Blood, Lead, and Tears: The Cult of Cybele as a Means of Addressing Ancient Roman Issues of Fertility
By Jordan Reece Tayeh
Divinity has many faces in the Ancient Roman world, none more intriguing than the garland-wearing, lionhearted Phrygian mother-goddess Cybele. Whereas other Phrygian gods and goddesses were left behind, Cybele and a select few others remained alive in the Roman world. But why?
According to most scholars both ancient and modern, Cybele’s importation into Roman religion has chiefly to do with wartime fervor. Henri Graillot, an early 20th-century French author and authoritative voice on the incorporation of the Magna Mater (Cybele) in Rome, ascribes Cybele’s entrance into Roman religion to anxieties stemming from a particularly bleak stretch of the Second Punic War. Erich Gruen, a classicist from the University of California Berkeley, differs from Graillot and instead attributes the Magna Mater’s importation as an indication of renewed vigor and hope in the wake of recent Roman military success against Hannibal. Both of these scholars derive their conclusions from the works of Livy, who attributes the banishment of a foreign foe from Italy to the conveyance of the Magna Mater to Rome, citing an oracle discovered in the Sibylline books.
Assessing the veracity of Livy’s work is difficult and will not be the focus of this paper. In any case, the argument of wartime anxiety as the driving force behind Cybele’s importation paints an incomplete picture regarding her enduring legacy. If nerves about Hannibal made Cybele attractive in Rome, why was her cult especially popular among elite women, who did not participate in Rome’s military campaigns? Why did the cult of Cybele continue to be popular for centuries after Carthage’s destruction? And why import a mother goddess when countless war deities were available?
An additional explanation for the importation of Magna Mater beyond Hannibal’s defeat is the underlying societal anxiety caused by mass lead poisoning. Lead poisoning brought about a whole host of reproductive complications in men and especially women, including sterility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and high rates of child mortality. Moreover, the Roman pantheon of gods was ill-equipped to deal with issues of fertility—myriad examples of asexual reproduction in traditional Roman myth leave little space for a hyper-fertile mother goddess. As such, this paper will detail Roman issues of infertility and lead poisoning’s likely contribution to those issues, analyze the inability of the Roman pantheon to address female fertility, and finally illustrate why Cybele and her cult in Rome were so well suited to address Roman women’s anxiety around reproduction.
Lead Poisoning and Infertility in Ancient Rome
Issues of fertility in the Roman world are well documented. According to Ancient world demographer Saskia Hin, mainstream scholarship has attributed decline in Roman birth rate to game theory-supported arguments about economic efficiency and utility maximizing. That is, Romans of the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. were choosing not to have children because the cost of childcare outweighed the economic benefit of any potential income that the child might earn. This theory has two key flaws: first, birth rates declined only among the elite members of society or those who had the economic means to afford another child; and second, there were many motivating factors (that are unaccounted for) to have a family other than economic forces. Furthermore, lineage and continuing bloodlines were of such importance in the Roman world that Augustus, when faced with declining fertility rates, issued laws rewarding monetary incentives for men who had more than three children and punishing men who remained unmarried or childless.
It is then likely that lead poisoning, rather than economic factors, played the largest role in the declining birth rates of Ancient Rome. Lead poisoning, or plumbism, is an ailment that still affects many populations today. Upon entering the body, either through inhalation or ingestion, lead can have a myriad of health effects like anemia, neurological and behavioral disorders, reproductive issues, and even death.
Elite Ancient Romans were primarily exposed to lead through their drinking habits, since Romans used lead acetate as a sugar substitute to sweeten their wine. Additionally, Ancient Roman medicines often involved boiling together lead powder with other substances like honey or myrrh. Interestingly, Pliny the Elder details that a honey and merum mixture acts as a laxative when consumed cold but blocks diarrhea when consumed hot. This physiological observation betrays the presence of lead, as the toxin has different properties when heated or cooled. Another source of lead poisoning in Ancient Rome was leaded paint. Elite Romans harbored an appreciation for Tyrian purple and deep Phrygian reds. Thus, when they wished to adorn their villa walls with these exotic colors, lead-based pigments were required. As the paint chipped over time, it is possible that Romans inhaled particles of paint, allowing lead to enter the bloodstream. Still other sources of lead posed a threat, like leaded pipes in construction and lead-based powders in cosmetics. All of these exposure pathways working in tandem (especially in wealthy populations) had the potential to be largely detrimental to the reproductive capabilities of elite Romans, while sparing their less wealthy counterparts.
Romans themselves had some intuition of the dangers presented by lead. Vitruvius, a 1st-century B.C. architect and civil engineer, noted the potential dangers of lead pipes in his writings on architecture:
Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from it white lead is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system. Hence, if what is generated from it is pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body. This may be verified by observing the workers in lead, who are of a pallid colour; for in casting lead, the fumes from it fixing on the different members, and daily burning them, destroy the vigour of the blood; water should therefore on no account be conducted in leaden pipes if we are desirous that it should be wholesome.
