On sacrifices, a guide for practicioners of the Religio Romana 
by M. Horatius Piscinus

The two forms of sacrifice

In general there can be said to have been two forms of sacrifice previously practiced in the religio romana, bloodless offerings and blood sacrifice.  While recognizing that blood sacrifices were made in the past and may be regarded as part of the tradition, there is more precedence in the tradition that rejects the use of blood sacrifice.  At different places in the Fasti, Ovid mentions that “Formerly what served to conciliate gods and men was spelt and pure salt’s glistening grain,” Sabine juniper and laurel, and garlands of flowers alone (1.338-445; 4.409-411), and that blood sacrifices were a later introduction.  Later offerings of incense from distant lands were begun by Liber, these being myrrh, frankincense, and Indian nard, and also that He introduced libations of milk and honey, and special liba cakes (3.727-736).  Still later, after the introduction of the vine, libations of wine were made to some of the gods, while milk was retained as the appropriate libation for the gods and goddesses of an older tradition. Pliny mentions that rites established by Romulus continued the custom of using milk libations, and that Numa had forbidden wine libations on funeral pyres (Natural History 14.88). Tradition held that Pompilius Numa was the second king of Rome, succeeding Romulus.  That same tradition credited Numa with having founded most of the institutions of the religio romana, including its calendar and priesthoods.  The rites instituted for the state religio by Numa did not include the use of blood sacrifices, and explicitly disallowed their use.  Plutarch too mentions that blood sacrifices were uncommon in the time of Numa, and that grain was the most frequently used offering (Numa 8.8). We should understand this to mean then that blood sacrifices continued in private practices, although not in the tradition of the public rites.  This tradition forsaking blood sacrifices goes back further, to Pythagoras, and this was recognized in Roman traditions by making Numa a student of Pythagoras.  This story may trace back to Aristoxenus who is said to have written that Romans were among Pythagoras’ followers.  The story continued at least until 186 BCE, and although officially abandoned later, it is still found with Ovid into the early empire (Cicero, Republica 2.28, Tusculum 4.3; Livy 1.18, 40.29.9-14; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.59; Plutarch, Numa 18; Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.4.481, Fasti 3.153; Pliny, Natural History XIII.87).  From Pythagoras and Numa, through Seneca and in a broader sense Apollonius of Tyana as well, there was within the religio romana another, older tradition which not only rejected the use of blood sacrifices, but which also made vegetarianism a pious choice in private practice.

The first blood sacrifice, that of a sow, is said to have been ordered for Ceres (Ovid, Fasti 1.349, Metamorphoses 15.111-13). In Rome the Aventine Temple of Ceres had a strong association with Greek influences arriving from southern Italy.  Cicero considered the worship of Ceres at Rome to have derived from the Greeks (pro Balbo 55; In C. Verrem 72.187).  He states that the rituals were Greek in origin and in name, and that even the priestesses who conducted the rituals in his time were Greek and performed their rites in Greek.  But we should understand these Greek rites to have been the later introduction brought to Rome when priestesses from Capua were invited in 196 BCE to perform the ritus Graecus.  The earlier Temple of Ceres, dedicated in 494 BCE, was also associated with Sabellian Capua and may have had some Greek influences, but was distinctly an Italic cult.  The Temple of Ceres was also dedicated to Liber and Libera in 494 BCE.  The assimilation of Dionyssus with Liber did not occur until 186 BCE, however, and so the cultus deorum of Ceres, Liber, and Libera was Italic at the time of its initial introduction.  It cannot therefore be said that Ceres was introduced to Rome by Greeks in the same manner that the Magna Mater arrived from Asia; only that certain aspects of Her worship was derived from Greek influences. These traditions on the cultus Cereri suggest that the adoption of blood sacrifice was a foreign introduction to the religio romana originally established by Pompilius Numa, but not that blood sacrifices were necessarily of Greek origin.

