Ceres: The Roman Goddess of Grain
The city of Rome famously relied on foreign grain to keep its people fed. As the city’s population swelled, the farms around the Tiber River could no longer support its needs.
Early in its history, Rome began importing grain from Greek settlements. The city also imported the goddess that gave these cereals their name.
Ceres was the Roman name for Demeter, the Greek goddess of grains. The agricultural goddess had been revered as a mother figure in Greece, and the Romans continued this tradition.
Rome soon saw Ceres in a new light, however. Her connection to agriculture made her a patron goddess of the class that worked the fields, the plebeians.
This early agricultural connection thrust Ceres into a political realm that would constantly shift and change over the next five hundred years. From the Early Republic through the height of the Empire, Ceres represented the growing political influence of Rome’s non-noble leaders.
Like most gods and goddesses of ancient Rome, Ceres was adopted from Greece. There, she had been called Demeter.
Unlike many of the other Roman gods, however, Ceres does not seem to have had an earlier Italian influence. While other deities combined Greek legends with figures from Etruscan or Latin culture, Ceres seems to have been entirely influenced by Demeter.
The influence was so direct that there are no known Roman myths that did not originate in Greece. While many other gods have stories that are unique to the Roman tradition, nothing in the mythology of Ceres separates her from Demeter.
This is likely because Ceres came to the region so early in its history. There was no similar Etruscan or Latin deity to replace because they, too, worshipped the Greek goddess of grain.
An inscription from roughly 600 BC shows that Ceres predated even the Etruscans in Northern and Central Italy. She was called upon by name in the language of the Faliscans to provide spelt, the staple wheat of the Mediterranean, at the harvest.
In 493 BC she was officially codified into Roman worship as a member of the Aventine Triad. This trio of agricultural gods, which also included Liber and Libera as the god and goddess of wine, was the plebian counterpart to the Capitaline Triad of noble patrician gods.
Ceres was the only agricultural deity to eventually be incorporated in the Roman view of the twelve gods of Olympus. She also remained the one most closely associated with the lower classes.
Ceres also remained heavily Greek because of Rome’s own infrastructure.
Throughout most of its history, the city of Rome was not self-sustaining. Before the conquests of Gaul and Egypt, Rome imported much of its grain from Greek colonies like Sicily.
Magna Graecia was called the “earthly home” of the goddess and she was linked to Greek culture and practices. Even in the early Empire, writers noted that the Temple of Ceres and the rituals that took place within it were in a distinctly Greek style.
According to Livy, the cult of Ceres probably rose to early prominence in Rome because of her role as an agricultural goddess.
Ceres is documented as having been worshipped in the areas around Rome during the time of the early kings, but her cult did not really grow in the area until the early republic. According to Livy, this was because of the way the early Romans adopted their gods.
The people of the early Republic believed that disasters, known as prodigies, were evidence of the gods’ displeasure. This often corresponded to times of political upheaval or threats to the state.
The Capitaline Triad was believed to have been established during one such time of uncertainty. A series of crop failures had led to a famine that inspired the Romans to adopt the agricultural deities of their neighbors, especially Ceres.
Two hundred years later, the Second Punic War was supposedly accompanied by many prodigies. The war itself and the disasters that surrounded it made the Romans believe that their state would be destroyed unless they appeased the gods they had neglected.
While Ceres had an established cult in Rome, the people of the time saw evidence that the goddess was displeased at the way in which she was being venerated. When lightning struck her temple in Rome, this suspicion was confirmed.
In 191 BC, a fast was held in her honor. The Senate decreed that this fast would be held every five years to ensure that the goddess never again grew angry with them.
While this five-year schedule was not maintained, the practice of fasting in penance to appease Ceres continued. At least eleven expiations, as these appeasement rituals were called, were performed after this time.
Most expiations to Ceres occurred after threats that were directly tied to her. As the goddess of agriculture, she was called upon to end famines. As the goddess of the plebians, she was also appeased in times of social unrest.
The last recorded expiation to Ceres occurred in 64 AD after the Great Fire destroyed much of the city of Rome. Unsure of which god had been offended, atonement was made to several gods and goddesses at that time.
Most often, however, later Romans appeased Ceres not as an agricultural goddess but as a mother. In Rome as in Greece, her relationship to her daughter was a central part of the grain goddess’s cult.
In Greek mythology, Demeter had been the mother of Persephone. Zeus had arranged for their brother, Hades, to kidnap the young goddess against her mother’s wishes and make her his wife.
The story of Persephone’s abduction into the Underworld and her mother’s frantic search for her was a popular one in ancient Greece. It explained the changing of the seasons and the cycle between death and new life.
It also inspired the culture’s mystery cults.
These secretive groups sought to understand the nature of death and the afterlife. They focused on and expanded legends that had to do with these mysteries.
