A classicist visiting the German Rhineland has ample opportunity to inspect Roman remains, from the limes Germanicus (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to popular sites such as Xanten or Trier. If he goes to any of the many excellent local museums such as the Rheinisches LandesMuseum in Bonn or the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Köln (Cologne) and investigates the sections devoted to religion, he will find all of the usual suspects, from Jupiter to Isis. However, he will likely also see inscriptions and altars dedicated to a cult of three women known as the matronae or “matrons.” When depicted, they are seated, relatively young, holding cornucopiae or plants or fruits, and two of them often have large bonnets that look at first glance like enormous beehive hairstyles. The visitor should not be surprised, however, if he has never heard of them, since they have left not so much as a trace in the literary record, despite over a thousand inscriptions and altars dedicated to them at several sites in northern Italy and particularly the Rhineland. Evidence for this cult in the Roman province of Germania inferior (the lower Rhine, including Nordrhein-Westfalen) has been collected and analyzed in this short and interesting book by Alex Garman.
The area just west of the Rhine, from Köln to Aachen, and from Neuss south to the Ahr, was inhabited during the empire by the Germanic Ubii. Loyal to Rome since Caesar, they came originally from the east bank of the Rhine, but were settled in the depopulated Celtic lands west of the Rhine by Agrippa in the 30s BCE. Evidence for the cult of the matronae here—altars and dedications with a bewildering variety of names and epithets—coincides with the Ubian presence and the Roman occupation of the region, from the second to the fifth centuries CE, with a peak in the second and third centuries. However, since dedications to the matronae also appear in Gallic territories in northern Italy somewhat earlier, the connection of the cult with any particular area or identifiable tribe such as the Ubii is unclear, as is its identification with the matres, another widely attested cult of three female figures found mostly in southern Gaul. In fact, most scholars have concluded that the matres and matronae are the same and are Celtic in origin, as suggested by the Celtic interest in triplism.
It is certain that we would know nothing of the matronae or matres but for inscriptions in Latin and images influenced by Roman tastes and precedents. It is the Roman interest that has brought this cult or cults to light. This might be considered a clear case of the interpretatio Romana (the phrase itself comes from Tacitus, Germania 43, where he equates German and Roman gods), except that there is little to suggest an actual identification of these women with any particular Roman goddess or cult. Caesar states that the Gauls worshipped Minerva (BG 6.17). Tacitus equates one German goddess with Isis and another with terra mater ( Germania 9, 41), but there is no apparent connection to the matronae, and Tacitus assumes a general equivalence between Germanic and Roman deities in any case. However, with thousands of Roman troops (including the legiones I Minervia and XXX Ulpia Victrix) encamped or guarding the limes; the transformation of the Ubian capital, birthplace of Agrippina the younger, into Colonia Agrippinensis; the choice of Trier for the Gallic prefecture in the fourth century; and the spread of the Roman villa economy to the valleys of the Rhine and Mosel, the region became a cultural crossroads of Romans, Celts, and Germans. As such, determining the origins or meaning of such a cult, however widespread, on the basis of repetitive but laconic inscriptions and an imagery of limited variety is highly problematic.
This is not a long book. Excluding an appendix of inscriptions and the back matter (bibliography, index, etc.), the entire text is eighty-six pages. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but given the complexity of some of the issues Garman raises, their coverage seems at times a bit short. In his first chapter, Garman gives a brief history of the Rhineland under Roman rule. He then turns in his second chapter to the literary and material remains of the cult of the matronae —altars, sites, inscriptions, and figurines—and the work of those who have previously studied them. After the briefest of reviews, he concludes the chapter with a few pages considering the very concept of Romanization. In chapter three he asks “who were the matronae ?” and attempts to decode the iconography associated with the cult. The imagery of the matres of Gaul is more clearly reproductive than the matronae of the Rhineland, and of the thousand-plus inscriptions in the Rhineland only a handful suggest any identification. In addition, there is a group of votive axe heads from Germania superior that treat the matres and matronae separately. On this basis, Garman concludes that the matres and the matronae were distinct. Given their obvious similarities, the case seems pretty thin, but who can say with certainty? And in any case, distinct to whom? Romans? Celts? Germans? Were they discrete in their origins or in their local development? Garman argues that, since the matronae are dressed in Ubian fashion, they likely originated with the Ubii, but the evidence he cites does not compel such a conclusion. It seems to me more likely that a Romanized Ubii adapted a Celtic cult from the territory they came to inhabit, particularly since dedications to the matronae are also found in Celtic lands of northern Italy.
The locations of matronae altars in Germany and their implications are considered in chapter four. The great majority of dedications are found at seven sanctuary sites, with some three hundred at Pesch alone, all within Ubian territory. Garman saves his full analysis of the inscriptions for chapter five, however. He notes that most of the identifiable dedicators were from the Roman military, but with a good sprinkling of civil officials and local office holders. Their names can be variously identified as Germanic or Celtic in origin but clearly Romanized, which suggests that ethnic identity was fluid. The matronae themselves almost always receive an epithet, such as the matronae veteranehae, the meaning of which is clear. Others, such as matronae aufaniae at Bonn or matronae vacillinehae at Pesch, are more obscure, but many are Germanic, and Garman lists possible meanings for several, including particular tribes or places ( Suebae, Treverae) and a number of powers (“goddesses of ecstasy,” “goddesses of healing,” “goddesses of the sheep”) which if accurate suggest quite a wide range of functions.
Interestingly, dedications to the matronae in cisalpine Gaul, which precede those of the Rhineland by over a century, have no epithets and the dedicants are mostly civil rather than military. Garman argues that this cisalpine cult of the matronae was of “Celto/Germanic origin” and denies the obvious conclusion that a Celtic cult of northern Italy (and perhaps southern Gaul) was carried north by Roman expansion and locally adopted. Instead, he contends that the matronae had previously come into Italy “with the invading peoples of the North” (unidentified by Garman), while subsequently legions stationed on the Rhine that included soldiers from cisalpine Gaul “helped” the natives of Germania inferior adapt their pre-existing (presumably Ubian) cult. Perhaps so, but this seems a needless multiplication of hypotheses.
Chapter six considers the possible survival of the matronae in later Christian legend, for which the evidence is quite thin, and some neo-pagan efforts at revival that are merely silly. Chapter seven, a two-page summing up, shows by its very brevity that, however worthwhile the effort, any real understanding of this cult remains elusive, and Garman’s hope that the conflation of the matres and matronae“is a practice that should be brought to an end” is unlikely to be realized. Garman finishes with an appendix listing all known inscriptions to the matronae in the Rhineland, but its utility is limited since, as he notes, another catalog that includes a number of previously unpublished inscriptions is presently under production in Germany.
The book is marred by occasional stylistic infelicities that a more careful editing would have avoided. However, I myself have learned from bitter experience to dread the words “camera ready copy” and this should not be allowed to detract too much from a serious effort at understanding a complex and mysterious phenomenon.