In ancient Rome the victimarii were responsible for the practical side of animal sacrifice and were a frequent feature of iconographic scenes depicting the religious procession to the altar. During religious festivals victimarii were responsible for leading and controlling the sacrificial victims, the act of slaughter itself, and the post-sacrificial dissection of animals either for the ritual meal or for the practice of extispicy, the inspection of the internal organs for the purpose of divination. As such, their presence in reliefs immediately signals the theme of sacrifice, even when the victims themselves are not in view. The safety and success of the ritual and everyone involved in it depended to a large extent on the victimarii performing their duties swiftly and effectively. Yet despite the frequency with which they appear across reports and depictions of religious processions and sacrifices, and the relative importance of their role, the victimarii typically have been relegated to the fringes of modern studies of Roman religion, animal sacrifice and visual representation. Discussion of their duties and position typically has been summative, with little attention paid to understanding their seemingly inconsistent status within the source material and Roman society as a whole.Footnote 1 This situation would seem to reflect the similarly marginal position they held within Roman religion itself, although it is unclear whether this was a consequence of the nature of their profession or the lowly social status of those chosen to serve as sacrificial attendants. Victimarii remain a poorly understood constituent of Roman society, and the evidence for this group has rarely received focused attention. There is no reason for this to be the case, however, since we possess a wide variety of evidence for victimarii across literature, epigraphy and iconography (albeit across an extensive chronological and geographical expanse), which allows us to explore, with some confidence, their social background, dress, appearance and ritual duties. An attempt to provide a detailed overview was attempted by Friederike Fless (Reference Fless1995: especially pp. 70–8), but his work focused predominantly on the iconographic evidence and failed to take into account the considerable quantity of commemorative inscriptions for the group.
The aim of this paper will be to consider how the various strands of evidence relating to victimarii may be drawn together to demonstrate the complex and at times contradictory picture we have of sacrificial attendants within Roman society. Literary reports offer dismissive or even hostile perspectives, reflecting the views of those higher up the social ladder, who performed different, but clearly defined, roles within the sacrificial process, which emphasized their pre-eminence. Outside of aristocratic circles, however, the position of victimarius appears to have been one that carried great prestige within the slave and freedmen communities. It is therefore necessary to consider the ways in which victimarii viewed and presented themselves. To do this we must turn to the epigraphic record. Consideration of this evidence also highlights many of the more subtle intricacies of the position, and reveals that the role of victimarius could be a source of pride for those involved. Finally, by considering the portrayals of victimarii in iconography, the paper will highlight the ways in which the ambiguity of the position and the conflicting views surrounding it were demonstrated to a wider Roman audience. Many of the images depicting victimarii performing their duties are well-known, but it is only by considering these images in the light of our other sources that the complexity of their position may be understood fully. In some ways, the victimarii may be said to have held marginal social positions and status. This was repeatedly reinforced and restated, both through their depictions within Roman iconography, where they were often pushed to the background or sidelines, and in the parallels that occur between victimarii and more reviled professions, such as executioners. Even when they appear prominently in iconographic scenes, their lower status is repeatedly made apparent through their dress, appearance, stance and stature during sacrificial procedures. Furthermore, we rarely see the victimarii during either the process of slaughter or the aftermath of sacrifice. Instead, they are seen most commonly either within the wider religious procession, leading the animals to the altar or, in many cases, paused at the final moment before the sacrifice.Footnote 2 As a result, what we see is a deliberately sanitized version of events in depictions of Roman sacrifice, because the full extent of the victimarius's duties could not be incorporated easily into the artistic landscape.
This is perhaps the more pessimistic interpretation of the position held by victimarii in ancient Rome, but it represents only one side of the argument, seen from the point of view of the Roman aristocracy who viewed the victimarii as workers employed to carry out the sacrifices offered by others. An alternative reading of the victimarii, which considers them in the wider context of working slaves or freedmen within Roman society, may offer a far more positive view — one that sees the victimarii as not only present within depictions of prominent religious rituals (whatever their placement within the scene), but also as figures who were often depicted in an exceptionally impressive manner. To illustrate these seemingly opposing images, this paper will focus on a select number of examples that demonstrate wider patterns of representation. When considered alongside our literary and epigraphic evidence, such images will be shown to highlight the conflicting views of the victimarii, who remain one of the foremost low-born groups to have a widespread and strong iconographic presence in ancient Rome. Before we may begin to assess these issues, however, we first must consider who the victimarii were, as well as the various roles that they might play within religious proceedings.