To them, Persephone was a central figure. She was the queen of the Underworld and one of the only gods to routinely go there and return to live again.
As her mother, Demeter was tied into the beliefs of these cults. She was said to go into mourning when her daughter returned to the Underworld, although some mystery cults believed that Demeter joined her there.
These cults carried over into Roman belief. Many Romans took part in what they called “The Greek Rites of Ceres.”
The entire bulk and substance of the earth, was dedicated to father Dis (that is, Dives, ‘the rich’, and so in Greek Plouton), because all things fall back into the earth and also arise from the earth. He is said to have married Proserpina (really a Greek name, for she is the same as the goddess called Persephone in Greek)–they think that she represents the seed of corn, and fable that she was hidden away, and sought for by her mother. The mother is Ceres.
-Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2. 16 (trans. Rackham)
While the Greek cults had been largely shadowy and secretive, however, the Roman cult of Ceres and Proserpina as death goddesses was part of the official state religion.
Around the time of the Second Punic War, Greek priestesses were brought in to lead the new cult of Ceres and Proserpina in Rome. It was hoped that by emulating the Greek rites, the goddess would be pleased with the city of Rome.
The Eleusinian mysteries became particularly popular in the later Republic. The mother and daughter were worshipped, as they had often been in Greece, as goddesses who straddled the line between life and death.
The official cult of Ceres had two distinct forms, just as belief had in Greece.
At her official temple on the Aventine Hill, Ceres was the goddess of the plebian class. She represented the farmers and others who relied on grain and often served as a focal point for class identity.
This cult celebrated the major festival of Ceres in Rome, the Cerealia, and sponsored its games and plays. This cult held Ceres as the mother of Libera, the goddess of wine and fruit.
Sicily, however, became the center of the goddess’s Greek rites. The story of Proserpina’s abduction and return from the Underworld was told to illustrate the mystical connection between the land of death and the growth of life.
Beneath the city of Rome itself, some people believed they could access the mundus cerialus, or World of Ceres. This underground pit was opened three times each year to allow a connection between Rome and the Underworld.
Worshippers believed that the spirits of the dead could exit through the mundus cerialus to visit the living. Offerings of grain were thrown into the pit to reach the Underworld.
This tradition celebrated Ceres as a mediator between the world of the living, where she made grain grow in the summer, and the land of the dead, where her daughter ruled as queen through the winter. Some historians, however, believe that it may have served an earlier purpose.
The Romans believed that the pit had been dug in the time of Romulus, before the establishment of the Greek rites. Historians think that such a pit may have once been grain storage for the city.
Over time, this storage system was abandoned. Its link to Ceres, however, lived on.
The rituals of the mundus cerialus were established after the Greek rites became more popular. While the first use of the grain pit had been for life-preserving storage, its later use recognized Ceres as a goddess that moved between the living and the dead.
As an agricultural goddess, Ceres did not work alone.
While the Romans adopted their major gods from Greece, more minor deities had local roots. These lesser gods were often linked to more powerful Olympians like the nymphs and daemones were in Greece.
The minor gods who formed the retinue of Ceres personified each stage of the process of growing grain. While Ceres was the goddess of the grain itself, these gods helped her grow and flourish. They were:
- Vervactor: The god of the first tilling of the soil.
- Reparator: The god who prepared the earth.
- Imporcitor: The god that made wide furrows.
- Insitor: The god of seed planting.
- Obarator: The god who covered the plowed earth.
- Occator: The god of harrowing.
- Serritor: The god of digging.
- Subruncinator: The god of weeding.
- Messor: The god who reaped the harvest.
- Convector: The god who carried the grain from the fields.
- Conditor: The god who stored the grain.
- Promitor: The god who distributed the grain.
These gods represented not only the work of farming, but also the Roman system of ensuring that the city was fed.
Most citizens of the city y the Republican era had little first-hand experience with farming. Because so much of Rome’s food was imported from the countryside or Magna Graecia, Conditor and Promitor were two of the most important gods in this cycle to them.
Roman grain was stored in large warehouses throughout the city and distributed to the population. Conditor and Promitor were the gods who directly ensured that the laborers, artisans, and merchants of Rome received their share of the state’s grain supplies.
As a goddess of agriculture, Ceres had been established with the Aventine Hill early in her Roman worship. The allied her firmly with the plebeian class.
In the time of the early Roman kings, the plebs had been the farmers and laborers of the fledgling state. Their noble counterparts, the patricians, were the rulers and military men.
As the Republic expanded, these classes did as well. The old patrician families maintained a hereditary claim to political power and military authority, keeping this power in a few families for generations.
The plebeian class, however, expanded. Because it included, essentially, anyone who was not a patrician or a slave, the vast majority of Rome’s free citizens were plebs.
