Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.25

H. Berneder, Magna Mater Kult und Sibyllinen. Kulttransfer und annalistische Geschichtsfiktion. Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft, Sonderheft 119.   Innsbruck:  Institut für Sprachen und Literaturen der Universität Innsbruck, 2004.  Pp. 185.  ISBN 3-85124-212-2.  €36.00.  

Reviewed by Renate Kurzmann, University College Dublin (
Word count: 2740 words

The sub-title 'Cult Transfer and Fiction in Annalistic History' very clearly and perhaps somewhat prematurely, reveals the conclusion of this book. Berneder's publication is a case study of the influence of Roman annalistic fiction on modern history books and our conception of historical events. He reanalyses the historical and literary background and date of the introduction of the cult of Magna Mater and its connection with the Sibylline books. The details described in the sources on the introduction of this cult and their role in Roman annalistic tradition are investigated. Berneder agrees with the early third century BCE date of the introduction but suggests that some of the details in the sources are inventions of later annalists. He links the period of the cult introduction to the period of the Gracchi, in which parts of the story of the reception of the goddess into Rome were added for political reasons. The methodology used in this study involves comparing literary sources, their analysis in relation to each other and the historical background that may have influenced them. The author shows that there are problems regarding the credibility of some Roman Republican annalists. This book was written for readers with a background in the history and literary tradition of the Roman period BCE, especially those who are studying or researching Roman historians.

The book begins with the annalistic tradition on the Sibylline books and finishes with a conclusion on the reliability of ancient historiography. Chapter One (pp. 11-37) questions the connection between the Sibylline books and the Magna Mater cult. It is established that there is little connection between the two traditions and that the claim of the Sibylline prophecy leading to the introduction of the cult into Rome was probably a later fiction. The second chapter (pp. 38-81) is dedicated to the actual arrival of the cult of Magna Mater in Rome and discusses the different theories on who initiated the move of the cult into the city, from where it was brought and on who received the goddess. The legend of Scipio Nasica and Claudia Quinta as the receivers is introduced and it is made clear that this part of the story was probably a later fiction. The third chapter (pp. 82-127) looks for a period in which the families of the Cornelii and the Claudii were important enough to have resulted in a legend featuring two of its members in such a prominent way. Finally, in the fourth chapter (pp. 128-162), Berneder suggests an annalist who could have been responsible for the legend.

In the first chapter (pp. 11-37), as an introduction to the Sibylline books and their role in Rome and its cult traditions, Berneder attempts to suggest a new date and also investigates the role of the institution of the decemviri sacris faciundis. He lists the ancient authors who tell the story of the arrival of the books. The three main sources are Dionysius of Halikarnassos, Lactantius and Servius. Other authors can be used to supplement the history of the books, and other writers are introduced in the process of the analysis of the books' background, which makes it slightly unclear for the reader why the three above named writers are considered as the most important sources. Berneder reviews the sources with regard to their credibility on the establishing of the Sibylline tradition. All authors name Varro as their original source. They differ, however, regarding the reign of the king in which the books are supposed to have reached Rome (Tarquinius Priscus or Tarquinius Superbus), the name of the Sibyl who is supposed to have brought them, and how many books there were. Berneder argues that the versions of Dionysius and Gellius, in which the Sibyl comes from Erythrai rather than Cumae is the original one, since Varro tells the version of the Sibyl from Cumae but expresses doubt about its reliability. Virgil is the earliest source who vouches for this version and he is not convincing. Berneder shows that there is more than one version of the story and convincingly argues that several would have circulated during the Roman Republican period. He differentiates between two types of sources on the Sibyl in question: those who wrote before the fire on the Capitol of BCE 83, in which the Sibylline books were destroyed, and who were not very exact about the details about the books' introduction, and writers after BCE 83, who enhanced their tale with more details. Berneder challenges the traditional view taken by many authors that the books reached Rome under the later Roman kings. He suggests that some of the sources on the period are rather dubious and that the description of the Sibyl, as a more recent Eastern tradition, would not have been so detailed if the books had already existed for 300 years around BCE 200. It is a historical fact that the books were introduced around BCE 500. According to Berneder, it is very likely that the introduction of the foreign myth of Magna Mater added elements to the prophecies in the Sybilline books 300 years later. He suggests that the books reached Rome some time between 300 and 250 BCE and that the story that they derived from the period of the late kings was an invention. Berneder goes on to show that it is not clear that the institution of the duumviri sacris faciundis really originated in BCE 500 and shows that parts of the Leges Liciniae, which reorganised this priesthood, were a later addition. He concludes the chapter with the observation that a priesthood whose job was to consult the Sibylline books did not exist in Rome until the third century BCE.