We should recall, also, that human sacrifices were made in an earlier period.  The Senate outlawed the practice in 454 BCE (Pliny N. H. XXX.12; the Twelve Tablets), although we know of some later instances.  The Senate again outlawed human sacrifices in 97 BCE when Licinius Crassus was consul.  In certain Roman rites puppets were substituted for human victims.  There is the well-known example of the Argei.  These straw puppets were tossed by the Vestal Virgins into the River Tiber on 14 (15) May, who Ovid and Cicero mention as substitutes for old men that were sacrificed in an earlier age (Ovid, Fasti 5.621-662; Cicero, pro Roscio Amerino, 35.100 mentions the sexagenarios de ponte).  Similarly at the Feriae Sementiva and Paganalia in January, and at the Feriae Latinae in April, puppets (oscillae) were hung in trees in substitution of an earlier practice of sacrificing boys (Probus and Servius commenting on Georgic II.389, where Virgil wrote, “invoke Thee with glad hymns, O Bacchus, and to thee hang puppet-faces on tall pines to swing.” Macrobius 1.7.34).  One legend held that Remus had been sacrificed to purify the pomerium wall, and recently (summer 2000) there was discovered a pomerium wall around the Palatine under which the remains of four sacrificial victims had been placed.  These are believed to have been sacrificed at the time when Servius Tullius built the walls of Rome, expanding the pomerium.  When Augustus rededicated the city, four pillars were buried, one inscribed in memory of Remus, either commemorating or in substitution of the Servian sacrifices.  Recalling ancient practices, yet substituting puppets of straw, wax, or bread in the religio romana may be compared to the practices of other religions.  The main celebration of Christian churches is that of a human sacrifice and a cannibalistic meal, where bread is substituted for the flesh of their founder.  Among the Chinese objects made of paper are burned in sacrifice as substitutes for what they represent.

In a similar fashion the attitude towards the use of animals for blood sacrifices changed over time. In the Republican era pontifical regulations permitted wax figures or animal forms made of dough to be substituted for animal victims.  In the time of Nero, the philosopher and miracle-worker Apollonius of Tyana spoke out against not only human sacrifices, but also against any of the traditional blood sacrifices.  “I am not,” he said, “the sort of person who prays with his eye on a knife or offers these kind of sacrifices…and if I had…I would become guilty of murder and operate with entrails that are an abomination to me and wholly unacceptable to the gods (Philstratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 8.7.9-10).”  Blood sacrifices of all kinds were then banned by an imperial decree on 24 February, 391 CE.  Modern practitioners of the religio romana, rejecting the use of blood sacrifices, have thus returned to honoring the practices first instituted by Pompilius Numa.

The reasons for sacrifices

The rites of the religio romana employ the use of sacrifices in conjunction with prayers offered up to the gods and goddesses.  The reasons for including sacrifices are given by the fourth century Neoplatonist Cynic Sallustius. 

1.      First is the matter of giving thanks to the gods and goddesses for all they have provided.  One gives back a portion of what they have received.  As such, what is appropriate to sacrifice to any deity depends upon what specific providence is under the deity.  An appropriate sacrifice to Ceres, the goddess of grain, would therefore be grain or bread; for Pomona, the goddess of fruiting plants, the appropriate sacrifice would be the fruits She has provided.

2.      “Prayers offered without sacrifices are only words, with sacrifices they are live words; the wording gives meaning to the life while the life animates the words.”  The religio romana promotes the growth and development of the whole person, in body, mind and soul.  Thus in every rite we perform, these three components of ourselves must be involved.  It is with our physical actions that we involve the use of the body, our mind in the thoughts and words we use, and our soul is in the sincere intent and devotion of the performance of our rites.   The words of a prayer voices the meaning and intent, the sacrifice gives it substance, but there must also be the third portion to conjoin our soulful essence with our actions.  The essence of our actions is then carried along with the essence of the sacrifice back to its divine source.

