What happened to sacrificed animals in ancient Greece?

What happened to sacrificed animals in ancient Greece?

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I was wondering, what happened to animals that were sacrificed in the ancient Greece. For instance, when Pythagoras created his theorem he made a 100 oxen sacrifice.

Was the sacrifice considered a major feast with the animals eaten in the process, or were they left to rot - To be eaten by "gods"?

If the animals were eaten and the bones were burnt, what happened to the ashes?

Cthonic sacrifices generally resulted in the animals being burnt entire. Totally cremating doves meant the smell of burnt feathers as well as burning meat.

Normally sacrifices resulted in bones and fat being burnt for the gods on high altars. I suspect the height was not only part of the spectacle but got the greasy smoke above the heads of the crowd rather than driving them away.

Temples had big kettles as part of their normal equipment. The full-time priests took the meat and boiled it like pot roast (no veggies mentioned). They were the cooks. The meat was then shared out among the congregation as a communal sacramental meal. It was said that for poor men this might be the only meat they ate.

So you didn't watch the sacrifice and go home. Waiting for the rest of the ceremony gave you time to socialize with other Greeks and citizens.


Pausanias. Guide to Greece trans by Peter Levy because the notes are so good.

EDIT: About those ashes, the only thing I can find is in one of Pausanias's chapters on Olympia (he has two), where the ashes are mixed with water and plastered onto the hill on top of which the altar stands. This ash-hill was out in the open so it seems it never got too huge. If this had been normal, he would not have remarked on it.

It depends on what time period.

In the Homeric period, sacrifice was a big deal. For example, in the Iliad you can read of "hecatombs" (hundreds of heads) being sacrificed at a time. Most sacrifices in old Greece did not happen at temples. You could (and were expected to) sacrifice everywhere. Normally only the less desirable parts were burned, such as the entrails, the rest being eaten. If you did your own sacrifice, you ate the cow. If you sacrificed at a temple, the priests got the cow. In case of a REALLY big deal, you could do a "holocaust" (burn the whole thing) in which case you burned the whole animal, which was expensive both in terms of fuel and time and of course you lost the whole cow (or sheep).

In later "classical" times, Greek sacrifice became more ceremonial. Often just a token chunk of the animal was burned and this was usually done at a temple. When the gods just got the token chunk, often it was one of the choice pieces of the animal (I guess one piece of filet mignon is better than 20 pounds of entrails).

The ashes were dumped into a pit and in some temples and oracles the ash pit could get very big. The ash pit at the oracle of Delphi was known as the "Omphalos", meaning "navel", insinuating it was the center point of the world.

Child Sacrifice in the Ancient World – Did it really happen?

Child sacrifice, while completely repugnant and bizarre to modern eyes, has happened at times in history. In this article, Joe Greenslade investigates the practice of child sacrifice among the ancient Carthaginians. Did they really sacrifice living children? Or did they undertake practices that were somewhat less sinister?

The painting Allegory of Carthage by Francesco di Stefano.

An overview

In the modern world the thought of people conducting human sacrifice is morbid, un-thought of, and despicable. Before we explore if and why the Carthaginians carried out human sacrifice, it is important that we take a moment to view the mind-set of the ancient Carthaginians. We must not judge them by modern standards neither must we condemn them as child killing murderers until we have properly explored the evidence provided.

The peoples of the ancient worlds did not know science, not as we knew today. They rationalized everything that happened with religion. If there was an outbreak of disease, the gods were unhappy. If a harvest failed, the gods were unhappy. If a military campaign failed, it was because the commander had not offered the correct sacrifices before he left. Everything was rationalized with religion. In the Greek, Roman, and Carthaginian worlds the gods could be appeased by sacrifice. The personal sacrifices were usually smaller animals, but the state sponsored sacrifices consisted of larger beasts, usually cows or bulls. These sacrifices usually revolved around festivals, as the populace would eat the meat in the aftermath.

Although human sacrifice was frowned upon even in the ancient world, with Gelon of Syracuse and the Persians insisting the Carthaginians stop, there were still practitioners. The Phoenicians were known to have carried out human sacrifice. This helps us understand roots in Carthaginian sacrifice because it was the Phoenicians that originally set up the colony in North Africa that became Carthage, and in doing so it seems they took it upon themselves to continue the sacrificial practices of their forbears.

The literary evidence

The evidence for child sacrifice comes in the form of literary and archaeological evidence. This points to the Carthaginians using human sacrifice prior to the destruction of the Romans in 146 BC. We have many ancient sources, mostly Roman, who chronicle the Carthaginians as child sacrificers. For example Diodorus Siculus tells us of the process. Diodorus insists that there was a statue with down facing arms that stood over a pit of fire. The young were placed in the arms of this statue and let go, where they rolled down the arms and into the pit. This process was conducted to appease a Carthaginian deity, most likely Tanit or Baal Hammon. Plutarch, a Greek biographer who was writing during the period of Roman dominance, wrote that street children would be bought and used for sacrifice. Quintus Curtius tells us that this practice only died out when Carthage was destroyed, which potentially shows us that the Carthaginians always conducted this ritual.

The problem with these literary sources is that they were written some time after Carthage was destroyed. They would have been writing with the knowledge that Carthage was an enemy of Rome, so could have been biased. They were also not contemporary, so would have relied on earlier sources to complete the picture. Finally, Livy and Polybius, two major sources, fail to mention even briefly that the Carthaginians carried out human sacrifice. This is important in Polybius’ case because his work was focused on Rome’s conflict with Carthage. In fact he was supposed to be at Scippio’s side when Carthage was destroyed in 146 BC.

The archaeological evidence

The archaeological evidence is more useful than the literary evidence. We can put our hands on it, investigate it, see it. The principles evidence comes from a site in Carthage known as the Tophet. It was found and excavated in 1921 by P. Gielly and F. Icard. The excavation revealed many burial urns that contained the ashes and bones of young infants along with some animal remains. The jump was easy to make the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice. This belief was further enhanced when certain steles at the graveyard were excavated. One such stele was inscribed with amounts of coin paid by wealthy parents on behalf of their sons. This could tie in with Plutarch’s works, as street children could have been sought out instead of the wealthy children. Perhaps poorer families were chosen, families who could not afford the coin. Another stele seems to show the parents taking pride in having their child sacrificed. It reads “It was to the Lady Tanit Face of Baal and to Baal Hammon that Bomilcar son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathon, vowed his son of his own flesh. Bless him you!”

This seems to suggest that these parents had a stele set up to commemorate the sacrifice. The slightly unsettling aspect of this engraving is that it does not even include the child’s name - just the father and his ancestors. The stele seems to be a testament to the father. Another stele has an engraving depicting a priest carrying a baby, most likely to its doom. These finds of the Tophet seem to fully allow us to believe that the Carthaginians ritualistically sacrificed children to appease their gods. The literary evidence coupled with this archaeological evidence seems to offer no escape for the Carthaginians, who were of course condemned. But there is quite a persuasive argument that could still yet exonerate the Carthaginians.

The problem

What could possibly cast doubt in the face of such evidence, both archaeological and literary, you ask? It is tough to work out, and if you have by now then I salute you, it took me a while longer. You see, there is an argument that suggests these children were already dead when they were offered up for sacrifice.

Bomilcar was perhaps offering up a child that had been stillborn, or had died of a disease. It is still a form of offering, giving up his dead son’s body - an argument used by Schwartz in 2012. He put forth the theory that the Tophet was an infant cemetery for those who died young, stillborn and even fetuses. Schwartz argues that they were offered for sacrifice after death. He tried to prove this by investigating the teeth of the deceased to ascertain an age of death by doing this he could cross reference his finds with the high child/infant mortality rate to help prove they were already dead at the time of offering.

Schwartz’s argument is compelling, but it does not change the fact that the Carthaginians believed that the gods could be appeased by the burning of children, being alive or dead. If this is the case, the ancient sources can be forgiven for thinking the offerings were still alive indeed, they still could have been, Schwartz’s argument could be wrong. Whether the children were alive or dead before they tumbled down the arms of the statue into a pit of fire, we’ll never know for certain. I’ll leave each of you to make up your own decision.

The ancient world was a brutal place, but we must not judge them too harshly. Human sacrifice still has a place in modern society. The Hindu practice of Sati, for example, where the wife of the deceased husband was placed on the pyre and burned alive along with the body of her husband, was practiced as recently as 2006.

Maybe modern times aren’t so different from ancient times after all.

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Another distinctive feature of the first-fruits offering is that it serves to replenish the sacred potencies of the earth depleted by the harvest and to ensure thereby the continued regeneration of the crop. Thus, it is one of many sacrificial rites that have as their intention the seasonal renewal and reactivation of the fertility of the earth. Fertility rites usually involve some form of blood sacrifice—in former days especially human sacrifice. In some human sacrifices the victim represented a deity who “in the beginning” allowed himself to be killed so that from his body edible vegetation might grow. The ritual slaying of the human victim amounted to a repetition of the primordial act of creation and thus a renewal of vegetational life. In other human sacrifices the victim was regarded as representing a vegetation spirit that annually died at harvest time so that it might be reborn in a new crop. In still other sacrifices at planting time or in time of famine, the blood of the victim—animal or human—was let upon the ground and its flesh buried in the soil to fertilize the earth and recharge its potencies.

Priestly secret

The priests likely knew another secret: The deadly vapors only reached so high. While a beast would expire in the grotto within minutes, the priest could stand on a tall stone, allowing him to breathe far enough away from the source of the deadly gas, the researchers found.

"At this height, they could stand for 20 to 40 minutes without being endangered," Pfanz said.

But the priests weren't entirely out of danger. The CO2 concentrations were well above 60 percent to 80 percent at both the Apollo temple and the Plutonium, and humans can get dizzy at CO2 concentrations between 5 percent and 8 percent, Pfanz said. At higher concentrations, humans can asphyxiate, he said.

Audience members, however, were likely safe. The CO2 lake never got higher than about 5 feet (1.5 meters). Moreover, CO2 is heavier than air, so it stayed at the bottom of the grotto.

"From the seating rows (for hundreds of pilgrims), one could see the things happening down in the arena without being endangered," Pfanz said. "The pilgrims threw small birds into the gas lake and watched how they died."

Herodotus on Animal Sacrifice in Egypt

II:38. The males of the ox kind they consider to belong to Epaphos, and on account of him they test them in the following manner: If the priest sees one single black hair upon the beast he counts it not clean for sacrifice and one of the priests who is appointed for the purpose makes investigation of these matters, both when the beast is standing upright and when it is lying on its back, drawing out its tongue moreover, to see if it is clean in respect of the appointed signs, which I shall tell of in another part of the history: he looks also at the hairs of the tail to see if it has them growing in the natural manner: and if it be clean in respect of all these things, he marks it with a piece of papyrus, rolling this round the horns, and then when he has plastered sealing-earth over it he sets upon it the seal of his signet-ring, and after that they take the animal away. But for one who sacrifices a beast not sealed the penalty appointed is death.

II:39. In this way then the beast is tested and their appointed manner of sacrifice is as follows: they lead the sealed beast to the altar where they happen to be sacrificing and then kindle a fire: after that, having poured libations of wine over the altar so that it runs down upon the victim and having called upon the god, they cut its throat, and having cut its throat they sever the head from the body. The body then of the beast they flay, but upon the head they make many imprecations first, and then they who have a market and Hellenes sojourning among them for trade, these carry it to the market-place and sell it, while they who have no Hellenes among them cast it away into the river: and this is the form of imprecation which they utter upon the heads, praying that if any evil be about to befall either themselves who are offering sacrifice or the land of Egypt in general, it may come rather upon this head. Now as regards the heads of the beasts which are sacrificed and the pouring over them of the wine, all the Egyptians have the same customs equally for all their sacrifices and by reason of this custom none of the Egyptians eat of the head either of this or of any other kind of animal.


