This paper argues that Catullus’ Carmen 63 and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura 2.597-660 represent two imaginative views of Rome’s Magna Mater festival that couch themselves in the architecture of her sanctuary on the southwest corner of the Palatine Hill, in particular the Scalae Caci and Via Tecta passages leading up to the temple complex from the Velabrum and Circus Maximus. Both authors focus on the processions of the galli, the eunuch priests of Magna Mater, as they move through changes in physical status and location. The architectural spaces in question are liminal and initiatory in that they take the viewer on a journey from one state to another (dark to light, low to high, hidden to revealed) yet controlled and controlling due to their narrow and privileged nature as access points to the sanctuary. These liminal and controlling aspects are reflected in Catullus’ poem about Attis’ initiation, mania, and transformation and Lucretius’ excursus on the performance of Magna Mater’s cult as an endorsement of the mos maiorum and filial piety. Catullus and Lucretius emphasize the visceral experience of the ritual spectacle, highlighting the sights and sounds of the galli and worshippers as they twist and turn along the structured processional path.
While other scholars fruitfully focus on a range of issues from gender role liminality and feelings of political impotency in Carmen 63 (e.g. Latham 2012, Nauta and Harder 2005, Skinner 1997) to Stoic and Epicurian readings of Magna Mater in De Rerum Natura (e.g. Jope 1985, Summers 1996), few have attempted to physically locate the poems in real space, either outside of Rome in Phrygia or at Rome in the contemporary architectural context of the Magna Mater complex (e.g. Favro 2008). Combining a close analysis of the architectural forms and building modifications of the temple and passages with an examination of the social and political atmosphere of mid first century B.C.E. Rome, I suggest that these poets were inspired by and responded to their own experiences of the built environment of Magna Mater’s Palatine sanctuary and its topography.
This paper consists of three main components: a discussion of the architectural forms and modifications of the Magna Mater sanctuary on the Palatine, a contextualization of the Magna Mater procession in light of the political atmosphere of the mid first century B.C.E. using Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura 2.597-660, and finally a close reading of Catullus’ Carmen 63 as a mythologized personal account of the Magna Mater festival experience in the architecture of her Palatine sanctuary. I conclude with some general thoughts about the experience of liminal space and festivals in mid first century B.C.E. Rome.
Theatre, Performance, and Audiences: Ways of Spectating in Antiquity