Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.17

Barbette Stanley Spaeth, The Roman Goddess Ceres. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Pp. xvi + 256, 55 b&w plates. $40.00; $19.95. ISBN 0-292-77692-6 (hb); 0-292-77693-4 (pb).

Reviewed by J. Bert Lott, Department of Classics, Vassar College

The Roman Goddess Ceres (hereafter Roman Ceres) by Barbette Spaeth (hereafter S.) is the latest of a number of recent books investigating the nature and rituals of individual Roman or Greek divinities. The last book length treatment of the Roman Ceres is that of Henri Le Bonniec, Le culte de Cérès a Rome (Paris 1958). And, as S. points out (xiv), Le Bonniec's work has been the jumping off point for those interested in studying Ceres. S. separates her own work from Le Bonniec's by adopting a thematic approach to the topic; by including more non-literary, i.e. artistic, material; and by investigating Ceres' "ideological significance rather than historical development" (xiv-xv).

Roman Ceres is divided into six chapters. The first, "Historical Overview", traces briefly the chronological development of the various themes that S. develops individually in later chapters. After a brief discussion of Ceres' possible broader Italic context, S. moves through the standard periods of Roman history: monarchy, early, middle, and late Republic, Augustan Principate, early and middle Empire. The entire book focuses relentlessly on the city of Rome.

Chapter 2, "Fertility", investigates Ceres' well-known connection to agricultural and human fertility. According to S., "the concept of fertility is both essential and original to Ceres" (33), by which she means that fertility was Ceres' original provenance as a deity. Of particular note in this chapter, S. presents a good bit of evidence for Ceres' connection to growing grain and, subsequently, with the grain supply of the city of Rome; this evidence is mostly from the late Republic and early Empire, though, as S. notes, the association was probably much older. Unfortunately, S.'s thematic approach does not lead her to consider in connection with this the argument of G. Pouthier concerning the "urbanization" of another old Roman agricultural goddess Ops, who is often associated with Ceres.1 Pouthier argues that in the late Republic Ops' original associations with agricultural abundance were superseded by associations with more urban sorts of abundance, like monetary wealth. Augustus then tried to restore Ops' older associations to the land as part of his revival of traditional religion. One would like to know (especially since Ceres and Ops received joint cult under Augustus: Insc. Ital. 13.2 149) whether a similar historical development can be traced for Ceres in which she changed from primarily a goddess of the fields to a goddess conceived of by an urban populace in terms of the arrival, storage, and distribution of grain (the annona); Ceres would then be returned artificially to the fields in the Augustan period. Making good use of the imperial coinage, S. treats well Ceres' imperial associations with the annona and notes the goddess' role in imperial, especially Neronian, propaganda concerning the food supply of the city.

Chapter 3, "Liminality", is where S. makes her most original contribution. Consequently I will devote a significant portion of my remarks to this chapter. S. begins by defining what she means by "liminality", a concept she draws from anthropological literature on rites of passage; most notably S. relies on the early work of A. Van Gennep (whom some would not call an anthropologist, as S. does) and on the general textbook treatment of E. Chapple and C. Coon done in 1942.2 Following these authors, S. defines a rite of passage as a ritual process that aids in the transition of a portion (S. says, of an individual, though this is not usually the case) of a society from one role in that society to another. Still following Chapple and Coon, S. notes another category of ritual, the rite of intensification, whereby an entire society is ritually redirected towards a new goal that may require a new social organization. Usually, rites of intensification are discussed only in terms of agricultural rituals that mark out the different segments of the agricultural cycle (e.g., planting, harvest, etc.). S. broadens the category to include such non-cyclical activities as the declaration of war. Rites of passage (though not rites of intensification) can be structurally divided into three distinct stages: 1) separation, when the subset that is changing its position within society is removed from that society; 2) transition, when the subset is no longer connected to society (and may engage in various anti-social activities as part of the ritual); and 3) reincorporation, when the subset is brought back into society in its new role(s). Modern marriage provides a good example of this tripartite structure: The proposal (separation) removes the single couple from society, during the engagement (transition or liminal period) the couple is neither single nor married, and the marriage itself (reintegration) reincorporates the couple into society in its new role.

In this chapter, S. argues that Ceres was particularly associated with and called upon as the presiding deity of rites of passage and rites of intensification in Roman society. In particular, S. associates Ceres with the third stage of the rites of passage, reintegration, which she calls Ceres' "normative" role. Ceres' place -- not always securely attested or understood by any means -- in Roman marriages (and divorces), funerals, births, the initia Cereris, the opening of the mundus, and the declaration of war and of peace are all discussed in the connection with Ceres' liminal and normative roles.

Unfortunately, it seems to this reviewer that there are some serious problems with this chapter. First, and very disturbing, S. does not seem acquainted with any recent scholarly literature on rites of passage and liminality. Chapple and Coon's overview treatment has certainly been superseded by the extensive work of Victor Turner, "who has expanded 'liminality' beyond its original use as an intermediate stage in rites of passage to an exceptionally rich and generative approach."3 One would expect reference at least to Turner's groundbreaking article "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage."4 Turner does not appear in S.'s bibliography. As a result of this, S. does not seem aware of all of the connotations that "liminality" and "normative" now carry separate from the context of rites of passage.

Also, nowhere does S. set out exactly how the reader is to understand what she means by "Ceres is associated with rites of passage and rites of intensification" (52). Does she mean the Romans thought Ceres the goddess to turn to when they had a tripartite rite of passage that needed doing? Or that our understanding of the Roman rituals of Ceres is improved by our classification and interpretation of them structurally as rites of passage? She seems to imply the former, but Classicists who may, like myself, not be well acquainted with the anthropological literature will find themselves confused.

A more specific critique is that S. does not seem to recognize that though rituals associated with marriage, birth, death, etc. may involve tripartite rites of passage, this is not necessarily the case. S. does not try to demonstrate that the structure of a rite of passage actually applies to any of the rites she discussed in connection with Ceres. The inclusion of some comparative materials might have partially remedied this problem, which is certainly somewhat the result of the sparse and fragmentary nature of our evidence for Ceres' rituals. In general, this chapter would have been better presented as a discussion of rituals in which devotion to Ceres played a role; again, Turner's work would be required preliminary reading.

The problems with this chapter are particularly unfortunate since S. is to be commended for bringing anthropology to bear on Roman religion, and since S. seems correct in her (implicit) conclusion that the rituals of Ceres are susceptible to such interpretation.

In Chapter 4, "The Plebs", S. returns to less novel material, the long recognized association between Ceres and the social class of the plebeians that had its roots in the triadic cult of Ceres, Liber, and Libera on the Aventine. S. argues convincingly for the location of this cult above the western end of the Circus Maximus and not under the present day Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the Forum Boarium (see map following page 32). S. then treats the various associations between the plebeians and this cult, including in particular the development of the plebeian Aediles. In general, S. notes that the opposition of the plebeian triadic cult on the Aventine to the patrician cult on the Capitoline of the triad Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva may have helped create, define, and organize a plebeian "social consciousness" separate from the patricians: "Thus inasmuch as the plebeians were united by the cult of the triad, they felt for the first time that they were able to establish a community conscious of its own strength and the possibility of resisting patrician power" (92). A similar argument is offered for Ceres and the Magna Mater, who was brought to Rome in 204 B.C. and to whom the patricians were particularly devoted, in her less disorderly manifestations. Finally S. discusses the appearance of Ceres on coins in the Late Republic as plebeian or popularis propaganda. The chapter is quite useful, even if most of the material will not be new to someone familiar with Le Bonniec.

Chapter 5, "Women", discusses the cult of Ceres and Proserpina, Ceres' association with the female virtues of chastity and motherhood (a seemingly strange pair!), and Ceres and women in the imperial family. S.'s discussion of the (largely Greek) areas of Ceres' cult that were particularly conducted by women is enlightening. There is no mention of the not uncommon epigraphic dedications to Ceres by women of lower social standing than those we suspect were engaged in the initia, which were probably quite expensive to undertake. For example the interesting pair Bennius Primus and Bennia Primigenia, who offered an altar to Ceres Mater Augusta on the Cerealia in A.D. 19 on behalf of their pagus (near Nepete), might have been treated (ILS 3335). S. does not treat the identities of the several female sacerdotes Cereris publicae p.R.Q. and sacerdotes Cereris publicae p.R. Siculae attested epigraphically at Rome (e.g., the Favonia M. f. of ILS 3342 and the Casponia P. f. Maxima of ILS 3343). A comparison of the holders of these two titles might have been profitable. Were the Sicilian priestesses of Ceres the Greek women that Cicero (Balb 55) says were brought to Rome from Naples and Velia -- admittedly neither in Sicily? If so, who were the simple sacerdotes Cereris? Were there two cults (one perceived as Roman, one Greek) or were there two distinct groups of priestesses for the same cult?

Chapter 6, "Ceres on the Ara Pacis", is a reworking of S.'s article "Ceres in the Ara Pacis and the Carthage Relief," AJA (1994) 65-100. The identity of the female goddess on the Ara Pacis has been, and will continue to be, controversial.

A few general points should be made: The incorporation of art historical evidence alongside literary evidence is part of S.'s declared methodology, and Roman Ceres collects an impressive array of material representations of Ceres (most of the plates are well produced, though on the same stock of paper as the rest of the book). However, the art historical data are not always well-integrated into the narrative as a whole; rather they usually appear at the end of a section simply to illustrate the basic argument made from literary sources. Synthesizing literary and material evidence into one narrative is a difficult task, and some separation of the two is to be expected, but a better job could have been done in this case. Also, S. sometimes uses art historical evidence, largely from imperial times, somewhat haphazardly to support literary testimonia from which it is separated by a great deal of time (for an example of both problems, see page 62).