II:40. But the manner of disembowelling the victims and of burning them is appointed among them differently for different sacrifices I shall speak however of the sacrifices to that goddess whom they regard as the greatest of all, and to whom they celebrate the greatest feast. When they have flayed the bullock and made imprecation, they take out the whole of its lower entrails but leave in the body the upper entrails and the fat and they sever from it the legs and the end of the loin and the shoulders and the neck: and this done, they fill the rest of the body of the animal with consecrated loaves and honey and raisins and figs and frankincense and myrrh and every other kind of spices, and having filled it with these they offer it, pouring over it great abundance of oil. They make their sacrifice after fasting, and while the offerings are being burnt, they all beat themselves for mourning, and when they have finished beating themselves they set forth as a feast that which they left unburnt of the sacrifice.

II:41. The clean males then of the ox kind, both full-grown animals and calves, are sacrificed by all the Egyptians the females however they may not sacrifice, but these are sacred to Isis for the figure of Isis is in the form of a woman with cow's horns, just as the Hellenes present Io in pictures, and all the Egyptians without distinction reverence cows far more than any other kind of cattle for which reason neither man nor woman of Egyptian race would kiss a man who is a Hellene on the mouth, nor will they use a knife or roasting-spits or a caldron belonging to a Hellene, nor taste of the flesh even of a clean animal if it has been cut with the knife of a Hellene. And the cattle of this kind which die they bury in the following manner: the females they cast into the river, but the males they bury, each people in the suburb of their town, with one of the horns, or sometimes both, protruding to mark the place and when the bodies have rotted away and the appointed time comes on, then to each city comes a boat from that which is called the island of Prosopitis (this is in the Delta, and the extent of its circuit is nine schoines). In this island of Prosopitis is situated, besides many other cities, that one from which the boats come to take up the bones of the oxen, and the name of the city is Atarbechis, and in it there is set up a holy temple of Aphrodite. From this city many go abroad in various directions, some to one city and others to another, and when they have dug up the bones of the oxen they carry them off, and coming together they bury them in one single place. In the same manner as they bury the oxen they bury also their other cattle when they die for about them also they have the same law laid down, and these also they abstain from killing.


II:42. Now all who have a temple set up to the Theban Zeus or who are of the district of Thebes, these, I say, all sacrifice goats and abstain from sheep: for not all the Egyptians equally reverence the same gods, except only Isis and Osiris (who they say is Dionysos), these they all reverence alike: but they who have a temple of Mendes or belong to the Mendesian district, these abstain from goats and sacrifice sheep. Now the men of Thebes and those who after their example abstain from sheep, say that this custom was established among them for the cause which follows: Heracles (they say) had an earnest desire to see Zeus, and Zeus did not desire to be seen of him and at last when Heracles was urgent in entreaty Zeus contrived this device, that is to say, he flayed a ram and held in front of him the head of the ram which he had cut off, and he put on over him the fleece and then showed himself to him. Hence the Egyptians make the image of Zeus into the face of a ram and the Ammonians do so also after their example, being settlers both from the Egyptians and from the Ethiopians, and using a language which is a medley of both tongues: and in my opinion it is from this god that the Ammonians took the name which they have, for the Egyptians call Zeus Amun. The Thebans then do not sacrifice rams but hold them sacred for this reason on one day however in the year, on the feast of Zeus, they cut up in the same manner and flay one single ram and cover with its skin the image of Zeus, and then they bring up to it another image of Heracles. This done, all who are in the temple beat themselves in lamentation for the ram, and then they bury it in a sacred tomb.

Divine Symbols and Adored Pets: The Animals of Ancient Greece

Rabbits, dogs, snakes and birds… Everywhere we look in the archaeological and literary records of the classical world, it seems we find animals of almost every variety. Clearly, animals in ancient times featured commonly in people’s daily experiences, in popular storytelling and in mythological beliefs their likenesses appear in vase paintings, frescoes, mosaics, stone sculptures and ceramic figurines, as well as on utilitarian or decorative objects of intricately carved ivory or hammered gold.

Living in an age prior to mechanization, much of the ancient Greek and Roman populations resided in rural areas outside cities, so they had more regular contact and firsthand familiarity with animals than most of us do today.


Even in urban settings, humans and their animals tended to share space and live more closely together than we might find comfortable today. Livestock, including calves, sheep, goats and pigs, were used for pious sacrifices. Lions, tigers, bears and other wild creatures became the focus of popular and elite entertainment either hunted in nature or captured and pitted against each other – or human combatants – in bloody arena contests.

Horses and other draft or pack animals labored on farms, but in wartime they were called up for duty on the battlefield, occasionally serving alongside elephants. At all levels of society, animals played key roles in public, religious and military life. However, it’s plain to see in ancient art and literature that the closest bond was felt in the home, between masters or mistresses and their beloved domestic pets.

Most denizens of the ancient world loved and appreciated their animal companions, even mourning them and erecting commemorative markers over their graves when they died. Aristotle, the first philosopher to undertake the formal study and classification of animals, viewed them as irrational creatures of lesser moral rank, placed on earth solely to serve people. Other thinkers had greater esteem for them, including Pythagoras, who suggested animals possessed the reincarnated souls of human beings, after reportedly having witnessed the beating of a yelping puppy.

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

The poignant “Little Refugee” (1st c. BC)

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum


Within the home and garden, the range of animals kept as pets was almost boundless, including dogs, ducks, geese, caged birds, rabbits, hares, tortoises, goats, quail and mice. Snakes had chthonic (underworld), spiritual significance, but were also employed – along with cats, ferrets or other weasels – to keep rodents at bay.

Chirping insects were treated like songbirds, with children weaving small boxes from reeds or slender branches to accommodate their pet locusts, crickets and cicadas. Boys seeking amusement are reported by a scholar writing on Aristophanes’ “Wasps” to have caught large beetles and tethered them with a thread tied to one leg – a practice also seen in red-figure vase paintings.

Other unusual pets included apes and monkeys (often taught to perform tricks), fawns and adult deer, gazelle, foxes and small mountain cats. Domesticated cats only became widespread during Roman times, perhaps due to increasing trade with Egypt.

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum


Religious reverence may have played a part in the selection of pets, as certain animals were symbolic of a particular god or goddess. Sacred to Apollo and Artemis, for example, was the quail (ortyx) – likely a common sight at the divine twins’ central-Cycladic sanctuary on Delos, originally known as Ortygia or “Quail Island.” Pindar (5th century BC) and later mythographers relate that Asterie, sister of Leto (who bore the twins on Delos), escaped from Zeus’ advances by transforming herself into a quail, dropping into the Aegean Sea, then rising again as an island. Quails thus possessed a divine spirit and were coveted for their pleasing voices and colorful plumage.

Far wilder pets are known from the Roman era, when the emperors Domitian and Caracalla kept lions in their palaces. Caracalla’s beloved companion, Acinaces, ate with him at table and slept in his master’s chamber. Valentinian I had his servants take precious care of two she-bears, Mica Aurea (Gold Flake) and Innocentia (Innocence), to whom he apparently handed over his enemies as playthings.


Household security was always a concern in antiquity. Canines were common gatekeepers – as mosaic thresholds in Pompeii reveal with their inscriptions “Cave Canem” (Beware of the Dog). Geese, a favorite pet of Penelope, could similarly serve a protective purpose. Caged birds, too, might alert homeowners to visitors, but were more often kept for their cheerful chirping.

Talking green parrots, popular in Rome’s affluent homes, are described by Pliny as imports from India and “especially frolicsome under the influence of wine.” Even more ostentatious and expensive were pet peacocks, ridiculed alike by Greek comedic playwrights and Roman moralists.

Marble grave stele (early 3rd c. BC), known as “The Ethiopian” from its depiction of a young groom, seemingly African, who is trying to soothe a spirited horse adorned with the skin of a fierce wild animal, perhaps a wolf found during excavations at the site of the Athens Railway Station in 1948.

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

Marble grave stele (early 3rd c. BC), known as “The Ethiopian” from its depiction of a young groom, seemingly African, who is trying to soothe a spirited horse adorned with the skin of a fierce wild animal, perhaps a wolf found during excavations at the site of the Athens Railway Station in 1948.

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

Canine grave monument, Piraeus (370-360 BC). Seemingly too gentle to be of the fierce Molossian breed Odysseus’ swineherd Eumaeus kept, this humble hound was more likely one of the faithful “table dogs” often depicted in vase paintings, always close at hand and ready for a tasty handout, but here anxiously mourning his deceased master.

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum

Canine grave monument, Piraeus (370-360 BC). Seemingly too gentle to be of the fierce Molossian breed Odysseus’ swineherd Eumaeus kept, this humble hound was more likely one of the faithful “table dogs” often depicted in vase paintings, always close at hand and ready for a tasty handout, but here anxiously mourning his deceased master.

© Ministry of Culture & Sports, National Archaeological Museum


Above all, pets provided comforting companionship, best displayed by the loyal dog. Ancient Greece’s most illustrious hound was probably faithful Argos, who patiently awaited Odysseus’ return from Troy, and then, after their reunion, died contentedly. Among valued canine breeds were Molossian, Laconian and Cretan guard dogs and the ubiquitous Melitan lap dog from Malta.

The swineherd Eumaeus likely kept Molossians, as did nouveau riche Trimalchio, whose enormous beast Scylax, according to the Roman writer Petronius, caused a furious fracas during a banquet – attacking a smaller dog, upsetting a table lamp, smashing all the wine cups and sprinkling the guests with hot oil.

Less ferocious was Publius’ little Issa, extolled by Martial: “More pure than the kiss of a dove… more loving than any maiden… dearer than Indian gems… She lies reclined upon his neck, and sleeps… and has never sullied the coverlet with a single spot…”

Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome

Festivals are periods of time, cut out from daily life, during which a group performs activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world. Festival names in Greece and Rome often express this close connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder, or they refer to a ritual activity that is characteristic for a festival. The basic ritual elements that underlie a specific festival scenario are similar in both cultures (as well as in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world): processions, sacrifices with ensuing banquets, and athletic and musical contests are most common and exist already in the festival descriptions in Homer, such as the New Moon festival on Ithaca in the Odyssey. Common festivals founded and expressed group identity, first and foremost on the city level, but also for smaller and larger groups, from the family and clan group to the tribe or the community of all Hellenes. Greek and Roman festivals were so similar in their basic forms that, during the Imperial epoch, cities in the eastern part of the Empire adopted Roman festivals despite the fact that Greek cities followed a lunar calendar, whereas Rome early on had introduced a luni-solar system. The one festival type absent from the Roman world, at least during the Republican epoch, was the mystery ritual that, typically through a one-time initiation ritual, founded groups that transcended a single city, as well as the limits of gender and social status.

During the Imperial epoch, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions, continuing and exploring innovations that had occurred already in Hellenistic times. An early development was ruler cult, developed in the Greek cities during Hellenistic times and adopted for the cult of Roman emperors, who exploited its potential to tie together a heterogeneous empire through shared cultic activities. The most important driving force was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its helpful manifestation and thus allowed the cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities also founded festivals in the memory of family members, and during the Imperial period, such foundations multiplied and gained in grandeur. The Imperial epoch also saw the extension of single festivals to events that lasted many days, if not an entire month and helped to shape the Christian festival calendar with its long festival periods.



