Sacerdos – priest or priestess?

Sometimes lunchtime conversations in the department are the best way to think about something from a new perspective, because everyone brings such different experience to the same question. This week I had a great conversation with my colleagues Richard Flower and Katharine Earnshaw about the connotations of the Latin word sacerdos.

We all started out with a slightly different opinion about the word. Although we all knew that theoretically sacerdos could be either masculine or feminine depending on context, we couldn’t decide between us whether it was a completely neutral word, or whether it was more usually masculine unless explicitly stated otherwise. The passage which we originally discussing was part of Livy’s account of the banning of the Bacchic rites in 186 BC.

tum Hispala originem sacrorum expromit. primo sacrarium id feminarum fuisse, necquem quam eo virum admitti solitum. tres in anno statos dies habuisse,  quibus interdiu Bacchis initiarentur; sacerdotes invicem matronas creari solitas. [9] Pacullam Anniam Campanam sacerdotem omnia, tamquam deum monitu,  immutasse: nam et viros eam primam filios suos initiasse, Minium et Herennium Cerrinios; et nocturnum sacrum ex diurno, et pro tribus in anno diebus quinos singulis mensibus dies initiorum fecisse. [10] ex quo in promiscuo sacra sint et permixti viri feminis, et noctis licentia accesserit, nihil ibi facinoris, nihil flagitii praetermissum.

Then Hispala set forth the origin of the mysteries. At first, she said, it was a ritual for women, and it was the custom that no man should be admitted to it. There had been three days appointed each year on which they held initiations into the Bacchic rites by day; it was the rule to choose the matrons in turn as priestesses. [9] Paculla Annia, a Campanian, she said, when priestess, had changed all this as if by the advice of the gods; for she had been the first to initiate men, her sons, Minius and Herennius Cerrinius; she had held the rites by night and not by day, and instead of a mere three days a year she had established five days of initiation in every month. [10] From the time that the rites were performed in common, men mingling with women and the freedom of darkness added, no form of crime, no sort of wrongdoing, was left untried. [trans. Heinemann, via Perseus]

In this example, the Bacchic rites were run by women – it’s clear from what Livy has written that both the sacerdotes generally and the one specific sacerdos mentioned, Paculla Annia, are women. Would this seem normal to a Roman, or would the power of women in the cult be one aspect of what made the Bacchic rites so foreign and threatening? Or was there change over time – would it have seemed normal in 186 BC but more unusual by Livy’s time? In part, our reading of the Livy might depend on whether sacerdos Livy’s choice of word, or the one that would have been used at the time of the incident. This is one of the rare occasions when we can go back to original documentation rather than just relying on Livy: we can look at the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus, the original law sent out by Rome to its allies in Italy and inscribed on bronze tablets at different locations around Italy. The surviving copy is from Ager Teuranus in the far south of Italy. This is the relevant sentence (with original spelling):

sacerdos nequis uir eset magister neque uir neque mulier quisquam eset.

[The senate has decided] that no man should be a priest; that no man or woman should be a magister [i.e. head lay administrator]. [trans. Clackson and Horrocks 2007]

So, the word sacerdos was definitely in use in 186BC. And the implication of the text seems to be that a Bacchic sacerdos might equally be either a man or a woman, but that from this point on men were specifically excluded.

I’ve never made a detailed count of how many “priests” and “priestesses” are mentioned in the epigraphy of Italy in different regions, but in general this chimed with my impression that priestesses are at least as common as, if not more common than, priests in most of Italy around this time. The word “priestess” (in various different languages) is particularly common on funerary epigraphy that mentions women, presumably because in many areas women were not felt to merit a gravestone of their own unless they had held this office. The fact that the Bacchic rites throughout Italy had female sacerdotes didn’t seem too unusual from my point of view.

[I don’t want to take this post on to long an Oscan-related diversion, so feel free to skip this paragraph, but we might also note that the root saker-, ‘sacrifice’, is found only in Italic languages and not in the rest of the Indo-European language family. Where it appears in Paelignian and Marrucinian (two languages very closely related to Oscan) in a word meaning priest/priestess, it only appears as the feminine word sacaracirix or sacracrix, and so can only refer to a priestess. As in Latin, these are often priestesses of Ceres (sacaracirix cerria), but can also be priestesses of Herentas/Venus (sacaracirix herentatia).]

We still weren’t sure, though, how Livy’s use of sacerdos would feel to an audience at Rome in the first century AD. I decided to do a quick-and-dirty CIL search to see how the use of sacerdos might change over time, or might vary across the regions of Italy.

CIL 01 (all regions up to 44BC)

Inscriptions with female sacerdos: 7 (70%)

Inscriptions with male sacerdos: 2 (20%)

Inscriptions with both male and female sacerdotes: 1 (10%)

Unknown/too damaged to tell: 0

Total: 10

CIL 06 (Rome after 44BC)

Inscriptions with female sacerdos: 15 (19%)

Inscriptions with male sacerdos: 51 (65%)

Inscriptions with both male and female sacerdotes: 0

Unknown/too damaged to tell: 13 (16%)

Total: 79


CIL 09 (Samnium, Apulia, and the rest of eastern central/southern Italy)

Inscriptions with female sacerdos: 11 (53%)

Inscriptions with male sacerdos: 9 (43%)

Inscriptions with both male and female sacerdotes: 0

Unknown/too damaged to tell: 1 (5%)

Total: 21

This is only a quick preliminary search, but it shows a big difference between Rome and the other parts of Italy, and also potentially some change over time. The CIL 01 examples – which are all from Rome and Samnium, apart from the SC de Bacchanalibus which was copied in Bruttium from an original written at Rome – show that 70% of the epigraphic examples of the word sacerdos from before c. 44BC refer to women. Most of these are priestesses of Ceres – here’s an example below.


Image source

The SC de Bacchanalibus and Livy’s account of the incident therefore seem to reflect the way sacerdos was being used in the second century BC – to describe (mostly) female priestesses.

In Rome after 44BC, the picture is very different. The majority of sacerdotes are men and it seems (from a brief scan through the inscriptions) there is also a big increase in sacerdos being used as one of a list of many official and religious inscriptions a man might have, rather than as a title representing a person’s one main position.

And if we look at Samnium, Apulia and the rest of the eastern half of Italy after 44BC, we can see that there is also an increase in the number of men referred to as sacerdos compared to before 44 BC. But the proportion of male sacerdotes is still much lower than at Rome after 44BC, at 43% in Samnium etc vs. 65% in Rome.

This search isn’t particularly fine-grained, and skates over a number of potential problems – for example, that some of the inscriptions are clearly multiple texts referring to the same person. Other than the pre- and post-44 division that is already present in the CIL volumes, I’ve also made no attempt to take account of the date of the texts. We would also need to look at the other regions of Italy to make a good argument for Rome being distinctive.

Nevertheless, the results are interesting. Does this reflect a true regional difference, whereby Rome’s religious practices were different than those of other areas of Italy, even after the Roman takeover of Italy was complete? Was this a regional difference that Romans were aware of? It’s possible – and if so, it has interesting ramifications for how we understand the use of sacerdos in Roman literature too. Katharine, Richard and I have been mulling this over today, and Katharine has noted that there’s often an assumption in commentaries that sacerdos refers to a man unless explicitly stated otherwise. Even this quick-and-dirty search suggests that this assumption might need to be re-evaluated.

With many thanks to Katharine and Richard!




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