Back to top

The Roman Goddess Ceres

The Roman Goddess Ceres

In this thematic study of the Roman goddess Ceres, Barbette Spaeth explores the rich complexity of meanings and functions that grew up around the goddess from the prehistoric period to the Late Roman Empire.

December 1995
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
308 pages | 6 x 9 | 55 b&w illus., 1 map |

Interest in goddess worship is growing in contemporary society, as women seek models for feminine spirituality and wholeness. New cults are developing around ancient goddesses from many cultures, although their modern adherents often envision and interpret the goddesses very differently than their original worshippers did.

In this thematic study of the Roman goddess Ceres, Barbette Spaeth explores the rich complexity of meanings and functions that grew up around the goddess from the prehistoric period to the Late Roman Empire. In particular, she examines two major concepts, fertility and liminality, and two social categories, the plebs and women, which were inextricably linked with Ceres in the Roman mind. Spaeth then analyzes an image of the goddess in a relief of the Ara Pacis, an important state monument of the Augustan period, showing how it incorporates all these varied roles and associations of Ceres. This interpretation represents a new contribution to art history.

With its use of literary, epigraphical, numismatic, artistic, and archaeological evidence, The Roman Goddess Ceres presents a more encompassing view of the goddess than was previously available. It will be important reading for all students of Classics, as well as for a general audience interested in New Age, feminist, or pagan spirituality.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Historical Overview
    • 1.1 Ancient Italy
    • 1.2 Regal Rome
    • 1.3 The Early Republic
    • 1.4 The Middle Republic
    • 1.5 The Late Republic
    • 1.6 The Augustan Period
    • 1.7 The Early Roman Empire
    • 1.8 The Late Empire and Afterward
  • Chapter 2. Fertility
    • 2.1 Introduction
    • 2.2 Agricultural Fertility
    • 2.3 Human Fertility
    • 2.4 Ceres and Fertility in Roman Imperial Political Symbolism
    • 2.5 Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. Liminality
    • 3.1 Introduction
    • 3.2 Rites of Passage
    • 3.3 Rites of Intensification
    • 3.4 Ceres and the Death of Tiberius Gracchus
    • 3.5 Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. The Plebs
    • 4.1 Introduction
    • 4.2 The Temple of Ceres, Liber, and Libera
    • 4.3 Plebeian Magistrates and Ceres
    • 4.4 Ceres and Plebeian Social Consciousness
    • 4.5 Ceres, the Plebs, and Political Propaganda
    • 4.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. Women
    • 5.1 Introduction
    • 5.2 The Cult of Ceres and Proserpina
    • 5.3 Female Virtues
    • 5.4 Ceres and Women of the Imperial Family
    • 5.5 Conclusion
  • Chapter 6. Ceres in the Ara Pacis Augustue
    • 6.1 Introduction
    • 6.2 The Central Figure of the Ara Pacis Relief
    • 6.3 The Side Figures of the Ara Pacis Relief
    • 6.4 The Ceres Panel and the Relief Program of the Ara Pacis
    • 6.5 Ceres and the Political Message of the Ara Pacis
    • 6.6 Conclusion
  • Appendix 1. Original Text of Translated Passages
  • Appendix 2. Women of the Imperial Family Identified with Ceres
  • Notes
  • References
  • General Index
  • Index of Passages Cited

Barbette Stanley Spaeth is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans.


Recently there has been considerable interest in "Goddess religion," an interest that derives from a feminist desire to reimage the concept of the divine in female as well as male form. The impulse, I believe, is natural, given the long exclusion of women from patriarchal monotheistic religion. Although I find the goals of proponents of Goddess religion to be laudable, their approach is at times problematic. The basic difficulty arises from their theory that in the ancient past there existed one great Mother Goddess from whom all other goddesses derived. This female divinity was the supreme power in a society that was both egalitarian and peaceful, and, if not actually matriarchal, certainly matrifocal. This belief is often combined with another problematic assumption: that the goddesses of ancient society were archetypes, models for the behavior and personality of women both in the past and today. Such models pointed the way to the liberation of women, for the goddesses represented the power of the female elevated to the status of the divine.


These two concepts, I believe, have seriously distorted our understanding of the role of goddesses in antiquity and our picture of ancient religion and society as a whole. I am concerned that in their search to find precedents for their vision of a religion in which women are equal in importance to men and in which female needs are met, proponents of Goddess religion have both obscured what the ancient goddesses meant to the people who actually worshipped them and ignored the basically patriarchal structure of ancient society. I have no quarrel with those who would invent a new religion in which women may participate equally; indeed, I support their endeavor. My difficulty lies with those who would argue that their inventions represent historical reality. I feel that this emphasis on problematic historical precedents can harm the cause of creating a new feminist-oriented religion, for if it turns out that such constructs have no basis in historical fact, then the new creations may be discarded along with their discredited prototypes.


The goddesses of antiquity, I argue, can be understood only in their cultural context. By studying the literary and artistic representations of these divinities that were created by the men and women who worshipped them, we can recreate, at least partially, the meaning of those divinities within their society. This meaning is extraordinarily complex, and it is that very complexity, the web of associations represented in the figure of a single divinity, that I am interested in recovering. My interest is in religious ideology, the way in which a divinity embodies certain ideas of a people. This ideology, of course, is not static; it changes over time and is dependent on social context. Therefore, the study of a particular divinity must always be placed within a chronological and social framework to enable us to reconstruct, as best we can from the limited evidence remaining to us, a picture of that divinity's ideological significance.