Clearly there was some understanding among Ancient Romans that lead was dangerous. However, passages from ancient authors like Vitruvius seem to indicate that lead was primarily viewed as an occupational hazard, one that was limited to only those who work in the smelting and construction of lead pipes. This is an understandable misconception, given that the danger involved in the optics of lead smelting was likely more apparent than that present in living adjacent to a painted wall or wearing makeup. This flawed understanding of lead being dangerous for workers but safe in homes is critical when it comes to issues of reproduction, as Ancient Romans did not think to protect pregnant women and children from the threat of lead in the household.
A Gap in the Roman Pantheon
The threat of lead poisoning on Roman reproduction is clear — but why import a foreign goddess to deal with Roman infertility? Simply put, the Roman pantheon is highly asexual, androgynous and infertile in comparison to near eastern divinities. A prime example of the Roman pantheon’s asexual nature comes from Hesiod’s Theogony. This seminal work in the canon of Greco-Roman religion describes reproduction in an entirely asexual manner:
First verily was created Chaos, and then broad-bosomed Earth, the habitation unshaken for ever of all the deathless gods who keep the top of snowy Olympos, and misty Tartaros within the wide-wayed Earth, and Love (Eros) which is the fairest among the deathless gods: which looseth the limbs and over-cometh within the breasts of all gods and all men their mind and counsel wise.
From Chaos sprang Erebos and black Night: and from Night in turn sprang Bright Sky (Ether) and Day whom night conceived and bare after loving union with Erebos. And Earth first bore the starry Heaven, of equal stature to herself, that he might cover her utterly about, to the end that there might be for the blessed gods an habitation steadfast for ever. And she bore the lofty Hills, the pleasant haunts of the goddess Nymphs which dwell among the gladded Hills. Also she bore the unharvested deep with raging flood, even the Sea (Pontos), without the sweet rites of love.
The figures that birth the entire Greco-Roman world are decidedly asexual and their descriptions are vague when it comes to reproduction. The sexually indeterminate Chaos appears spontaneously and then births Erebos and Night without sexual union or any discussion of sexual anatomy — despite the god Eros being present, sex is entirely absent from these scenes. Next, Gaia, a female deity, prolifically reproduces, all without male union. She first bears Uranus, her eventual partner, asexually. However, even once Uranus is present, she continues her asexual reproduction, birthing the Hills and the Ocean “without the sweet rites of love.”
One might assume that once Hesiod moves from the ethereal cosmos to an anthropomorphic mother goddess like Hera, sexual union might become more commonplace. However, Hera is still remarkably infertile and asexual given her position as matriarch of the Roman world. In Hesiod, Hera has two children: Ares, whom she produces through union with Zeus, and Hephaestus, whom she reproduces entirely asexually. The fact that the Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth has merely one child through sexual union is one of the more perplexing aspects of Roman religion. If a Roman woman were looking for a Roman god who better encapsulates notions of fertility, she might have to turn to Zeus himself. Zeus finds himself at the center of Roman mythological reproduction, as he bore a plethora of gods both through sexual union (e.g. the Fates, Apollo, and Artemis) and through asexual reproduction (e.g. Athena).
Interestingly, the ability of Roman deities to reproduce parthenogenetically is not replicated in Near Eastern religion. In fact, the Romanized myth of Cybele is highly feminine and sexualized when compared to the asexual world of Hesiod. In Cybele’s story, she is found by Zeus and raped while sleeping in the form of a rock. Zeus’s rape is unsuccessful, and he spills his seed on the ground beside her. Cybele, given her hyper-fertility, becomes impregnated nonetheless, and births a hideous, dual-sex monster named Agdistis. Pausanias, the 2nd-century A.D. Greek author, then details the following:
[T]he gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ.
There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Sangarius, they say, took of the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child. A boy was born, and exposed, but was tended by a he-goat. As he grew up his beauty was more than human, and Agdistis fell in love with him. When he had grown up, Attis was sent by his relatives to Pessinus, that he might wed the king’s daughter.
The marriage-song was being sung, when Agdistis appeared, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals, as also did he who was giving him his daughter in marriage. But Agdistis repented of what he had done to Attis, and persuaded Zeus to grant that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay.
The hyper virility present in this passage jumps off of the page. This myth contains all of the sexual elements largely missing from Hesiod: explicit mention of genitalia both male and female, reproduction between male and female entities, and a fantastical three castration sequence in the space of only three lines. The closest Hesiod’s work approaches this level of sexualized discourse is the description of Uranus’ castration, but even that scene is devoid of any female reproductive presence. On the contrary, the castrations of Agdistis, Attis and Attis’s father-in-law all rely on the hyper-fertility of Cybele. If not for Cybele’s ability to reproduce despite Zeus’s unsuccessful advances, none of the resulting reproduction and castration occurs.
