Liber: The Free One

Hello and Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

Ancient Rome was built on 2 foundations when it came to religion, paganism and then Christianity. The common link for the pair was that both had origins in the Latin language.

We do our best to share information about both, plus it adds to the content level. Our focus for now will be on the mythology of Rome.

Today we are going to experience a freedom like no other as we explore Liber!

In ancient Roman religion Liber (The Free One) was a god of freedom. Included in this freedom was viticulture, wine, and fertility.

Also known as Liber Pater (The Free Father), he was a patron deity of Rome’s Plebeians and was part of their Aventine Triad. His festival of Liberalia (17 March) became associated with free speech and the rights attached to coming of age.

One was an agricultural and fertility goddess, Ceres, of Rome’s Hellenized neighbors. The other was Libera, who was Liber’s female equivalent.

In ancient Lavinium, Liber was a phallic deity. In Latin liber means “free” or the “free one”.

Liber Pater by Troxatu.

When coupled with pater, it means The Free Father. He was supposed to personify freedom and champion its attendant rights, as opposed to dependent servitude.

The word liber is also understood in regard of the concept libation, ritual offering of drink, which in Greek relates to spondé, literally related to English ‘to spend’. Roman writers of the late Republic and early Empire offer various etymological and poetic speculations based on this trope, to explain certain features of Liber’s cult.

Liber entered Rome’s historical tradition soon after the overthrow of the Rēgnum Rōmānum (Roman Kingdom), the establishment of the Republic and the first of many threatened or actual Secessio Plebis (Secession of the Plebs) from Rome’s Patrician authority. According to Livy, the dictator A. Postumius vowed games (ludi) and a joint public temple to a Triad of Ceres, Liber and Libera on Rome’s Aventine Hill, c.496 BC.

In 493 the vow was fulfilled. The new Aventine temple was dedicated and ludi scaenici (religious dramas) were held in honor of Liber, for the benefit of the Roman people.

These early ludi scaenici have been suggested as the earliest of their kind in Rome, and may represent the earliest official festival to Liber, or an early form of his Liberalia festival. The formal, official development of the Aventine Triad may have encouraged the assimilation of its individual deities to Greek equivalents: Ceres to Demeter, Liber to Dionysus and Libera to Persephone or Kore.

Statue of the Capitoline Triad

Liber’s patronage of Rome’s largest, least powerful class of citizens (the Plebs) associates him with particular forms of Plebeian disobedience to the civil and religious authority claimed by Rome’s Republican Patrician elite. The Aventine Triad has been described as parallel to the Capitoline Triad of JupiterMars and Quirinus on the Capitoline Hill.

The Aventine Triad was apparently installed at the behest of the Sibylline Books but Liber’s position within it seems equivocal from the outset. He was a god of the grape and of wine.

His early ludi scaenici virtually defined their genre thereafter as satirical, subversive theatre in a lawful religious context. Some aspects of his cults remained potentially un-Roman and offered a focus for civil disobedience.

Liber Pater

Liber asserted Plebeian rights to ecstatic release, self-expression and free speech. After all, he was Liber Pater, the Free Father who was a divine personification of liberty, father of Plebeian wisdoms and Plebeian augury.

Liber’s cult and functions were increasingly associated with Romanized forms of the Greek Dionysus/Bacchus, whose mythology he came to share. Before his official adoption as a Roman deity, Liber was companion to 2 different goddesses in 2 separate, archaic Italian fertility cults.

Liber was closely, often interchangeably identified with Bacchus, Dionysius and their mythology but was not entirely incorporated by them. In the late Republican era, Cicero could insist on the “non-identity of Liber and Dionysus” and describe Liber and Libera as children of Ceres.

Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne by Annibale Carracci.

Liber, like his Aventine companions, carried various aspects of his older cults into official Roman religion. He protected various aspects of agriculture and fertility, including the vine and the “soft seed” of its grapes, wine and wine vessels, and male fertility and virility.

As his divine power was incarnate in the vine, grape and wine, he was offered the first, sacred pressing of the grape-harvest, known as sacrima. The wine produced under Liber’s patronage was his gift to humankind, and therefore fit for profane (non-religious) use.

It could be mixed with old wine for the purposes of fermentation, and otherwise adulterated and diluted according to taste and circumstance. For religious purposes, it was ritually impure (vinum spurcum).

Seated with a wine cup

Roman religious law required that the libations offered to the gods in their official cults should be vinum inferum, a strong wine of pure vintage, also known as temetum. It was made from the best of the crop, selected and pressed under the patronage of Rome’s sovereign deity Jupiter and ritually purified by his Flamen (senior priest).

Liber’s role in viniculture and wine-making was thus both matching and subservient to Jupiter’s. Liber also personified male procreative power, which was ejaculated as the “soft seed” of human and animal semen.