3.      “The happiness of every object is its own perfection, and perfection for each is communion with its own cause.”  Every thing proceeds from the gods and shall return to the gods in its own time.  Or as Proclus stated, “Every effect remains in its cause, proceeds from it, and reverts upon it (Elements of Theology, Prop. 35). Having lived its life, performed its purpose in life, each constituent part of an object shall return to its source, its being perfected in the completion of its entire cycle of life.  That is true for humans, animals, and plants, and even, it may be said, for inanimate objects as well. In the first reason given above, the perspective was from that of the deities, returning what is already under their providence.  Here Sallustius looked at sacrifice from the perspective of what is being offered, that is, its returning to its divine source alone, to achieve its perfection of being. Reverting back to its origin, returning through each stage of its procession from the source, and thus returning towards the divine, a sacrifice reverts upon its own perfection in the Divine (Proclus Elements of Theology Prop. 37).

The six times sacrifices are made

There are six types of sacrifices that may be made in the religio romana. 1) First is to honor the gods and to commemorate certain events such as the dedication of a temple. 2) To propitiate the gods when some disaster has occurred or other event whereby the gods demand a sacrifice. 3) Similarly, if divination, dreams or visions reveal a requirement that a sacrifice needs to be made. 4) By far though, most sacrifices made by individuals are performed in thanks, after a contract was met by the gods. A vow (nuncupatio) is first made that a sacrifice will be offered, or that an altar will be erected, or a temple built or renovated, or some other action that will be taken to fulfill the vow, on condition that the god perform some request.  If the request is fulfilled, the deity having accepted the vow, then one is obliged to fulfill the vow (ex voto); failure to do so would make that person sacer.  Sometimes, 5) in expectation that prayers will be answered, a sacrifice is made, but there is no obligation on the part of the deity. Most often these types of sacrifices would be dedicated pro salute in hopes of being healed of some illness.  6) Lastly there are those sacrifices made, not to honor the gods or to fulfill a vow, but made instead as part of a purification rite.


In ancient times ludi were established to honor the gods and goddesses.  The Ludi plebii of November, established in 220 BCE, and the Ludi Taurei Quinquennales conducted every five years in June, first established in 186 BCE, consisted of chariot races and horse races.  The Ludi Apollinares of July, established in 212 BCE, and the Ludi Florales of April, established in 173 BCE, consisted of theatrical performances and chariot races.  While the Ludi Saeculares of May and June consisted of three days and three nights of continuous theatrical performances.  At other times poetry contests were held in honor of gods and goddesses.  Composing poetry for the gods and goddesses, especially odes to the deities, is still an accepted form of offering made today.

Another ancient practice was to hold a feast in honor of the gods, a lectisternitum.  Couches (lecti) were set outside in front of temples, upon which were placed their images, representing that the gods and goddesses join with the celebrants at the feast.  Offerings of food were placed on tables before them.  In private homes this practice was also made for the Lares, not unlike at the Seder of Judaism, or the Sicilian practice for St. Joseph’s Day.  Today bringing the images of the gods from the lararium to a dinner table to share in the family meal continues this practice, or otherwise food is set before the lararium.  Such offerings of food are left for only as long a time as the meal takes place, and then are properly disposed.  

By far the most common form of sacrifice made in ancient times was the erection of altars to the gods and goddesses of Roma antiqua.  These were small column-like altars with a hallow (focus) in the upper surface for a flame in which to make offerings of incense.  Such arae are inscribed with the name of the deity (in ablative case) to whom it is offered, the name of the practitioner (in nominative) who erected the ara, followed by a statement of the reason.  The reasons usually given were: pro salute for health, ex visu following a vision, ex voto following a vow or VSLM (Votum Solvit Libenter Merito, “kept his vow freely to the god who deserved it”), or simply to say dono dedit (“He gave this gift”).  Such arae were erected at roadside shrines or in front of temples.  Today grottoes and arae are set up either in a family garden or inside the home.

