The Cult of the Mother of the Gods in the Lower Danubian provinces during the Late Roman period

Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Archaeology Department   
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Abstract:  The current paper examines the cult of the Mother of the Gods in the Roman provinces of Lower Danube at the beginning of Late Antiquity. The two currently known epigraphic monuments originate within the boundaries of the province of Scythia Minor – from Tomis and Dionysopolis. The case of the alleged temple of the Mother of the Gods in the residence of Emperor Galerius in Felix Romuliana (province of Dacia Ripensis) is also taken into account.

Keywords: Paganism, Lower Danube, Magna Mater

The cult of the Phrygian Great Mother of the Gods was introduced officially in Rome at the end of the Second Punic War. After consulting the Sibylline books in 204 BC, a cult image of the goddess in the form of a black stone, probably a meteorite, has been brought to Rome from her sanctuary at Pessinus in Phrygia, Asia Minor. As soon as the goddess arrived in the city on the Tiber, she was placed within the pomerium, the sacred space of Rome, something unusual for foreign cults during this period. One reason for this could be that the Romans perceived the Mother of the Gods as a traditional Roman goddess due to her relation with Troy, their ancestral home. In 191 BC, her temple on Palatine Hill was consecrated and retained its importance for the cult during the age of the Principate.[1]

            During the imperial era, the festivals of the Great Mother were included in the official Roman calendar and became especially popular in the 4th century. Scholars have suggested that parts of this festal cycle have been introduced by Claudius (41–54) and reformed under Antoninus Pius (138–161). However, the evidence about this remains inconclusive and what can be said is that most of the known festivals have been already established by the end of the second century.[2]

In the 4th century the cult of the goddess remained popular in Rome. During this period, the operation of her sanctuary on the Vatican Hill, the so-called Phrygianum, was particularly intensive. Altars with Latin inscriptions, discovered in 1609 during the construction of the new façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, show that at least until AD 390, the taurobolia (practices involving the sacrifice of bulls) and cryobolia (practices involving the sacrifices of rams) were performed regularly.[3] Some of the initiates were of a very high social background, a fact, that undoubtedly indicates the increased prestige of the cult of the Mother of the Gods.[4]

The description of a pagan bull sacrifice by the late Roman poet Prudentius (348 – after 405) originates from the end of the 4th century. Although it is not explicitly linked to the taurobolia in honor of the Mother of the Gods, modern scholars are almost unanimous about that Prudentius describes how the priest descends into a pit dug in the ground, where planks were placed over it, while the sacrificial bull was killed in a manner so that the blood could bathe the man standing beneath it. In this regard the ritual has been interpreted as a characteristic fourth-century innovation in the cult of the Mother of the Gods. Recently, however, a justified skepticism has arisen about Prudentius’s account, and consequently it is no longer taken at face value as it was a few decades ago.[5]

The Mother of the Gods was well known in the lands along the Lower Danube in the age of the Principate.[6] In the Greek colonies of the Black Sea her cult has been known as early as the Classical era and has become particularly popular at the beginning of the Hellenistic era, when a temple has been built in her honor at Dionysopolis[7]; at the end of the 2nd century BC also a circle of worshippers, who were celebrating her cult is known to us.[8]  Monuments from the early Roman period are relatively few, but from the 2nd century and onwards the cult of the Great Mother is attested both along the coast and the inland of Moesia Inferior, while the early Hellenistic temple in Dionysopolis continued its operation.. Tomis, where there is also a temple of the goddess, became the largest center and in the late 2nd – early 3rd century, while a collegium of the Mother of the Gods existed in the city.[9] Namely, Tomis is the city where the most coins depicting the Mother of the  Gods originate from, and perhaps her image is also represented on pseudo-autonomous coins from the 1st century AD.[10]