His temples held the image of a phallus. In Lavinium, this was the principal focus for his month-long festival, when according to St. Augustine, the “dishonorable member” was placed “on a little trolley” and taken in procession around the local crossroad shrines, then to the local forum for its crowning by an honorable matron.

The rites ensured the growth of seeds and repelled any malicious enchantment (fascinatus) from fields. Liber’s festivals are timed to the springtime awakening and renewal of fertility in the agricultural cycle.

In Rome, his annual Liberalia public festival was held on 17 March. A portable shrine was also carried through Rome’s neighborhoods (vici).

Parade for Liber

Liber’s aged, ivy-crowned priestesses offered honey cakes for sale, and offered sacrifice on behalf of those who bought them. The discovery of honey was credited to Liber-Bacchus.

Embedded within Liberalia, more or less at a ritualistic level, were the various freedoms and rights attached to Roman ideas of virility as a divine and natural force. Young men celebrated their coming of age as they cut off, and dedicated, their 1st beards to their household Lares.

If the men were citizens they wore their 1st toga virilis (manly toga). The poet Ovid, perhaps by way of poetic etymology, instead called the toga virilistoga libera (Liber’s toga or Toga of Freedom).

To the Forum for Liberalia

These new citizens registered their citizenship at the forum and were then free to vote, to leave their father’s domus (household), choose a marriage partner and, thanks to Liber’s endowment of virility, father their own children. Ovid also emphasizes the less formal freedoms and rights of Liberalia, such as an opportunity for uninhibited talking.

Very little is known of Liber’s official and unofficial cults during the early to middle Republican era. Their Dionysiac or Bacchic elements seem to have been regarded as tolerably ancient, home-grown and manageable by Roman authorities until 186 BC, shortly after the end of the Second Punic War.

Livy, writing 200 years after the event, gives a highly theatrical account of the Bacchanalia‘s introduction by a foreign soothsayer, a “Greek of mean condition… a low operator of sacrifices”. The cult then spread in secret, “like a plague”.

The lower classes – Plebeians, women, the young, morally weak and effeminate males (“men most like women”) – were all particularly susceptible for all such persons have leuitas animi (fickle or uneducated minds). But even Rome’s elite were not immune.

Celebrating Liberalia

The Bacchanalia‘s priestesses urge their deluded flock to break all social and sexual boundaries, even to visit ritual murder on those who oppose them or betray their secrets. Livy’s dramatis personae, stylistic flourishes and tropes probably draw on Roman satyr-plays rather than the Bacchanalia themselves.

Pliny the Elder describes the Aventine Triad’s temple as designed by Greek architects, and typically Greek in style. Although no trace remains of it, and the historical and epigraphical record offers only sparse details to suggest its exact location, so Pliny’s description may be further evidence of time-honored and persistent Plebeian cultural connections with Magna Graecia, well into the Imperial era.

Vitruvius recommends that Liber’s temples follow an Ionic Greek model, as a “just measure between the severe manner of the Doric and the tenderness of the Corinthian,” respectful of the deity’s part-feminine characteristics.

The Via Labicana Augustus—Augustus as Pontifex Maximus.

During the start of the Empire, Augustus successfully courted the Plebs supported their patron deities and began the restoration of the Aventine Triad’s temple. It was re-dedicated by his successor, Tiberius.

Septimius Severus inaugurated his reign and dynasty with games to honor Liber/Shadrapa and Hercules/Melqart, the Romanized founding hero-deities of his native town, Lepcis Magna (North Africa).  Severus then built them a massive temple and arch in Rome.

The reverse of a coin of Septimius Severus showing Liber Pater with a panther.

Even later during the Empire, Liber Pater was of 1 of many deities served by the scholarly, deeply religious Senator Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (c. AD 315 – 384). A Bacchic community shrine dedicated to Liber Pater was established in Cosa (in modern Tuscany), probably during the 4th Century AD.

Said shrine remained in use for decades after the edicts of Theodosius in 391 and 392 AD outlawing paganism. Its abandonment, or perhaps its destruction by zealous Christians, was so abrupt that much of its cult paraphernalia survived virtually intact beneath the building’s later collapse.

Around the end of the 5th Century, in Orosius‘s Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, Liber Pater‘s mythic conquest of India is taken as an historical event. It was said to have left a harmless, naturally peaceful nation “dripping with blood, full of corpses, and polluted with [Liber’s] lusts.”

Household Gods

Gods named Liber and Libera play a major role in the science fiction/time-travel novel Household Gods by Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr.

We hope you enjoyed today’s journey into the religion of old, and look forward to having you join us again soon. Who knows what we’ll be exploring?

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



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