Definition, Elements, and the Formation of Names of Ancient Festivals


Festivals are periods of time during which a group interrupts daily life in order to focus on communal activities that most often are thought of as communications with the superhuman world of gods or ancestors. In a festival, a group constitutes, renews, and reinforces its identity. Accordingly, after a radical change of identity, a group will change its festival calendar, as happened for example after the Christianization of Greece and Rome, or in France after the Revolution. Festivals also construct the recipients of the rites, be they superhuman powers such as gods, heroic ancestors, the deceased, or the kings and emperors that are recipients of ruler cult. Festivals finally also construct and order time and space. They impose a recurrent pattern—seasonal, annual, multi-annual—on the flux of time, and they articulate the relationship between the ordinary space of the city and the extraordinary, sacred space of a sanctuary inside the city or outside on the countryside and along the borders of the territory. 1

The Key Elements

Main elements of Greek and Roman festivals are processions, sacrifices, and athletic and musical performances, often organized as contests (agōnes).


The center of a Greco-Roman festival was the animal sacrifice that was accompanied by prayers, libations of wine, water, milk, oil, or honey, and by the burning of incense and of special sacrificial cakes and other vegetable matter. In many festivals, the animal sacrifice preceded an ample banquet in which the entire group and sometimes outsiders (such as guests and ambassadors) participated the rules for participation and exclusion—of foreigners, slaves, or the other gender—varied according to the character of the festival, and defined groups of varying composition and size. Single actions defined hierarchical roles in the group, and the way the meat was distributed among participants confirmed such hierarchies. Animals had to be perfect, and some cities staged selection rituals in the form of beauty contests to select the perfect animal. 2 Sacrifices could be spectacular as to both the form and the size of the ritual and thus heighten the extraordinary festival atmosphere. The grand festival sacrifice was the hecatomb, the sacrifice of one hundred cows or bulls the term and thus the ritual is already Indo-European, and the number is no exaggeration, as shown by the remnants of twice fifty rows of iron rings that served to attach the animals along the sides of the monumental altar of Apollo at Klaros. A spectacular act during Athenian sacrifices was “to lift the ox.” an Athenian story tells how Theseus did so at the shrine of Apollo Delphinios to demonstrate his malehood (Pausanias. 1.19.1), and 2nd century bce ephebic inscriptions (e.g., IG II² 1006) praised the ephebes for this act it needed several non-heroic youth to perform the feat.


Processions have many forms and functions. 3 The most elementary form is the sacrificial procession the actors and participants of a sacrifice walk the animal and carry the implements used during the sacrifice from the private home to the sanctuary. In a largely magnified and enlarged version of this, most impressively in the (centripetal) Athenian procession of the Panathenaia, a city represents itself, its varying groups, and its power in a procession that accompanied the large number of white cows together with the new cloak, the peplos, woven by Athenian women, from the margin of the city to the central shrine in the religious center of the city, the Acropolis. A comparable self-representation is the Roman pompa circensis, from the Capitol through the Forum to the Circus Maximus it opened the major ludi and paraded musicians, dancers (including satyrs), images of the gods, and the magistrates in triumphal attire on chariots (Dionysius Halicarnassus, Antiquitates 7.72.1–13). Other processions, being centrifugal, connect inversely the political center of a city with an outlying sanctuary, as in the Heraia of Argos, leading from the city to the sanctuary of the city goddesses situated at the border of its territory. Similarly, the processions in the Christian liturgy of late antique Jerusalem connected the main church at Golgotha in the city center with Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives. In a more complex choreography, the free-standing procession that C. Vibius Salutaris, founded in Imperial Ephesus in the time of Hadrian, lead from the outlying shrine of Artemis through one city gate into the theatre and out through another gate back to the sanctuary a large number of gilded silver images represent Artemis in several of her aspects, the ruling emperor and his empress, myths, topography, and political units of Ephesus, and the corresponding political units of Rome. In this way, the procession articulated a complex message about the relationship between the city of Ephesus, its world-famous sanctuary, and the Roman center of power. 4


Athletic and musical contests mostly belonged to the Greek world the Athenian invention of contests of tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays quickly conquered the Greek world and remained popular throughout the Roman Empire. Musical and athletic performances were always an integral part of Greek festivals. The music of lyre and flute belonged to the regular sacrifice, and the performance of paeans by the kouroi Achaiōn, the young Greek men, belonged to the sacrificial festival with which the Greeks placated Apollo after he had punished them with the plague (Homer Iliad 1.472–474). The famous Partheneion, “Girls Song” of the 7th century Spartan poet Alcman, introduces competing nubile girls singing and dancing in an unknown festival the winning runner in the foot race in the Elean Olympia raced up to the high ash altar of Zeus to kindle the sacrificial fire. Already in the archaic period, these contests were normalized and organized into long-drawn out performances but their connection with the central sacrifice of a festival remained alive even in the Imperial Age. 5 In Rome, gladiatorial shows followed the main sacrificial day, such as the Quinquatrus festival. The Greek invention of dramatic performances (ludi scaenici) were added to festivals of gods that had a Greek flavor, mainly the Megalesia, the festival of Magna Mater, and the ludi Apollinares the rare introduction of athletic contest in the Capitolia of Nero and Domitian were a conscious imitation of Greek customs. 6

Time Structure

Greek and Roman festivals recur usually after one year the experience of this recurrence shapes and structures the perception of time. Ancient societies do not have a festive event, such as Sunday, that recurs in a much faster rhythm. A few Greek festivals recur in longer periods, especially the major Panhellenic contests, but also the Greater Panathenaia in Athens the four-year period of the Olympia, the most prestigious athletic festival (in ancient inclusive terminology, penteteric, “five-year-wise”) served as an unofficial way of time reckoning and became a standard for the many athletic festivals founded during the Imperial period. The logistics of ancient travel for participants and spectators will have been the main reason for these longer intervals. Very few festivals recurred in longer intervals in Greece, the best known is the Delphic festival Septeria, which took place every eighth year and included a ritual procession to the Tempe Valley. In Rome, the Ludi Saeculares were recurring after the passage of a saeculum, a span of about 110 years. It was Augustus who, in 17 bce , consolidated the festival tradition in order to mark Rome’s return to peace and prosperity after a century of civil wars Domitian (88 ce ), Septimius Severus (204 ce ) and, with a different count, Claudius (47 ce ) repeated the festival. 7

Festival Names

Greek and Roman festival names share a common linguistic structure. They almost always are the neuter plural of an adjective that expresses a close connection—in Greek most commonly a derivation in -io-, in Latin in -ali- (or -ili-), less common in -io- as well many Greek names show the suffix -tēria, which goes back to the Bronze Age. Very often, the festival name expresses the connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder—Dionysia, Hyakinthia, Demostheneia Neptunalia, Parilia (from the goddess Pales, with dissimilation of the first /l/). Sometimes, the name is derived from an epithet (Elaphebolia, from Apollo Elaphebolos), the place of its performance (most often in the case of contests: Greek Olympia or Roman Capitolia), a specific ritual action (Plynteria, from the washing, πλύνω ‎, of the image Daphnephoria, from carrying a laurel branch, φέρειν ‎ δάφνας ‎ Fordicidia, from killing a heifer, caedere fordam), a specific performer (Lupercalia, from lupercus, the young naked runner), or an event the festival claims to commemorate (Synoikia in Athens, the union of villages to form the city Regifugium in Rome, the expulsion of the kings) and some names defy a clear understanding (Roman Agonium). In Greece, months are often named after one of its festivals, such as Attic-Ionic Pyanepsion from Pyanepsia, or Doric Theodaisios, from Theodaisa (both festival names derive from a ritual action, to cook a bean stew, ἕπτειν τὸν πύνον ‎, and a banquet with the gods, δαΐς θεῶν ‎). Sometimes the Greek month name reflects a festival that is insignificant in historical time, such as Attic-Ionic Maimakterion from the Maimakteria, an almost unknown festival of Zeus the Storm God we tend to assume that the festival was more important in the distant past. Attic-Ionian month names also uniquely and specifically end with - ιών ‎, and they are attested in the entire dialectal area, from Athens through the islands, from Euboia to Chios and Samos and the cities along the central part of the Anatolian west coast, and almost always in the same order. This has led scholars to the conclusion that the Attic-Ionian calendar (both the month names and the festivals on which the month names are based) existed before the dispersal of the dialect group at the very end of the Bronze Age.

Festivals in Bronze Age Texts

The occurrence of month and festival names in Linear B texts, written in the Bronze Age syllabic script for Greek, is less clear than these conclusions would suggest. 8 Most names attested in Linear B remain without a correspondence in Iron Age Greece, nor do we have Linear B month names in -iōn. The month names end either in -ios or in -tos, appear always in the genitive of time and are followed by me-no, μηνός ‎: the -ios forms thus are adjectives, “the month belonging to. ….” Of a total of ten undisputed month names, eight from Knossos and two from Pylus, only two, both from Cnossus, re-appear in the Iron Age documentation. The month ra-pa-to corresponds to the Cypriot month Lapatos whose etymology is unclear the month di-wi-jo, Dīos, is widely attested not only in Iron Age Cyprus and Arcadia, where one expects Mycenaean survivals, but also in Aeolia and Western Greece the derivation from Zeus is obvious. A possible month name at Pylus, di-pi-si-jo, might correspond to the Thessalian month Dipsios ( Δίψιος ‎), perhaps “Thirst Month.” None of these names derives from a known festival name, with the exception of Dios, behind which one can assume a festival called Dia.

There are also a few terms that can be understood as names of festivals or specific ritual actions. The most obvious case is the Pylian re-ke-to-te-ri-o, λεχε-στρωτήριον ‎, a ritual action used as a festival name that corresponds to the Roman lectisternium. Two other Pylian terms ending in -tērion/- τήριον ‎ might hide other ritual actions and the ending -tērion survives in a few Iron Age festival names, such as the Attic-Ionian Anthestēria (widely attested through the month Anthestēriōn) or the Athenian Mystēria. A few terms in Pylus and Thebes are neuter plurals followed by the allative -de and have been understood as festival names as well the most promising names are the Theban Ptoiade (po-to-a2-ja-de), “for the Ptoia,” a Boeotian festival attested especially in archaic times and slowly petering out in the 1st century ce , and Teleiade (te-re-ja-de), “for the Teleia,” perhaps a coming-of-age festival. With the exception of the Ptoia, none of these festivals is attested in the Iron Age, and the Roman lectisternium does not indicate survival, but a parallel development in Rome, perhaps under the formative influence of the Greek Theoxenia, where the gods visibly participated in a banquet.

Festivals in Homer and the Timing of Ancient Festivals

Homer’s Odyssey contains the first description of a Greek city festival. On the morning when Odysseus decided to fight and kill the suitors, the city was preparing a festival of Apollo: heralds led the sacred hecatomb through town, and the citizens assembled in the grove of far-shooting Apollo (Odyssey 20.276–278 cf. 21.276). The festival date is the day of the New Moon at the onset of spring (10.306–307 and 20.196). The New Moon is a typical date of Apollo’s festivals from which he received the epithet Noumēnios. The festival had its sacred place, as often with Apollo, in a grove rich with trees outside the city. All free adult males of the town participated in it. The central act was the large animal sacrifice, one hundred oxen led in a procession through the city out to the shrine after the oxen were offered to the gods, the citizens would banquet together. Festivals are celebrations that bring gods and humans into close contact.