Moreover, a monument dedicated to the Great Mother of the Gods for the health and safety of the Augusts and Caesars is related to Tomis.[11] Although the rulers are not mentioned by their names, it is accepted that they are Diocletian and Maximian and also the Caesars Constantius Chlorus and Galerius, while the dedication is dated to the period 293–305. The monument was dedicated by a dux of Scythia Minor Aurelius Firminianus. In older studies it has been assumed that the same person had also made an offering to Sol in connection with the construction of the Tomis walls[12], but a recent reading of this inscription shows that the dedicator’s name has actually been Domitius or Domitianus, not Aurelius Firminianus.[13] It is a curious detail that the altar was dedicated under good omens (bonis auspiciis), obtained perhaps by birdwatching. The monument under consideration does not provide enough information to judge whether we should consider it a continuation of the cult of the Mother of the Gods popular during the Principate period at Tomis, or just an influence of the imperial religion.

The above-mentioned temple of the Mother of the Gods in Dionysopolis continued to exist at the beginning of Late Antiquity. It was there that Emperor Licinius restored a silver statute of the goddess according to the information of the temple lists. The weight of the image is also given– 7 lb and 8 oz or just over 2.5 kg of silver. This act has been carried out by the provincial governor of Scythia Minor, Aurelius Speratianus. N. Sharankov, the researcher, who published the information on the monument assumes that the early statue has been stolen or destroyed during one of the barbarian invasions and its recovery has taken place at the beginning of Licinius’s reign.[14]

Two monumental temples were built in the residence of Galerius in Felix Romuliana. The larger of these was dedicated to Jupiter, where the imperial cult and that of Hercules were also celebrated. The second temple, the so-called minor temple, is identified with a shrine to the Mother of the Gods. This temple is located between palaces D1 and D3 and is more closely related to the last one. Architecturally, it is a simple building on a high podium with four columns on the façade. There is also a monumental altar in front of the temple. Beneath the floor of the cella we find a cruciform crypt, which is considered as a fossa sanguinis and is related to Prudentius’s information mentioned above. In support of this, parallels are drawn from Ostia and Neuss (Germany).[15] In fact, the term fossa sanguinis is not used in relation to the taurobolia in honor of the Mother of Gods. Moreover, the examples taken from Ostia and Neuss have been reinterpreted and their connection with the cult of the goddess has been rejected. All of this makes the identification of the small temple at Felix Romuliana with a shrine to the Mother of the Gods very doubtful[16].

The above two monuments related to the Mother of the Gods that we have examined cover all the information about her cult in the Lower Danube provinces during the Late Roman era. In the case of Dionysopolis there is definitely a continuation of traditions from the early Hellenistic era. It is probably not a coincidence that the second monument originates precisely from the great center of the cult during the Principate period, namely the provincial capital of Tomis. In both cases, however, we see that senior military or civilian figures were involved in the cult sustaining it during the earlier period, something that cannot be said about the local communities.


[1] Beard 2012, 326–327.

[2] Beard 2012, 331–333.

[3] CIL VI, 497–504.

[4] McLynn 1996, 320–329.

[5] McLynn 1996, 312–320; Beard 2012, 335–337.

[6] The cult of the Mother of the Gods in Moesia Minor and Thrace has been thoroughly studied by M. Tatcheva-Hitova in her monograph on Eastern Cults (1982, 117-253), translated also in English (Tacheva-Hitova 1983, 71-161), so I will not dwell here in detail on the cult in the Eastern Balkans.

[7] Стоянова 2013, 27; Stoyanova 2013, 27.

[8] ISM II, 2.

[9] ISM II, 83; Тачева-Хитова 1982, 228; Tacheva-Hitova 1983, 148.

[10] Тачева-Хитова 1982, 225–226; Tacheva-Hitova 1983, 146–147.

[11] Popescu 1976, no. 2 = ISM II, 144.

[12] Popescu 1976, no. 3 = ISM II, 155.

[13] Zahariade 2017, 433–449.

[14] Шаранков 2013, 54–55; Sharankov 2013, 53–54.

[15] Среjовић, Лаловић at al. 1981, 66–70; Čanak-Medić & Stojković-Pavelka 2011, 77–78.

