BMCR 2021.02.28

Numina magna: Roma e il culto dei Grandi Dei di Samotracia

, Numina magna: Roma e il culto dei Grandi Dei di Samotracia. Archaeopress Roman Archaeology, 56. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019. Pp. x, 141. ISBN 9781789690910. $48.00 (pb).

The mystery cult of Samothrace occupies a distinctive position among the mysteries known to Rome. It was never simply an import, nor a confection akin to the ‘oriental’ cults of Isis, Mithras, or Cybele, celebrated as mysteries in Rome but not in the countries claimed as their origins. Roman initiates of the Great Gods traveled to the island that gave the rites their name, where they could experience the mysteries alongside their Greek counterparts. The multiple evocations of the cult in Rome—architectural, philosophical, and literary—invoked a reality that some of their audiences would know from first-hand experience.  Equally distinctive was the identification of the island’s gods with Lares and Penates, which built on the mythological traditions that tied Samothrace to the Troad long before Romans came to the rites, and in Rome became part of the mythological complex of the city’s Trojan origins. Rome’s Samothracian enthusiasms have generally been attributed to these mythic traditions and to the Hellenistic status of the mysteries. Cruccas presses beyond these explanations, contextualizing the Roman deployment of the cult within the syncretic nature of the island’s gods, the focus of his 2014 monograph, and the material and social dynamics of the Roman construction of the self in the late Republican era.[1] To the list of case studies for Roman Samothrace he adds the temple of the Penates as depicted on the Ara Pacis in Rome and the atrium of the Villa di Poppea at Oplontis, where the rites are part of a vocabulary of ornament simultaneously triumphal and mysteric, appropriate for those who facilitated and profited from the Roman expansion to the east.

The book consists of five chapters, a summary in English, a chronological table and indices of ancient sources and topics; images are abundant and central to the arguments presented.

In his first chapter, “Und niemals wissen, was sie sind! Origine e sviluppo del culto dei Cabiri e dei Grandi Dei nel Mediterraneo orientale,” Cruccas establishes two key arguments for his presentation of Samothracian gods in Rome. The first is their syncretic nature. Confirming the tradition of these gods’ Levantine origins, he demonstrates their adaptability through space and time, manifesting a range of substrates appropriate for each location.  On Lemnos, the Cabiri celebrate metallurgy and Hephaistos, and reflect the imprint of the island’s Tyrrhenian, Thracian, and Hellenic populations. On Samothrace, it is the Thracian-Phrygian tradition of two youths around a Great Goddess that shapes their function, assimilating the deities to the Dioscuri, who resonate with the mysteries’ maritime promises. Transferred to Rome, the Cabiri take the shape of the Capitoline Triad, anticipated in the fragmentary account of Ephoros and reflected iconographically on a relief from the Tomb of the Haterii.  These multiple syncretisms naturalize the multiplicity of forms the gods assume in the Roman context. Cruccas’ second key argument is his affirmation of the Altar Court at the Samothracian sanctuary as a location, not of an altar, but of a kline hosting theoxenia for the Dioscuri.[2] The building and its divine inhabitants figure prominently in his analyses of the evidence for Samothrace in Rome itself, the focus of Chapters 2 and 3. In Chapter 2, “Lari, Penati e Grandi Dei di Samotracia a Roma tra le media e la tarda età repubblicana,” we find a condensed overview of the complicated, often contradictory materials that position Samothracian gods in the stories of Rome’s Trojan origins. Those stories emerged in the second century BC, as the East became central to Roman foreign policy, and Roman presence became increasingly visible at the sanctuary itself.  These stories include glaringly anachronistic accounts of Roman engagement in the rites from the time of the monarchy; the narratives are also the framework for Roman assimilation of the gods to Lares and Penates. The material counterparts to these stories are found in civic topography, where theatricality and performance unite the loci for the celebrations of the gods at key nerve points in the pompa triumphalis, specifically the area north of the circus Flaminius; the altars to the gods on the spina of the Circus Maximus; and the aedes in scaena represented by the theater of M. Aemilius, which recalls both the Altar Court and Hall of Votive Gifts on Samothrace and the configuration at the Theban Kaberion. Spaces both private and public appeal to the protecting power that the Samothracian gods share with Penates and Lares: that protecting power is legible in the temple of the Lares Permarini, vowed by L. Aemilius Regillus and completed by M. Aemilius Lepidus in celebration of a victory in the war against Antiochus, and the temple of the Lares Praestites at the top of the sacred way. Cruccas proposes that the temple to the Penates sub Veliis should also be associated with the Samothracian Gods. He identifies this temple on the panel of the Ara Pacis Augustae, behind the scene of Aeneas’ sacrifice: it is a small structure on a hilltop, inside of which are two young men with lances, appropriate for the image of the Penates as Dionysius Halicarnassus described them. The depiction includes a stairway leading up to the temple, which corresponds to the renovations of the building undertaken when Roman engagements on the island were on the rise. Cruccas proposes a parallel between this representation of the Velia temple and Seyrig’s theoxenia at the Altar Court at Samothrace—a hypothesis for an iconographical resonance between the Penates of the Velia and the gods of Samothrace in their most Dioscuric form. Magna Mater Idaea Deum is the focus for Chapter 3, “Lapis nigellus. L’introduzione del culto della Magna Mater a Roma e in Italia.” As an Eastern figure strongly connected to the Samothracian rites, she offers an integration into Roman realities that echoes the complexity of the Great Gods-Lares-Penates phenomenon, realized through triumphs, Trojan origins, and the performances.  Here, Cruccas emphasizes the parallels between the theatrical spaces associated with the goddess and the theaters, which played a role on Samothrace and at Boiotian Thebes.

