From my diary

The carmen adversus paganos is a late 4th century poem which is one of only four texts that record the Taurobolium.  This ritual was when a bull was slaughtered over a grill, with people standing underneath to get bathed in the bull’s blood.  So I asked someone to do a translation.  Unfortunately it looks as if an English translation may already exist.  It’s hard to bring myself to pay for translating stuff that exists already in English, although inaccessible, when there is so much for which no translation exists.

I’ve finished the first stage of translating the first sermon of Severian of Gabala on the creation.  I need to look at a few difficult passages, and make sure they’re right, and then I will put it online.  Interestingly Severian is preaching to a hostile audience, or so it seems.

I’m still going through volume 3 of Quasten’s Patrology.  There are quite a few interesting-sounding texts that ought to be translated.  I just wish I had more money!  I’m thinking again about Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Julianum, against the work of the emperor Julian the Apostate attacking the Christians.  This is only about 500 columns, so might be possible.

The translation of Severian’s De pace, preached when he reconciled with John Chrysostom, has been requested.  But I suspect I will not be able to reach terms with the translator.  He seems to know his Greek; unfortunately he does not have the native-speaker level command of English which a translator needs.  This means I will have to hire someone else to fix that, which means I can’t offer him much.  So … probably a bust.  I’m also wondering what to do about the Armenian sermons of Severian.


Literary references to the taurobolium

There are only four literary texts that mention the Taurobolium.  I’ve already posted translations of the relevant passage from the Peristephanon of Prudentius, and the anonymous carmen adversus paganos.  The other mentions are in Firmicus Maternus and the the Augustan History, under Heliogabalus.  A look in Clauss-Slaby’s database of inscriptions reveals a lot of people and altars that have undergone the rite too.

The Vita Heliogabali 7 online at Lacus Curtius gives this mention.

7. He also adopted the worship of the Great Mother and celebrated the rite of the taurobolium; and he carried off her image and the sacred objects which are kept hidden in a secret place. 2. He would toss his head to and fro among the castrated devotees of the goddess, and he infibulated himself, and did all that the eunuch-priests are wont to do;35 and the image of the goddess which he carried off he placed in the sanctuary of his god.


Another text about the taurobolium

There seem to be a lot of little poems, all very late, often of great interest for sidelights on ancient paganism.  Here’s an extract from another.

The anonymous Carmen adversus paganos (394 AD), vv.57-62.

Quis tibi taurobolus vestem mutare suasit,
Inflatus dives, subito mendicus ut esses?
Obsitus et pannis, modica stipe factus epacta
Sub terram missus, pollutus sangine tauri,
Sordidus, infestus, vestes servare cruentas,
Vivere num speras viginti mundus in annos?


Who got you to put on the Taurbolium garment,
A puffed-up rich man, so that you might become suddenly a beggar?
And covered with rags, a short epact (?) having been made with a small offering,
Placed under the earth, polluted with the blood of a bull,
Dirty, stained, preserving the stained garments,
Do you really hope to live pure for 20 years?

I don’t understand modica epacta, tho.


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!


Mithras and the Taurobolium

The Taurobolium was a pagan Roman ritual in which the worshipper stood in a pit and was drenched in bull’s blood.  It was supposed to confer immortality, or something of the kind, although I’ve not researched it. 

Sometimes people assert that this was part of the cult of Mithras, which seems to be untrue; the inscriptions that record the rite are not associated with Mithras, and no Mithraic literary text mentions it.

There is an inscription which associates Mithras with the Taurobolium (CIL VI, 736).   In his article “The Mithraic bas-relief of Pesaro” (“Le bas-relief Mithraique de Pesaro”, Revue archeologique, 3rd series, t. 13, pp. 64-69, 1889), J. Lebegue raises the question of whether the inscription is authentic. I’ve been sent the article, and asked to summarise its argument for non-French speakers: here it is.

The inscription appears on a relief, found at Rome, then transfered to the Olivieri museum at Pesaro. It appears on a stone plaque which represents the familiar scene of Mithras sacrificing the bull. The inscription appears almost completely on a column to the right of the scene; some words are inscribed on the body of the bull being immolated by the god.

The inscription is almost complete, and can be restored as:

Deo magno Mithrae pollenti consenti Lari sancto suo M. Philonius Philomuses Eugenianus delibutus sacratissimis misteriis per omnia probatissimus qui et arcanis perfusionibus in aternum renatus taurobolium crioboliumque fecit et bucranium signavit.