The correlation with the moon and the seasons is important for the Greek festival calendar. Unlike the (luni)solar Roman calendar, the calendars of the Greek cities are lunar, and each city has its own. The beginning of the year is placed at widely varying times that take indirect account of the solar year through the connection with the agricultural year, whereas the connection with the solar year and its four cardinal points, equinoxes and solstices, is vague only and compounded by the uncertainties and oscillations surrounding the local systems of intercalation with a few exceptions—such as Ithaca in the Odyssey, or Athens—we are ill-informed about celebrations of the New Year. Local calendars vary widely: some begin the new year in summer, during the break after the cereal harvest (e.g., Athens in Hekatombaiōn or Samus in Pelysiōn, July/August the date is only vaguely connected with the summer solstice), others in the fall, before the plowing begins (e.g., Priene in Boedromiōn, September, or Thasus in Apaturiōn, mid-October, vaguely close to the fall equinox), in spring, before the field-work begins (Miletus and its colonies in Taureōn, around the Spring equinox), or during the large agricultural break in mid-winter (e.g., Byzantium with Petageitnios, November/December, or Boeotia with Boukatios, December/January). 9 The lunisolar calendar of Rome shows a comparable pattern, and the sources preserve information on a shift of the new year, from originally March 1 (Ovid Fasti 3.135) to January in 153 bce it was decided that the consular year should start on the Kalendae Ianuariae (Inscriptiones Italiae 12:2, p. 111), which turned into a major festival throughout the empire during the Imperial period. 10 Before this shift, the consuls entered office on variable dates, although March, singled out by Ovid, seems to have been important. Rather than assume a radical change, one has to posit the coexistence of different calendars, with the political calendar being predominant, but with a more private calendar from March to February still perceived in Augustan times, in the same way that, in our culture, a civil year coexists with a religious year, a financial year, or a tax year. Similarly there might have been different calendars in Greek cities, of which we have at best vague information.

When structuring time into a festival calendar, societies have a tendency to set strong ritual signs to mark the end of the old and the onset of the new annual cycle, mostly by inserting a period of suspended or inverted (“carnevalesque”) time. Whereas in contemporary Western societies the transition between December 31 and January is abrupt, even here there remain traces of a more gliding transition that in late antiquity contained the two weeks from Christmas Day on December 25 to Epiphany on January 6, with the 24 banquet days of the Brumalia, starting on November 24, leading up to it. In pre-Christian Greece and Rome, the transition was even more gliding (see the section Alternative Cycle).

Lunar months mark the observed phases of the moon, new moon, the waxing half moon, the full moon, the waning half moon. In the Roman calendar (that originally was lunar as well), named days marked this progression, from Kalendae through Nonae (waxing half moon) to Idus (full moon) the days were marked by sacrifices. In many Greek city calendars, Apollo was closely connected with two of these key days, the new moon (Apollo Noumēnios) and the seventh day (first quarter), which was celebrated as his birthday. The dark and empty night that preceded the new moon was sacred to Hekate for whom offerings were placed on the crossroads. The sixth day was regarded as the birthday of Artemis, the twin sister who served as midwife at the birth of her brother in many respects, Artemis can be understood as a less dark mirror image of Hecate. As to the distribution throughout the month, one perceives a pattern that is, however, not strictly followed. Joyful festivals and those concerned with the gods above are placed before full moon during the period of the waxing moon, many shortly before full moon (with the exception of Apollo’s festivals on day 7) festivals that have dark sides and deal with the dead and heroes tend to fall into the period of the waning moon.

The Athenian Festival Calendar

The only Greek festival calendar that is well known to us is the calendar of Athens. 11 Literary texts of the 5th and 4th centuries preserve details, usually without a wider context, and from the 4th century onwards, local historians gave systematic accounts that are lost to us save for excerpts in later texts. Epigraphic calendars go back to the later 5th century and peak in the early 4th century bce . Ritual calendars from several Athenian villages (demes), set up in the early 4th century, present sacrifices at festivals in an annual sequence with the exception of the calendar of Erchia, which preserves one of two full overviews over the liturgical year, 12 they survive only in fragments. The official cult calendar of Athens was exhibited on the Agora as part of the re-codification of Athenian law after 410 and 403 bce and is named the “calendar (or code) of Nicomachus,” after its main coordinator it is only preserved in small fragments. 13 There is a tension between the mostly allusive literary sources that we use to reconstruct the structure of the Athenian festival calendar and the very detailed epigraphic sources that are mainly concerned with the financial aspect of the festivals and address the native performers.

The following account does not aim at a full overview of the Athenian festival calendar. It intends to show its principles and the methodological problems when studying it to do so, I focus on the clusters of festivals that dominate the year, the New Year’s cluster and the Dionysiac winter cluster, and on the Festivals of Demeter, the women’s goddess.

The first month of the Athenian year was Hekatombaion, renamed from an earlier Kronion, after the shadowy Kronia festival on day 12. The main festival is the Panathenaia on day 28, attested since the late archaic age the festival celebrated the city’s patron goddess with the dedication of a peplos in a lavish procession in which the city represented itself and its power 14 even if the Parthenon frieze depicts a mythical first procession, this idealized picture is still informative for 5th century realities. 15 The procession, in the 5th and 4th centuries partly supported by the cities of the Delian League, started in the Pompeion at the gate towards Eleusis, moved through the potters’ quarter (Kerameikos), to the agora, and climbed the acropolis for the sacrifice of at least one hundred white cows. Athletic contests followed the festival, with the typical prize of amphoras of Attic olive oil, the vessels retaining even in the 4th century the original 6th-century black-figured drawing of the armed and valiant city goddess. This can be read as an indication of a major reform of the festival in the late 6th century that might coincide with the change from Kronion to Panathenaia. There must also have been a considerable expansion once the Delian League was in place and the Acropolis had reached its new splendor in Periclean times. A parallel name change happened in Laconia where the month name Hekatombios coexisted with the better attested name Hyakinthios, after the major Spartan festival, the Hyakinthia in Amyklai it is conceivable that Hyakinthios for some time was renamed Hekatombios, after the impressive sacrifices of this festival, perhaps under Athenian influence. 16

Kronion was named after the Kronia, which celebrated Kronos, the god of the Golden Age that preceded Zeus. The characteristic trait of the festival was a relaxed and cheerful meal of masters and slaves together—the inversion of ordinary social behavior that we also know from the Roman Saturnalia Roman authors saw the parallels between Kronia and Saturnalia. 17 In both cases, it marks the temporary return of the Golden Age with its carnevalesque absence of the social restraints under Zeus. Far from being a festival to mark the end of the harvest, as the Athenian Philochorus claimed (FGrH 328 F 97), the temporary return of the Golden Age marks a joyful and relaxing suspension of ordinary time that precedes the return of normalcy after the New Year’s day, as in the Roman Saturnalia.

The third festival of the month, the Synoikia of day 16, recalls the unification of Attica under Theseus—the start of the present political order that then would express itself magnificently twelve days later in the Panathenaia. Unusually and interestingly, the progression of the first month of the year thus selected the full moon as the turning point from pre-order to order.

The slow progression and suspension of the old order that moved towards the new beginning of the year in Hekatombaion began two months earlier, in Thargelion. Days 6 and 7 of this month celebrate the name-giving Thargelia. On day 6, the Athenians sent out the two pharmakoi, “scape-goats,” in order to purify the city the ritual is with more details attested in some Ionian cities. 18 On day 7, Apollo’s day, one threw together all sorts of seeds, cooked them, and offered the resulting stew to Apollo as an improvised meal before the plentitude provided by the coming harvest. On day 19, the Thracians in Athens celebrated their goddess, Bendis, with a torch race in Piraeus that was popular at the time of Socrates: towards the end of the year the indigenous pantheon opened itself up towards a foreign divinity. On day 25 finally, the city celebrated the Plynteria: the old wooden image of Athena was taken out of her sanctuary, undressed, and brought to Phaleron for a washing in the sea and a solemn new dressing, foreshadowing the dedication of the new peplos two months later.

A similar sequence of festivals preceding the end of the year characterized the last month, Skirophorion. On day 12, at the Skira or Skirophoria (“the carrying of the sunshade”), the priestess of Athena Polias and the priests of Poseidon Erechtheus—the two divinities who had their shrines at the heart of the city for which they had fought each other—together with the priest of Helius, left the Acropolis and, hiding under a white sunshade, walked to a place called Skira outside the city. After the stealthy departure of the main priests, the Acropolis was empty and without regular cult. This is another ritual sign for the temporary interruption of Athenian normalcy. We do not hear when and how they returned, nor does it matter: we deal with a long chain of festivals that slowly break up normalcy to mark the end of an annual cycle of time, and to prepare for the forceful return of the new cycle.

Two days later, on the Acropolis, the Athenians sacrificed a plow ox to Zeus Polieus, the protector of civic order. Ordinarily, one did not sacrifice plow oxen they were valuable work animals, and often they must not have been perfect enough to qualify as sacrificial animals. The sacrifice was followed by a trial that accused the sacrificer of murder he shifted the blame to the sacrificial ox, which was convicted and drowned in the sea the killed ox was resurrected by stuffing its hide with straw. Scholars have pointed out the connections of this festival, called Bouphonia or “Ox-murder,” with neolithic hunter’s rituals 19 but far from being a blueprint for Greek sacrificial ideology, it is its reversal: the temporary resurgence of hoary traditions marks yet another irruption of Kronian time in which the unthinkable is done and playfully evaluated. There follows a sacrifice to Athena Soteira and Zeus Soter on the last day of the month and the year, marking the first counterpoint by addressing the helpful powers that normally rule the city of Athens. Hekatombaion (or, even more pointedly, the former Kronion), however, returned to the world before Zeus, to end the month in the triumphant reassertion of Athens in the Panathenaia.

In an unknown night in Skirophorion, Athenian girls performed another strange ritual (Pausanias 1.27.3). 20 Two of them were called arrhephoroi and elected from among the city nobility. The spent a year on the Acropolis, commissioned (among other things) with the task to begin the weaving of the new peplos, which the adult wives would finish. As their last task, they were sent down a secret (already Mycenaean) stairway at night that led from the Acropolis to the shrine of Aphrodite “in the Gardens” they carried something that was carefully wrapped and brought another carefully wrapped thing back after this, they were discharged from their duties, and two new girls took over. Whatever this secret thing was, its connection with Aphrodite points to sexuality, and in the concomitant myth, the three young daughters of Kekrops unwrapped what should have remained hidden, saw a baby and a snake, and jumped to their deaths from the Acropolis. One does not need to be a Freudian to understand the images of baby plus snake, and the effect of this on maidenly innocence.

The second complex belongs to Dionysus. It spans the three months from Posideon, through Gamelion (“Wedding Month”) and Anthesterion (“Flower Month”), to Elaphebolion (March/April), from mid-winter to early spring. Posideon has its name from a Poseidon Festival, Posideia, but nothing more is known about it in Athens, although month and festival appear, in varying dialectal forms, in other Greek cities. Gamelion is derived from the festival Hieros Gamos (“Sacred Wedding”), also called Theogamia (“Divine Wedding”) it celebrated the wedding of Zeus and Hera and, as far as we can see, was celebrated in private households and the villages only. Even less is known of the Elephebolia (“Deer Slaying”) it was dedicated to Artemis, and a late antique scholar talks about deer sacrifices—he might well have invented them out of the name. Only Anthesterion has its name from a major festival, the Anthesteria.

