Cereri Sacrum


In addition to Diana, one of the other three Roman goddesses of some prominence in Pompeii was Ceres. Although not worshiped or invoked with the same popularity as Venus, one of the two known positions of public priestess* was dedicated to Ceres, which suggests she held some importance to the locals. As the goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood, it is no surprise that she should hold a place of esteem in a city surrounded by some of the most fertile land in Italy.

What is surprising though, is that a temple dedicated to the goddess has never been found, despite the fact that there are numerous inscriptions naming various women who took up her priestesshood. In addition, unlike Diana and Venus both, there is very little imagery of Ceres, and what little there is, is on the walls: no statuary has ever been identified.

Seven women are known from monumental inscriptions, some funerary, some dedicatory, as having served as priestesses of Ceres. Two of them, members of the Alleii family, proclaim their religious role in their epitaphs:

CIL X 1036
M(arco) Alleio Luccio Libellae patri aedili / IIvir(o) praefecto quinq(uennali) et M(arco) Alleio Libellae f(ilio) / decurioni. Vixit annis XVII. Locus monumenti / publice datus est. Alleia M(arci) f(ilia) Decimilla sacerdos / publica Cereris faciundum curavit viro et filio.
‘To Marcus Alleius Luccius Libella senior, aedile, duovir, prefect, quinquennial, and to Marcus Alleius Libella  junior, decurion. He lived 17 years. The place for the monument was given publically. Alleia Decimilla, daughter of Marcus, public priestess of Ceres, oversaw the building on behalf of her husband and son.’

EE 8.315
Alleia Mai f(ilia) / [sacerd(os) Veneris / et Cereis sibi / ex dec(urionum) decr(eto) pe[c(unia) pub(lica)]
‘Alleia, daughter of Maius, priestess of Venus and Ceres, to herself, in accor- dance with a decree of the town councillors, with [public] money.’

Alleia actually holds the priesthood for two goddesses, serving Venus in addition to Ceres. Dated to the Neronian period, she is the only woman for whom this dual role is recorded.

Clodia  and Lassia are also known from funerary inscriptions, on a tomb found somewhere in the suburbs of Pompeii, now lost:

CIL X 1074a
Clodia A(uli) f(ilia) / sacerdos / publica / Cereris d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘Clodia, daughter of Aulus, public priestess of Ceres, by decree of the decurions.

CIL X 1074b
Lassia M(arci) f(ilia) / sacerdos / publica / Cereris d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘Lassia, daughter of Marcus, public priestess of Ceres, by decree of the decurions.’

There were clearly two members of this family dedicated to the service of Ceres, but how exactly they were related is not certain.

The only dedicatory inscription naming Ceres which survives comes from the Eumachia Building in the Forum, which names three priestesses of Ceres, two with the same name:

CIL X 812
Eumachia [L(uci) f(ilia)] / sacerd(os) publ(ica). // et // Aquvia M(arci) [f(ilia)] Quarta / sacerd(os) Cereris publ(ica). // [et] // [Heiai Ru]fulai / [M(arci) et L(uci) f(iliae)] sacerdotes / [Cer]eris publ(icae).
‘Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess, and Aquvia Quarta, daughter of Marcus, public priestess of Ceres, and (two) Heia Rufulas, daughters of Marcus and Lucius, public priestesses of Ceres.

There are two graffiti, one of which contains nothing more than an invocation to sacred Ceres:

AE 1951: 168
Cerer(i) s[acr(um)]
‘Sacred to Ceres.’

The second, found in the Villa of the Mysteries, has nothing to do with the divine Ceres, but rather with a woman named for the goddess. This text is a variation on a theme offering prosperity to those who love and punishing those who are unable to or hinder love, seen elsewhere in Pompeian graffiti, most notably in CIL IV 4091, an elegiac couplet from the House of Caecilius Iucundus (V.1.23-26).

CIL IV 9202
Ceres [m]ea / si quis am(a)t valea(t), quisquis ve[t]at, male perae(t). / [Led]a(m) amavi, at quo quis lubebit. [T]i(beri) Cl(a)udi, va(le), sal(utem) plurimo. Amavi Leda(m), / (pu)ella(m) Sami.
‘My Ceres, may he who loves prosper, who forbids love may he perish badly. I loved Leda, but in a manner in which it is pleasing (or: where it was acceptable?). Greetings, Tiberius Claudius. I loved Leda – the girl from Samos.’

Varone suggests ‘we may detect a certain amount of mockery towards a ‘guardian’, Ti. Claudius, from whose control a certain Ceres has apparently escaped, to the writer’s benefit.’ In a sense, the tone of this text is reminiscent of many similar graffiti addressing Venus in her guise as goddess of love, and it is purely the coincidence of name that predicates its inclusion here.

The final text, also found in the Villa of the Mysteries, is classified as instrumenta domestica – a fragment of roof tile with the following inscription:

CIL I2 3471
Cerer(i) sac(rum) // Scapula
‘Sacred to Ceres. Scapula’

Like both Diana and Venus, Ceres appears in two street shrines dedicated to the pantheon of Twelve Gods found at VIII. 3.11 and IX.11.1.  However, this is the only public art that depicts Ceres. The only other images of Ceres, four to be exact, are found in private domestic settings. One of these (photo above), that found in the House of Castor & Pollux (VI.9.6), was removed to the Naples Archaeological Museum soon after excavation in 1828, and thus remains well preserved.  Discovered in an area leading to the peristyle of the house, it was one of two painting flanking a doorway (the other was Saturn), it depicts Ceres holding a long torch and a basket full of grain, which is typical iconography for the goddess of agriculture. A similar image of Ceres with a crown of grain, holding a torch and a sheaf of grain, was found on a garden wall in the Casa della Regina d’Olanda (V.3.7). Now completely lost to the elements, the figure stood in an aedicula, undoubtedly meant to depict the goddess in a temple or shrine.  Ceres appears with a second figure in the two remaining images. In the House of Meleager (VI.9.2), Mercury is handing a purse to a seated Ceres, who is also holding her telltale torch.  On the north wall of the fauces of the House of Marcus Lucretius (IX.3.5), Ceres stands with another figure, but as only the lower halves remain, it is impossible to determine who she is with.

For a divine figure who has her own dedicated priestesshood, the archaeological evidence for Ceres is surprisingly sparse. The majority of the evidence for her worship comes from the monumental inscriptions naming her priestesses; there is very little in terms of graffiti or imagery. What this seems to indicate is that unlike Diana, who is a popular figure for both public and private artwork, prevalent in statuary and wall painting alike, or Venus (forthcoming!) who is depicted with such abundance she is easily the most popular goddess in Pompeii, Ceres’ role is somewhat less tangible. She has a clear place in the officially sanctioned religion of city complete with a dedicated priestess, but she lacks a temple, and does not often appear in either public or domestic art. For some reason, Ceres does not seem to hold the same place in the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of this city as the other goddesses. Perhaps though, that is the clue: city-dwellers might not have tied their fortunes to the goddess of agriculture in the same way those living on a farm might. To find the true importance of Ceres in this region, the answer likely lies in the countryside, beneath meters of volcanic debris.

* There are a number of women, such as another Clodia, Eumachia and Holconia, who are attributed as sacerdos publica  in texts that do not specifically name the goddess that was served. For the purposes of clarity, I have not included here any of the numerous inscriptions in which women are identified as a more generic public priestess without naming the divinity being honoured.

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