The Aventine Triad: Watchers of the Plebs

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

In what little free time there is lately, we have been trying to come up with new content (or at least bring a previous article back to life with some additional content). Two days ago we brought you Liber: The Free One which made mention of his status among 3 other dieties.

So having some bit of a background on the subject, today we explore the world of the Aventine Triad!

The Aventine Triad: (from L to R) Ceres, Liber and Libera.

The Aventine Triad, also referred to as the Plebeian Triad or the Agricultural Triad, is a modern term for the joint cult of the Roman deities CeresLiber and Libera. Established around 493 BC, the cult was located within a sacred district (templum) on or near the Aventine Hill, traditionally associated with the Roman Plebs.

Later accounts describe the temple building and rites as Greek in style. Some modern historians describe the Aventine Triad as a Plebeian parallel and self-conscious converse to the antiquated Capitoline Triad of JupiterMars and Quirinus and the later Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Minerva and Juno.

Model of what and where the Aventine Temple would be in Ancient Rome.

No trace remains of the temple building today. The historical and epigraphical record offer only sparse details to suggest its exact location.

The Aventine Triad, temple and associated ludi (games and theatrical performances) served as a focus of plebeian identity. Sometimes in said ludi were in direct opposition to Rome’s original ruling elite, the Patricians.

The Aventine relationship between Ceres, Liber and Libera was probably based first on their functions as agricultural and fertility deities of the Plebs as a distinct social group. Liber had been companion to both Ceres and to Libera in separate and disparate fertility cults that were widespread throughout the Hellenized Apennine Peninsula, long before their official adoption by Rome.

1st Century AD seated Ceres from Emerita Augusta (National Museum of Roman Art – Mérida, Spain).

As Ceres’ own cult appears to have been considered more tractable and obedient than Liber’s, her own cult was adopted in Rome far earlier. Their Aventine cults, reported in later Roman sources as distinctively Greek in character, may have been further reinforced and influenced by their Interpretatio Graeca (perceived similarities to particular Greek deities): Ceres to Demeter, Liber to Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) and Libera to Persephone (Roman Proserpina).

In keeping with Roman theology, the internal and external equivalence of the Aventine Triad remained speculative, broad and flexible. Long after its establishment, Cicero rejects the equivalence of Liber and Dionysus and asserts that Ceres is mother to Liber and Libera.

The Aventine Triad was established soon after the overthrow of the Roman Kingdom and establishment of the Republic. Rome’s majority of common citizens (Plebs) were ruled by the Patricians, a small number of powerful, landed aristocrats who asserted a traditional, exclusive right to Rome’s highest religious, political and military offices.

The Plebs not only served in Rome’s Legions, they were the backbone of its economy. Plebs were smallholders, laborers, skilled specialists, managers of landed estates, vintners, and importers and exporters of grain and wine.

Liber – the god of wine, ecstasy, winemaking, festivity, theatre and madness.

Against a background of famine in Rome, an imminent war against the Latins and a threatened Conflict of the Orders, the dictator Aulus Postumius vowed a temple to the patron deities of the Plebs (aka Ceres, Liber and Libera) on or near the Aventine Hill. The famine ended and Rome’s plebeian citizen-soldiery cooperated in the conquest of the Latins.

In 493 BC, a new built temple on or near the Aventine hill was dedicated to the Triad and Rome’s 1st recorded ludi scaenici (religious dramas) were held in honor of Liber, for the benefit of the Roman people. The Liberalia, Liber’s festival, may date from this time.

The Capitoline Triad: (from L to R) Minerva, Jupiter, and Juno.

Patrician dominance was manifest in the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus on the Capitoline Hill, at the heart of the city. The Capitoline temple lay within Rome’s sacred boundary (pomerium), while the Aventine lay outside it.

A bronze assarion of Septimius Severus showing Liber with a thyrsos and a bunch of grapes.

In most versions of the Roman founding myth, this was the hill on which the unfortunate Remus lost to his brother Romulus in a contest of augury to decide Rome’s foundation, name and leadership. Among other religious innovations based on his antiquarian interests, the Emperor Claudius redrew the pomerium to encompass the Aventine.

Postumius’ vow has been interpreted as a pragmatic, timely recognition of the plebeian citizenry as a distinct social and political grouping with its own values, interests and traditions. The vow may have intended confirmation of the Plebs and their deities as fully Roman, but its fulfillment focused plebeian culture and identity on a Triad of deities only part-assimilated into official Roman religion.