Following the erection of arae then, the most common offerings used on them, ancient or modern, is that of incense or the burning of aromatic herbs.  Herbs used for all gods and goddesses are myrtle, bay laurel and juniper, while frankincense, myrrh, nard, gum Arabic and orris root are common incenses.  Cut flowers and floral wreaths are another common offering.  Certain herbs and flowers are more closely associated with certain goddesses and gods than others.  An incomplete list of these associations is given below:

Adonis: fennel, barley, roses.

Apollo: bay laurel, hyacinth.

Asclepius: butterfly weed, milkweed, mustard, thin-leaf parsnip.

Castor and Pollux: frankincense.

Ceres: barley, dittany of Crete, hyacinth, pennyroyal, poppies, spelt, storax.

Chiron: chiron vine, greater centaury, St. John’s wort, wormwood, yarrow.

Diana: hazel, jasmine, lavender, mandrake, rosemary, wormwood.

Faunus: peony, myrtle.

Faustus: ivy, pine.

Hecate: garlic, hemlock, mandrake, rue.

Hercules: henbane, herb Robert, opopanax, oregano, monkshood.

Juno: iris, lily, orris root, saffron.

Juppiter: benzoin, cassia, cinnamon, marjoram, saffron, sage, vervain.

Lares: myrtle, juniper.

Liber and Libera: honey, ivy, mint, pennyroyal, cinnamon, frankincense.

Mercury: dill, hellebore niger, marjoram, mercurialis, myrtle.

Mars: cinnamon, red clover, peony.

Minerva: ampelos or chiron vine, olive, rosemary.

Pales: basil.

Priapus: lotus tree.

Proserpina: hyacinth, mandrake, mint, myrtle, parsley, rosemary, rue, violet.

Quirinus: juniper.

Saturnus: costus, storax, violets.

Venus: ambergris, fennel, lily, marjoram, myrtle, rose.

Vesta: bay laurel, juniper, violets.

Libations of unmixed wine may be offered to any of the goddesses and gods, with the exception of Ceres, Tellus, and Pales, to whom only milk, or honey mixed in water or in milk is offered.  Wine offered in a libation to Fauna, the Bona Dea, may be made, provided it is referred to only as milk and to its container as a honey pot, while no myrtle may be offered to Her.  One may also note a passage from Virgil, (Eclogue 7.33-34): Sinum lactis et haec te liba, Priape, quotannis exspectare sat est: custos es pauperis horti. (A bowl of milk, Priapus, and these cakes, yearly, it is enough for you to claim; you are the guardian of a poor man's plot.) Following in the tradition of Numa, milk is a more acceptable general libation.

Often mentioned as an offering to the gods is libum, a special cake made for religious rituals.  From Cato’s De Agricultura 75 a recipe is given:

In a mortar, break up well two pounds of cheese.  Add a pound of wheat flour, or for a more delicate cake add only half a pound of very fine flour.  Mix together the cheese and flour.  Add one egg and knead the mixture together.  Form the dough into a loaf of bread, and place it on a stone baking plate, atop oiled fresh bay leaves.  Set an earthen bowl over the bread to bake it.

The libum is cut into small squares, then piled into a neat stack.  Honey may be dripped over the liba, which is then served into a fire with a knife, as a burnt offering.  Any offering or sacrifice, once dedicated to a god or goddess, should not be touched or profaned in any manner.  Other special breads used for sacrifices are known.  Cato also offers a recipe for placenta at De Agricultura 76, and mentions fertum at other places, although the recipe is not given.  Special moulds were used to make a sacrificial bread for Quirinus that had a wheel impressed into the top.  Some had deep indentations to facilitate breaking the bread.  Another specially prepared offering is moretum, described in a poem by that name and attributed to Virgil.  Ovid mentions moretum as an offering to Magna Mater (Fasti 4.367-72). This is an herb salad, made with garlic, celery, rue, and coriander combined with cheese to form a pate (some oil and vinegar can be added to help smooth it into a paste). It may be molded into a round form and covered with a flour and water paste, then baked and used like libum.  In modern practice any home baked bread may be substituted, with perhaps a faccaccia being the best to use.  These may be drizzled with honey or oil before offering.

