We have a tendency to imagine ancient Rome as a place where women were deprived of autonomy, existing primarily as wives. Reproduction was the watchword of womanly purpose, and the purity of a woman was both her most prized and her most ephemeral attribute. Under the constant watch of tutors and with no avenue into the many thrilling pastimes of the male population, the Roman woman might seem to modern sensibility to be barely her own person. Still, there were some aspects of Roman life that a woman could call her own, and the Cult of Bona Dea was one of them.
The cult of Bona Dea was one of many religious organizations that rose to prominence during the Roman Republican era, although it remained popular well into the Roman Empire. This cult was notable for being dominated by women, and according to some reports from antiquity was closed off from men altogether. The very name of Bona Dea is a function of this, a pseudonym literally meaning ‘good goddess’ so that the men who were forbidden from knowing her true name would have some way to refer to her.
Since the vast majority of historians in the centuries immediately following the Roman Empire were men, our scholarship is lacking in almost every aspect of how one might examine this predominantly female cult, though whether this is more the fault of the cult’s secrecy or a general lack of interest we cannot say.
Regardless, here follows a brief examination of what is known about the Cult of Bona Dea, from its goddess to its worshipers.
The Cult’s Place in Roman Society
First, it is critical to understand what made the Cult of Bona Dea different from the standard life of a woman in Imperial Rome. Here, the lack of widespread information about the cult actually serves as a demonstration of its most significant function: the cult was a place where men were not in charge, where they could not see what was happening. Whatever form the cult’s celebrations and activities took, all that we can say with any certainty is that they were independent.
One of the greatest indicators of this independence is the presence of wine during what few rituals of the cult that we know about. During the time of the Roman republic, women were strictly forbidden from consuming wine, and yet the December festival of Bona Dea prominently features the drinking of wine amongst its festivities (Versnel, 1992). No explanation is offered for this transgressive behavior, or how the cult was protected from the repercussions that should have been incurred by this disregard for custom. The only explanation that seems likely is that these cultists were not the sort of women that the system was designed to punish.
Unusually for a cult that allowed womanly autonomy and encouraged them to drink wine as part of their rituals, the worshipers of Bona Dea were not occupants of the outer fray of society, but were rather the wives of the very cream of Roman high society. It was the matronae, the freeborn women of Rome who participated in this cult. Where other cults could be dismissed as threats to the social order, the cult of Bona Dea demanded to be legitimized. There were temples to Bona Dea within Rome itself, and when it came time for the cult to conduct its rituals, the world of men would stand aside and allow them free reign of their very homes. The Pontifex Maximus, the man who occupied the highest position in the state religion, would give up his home each year for a cult that to him was nothing but secrets.
Perhaps the largest indicator of the cult’s significance and prestige is its close ties with the Vestal Virgins, who presided over the most significant and famous of the cult’s rituals. As the caste of women with such an ironclad expectation of purity and chastity, the Vestal Virgins were most likely a legitimizing factor for the cult, their involvement serving as an assurance to the ignorant men that nothing would be getting too out of hand.
The December Ritual
While very little record survives of the day-to-day proceedings of the cult of Bona Dea, we do at least have a decent description of the goings-on at their December festival. The ritual is significant for the simple fact that we understand it best of all the cult’s activities.
The festival of the Bona Dea took place in Rome, and was traditionally held in the house of the Pontifex Maximus, the chief high priest of the Council of Pontiffs. While the Pontifex himself was forbidden from attending the ceremony, his wife was responsible for arranging the celebration and would occupy a prominent position during the festivities.
Preparation for the festival would begin the night before. Every male resident was expelled from the house until the ritual was over, along with any male animals. Any busts or portraits that depicted males would be covered. Finally, there was the removal of myrtle from the house, a flower that was “notorious for its erotic-sexual symbolism” and whose removal was meant to alleviate concerns that the corrupting influences of alcohol would prove too heavy a strain on the women’s sanity (McAuslan, 1996 and Staples, 1997).
Once these preparations were complete, the wife of the magistrate and her servants would decorate the house with all kinds of plants and flowers, and a cult statue of Bona Dea would be brought down from her temple and arranged in the festive hall. The goddess would sit and eat at her own throne and table, accompanied by an image of a serpent (McAuslan, 1996). The centerpiece of the festival was a ritual sacrifice of a pregnant pig to the statue conducted by the Vestal Virgins (Sawyer, 1996). This sacrifice was in itself quite irregular, as within most religious structures it was never the responsibility of a priestess to conduct a sacrifice.
Of course, the greatest irregularity of this exclusive festival came after the sacrifice, for the women would celebrate with musical performance and undiluted wine. In Roman culture at this time, women were not permitted to drink wine, and so the uninterrupted indulgence of the Bona Dea ritual takes on a particular prominence (Schultz, 2006).
The Good Goddess Herself
There is a certain amount of mystery to the identity of Bona Dea herself as well as the activities of her cult. As her name literally translates from Latin to ‘good goddess’, Bona Dea may well be a title shared by different goddesses with similar domains. However, the answer to this question can be found in the writings of antiquity.