Second, S. does not treat adequately the nagging problem of the adoption of cult forms and myths from the Greek Eleusinian and Thesmophoric cults of Demeter. One misses a closer examination of the date and speed of the adoption of Greek practices, in particular when reading about Ceres and women, marriage, and the initia Cereris. Ceres Legifera is clearly derived from Demeter Thesmophoros and the Romans could have learned about Thesmophoric mysteries of Demeter very early from their attested practice in Magna Graecia. Demeter's epithet thesmophoros did not refer to "law bearing" but rather to the secret objects of the mysteries laid down (thesmoi) in a basket and carried by the participants in the mysteries.5 Thus Servius' interpretation of Virgil's Ceres Legifera (Aen. 4.58) as Ceres who first brought laws should not be accepted without comment, as S. does (52-53). Also, one would like to known the difference between a sacerdos Cereris and a sacerdos Cereris Sicula. Still, there is some discussion of the matter on pages 102-103, and S. should be commended for her decision not to follow Le Bonniec's artificial division of the material into two completely separate parts, Cérès, déesse italique and Cérès - Déméter.

Stylistically, S. is fond of short quotations which add little to her argument and tend to break up her narrative. For example, on page 29 there are five inset quotations of less than two lines each, separated by as little as two lines of text. S. also has the annoying habit of repeating sections of her argument almost verbatim in different parts of the work. For example, page 25: "For example, on the reverse of a coin of Nero dated to A.D. 64-66 a seated Ceres appears; she hold stalks of wheat and a torch; in front of her stands Annona with a cornucopia in her left hand; between them is a garlanded altar on which sits a modius; in the background at the right is the stern of a ship (fig. 14). The legend reads ANNONA AUGUSTI CERES. The symbolism is clear: the ship represents the transport of grain by sea, the modius its distribution to the people, and Ceres and Annona are the presiding deities of that distribution." and on page 48: "On the reverse of a sestertius of Nero dated to A.D. 64-66 appears a seated Ceres, holding a torch and wheat stalks; in front of her stands Annona, the personified grain supply, with a cornucopia in her left hand; between them is a garlanded altar on which sits a grain measure or modius; in the background at the right is the stern of a ship. The legend reads ANNONA AUGUSTI CERES (fig. 14). The symbolism is clear: the ship represents the transport of grain by sea, the modius its distribution to the people, and Ceres and Annona are the presiding deities of that distribution." Both of these problems recur throughout the work.

There are few typographical errors in the book, but note on page 84 "... it would not be unprecedented if the Temple of Ceres provided asylum for plebeians seeking sanctuary from plebeian (sic) magistrates" should presumably read "from patrician magistrates".

In conclusion, Roman Ceres is admirable in its desire to take a thematic approach and to integrate new sorts of evidence and new approaches into the topic. Three of the basic thematic chapters: "Fertility," "The Plebs", and "Women" are good introductions to the state of scholarship today. Chapter 3, "Liminality", is not. In general S.'s thematic divisions are not well thought out and in consequence this reader found himself constantly flipping back and forth to find bits and pieces of what seemed to be the same argument presented in different places or was just presented with arguments repeated in their entirety. S. never sets out why she has made the thematic divisions she has, rather than, say, class consciousness, rituals, politics, and mysteries. Such divisions would seem more natural to S.'s treatment of the material. This is less true of Chapter 5, "Women", which S. handles fairly well as a contained unit.

I do not wish to leave an entirely negative judgement of the book. There is much of value here for the English reader. S. is particularly adroit at the interpretation of politics and propaganda, especially when she uses the coinage. The catalogue of imperial women represented as or identified with Ceres which appears as an appendix is impressive. In general, though, this book will complement, not replace, Le Bonniec for the serious student of Ceres. We will have to wait for a treatment of Roman Ceres outside the city of Rome. Notably, the cult is very popular in North Africa during the principate, where, for example, a local patron Suphunibal (a not very Roman woman) paid for and the proconsul C. Rubellius Blandus (a very Roman male) dedicated a theatre temple to Ceres Augusta at Lepcis Magna in A.D. 35/36 (IRT 269).


1. Ops et la conception divine de l'abondance dans la religion romaine jusq'à la mort d'Auguste (Rome 1981).  

2. A. Van Gennep, Rites de passage (Paris 1907). Translated (Chicago 1960) by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee, with introduction by Solon T. Kimball. E. Chapple and C. Coon, Principles of Anthropology (New York 1942).  

3. B. Myerhoff, "Rites of Passage: Process and Paradox," in V. Turner, ed., Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual (Washington D.C. 1982) 109-135 at 116.  

4. In J. Helm, ed., Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion (Seattle 1964) 4-20. One might also expect, from a discipline-centered point of view to find reference to Chapter 5 of Turner's The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago 1969) which is a comparison of Roman sacrifice ritual with African sacrifice ritual. Many of Turner's papers are now collected in two volumes published by the University of Arizona Press, On the Edge of the Bush (1985) and Blazing the Trail (1992). The article by B. Myerhoff, loc. cit., is a good summary of work on rites of passage up to 1982.  

5. See, e.g., E. Simon, Festivals of Attica (Wisconsin 1983) 18-19.