The sequence of festivals begins on the countryside with the “Rural Dionysia,” a raucous village celebration with a phallic procession and the sacrifice of a goat Dikaiopolis in Aristophanes’ Acharnai performs the festival on his farm to mark the peace he concluded. Communal pleasure and transgressive male sexuality are the contradictory center of this mid-winter festival it sets pleasure, including the thrill and power of sex, against the dead time of the year. With the rising popularity of drama during the 5th century, some villages added dramatic performances to their program, perhaps using local choral performances or cruder jesting matches as starting points. The dramatic shows in the Piraeus became important enough in the 4th century to be lumped together with the main Athenian performances at the Lenaia and City Dionysia. 21 Not untypical for a festival of Dionysus, this forced the city-dwellers of Athens to leave their town for the place outside.

Gamelion contains the first citywide festival of Dionysus, the Lenaia (days 12–14, immediately preceding full moon). The meaning of the name was disputed even in antiquity some derived it from the wine-press, λῆνος ‎, others from an Attic word for menads, λῆναι ‎ modern scholars also have discussed, without a clear outcome, whether a series of 5th-century vase paintings depicting menads who perform a wine ritual in front of an improvised image of Dionysus, concern this festival or the Anthesteria. 22 The main features of the festival were processions and dramatic contests. The procession contained wagons from which participants made fun of bystanders and major Athenian personalities—a ritual also attested in the Anthesteria. The contest concerned tragedies and comedies like those of the Rural Dionysia, they might derive from more rustic entertainments. 23

The Anthesteria is, religiously, the most important and intriguing festival of Anthesterion, the only Athenian month whose name in historical times reflects a major festival. It took place from days 11 to 13, in a clearly defined and named progression, and was associated with the shrine of Dionysus en Limnais, “In the Marshes,” presumably outside the city to the south of the Acropolis, although many of the rites were also held in private houses. 24

The first day, Anthesterion 11, was the Pithoigia, “Vat Opening,” the ceremonial opening of the wine vats that contained the year’s wine harvest and which was at least partly performed in the shrine itself. As fits the tasting of the new wine, singing and dancing went with it. Perhaps on the same day, a procession brought Dionysus and his followers, the satyrs, into the city they arrived from outside in a ship with wheels (attested only by several Attic vase paintings of a wheeled ship with Dionysus and the satyrs). Dionysus’s arrival from the sea is an apt image for the intrusion of the ecstatic god who, as Euripides showed in his Bacchants, posed a deadly threat to daily orderliness: his arrival fits a festival that was characterized both by wine drinking and uncanniness.

The next day was Choes, “Pitchers,” from the main ritual, a strange drinking contest: each participant sat alone and had his own wine pitchers (about three liters of wine) that he emptied without speaking. It was a dark day the temples were closed, Athenians smeared their house doors with black pitch and chewed backthorn leaves to keep evil away. Social boundaries collapsed as well—the slaves participated in the drinking. At the end, everybody got rid of their banqueting wreath by dedicating it in the shrine in the Marshes, the only temple open. The Athenians explained the ritual with the story of how Orestes came to Athens, still polluted by his matricide, and since the Athenians did not want to reject him but could neither let him pollute them, they closed their temples and diplomatically invented this highly abnormal “banquet” (Phanodemus, FGrH 325 F 11). The same day—or rather the evening that in Athenian reckoning already belonged to the following day—witnessed a ritual that for decades excited scholarly imagination, the wedding of the wife of archōn basileus, “Executive King,” with Dionysus that entailed “many secret sacred rites” on behalf of the city. Since it was secret, much remains unknown. In a festival that was markedly male, it is the only ritual in which women—the “Queen” was helped by a group of “Revered Women”—became active as well.

The final day was called Chytroi, “Pots,” from the pot in which each household cooked a mush of seeds for Hermes Chthonios, “He of the Underworld,” from which priests, bound to purity, could not eat. This was said to recall the first human meal after the Flood. Chytroi was not just an unlucky day dedicated to the dead, but also the hopeful transition to normal life already the secret Sacred Wedding of the preceding night sounded a hopeful note. Another enigmatic ritual of this day as well has a similar meaning. A Byzantine author preserves the ritual formula “Out with you, the Anthesteria are over,” and tells us that this was addressed either to Carian slaves who participated in the festivities (Kāres) or Demons (Kēres). Neither makes much sense: there were not many Carian slaves in Athens, nor can Kēres mean the dead to whose protector Hermes one offered the seed mush. But Carians were also thought to be the original inhabitants of Attica, and demons stay away from daily life: whoever the addressees of this ritual were, it was a fitting conclusion to a period of ritual strangeness, comparable to many early modern carneval rituals that were held at about the same time of the year.

The final Dionysiac festival was the City Dionysia in Elephebolion (day 9 to day 13). Again, an opening ritual brought the god from outside into town, this time in the shape of his statue brought from its old shrine in the village of Eleutherai, at the border to Attica, and put up for the duration of the festival next to the god’s altar in the orchestra of the Dionysos theatre. The festival was promoted (or even founded) through the patronage of the tyrant Peisistratos in the later 6th century bce , and with the rise of dramatic performances, it rapidly became the main venue for tragedies and comedies, open to participants from all over Greece. 25

Both festival complexes, the one around the turning of year, and the Dionysiac winter/spring complex, were mainly affairs for the male Athenian citizen, with a feminine element characterized by secrecy, be it the arrhephoroi or the wedding of the “Queen.” Women appear in both as future or actual brides, to be married to give life to a new generation of citizens. The same is visible in the one full women’s festival, the Thesmophoria, which was celebrated in the month of Pyanopsion (late October or early November).

As with Anthesteria and Lenaia, it is a sequence of three days before the full moon, day 11 to day 13. It was celebrated only by women, wives and daughters, and took place in the local shrine of Demeter, the Thesmophorion. The city Thesmophorion might be identical with the Eleusinion, which is above the agora, near the Sacred Way of the Panathenaia procession we know that shrines of Demeter had a tendency to be located half-way up a hill-side. 26 The first day was called Anodos, “Way Up,” when the women retired to the local Thesmophorion, the shrine of Demeter Thesmophoros, and built temporary huts in which they would stay all three days, sitting and sleeping on the bare floor or on leaves. Men were strictly excluded from the space of the shrine about the Parian Thesmophorion, we hear how a male intruder came to his death (Herodotus 6.134). The second day was Nēsteia, “Fasting” women, normally the providers of food, kept strictly away from it. The third day had a telling name too, Kalligeneia, “Beautiful Birth”: the women prayed for the birth of beautiful children Kalligeneia was also a local goddess.

The Thesmophoria is the festival that Athens shared with a large number of other cities: Demeter Thesmophoros was the preeminent goddess of free married women. Rituals from other places are rarely documented, but we hear that the women in Syracuse “lived the ancient life” by cooking meat not on a fire but on rocks heated by the sun (Diodorus 5.4.7), or that those in Cyrene killed animals with a sword and smeared their faces with the blood (Suidas s.v. Thesmophoros). The suspension of ordinary social life, through returning to pre-civilizatory conditions or unwomanly slaughter with swords, is even more manifest than in the Athenian fasting and refusal of houses and beds. The epithet Thesmo-phoros and the festival Thesmo-phoria present another etymological puzzle. If the name derives from a ritual, then something—thesmos—is carried, like the vine shoots (ōskhos) in the Dionysiac Oschophoria in Attic Phaleron or the laurel twig in the Daphnephoria of Thebes. This something is the remains of sacrificial piglets and clay images of human genitalia that the women deposited (tithēmi) in underground pits and a year later brought up again, to be mixed among the grain seed to help its success such pits have been pointed out in Eleusis. 27 Other Athenian festivals of Demeter directly focus on agriculture, especially the Proërosia, a pre-plowing sacrifice on the level of the villages, celebrated on Pyanopsion 6 (October) in Eleusis, in Boedromion (September/October) in Thorikos. 28 Agricultural concerns easily add themselves to concerns of human fertility. At some point, however, ancient commentators lost faith in this explanation from ritual and understood thesmós as laws and Demeter as the goddess whose cultural invention, agriculture, had also brought laws and civilization to humanity. The ritual suspension of civilization helped such an interpretation, and it resonated with a 5th-century understanding of the cultural mission of Athens and with the later role of Demeters’s Egyptian homologue, Isis, as a lawgiver.

The main Athenian festival of Demeter, at least as to its impact beyond Attica, is the Mysteria of Eleusis. 29 Although a Bronze Age sanctuary at Eleusis is problematical, the festival name follows the already Bronze Age ending in -tēria, but my- is somewhat opaque: does it derive from μύω ‎ “to shut the eyes,” alluding to its secrecy, or from μυέω ‎ “to initiate”? It is arguable that the cult started out as a clan cult (there is evidence for Demeter Patrōia as clan goddess), but this would belong to a highly hypothetical and not necessarily Bronze Age pre-history.

The foundation of the Mysteria is described in the 7th century Homeric Hymn to Demeter. 30 Demeter came to Eleusis in search of her abducted daughter Persephone/Kore, showed her divine nature, and asked for the cult to be founded she insisted on the secrecy of the ritual (vv. 478–479) and on the gains from it, better conditions after death for the initiates (vv. 481–483), and rich harvests in life for those whom the Two Goddesses (tō Theō, Demeter and Kore) favor (vv. 486–489). Later transformations of this myth insisted on Demeter’s gift of grain and agriculture to the Athenians and to all humans, thanks to the Eleusinian hero Triptolemos. 31 Once ancient cultural theory defined agriculture as the decisive step to civilization, Eleusis and, through it, Athens turned into the cradle of humanity at least during the 5th century Athenian empire, this had clear political implications (Isocrates Panegyricus 28).

In our sources, the Mysteria are described as a lengthy festival. It started on Boedromion 14 with the transfer of secret cult objects (hiera) and cult staff from outlying Eleusis to the Athenian Eleusinion, above the agora, followed on day 15 by the assembly of all participants and the official instruction by the hierophant, the most senior priest, and on day 16 by a preliminary bath of the candidates with their sacrificial piglets in the sea. Three fasting days followed the last fasting day was also the day of the Epidauria on day 18, which celebrated the arrival of Asklepios as candidate for initiation. On day 19, the sacred personnel, initiates, and candidates for initiation walked in a long procession along the Sacred Way to Eleusis, led by the image of Iakchos, the Dionysus-like god of initiatory enthusiasm. The secret ritual followed in the night, after some preliminary rituals the hierophant (“He who shows the sacred things”), a member of the priestly family of the Eumolpids, played the main part. Details are tantalizingly scarce we hear of an apparition of Persephone in fire and the showing of a sheaf of wheat, and texts underline the importance of visuality during the ritual—one “sees” the Mysteria.

Unlike in any other city festival, participation in the Mysteria was not confined to citizens of Athens: participation was entirely voluntary, but open to both genders, to slaves as well as to free-born, and from early on to everybody who spoke Greek and was not affected by pollution. This openness corresponds with the aim of the ritual as expressed already in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter: to guarantee (agricultural) wealth in this life and a better lot in the after-life. Over time, the emphasis shifted to the eschatological hope, and the Athenian festival Mysteria became the template for a growing number of initiatory cults, “mysteries,” that procured individual salvation through specific rituals that brought an individual in very close contact with a divinity.

