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Cybele › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 04 February 2015
Cybele (Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup)
History verifies the importance of religion not only on a society's development but also on its survival; in this respect the Romans were no different than other ancient civilizations. During the formative years of the Roman Republic, especially after its territorial acquisitions following the Four Macedonian Wars, contact with the Greek culture -- especially their religion -- left a lasting imprint on the Roman way of life. Along with other aspects of the Hellenic civilization, the Romans adopted the pantheon of Greek gods, although they changed many of their names. However, besides this array of deities, they also acquired several of their cults, and cults were not always welcomed by those in authority, a concept that would carry through into the Empire. While Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks) was the most notable of these cults and to those in authority, and considered the most threatening to social order, this contact also brought a less menacing sect: the Cult of Cybele.


The Hellenic culture had arrived, and to ward off this influx and its impact on society, Roman authorities felt the need to reaffirm their moral superiority over the Greeks; after all, they had been victorious in battle against Greece. The appearance of Greek culture had been, for the most part, positive. Under this Greek influence, the Roman gods became more human, exhibiting such diverse characteristics as jealousy, love, and hate. However, unlike in Greece, in Rome an individual's self-expression of belief was not considered as important as adherence to ritual. In an effort to avoid religious zeal, the state demanded a strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals. While this integration of the Greeks gods was never seen as a viable threat -- they easily fit into the existing array of gods -- some cults proved to be something completely different: a genuine danger to the prevailing state religion.


In 186 BCE the Roman Senate, recognizing a potential menace, suppressed the worship of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, known to the Romans as Bacchus. His worship is best remembered for its intoxicating festival held on March 17, a day when a Roman male youth would supposedly become a man. The cult was viewed as being excessively brutal, supposedly involving ritual murder and sexual excess. As a result, many of its adherents were either imprisoned or executed. It should be noted, however, that the authority's fear of this cult was largely generated, not from first-hand experience (the cult's rituals were always conducted in secret) but from the writings of the historian Livy (c. 64 BCE-17 CE) who consistently portrayed the cult as a dangerous menace to social stability and characterized adherents as little more than drunken beasts.
While the government, influenced by Livy, viewed this cult as a threat, overall, Roman citizens questioned this harsh view of the Cult of Bacchus. They considered it no different or less immoral than the worship of the Asia Minor goddess Cybele.Actually, the major difference between the two was that the Cult of Bacchus was never sanctioned by the Roman Senate while Cybele's was. Known as the Great Mother or Magna Mater, Cybele, whose chief sanctuary was at Pessinus, was one of the early female deities, first appearing in the province of Lydia as a goddess of the mountains. Arriving from Phrygia, she made her initial appearance in Greece in the 5th century BCE with a temple in Athens (the Metroum); the Greeks identified her with the goddess Rhea (mother of the Olympians) and Demeter (goddess of the harvest). While never achieving great popularity in Greece, the cult reached Rome around the end of the 3rd century BCE.
Cybele Plate

Cybele Plate


Originally, the Cybelean cult was brought to Rome during the time of the Second Punic War (218 -201 BCE). At that time the Carthaginian general Hannibal was wreaking havoc in Italy, posing a serious threat to the city of Rome. The Sibylline Books, books of prophecy consulted by the Roman Senate in times of emergencies, predicted that Italy would be freed by an Idaean mother of Pessinus; to many, this meant Cybele. A black meteorite, representing the goddess, was brought to Rome from Asia Minor in 204 BCE. Miraculously, Hannibal and his army left shortly afterwards to defend Carthage against the invading Romans; a temple honoring Cybele would be built on Palatine Hill in 191 BCE. The cult eventually achieved official recognition during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41 - 44 CE). Ultimately, her appeal as an agrarian goddess would enable her to find adherents in northern Africa as well as Transalpine Gaul.
Due to its agricultural nature, her cult had tremendous appeal to the average Roman citizen, more so women than men. She was responsible for every aspect of an individual's life. She was the mistress of wild nature, symbolized by her constant companion, the lion. Not only was she was a healer (she both cured and caused disease) but also the goddess of fertility and protectress in time of war (although, interestingly, not a favorite among soldiers), even offering immortality to her adherents.She is depicted in statues either on a chariot pulled by lions or enthroned carrying a bowl and drum, wearing a mural crown, flanked by lions. Followers of her cult would work themselves into an emotional frenzy and self-mutilate, symbolic of her lover's self-castration.


Important to the worship of Cybele was Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation, also considered a resurrection god (similar to the Greek Adonis ). Supposedly, Attis was Cybele's lover, although some sources claim him to be her son. Unfortunately, he fell in love with a mortal and chose to marry. According to one story, on the day of their wedding banquet, the irate and jealous goddess apparently struck panic into those who attended the wedding. Afraid for his own safety (no mention is made of his bride), the frightened groom fled to the nearby mountains where he gradually became insane, eventually committing suicide but not before castrating himself. Regaining her own sanity, the remorseful Cybele appealed to Zeus to never allow Attis's corpse to decay. Myth claims that he would return to life during the yearly rebirth of vegetation; thus identifying Attis as an early dying-and-reviving god figure.



In Rome, Cybele's popularity continued to flourish, partially due to her spring festival held in March (some sources say April) called the Megalensia. The festival included public games as well as a theatrical performance at Circus Maximus. It began on March 15 with a procession of reed-bearers ( cannophori ) and a ritual sacrifice; the latter was for the successful planting of spring crops. On March 22, after a week of fasting and purification, a pine tree (the symbol for Attis) was brought to Palatine Hill temple. Later, there was a banquet -- a day of joy or Hilaria. Next came the Day of Blood, March 24, representing the castration and death of Attis. The celebration closed on the March 25 with a ritual bath or lavation of Cybele's image. All of the cult's priests or Galli were eunuchs, something that initially prevented Roman citizens from joining. Until the reign of Claudius, Roman law stated that no one could maintain his citizenship if he became a eunuch.
Cybele was one of many cults that appeared in Rome. Some were considered harmless, the Cult of Isis for example, and allowed to survive while others, like Bacchus, were seen as a serious threat to the Roman citizens and was persecuted. Of course, almost all of these cults disappeared with the arrival of Christianity when Rome became the center of this new religion. The Cult of Cybele lasted until the 4th century CE, at which time Christianity dominated the religious landscape and pagan beliefs and rituals gradually became transformed or discarded to suit the new faith.

Aeschylus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 10 December 2015
Aeschylus (Carole Raddato)
Aeschylus (c. 525 - c. 456 BCE) was one of the great writers of Greek Tragedy in 5th century BCE Classical Athens. Known as 'the father of tragedy', the playwright wrote up to 90 plays, winning with half of them at the great Athenian festivals of Greek drama. Perhaps his most famous work is Prometheus Bound which tells the myth of the Titan punished by Zeus for giving humanity the gift of fire. All of his surviving plays are still performed today in theatres across the world. An innovator of the genre, Aeschylus is said to have described his work as 'morsels from the feast of Homer '.


5th century BCE Athens was blessed with three great tragedians: Aeschylus, Euripides (c. 484 - 407 BCE), and Sophocles(c. 496 - c. 406 BCE). The senior of the three, Aeschylus was born in Eleusis in c. 525 BCE. Aeschylus' father was Euphorion, and ancient sources claim the family belonged to the aristocracy. Living through the Persian wars, Aeschylus almost certainly participated in such famous and decisive battles as Marathon and Salamis. His brother Kynegeiros was killed in the former battle and his other sibling Ameinias fought at the latter. Aeschylus' epitaph, said to have been self-penned, stated nothing of his success as a playwright but only that he had fought at Marathon. These experiences and the transformation of Athens' political structure as it embarked on the road to democracy greatly influenced the playwrights' work.


Other snippets of biography, which have survived from antiquity, reveal that Aeschylus was once prosecuted for revealing details of the secret Eleusinian mysteries cult but managed to prove his innocence. Sometime after 458 BCE Aeschylus travelled to Sicily, visiting Syracuse at the invitation of Hieron I, and around 456 BCE he died on the island in the town of Gela. Aeschylus' plays were already recognised as classics and their public performances were given particular privileges.His son Euphorion and nephew Philocles both became noted dramatists in their own right.