THE ROLE OF THE VICTIMARIUS
The victimarii appear to have been drawn exclusively from Rome's slaves and freedmen, and, thanks to the abundance of friezes that include depictions of them, we are able to build a fairly clear picture of their duties within public sacrificial rituals. We are also fortunate enough to possess a number of epigraphic references to victimarii, which, when combined with literary reports, provide further insight into their duties, background and, most importantly, the ways in which they chose to present themselves, providing a counterweight to the (often disapproving) views of the literary élite. One of the most revealing elements of the epigraphic record concerns naming practices among victimarii. According to various literary sources those who served as victimarii were typically required to have ‘auspicious’ names. By examining commemorative inscriptions of named victimarii we see widespread evidence to support this practice, with names commonly referring to divinities or, alternatively, to particularly prized qualities or attributes, as illustrated by the tombstone commemorating the freedman and victimarius Lucius Valerius Victor, whom we shall discuss in detail below (p. 74).Footnote 3 Other examples include names such as Eros, Serapio, Ingenuus, Fortunatus and Felicissimus.Footnote 4 Cicero refers to the custom of lucky names in the De divinatione, in which he lists the founding of a colonia, the inspection of the army by a general, and the purification of the populace by the censors as occasions in which it was important for those who led the sacrificial victims to have ‘good names’.Footnote 5
When assessing their role within religious rituals it is particularly advantageous that victimarii are clearly identifiable in sacrificial scenes, both by their position alongside the sacrificial victims and through a number of other signs. The most obvious indicator is their clothing. Victimarii typically appear stripped to the waist in preparation for the moment of slaughter, unlike the priests, other religious officials and onlookers, who appear fully clothed, usually with their heads veiled by the toga. Victimarii often carry the tools of their trade prominently, revealing the particular role played by each man. The three main tools displayed in processions are the axe and the hammer, both of which were used in the initial striking of the victim, and the sacrificial knife (culter) which was used to slit the animal's throat immediately afterwards, ensuring (in theory) a quick and controlled end to the sacrifice. The popa carried the hammer used to stun the victim, while the cultrarius wielded the knife (although victimarius often is used as a more general term for all sacrificial attendants) (Latte, Reference Latte1960: 383–4; Gilhus, Reference Gilhus2006: 116; Kraft, Reference Kraft2009: 63 n. 208; Horster, Reference Horster and Rüpke2007: 333–4).Footnote 6
Their role, however, began with the procession to the altar, where they were tasked with leading and controlling the sacrificial animals, most commonly sheep, pigs and cattle, which together comprised the suovetaurilia.Footnote 7 Larger sacrificial animals such as oxen could be steered by a victimarius holding onto either a halter or the animal's horns, as we see in the case of the Mattei Relief, in which a sacrificial bull, complete with full sacrificial decoration, is restrained by two victimarii who appear to be exerting considerable effort to keep control of the animal (suggested both by their tensed muscles and pronounced expressions of concentration) (Ryberg, Reference Ryberg1955: 130–2, plate 46).Footnote 8 The importance of this duty must not be underestimated. The behaviour of the animal on the way to the altar was thought to be highly significant, as it might reveal whether the goodwill of the gods had been achieved in the build-up to the sacrifice. In theory, the animal was supposed to come willingly to the altar and to give its consent.Footnote 9 If the victim struggled it was interpreted as a sign that the offering was already deemed unacceptable and that the pax deorum had not been successfully assured (Tromp, Reference Tromp1921: 60).Footnote 10 We see a number of instances where the sacrificial animal stumbled or escaped during the procession to the altar or, worse still, broke free during the sacrifice itself. In some instances the bull even died before it reached the altar.Footnote 11 Such failures were invariably interpreted as unfavourable omens, and so often were used for considerable literary effect by Roman authors. When imagining a sacrifice performed in the build-up to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Lucan (1.609–13) described the animal struggling against the unwelcome sacrifice, eventually having to be forced down by the disrobed attendants (succincti ministri), a reference to the victimarii that Lucan clearly expected his audience to understand without issue. A similar scenario occurs at 7.166–7 on the eve of the battle of Pharsalus, in which the sacrificial bull again struggles, but this time breaks free and overturns the altar as it escapes from Caesar's camp. Lucan uses such scenes to underscore the extent of the impiety of the civil war and the extent of the gods’ anger at the scale of the division that has overtaken the aristocracy. In this context the seriousness of the omens serves to highlight the significance of the victimarii within sacrificial rituals. Their failure to control or secure the victims could result in a most serious prodigy.
There was also, of course, the more practical danger that accompanied the sacrifice of larger animals, vividly demonstrated in Livy's narrative on Gaius Flaminius's assumption of the consulate before his death in 217 bc at Lake Trasimene:
paucos post dies magistratum iniit, immolantique ei vitulus iam ictus e manibus sacrificantium sese cum proripuisset, multos circumstantes cruore respersit; fuga procul etiam maior apud ignaros quid trepidaretur et concursatio fuit. id a plerisque in omen magni terroris acceptum.
A few days later [Flaminius] began his magistracy, and while he was offering the sacrifice the calf escaped from the hands of the sacrificers after it had been struck, spattering many bystanders with blood. The escape caused even greater fear and disorder among those further away who did not know what was happening. Many viewed it as a terrible omen.Footnote 12
The potential dangers involved in animal sacrifices therefore extended to both the religious and practical spheres. The practical dangers often may be underestimated due, in part, to the ordered depictions of sacrifice that survive in Roman iconography, which represent an idealized picture of sacrifice rather than reflecting the reality. The relative scarcity of reports of animals struggling or breaking free may point either to the need for literary and artistic representation of sacrifice to stress order and serenity, or to the skill with which the duty was performed by the victimarii. Both scenarios, however, highlight the key role played by these attendants.
