This paper is an attempt to challenge one of the major elements of modern theories about the early Roman community, the concept of ‘plebeian’ cult. Scholars have long held that early Rome saw the plebeians form a ‘state within the state’ in opposition to patrician dominance of the government, in which the creation of a ‘plebeian cult’ focused on the goddess Ceres played a central role. The idea that Ceres’ cult had particularly plebeian associations is an old one, which has persistently helped to shape scholarly understanding of the early Roman community. In the last century, both Spaeth and Le Bonniec set out to examine Ceres’ role in Roman society, exploring the theory of Ceres’ plebeian associations in full. However, they worked from the assumption that Ceres was, in fact, a ‘plebeian’ goddess, and that her cult was associated fundamentally with the plebeian movement. It is the contention of this paper, however, that the evidence for the plebeian associations of the cult of Ceres, supposedly the plebeian cult par excellence, is flawed. In this paper, I argue that, when the assumption of Ceres’ plebeian associations has been discarded, the evidence for those associations is insufficient. I argue that the cult had no such associations and that the whole concept of ‘plebeian religion’ must be abandoned.
The arguments used to prove plebeian associations for Ceres and her cult are invariably indirect, because our sources never make explicit reference to a dea plebeia, or to any di plebis, or any comparable formulae which would directly attest to the ‘plebeianness’ of a deity. Le Bonniec, followed by many scholars, has claimed that the cult had strong associations with the plebeian tribunes, since violators of tribunician inviolability (sacrosanctitas) had their property seized and sold for the benefit of the temple (consecratio bonorum). But such an argument would serve equally well to prove plebeian associations for Juppiter, to whom the violator became sacer (i.e., he was to be killed to appease the god). Yet Juppiter, and the cult of the Capitoline triad, including Juno and Minerva is usually cited as the god of the ‘whole community’ as opposed to the community of the plebs, which worshiped their own triad of Ceres, Liber, and Libera. Scholars have also cited Ceres’ associations with the plebeian aediles, since these officials often dedicated confiscated money to the temple of Ceres, Liber, and Libera, in addition to their celebration of the games in honor of Ceres (ludi Cerealis). But such arguments are unconvincing in light of the fact that the aediles also dedicated to the Capitoline triad, and celebrated games in honor of Juppiter (ludi Plebeii). They also dedicated at the temples of other gods who had no plebeian associations (e.g., Faunus). In addition, Spaeth has cited the location of the temple of Ceres, Liber, and Libera on the Aventine Hill, which many scholars have associated with the plebeian movement. This argument is circular, because the location is uncertain (it may have been in the Forum Boarium), and because the Aventine’s plebeian associations are largely based on scholars’ assertions that Ceres is a plebeian goddess and that her temple was located on the Aventine.
Once Ceres’ plebeian associations have been set aside, the concept of ‘plebeian religion’ must be reconsidered. Ceres cannot be shown to be particularly plebeian and no other gods can be shown to have had such associations. If, therefore, no exclusively plebeian cult existed, then a major prop in the theory that the plebs of early Rome formed a separate state within the larger Roman community collapses. This finding in turn raises the fundamental question of whether such a ‘state within the state’ existed at all.
- Le Bonniec, H. Le culte de Cérès à Rome, des origines à la fin de la République. Paris 1958.
- Spaeth, B. S. The Roman Goddess Ceres. Austin 1996.