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Cultural Invention and Ritual Change: Tracking the Samothracian Mysteries at Rome

Sandra Blakely

Emory University

Roman accounts of the Samothracian gods suggest concepts and contexts profoundly different from the Greek realities. Romans invented genealogies linking Salii, Camillae, and Penates to the island; Tarquinius Priscus and Dardanus were added to the heroic initiates; Aeneas is claimed to have stolen the island’s gods; the Capitoline Triad and the gods on the Velia were tied to the Samothracians (Dubourdieu 1989: 125-151; Lewis 1958: 79-89). A closer look at two specific aspects of the rites in the late Republican to early Imperial period–the first based on philosophical sources, the second on epigraphic–recommends Samothrace as a case study for religious change in the service of cultural reinvention and institutional obsolescence.

Varro, Cicero and Nigidius Figulus used a Neopythagorean lens to position the gods and their rites in the Roman landscape. These lenses yield divine identities, Earth and Sky, which no Greek ever claimed for the rites, but which served Varro’s desire to identify the cult with deep antiquity and cultural authority–a desire which responds to the shifting realities of the late Republican context (van Nuffelen 2011: 27-47). Closer examination of the Samothracian gods in situ suggests more coherence in Varro’s claims than dissonance. The cult was characterized by a broad, conflicting and intercultural semantic range (Dimitrova 2008; Cole 1984). Thracian, Greek and Anatolian traditions were combined and reimagined (Graham 2002). Pseudo-historical and mythic invention emerges as a Samothracian habit, a pattern which helps normalize the Roman response to the island and its gods (Blakely 2013). Varro’s description of Samothracian altars on the spina of the Circus Maximus suggests a context even more distant from the island sanctuary than the Roman lodgings, from Lararia to the temple of Vesta, for the Penates Aeneas brought from the island (Versnel 1974). The other gods on Varro’s spina, however, intersect with one of the most traditional elements in the Samothracian semantic range, the ritual assurance of safety at sea, which offers an attractive symbolic response to the naufragia of the circus. Varro’s appropriations emerge as less fantastic than informed, responsive to the most widely familiar elements of the cult as well as to the realities available only to those who had traveled to the site.

Institutional shifts occasioned by the expansion of Rome did, however, have immediate impact on the infrastructures which helped turn Samothrace’s ritual promise into practical reality. Samothrace’s maritime promises were a pragmatic reality in the Hellenistic Mediterranean, in which the island’s grants of proxenia and theoria created networks of communication, cooperation and resistance to piracy (Blakely 2016). By the time of the early empire, however, proxeny ceased to function as the means of interstate cooperation, and the promise was reduced the level of metaphor (Mack 2015). The brevity of the cult of the Lares Permarini in Rome suggests an analogous dimunition of this association in Rome. M. Aemilius Lepidus’ Republican temple to the Lares Permarini fulfilled a vow he made in the sea battle against the king of Antioch (Livy 40.52.4-7). The temple appears in the Fasti Praenestini, but then disappears until a brief mention in Macrobius (Coarelli 1997: 258-68; Saturnalia 1.10.10). The memory of these Samothracian powers persists into the imperial period (Ovid Tristia 1.10.45-50; Aelian de Natura animalium 15.23, fr. 90; Athenaeus Deipnosophistae 7.283a), at the same time that their practical reality was a thing of the past.

Both Varro’s writings and the fate of Samothrace’s maritime powers highlight a model for change which contrasts the impact of geospatial remove with changes occurring over time. The consistencies between Rome and the island suggest a successful crossing through geographic space which enables local translation and the maintenance of existing ritual dynamics. The changes emerging over time and the growth of empire emerge are far more essential, and are legible only through the combination of epigraphic and literary data.

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Change in Ancient Mediterranean Religions

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