Once the victims had been slaughtered, it appears that the victimarii were also required to assist with the post-sacrificial skinning and butchery of the animals, but although we have literary descriptions of these duties, we have very little visual evidence on the subject, and rely primarily on a relief from the Forum of Trajan dating from the early second century ad.Footnote 13 The scene appears to be unique among the images to survive from antiquity. The victimarius, still stripped to the waist, crouches over the dead bull, cutting it open to examine the internal organs, while another figure, possibly the haruspex, stands close by, holding what appears to be an extispicy tool, similar to the bronze cross-section of a liver discovered at Piacenza, which was used as an aid in the reading of signs during sacrifices (Ryberg, Reference Ryberg1955: 128–30, plate 45; Beard, North and Price, Reference Beard, North and Price1998: II, 150, 178–9).Footnote 14
We hear of only one other duty performed by the victimarii in an exceptional circumstance, when the so-called books of Numa were discovered buried in a grave at the foot of the Janiculum. After much deliberation the Senate decided that certain elements of the books were dangerous, and so they should be burned publicly. Both Livy and Valerius Maximus state that it was the victimarii who were ordered to carry out the Senate's instructions.Footnote 15 Such a duty appears especially unusual for the victimarii, given the specific role they played within sacrifices. The scene has come under recent scrutiny by Roger Woodard (Reference Woodard2013: 68), who sees significance in the role of the victimarii as ‘cultic specialists in the immolation … of sacrificial victims’, arguing in this context that the books were ‘‘sacrificed’ by the cult personnel who are conspicuously associated with the masses and the military’ — a point of significance within the context of a dispute over the potential revelation of dangerous knowledge to the wider populace.Footnote 16 The decision underscored the Senate's authority, as well as emphasizing the status of the victimarii as easily recognizable public servants who obeyed their orders.
LITERARY EVIDENCE FOR VICTIMARII
Taken at face value, the practical importance of sacrificial attendants within public rituals suggests that this should have been a position that brought with it a degree of importance and prestige. However, such a view is not immediately apparent within the surviving literary texts, all of which were written by members of the élite, who perceived these men as being socially beneath them. Such superiority certainly is suggested by Cicero in the Pro Milone (65), in which he deals with the testimony of a popa named Licinius regarding a plot to murder Pompey. Cicero expresses incredulity that the words of such a man would be heeded, citing both his profession and unknown background (nescio qui) as reasons to suspect his statement. Asconius's commentary on the Pro Milone refers to this Licinius as a sacrificulus (minor priest), and similarly stresses his lowly background (de plebe), as well as adding the curious detail that his duties involved the purification of households.Footnote 17 We also see a hostile satirical reference to sacrificial attendants in Persius (6.73–4), in which the narrator rails against various forms of miserliness, asking why he should be forced to go hungry while a popa should have a fat belly, once again drawing attention to the shared perception of those who worked as sacrificial attendants as belonging to the social underclass, but at the same time revealing their prominence as a professional group (Harvey, Reference Harvey1981: 202).Footnote 18 This perception of victimarii as ‘inferior’ resulted in considerable embarrassment for one leading aristocrat:
eximiae vero nobilitatis adulescens Cornelius Scipio, cum plurimis et clarissimis familie suae cognominibus abundaret, in servile Serapionis appellationem vulgi sermon inpactus est, quod huiusce nominis victimarii <per> quam similis erat. neque illi aut morum probitas aut respectus tot imaginum quo minus hac contumelia aspergeretur opitulata sunt.
Cornelius Scipio, a young man of truly exceptional nobility who was well-placed with many famous family names, was forced by public gossip into the servile name of Serapio because he looked very much like a victimarius of that name. Neither the honesty of his habits nor respect for so many ancestral images brought him relief from this sordid abuse.Footnote 19
The low status of those engaged as victimarii, combined with the relative danger and dirtiness of the role, meant that it was not a seemly profession or role for a member of the élite — a fact that was exploited in the literary representation of vilified emperors. Suetonius (Cal. 32.3) recounts that Caligula once attended a sacrificial ceremony dressed in the guise of a popa, and that when the victim was brought forward, instead of striking the animal, he raised the sacrificial hammer and murdered the cultrarius. Donna Hurley (Reference Hurley1993: 128) took this to be an indication of Caligula's unpredictability and bloodthirstiness, but it also demonstrates his willingness to dress in inappropriate attire and act in ways that were unseemly for an emperor — facts that Suetonius repeatedly went out of his way to highlight (Cal. 52). Such disapproval is apparent also in the Historia Augusta's description of Commodus, who would dress in the garb of a victimarius and make the sacrificial offerings in person, which is mentioned as part of a catalogue of unacceptable behaviour on the part of the emperor, including the more famous staged fights in the arena.Footnote 20 Much later, in the fourth century ad, the last pagan emperor Julian tried to demonstrate his piety publicly by performing what even his loyal supporter Ammianus Marcellinus sees (22.12.6) as an excessive number of animal sacrifices in the run up to the invasion of Persia. While making preparations at Antioch, his actions and demeanour led to his being mocked for many reasons, including his behaviour during sacrifices: ‘itidemque victimarius pro sacricola dicebatur ad crebritatem hostiarum alludentibus multis, et culpabatur hinc oportune, cum ostentationis gratia vehens licenter pro sacerdotibus sacra …’ (‘The number of his sacrifices earned him the nickname of victimarius instead of sacriocola, and he was rightly criticized for the ostentatious joy which he took in carrying the sacred objects himself instead of leaving the task to the inferior priesthood …’).Footnote 21 Given the overt hostility of the city towards Julian during his stay, such a nickname was obviously intended as an insult, while the criticism he received was based on the fact that by carrying the sacred instruments he had stepped outside the expected role of an aristocratic male.Footnote 22