No festival calendar is unaffected by change over time, both in the details of a single festivals and the introduction of new and disappearance of old festivals. Often enough, our evidence does not allow us to perceive detailed changes we have no means to verify the accusation brought against Nicomachus that, in codifying the sacrificial calendar of Athens, he introduced multiple additional sacrifices (Lysias Oratio 30). We saw that there is reason to assume that the City Dionysia changed radically at the time of Peisitratos but we lack the means to tell what those changes were, or whether Peisistratos altogether introduced the festival. We can trace some changes of the Mysteria but in the case of an important text, a 2nd-century ce decree of the Athenian assembly on the procession to Eleusis (IG II 2 1078), it is almost impossible to decide between restoration and invented tradition. Things are easier when there is information about new cults. There is good reason to postulate the secondary introduction of the Epidauria into the preparatory phase of the Mysteria: the Epidaurian cult of Asclepius, founded in the 6th century bce , began to expand in the early 5th century, but only late in that century did he receive a shrine in Piraeus, and even later below the Athenian Acropolis. 32 A similar 5th-century introduction can be assumed for the Bendideia, the festival of the main goddess of the Thracian traders in the Piraeus the first we hear raving about their torch race is Socrates (Plato Republic 327A). Things get considerably easier only with the introduction of ruler cults during the Hellenistic and Imperial periods.

The case of the Hephaisteia is symptomatic of the problems that confront the historian. A fragmentary inscription from 421–420 bce presents either a radical reform of an existing festival, perhaps introducing a torch race of the ephebes calqued on that of the Prometheia, or the foundation of a new festival (IG I 3 82) the interpretation still is debated, with a slight preference for reform over foundation. 33 At any rate, the inscription is more or less contemporary with the temple of Athena and Hephaistos on the Agora, the so-called “Theseion,” and a new emphasis on the role of blacksmiths, potters, and vase-painters, whose work contributed significantly to the wealth and allure of Athens, makes political sense.

Greek Festivals Outside Athens before the Roman Conquest

Evidence for festivals outside Athens is scanty and haphazard, derived mostly from inscriptions or late texts such as Plutarch’s various treatises (written in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries ce ) or Pausanias’s Description of Greece (after 150 ce ) neither author’s information can be projected back into the classical or Hellenistic past. 34 A case in point is the Laphria of Patras, as described by Pausanias (7.18.11/12). For this Artemis festival, one surrounded the altar of the goddess with palisades of green wood, built easy ramps up to the altar, and drove wild animals into the space between pyre and palisades. Then the wood on the altar was lit, and the animals were slowly driven into the flames and burnt alive. The cult of Artemis Laphria was introduced in Patrai from Calydon, when Augustus re-founded the town as a Roman colony, and early scholars tended to assume that this cruel sacrifice was a “genuinely archaic rite” brought from backward Calydon to the new town. 35 But this is far from certain, and it makes more sense to see the Roman taste for circus cruelty at work in the radical overhaul of an earlier festival.

In rare cases, we can spot such transformations. Pausanias described the strange ritual in the cult of Artemis Orthia, where young ephebes were whipped until their blood was running onto the altar this replaced an original human sacrifice. Artemis’ priestess stood nearby, carrying the old image of the goddess that Orestes had brought from the Taurians when the boys were not whipped hard enough, the image became heavy (Pausanias 3.16.7–11). Roman tourists flocked to the spectacle. Cicero described it from autopsy (Cicero Tusculans 2.34), and in Imperial times the Spartans built a theatre round the altar. But the ritual is far from old: Plato (Laws 633b) and Xenophon (Constitution of Sparta 2) describe a very different ephebic rite, a contest between two groups around the altar of Artemis Orthia, in which one group tried to steal cheese from the altar, another group defended the altar, armed with sticks there was no blood and much less violence. The festival must have been radically remodeled and the cruelty introduced during the reform of the Spartan state in the 2nd century bce .

If one disregards these and similar developments, the festivals attested to in other Greek cities conform to the phenomenology we saw at Athens. Although we often lack evidence about when a new annual cycle began, several cities celebrated Kronia or comparable festivals that inverted daily normalcy in a way reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia: they might well have belonged to the same context. We already saw how widespread Thesmophoria were even if the scanty details from outside Athens varied widely, one suspects a very old common institution of female rituals. The same is true for the Apaturia (“Festival of Common Ancestors”), the festival that defined Ionian and Attic tribal unity (Herodotus 1.147) again, the evidence is mainly Athenian. Festivals of Dionysus outside Athens rapidly adopted the Athenian innovation of dramatic contests, which led to the foundation of the Association of Dionysiac Artists in the early 3rd century bce , a sort of international trade union to protect the travelling artists. Some rituals echo Athenian customs, such as the procession with the wheeled ship that is attested to also in Smyrna and in Clazomenae on either side of the Aegean, this image expressed the arrival of the disturbing god from an outside that is the sea.

However, we perceive mainly the differences and lack a unifying interpretative template, when detailed Athenian evidence is absent. Outside the Attic-Ionian world, festivals named Agr(i)ania and Agr(i)onia and months named Agrianios, Agrionios, or Agerranios were wide-spread, in both west Greek and Aeolian cities. Ancient authors give widely divergent details on the god celebrated in these festivals and the rituals associated with them. Most often, the god is Dionysus, and the stories tell about the murderous madness he sent these stories reach from Boeotia to Chios and suggest a pre-migration, late Bronze Age origin of these cults but in other places, Hera is involved as well (Argos). The common theme of the myths is the deadly clash of gendered groups that express themselves in rituals of confrontation and persecution and that end with reconciliation in a common meal and sacrifice. Burkert associated these rituals with the dissolution during New Year this is tempting, but perhaps too narrow. For Athens, we saw how the suspension of normal order was tied not only to the transition from one annual cycle to the next, but also, as in the Dionysiac cycle, to the more elementary transition from winter to spring. 36

Roman Festivals

As with the Athenian festival calendar, this is not the place for a detailed overview. 37 I will discuss significant differences with the Greek world and then give an overview of how the festival calendar was constructed.


Rome’s festival calendar is preserved in a few literary and many epigraphical sources. A series of fragmentary stone calendars, most of them inscribed during the few decades after Caesar’s reform, present the Roman calendar of the late Republican and early Imperial period. 38 There are a few later calendars, fragmentary wall paintings or manuscripts, among which the illustrated manuscript calendar of 354 ce , and a papyrus calendar from the Roman garrison at Dura Europos (dated 225–235 ce ) are prominent. 39 Ovid’s Fasti contains in splendid detail the first six months of the year, whereas the relevant writings of M. Terentius Varro and Verrius Flaccus are lost, with the exception of some books of Varro’s De lingua Latina (relevant bk. vi) and the later excerpts from Verrius Flaccus’s De verborum significatione by Festus and Paulus Diaconus. The late learned writers Macrobius (Saturnalia) and John Lydus (De Mensibus) contain earlier information but need to be used judiciously.


In many respects, for most of the 1st century bce , Rome was just another polis at the margins of the Greek world, slowly absorbing Greek influence, mediated through Etruria or most often directly, while preserving and developing its own political structures. When one looks at the religious calendar and its implementation, several Roman peculiarities stand out. Unlike Greek cities, the religion of Rome was controlled by the senate and tended by a large number of different groups of permanent professional priests, giving Roman religion a high degree of institutional memory and stability in the inscribed stone calendars of the first centuries bce and ce , the oldest festivals, traditionally ascribed to King Numa, are still remembered and written in larger letters than later events. Rome moved from a lunar calendar to a solar calendar, whose accuracy was perfected by Caesar’s calendar reform. 40 There were remnants of the older system, however. The first day (Kalendae), the first quarter (Nonae), and the middle of the month (Idus) were named as starting points for the backwards count of days Kalendae and Idus were also marked by a sacrifice, to Juno and Janus at the Kalendae, to Jupiter at the Idus this derives from the observations of the lunar cycle, with new moon, first quarter, and full moon. The Kalendae received their name because on this day the pontifex minor announced publicly (kalare, cognate of Greek καλεῖν ‎) whether the Nonae were on day 5 or 7 and invited the people for the Nonae to a convocation, where he announced the dates of the public holidays in the month to come (Macr. Sat. 1.15.10–13). Rome also systematically celebrated the foundation days of its temples (natales templorum), be it (for the gods of Numa’s festival calendar) incorporated into the traditional festival or as a separate festival. Finally, Romans were very reluctant to have one festival immediately following another, but they introduced an empty “buffer day” between the two, for whatever reason.

The basic elements of Roman festivals are the same as in Greece—processions, sacrifices with common meals and entertaining performances, circus races and games or, under Greek influence, the staging of dramas, but no contests (except the late Capitolia). Not all festivals were performed by the entire population, although Augustan writers project such an image back upon the seemingly much simpler conditions of earlier times unlike the Athenians, Romans made a distinction between festivals that were tied to a date (feriae stativae) and those whose date was determined and proclaimed every year (feriae conceptivae). These latter holidays were so rare that Ovid made a fuss about not finding the Feriae Sementivae in his calendar until he realized that they were conceptivae, because originally tied to the shifting start of the seeding season (Fasti 1.657–662).

As in Greece, the Roman festival calendar changed, especially through the addition of memorial days during the Imperial period. Another source of change was Augustus’s restoration that very often is better seen as the conscious invention of a tradition. During the turbulent century between the Gracchi and Caesar, traditions that might have been changed or forgotten had to be restored to keep the peace with the gods. Augustus intervened in many cases, changing details (such as the roster of participants in the Lupercalia) or introducing new festivals such as the Ludi Saeculares of 17 bce , or new religious bodies with their own festival calendar, such as the Fratres Arvales, whose inscriptions preserve a detailed picture of religious activities during the imperial centuries. 41

The Traditional Roman Festival Year

The Roman festival calendar of the late Republic exhibits two different annual cycles, one beginning on January 1, the other on March 1. The first cycle has been understood as a newer system replacing an older one without fully removing it. This might well be correct but in a synchronic perspective, one can view it as two different annual cycles inside the same calendar, one with more relevance for the state (political cycle), the other for the individual (alternative cycle).

The Political Cycle

The political cycle is the dominant system of Roman time reckoning at the time of our sources: stone calendars, Ovid’s Fasti, and later manuscript calendars start with January 1 and end with December 31.

Whereas the stone calendars give no prominence whatsoever to the Kalendae Ianuariae, Ovid puts emphasis on the day on which consuls entered into office, with a sacrifice to Jupiter Capitolinus, in the presence, according to Ovid, of all citizens in their splendid white togas. It is a brilliant event of Roman self-representation, and even Jupiter rejoiced that “he sees nothing that is not Roman” (Fasti 1.86). This importance of the day for political ideology would grow rapidly throughout the Imperial epoch, when often one of the consuls was the emperor himself not the least outside of Rome in the provinces of the empire, January 1 coalesced with the Vota pro imperatore on Janary 3, celebrations in private homes on January 2, and circus games from January 3 to 5, into a lengthy festival period. In the Eastern provinces, this five-day festival came to be known as the Kalendae Ianuariae or Kalandai long after the Christianization of the empire.

At the other end of the annual cycle, there was the old festival of the Saturnalia of December 17, which by the time of Seneca, had developed into a drawn-out and boisterous carnival. Already in Republican times, the festival lasted three days during the Imperial epoch, it was extended over seven days, until December 23. Courts were closed, and in an easy symbolism, one freed the image of Saturnus that was fettered throughout the year this resounded with the Greek myth of Kronos put in jail by Zeus—with Kronos set free, the rule of Zeus had an end. After the official sacrifice at the temple on the Forum, there was a public banquet. During the following days, people enjoyed relaxed meals at home they replaced the formal white toga with an informal dress and felt cap slaves dined with their masters or were served by them people painted their faces black as if they were wearing a mask, and one played with the otherwise prohibited dice. 42 All this shows a temporary suspension of social order and “Romanness,” the very inversion of what was soon to come with the sacrifice to Jupiter Capitolinus on January 1.

