Guide to Sacrifice
The main source for the study of domestic Roman sacrifices is Cato in his work De Agricultura. Comparison with surviving descriptions of public sacrifices reveals that private and public sacrifices followed much the same set of guidelines. This allows us to fill the gaps left open by Cato with elements that survived in the descriptions of public sacrifices. Several public sacrifices were originally private to some families, the state having decided to preserve them (e.g. after the lineage of the family was broken) because of their importance to the city of Rome as a whole. We can even go further and state that the public cult in Rome was nothing more than a domestic cult adapted to the scale of the city. Just like any private household, the city had its own hearth (the Temple of Vesta) where Vesta and the Penates publici (Public Penates) were honoured.
This page provides a template for a standard traditional domestic roman sacrifice, as well as information about the correct offerings to give to the main deities. Non-standard sacrifices (e.g. lectisternia, sellisternia, devotiones) or sacrifices with special mystery rites performed at specific occasions and/or stemming from a long tradition (the meaning of many being already forgotten by the time of the Republic), fall outside the scope of the present work. On the other hand, most simple daily rites and offerings can be considered as consisting of a small subset of the procedures described below (e.g. libation of wine, daily offering of incense). The provided template will be illustrated with the original description of a simple offering to Iuppiter Dapalis Cato, De Agricultura, 132, as well as other sources when needed.
We can divide the standard sacrificial procedures in several parts or moments: 1. Praeparatio, 2. Praefatio, 3. Precatio, 4. Immolatio, 5. Redditio, 6. Profanatio, 7. Epulum.
The page finishes with an appendix which presents a table with the sacrificial details for specific deities. For any doubts or information on deities not included in the table feel free ask the Collegium Pontificum. You can also join the Religio Romana mailing list to discuss these and other related matters.
In domestic sacrifices the preparation is easier. The sacrifice takes place in front of the lararium, usually placed near or above an hearth or fireplace (focus). If it is a blood sacrifice, it can be made on an outdoor lararium or on a focus prepared on purpose outside the house.
The sacrificer is usually the pater familias, but the mater familias can also sacrifice in some occasions (e.g. she sacrifices to her Iuno - guardian spirit or female equivalent of the Genius - on her birthday). Other members of the household can help to carry the offerings or other objects. In order to ensure that the words are correctly spoken, one of the assistants may be charged to read the words and whisper them to the sacrificer [Plinius, Naturalis Historia, 28.3.10]. The sacrificer should also bath himself before the sacrifice [Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, 1.45].
Once the time comes, the officiants approach the lararium where an image of the deity honoured in the sacrifice is placed among the Penates (deities worshiped in the household). The sacrificer faces the lararium, while the assistants and audience remain on his back.
For more information regarding the preparation of the lararium and the sacrificial tools, please refer to the article on household worship.
For more information regarding the preparation of the lararium and the sacrificial tools, please refer to the article on household worship. For more information regarding posture and attitude during sacrifice, see the article on Posture and Gesture in Roman Prayer in our old website.
A more solemn sacrifice (namely a sacrifice of a living victim) starts with a praefatio, which consists on offerings of incense and wine where some deities are invited to witness the sacrifice. Small offerings like the offering to Iuppiter Dapalis (Cato, De Agricultura, 132) do not include a praefatio. Others (e.g. Cato, De Agricultura 134) seem to present two praefationes, one of incense and wine and another of cakes and wine. In temple sacrifices, the praefatio was performed before the temple entrance using a portable hearth, the foculus.
The praefatio starts with the invocation of Ianus (vide Cicero, De Natura Deorum, II.67), the god of beginnings. Cato adds Iuppiter (Cato, De Agricultura 141) and Iuno (Cato, De Agricultura 134). According to Ovidius, (Fasti, 6.303 seq.), Vesta can also be among the deities invoked in the praefatio, as she governs the fire of the hearth through which the offerings reach the gods (see Servius, ad Aen., 1.292). In [ILS154] the deity in whose honour the sacrifice is performed is addressed in the praefatio.