The next chapter (pp. 38-81) is dedicated to the question of the nature of the introduction of the Magna Mater cult in Rome, which, according to Livy (29, 10, 4-11, 8), was brought from Pessinus in BCE 205/204. It also includes a general introduction to the cult of Cybele, which is a good background to further arguments. In particular, Berneder focuses on Livy's claim that the vir optimus who received the goddess into Rome was a certain Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, consul of 191 BCE and a cousin of Scipio Africanus. He shows that it is likely that this event was a later invention since Nasica was an unlikely candidate for such an important role in BCE 204 before he had even held the quaestorship. More importantly, he remained a fairly insignificant politician during his lifetime, which makes it more surprising that he should have been chosen for such a task, even at the later stages of his career. Berneder shows that earlier scholars already doubted the truthfulness of this account and that even Livy himself was not sure if he should believe it. Berneder rightly criticises some scholars who have taken this fiction for a fact. Furthermore, the introduction of the cult from Pessinus, according to Berneder, does not make sense. He suggests that, instead and as stated by Ovid (Fasti 4, 264), the cult was brought from Mount Ida, because this location was closer to Pergamon and is therefore a more plausible possibility given the claim that Attalos I Soter of Pergamon helped to remove the goddess and bring her cult to Rome. Berneder links this with a further part of the legend that a woman named Claudia Quinta received the goddess into the city alongside Scipio Nasica, as stated by both Livy (29, 14, 12-14) and Ovid (Fasti 4, 305-350). Whereas Livy gives her a minor role compared to the vir optimus, Ovid and others centre on her. Berneder argues convincingly that this reflects that there were two different traditions side by side. He proposes that since the sources were contemporary they must have stood in opposition to each other.

In his third chapter (pp. 82-127), Berneder develops his argument further and searches for a period in which it would have been possible to invent a tradition in which members of both the Cornelii and the Claudii could have been involved. Both families would have held high state offices at such a time. He suggests the year BCE 133 could have been responsible for the legend of the cult reception and establishes a link between this year and the year BCE 205/204. As a part of his land reforms, Tiberius Gracchus demanded the wealth from Pergamon be used, after the last Attalid left his kingdom to Rome. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, another descendant of the family of the Cornelii, who was responsible for the tribune's murder, according to Plutarch had to leave Rome because of the hatred of the people resulting from this deed and was sent on a minor mission to Pergamon (Tiberius Gracchus, 21). Berneder argues that Plutarch disguised the true motives of this journey and that the mission was really a very important one. It is proposed that Scipio Nasica went to Pergamon to secure the Attalid legacy for his family and their supporters in the senate. Therefore, Berneder concludes that the legend of Scipio Nasica and Claudia Quinta as the recipients of the cult of Magna Mater into Rome in BCE 205/204 was a literary fiction of the Gracchan period, as already suggested by Livy, who very much doubts the story. It is more likely that a Roman annalist of the Gracchan period established the link between Pergamon and the cult of Magna Mater, influenced by his experience of the Second Carthaginian War and the victory of P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Therefore, Berneder, argues, the story of the vir optimus Scipio Nasica of BCE 204, was added in BCE 133, motivated by the contemporary quarrel for the legacy of Pergamon.

In his fourth and final chapter (pp. 128-162), Berneder talks about the Roman phenomenon of annalistic historiography in general and gives further examples of cases in which later additions and fictions were added to facts. He names other Roman Republican legends, in which facts and fiction became mixed. In particular, he shows that the legends of Spurius Cassius, Spurius Maelius and Marcus Manlius were later literary inventions and uses them as proof for his suggestion that the late Roman Republican writers frequently used older annalistic traditions in political discourse. Legends were remodelled with elements of the present. Pergamon and its legacy were of a much greater importance in Rome during the Gracchan period than often assumed. Berneder suggests a Roman writer who could have been responsible for the legends: Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who wrote a history of the Romans from its foundation to the year BCE 146. Fragments of his writings show that they were meant to remind the youth of Rome of the virtues of their predecessors. Berneder proposes a new theory, that Velleius Paterculus' account of Scipio Nasica Corculum and the legend of the vir optimus Scipio Nasica are inventions of this annalist. The arguments he proposes are: 1. Piso was a great enemy of Gaius Gracchus in his time. 2. The characteristics of Piso written down after his death, as recorded in the vita of Calpurnius Piso in the Historia Augusta (Ch. 21), resemble those of Scipio Nasica the vir optimus, thus making the writer and the result of his fiction very similar. 3. Titus' wife Calpurnia is also described in the Historia Augusta (Ch. 32) as extremely virtuous, honest and exemplary for Roman women, resembling the description of Claudia Quinta in Livy and Ovid. This last point, however, in the reviewer's opinion, is a generalisation. Calpurnia, although from the same family as Piso lived 200 years later and Roman women were generally described as either virtuous and exemplary or as promiscuous and bad examples for other women. Therefore, this last argument cannot serve as definite proof for the proposed theory.