The picture offered by literary reports is revealing, but also unsurprising. Jobs that were considered to be dirty, dangerous, or both, were regularly assigned to slaves or freedmen, especially if they required a level of practical expertise. But despite the constant exposure to the blood and filth of sacrifices, the victimarius was not classed in the same bracket of unclean professions as pimps or undertakers, and their function was undoubtedly considered to be essential. Moreover, condemnation by the literary élite does not point automatically to their position being one that led to social exclusion, sanction or criticism. On the contrary, the epigraphic evidence for the victimarii indicates a structured, respected and hierarchical system in which their profession was viewed as something to be stated proudly. At times this is observable in even the most basic ways, for example on a tombstone from Brundisium commemorating the public victimarius Eros, which uses the rough images of the culter and the axe to announce the trade of the deceased to the viewer.Footnote 23 Like the flute-players that accompanied the animals on the way to sacrifice, the victimarii were organized under the auspices of a collegium.Footnote 24 Within the city of Rome they were based within the castra victimariorum, the location of which regrettably is unknown, but which again indicates a high degree of organization within the profession at least at the level of state rituals.Footnote 25
Bringing together these various sources of information for victimarii, Stefan Weinstock (Reference Weinstock1958: 2,484–5) indentified three core areas in which sacrificial attendants performed their duties. The first was within the administration of public religious rites during the Republic, carrying out sacrifices on behalf of the state. The second branch came later, and was connected specifically to the service of the emperor, and Weinstock included in this category iconographic depictions of victimarii sacrificing during rites performed by, or attended by, the emperor himself. Weinstock also pointed to a number of epigraphically attested cases that may relate to imperial slaves or freedmen who served as victimarii.Footnote 26 Finally, Weinstock highlighted the repeated references from the epigraphic evidence to men serving as victimarii within the Roman army, and it is in the military examples that some of the most revealing information can be found. Victimarii are referred to in the Digest where they are described (along with butchers, hunters and others) as being exempt from certain duties in the military.Footnote 27 References to such men appear in connection with the city of Rome itself, but examples also survive from Puteoli, Lambaesis and Colonia Agrippinensis.Footnote 28 The military case from Puteoli (CIL X 3501) also suggests a degree of hierarchy within the profession, as Lucius Valerius Victor held the title of victimarius principalis when he died.Footnote 29 It also reveals that he began serving in the army at the age of eight, and continued to serve for 23 years until his death (militavit annis XXIII vixit annis XXXI). His young age at the beginning of his military career, combined with the stipulations about victimarii in the Digest, rules out the possibility that he served as a regular soldier, performing religious duties only when required. Instead, it seems likely that he was brought into the position specifically to be trained in the practices and procedures of religious sacrifice, and to take part in festivals and rituals observed by the legions throughout the year, which would include the military lustration referred to by Cicero.Footnote 30 Since we know that new arrivals in the army might be given new Roman names, he is likely to have been assigned the auspicious name of Victor (an especially appropriate name for a victimarius serving in the army) on arrival, with his future sacrificial role in mind.Footnote 31 Such a scenario would fit with Michael Speidel's theory that the victimarii held a specific rank within the army, which Ulrich Kraft has suggested continued in practice until c. ad 330, at which point the prohibition of sacrifices by the army would have made their position redundant (Speidel, Reference Speidel1978: 46; Kraft, Reference Kraft2009: 64–5).Footnote 32
Despite Weinstock's summary division of the evidence into the three groups discussed, a number of depictions of victimarii performing sacrifices on behalf of the emperor also occur within military contexts. Across the visual narrative of Trajan's Column, for example, victimarii appear in a number of scenes, typically in connection with the lustration of the military camp. However, in the context of a campaign led by the emperor, the sacrifices also contribute towards honouring Trajan himself.Footnote 33 Weinstock also did not discuss an important yet anomalous example, which falls outside the boundaries of his three main categories, but which raises further questions. This concerns the curious case of the freedwoman Critonia Philema, whose tombstone records that she was the ‘popa de insula’.Footnote 34 Whether insula refers in this case to an island, possibly the insula Tiberina, or to apartment blocks is unclear (Hemelrijk, Reference Hemelrijk, Hekster, Schmidt-Hofner and Witschel2009: 263). Regardless of the location, Jörg Rüpke (Reference Rüpke2005: II, no. 1,419) has assumed that the woman's duties were identical to those of the state victimarii, and that she therefore assisted with, or personally performed, the animal sacrifices. Emily Hemelrijk has suggested an alternative possibility — that Critonia Philema was a trader in sacrificial livestock or seller of sacrificial meat. This explanation hinges, in part, on Hemelrijk's uncertainty over whether a woman could perform the act of slaughter herself, and she has questioned whether it should be assumed that Critonia Philema ‘was a popa in the usual sense: a sacrificial assistant who felled the victim with the axe or mallet?’ (Hemelrijk, Reference Hemelrijk, Hekster, Schmidt-Hofner and Witschel2009: 263–4).Footnote 35 The issue is unclear, and Hemelrijk has been right to raise the possibility of an alternative explanation. All the evidence from visual representations of victimarii point to the profession being undertaken entirely by men, but outside the realm of grand state-sponsored sacrifices there is no clear evidence to suggest that women could not perform the act of slaughter, which was, itself, separated from the actual offering of the sacrifice — this was typically reserved for members of the élite. The issue of physical strength revolves primarily around the sacrifice of oxen, which were used only for the most lavish of offerings, whereas for the slaughter of smaller animals offered, crucially, without pomp or procession, physical strength may not have been such an obstacle. Equally, it is highly likely that male victimarii and popae outside of the military had a similar variety of duties or professions beyond the role of slaughterers, most probably as butchers, but possibly as any number of other professions. In discussing Cornelius Scipio's physical resemblance to the slaughterer Serapio, Pliny the Elder describes the latter as suarius negotiator, possibly indicating that those who slaughtered sacrificial animals also might have worked as livestock traders.Footnote 36 Similarly, this may explain why Cicero's popa, Licinius, was said to have overheard the plot to assassinate Pompeius while the conspirators were getting drunk at his establishment.Footnote 37