- 1) The sacrificer will normally be wearing a toga (the toga praetexta is used by magistrates in public sacrifices). The sacrificer veils his head with the toga (called capite velato or cinctu Gabinio) as the deities invoked in the praefatio are to be honoured "ritu Romano" (according to the Roman rite). [[[CIL]] 32329] shows that this is true even if the main sacrifice is performed "ritu Graeco".
- 2) The sacrificer offers incense to Ianus as follows:
“Iane pater, te hoc ture ommovendo bonas preces precor, uti sies volens propitius mihi, domo, familiae.”
“Father Ianus, in offering this incense to you I pray good prayers, so that you may be propitious to me, to my household and to my family.”
- The sacrificer places the incense on the focus.
- 3) Then incense is offered to Iuppiter in the same way:
“Iuppiter, te hoc ture ommovendo bonas preces precor, uti sies volens propitius mihi liberisque meis domo familiaeque meae.”
“Iuppiter, in offering this incense to you I pray good prayers, so that you may be propitious to me and my children, to my house and to my household.”
- The sacrificer places the incense on the focus.
- 4) Then an offering dish (patera) of wine is offered to Ianus:
"Iane pater, uti te ture ommovendo bonas preces bene precatus sum, eiusdem rei ergo macte vino inferio esto."
"Father Janus, as in offering to you the incense virtuous prayers were well prayed, for the sake of this be honoured by this wine offered in libation."
- The sacrificer pours the wine on the focus.
- 5) Then the same to Iuppiter:
"Iuppiter macte isto ture esto, macte vino inferio esto."
"Iuppiter, be honoured by that incense, be honoured by this wine below."
- The sacrificer pours the wine on the focus.
The main sacrifice starts with a prayer directed to the deity in whose honour the sacrifice is performed. In this prayer, the sacrificer states the reason for the sacrifice, the goods that he will sacrifice, and the blessings he wants to receive in return. In [Horatius, Carmina, 3.23] it is suggested that the altar or lararium should be touched while the prayers are being said, which is confirmed by [Virgilius, Aeneis, 4.219]. According to Servius Honoratus, Varro wrote that this gesture is necessary to grant the good will of the deity [Servius, Aeneidos Commentarius, 4.219].
The following procedures illustrate the precatio. The prayer is taken from Cato, De Agricultura, 132, where the deity to be honoured in the sacrifice is Iuppiter Dapalis:
- 1) If the sacrifice is to be performed Graeco ritu, the sacrificer uncovers his head, adorns his head with a laurel crown and takes off his toga, becoming dressed with his tunic only (usually a fringed tunic).
- 2) The sacrificer washes his hands on a vessel placed beside him, or carried by one of the assistants. Although this is the usual place for this observance, [Cato, De Agricultura, 132] places the washing of the hands after the prayer in step 3.
- 3) The sacrificer touches the altar or lararium and addresses the deity with a prayer where the purpose and nature of the sacrifice are described:
"Iuppiter dapalis, quod tibi fieri oportet in domo familia mea culignam vini dapi, eius rei ergo macte hac illace dape pollucenda esto."
"Iuppiter Dapalis, because it is proper for a cup of wine to be given to you in the house of my family for the sacred feast, for the sake of this thing may you be honoured by this feast offering."
- When the sacrifice was performed Graeco ritu, some Greek words could be interspersed in the Latin text.