(“To the great god Mithras, with the agreement of the holy Lares, for his health, M. Philonius Philomuses Eugenianus did this, having been anointed in the most sacred mysteries, through it all most worthy (?), who also in the secret bloodshed reborn into the eternal Taurobolium and Criobolium, and sealed the bull-head on the altar (bucranium). “)

On the body of the bull appear the words:

Absolvit | K(alendis) mart(iis) | Agria Ceresi pa(ter) | et pont(ifex) s(a)c(ris) [f]ac(iundis?) | dei magni

(“Paid off on the kalends of March, when Agria Ceresius was Father and pontiff of the holy things that must be done for the great god.”)

And further down:

Tatiano et Simacho consulibus.

Tatian and Symmachus being consuls.

This dates the inscription to 391 AD. The question is whether the inscription is authentic. There are numerous anomalies.

Line 1: Mithras never bears the title “Magnus”, but instead “Invictus”, or sometimes “summus”. The “dii magni” are part of the cult of Cybele, not Mithras. The term is not reserved entirely for that cult, tho, so might be used generically. If so, then it would be very odd that this is the only title given here to Mithras. Further, if in line 27 (on the bull) “dei magni” is correct, then it is certain that this is the only title being given in this inscription to Mithras, and so that the inscription is false. Mommsen has given a different explanation of that line, tho.

Line 3: The “dii consentes” belong to the cult of Jupiter, in which Mithras does not figure. Pollenti, next to consentes, is inappropriate.

Line 4: If Mithras is really being labelled “lare”, then this is a first. The term “lares sancti” is otherwise unknown. (?)

Line 6ff: M. Philonius Philomusus Eugenianus is a strange name for the period. In the 4th century the praenomen is generally omitted.

Line 9-11. “Delibutus sacratissimus mysteriis” is a phrase more literary than epigraphic. But it must be recognised that in the 4th century the epigraphic style had lost much of it conciseness.

Line 12: “Oia” for “Omnia” is a frequent abbreviation in manuscripts. It is only found, to my knowledge, in one inscription, now lost, and which may have been copied incorrectly.

Line 14ff: “Arcanis perfusionibus in aeternum renatus”. There is mention of someone “taurobolio criobolio q. in aeternum renatus” in an inscription discovered longer ago, and which may have served as a model for a falsification. If correctly copied, this too seems strange. The baptism in blood of the taurobolium, carried out in public, could confer immortality; but it isn’t from the taurobolium that Philonius asks this. It is *after* secret and doubtless Mithraic ablutions that he has been “regenerated for eternity”; then he was offered the taurobolium and criobolium. So this is some other baptism producing the same effects as the sacrifice of blood (and in the same terms) before receiving the aforementioned sacrifice.

The next inscription, engraved on the bull, can’t be much studied as it is very obscure and has been variously restored. This concerns the priest who carried out the sacrifice, and who is described as “pater et pontifex”; no doubt the pater of the cult of Mithras, and pontifex in the taurobolic ceremony.

The position of the inscription seems ill-chosen to me. It is engraved on the body of the bull, but the legendary bull, immolated by Mithras himself, and surrounded by allegorical personages, is not the victim of the real sacrifice of Philonius. Also, why degrade the bas-relief in inscribing it there? It would be understandable if the forger, in common with the scholars of his period, confused the bull with the sacrifice.

These anomalies fall into two groups: some against the general rules of epigraphy…; others against our knowledge of the cults themselves. If this discusses a public ceremony then there is nothing to say; this must be a fake. But it is possible that, like Alexander Severus, this relates to a private ceremony, which the dying paganism sought to revive. A special taurobolium may have been carried out, in 391, at a period when it was already illegal. This would make him the founder of a special, private cult, comprising elements from Cybele and Mithras, placing them among the ranks of the “consenting gods”, to make the god one of his lares and his great god. But this hypothesis hardly seems satisfactory. Why does Mithras not bear his characteristic epithet “Invictus”? Furthermore, it would not be Philonius who was the creator of this special cult, but Arcesius, the pater and pontifex. The latter, in mentioning the taurobolium was in public “spectatum”, and dating it by the names of the consuls, would strangely parody an official ceremony.

I believe that this inscription is false. This is fortified by the evidence taken from general epigraphy, and the font (?) declared suspect by contemporary scholarship.

But the enquiry must be completed by examining the monument itself. I have written to the learned conservator of the museum of Pesaro, who has described to me with much competence and precision the details of the Mithraic bas-relief. It is almost entirely very good. Is this a proof of authenticity, and that it cannot have been copied? I would advance another hypothesis; that the monument is ancient, but that the inscription is fake; I will furnish another remarkable example of this sort of falsification. A specialist with the aid of a stone-mason could help us here. Lacking this skill, I will merely demand that the examination is made.

Be that as it may, we can reach the following conclusion. I do not hesitate to condemn the inscription; if I am deceived, it means only that Philonius invented his own religion. There is nothing that need be considered here for the history of Roman religion and public worship.

UPDATE (13/3/2013): I have added the online link and corrected the reference.