In his conclusion (pp. 163-167), Berneder proposes the following theory: According to Sibylline tradition an old woman (a Sibyl) is supposed to have brought the books to Rome during the period of the Tarquinii. She instructed the Romans to introduce new cults, amongst which was the cult of Magna Mater. Berneder argues that these books came to Rome only around BCE 300. The original content were not prophecies but spells. The connection with the legend of the Sibyl was added later. The legend gives indications that the books were purchased in the second century BCE. The traditional character of the books was mixed with the Sibylline tradition, and, when the original collection was destroyed in a fire, embassies were sent to locations with a strong Sibylline tradition, such as Erythrai, to reintroduce the content of the books. The cult of the Magna Mater was brought from Pergamon in BCE 205/204. According to Livy, a prophecy in the Sibylline books confirmed that Attalos I of Pergamon would help the Romans with this task. However, this reference and the oracle of Delphi confirming this information are very likely later annalistic additions. The same applies to the roles the vir optimus Scipio Nasica and Claudia Quinta played in the reception of the goddess and her cult into Rome. The Magna Mater cult was introduced from Mount Ida rather than Pessinus, which played a major role in Roman mythology. The political motives for the introduction of the cult lay in the arguments of BCE 205/204, as the senate debated the actions to take against Hannibal. The details about the story are later additions. The main background for those lies in the events of the year BCE 133, after the last Attalid left the kingdom of Pergamon to the Romans. Scipio Nasica, the Gens Claudia, the Attalids and Pergamon were important factors in Rome in 205/204 and 133 BCE. Dispute about the best use for this inheritance caused internal strife in Rome. Tiberius Gracchus wanted to use the money for his land reform. This met with opposition in the senate and resulted in a battle of power between Tiberius Gracchus and Claudius Appius Pulcher and their opponents such as Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica. Berneder suggests that this conflict between single Roman families in the period of the Gracchi is reflected in the works of later writers. They were either for the land reforms (Plutarch) or against them (Livy), and, according to Berneder, this can be discerned in their literature, which frequently displays extreme tendencies. Plutarch describes Nasica as a bloodthirsty tyrant, who had to leave Rome for a period of time because of the hatred of the people. He hides the true motive for this trip, which was to secure the Asian wealth from the enemy within Rome. The legend of the vir optimus Scipio Nasica was invented by Lucius Cornelius Piso, a consul in BCE 133 and an opponent to Gracchan politics, who told the story in his Annales.

Berneder shows very well that the writings of Roman annalists should be interpreted with care and that their legends often make their way into modern works on Roman history, being presented as facts rather than fiction. He highlights the problem that researchers who deal with the second century BCE usually have to work with a small corpus of existing texts, many of which are fragmentary. It is therefore often difficult to discern between fact and fiction, especially when dealing with the annalists of the second and first century BCE. Nevertheless, Berneder rightly warns scholars against making such mistakes and gives incentive to check sources carefully.

His case study offers good insight into the complexities of the Roman annalistic tradition. Roman historians wanted to teach their readers a lesson as much as to inform them about historical events, and Roman annals often include details for which there is no reliable source. Berneder emphasises this problem and its influence on modern historiography extremely well. He explains the different theories concerning the introduction of the cult of Magna Mater in Rome in detail, and his book is a valuable contribution for those who are researching Roman history. He shows that a good historian has to consider a wide range of sources before reaching definitive conclusions. Berneder also offers a comprehensive review of other scholars' work on the subject, some of whom are criticised for their gullibility toward ancient legends. His study, although also valuable for readers who want to be introduced to the subject of the Sybilline books and the arrival of the cult of Cybele in third century BCE Rome, is mainly aimed at readers who already have a profound knowledge of the Roman Republic, its traditions, cults and its annalistic writers.

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