This part only applies to blood sacrifices, i.e. when the offering is a living creature. As the Collegium Pontificum of Nova Roma has many reservations towards this type of sacrifice, the information in this section should be regarded as informative only with no intentions of motivating its practice. Although blood sacrifices were common in classical Rome, it must be said that the Religio Romana has also an ancient tradition for the absence of that practice as stated in [Ovid, Fasti, I.337]:
"Of old the means to win the goodwill of gods for man were spelt and the sparkling grains of pure salt. As yet no foreign ship had brought across the ocean waves the black-distilled myrrh; the Eufrates had sent no incense, India no balm, and the red saffron's filaments were still unknown. The altar was content to smoke with savine, and the laurel burned with crackling loud. To garlands woven of meadow flowers he who could violets add was rich indeed. The knife that now lays bare the bowels of the slaughtered bull had in sacred rites no work to do. (...)" (cf. Numa tradition.)
The immolation procedures are better known in the public context than in the domestic context. Nevertheless it is very likely that domestic sacrifices followed at least a subset (probably variable according to the habits and possibilities of each household) of the public sacrifices.
The sacrificed victims were always domestic animals carefully selected according to species, sex, colour and size, in order to match the nature of the deity to which they were offered. Male deities received male victims (some received castrated victims, others complete victims), while female deities received female victims. White victims were offered to the Celestial gods, black victims to the Underworld gods (Dii Inferi such as Dis, Proserpina, the Manes) or of the night, red victims were offered to Volcanus and Robigo. Pregnant sows were offered to Ceres and Tellus in some expiatory rites. Swines and rams were usually offered in funerary sacrifices.
Blood sacrifices required special preparation. The animals were washed and adorned with ribbons and strips of white or scarlet wool. The horns of the bovines were usually guilded and/or adorned with disk. The back of the porcines and bovines was covered with a richly decorated fringed coverture (dorsuale). The phases of the immolation were the following:
- 1) The first act was the consecration of the victim, which was different depending on the rite (ritus Romanus or ritus Graecus). According to the ritus Romanus, the sacrificer consecrated the victim by the mola salsa (roasted wheat flour with added salt originally made by the Vestales and thus associated with the fire of Vesta; the mola salsa is origin for the word immolatio or in-molatio), wine and the knife (mola, vino cultroque). In order to do this he powdered the back of the victim with the mola salsa, poured a little wine on its forehead with a patera, and finally passed the sacrificial knife along the back of the animal. In the ritus Graecus, the sacrificer consecrated the victim by dropping a few grains of corn and some drops of water on the head of the victim. He then cut some hair from the head of the victim and offered it on the fire.
- 2) After the consecration, the sacrificer or the butchers (victimarii) proceded to kill the victim (if butchers were available, the sacrificer would give the sign). The victim should show no sign of panic, otherwise that would be considered a bad omen and the sacrifice would be polluted. On the contrary, the victim should show its consent by lowering its head helped by the sacrificer. Bigger victims (e.g. bovines) were firstly stunned with a poleaxe and then bled to death. Smaller victims had their throat cut.
- 3) The victim was then laid on its back, and its belly was opened. With the help of its assistants (namely the haruspex), the sacrificer verified if the victim had been well accepted through the examination of the entrails: the liver, the lungs, the biliary blister, peritoneum and heart. If entrails did not present any anomalies it was considered that the sacrifice had been accepted (litatio) and it could proceed. Otherwise the sacrifice was aborted and had to restart with new victims. This was repeated until the litatio was achieved. Sometimes the entrails could be examined in Etruscan fashion with the purpose of divination (haruspicatio).
- 4) The victim was then divided. The entrails (exta) were destined for the deity. The rest would normally be destined to the humans, being eaten in a banquet (epulum) after the sacrifice. With the exception of some deities of more savage nature (e.g. Mars - see [Suetonius, Vita Divi Augusti, 1] and [Arnobius, Adversus Nationes, 2.68]), the entrails were cooked before being offered. Those of bovines were boiled, while those of porcines and ovines were grilled on skewers. The entrails were then powdered with mola salsa and wine before being offered to the deity (see below).
In this phase the offerings are actually given to the deity. Usually, only a part of the offerings is actually given to the deity, the rest being profanated and consumed by the humans after the sacrifice. An exception is when the sacrifice is performed in honour of the Underworld gods (e.g. Dis and Proserpina, etc.), as no one can sit at the same table with the gods that govern Death and the Dead.