I have chosen to study the Roman goddess Ceres. This divinity is usually known as the goddess of grain, from whom our word "cereal" derives, but her significance is much more complex than this simple association would indicate. Ceres has already been the subject of a number of interesting studies in Roman religion. Early scholarship focused on both her relationship to the Greek goddess Demeter and her association with the Italic earth goddess Tellus. In 1958 Le Bonniec published a comprehensive study of her cults down to the end of the Roman Republic: Le culte de Cérès à Rome des origines à la fin de la République. He traced the development of three aspects of her worship: the native Italic cult in which she was worshipped as a fertility deity together with Tellus; the triadic cult of Ceres, Liber, and Libera, which was closely tied to the social class of the Roman plebs; and the imported Greek cult of Ceres and her daughter, Proserpina, in which women played an important role. Le Bonniec's study was chronologically oriented, and his focus was largely on literary evidence for the various cults of the goddess. Since the appearance of Le Bonniec's study, scholarship has been directed primarily to challenging, explicating, or expanding his views on these three cults.


In this book I offer a new examination of the goddess Ceres that focuses on her ideological significance, rather than the historical development of her cults. I take a thematic approach by studying the various concepts and categories connected with the goddess. I ground this approach in a chronological study of the development of her ideological associations in the various periods of Roman history, from prehistoric Italy to the Late Roman Empire. The methodology is interdisciplinary: I employ literary, epigraphical, numismatic, and artistic sources to reconstruct a picture of Ceres and her meaning to the Romans. I have made use of a variety of collections to obtain the data for my study. For instance, I compiled an extensive list of references to the goddess in Latin literature from the computer data base prepared by the Packard Humanities Institute and the Pandora search program developed at Harvard University. I collected numismatic representations of Ceres from Crawford's study of Roman Republican coinage and Mattingly and Sydenham's of Roman imperial coinage. My gathering of artistic representations was made much easier by De Angeli's recent article on Demeter/Ceres in the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. Once I had accumulated all this information, I carefully evaluated it to determine what ideas and categories the Romans connected with Ceres over time. In the course of this evaluation, I discovered that often these ideological associations were used in a political context; the goddess herself became a symbol in the repertoire of Roman political propaganda. I felt this discovery revealed both the historical significance of the underlying themes that I had recognized in her character and the way in which a female divinity could be used by a male-dominated power structure to reinforce the status quo.


In this book, I present the results of my investigation into the ideological significance of Ceres to the Romans. In the first chapter, "Historical Overview," I present the chronological development of the various concepts and categories that were connected with the goddess. The next four chapters examine each of these ideas in detail.


The second chapter, "Fertility," looks at the most basic concept linked to the goddess, which is contained in the root of her name. "Ceres" derives from the Indo-European root *ker-, which means "to grow, bring increase," and the goddess represents the power that causes both plants and humans to grow—that is, agricultural and human fertility. The goddess' relation to both types of fertility is examined, along with the significance of her most common association, the growth and harvesting of grain.


Chapter 3, "Liminality," explores Ceres' connection to religious rituals of transition. The term "liminality" refers to crossing the threshold or boundary from one state of being to another. Liminal rituals may be divided into two categories: rites of passage and rites of intensification. The first category comprises those rites by which an individual passes from one social status to another, e.g., from single to married. Ceres is especially involved with the final stage of these rituals, in which the individual is reincorporated into society after a period of separation. The second category, the rites of intensification, includes those rituals that bond the members of a society together and preserve the society as a whole, e.g., the ritual that renews social ties after an attempt has been made to overthrow the government. I call Ceres' place in this second set of rituals her "liminal/normative" role, for through them she operates to preserve the status quo of society. Ceres' connection to liminality, which has never been recognized before, forms an essential aspect of her character.


Ceres has ties to the social category known as the plebs, a group which existed in opposition to the patricians, or aristocracy, of Rome. Chapter 4 examines her connection with this class as revealed through the associations of the plebeian political organization with her temple and the opposition of her triadic cult to the patrician cults of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva and of Cybele.


The fifth chapter considers the association of the goddess with Roman women, particularly women of the upper class. The role of these women in the Greek cult of Ceres is explored, as is the way in which that cult reflected their social roles. Ceres became identified with the ideal Roman woman of this class and her virtues of chastity and motherhood. The identification of the goddess with these female virtues is shown to be significant for our understanding of how religious ideology supported the patriarchal foundations of Roman society.


At the end of each of these topical chapters, I present a discussion of the use of that concept or category in Roman political propaganda. This discussion illustrates how that ideological association manifested itself in a particular period and demonstrates the practical significance of the symbol of Ceres. I examine the propagandistic use of her connections with agricultural and human fertility under the Empire, the appeal to her liminal/normative role in the events surrounding the death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C., the manipulation of her ties to the plebs in the numismatic propaganda of the Late Republic, and the political significance of her identification with women of the imperial family from Livia to Julia Domna.


In the final chapter I discuss in detail one image of the goddess that combines all of her various ideological associations and appears on a famous relief panel from the Ara Pacis Augustae, an important monument from Rome in the Augustan period. This representation, I argue, shows how the various aspects of the goddess are interrelated and illustrates their significance in Roman political symbolism.


Two appendixes to the book provide additional information pertinent to my study. Appendix 1 contains the original texts of the longer passages I have translated in the book. All the translations in the book are mine, unless otherwise specified. I have tried to be as literal as possible, without losing the sense. Appendix 2 offers a catalogue of the evidence that I have collected for the identification of women of the imperial family with Ceres.


This study of Ceres offers the reader a detailed picture of one Roman goddess. I hope that it will suggest the incredible diversity and complexity that the entire pantheon of female divinities presented in antiquity. Understanding that diversity and complexity is critical both for reconstructing the ancient past and for applying our knowledge of the past to the needs of women's spirituality today.




Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca