Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.17


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 Celia E. Schultz, Department of Latin, Bryn Mawr College.

Barbette Stanley Spaeth has taken on the laudable task of correcting the distorted view of ancient goddesses frequently found in recent books about the current feminist pagan movement. This movement views ancient feminine deities as the prototypes for modern, independent, liberated women. Spaeth (hereafter S.) has her work cut out for her. The "Goddess" is back, her supporters say. Whether one believes matrifocal religion has recently been revived after millennia of disregard or that it has recently been created, it cannot be denied that the Goddess's popularity is rapidly expanding. A cursory survey of one university's on-line library catalog yields no fewer than forty-five books about or promoting current goddess-religion, all written within the last ten years. In addition to the literature, the Goddess has her own line of jewelry, available from Star River Productions. The card that accompanies a "Ceres pendant" combines scholarly and religious sentiment: "This Grain Goddess is an Earth Mother of the Demeter type Keep Her Close To You."

S.'s book, a revision of her 1987 Johns Hopkins dissertation directed by John Pollini, aims to recover the meaning or ideological significance Ceres held for her worshippers. S.'s approach is an examination of literary, epigraphic, numismatic, and artistic materials. This book is not a comprehensive summary of all we know about the worship of Ceres. Rather, S. has conducted a specific study of those concepts and social groups associated with Ceres which she divides into four categories: fertility (both agricultural and human), "liminality" (Ceres' involvement in rites of passage for individuals, as well rites for groups within Roman society), the plebs, and women. All ancient texts are translated; most ancient terms are clearly defined. The first appendix supplies the original text of all the ancient passages included in the work. The second appendix comprises a selective list of representations of women of the imperial family as Ceres. Fifty-five clear black-and-white plates help to illustrate the main arguments of the book.

After an introductory discussion, S. devotes a chapter to each association. She explores the evidence for Ceres' association not only with agricultural fertility but with human fertility as well. In the chapter on liminality, S. explores the goddess's role in rites of passage for individuals: birth, death, marriage, divorce, and initiation. Then she explores Ceres' role in "rites of intensification" (those events designed to strengthen a social group), among which are the establishment of peace and the opening of the mundus Cereris. In her discussion of the plebs, S. shows that Ceres' link to the plebs can be traced back to the founding of the Republic and lasted until the establishment of the principate, when the goddess became affiliated with the Emperor and his family. Finally, S. describes how the women of the imperial household exploited the goddess's strong associations with the female virtues of chastity and motherhood by identifying themselves with Ceres. In the final chapter of the work, S. shows how all four aspects of Ceres are interrelated as she argues that the central figure on a relief from the Ara Pacis Augustae should be identified as Ceres.

S. concludes each topical chapter with a discussion of how the particular concept (e.g., fertility) was used in Roman political propaganda. S. presents her strongest arguments here. She demonstrates how powerful Romans, in both the republican and imperial periods, used the image of Ceres to bolster their own positions. S. argues well that (pp. 119-23) imperial women portrayed themselves as Ceres to reinforce the dynastic role of the women of the royal household, as well as to advertise the presumed abundance and peace over which their male relatives presided.

Although she makes a strong argument for the ideological concepts associated with Ceres, S.'s efforts to demonstrate the development of those concepts are complicated by the largely fragmentary nature of the extant material. The initial chapter of her book is informed by the structure of Le Bonniec's seminal work (1958) on the development of various Ceres cults. S. clearly lays out the chronological framework for the evidence for the four aspects of the goddess which she has identified. In her eagerness to demonstrate ideological development, S. makes much of the chronological placement of the evidence for each of these categories. For example, she asserts that the link between Ceres and women was a "new connection (p. 11)" that did not develop until the late third or early second century BCE. In S.'s view, such a development results directly from the establishment of the cult of Ceres and Proserpina in Rome during that period. The first extant evidence for that cult and for all-female worship of Ceres is the interruption of the exclusively female sacrum anniversarium Cereris in 216 BCE (Livy 22.56.4). One is left wondering, however, to what degree this situation represents genuine ideological innovation, as S. prefers to interpret it, and to what degree our view has been distorted by the largely incomplete and tendentious nature of the available evidence. Given how little evidence exists for the centuries preceding the third Punic War, the latter option is the more reasonable.

There are times when S. must build her argument on very little material. This is particularly true in the discussion of Ceres' role in both rites of passage and rites of intensification. Only a handful of literary references hint at the goddess's involvement in several rites for individuals and groups. On the whole, S.'s treatment of each of these is sound, but a significant portion of the argument for Ceres' involvement in marriage rituals and in the establishment of peace rests on a syllogism. offerings at ceremonies that marked a beginning. Varro cites as examples the initia Cereris, the signing of a treaty, and ancient Etruscan, Latin, and Greek wedding ceremonies. Using Varro, S.'s presents her argument: we know that a pig was sacrificed to Ceres in some rites (the porca praesentanea and the porca praecidanea in death ritual, and at the initia Cereris); a pig was sacrificed at wedding ceremonies and treaty signings; therefore, Ceres is the deity honored in both instances. This may indeed be the case, but there are other deities to whom pigs were sacrificed, among them the Bona Dea and Mars (Orth, RE 22 (1923), esp. cols. 813-5 "schwein") deities who, like Ceres, had strong associations with the Latin League. Because S. does not address other options and does not offer reasons to discount them, she weakens her own position.

The otherwise cogent chapter on Ceres' particular importance to female worshippers has a significant flaw. S. believes that the cult was the particular province of upper-class women, rather than the concern of Roman women of all social strata. The argument hinges primarily on her definition of a matrona, the term used by several ancient authors to refer to the participants in the sacrum anniversarium Cereris, as an upper-class married woman (p. 107). The TLL entry for matrona shows that the principal definition of the term is simply a married woman, regardless of class. References cited by the TLL which use the term to indicate specifically upper-class women are comparatively few, with a significant portion of those coming from late imperial and Christian authors. Fortunately, the overall strength of the discussion is not much diminished if one disregards that part of her argument.

Despite some excellent discussion, overall, I found reading this book a frustrating experience. A solid treatment of one aspect of Ceres is often followed by a much weaker discussion. This unevenness weakens the quality of the book. In many cases, the weakness in S.'s argument might have benefited from more attention to epigraphic and archaeological material. For example, S. does not mention the very interesting epigraphic evidence for a single female priesthood of both Ceres and Venus (CIL 1(2).1774, 1775, 1777). Discussion of this priesthood would have greatly enhanced the argument for Ceres' association with fertility. Occasionally, the most interesting part of the discussion is shunted off into an endnote, as is the case in the discussion of Varro's phrase asylum Cereris (p.84). Sometimes, I was left wanting more discussion. In the chapter on the relief from the Ara Pacis Augustae, S. lays out her own argument for the identification of the central figure in the relief, but never addresses the many suggestions offered by other scholars (although she does take up opposing arguments on the identification of the two smaller figures that flank the goddess).

These difficulties aside, S. has shown that it is possible to recover what an individual deity represented to its worshippers. As a result, she has amply demonstrated that ancient goddesses, or at least one ancient goddess, were not honored as role models for liberated, independent female behavior, but rather as divine entities who governed the workings of daily life.