Libera – Fertility goddess

Some aspects of their cults were still considered morally “un-Roman” by Rome’s authorities. Thus the Aventine Triad gave the Plebs what has been variously described by modern historians as a parallel to the official Capitoline Triad, and its “copy and antithesis”.

Evidence is lacking for the earliest priesthoods of the Aventine Triad, whether in joint or individual cult to its deities. The plebeian aediles, named after their service of aedes (shrine or temple) may have acted as cult priests for their community and may have served Liber and Libera in this capacity.

Ceres was served by a Flamen Cerealis, usually a Pleb. His duties included the invocation of her assistant deities and cult service to the earth-goddess Tellus.

Libera

From as early as 205 BC, a joint mystery cult to Ceres and Proserpina was held at the Aventine Triad’s temple, in addition to its older rites. This ritus graecus cereris recognised Libera as equivalent to Proserpina, with Liber’s involvement (if any) unknown.

Initiation was reserved to women, and the cult was served by priestesses of high social caste. According to Cicero, men were to use a separate cult image or the use of the same images just in different, gender-segregated rites.

The Aventine Triad’s temple was known by the name of its leading deity, thus Roman sources describe it as the Temple of Ceres. Within the temple, though, each deity had a separate internal sanctuary (cella).

Late 18th Century porcelain model of Ceres with cereals by Dominik Auliczek of the Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory.

The temple served as a cult center for the patron deities of the Plebs, a sacred depository for plebeian records and the headquarters for the plebeian aediles. The minutes of decrees from the Senatus Romanus (Roman Senate) were also placed there, under the protection of Ceres as the guardian of laws on behalf of the Roman people.

While the original temple fabric and furnishings may have been funded in whole or part by its Patrician sponsors, its cult images and its maintenance were supported partly through voluntary offerings and partly through the fines collected by the plebeian aediles from those who infringed plebeian civil and religious laws. By the late Republic, it may have fallen into disrepair.

Augustus undertook its restoration, which was completed by his successor TiberiusPliny the Elder later describes its style and designers as Greek, which is further evidence of continued plebeian cultural connections with Magna Graecia.

Liber with a panther

The Plebs continued to establish and administer their own laws (plebiscita). They even went so far as to hold a formal Concilium Plebis (Plebeian Council) from which Patricians were excluded.

The Plebs elected their own magistrates and sought religious confirmation of their decisions through their own augury, which in plebeian religious tradition had been introduced by Marsyas. Meanwhile, the Plebeian Tribunes, an emergent Plebeian nobility and a small but growing number of popularist politicians of Patrician ancestry gained increasing influence over Rome’s religious life and government.

Any person who offended against the sacred rights and person of a Plebeian Tribune was liable to declaration as homo sacer, who could be killed with impunity and whose property was forfeit to Ceres. Even so, official Ludi Cereales were not established until as late as 202 BC.

Liber-Bacchus

Liber’s festival and the Bacchic or Dionysian aspects of his cult were suppressed om 186 BC under the ferocious Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. The Liberalia rites were transferred to Cerealia, but after a few years they were restored to Liber.

Varro‘s complex, investigative Late Republican theology groups Ceres with Tellus and Venus, therefore (in Varronian reasoning) with Victoria. Ceres was grouped with Libera, when the latter is understood as the female aspect of Liber.

We hope you enjoyed today’s journey to a far gone religious trinity. We look forward to having you join us again soon for whatever our next adventure may be.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Ando, CliffordThe Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire. University of California Press, 2008.

Beard, M.; Price, S.; and North, J. Religions of Rome: Volume 1, a History. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Cornell, T. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c.1000–264 BC). Routledge, 1995.

Green, C.M.C. “Varro’s Three Theologies and their influence on the Fasti”, in Geraldine Herbert-Brown, (ed) Ovid’s Fasti: historical readings at its bimillennium. Oxford University Press, 2002.

LivyAb Urbe Condita.

Scheid, John. “Graeco Ritu: A Typically Roman Way of Honoring the Gods”. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 97. Integration, 1995.

Spaeth, Barbette Stanley. The Roman goddess Ceres. University of Texas Press, 1996.

Spaeth, Barbette Stanley. “The Goddess Ceres and the Death of Tiberius Gracchus”. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1990).

Wiseman, T.P. Remus: A Roman Myth. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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