When we consider the role, position and responsibilities of the victimarii, it is clear that the profession entailed a number of duties that could be viewed as essential to religious life in Roman society, and in this area the aristocracy may be said to have depended on the victimarii. Considering them alongside other officials involved in Roman religion, Marietta Horster (Reference Horster and Rüpke2007: 334–6) has placed these sacrificial attendants slightly lower down the social ladder from the apparitores, those men who served Roman magistrates in positions such as scribae, lictores, viatores and praecones, all of whom were required to perform specialist roles and who, unlike the victimarii, were paid a fixed salary at the expense of the state.Footnote 38 A far more detailed exploration of the social position and significance of the apparitores, provided by Nicholas Purcell (Reference Purcell1983), demonstrated the potential for advancement that came with such offices and the draw that such opportunities had for those originally from outside the city of Rome, as well as stressing that the aristocracy took care to prevent their gaining too great a degree of prominence (Purcell, Reference Purcell1983: esp. 131–4, 138–42). The majority of apparitores were freedmen who accompanied magistrates, not just within Rome, but also in the provinces, where they might serve on a governor's staff (Purcell, Reference Purcell1983: 130–1). Nor were they limited to administrative positions; they might also hold religious offices that similarly came with social prestige and the opportunity to garner further favour and contacts.Footnote 39 While evidence for the victimarii is relatively sparse in this area, some have highlighted specific examples from the epigraphic evidence from outside Italy which may point to victimarii who were part of the entourage of provincial governors, for example in the case of the military victimarius commemorated at Colonia Agrippinensis, who David Breeze argued was likely to have been attached to the staff of the governor of Germania.Footnote 40 As such, the position of victimarius should be viewed as comparable to other offices held by those lower down the social ladder — a position that came with possibilities for advancement and potential access to the sorts of additional offices that were so essential for freedmen who wished to progress within Roman society.
Yet despite the importance of their role and the need for them to possess specialist knowledge in order to perform their duties with precision and skill, it is also clear that it was a profession that entailed a degree of disdain from the upper classes, who would not stoop to performing such duties themselves, and who would pour scorn on those from their ranks who did. The position was not reviled, but nor was it entirely respectable from the point of view of the aristocracy, and so the extent to which victimarii constituted a marginalized group becomes a necessary but complicated question. It is also important to consider how such marginalization by the élite might be achieved, since it was not a straightforward process. We have already seen one key method of marginalization in the literary reports, which treat victimarii with distain, or otherwise as an afterthought.Footnote 41 Such treatment continued within visual depictions, as well as within the sacrificial rituals themselves, and it appears that in the performance of their role, victimarii took on a number of personal or professional aspects that overlapped with less favourably viewed groups or individuals.
We have observed already that the victimarii were most clearly recognizable in visual depictions of sacrifice through their dress, stripped to the waist in anticipation of the extremely bloody work that would soon follow. When referring to the victimarii's semi-naked depiction in Roman iconography, John North (Reference North, Hodkinson and Geary2012: 73) has viewed this as indicative of their slave status, yet this is unlikely to have been a firm rule, given the number of freedmen victimarii attested in the epigraphic record.Footnote 42 This does not change the fact, however, that their dress marked them out in this context as lower than others within the sacrificial scene. In addition to their semi-naked portrayal, the robe that was worn by the victimarius, the limus, was itself associated with those of low status.Footnote 43 The striking image of the stripped victimarius, wearing a garment that was designed primarily for its practicality, automatically appears to be in contrast to the élite, who we are told would attend sacrifices in pure, white robes that emphasized their piety and their physical and ritual purity, but that, in this context, also emphasized their social superiority.Footnote 44 Regardless of the accuracy of their depictions, the use of dress within artistic representations is, as Jaś Elsner (Reference Elsner1998: 92–4) observed, a key means of communicating status to the viewer.Footnote 45 Even the name of the robe itself was tainted by ambiguity, because although it was commonly used to refer to the garment, the word limus was used by a wide range of Republican and early Imperial authors to refer to mud, filth or other non-specific forms of dirt.Footnote 46
The connection between the limus and slavery has been restated recently by Alan Cameron (Reference Cameron2011: 601–2), who has referred to a stipulation found within the decree from the municipium of Irni in Spain (the same decree that outlined the salaries for apparitores) that ruled that aediles could be accompanied by ‘public slaves … girded with a limus’ (servos communes … limo cinctos), following a similar formula to that of the Lex Coloniae Genetivae (LXII.16–17), which also refers to public slaves wearing the limus (publicos cum cincto limo).Footnote 47 Servius describes the limus as being designed to cover a popa from their navel to their feet, and states that it was bordered with purple.Footnote 48 We see similar uses of colour, and especially the use of red/purple as a means of marking out those involved in bloody professions in the Roman world. The lex Puteolana specifies that torturers and executioners should be forced to wear red clothing while on business within the city, making them deliberately conspicuous, and thus avoidable for those groups who had to avoid contact with death.Footnote 49 Everything about the limus could serve as a reminder to onlookers of the lower status of those who wore it.
