The Taurobolium

The high priest who is to be consecrated is brought down under ground in a pit dug deep, marvellously adorned with a fillet, binding his festive temples with chaplets, his hair combed back under a golden crown, and wearing a silken toga caught up with Gabine girding.

Over this they make a wooden floor with wide spaces, woven of planks with an open mesh; they then divide or bore the area and repeatedly pierce the wood with a pointed tool that it may appear full of small holes.

Hither a huge bull, fierce and shaggy in appearance, is led, bound with flowery garlands about its flanks, and with its horns sheathed; Yea, the forehead of the victim sparkles with gold, and the flash of metal plates colours its hair.

Here, as is ordained, the beast is to be slain, and they pierce its breast with a sacred spear; the gaping wound emits a wave of hot blood, and the smoking river flows into the woven structure beneath it and surges wide.

Then by the many paths of the thousand openings in the lattice the falling shower rains down a foul dew, which the priest buried within catches, putting his shameful head under all the drops, defiled both in his clothing and in all his body.

Yea, he throws back his face, he puts his cheeks in the way of the blood, he puts under it his ears and lips, he interposes his nostrils, he washes his very eyes with the fluid, nor does he even spare his throat but moistens his tongue, until he actually drinks the dark gore.

Afterwards, the flamens draw the corpse, stiffening now that the blood has gone forth, off the lattice, and the pontiff, horrible in appearance, comes forth, and shows his wet head, his beard heavy with blood, his dripping fillets and sodden garments.

This man, defiled with such contagions and foul with the gore of the recent sacrifice, all hail and worship1 at a distance, because profane blood 2 and a dead ox have washed him while concealed in a filthy cave.


1 All hail and worship. The consecrated priest, emerging from the blood bath with the gift of divine life (drawn from the sacred bull) himself becomes divine and is therefore worshipped. Those who received the ‘taurobolium could be described as ‘born again for eternity’ (renatus in aeternum, C.I.L., VI, 510; many other inscriptions refer to the taurobolium and prove the rite to have been in use early in the second century A.D).

2 Profane blood. It must be remembered that Prudentius was a Christian and that to him the blood was profane (vilis) and the whole rite not only repulsive but blasphemous.

(Prudentius, Peristephanon, Carmen X, 1011-50: Translation and notes by C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background (London, SPCK 1956), pp. 96-7)

I don’t know whether an out-of-copyright English translation exists of the Peristephanon, but will look.

I’ve found a reference to “The Peristephanon of Prudentius: a translation and word study” by Sister Mary Ellen Field. Thesis (M.A.)–Boston College 1937.  This seems to be unpublished, unavailable through UMI… I’ll try writing to the college and asking for a copy!


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