Sacrifice in the Roman World

Oftentimes, when we think of the world of ancient Rome, one of the images that springs to mind is that of the sacrifice, the image of a priest before an altar slashing the throat of some sort of animal, the blood of which oozes in grisly flow down the sides of a white marble altar.

It’s a dramatic image to be sure, but it does not provide us with the complete facts of sacrifice in Roman society.

Today, we are going to take a brief look at sacrifice in Roman religion, what it meant and what it could entail.

Roman altars, perhaps erected as votive offerings themselves

Basically, a sacrifice, or sacrificium, was a gift to the gods, heroes, emperors, or the dead. It was not simply a matter of the ritualistic killing of animals as is our modern perception of ancient sacrifice.

Not all sacrifices were blood sacrifices, and not all sacrifices were public displays either. There were also private sacrifices.

Whether public or private, the goal was to maintain one’s relationship with the gods, the dead, etc. and this was done in different ways.

Food offerings were not only of flesh, but could also be of fruit or grain, milk, honey or something similar.

Depending upon the nature of the offering and its intent, a food offering might be part of a sacrificial feast in which people shared with the gods, both receiving their portion to consume. Alternatively, the entirety of the sacrifice might be offered to the gods to be consumed in the flames.

Most of the evidence for sacrifices in the Roman world come to us from inscriptions on altars which were themselves considered sacrifices.

There could be various reasons for a sacrifice such as one made in expectation of a favour, or a sacrifice that was demanded by the gods through an oracle, omen, dream or some other such occurrence. Sacrifices were also made on anniversaries, such as the anniversary of a family member’s death or an historic event, or they could be made as part of a religious festival.

Roman religion was customizable in a sense, and so the types of gifts of sacrifices could vary. They might include cakes, incense, oils, wine, honey, milk, and perhaps sacred herbs or flowers. And yes, they could also include various blood sacrifices with certain types and colour of animals being more fitting for certain gods.

A bull being led to sacrifice, the ceremony accompanied by a tibicen, or flute player.

One of the most common forms of sacrifices were those made in fulfillment of a vow, meaning that if a particular god undertook a specific action on behalf of the mortal making the request, then that mortal would carry out the promised sacrifice. Perhaps that mortal would build an altar to that god if his political campaign was successful, or perhaps a general would sacrifice fifty bulls if he was victorious on the battlefield?

When it came to the slaughter of animals as part of a sacrifice, it seems that male animals were offered to male gods, and female animals to goddesses. They had to be free of blemishes and a suitable colour as well, for example, black for underworld gods. There were also times when the animal sacrificed was one that was considered unfit for human consumption, such as the sacrifice of dogs to Hecate.

A sacrifice portrayed on a lararium, or family shrine, in Pompeii

It does not appear to have been usual for a regular citizen to perform an animal sacrifice. It was more the case that the person who wanted to make the sacrifice made arrangements for the ceremony with the aedituus of a particular temple who hired a victimarius to perform the actual slaughter. There might also have been music provided by a flute player, or tibicen, in order to please the god but also to cover up any sounds of ill-omen from the victim.

For most sacrifices, a priest would have his head covered by the folds of a toga to guard against ill-omened sights and sounds, except at Saturnalia when things were the reverse of the usual and priests performed sacrifices with their heads uncovered.

Notice the covered head of the person performing the sacrifice, and the poleaxe carried by the victimarius leading the bull to slaughter.

One might think that it was an easy thing to slaughter an animal, but it seems that the opposite is the case. Aside from trying to avoid any ill-omened sights or sounds, the way in which an animal was slaughtered was very important to Romans.

The head of the animal was usually sprinkled with grains, wine, or sacred cake known as mola salsa before it was killed. It was then stunned with a blow to the head, perhaps with a ceremonial axe or cudgel, and then stabbed or its throat slit with a sacrificial knife. The blood was then caught in a special bowl and poured over the altar.

Once the sacred deed was done, the animal was skinned and cut up. It is at this point that a haruspex might examine the entrails for messages or omens from the gods.

The remains were roasted over the fire with the entrails consumed first. Bones wrapped in fat, the preferred portion of the gods, were then burned upon the sacred fire along with other offerings such as wine or oil. If it was part of a sacrificial feast, the remaining portions were then roasted for the mortal participants.

Relief of Emperor Marcus Aurelius performing a sacrifice

Blood sacrifices could be performed for different occasions that also included times of crisis, such as if Hannibal was at the gates of Rome, for the purposes of purification, or for the rites of the dead.

Chillingly, I only recently discovered that a holocaust was a sacrifice in which the victims were completely burned.

Another type of sacrifice that was well-known in ancient Rome was the suovetaurilia which involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and an ox. No doubt this particular sacrifice made for a good meal afterward for the participants.

Relief of a Suovetaurilia ceremony

But what about human sacrifice in the Roman world?

It is thought that early gladiatorial combat was a form of sacrifice, but there is little evidence for regular human sacrifice over time.

It was practiced only in exceptional circumstances such as after disasters in battle. One example is in 216. B.C., after the battle of Cannae when the Sibylline Books were consulted, a pair of Greeks and a pair of Gauls were sacrificed by being buried alive in the Forum Boarium of Rome. Titus Livius (Livy) recounts the latter here:

Since in the midst of so many misfortunes this pollution was, as happens at such times, converted into a portent, the decemvirs were commanded to consult the Books, and Quintus Fabius Pictor was dispatched to Delphi, to enquire of the oracle with what prayers and supplications they might propitiate the gods, and what would be the end of all their calamities. In the meantime, by the direction of the Books of Fate, some unusual sacrifices were offered; amongst others a Gaulish man and woman and a Greek man and woman were buried alive in the Cattle Market, in a place walled in with stone, which even before this time had been defiled with human victims, a sacrifice wholly alien to the Roman spirit.

(Livy; The History of Rome 22.57.6)

The Forum Boarium in Rome, the Cattle Market with the round Temple of Hercules on the left.

Human sacrifice was eventually outlawed by senatorial decree in 97 B.C., though the practice might have continued in some non-Roman cults for a time. It does seem that effigies or masks could have replaced actual human victims in some rites.

Whether they took place in a public forum, in one of the main temples of Rome, or in the lararium of a private domus, it seems evident that sacrifice was central to Roman religious practices.

The sacrificial offerings varied greatly from animal and human flesh, to wine, oil and incense, to other foods such as cakes, grains, flowers and more. Sacrifices could also include altars and the building of monuments.

What mattered was that the gods were propitiated and the dialogue between the earthly and divine realms was maintained and respected.

To me, Roman religion and sacrifice are crucial to our understanding of the ancient Roman world. It’s a fascinating subject that still holds many mysteries, and I hope that you have found this brief look interesting.

Thank you for reading.


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