It was duty of the Vestal Virgins to make the mola salsa used in sacrifices.  Spelt was dry roasted in ovens, then crushed into course flour and combined with pure salt.  The mola salsa was then drizzled over the backs of sacrificial animals.  Today mola salsa may be drizzled directly into a fire as an offering, or used to season other offerings.  If a wax or dough figure is being used in substitution of an animal sacrifice then it would be treated in the manner employed in the past.  Some hairs would be made into the figure’s forehead, which would be cut and fed to a flame first.  Its head would then be anointed with wine and mola salsa drizzled over its back. The figure would then be sliced into and the whole figure fed into a flame. For the use of vegetable substitutes for animal sacrifices, see the contest between Jupiter and Numa given by Ovid (Fasti 3.337-348).  Similar to the mola salsa was the februa or pium far made for the purification rituals of the house and curiae that took place in February.  This too was made of spelt roasted in an antique fashion, but salt is not mentioned in its preparation.  The spelt was then pounded into rude cakes and offered to Juno on crude tables (mensae).  Roman lictores carried februa for use in purifying houses, believed to have been used by strewing it on a doorsill of a house where someone had died and also as an incense (Ovid Fasti 2.24-5). There was also the salsamina “made by mixing four kinds of fruit” (Arnobius Adversus Gentes 7.24), i.e. four kinds of grains.

Another type of offering is the use of votives.  These may be made of wood, terracotta, silver, copper or bronze.  They can be coins or figurines of the gods and goddesses.  They may be miniature tools or weapons, or models of feathers or leaves.  Often miniature parts of the body, such as hands and feet or specific organs, were used as votives in sacrifices made for assistance in healing.  Plaques with triangular handles were also used, either made with a relief depicting the gods or inscribed with a special request.  Votives were then broken and buried in special deposits beneath arae or near or under templa. 

Unique sacrificial terms for offerings of various kinds are known to us only from Arnobius (Adversus Gentes 7.24).  These include a number of consecrated cakes formed into different shapes: africia, gratilla, catumeum, cumspolium, and cubula.  Prior to bread making Romans ate grain in pottages, and two these, differing only in quality, were retained in sacrifices – fitilla and frumen.  There are several other specialized terms referring to blood sacrifices, such as the taedae that is animal fat cut into very small pieces like dainties.  These specialized terms for different offerings, and instruction on how to prepare them, were kept in the Libri pontificales.  Other strictures gave the specific animals that were to be offered to various deities, along with their markings, such as the use of a goat for Liber, a virgin calf for Minerva, or a special breed of oxen for Jupiter. There were also specialized terms for the instruments used in sacrifices, and the archaic utterances to be recited, all the details to be followed to the letter.  But all of these strictures were meant for the formalized rituals of the state religio. In private practice there was greater variance and the same pontifical books provided for substitutions by using images made of wax or flour dough.  Cato’s lustratio is an example of a private rite, that mentions that a piglet, lamb, and calf may be substituted in a suovitaurilia which required matured animals be sacrificed, provided that they were not referred to as such (De Agricultura 141).  A modern practitioner of the religio romana who researches ancient rites for their own rites should bear this in mind.  While attention to detail and exactness is emphasized in the religio romana, more attention should be given to pious devotion than to outward performances.

Performing a Sacrifice

Daily prayers and offerings are made before the lararium (see Lararium Rites).  At the main meal of the day a portion of wine is offered to Jupiter by pouring it onto the ground, or otherwise in a small bowl which can later be poured on soil, with a simple prayer, Jupiter Pater macte vino in ferio esto.  Other simple rites may be performed in a similar fashion. 