Typical for Rome, however, this boisterous festival overlaid other rituals noted on the stone calendars, the Consualia (day 15), Opalia (day 21), and Larentalia (day 23). They had no public side but were sacrifices to the respective recipients, the minor gods Consus and Ops, and Larenta who received a parentatio, the sacrifice for a deceased person. Larenta remains a mystery Romans understood Consus as the god of storage (condere), Ops as goddess of Means there might be the background of a ritual to protect the stored foodstuff, to make it last during the winter that was to come. If so, in the urban world of late Republican and Imperial Rome this remained a quaint rite, remembered by the priests and their long memory, but disregarded by everybody else.

At the beginning of December, Roman matronae celebrated the festival of Bona Dea in the house of one of the consuls. 43 Men (and even male dogs and statues) were excluded the women acted themselves as sacrificers, decorated the rooms with vines, and consumed large quantities of wine. Although the ritual forms have invited a comparison with the Greek Thesmophoria, there is no direct connection the exclusion of men and the radical inversion of upper class female behavior fit into the rituals of the last month of the year, experimenting with social boundaries, and proposing alternative albeit temporary models of behavior. 44

Another festival series stresses the military aspect of Rome the respective festivals cluster around the beginning and end of the campaign season, March and October. On February 27 and March 14, the Equirria were held for Mars on the Mars Field: these were horse races (equi currunt), the first preparing for March 1, the birthday of Mars, the later the truly military ones. It corresponded with the “October Horse” festival, a strange horse sacrifice on October 15, performed by the priest (flamen) of Mars. The horse blood was stored as a ritual substance for purifications its head was fought over by the young men of two city regions, and the winners hung it as a talisman to a building. The end of warfare had become the reason for perhaps uncanny but certainly positive things.

March 23 was Tubilustrium, the ritual purification of the signal trumpets, to make them ready for use it corresponded with a rite on October 19, Armilustrium, the purification of weapons after war. Tubilustrium was preceded by the enigmatic agonium Martiale of March 17. All these rites became visible for the city through the performance of the Salii, a noble fraternity of young men dancing in full armor, including a small round shield. Given the prominence of warlike festivals in March, one wonders whether the five days of the Minerva festival Quinquatrus (March 19–23, with her birthday on day 19) that intersect with Tubilustrium, had a military meaning. Unlike warlike Greek Athena, Roman Minerva usually is a goddess of the arts and of healing but according to Ovid, the four final days of the festival were organized as gladiatorial games in honor of a Minerva who loved swords (Fasti 3.813–14).

The Alternative Cycle

The alternative cycle began on March 1 with the anniversary of the temple of Juno Lucina and the festival Matronalia (which does not appear among the old festivals of Numa). Juno Lucina was a goddess who helped with childbirth, and the Matronalia was a family celebration in which husbands gave presents to their wives (matronae) together they sacrificed and prayed for the continuation of their marriage (Ov. Fasti 3.170). The day thus marked the coherence of the family and the protection of childbirth, which helped to secure the continuity of the family.

Although birth obviously is a beginning, it would not necessarily point to an alternative New Year in March, if Roman authors would not claim March 1 as an earlier New Year, and if the intercalary days were not placed in the gap between February and March. One has to keep in mind that, with the exception of the relatively strong and growing emphasis on the Kalendae Ianuarie, ancient festival calendars did not invest the first day of the first month with special New Year’s rituals rather they invested the rites of the last month with signs that point to the end of a cycle. This is true for Roman February as well. February had purification, februatio, already in its name, and purification precedes any new beginning (see Athenian Thargelion and the Thargelia with its scapegoat ritual). Ovid pondered whether it was the Lupercalia (February 15) with its running luperci or the Feralia (February 21) that was a festival of purification. The Lupercalia combined signs of purification with inversion: the luperci of the Republican epoch were young aristocrats, after Augustus’s reform, young knights who were running on a given but, to us, unclear route around the Palatine that was, with Romulus’s hut and the temple of Mater Magna, the archaic center of Rome they were nudi (in images, they wore a sort of shorts), brandished whips, and beat young women in particular, who took this as a ritual to help with becoming pregnant. Public nudity of elite males and open mock violence against women emphasize, at a critical transition in the year, violent male sexuality as a creative power at the same time, they are signs of ritual inversion that phenomenologically, recalls early modern European rites of the end of December. The initiation of the luperci (on the same day?) shows a mock killing and the sacrifice of a dog, yet other extraordinary rituals. Mythology connects the ritual with a fight of Romulus and Remus against cow thieves, which led, in the end, to the foundation of Rome. The myth transports the same ideology of a new beginning and applies it to Rome itself.

The first half of February was characterized by the dies parentales: nine days of public grief during which the magistrates did not wear their togae praetextae, law courts and temples were closed, marriages were forbidden, and the families tended their graves. This started on February 13 and ended on day 21 with the Feralia, the public commemoration of the dead, which was followed on day 22 by Cara Cognatio, the private family ritual of commemoration. Before the new year begins, one remembers and cares for one’s dead. This has a much shorter parallel in the Larentalia of December 23 and shows that two ritual cycles cannot simply be seen as public versus private.

Innovation in the Imperial Festival Calendars

During the long Roman Empire, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions. Two phenomena have to be pointed out—the rise of ruler cults and other political festivals, and the private foundation of festivals and contests.

Ruler Cult and Comparable Festivals

Ruler cult developed in the cities of Greece during Hellenistic times. It has no single root, although the Egyptian worship of the pharaoh as a god and Alexander’s claim to god-like status were important, as was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its usually helpful manifestation, thereby allowing a cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Hellenistic kings usually received cult, and the worshipping cities were quick to found royal festival days with sacrifices and hymnic performances. Once Rome took over, powerful generals and then the emperors continued to be worshipped. Augustus imposed some rules, but did not prohibit his worship in the Eastern provinces, and the cults and festivals of the ruling emperor as well as of divinized former emperors multiplied throughout the Greek East. 45

Other festivals throughout the empire gave religious expression to the coherence of the empire. Already during Hellenistic times, Greek cities introduced the cult of the goddess Roma. 46 Some city festivals of Rome achieved a wider impact than his new cult. The Kalendae Ianuariae were combined with the Vota pro imperio of January 3 into a longer festival period that spread throughout the empire and was protected by the Christian emperors, especially through a rescript of Theodosius I from summer 398, which reorganized the legal feriae (Cod.Theodos. 2.8.2 = Cod.Just. 11.43.3) this guaranteed their survival in the Byzantine empire. 47 Under Hadrian, the Parilia were renamed “Birthday of Rome,” a generic name that allowed them to be adopted in many Greek cities, including those of Palestine (Avodah Zarah 1:3). A few nonpolitical festivals, such as the Saturnalia, were celebrated by the garrisons and spread from there to neighboring cities, only to be superseded in the 4th century by the Brumalia, an almost month-long celebration of hospitality that developed from a minor neighborhood festival in late autumn, the Bruma.

Private Foundations

Similarly, wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities founded festivals in memory of family members. During the Imperial epoch, such foundations multiplied, gained in grandeur, and often attracted emperor cults, as in the case of the Demostheneia in Oinoanda, a Hadrianic foundation by one Demosthenes. It was a musical agon that lasted twenty-three days and contained a sacrifice to the emperor. 48 Similar foundations are known from other cities. Even emperors participated—first Nero, then Domitian founded athletic contests in the Greek mode the Capitolia, Nero’s foundation, disappeared with his death, but when Domitian took it up again, it lasted and was adopted by several cities in the Greek East.


There is no comprehensive history of festivals in Greece and Rome. Historians of Greek religion, from Mommsen to Parker, have concentrated almost exclusively on Athenian festivals 49 for non-Athenian festivals, Nilsson is still the reliable source, 50 despite the shortcomings of his documentation and a somewhat narrow concentration on religious festivals as opposed to political ones. As for Roman festivals, scholars have usually concentrated on the well-documented late Republican/early Augustan era only Dumézil looked at archaic Rome, in a somewhat questionable reconstruction, 51 whereas the two masterly historians of Roman religion, Wissowa and Beard, embed festivals in their overall narrative, effectively hiding them, despite their good indices. 52


The Greeks and Romans shared their world with many different kinds of animals, and these animals served a variety of functions in private and public life. They provided food, served as beasts of burden and pets, and had featured roles in sporting events and other public spectacles. Animals also had important sacred, or religious, functions throughout the ancient world.

Food and Transport. The major food-producing animals of ancient Greece and Rome were pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, and poultry. Pigs were an important source of food in both Greece and Rome. The meat of pigs formed a major part of the Roman diet, and bacon was a standard provision in the Roman army. In addition, the Romans used the dung and urine of pigs as fertilizer.

Farmers generally raised sheep and goats in areas where the landscape was too hilly for planting crops. The Greeks and the Romans raised sheep for wool and for meat. They used the milk from sheep and from goats to make cheese. Geese and chickens were also common farm animals.

Cattle were larger and more costly to keep than other livestock. Both the Greeks and the Romans used cattle as work animals to pull wagons or plows. The Romans ate beef and veal (the meat of calves).

Donkeys and mules, used by the armies to carry equipment and supplies, came from special farms called stud farms. The Roman army used so many mules as transport animals that large stud farms grew up throughout the empire.

Pets. Both the Greeks and the Romans kept animals as pets in their homes. Dogs were the most common pet&mdashprobably the small, white dog known today as the Maltese. Images of such dogs appear on Greek vases from the 400s B.C. Many Greek and Roman writings mention dogs, and inscriptions on ancient gravestones sometimes refer to an owner&rsquos affection for a dog.

The Greeks and Romans also kept tame birds. Especially popular were crows, magpies, and starlings, which can be taught to talk, and nightingales and blackbirds, which have beautiful songs. Both the Greeks and the Romans kept ferrets&mdashsmall, weasel-like animals&mdashto kill mice and rats. By the time of the Roman Empire, cats were beginning to replace ferrets as controllers of rodents.

The Romans raised fish in fish ponds, both for food and as pets. Some Roman estates had large outdoor enclosures called vivaria that housed birds and larger animals such as antelope, wild pigs, and deer.

Romans kept cats as domestic pets starting in the first century B.C. Cats were useful animals to have around the household, since they captured mice, rats, and other vermin. However, as this mosaic from Pompeii shows, sometimes cats preyed on animals that were also useful to their owners.


Human threats to animal species began long ago. Ancient Greek and Roman writings and murals depicted lions, leopards, and hyenas roaming in Greece, hippopotamuses splashing near the mouth of the Nile, and marshes around the Mediterranean Sea teeming with birds. By the time of the late Roman Empire, however, hunting had greatly reduced the numbers of these animals and driven them into remote regions. The European wild ox, or auroch, was one animal driven to extinction. Hunters prized the animal for its strength and endurance in the chase. Romans used it for spectacles that featured scenes from classic mythology. (Zeus was sometimes depicted as an ox.) By A.D. 1000, only a few aurochs remained in central Europe. The animal became extinct in 1627.

The Romans liked exotic animals, too. Some Roman households had pet monkeys, and wealthy Romans kept showy animals such as flamingos from Africa.

Games and Sports. In ancient Greece and Rome, hunting was a popular sport among the upper classes. These people hunted rabbits, deer, boars, and lions. Commoners hunted as well, but they did so to add meat to their diet and to destroy the wolves that raided their herds or the deer that ravaged their gardens.