The hyper-fertility and emphasis on the female sex’s reproductive capabilities that exist in the Cybelean myth manifests in the rites of the cult of Cybele in Rome. The priests of the cult of Cybele were male eunuchs. They would castrate themselves in the midst of sexual pleasure as a means of symbolically offering up their own fertility to the mother goddess. The central rite of these eunuch priests was the taurobolium, first recorded in Pergamum in 105 A.D. As told by Prudentius in the 4th-century A.D., the taurobolium involved the digging of a trench and placing of a grate on top. Then, a eunuch priest would enter into the pit in the ground. Shortly after, a bull would be sacrificed on top of this trench, allowing all of the animal’s viscera to flow onto the priest. After the priest had been fully enveloped by every drop of bull blood — “till he drains the deep dark blood with every pore” — the genitals of the bull are cut off and also ceremoniously thrown into the pit. Such descriptions show how these ceremonies had close thematic links to birth. After being baptized by blood, initiated priests would often drink the milk of the animal, simulating having just been born.
Cybele and her cult in Rome were also linked to fertility in less garish ways. Lucretius, in his poem On the Nature of Things, closely associates Cybele with the fertility of the natural world:
She it is whom the ancient and learned poets of Greece celebrated, as a goddess seated in her chariot, driving her twin-yoked lions; and so they taught us that the great world hangs in spacious air, and that the earth cannot rest on earth…She it is whom the different nations, by their ancient religious custom, hail as ‘the Idean Mother’, and they give her a retinue of Phrygians as her escort, because they claim that corn was first created in those parts and spread from there over the whole world.
In this depiction, Cybele is not only the mother of man and woman, but also the mother of corn. This association with the bounty of the natural world perhaps made Cybele more acceptable to Romans unfamiliar with the Phrygian world, thus easing her integration into Roman society. By equating the Magna Mater with the Earth, Cybele was suddenly made much more comparable to Roman goddess counterparts such as Gaia. Subtle shifts in Romans’ perception of Cybele like these allowed for the importation of a foreign entity with foreign rites by quelling backlash. Were Cybele not made out to be at least somewhat familiar, Roman women would have had far less success in using her to address their fertility concerns.
This necessary cultural blending is most apparent in ca. 50 A.D. marble statue called the “Getty Cybele.” This statue clearly depicts the Magna Mater, accompanied by her usual idiosyncrasies such as a lion and a garland crown. What makes this particular statue intriguing is that this Cybele is also shown with the defining characteristics of another goddess—Ceres, the Roman deity of the harvest. Directly above the head of her lion, Cybele holds a sheaf of wheat and on her opposite arm rests a cornucopia filled with assorted fruits, presenting stark and intentional evocations of Ceres. This linking of sexual fertility (Cybele) with natural fertility (Ceres) is a natural byproduct of the perceptual accommodations that needed to occur if Romans were to patch up the thematic gaps in their own pantheon.
The everyday life of a Roman was greatly influenced by religious experiences, and in turn, the events of everyday life greatly influenced Roman religion. Issues of fertility were quite literally issues of life and death, and not just of people, but of an entire ruling class. The infertility brought on by mass lead poisoning in the Roman world could not easily be addressed by the science or medicine of the time, so the Romans looked for divine answers. When answers were not forthcoming from their own gods, they were forced to take their search elsewhere and found respite with Cybele. The threat of Hannibal at the doorstep may have been enough to grant Magna Mater entrance into the ancient city, but the threat of declining bloodlines was the deciding factor that kept her there in perpetuity.
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Leach, Elanor Winsor. “Claudia Quinta (Pro Caelio 34) and an Altar to Magna Mater.” Dictynna 4 (2007). https://journals.openedition.org/dictynna/157.
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Park, Arum. “Parthenogenesis in Hesiod’s Theogony.” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 3, no. 2 (2014): 261–83. https://doi.org/10.5325/preternature.3.2.0261.
Spinelli, Ambra. “The ‘Getty Cybele’: A Roman Portrait of Feminine Virtues.” American Journal of Archaeology 121, no. 3 (2017): 369–96. https://doi.org/10.3764/aja.121.3.0369.
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Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 29.10
Saskia Hin, “Family Matters: Fertility and Its Constraints in Roman Italy,” in Demography and the Graeco-Roman World: New Insights and Approaches (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/upenn-ebooks/detail.action?docID=807342, 100.
S. C. Gilfillan, “Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome,” Journal of Occupational Medicine 7, no. 2 (February 1965).
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Hesiod, Theogony, 122-132. In Carol Symes, Western Civilizations, (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2017.)
Hesiod, Theogony, 929: : “And Hera, without having been united in love, brought forth famous Hephaistos, as she was furious and quarrelling with her husband; Hephaistos, distinguished in crafts from amongst all the sky-born.”
Arum Park, “Parthenogenesis in Hesiod’s Theogony,” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 3, no. 2 (2014): 261–83, https://doi.org/10.5325/preternature.3.2.0261.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 7.17.10-12.
John Ferguson, Religions of the Roman Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976), 27.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 2.600-618
Fig. 1 in Ambra Spinelli, “The ‘Getty Cybele’: A Roman Portrait of Feminine Virtues,” American Journal of Archaeology 121, no. 3 (2017): 369–96, https://doi.org/10.3764/aja.121.3.0369.