[16] Gavrilović Vitas 2021, 35–35.



CIL = Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (Berolini), 1863-.

ISM II = Stoian, I. (1987) Inscriptiones Scythiae Minoris graecae et latinae. Vol. II. Tomis et territorium (Bucureşti).    


Среjовић, Лаловић et. al. (1981) Среjовић, Д., Лаловић, А., Jанковић, Ђ. „Гамзиград,“ Старинар 31 (1980), 65–80/ (Srejovich, Lalovich et al. (1981) Srejovich, D., Lalovich, A., Jankovich, J. “Gamzigrad,” Starinar 31 (1980), 65–80).

Стоянова, Д. (2013) „Хронология и паралели,“ Лазаренко, И., Мирчева, Е., Енчева, Р., Стоянова, Д., Шаранков, Н. Храмът на Понтийската майка на боговете в Дионисополис (Варна), 22–28/ (Stoyanova, D. (2013) “Hronologia I paraleli,” Lazarenko, I., Mircheva, E., Encheva, R., Stoianova, D., Sharankov, N. Hramat na Pontiyskata mayka na bogovete v Dionisopolis (Varna), 22–28). 

Тачева-Хитова, M. (1982) История на източните култове в Долна Мизия и Тракия (V в. пр. н.е.  – IV в. от н.е.) (София)/ (Tacheva-Hitova, M. (1982) Istoria na iztochnite kultove v Dolna Mizia i Trakia (V v. pr. n. e. – IV v. ot n. e.) (Sofia).

Шаранков, Н. (2013) „Надписи,“ Лазаренко, И., Мирчева, Е., Енчева, Р., Стоянова, Д., Шаранков, Н. Храмът на Понтийската майка на боговете в Дионисополис (Варна), 47–64/ (Sharankov, N. (2013) “Nadpisi,” Lazarenko, I., Mircheva, E., Encheva, R., Stoianova, D., Sharankov, N. Hramat na Pontiyskata mayka na bogovete v Dionisopolis (Varna), 47–64).

Beard, M. (2012) “The Cult of the “Great Mother” in Imperial Rome,” Brandt, J. R., Iddeng, J. W. (eds) Greek and Roman Festivals. Content, Meaning, and Practice (Oxford), 323–362.

Čanak-Medić, М. & Stojković-Pavelka, B. (2011) “Architecture and spatial structure of the imperial palace,” Popović, I. (ed.) Felix Romuliana – Gamzigrad (Archaeological Institute Monographs 49) (Belgrade), 49–106.

Gavrilović Vitas, N. (2021) Ex Asia et Syria. Oriental Religions in the Roman Central Balkans (Oxford).

McLynn, N. (1996) “The Forth-Century ‘taurobolium”,” Phoenix 50.3/4, 312–330.

Popescu, E. (1976) Inscripţiile greceşti şi latine din secolele IV-XIII descoperite în România (Bucureşti).

Sharankov, N. (2013) “Inscriptions,” Lazarenko, I., Mircheva, E., Encheva, R., Stoyanova, D., Sharankov, N. The Temple of the Pontic Mother of Gods in Dionysopolis (Varna), 47–64.

Stoyanova, D. (2013) “Chronology and parallels,” Lazarenko, I., Mircheva, E., Encheva, R., Stoyanova, D., Sharankov, N. The Temple of the Pontic Mother of Gods in Dionysopolis (Varna), 22–28.

Tacheva-Hitova, M. (1983) Eastern cults in Moesia Inferior and Thracia (5th century BC – 4th century AD) (EPRO 95) (Leiden).

Zahariade, M. (2017) “CIL III 14450 = IGLR 3 = ISM II 155. A revision and reassessment,” Pontica 50, 433–449.


This page is part of the project LABedia: Еncyclopedia of Late Antique Balkans, 4th-5th c.,
financed by the National Science Fund, contract КП-06-Н30/6, 13.12.2018