When the moment of sacrifice arrived another drama was acted out, and in a way that drew further comparison between the victimarii and unclean groups — this time by making them analogous to the executioner. Before beginning the processes of slaughter the victimarius was required to pause and ask permission from the priest making the offering to perform the deed, speaking the word ‘agone?’ (Shall I strike?). Ovid implies that the victimarius could not strike until ordered to do so, and offers this as one of a number of possible origins for the name of the festival of Agonalia.Footnote 50 The actions of the victimarius in this case appear to follow a similar pattern to that of the executioner, who, before carrying out his duty, was required to receive the order to strike from a magistrate, who would speak the words ‘age lege’, commanding the sentence to be carried out in accordance with the law. The comparison between the sacrificial attendant and the carnifex was drawn also by Burkhard Gladigow (Reference Gladigow1972: 312–13), who noted Seneca the Elder's use of ‘age lege’ for rhetorical effect within a controversia, referring to an unlawful execution.Footnote 51 These comparable examples suggest that the low-born citizens employed within the various occupations connected to ritual killing shared some degree of overlap, since neither had the power or authority to act on their own initiative. Instead, both the victimarius and the carnifex were servants of those above them, and both of their professions required them to act only under exact circumstances where all rituals and procedures had been observed under the supervision of those in authority.
VICTIMARII IN ROMAN ICONOGRAPHY
Various factors combined to ensure that the victimarii were recognized as members of a profession that was fit only for members of the lower ranks of Roman society, even if they were not reviled or stained with infamia as others might have been. We must now move on to consider the various ways in which victimarii were presented in Roman iconography. While we must confine ourselves to examining only a small selection of the evidence, a number of revealing points may be made based on some of the most common forms of representation, in which the status of the victimarii can be viewed on the one hand as being hindered or diminished, but on the other revealing a socially prominent and prestigious profession. We have noted already the role of the limus in drawing attention to their low status, since this allowed the victimarii to be indentified easily or, rather, ensured that they were not confused with the priestly members of the social élite. However, when representations of the victimarii are examined a number of other socially revealing factors become apparent.
The visual depiction of victimarii is one of the few areas where there has been some degree of focused study, most notably in Fless's Opferdiener und Kultmusiker auf Stadtrömischen Historischen Reliefs: Untersuchungen zur Ikonographie, Funktion und Benennung (Reference Fless1995), which considers the victimarii within the broader context of sacrificial attendants and ritual procedures (pp. 70–8). Rather than focusing on the social position of victimarii, Fless attempted to match literary descriptions of the victimarii's clothes, tools, stance, and so on, with the evidence provided by visual representations, and to map changes in procedures over time. Such an approach has its hazards due to the scarcity of literary evidence as well as the chronological and geographical diversity of the visual material, and the possibility of stylistic variations (problems that accompany any attempt to study such an underrepresented group in Roman society). As Elsner has restated recently (Reference Elsner, Faraone and Naider2012: 157), ‘in dealing with imagery we are dealing not with sacrificial realities but with sacrificial representations — with ideology as opposed to actuality’. However, Fless's approach also failed to consider the extent to which these representations themselves contributed to the generally shared perceptions about the social status of victimarii. Not only is this an important issue within the debate about how victimarii were portrayed, but it also helps to explain precisely why victimarii were depicted in the various ways that we most typically see. Since, as Elsner has noted, we are seeing ideology, not actuality, the messages about social identity and superiority/inferiority may be seen to be enhanced even further in visual representations.
While there does not appear to have been a single standard way of depicting victimarii during sacrifices, their lower status is asserted in a variety of ways. A particularly revealing example of this appears on the sacrificial scene of a sarcophagus from Mantua (second century ce), depicting a series of events connected to a military commander (Ryberg, Reference Ryberg1955: 164–5, plate 58).Footnote 52 The altar is positioned in the centre of the scene and the victimarii are shown to be in the process of sacrificing the bull. Their dress, pose and equipment all follow established patterns of representation.Footnote 53 The crouching victimarius forces the bull's head down not only by holding its horn with his right hand, but also by apparently hooking the animal's nose with his left thumb. A decorative border is clearly visible around the edges of the limus, and attached to this is a pouch containing the sacrificial knives to be used after the bull has been stunned by the strike about to be delivered by the second victimarius, who is only visible from the waist upwards, and who is equipped with an axe, rather than a hammer. Aside from the relative crowding of the scene the depiction is, in many ways, exemplary of the standard sacrificial pose, and serves to illustrate the contradictory status of the victimarius within these social, religious and iconographic contexts.
