Sam Tarley, Bull Sacrifice: Rituals too hot for Rome (Pagan Part 2)


A screen capture from HBO’s Rome depicting a bull sacrifice. In antiquity, the sacrifice’s dedicator (dressed in white) was likely in a pit and not under a stage — presumably HBO deviated from the historical set up so the audience could see the dedicator. © HBO

This article continues from here and discusses the history behind Sam Tarley’s ritual bath in a bull aurochs’ blood, which is likely based on the Roman taurobolium ritual.


A statue of Cybele (housed at the Getty Villa).

In the real world, bull sacrifices occurred first in modern-day Turkey (Asia Minor), Greece, and eventually Rome. From the first century until Pagan worship sputtered out, the Romans sacrificed bulls – in a highly ritualized way  – and dedicated those sacrifices to the Great Mother (also known as Cybele). It’s easy to see why Cybele was a hit with the Romans. The Great Mother was the goddess of fertility (including good crops) and military success.

The first episode of BBC/HBO’s fantastic series Rome – set in roughly 52 BCE — recreates this stunning ritual, also known, as taurobolium. Although the sacrificial style is anachronistically closer to the third-century CE (AD), Rome’s reenactment is close enough to what researchers believed occurred, it’s worth seeing before we discuss the ritual.

HBO/BBC Rome’s Bull Sacrifice

Given the bull sacrifice’s world-building power, you can’t blame the showrunners for including it – even though it may be an anachronism. Records of Roman bull sacrifices don’t begin until over two hundred years after the show begins.


The head priest in the cult of Cybele, as depicted in HBO’s Rome. © HBO.

In some ways, it’s easy to think the Romans were like us — Ancient Rome shares so many values with the modern Western world: ambition, pride, materialism, excess, and hedonism. Nothing says to the viewer, “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore,” quite like a blood-drenched pagan sacrifice. Given that at least one historian described taurabolium as a “symbol of paganism itself” – what better way to show the viewer this is a dramatically different world?


The archigallus in bas relief.

Before you watch the YouTube video (below), the clip depicts Atia of the Julii participating in a bull sacrifice. For those not familiar with the HBO’s Rome, Atia is the fictionalized alpha woman of Julius Caesar’s extended family. She is proud, greedy, amoral, overly ambitious, and self-absorbed. Although Atia loves her children, her ambition often gets in the way.

Atia foolishly sends her adolescent son, Octavian, on a dangerous journey, with limited guard, to deliver a prized white horse to Caesar. Along the way — surprise, surprise – Gaullish brigands kidnap Octavian. Wracked with guilt, and desperate for her son’s safe return, Atia procures a bull sacrifice at the temple of the Great Mother (Cybele).

This YouTube video shows the sacrifice scene  – and frankly, there’s nothing like it. It’s disgusting, but worth watching. It’s doubtful you would see such a detailed reenactment in a documentary. Note, after clicking play on the video below, you have to click on the “Watch this video on YouTube” to see the video.


In the video, incidentally, Atia is chanting, “Meum fillium Magna Mater” (or “Protect my son, Great Mother.”)

(This video is copyright HBO. I’m assuming that linking to it is acceptable under Fair Use, given that linking to it is for educational purposes. Please contact me if there are issues. )


A ritual too hot for Rome


Frenzied dancers as depicted in HBO’s Rome © HBO.

The rituals of the Great Mother got so frenzied and wild that the Romans initially forbade citizens to partake, saying it was too dangerous. When the Roman Senate brought the cult of Cybele, or the Great Mother, to Rome in 204 BCE, they got a nasty surprise. In what could be described as an early “intelligence failure,” the Senate was not told just how wild Cybele’s rites could get.

Much to the Senate’s shock the priests castrated themselves during their initiation ritual — which occurred annually on March 24th – a day known as the “Day of Blood.”

During their initiation, admist the clang of symbols, frenzied dancing, and chanting, the Galli castrated themselves – a practice that was presumably often fatal. Historians don’t agree on the significance of the Galli’s castration; however, some have argued that the priests were giving Cybele their fertility as a “permanent offering”1 . The mutilation may have symbolized the mythical actions of Cybele’s lover Attis, who castrated himself under a pine tree and bled to death.


Priest (galli) from Cybele.

Although Cybele’s followers believed that self-castration endowed prophecy, castration’s resulting loss of masculinity and power horrified the Romans2 . At first, Romans allowed neither citizens nor slaves to join the cult.  If Roman men became priests, they would lose their citizenship because the Galli had to castrate themselves  (The legality of joining the cult flip-flopped over time.)

Where did they get their priests then? Historians believe many priests were from the Middle East or Phrygian.

It wasn’t just the castration that made Cybele’s worship controversial. During some of Cybele’s bloody rituals, priests (the Galli), priestesses, and followers slashed themselves so their blood would spray on the altar and sacred pine.

During Cybele’s festivals, the eunuch priests with long, bleached and “greased” hair under turbans would parade through the streets in front of a statue of Cybele. The priests adorned themselves in brightly colored, often yellow, clothes and wore heavy make-up, pendants and earrings3. They struck cymbals, shook tambourines, and banged drums. Followers would play flutes or pipes, dance, flog themselves until they bled, and priests read fortunes4 . On the Day of Blood, the eunuch parade would carry a Cybele statue down to the river and bathe it.

To be continued…

  1. See Frazer in The Religions of the Roman Empire by John Ferguson p. 27. []
  2. See The Religions of the Roman Empire by John Ferguson p. 28. []
  3. See []
  4. Maarten J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis: the myth and the cult, p.97 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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