Animals played a central role in one of the principal entertainments of the classical world&mdashthe public games. In Greece, the games were athletic competitions. In Rome the games were large, costly spectacles that often involved bloodshed. Greek competitions included horse and chariot races. The Romans held chariot races, but their games featured a variety of other animals as well.

In Rome and throughout Roman territory, people flocked to chariot races and often bet large sums on the outcome of a race. The horses used to draw the chariots were raised on stud farms and had special trainers. Fans knew the names of winning horses and followed their careers closely. The Romans treated racehorses well, but they were not as kind to other animals used in the games. Sometimes, they sent animals into arenas to face professional fighters called gladiators, who used nets, spears, swords, and tridents* against the animals. At other times, fierce animals fought unarmed people&mdashgenerally slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war&mdashin the arena. The crowd also watched animals fight each other. Starved wolves or lions might be turned loose in an arena with a herd of deer.

At first, the Romans displayed exotic animals such as ostriches, camels, and elephants as curiosities at circuses and in parades. Starting around 50 B.C., however, they began to use these imported creatures in hunts and combats. Tigers, leopards, lions, bears, bulls, and elephants fought animals or teams of trained hunters. Ostriches, deer, gazelles, and goats faced both animal and human enemies. Even rarer animals&mdashhippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and crocodiles from Egypt&mdashappeared from time to time. The emperor Nero flooded an arena so that he could show polar bears catching seals.

Far-ranging networks of hunters and shippers provided animals for the Roman arenas, stripping entire regions of their wildlife. Enormous numbers of animals perished. Thousands died in the 100 days of games held to celebrate the opening of the Roman Colosseum. Although one crowd supposedly burst into tears and protested the slaughter of a herd of elephants, for the most part there seems to have been little opposition to the cruelty that was part of the games.

Sacred Uses of Animals. From earliest times, certain birds and animals were thought to create links between the human world and the world of the gods and spirits. The Greeks and Romans honored their gods with blood sacrifices, or offerings of animals. They looked for perfect animals to use in the sacrifice. Worshipers offered light-colored animals to gods of the heavens and dark-colored animals to gods of the underworld*. The sacrifices followed strict rituals, which generally involved cutting the animal&rsquos throat and burning its meat on an altar. In some cases, the worshipers then devoured the meat. Many sacrifices occurred in fulfillment of vows, either by individuals or by a representative of the state. For example, a worshiper might vow to sacrifice 12 white roosters to ensure the occurrence of a desired event. Common sacrificial animals included bulls, cows, horses, roosters, sheep, and goats.

* trident three-pronged spear similar to a pitchfork

* underworld kingdom of the dead also called Hades

Another sacred use of animals was in divination or augury&mdashthe interpreting of omens* to predict future events. Trained observers practiced augury, reading great significance in such things as the flight of birds or the roll of thunder. There were complicated rules for augury. For example, a raven croaking on the right was a good omen, but a crow&rsquos caw was a good sign only if it came from the left. Another type of divination, called haruspicy, involved looking for omens in the entrails (inner organs) of sacrificed animals. (See also Agriculture, Greek Agriculture, Roman Augur Games, Greek Games, Roman Omens.)

Zoographein: Depicting and Describing Animals in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Beyond

Greek and Roman culture is replete with verbal and visual descriptions and depictions of animals, from Herodotus’ gold-digging ants or Pliny’s bestiary to Greek vase painting or the decoration of Roman houses and gardens. Research on ancient zoological knowledge has traditionally centered on identifying animal species in texts and images, determining the various sources of such knowledge, and relating these inquiries to their broader socio-historical and philosophical contexts. While these approaches can be fruitful, they often operate on the assumption that verbal and pictorial testimonies always record and illustrate specific information, echoing concrete ancient zoological knowledge.

This conference takes a decisively different approach. We propose to consider depictions and descriptions of animals as methods of inquiry in and of themselves, rather than illustrations of knowledge ex post facto. Thus, for instance, Aristotle’s account of gregarious animals at the start of Historia Animalium may serve as a mode of understanding humans’ position within the animal world, rather than an account of ancient discoveries. In addition, ancient zoographers’ views might have been shaped by encounters with animals in contexts and media other than 'scientific' study or simple observation in nature. In this sense, we seek to consider visual and textual sources as creative and active modes of representation and thereby forms of knowledge production, rather than reflections of it.

Sponsored by: the Departments of Classics, History of Art and Visual Studies, Philosophy, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, History, and Religious Studies Archaeological Institute of America Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the Cornell Dairy Center for Excellence.


Department of History of Art, Classics Department

In collaboration with the research network ZOOMATHIA

International Conference

ZOOGRAPHEIN – Depicting and Describing Animals

in Ancient Greece, Rome and Beyond

September 8-10, 2017

Friday, September 8

Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) Conference Center 229

8:30-9:00 Registration, coffee

9:00 – 9:30 Welcome and Introduction: Athena Kirk, Annetta Alexandridis

9:30-11:00 Panel I: Generation and Parenting

Chair: Tad Brennan, Cornell University

9:30-10:15 Clara Bosak-Schroeder, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign "Queer Reproduction in Georgics 4 and Brian Britigan’s Golden"

10:15- 11:00 Cristiana Franco, Università di Siena "Animal Mothers"

11:15-12:45 Panel II: Transformation of Bodies – Translation of Knowledge

Chair: Verity Platt, Cornell University

11:15-12:00 Chiara Blanco, Cambridge University "Flying from a Dead Shell: The Metamorphosis of the Butterfly and the Soul of the Dead"

12:00-12:45 Günther Schörner, Universität Wien "Dead Animals: The Representation of Sacrificed Animals in the Roman Empire"

2:00-3:30 Panel II, continued

Chair: Jeffrey Rusten, Cornell University

2:00-2:45 Anna Uhlig, University of California Davis "Θρώισκων κνώδαλα: Satyr Choruses and the Theatrical Body"

2:45-3:30 Oliver Hellmann, Universität Trier "Animalizing Human Virtues: Aelian’s Rewriting of Animal Ethology"

3:45-4:45 Keynote, ILR Conference Center 423

Courtney Roby, Cornell University "The Animal Body Multiple: Organs to Swarms"

5:00-6:00 Reception, ILR Conference Center Lobby

Saturday, September 9

A. D. White House, Guerlac Room

9:00-10:30 Panel III: Observing and Creating Nature

Chair: Courtney Roby, Cornell University

9:00-9:45 Hans Wietzke, Carlton College "Another Species of Mimesis: The Function and Aesthetics of Aristotle’s Zoological Diagrams"

9:45-10:30 Arnaud Zucker, Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis "The Rise of a Standard Depiction of Animals in the First Greek Zoological Handbook (Aristophanis Epitome Historiae Animalium)"

10:45-12:15 Panel III, continued

Chair: Athena Kirk, Cornell University

10:45-11:30 Annetta Alexandridis, Cornell University "Nature’s Workshop: Tongs and Pot-Sherd Skins"

11:30-12:15 Lorenz Winkler-Horaček, Freie Universität Berlin "Wild and Domestic Animals – Constructed Natural Environments in Roman Villas"

1:30-2:30 Optional visit of Herbert F. Johnson Museum

2:30-3:30 Keynote II

Andrew Moisey, Cornell University "Ancient and Modern Perspectives on Ants"

3:45-5:15 Panel IV: The Aesthetics of Animal Anatomy: Horses

Chair: Annetta Alexandridis, Cornell University

3:45-4:30 Alexandre Blaineau, Rennes "The Ideal Horse in Simon and Xenophon’s Treaties. Anatomic Knowledge, Aesthetic Reflection, Reception of a Model"

4:30 -5:15 Rosanagh M. B. Mack, University of Reading "Celebrating Horse Breeding on the Coinage of Larisa in the Fourth Century B.C."

Sunday, September 10

A. D. White House, Guerlac Room

9:00-11:30 Panel V: Zoological Fantasies

Chair: Arnaud Zucker, Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis

9:00-9:45 Verity Walsh, Stanford University "Categories in Chaos: Aristotelian Taxonomy and the Creatures of the Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem"

9:45-10:30 Valeria V. Sergueenkova, University of Cincinnati "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Thinking About Animals in Herodotus’ Historie"

10:45-11:30 Robert Cioffi, Bard College "The Phoenix’ (Un)mentionables: Writing Landscape and Identity in Achilles Tatius"

11:30-12:00 Concluding Remarks: Athena Kirk, Annetta Alexandridis

What happened to sacrificed animals in ancient Greece? - History

Antiochus IV Epiphanes Bust

Antiochus IV (175-164 BC), was the 8th ruler of the Seleucid empire. He gave himself the surname "Epiphanes" which means "the visible god" (that he and Jupiter were identical). He acted as though he really were Jupiter and the people called him "Epimanes" meaning "the madman". He was violently bitter against the Jews, and was determined to exterminate them and their religion. He devastated Jerusalem in 168 BC, defiled the Temple, offered a pig on its altar, erected an altar to Jupiter, prohibited Temple worship, forbade circumcision on pain of death, sold thousands of Jewish families into slavery, destroyed all copies of Scripture that could be found, and slaughtered everyone discovered in possession of such copies, and resorted to every conceivable torture to force Jews to renounce their religion. This led to the Maccabaean revolt, one of the most heroic feats in history. The Antiochus bust discovery is important in the study of Biblical archaeology, it reveals an image of the man who was mentioned in the Book of Daniel.

Antiochus IV usurped the throne of his brother Seleucus IV who died. Antiochus was determined to hellenize Israel and make them a people who were worthy of bordering Egypt, he needed a loyal hellenized population there. The Jews were quickly becoming more Greek than any other time in history. A group of Jews came to Antiochus with a plan. They proposed that the high priest Onias III should be removed and his hellenized brother Jason should take his place. They should set up a Greek Constitution and coin Greek money.

The plan was followed and all the Jews were outraged. It was the first time since the Babylonian Captivity that a non-Jewish government had interfered with the priesthood (treating the sacred office as though it were nothing other than a governmental office). But the worst was yet to come. Now the hellenizers had full control of the government in Jerusalem and they began to build gymnasiums within the city and encouraged the young to spent all their time there. The young priests engaged in sports, Jerusalem was filled with Greek styles, Greek clothes, Greek names, Greek language and worst of all, Greek religion and Greek morals.

The most radical hellenizers felt that things were not moving fast enough so they convinced Antiochus to remove Jason and replace him with Menelaus who was not even a member of the priestly family. Menelaus had no sympathy for the Jewish traditions whatsoever and was only concerned about his own power. The Temple treasury did not contain enough money to pay Antiochus what he had promised so he sold some of the holy vessels of the Temple to raise the money he needed. It was now the goal that Judaism was to be destroyed. In the mind of Antiochus to be un-hellenized was stiff-necked nonsense. If Judaism stood in the way then Judaism was to be destroyed so he gave the orders.

The Syrian army marched into Jerusalem and many of the people were killed and others escaped to the hills. Only the known Hellenists were allowed to remain. Orders were given: NO Sabbath, NO Holy Days, and NO Circumcision. A Statue of Zeus/Antiochus was placed in the Temple above the altar. The most detestable animals (the pig) were brought and sacrificed on the altar. An abominable act was perpetrated on Kislev 25, 168 BC according to the Book of Maccabees that "left the Jewish people desolate." (They call this the Abomination of Desolation in Daniel) but Jesus taught that this was a preliminary occurrence of a greater fulfillment coming in the last days, during the seventieth week of Daniel.

Watch the video: Ancient Greek Sacrifice: Why did they do it?