In visual terms, the victimarii are marked out as socially inferior to others within the scene not only by their clothes, but also by their posture. The victimarius at the forefront of the image is, out of necessity, crouching while holding down the bull's head before the killing stroke, but this also serves to reinforce his status as he looks directly up towards the sacrificing general for instruction. This is made all the more apparent when the wider scene is considered, because the victimarius's pose most closely resembles that of the barbarian suppliants to the left of the sacrificial ceremony. The result is that neither group is presented as being in control within the scene (Dowling, Reference Dowling2006: 266–7).Footnote 54 The kneeling stance therefore holds both practical and artistic meaning. However, both victimarii within the scene also display a commonly occurring feature that, in artistic terms, lends them a greater degree of prominence and power, in that both possess highly muscular physiques, and in the case of the victimarius situated behind the bull, his pose and position with the axe undoubtedly make him one of the central points of focus. The muscular forms of victimarii are a ubiquitous feature of their representation, and while this would have been the natural result of a profession where strength would often be a necessary prerequisite, it also imbues their portrayals with a heroic quality, making them a particularly striking and eye-catching feature. As a result, even in scenes where they are stripped to the waist, the victimarii hold a degree of attention that must, to a certain extent, translate into visual prestige.
The significance of the kneeling victimarius is emphasized most clearly in the lustratio scene led by Marcus Aurelius, located on the Arch of Constantine (Ryberg, Reference Ryberg1955: 115, plate 40). While the emperor sacrificing at the altar unsurprisingly commands the centre of the scene, he is flanked on either side by two crouching victimarii, controlling a ram (left) and a boar (right). On the far left is a standing victimarius, identifiable by the axe that he carries in the left hand, which is no longer visible. With the right hand this victimarius holds by the horn a bull, which stands directly behind the emperor himself. This crowded scene allows all three animals to be shown, suggesting that a suovetaurilia sacrifice is taking place, presumably for the lustration of the army (one of the occasions where attendants with lucky names had to be used). In this instance none of the three victimarii is fully stripped to the waist, but all three wear loose-fitting garments that leave the shoulder and upper chest bare and once again mark them out from both the aristocrats and the soldiers within the scene. Unlike the majority of figures, the two crouching victimarii are positioned facing directly outwards. Their crouching pose automatically makes them seem diminutive next to the upright emperor and surrounding soldiers, but, in addition, they also appear to have been deliberately further reduced in scale. One possibility is that this is intended to highlight the young age of the attendants, as in the case of the standing camillus to the right of the emperor who holds an incense box (a traditional role of some prestige, reserved for the children of noble families).Footnote 55 This seems unlikely, however, since the faces of both crouching victimarii, although badly faded, appear originally to have been portrayed with short beards — a common artistic feature of victimarii, which served to distinguish them from other participants, especially in images dating from before the second century ce.Footnote 56
Reduction in size is an especially effective way of undermining the prestige or prominence of groups or individuals.Footnote 57 A clear example of this appears within a Pompeian wall-painting honouring the household Lares and Genius, in which the scale of the various characters appears to reflect their perceived importance within the scene.Footnote 58 The largest figures are the Lares who flank the scene, followed by the primary sacrificer at the altar, who is identifiable by the fact that his head is veiled as he places an offering on the altar. Slightly smaller is the flute-player who stands to the left of the altar, while the smallest two individuals are the camillus on the right, who holds the various sacred implements on a tray behind the main sacrificer, and the victimarius, who is slightly further removed on the left, and who is guiding a decorated boar towards the altar. Despite his small stature, some attempt has been made to indicate his muscularity even here as he approaches the altar. These two figures are by far the smallest in the picture, in spite of the integral roles they play within the ritual procedure, and once again this must, in part, be the result of their perceived lesser importance within the scene — a factor that can even lead to the reduction in scale of the sacrificial victims themselves (Clarke, Reference Clarke2003: 82–4, especially p. 84). However, in images such as these, regardless of their size or crouching stance, the victimarii possess an essential attribute that brought with it considerable cultural currency, namely proximity to power. In each of the depictions examined we see that despite the various interpretations that may suggest that they were marginalized, in fact sacrificial attendants were constantly engaging with members of the élite, and might even appear prominently displayed alongside the emperor himself, who required their services to complete the sacrifices successfully.
These conflicting images and ideas do not come as a surprise, given our knowledge of Roman iconographic patterns. In assessing the wider patterns within Roman sacrificial reliefs, Richard Gordon noted (Reference Gordon, Beard and North1990: 205–6) that:
Sacrificial reliefs are only about sacrifice in a very peculiar sense. They allude to a familiar public event in a schematic fashion which enables them to highlight the role of the sacrificant … To be sacrificant in this type of sacrifice is not to labour. Just as the Roman elite owned slaves to perform the labour required to produce their lives of spectacular idleness, so ‘sacrificing’ meant to introduce the ceremony by making the preliminary offerings…The labour involved in sacrifice is, in the visual record, vividly performed by only muscular slaves; the social status of the sacrificant is marked by his separation from that labour.