A sacrifice however is a more formal rite and requires some preparation.  First the practitioner should prepare himself or herself through fasting, purification, and prayer.  Usually this will involve a period of days, five to nine days being common.  One should fast, abstaining from meats, grain products, sweets and any heavy foods, and instead eat fruits and light foods.  Alcohol, caffeine, drugs and preservatives should also be avoided.  Herbal teas and tonics are taken as drink.  Bathing, fumigations with sulphur or vervain, and anointings with oil are made in this period; the hair and beard should not be cut, nor should the nails be trimmed in this period. Daily rites of prayer and offerings should be maintained. On the day the sacrifice will be made, the celebrant should eat no food and drink only a small amount of vervain tea; bathe, anoint with oil, and dress in white.  Other precautions may be warranted when approaching certain deities, or when sacrificing to a deity whose identity is unknown.

An area is then prepared in which to perform the sacrifice.  The area should be swept, then aspersed with vervain water and incensed with frankincense.  The altar is scrubbed with fresh vervain or mints, and wound with woolen filaments three times. A fire is then lit upon the altar and incense of vervain or frankincense is offered. (Pliny, Natural History 25.59; Virgil, Eclogue VIII. 64-66.)  Facing south, auguries should then be taken for any sign of an ill omen before proceeding (see On Auguries). 

If no signs appear which prohibit the sacrifice from being made at that time, then the sacrifice must be ordered.  This is an important step as it signifies what action is about to be made.  In De Agricultura 141 Cato states this ordering of the sacrifice as “Impera suovitaurilia circumagi, and then gives an example of the instructions one gives in ordering a sacrifice to be made.  Another example is found in Plautus (Pseudolus 326-7), Ei accerse hostias, victumas, lanios, ut ego sacrificem summo Jovi (“Go, fetch offerings, victims, and those who slay them, that I may sacrifice to Jove most high”).  Usually a sacrifice is promised to the deity on some previous occasion.  One must fulfill such a promise, but a specific time when it is to be performed is not generally given. Now however, having then ordered the sacrifice, one is committed to begin performing the sacrifice.  Failure to perform the sacrifice beyond this step would place a person in sacer.   The sacrifice that is to be made will depend upon the occasion and the deity to whom it is offered.  Every precaution should be taken to follow exactly what a formula requires in a particular ritual.  Here we will consider the various steps required in making sacrifices, speaking only in general terms.

1)     One should always begin with an invocation in the manner of “Jane, Jupiter, Mars Pater, Quirine.  Other deities may be called upon in addition to, or substituted for these deities, however Janus should always be included, and should always be named first to begin a formal sacrifice. In general, a priest would face east when invoking Janus and the other deities.  Gods of the sea are invoked by facing in the direction of the largest nearby body of water.  Certain other deities may be traditionally thought of as living in other directions.  The Dii Inferi and chthonic goddesses and gods like Tellus and Ceres are generally invoked with the palm of the right hand placed on the earth or otherwise facing downward (Sallustius: pecora quae natura prona finxit; Varro: puerum imponere equo pronum in ventrem, postea sedentem).  Most of the Dii Consentes are invoked with the palm of the right hand raised to the sky, the fingers bent slightly backward (supinas manus ad caelum tendere).  The gods invoked in this first step are called to witness the sacrifice.  In addition to the invocation, they are also given offerings individually, beginning with Janus.  The manner of making these offerings is the same as in a daily ritual.  Cato offers an example (De Agricultura 134): Iano pater, te hac strueo ommovendo bonas preces precoruti sies volens propitius mihi (“Father Janus, in offering you this heap of cakes, I pray with virtuous prayers, in order that you may be favorable and gracious to me.”) And again, Iano pater, uti te strue ommovenda bonas preces bene precatus sum, eiusdem rei ergo macte vino inferio esto (“Father Janus, as in offering you the heap of cakes prayers were well spoken, for the sake of the same things, be honored by this humble wine.”)  After offerings have been made in turn to each deity who has been invoked aloud, the formal sacrifice may proceed.  At the conclusion of the sacrifice itself, a prayer and offering should be made to Vesta in the same manner to conclude the ceremony. 

