manages to instigate two mutinies, get captured by pirates, start a very one-sided beef with Ptolemy XII Auletes’ brother Ptolemy of Cyprus, and get accused of incest with his sister Claudia by her enraged husband (who was one of the generals whose soldiers Clodius was fomenting mutiny with). After seven years of this insanity, Clodius returned to Rome just in time to nearly get swept up in Cicero’s Catiline conspiracy dragnet, which he avoided by sucking up to the orator. Both to avoid being tarred with the same brush as the anti-Republican Catiline, and to gain enough powerful friends to protect him from his still-furious brother in law, Lucius Licinius Lucullus. He’s cozy with Cicero, as well as Julius and Pompey, and this is where he’s at when he sneaks into Caesar’s house with the ill-thought out idea of seducing Pompeia while he could be sure her husband was elsewhere.

[This guy is like a bad decision making simulator…]

Despite what you might think, Julius knew better than to further injure his dignitas in this debacle by going after Clodius himself. He disclaimed all knowledge of what went down in his house in order to preserve the honor of the office of pontifex maximus, and stepped aside to let the chips fall where they may for his house breaker. Which was totally fine because Lucullus was more than happy to lead the charge against Clodius as revenge for embarrassing him by almost destroying his command and definitely destroying his marriage. He has Clodius charged with incestum, an act that violated religious purity, which ironically is exactly the same charge Clodius had leveled at Catiline a decade before. The stars aligned and many of Clodius’ chaotic chickens came home to roost as Rome effectively came to standstill for months while the sacrilege trial of the century commenced in the Senate.

Clodius’ cause was helped by the fact that Cicero was reluctant to join Lucullus’ witch hunt, but unfortunately Clodius’ sister, Claudia, had used her time as a divorcée to attempt to wheedle the orator away from his own wife. Cicero had refused to divorce his wife, Terentia, but she assuredly didn’t forget this challenge from Claudia and she demanded that Cicero testify against Clodius. The severity of the charges forced respectable matrons like Aurelia and at least one of her daughters, as well as a gaggle of the household slaves to testify, and this is how we have the information we do about Bona Dea’s rites—because the goddess’ rituals had to be discussed in order to determine the facts at hand. And the facts were largely against Clodius, who didn’t exactly help his cause by offering up a false alibi (the classic “I was out of town on that day” defense) that was easily disproved and left him perjured. Things were looking pretty grim for Clodius’ neck, but luckily for him, at the eleventh hour future First Triumvirate third wheel and Parthian punching bag Marcus Crassus opened up his extremely deep pockets and dumped a big enough bribe on the jurors to get Clodius off. This was likely in the interest of trying to get the whole embarrassing episode to go away and not seeing Clodius executed over old political scores. So Clodius skips away largely scot-free, marries Mark Antony’s future wife (and Cicero’s doom) Fulvia, gets himself “adopted” by a pleb so he can become the street-brawling plebeian tribune, supports the First Triumvirate, makes enemies of the First Triumvirate, and is eventually jumped by the gladiator thugs of another political rival and literally dies in a ditch outside of Rome.

[Carpe diem, am I right?]

Arguably Clodius eventually gets what’s coming to him for his prank, but as usual, it’s the ladies who pay the hardest price. Chief among the victims is Pompeia, who like Claudia before her, learns that Clodius sows little but destruction in his wake. There are stirrings that she and Clodius were in fact having some kind of affair, but in the last kind thing he will ever say about her, Julius will openly attest he believes her to be wholly innocent in the events that transpired that night. However, although I said he refrained from openly pursuing Clodius, Caesar was perfectly aware of how calamitous for his public future the night of December 3rd would be if he didn’t engage some pretty serious damage control. Not only had Clodius sullied Julius’ position as pontifex maximus, where he was the public face of Rome’s civic piety, but by sneaking into his house to bang his wife, he had sullied Julius’ position as paterfamilias of his household, where he was responsible for the private piety of his family. She might be innocent, but there would always be whispers that she’d been been guilty and pulled the wool over his eyes. So Caesar divorces Pompeia and gives birth to his infamous aphorism that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” as his justification. Which will put Calpurnia Pisonis on notice in the future and go a long way toward explaining why there was probably never any hope of Cleopatra convincing him to formally recognize Caesarion regardless of how much he did or did not like the queen of Egypt.

The other real loser of the affair seems to have been Bona Dea herself, whose cult was now under so much notoriety that her public worship went into a death spiral. It would take fifty years and Octavius’ determination to revive the lapsed native cults for the goddess to even begin to recover her place in Roman society. As befitting a women’s cult, Octavius put Bona Dea in the eminently capable hands of his wife, Livia, in her role as the ideal matron and mother of Rome. She only managed to regain some of the goddess’ former prestige, but Livia was wise enough to quietly keep the December festival in the past and focus her energy on a revamped May festival celebrated at the Aventine temple. Bona Dea may not have enjoyed the full extent of her ancient mysteries, but considering her name was still known by Christian authors as late as the fifth century AD, Liv does deserve some credit for that. But Bona Dea’s last great irony was that her imperial champion was only undoing the damage done to the goddess by her own cousins, because Livia was distantly related to both the renegade Vestal Lincina and the patrician in pleb’s clothing, Clodius Pulcher. Perhaps a fitting end for such a strange deity.

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