A Greek tragedy was typically performed at important religious festivals such as the City Dionysia where three playwrights each wrote three tragic plays and a satyr play to compete for a prize. Tragedy plays were restricted by certain conventions: the theme was almost always mythological with elements of religion and family affairs, the number of actors who could have speaking roles was limited (although they could play multiple characters), a chorus consisted of 12 or 15 singers, and all actors were males wearing masks.
An innovative playwright, Aeschylus was, according to Aristotle, responsible for adding a second actor for minor parts and, by including more dialogue into his plays, he squeezed more drama from the age-old stories so familiar to his audience.Aeschylus is also credited as the first to use the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform used to change stage scenery, and the mechane, a crane device used to lift actors. He was also noted for his extravagant costume designs and use of striking imagery.
Greek Tragedy Mask

Greek Tragedy Mask

The stories of Aeschylus' plays illustrate that there is no escape from the bad deeds of one's ancestors and divine retribution.Other themes which appealed to Aeschylus were the conflict between the individual and the state, between humans and the gods, and against the old enemy Time. Another thread which runs through Aeschylus' work is his consideration of the threat to reason and persuasion that violence brings.
As plays were submitted for competition in groups of four (three tragedies and a satyr play), Aeschylus often carried on a theme between plays, creating sequels which followed several generations of a single family. One such themed trilogy is Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers (or Cheoephori ), and The Furies (or Eumenides ), known collectively as the Oresteia.This trilogy model would be copied by contemporary and later playwrights and helped to earn Aeschylus his reputation as the founder of Greek Tragedy as we know it today.


Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90 plays, of which six or seven survive complete along with various fragments of others, notably The Netfishers ( Diktyoulkoi ) and Spectators at the Isthmian Games ( Isthmiastai ). His first play was presented in c.499 BCE and he claimed his first of 13 festival victories in 484 BCE. His complete surviving plays are:
  • The Persians (472 BCE) - set after the Greek victory (less than a decade earlier) over the Persians at Salamis and Xerxes ' return to Persia.
  • Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE) - about the cursed Labdacids and the siege of Thebes. It is the third part of a trilogy which included Laius (part I) and Oedipus (part II).
  • Suppliants (unknown date but after Seven Against Thebes, possibly c. 463 BCE) - about the Danaids myth.First in a trilogy, now lost, known as The Danaid Trilogy, part II being The Egyptians and part III The Danaids.
  • Oresteia (458 BCE) - a trilogy about the aftermath of the Trojan War comprising Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers ( Choephori ), and The Furies ( Eumenides ). Proteus, the accompanying satyr play, does not survive.
  • Prometheus Bound (c. 457 BCE) - this play is disputed by some scholars as the work of Aeschylus and it may have been staged by Euphorion in his father's name. It deals with Zeus' punishment of the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humanity. It is the first part of a trilogy with part II being Prometheus Unbound and part III Prometheus the Fire Carrier, both now surviving only in fragments.
Below is a selection of extracts from Aeschylus' works:
Here is Prometheus, the rebel:
Nail him to the rock, secure him on this towering summit
Fast in the unyielding grip of adamantine chains.
It was your treasure that he stole, the flowery splendour
Of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men - an offence
Intolerable to the gods, for which he now must suffer.
(Strength speaks, Prometheus Bound, lines 5-10)
The bronze, iron, silver, gold hidden deep down - who else
But I can claim to have found them first? No one, unless
He talks like a fool. So, here's the whole truth in one word:
All human skill and science was Prometheus' gift.
(Prometheus speaks, Prometheus Bound, lines 499-502)
Now it is happening: threat gives place to performance.
The earth rocks; thunder, echoing from the depth,
Roars in answer; fiery lightnings twist and flash.
Dust dances in a whirling fountain;
Blasts of the four winds skirmish together,
Set themselves in array for battle;
Sky and sea rage indistinguishably.
The cataclysm advances visibly upon me,
Sent by Zeus to make me afraid.
(Prometheus speaks, Prometheus Bound, lines 1076-85)
May murder and devastation
Never come to tear this city,
To put a sword in the hand of Ares, father of tears,
To banish dancing and music
With the shout of civil war.
(Chorus, The Suppliants, lines 674-678)
And troubles followed like a sea rolling its waves onward;
One breaks, and it lifts the next, three heaped together,
Whose surge seethes around our city's hull;
And our barrier between life and death
Is no more than the width of a wall ;
I fear for Thebes and her line of kings,
Lest all be overwhelmed together.
(Chorus, Seven Against Thebes, lines 758-64)
Alas for Persia's honoured name!
Alas for all that noble host,
The flower of manhood, Asia's boast,
By gods condemned to deadly shame!
Our land bewails the men she bore,
Slaughtered for Xerxes, who has fed
Hell's hungry jaws with Persian dead.
(Chorus, The Persians, lines 910-17)


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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