2)     The invocation that will be made to the deity to whom the sacrifice is offered is performed a little differently.  This invocation is made in two parts, the manner of which is described on the Iguvium Tavolo, in Umbrium, as Sevum kutef pesnimu arepes arves, or in Latin, Formulam clare precator tostis granis.  The instruction given here is that the prayer is to be spoken over each offering (in the example given, over each pile of grain), and that it is to be made according to ritual formula.  This indicates that the invocation is first to be made aloud, and it is to be intoned, not simply spoken.  Further, the particular phrasing used here, formulam clare, means that the invocation is to be murmured.   The reason why both forms of invocation are inferred here is simple.  At a public sacrifice such as is described on the Iguvium Tavolo the names of gods who are invoked aloud are for the benefit of those witnessing the ceremony.  But the names of the gods who are invoked to sanctify the sacrifice, and thus are spoken by formula over the sacrifices themselves, are murmured because the names which will be used are known only to the attending priests. The deity is first addressed aloud in a formula that is more elaborate than used above.  An example from Plautus for Jupiter is, Iovi opulento, inculto, Ope gnato, supreme, valido, viripotenti, Opes, spes bonas, copias commodenti, lubens disque omnibus ago gratias virtulorque merito…(O Jove, opulent, glorious son of Ops, supreme God, powerful and mighty, bestower of wealth, good hopes and bounty, gladly I give thanks and rightly praise you and all the gods…) (Persa 251-4).  Or again in Plautus, Iuppiter, qui genus colis alisque hominem, per quem vivimus aevom, quem penes spes vitae sunt hominum omnium, … (O Jupiter, you who cherish and nurture the human race, through who we live and draw the breath of being, in who rests the hopes and lives of all mankind…) (Poenulus 1187-88).  This initial address of the deity may call upon Him with several references to myths about Him, His titles and His attributes, in a manner that is found among the Orphic Hymns. Offerings of incense and libations are made along with the invocation.

3)     The sacrifice is first led to the altar.  The altar is approached with the right hand raised to waist level, palm up, either by the individual carrying the sacrifice, or the one who leads the procession.  Taking position at or near the altar along with the celebrant will be the priest (popa) who will perform the ceremony, certain assistants (gemelli, flamines, and victimi) and the flute players (tibiae) or other musicians who are to play throughout the ceremony. 

A)     The ceremony begins with the celebrant invoking the deity aloud, as described above.

B)     Then is followed a ceremony in the manner described by Livy (A.U.C. 1.24).  The popa requires of the chief celebrant, “Do you order me to make this sacrifice to (the name of the deity)?”  Upon an affirmative answer, the popa then says, “I demand of thee, (name or title), some tufts of grass.”  The celebrant then replies, “Take those that are pure.” (For the meaning of the ‘grass’ see Ovid, Fasti 3.27-28.)  A small portion of the sacrifice is then cut away and offered into the fire on the altar.  In ancient times tufts of hair would be cut from the forehead of a sacrificial animal.  One rite described by Cato involves a sacrifice of leeks to Jupiter, in which he specifies that the tops are first cut from the heads, and that both are offered.  The popa next asks, `Do you constitute me as the representative of (those on whose behalf the sacrifice is made), sanctioning also my vessels and assistants?'  To which the celebrant replies, `So far as may be without hurt to myself and (those named above), I do.' 

C)     The popa takes the portion of the sacrifice that was removed and touches it to the forehead of the celebrant. Whatever else is being sacrificed, this first portion represents the whole, and is connected to the person authorizing the sacrifice.  This portion is then offered to the flames before it is sanctified.  Observance is made to see that the selected sacrifice is acceptable to the invoked deity.  Were the sacrifice made to Jupiter or any of the celestial gods and goddesses, then the smoke should rise; if to a chthonic deity, then the smoke should seep to the ground. Other omens such as the calls of birds or the sound of lightning are also taken into consideration.