In addition to farmers and laborers, it included a new class that was, at times, as wealthy as the patrician families. The more Rome’s territory grew, the more economic and political power the plebeian merchants held.
The class structure of Rome, however, ensured that these new elites would never be able to truly rival the power of the patrician families. By virtue of birth, the wealthiest plebeians were still grouped with Rome’s farmers.
Under the Republic, this social inequity led to increasing discontent. Eventually, the plebeians won representation in government through their Tribunes.
The temple of Ceres, as the goddess of the plebeian class, served as a center for political organization. It held the official records of the Tribunes and may have served as a court of law for plebeian matters.
The Romans believed that the first laws had been to regulate land use and grain distribution, so Ceres was at the center of legal matters. Laws concerning farming still fell under her jurisdiction.
When, for example, field boundaries were moved or crops were damaged, the accused was tried in Ceres’s name. As the patrician class expanded, many more affairs that impacted them fell under her purview.
Two legal systems developed in Rome, to the dismay of many plebeians.
Patrician law allowed for the lower class to be detained almost arbitrarily. As plebeians gained political power, there is evidence that this law was used with some regularity to silence political opponents.
Patricians reportedly used their status to commit crimes with impunity. They could not be tried by the Plebeian Council and answered only to the laws of their own class.
In 287 BC the Senate, under pressure from prominent plebs, decreed that laws passed by the Plebeian Council would apply to all people in the city of Rome equally.
The Temple of Ceres gained additional power under this decree because the official decrees of the Senate were housed there. According to Livy, this was so unscrupulous patricians could not alter the laws of Rome without the knowledge of the plebs.
The Temple of Ceres had always been associated with the plebeian class. In the early Republic, it had been the center of efforts to limit the power and prestige of the patricians and make Roman society more equitable.
By the end of the Republic, however, the tradition was used to advance many of those same patrician interests.
Ceres and her temple were so closely linked to plebeian politics that her image and symbolism because synonymous with the class’s movement. Agricultural scenes and stalks of grain became symbols for the political values of the plebs.
In the later years of the Republic, patrician politicians began to co-opt this imagery for their own purposes. Aligning themselves with the goddess of grain gave the impression that they had the approval of the lower classes and fought for their ideals.
Sulla, for example, established a military dictatorship from 82-79 BC. Coins from this era show plowmen in the fields and the world conditor, implying that his grip on power was a time of growth and prosperity under the auspices of Ceres.
When Julius Caesar took power three decades later, he too credited Ceres for his success. The implication was that his dictatorship would benefit the plebs, even if he was himself a patrician.
His heir, Octavian, became Caesar Augustus and the first Emperor of Rome. He, too, emphasized the cult of Ceres.
While Octavian had been adopted by his mother’s family, he was not a patrician by birth. Class was determined by the patrilineal line, and Octavian’s father had been a wealthy plebeian.
By emphasizing his own family’s connection to Ceres as plebs, Octavian encouraged a populist view of his reign. While he was considered a patrician under the law, he wanted the plebs to think of him as a representative of their class.
He created the new goddess Annona, the personification of the imperial grain supply, to work alongside Ceres. The new goddess represented the Emperor’s power but was linked to the goddess of the plebs.
His wife, Empress Livia, was often pictured wearing the crown of grains used in depictions of Ceres. The corona spicea of Ceres became so common in the imagery of the Empress that after the death of Faustina the Elder in 140 AD she was revered as an incarnation of Proserpina.
Ceres herself was changed to further connect her, and the plebeian class, to the Emperor. She was often called Ceres Augusta to create a verbal link between her position and that of the august emperors.
Roman writers claimed that the state maintained itself through “bread and circuses,” by providing both food and distractions to its people. The most vital component to holding power in Rome was the bread that Ceres provided.
Ceres, the goddess of grain, was almost directly adopted from the mythology of the Greek goddess Demeter. The trade of grain with Greek colonies ensured that hers was one of the earliest cults established in Rome, and it remained one of the most Greek-influenced.
Rome adopted both aspects of the Greek goddess. Her official temple was that of a nurturing mother, but other practices linked her to the mysteries of the Underworld as well.
As a goddess of agriculture, Ceres was linked early on to the plebeian class. In the time of the kings they had been mostly farmers, but by the early Republic many were wealthy and influential enough to challenge the patricians.
Based out of the Temple of Ceres, plebeian leaders fight for more representation and legal authority in Rome. They won the right to elect Tributes and, eventually, all of Rome was ruled under plebeian laws.
Ceres had become so closely linked with plebeian politics that patricians eventually co-opted her imagery. By using Ceres, they could link themselves to plebeian traditions in a bid for populist appeal.
During the Empire, this populist imagery persisted. Ceres was still the goddess of the plebs, but her iconography and name were used to link her to the power and divinity of the imperial family of Rome.