If the sacrifice is performed in honour of a water divinity, it is usually thrown to the water (a river, sea, spring, etc.). If the sacrifice is performed in honour of a chtonic deity (e.g. Lar/Genius Loci, Ceres, etc.) the offering is simply thrown to the ground or burned inside a ditch previously excavated for the effect. The latter also applies to the Underworld gods, in which case the offering is completely burned on the ditch. For other deities, including the domestic deities (Genii, Lares and Penates, etc.), the offerings are normally given through the fire of the focus. Of course there were some variations depending of the specific deity or the specific offering (e.g. flowers were usually to be offered as a decoration and not to be burned; the same was true regarding the ears of grain offered to Ceres).
While giving each offering, the act is confirmed with words. The following example is again taken from [Cato, De Agricultura, 132]. Like many other public and private sacrifices it takes the form of "[Deity (voc.)], macte [offerings (abl.)] esto":
"Iuppiter dapalis, macte istace dape pollucenda esto, macte vino inferio esto."
"Iupiter Dapalis, may you be honoured by this feast offering, may you be honoured by the wine offered below."
Meat offerings are usually sprinkled with wine and salt or mola salsa (roasted wheat flour with added salt) before being served to the deities.
Besides the main deity of the sacrifice, other deities may receive offerings as well during this phase. This happens for example in [Cato, De Agricultura 134], where Ianus and Iuppiter receive cakes and wine in the style of a postfatio after the entrails of the sow are cut, but before the entrails are actually given to Ceres. On the other hand, [Cicero, De Natura Deorum, II.67] says that Vesta is the last deity to receive offerings during sacrifices for she governs the sacrificial fire. This is confirmed by [Cato, De Agricultura, 132], where the reader is given the option to offer to Vesta after Iuppiter Dapalis has received his share of the feast.
Usually, if the sacrifice is not in honour of the gods of Hades, only a small fraction of it is actually offered to the deity, the rest being eaten by the humans, as if the humans were now guests of the deity to whom the offerings were given. In order to make this possible, the sacrificer must profanate the offerings (i.e. make the given offerings become again human property) with his touch, a procedure explicitly instructed in [Cato, De Agricultura, 132].
After the profanation, the remaining offerings are eaten by the sacrificer and sometimes the other officiants, family and guests in a banquet. During the banquet, people sometimes address the deities, making additional offerings and asking for favours and blessings in return.
The table below provides some general guidelines for the offerings and sacrificial procedures that are most propitious to specific deities. It is by no means an exhaustive reference and it will be expanded in the future. Moreover, some of the data (namely in what concerns blood sacrifice) is based on the public cult, which means that in a domestic context there could be some variations and offerings would be typically more modest. Variations related to specific rites/celebrations and/or specific aspects of the deities are also not reflected in the table.
