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Spoils from Hera? Fulvius Flaccus at Cape Lacinium and Political Competition in Mid-Republican Rome

Andreas Bendlin

University of Toronto

In 174/3 BCE, the censor Q. Fulvius Flaccus seized marble roof tiles from the Heraion at Cape Lacinium, the former pan-Italiote sanctuary administered by the city of Croton, for reuse on his Roman temple of Fortuna Equestris.  The Senate decreed that the tiles be returned and the censor’s impious action be expiated (Livy 42.3.1–11, 28.10–12).  The despoiling of foreign temples by Roman (pro-)magistrates occurred occasionally—e.g., the looting of the temple of Locrian Proserpina by Q. Pleminius in 205/4 (Livy 29.8–9. 19–20; Wells 2010; Tarpin 2013)—and modern scholarship, like Livy, sets Flaccus’s action against the background of impious temple pillaging.  I hold that this explanation misapprehends Flaccus’s behavior; that by 174/3 the Heraion’s religious status was doubtful; and that Flaccus did not commit a straightforward act of impiety (contra Scheid 1981: 140–142; etc.).  I also highlight some of the implications my interpretation holds for our understanding of political competition and change in mid-Republican Rome.

As has been noted, Livy contrasts Flaccus’s purportedly sacrilegious action with Hannibal’s refusal to desecrate the Heraion (Levene 1993: 108–112; Jaeger 2006: 404–412).  To further elucidate the historian’s narrative objective, I highlight the related motif of temple plundering and divine retribution; some, after all, attributed Flaccus’s suicide in 172 to madness inflicted by Hera.  By engaging this historiographical motif, and eliding the dissimilarities between the incidents he evokes, Livy relates Flaccus to other—Roman, Greek or barbarian—sacrilegi punished by a deity.  The historian thus effects yet another illustration of the moral failings of Rome’s political elite.

If one is prepared to question this narrative, the archaeological evidence proves fruitful.  The excavations at Capo Colonna (Spadea 2006; Ruga 2014) demonstrate that the Roman citizen colony of 194 was established at Cape Lacinium rather than at Croton, as was previously believed, and that it comprised as well as curtailed the site of the formerly extra-urban Heraion. The establishment of the Roman colony on-site, however, merely accentuated existing discontinuities: throughout the third century, culminating in the Punic military presence at Cape Lacinium until 203, damage had been inflicted not only upon Croton (Racheli 2010) but also upon the Heraion.  The link between polis and sanctuary had been severed, and without the polis’ support cult continuities ceased.  By 174/3 the Heraion’s sacredness would be doubtful, not least according to Roman understanding of what was sacrum; and the censor’s reuse of the tiles, even if his action offended the feelings of Rome’s allies in Bruttium (De Cazanove 2013), was hardly as impious as is usually claimed.  

Flaccus’s opponents in Rome nevertheless construed his action as an impious violation of the deity’s property and the Senate enforced the ritual of expiation, customary in instances of ‘impiety’—but not straightforwardly applicable to the case at hand: Rome had never entertained a relationship of ritual obligations towards the Heraion’s deity that required appeasement!  To alleviate this procedural obstacle, some senators must have argued that the res publica was obligated toward a deity worshipped by Rome's allies, regardless of the Heraion’s current status.  The incident illustrates the flexibility with which the boundaries of religious, spatial and political concepts were renegotiated when it proved expedient.  In this perspective, historical change during the Mid-Republic was sometimes a result, not so much of novel choices made by individual members of the elite (Arnhold, Rüpke 2017: 416–425), but of the manipulation of the traditional semantics of Roman society in a climate of personal enmity and intense political competition.

Session/Panel Title

Winning the People

Session/Paper Number

75.1

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