These chapters establish the framework for the culminating chapter of the book and the second of its most closely read case studies: the wall paintings in the atrium of the Villa di Poppaea at Torre Annunziata (“L’ atrium della villa di Oplontis: l’autocelebrazione di un devoto ai Grandi Dei di Samotracia?”). Cruccas details without committing to arguments identifying the dominus as M. Pupius Piso Frugi Calpurnianus, consul in 61 and one of thirteen legati who supported Pompey’s fight against the pirates; the Pisoni were both rooted in Campania and tied to the Roman military enterprises in the eastern Mediterranean.  The identity of the villa’s owner is of less significance to Cruccas’ argument than the cultural ambience shared among the owners of villas devoted to otium in the area around Vesuvius. These elites required a visual self-representation that combined philhellenism with military triumphs in Rome’s eastern theater. Cruccas reads the second style wall paintings of the western wall of the Atrium, generally interpreted as a frons scaenae, in light of its mysteric and military imagery.  Among these are elements specific to Samothrace. The island’s Dioscuri may be read behind shields decorated with stars; her famous Nike is invoked in two Nikai, who hold offering plates, and winged victories who hold ship’s wheels. Metopes decorated with alternating bucrania and patera echo the ornament of the Rotunda of Arsinoe, and torches recollect the housing for torches at Samothrace’s Hieron, as well as traditions of nocturnal rites for both Lemnos and Thebes, the latter invoked on vase paintings depicting dancers wielding lit torches. Finds from the villa include male and female centaur statues, which may recall the centaurs from the pronaos of the Hieron, and a neo-Attic krater with armed dancers appropriate for the island’s Corybantic tradition. Masks above the architrave echo the importance of theater, which Cruccas emphasizes at Thebes and Samothrace. Other factors—cista, torches, thymiateria, tall vase for ablutions at the point of entrance—invoke mysteries more generally. The concluding chapter, “Klein von Gestalt, Groß von Gewalt, Der Scheiternden Retter,/Uralt-verehrte Götter!” In conclusion,” acknowledges the challenges in the study: the risk of forced arguments, the coexistence of conflicting literary sources, the temptation to read ‘Romanized’ uses of Greek religious constructs through a propagandizing lens, and the long and complex gestation that underlies Roman claims of Trojan origins.

Numina Magna is a welcome addition to studies of mystery cults, of the Samothracian rites, and of syncretism at the interface of Greeks and Romans. The author resists hypercritical judgements regarding the accuracy of individual sources, favoring instead the establishment of an environment in which Samothrace was a response to the need to construct a social and political self as Rome expanded to the East in the last two centuries BC. Productively nuanced readings of the boundary between iconic and aniconic, public and private, literary evidence and topographic realities characterize the study throughout; so too does a concern for how images do not simply transmit cults, but index the cultural uses to which those rites are put. A significant contribution is the arc Cruccas draws between Roman uses of the rites and the complex nature of the divinities hidden behind Samothrace’s euphemism of “the Great Gods”—an emphasis on polymorphism and adaptation which renders the originality, and indeed the inconcinnities, of Roman representations of these gods consistent with their manifestations in multiple times and spaces. Cruccas is consistently attentive to the discontinuities in his ancient sources, and the hypothetical nature of the scholarship with which he is in conversation.  Some case studies are presented at a summary pace, so that readers not already familiar with them may find themselves turning to those bibliographies in greater detail.  These case studies succeed, however, in laying the groundwork for the case studies from the Ara Pacis and Oplontis. The latter constitute lucid, persuasive arguments, consistent with the broader evidence for the usefulness of Samothrace for self-identity in a complex and expansive Roman era.


[1] Cruccas, E. (2014) Gli dei senza nome. Sincretismi, ritualità e iconografia dei Cabiri e dei Grandi Dei tra Grecia e Asia Minore. Rahden/Wetf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf.

[2] Relying on Seyrig, M.H. (1965).  “Un edifice et un rite de Samothrace” Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 109.1, 105-110.