D)     Next the sacrifice is to be sanctified to the deity. Over the sacrifice some mola salsa should be sprinkled. In ancient times the mola salsa was specifically used in sanctifying a blood sacrifice.  Yet its components, salt and spelt, go back to an earlier period, before blood sacrifices were used (Fasti 1.37-38).  A sacrifice of bread, or grain, fruit or herbs, or even some inanimate objects may be sanctified with a sprinkling of pure salt, or mola salsa which has been specially prepared for ritual use.  The sacrifice should also be sprinkled with either wine or milk (salted water may be substituted) depending upon the deity invoked. Over the sacrifice is then murmured a formula invoking the deity by His or Her secret names.  Here an ancient formula of invocation is made, making use of alliteration and assonance in an enumeration of attributes, made with parallels of paired terms, the second term expanded from the first, and the parallels linked together in a chiasmus relation.  Also to be enumerated are the reasons the sacrifice is being made.  A slit is then made into the sacrifice.  Sacrificial knives were usually made of chipped flint or bronze, iron and steel should not be used anywhere in the area of a sacrifice.  The sacrifice is now sanctified and may no longer be touched by human hands.  Instruments are used to cut the sacrifice into small pieces, stack them into a pile, and feed them into a flame.  In the case where votives are being offered, they are held with one instrument and struck by a hammer to bend or break them, before being deposited into the ground.  Prayers said while making an offering are usually made with the right hand extended over the fire, palm down, and striking the chest over the heart whenever the name of the deity is said.  The chest is also struck at the name of the deity while bending over the sacrifice in sanctifying it.

E)     If the sacrifice is to involve a shared meal (daps), a portion offered to the deity and the rest to be eaten by the celebrants, then the latter must be profaned.  The entire sacrifice was first sanctified to the deity and is thus sacred.  That which is offered to the deity is therefore not to be touched by human hands.  In contrast, what is then to be served to the celebrants is touched by the priest, profaning it so that humans may eat of it.  In De Agricultura 132, Cato refers to the sanctified sacrifice itself as being Jove, which is “piously profaned,” Jove caste profanato sua contagione.  If the sacrifice were several loaves of bread, one loaf might be offered into the fire, the rest would each have to be touched by the popa before distributing them to the celebrants. These must all be consumed immediately, within the sacred place that was made for the sacrifice (Cato’s Ubi res divina facta erit, statim ibidem consumito ~De Agricultura 83.)  Sacrifices made to the Dii Inferni may not be shared in this manner, but must be completely consumed by fire, or otherwise buried in a manner that will not be disturbed.  A sacrifice offered to the Dii Inferni becomes one with them as with all sanctified sacrifices, and as they are deities of putrefaction, among other things, the sanctified sacrifice is no longer suitable for human consumption.

F)     A final consideration is that a sacrifice offered to the deity may be found unacceptable.  In that case an additional sacrifice is made.  Here again reference is made to Cato, as in De Agricultura 141.  “If less than all of the sacrifice is successfully made,” then make an additional sacrifice with the formula “if something of this sacrifice was not pleasing to you, this sacrifice (I make) to you in atonement.”

4)  Finally the ceremony is concluded with additional offerings of wine (or milk) and incense.  These may include offerings to the deities invited in the first part of the ceremony to witness it, and to the deity invoked in the sacrifice, and properly should conclude with an offering to Vesta. 

Use of this guide

The above description of sacrificial rites is to serve as a general guide for modern practitioners of the religio romana. Any ceremony developed for your own rites should be carefully researched.  Ancient texts will provide guidance on different aspects of a ceremony, but rarely provide guidance on a complete ceremony.

Di deaeque semper vos bene ament.

~ M Horatius Piscinus



M. Porcius Cato, De Agricultura.

M. Tullius Cicero, De re publica; Tusculan Disputations; pro Roscio Amerino

T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita libri

P. Ovidius Naso, Fasti; Metamorphoses.

G. Plinius Secundus, Natural History.

Plutarch, Paralel Lives: Numa.

Sallustius, On the Gods.

P. Vergilius Maro, Georgica; Eclogues.

Fowler, W. W., The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, London, 1899.

Scullard, H. H., Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London, 1981.

Beard, M. and North, J., Religions of Rome; Cambridge, 1998.