Various scholars writing at both the height of the Roman Empire and the transition to the Byzantine Empire identified Bona Dea with the story of Fauna. Fauna is a frustratingly ambiguous figure in Roman myth, “variously identified in the sources as the daughter, sister and wife of Faunus, a legendary king in Latium” but consistently a victim of man’s abuse and overreaching control and only deified after a most disgraceful death (James, 2012).
The first-century writer Plutarch described the Bona Dea in his Life of Caesar as Faunus’ wife, beaten to death with myrtle twigs after she was discovered drinking wine in secret. If this is the true beginnings of the Bona Dea cult, then the myrtle and wine take on an added significance as a tool of man’s oppression is removed from the house and the very thing that led to the goddess’s death and deification is brought into the house in such quantities that all may imbibe freely.
A very different story was told by Macrobius, writing in the fifth century, for he related a tale of Fauna the daughter. In Macrobius’ telling, Faunus attempts to seduce his own daughter, and she refuses his advances even after he softens her with wine. This incenses him to beat her with myrtle, and then transform into a snake and “under this guise have intercourse with his daughter” (McAuslan, 1996). Here again we see the echoes of the cult’s rituals, and an apparent embrace of everything that was the downfall of Bona Dea’s earthly life. Any semblance of the father that beat her or the weapon he used to do it is cast out, but the instruments that brought her happiness are preserved.
The Scandal of Publius Clodius Pulcher
One of the more detailed accounts of the December rite of Bona Dea comes to us from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, specifically in his description of a court case against the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher. While the trial was brought on charges of bribery, the major political concern was an earlier act by Clodius involving Bona Dea’s December ritual.
In the year 62 AD, the rites of Bona Dea were held in the house of Julius Caesar, specifically the house he had been lent in his capacity as Pontifex Maximus, and were hosted by his wife Pompeia and his mother Aurelia. Clodius infiltrated the ritual under the guise of a woman with the apparent intention of seducing Pompeia, and while he was identified by Aurelia and fled the scene, the rumors and scandal of a man interfering in the Bona Dea’s ritual lingered for far more than that one evening.
The scandal was dragged into the limelight when Clodius was brought to trial on charges of bribery, and with it came many details of the Bona Dea ritual. The abundance of witnesses and even the word of Caesar himself could not put a stop to suspicion; at this festival where women freely consumed alcohol and had no male supervision, who was to say what had really happened?
Despite his assertions of Pompeia’s innocence and purity, Caesar still divorced his wife so that there could be no doubt as to the legitimacy of any heirs he would produce. When asked his reason, he famously answered that the wife of Caesar must be above suspicion.
Was This Cult Exclusive to Women?
One of the most important primary sources for the study of the cult of Bona Dea comes in the form of epigraphs and votive offerings left by commoners. While Plutarch’s account emphasized the exclusion of males from the worship of Bona Dea and the aristocratic nature of the festival, these epigraphs offer a glimpse into how Bona Dea was worshiped by the common folk, as well as the revelation that Bona Dea was a goddess prayed to by both men and women alike.
Many historians conflate the rite with the cult, imagining that the worship of Bona Dea was at all times kept exclusive to women, but the writing is quite literally on the walls to prove them wrong. The epigraphic record has a number of inscriptions made by men entreating those who historians tend to label as ‘women’s deities’, from Bona Dea to Felicitas, suggesting that the gender politics which so dominated mortal men and women were never even considered when it came to the gods (Schultz, 2006).
One epigraph of particular interest was the following; “Felix Asinianus, public slave of the pontifices, fulfilled his vow to Bona Dea Agrestis Felicula willingly and with good cause, (sacrificing) a white heifer on account of his eyesight having been restored. Abandoned by doctors, he recovered after ten months by taking medicines, by the aid of the Mistress.” (Schultz, 2006, CIL VI 68). This slave’s message stresses that he is not coerced into this inscription, as though assuring the goddess that he is truly grateful for her life-saving gift, and there seems to be no indication of resentment that he is having to thank a goddess for his miracle.
Epigraphs of this sort were most commonly a form of thanks to one’s deity, made in conjunction with some form of gift or small material sacrifice. In lieu of the sacrifice of one’s best pig or the pouring of several hundred gold pieces into the temple coffers, these inscriptions and tiny votive offerings were many people’s closest connection to their gods. No mention here is made of wine, of freedom from men’s systems, and the contributions of men only serve to blur the lines so passionately drawn by Plutarch. Bona Dea is simply another goddess, another great power to whom so much is owed.
McAuslan, I., & Walcot, P. (1996). Women in antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Plutarch, & Parr, H. W. (1915). Plutarch’s life of Julius Caesar. London: Macmillan.
Sawyer, D. F. (1996). Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries. London: Routledge.
Schultz, C. E. (2006). Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press.
Staples, A. (1997). From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins : Sex and Category in Roman Religion. London: Routledge.
Versnel, H. S. (1992). The Festival for Bona Dea and the Thesmophoria. Greece and Rome, 39(01), 31-55. doi:10.1017/s0017383500023974