The Feroniae: Honouring A Wild Goddess in the Heart of Rome

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Woods at sunset

Feronia was a Sabine goddess who swapped the wild woods of central Italy for a grove in Rome. Image by Julie Geiger.

Feronia was the goddess of wildernesses and wild woods, whose festival the Romans celebrated on the 13th of November.

But Feronia was not a Roman goddess. She was, in fact, Sabine. And her preferred home was far away from people and cities.

So how was it that the Romans lured her to Rome and persuaded to accept a city home in a temple on the Campus Martius? And what benefit was there to the Romans in adopting a foreign, rural goddess who was notorious for guarding her privacy?

 In Honour of Feronia

 The Romans instigated the Feroniae to commemorate the dedication of a temple to Feronia on the Campus Martius on the 13th November, sometime in the early third century BC.

The particulars of the festival are lost. But Dionysius of Halicarnassus gives us a flavour of them when he describes other festivities dedicated to Feronia:

Many of them [the people] performing vows and offering sacrifice to the goddess and many with the purpose of trafficking during the festive gathering as merchants, artisans and husbandmen; and here were held fairs more celebrated than in any other places in Italy. 

But these were not celebrations in Rome. Rather, they were customs from Feronia’s original homeland.

The Nature of Feronia

Feronia was a Roman “novensile”- a new god, originally from Sabine territory.

Her name, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, had a gentle, almost domestic floral overtone: “[S]ome of those who translate the name into Greek call her Anthophoros or ‘Flower Bearer,’ others Philostephanos or ‘Lover of Garlands.’”

But Feronia was no gentle flower goddess. Her name derives from the Latin “ferus” for wild and uncultivated. This was entirely appropriate for Feronia was a principled goddess of the wild places.

Although her shrines were widely spread across central Italy, her principle place of worship was at Capena, near Mt. Soracte, in the territory of the city of Feronia (now modern Lazio in central Italy). This shrine- as with all the others dedicated to the goddess- was a considerable distance from any inhabited place. Feronia particularly favoured woods.

People only encroached upon the goddess’s privacy at times of festival. Then, they were at liberty to set up fairs while others petitioned the goddess for healing. The poet Horace in his Satire 1.5.24 describes how it was customary for pilgrims to bathe their hands and faces in her sacred springs.

But other activities of Feronia’s cult were of an ecstatic nature as noted in Strabo’s Geography of Strabo:

“The city of Feronia is at the foot of Mount Soracte, with the same name as a certain native goddess, a goddess greatly honoured by the surrounding peoples; her sacred precinct is in the place; and it has remarkable ceremonies, for those who are possessed by this goddess walk with bare feet through a great heap of embers and ashes without suffering, and a multitude of people come together at the same time, for the sake not only of attending the festal assembly, which is held here every year, but also of seeing the aforesaid sight.”

These gatherings also became central to the ceremonial manumission of slaves, earning Feronia a special place in the affections of freedmen.

The Rural Goddess Moves to Rome

Feronia's temple in Rome

The Romans built Feronia’s temple in the Campus Martius or Mars field. Originally outside the city limits and built before the area was subject to major development, they situated the goddess’ temple in a grove. Image by Robert Adam and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

The Romans built Feronia’s temple in Rome in a lucus or grove on the Campus Martius. But why did such a country-loving, antisocial goddess consent to a city dwelling? It seems that the promise of worship tempted her.

A Curtius Dentatus dedicated the temple to the goddess after his victory over the Sabines. This suggests that envocatio– the custom of inducing foreign deities to abandon their original people for Rome with the promise of worship and honour- lured Feronia to Rome.

But what use was a goddess of the wild woods to the city of Rome? A clue comes from Pliny the Elder, when, in describing the turbulent times of the civil wars of 49-44 BC, he refers to how, “people stopped building towers between Tarracina and the temple of Feronia because none escaped destruction by lightening.”

This implies that when the apparatus of war impinged too closely upon the goddess’s territory, she destroyed it. This would no doubt have been advantageous to Rome- especially at the time  when the Romans built the goddess’s temple.

Livy in his History of Rome records Feronia’s role as a protector of Rome. He describes how in 217 BC, faced with the prospect of attack by Hannibal, the Romans offered sacrifices to the Capitoline triad and to the various incarnations of Juno throughout the city. But the city’s freedwomen were also called upon to offer sacrifices to Feronia at her temple.

Old Habits in a New Home

Old habits clearly died hard for Feronia. The freedwomen, tied to her cult through the nature of their emancipation, were dear to the goddess’s heart and so gained her attention. But also, as the Romans had no doubt hoped, Feronia stayed true to her territorial nature. Rome’s salvation from Hannibal could be interpreted as Feronia once again repelling any threat to her shrine- and by default her adopted city.

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


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