|Deity||Character||Rite||Known Inanimate Offerings||Known Living Offerings||Sources|
|Penates (domestic gods) in general||Domestic||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine, cakes, food, etc.|| ewe-lamb (see below on the Lares Familiares), cow
|Lar Familiaris / Lares Familiares||Domestic||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine, food (namely fruits and roasted meat with mola salsa), garlands of flowers (to adorn the Lararium and not to be burnt).||ewe-lamb, pig, ram (funeral)||
|personal Genius or Iuno||Domestic||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine, cakes of boiled salted wheat (liba)||two-month old piglet (on the Saturnalia). Blood sacrifice was not recommended on one's birthday.||
|Manes||Underworld||Ritus Romanus (Banquet can take place in the presence of the deceased.)||unmixed wine, fresh milk, blood of sacrificial victims, roses, violets, black beans, salted corn, wheat mixed with wine (Inanimate offerings are dropped/poured to the ground in libation without burning.)||ewe, pig, black bull-calves||
|Mania / Mater Larum (mother of the Lares)||Underworld||Ritus Romanus||garlic, poppy heads (The poppy heads seem to have replaced primitive human sacrifices of children.)||sheep||
|Lar / Genius Loci||Domestic/Chthonic||Ritus Romanus||fruits of the Earth (namely first samplings), wine, garlands of flowers (Inanimate offerings should be dropped/poured to the ground or natural altar in libation.)||pig, heifer, ewe-lamb|
|Lares Compitales||Cthonic||Ritus Romanus||?||pig shining with grease||
|Vesta||Domestic||Ritus Romanus||incense, meat||sheep||
|Ceres||Chthonic||Ritus Romanus (a part of the cult celebrated on the Aventine Hill corresponded to the Mysteries of Eleusis and was considered Graeca Sacra and thus not included in the Roman public cult)||spelt cakes, incense, salt, bread, first samplings of ears of wheat, oak leaves, wine, honeycombs mixed with milk||sow (sometimes pregnant)||
|Tellus (Ceres and Tellus were usually identified and normally the offerings that suited Ceres also suited Tellus.)||Chthonic||Ritus Romanus||spelt cakes||sow (sometimes pregnant), pregnant cow||
|Ianus||Domestic (doors, passages) / Celestial (beginings and ends)||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine, cakes (strues)||ram|
|Iuppiter||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine (namely first samplings), cakes (fertum), meat, spelt cake (far), fruits||white heifer, ox, ewe-lamb, whether, suovetaurilia (sheep, pig and ox), bull?, ram? (According to the ancients books, only castrated victims should be offered to Iuppiter.)||
|Iuno||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine||bull, ram, cow, sheep, suovetaurilia (sheep, pig and bull),|
|Mars||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||spelt, bacon fat, meat, wine, cakes (strues and fertum)||suovetaurilia (sheep, pig and bull), bull, ram (Entrails were offered raw)||
|Saturnus||Chthonic||Ritus Graecus (although he is a very ancient Roman deity).||?||pig?||
|Minerva||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||?||cow, suovetaurilia (sheep, pig and bull),|
|Dis||Underworld||Ritus Romanus||?||black sheep and other black victims||
|Proserpina||Underworld||Ritus Romanus||?||black victims||
|Liber Pater||Chthonic||Ritus Romanus (the Bachannalia are considered Graeca Sacra, i.e. a foreign rite not included in the Roman public cult )||cakes (liba), libations of must (namely first samplings)||?||
|Diana||Celestial||Ritus Romanus (although at the Ludi Saeculares she was honoured - like any other deity - Graeco Ritu)||cakes of cheese, cakes of honey, cakes of parsley||hind, white she-goat?, cow|
|Carna||Domestic||Ritus Romanus||beans mixed with hot spelt, bacon||-||
|Robigo||Chthonic||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine||red (?) dog, ewe, unweaned puppy||
|Volcanus||Fiery (destructive)||Ritus Romanus||fish, red (?) animals (Victims were burned alive.)||
|Genius Augusti||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine||bull, bull-calf|
|Iuno Augustae||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine||cow|
|Numen Augusti||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||incense, wine||bull-calf|
|Lares Augusti||Domestic||Ritus Romanus||same as Lares Familiares||same as Lares Familiares, wether||
|Divus (Probably the same as Iuppiter)||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||?||ox, sheep||
|Diva (Probably the same as Iuno)||Celestial||Ritus Romanus||?||cow|
|Apollo||Celestial||Ritus Graecus|| cakes of cheese, cakes of honey, cakes of parsley,
crowns of laurel
|Ilithyia||Domestic||Ritus Graecus (at least at the Ludi Saeculares. Anyway she is a Greek deity)||cakes of cheese, cakes of honey, cakes of parsley||-|
|Priapus||Domestic/Fertility||Ritus Romanus||milk, cakes (liba)||
Based on work by Antonius Gryllus Graecus, Pontifex.