As a result, it is perhaps natural that iconographic reliefs, which were intended to focus on the élite, should choose to try to relegate the importance of the attendants, no matter how vital to proceedings they may have been. However, an additional aspect of Roman iconographic convention hindered portrayal of victimarii, which concerned the long-standing reluctance to portray scenes of extreme violence in detail. Based on surviving evidence, this appears to have extended not only to the actual slaughter of the sacrificial victim, but also to its post-sacrificial dissection, which, as we have noted, is shown in only one example from the reign of Trajan. Even in this scene the dissection of the bull is performed at the fringe of the image, while the central victimarius himself looks away from the victim and towards the procession of the great and the good, which has continued on its way towards the temple, simultaneously drawing the viewer's gaze to the same point of focus (Ryberg, Reference Ryberg1955: 128–9, plate 45; Beard, North and Price, Reference Beard, North and Price1998: II, 179 (7.4d); Lennon, Reference Lennon2013: 105).
The reluctance to show the moment of death has been discussed extensively by Huet (Reference Huet and Bertrand2005), who has presented a number of possible interpretations as to why this may have been the case. One particularly intriguing suggestion, similarly noted by Gerhart Rodenwaldt, is that the pause before the moment of death not only creates heightened anticipation, but also captures the moment of query from the victimarius to the presiding official — agone? (Huet, Reference Huet and Bertrand2005: 103; Rodenwaldt, Reference Rodenwaldt1935: 10–12). If correct, such an interpretation would stress once again the social and religious dominance of the élite over the lowly attendant. What is more certain, however, is that to depict the process of slaughter and the physical killing of the victim would be to make the victimarii unequivocally the central figures of the scene, which would work against the idea that, regardless of who performed the act of slaughter, the act of sacrifice, as Gordon and Huet rightly stressed, was completed by priests (albeit from a safe distance). Therefore, by avoiding depictions of the process of slaughter or the dissection of sacrificial victims for extispicy or butchery, Roman society ensured that the victimarii were rarely seen to be engaged in one of their most important and prominent roles within ritual procedures. In an especially perceptive discussion of the purposes of sacrifice, John Scheid (Reference Scheid, Müller-Karpe, Brandt, Jöns, Krauße and Wigg1998: 528–9; Reference Scheid2005: 276) pointed to elements within the act of sacrifice that establish or reinforce hierarchies between superior and subordinate groups. Scheid's particular argument relates to the relationships between gods and humans or, alternatively, between humans and animals. Based on how we see groups such as the victimarii represented in sacrificial scenes, we see further evidence that within the human realm, specifically, considerable effort is given to acknowledging and prominently displaying a clear gradient of social superiority, which prevented the victimarii from becoming the undisputed focal point within visual representations of sacrifice.
The essential role of sacrificial attendants cannot be denied, yet by emphasizing the role of the élite this automatically resulted in a degree of deliberate marginalization of victimarii within iconography. Their status and position within such scenes may be read in both positive and less positive ways. For while they are shown to be physically powerful and an essential element within sacrificial scenes, positioned in close proximity to those considerably further up the social ladder, their inferiority next to these figures is reasserted frequently. While this could be achieved through obvious methods, such as the reduction in size within the sacrificial scene, we see that even with something as practical as the pose they adopted for the slaughter of cattle it is possible to see the subservience of the attendants to the presiding officials, who would ultimately have the final authority to carry out the sacrifice without having to stoop to carrying out the act of killing. Such a situation would seem to reflect the differing pictures offered for victimarii across our other ancient sources.
As was noted at the start of our study, the evidence for victimarii in the Roman world is at once revealing and, at times, contradictory. However, these contradictions enhance rather than hinder our understanding of the role and status of sacrificial attendants in the Roman world because they allow us to see them from a variety of social vantage points. Like so many other groups and professions, the victimarii could be said to have been marginalized in numerous ways through both literature and art, being subjected to humour, derision or casual dismissal by various writers. Aristocrats and, in the cases of Caligula, Commodus and Julian, even emperors could be ridiculed for looking or behaving too much like those engaged in this profession. The role of the victimarius was seen to be beneath their dignity partly because of both the mess and danger accompanying it, and partly because, as the élite carried out the role that made the entire sacrifice ‘official’, to perform any other function would be to take on a lesser role, diminishing their status and public prominence. The close similarities at times between victimarii and more reviled groups, such as executioners, reinforced these views and would be noticed more publicly, since the overlapping features of sacrifice and execution were acts that were played out for all to see.
Unlike some other groups, however, the victimarii were not, and indeed could not be, hidden from view due to the essential roles that they played in religious proceedings. These roles required expertise and precision, not only to assure the success of offerings through the careful avoidance of ritual errors, but on a more practical level, also to ensure the physical safety of all others present (which would often include the emperor himself). In artistic portrayals of the victimarii, whether they are involved in leading the animals in procession or preparing to slaughter them at the altar, their appearance serves to remind the viewer of their lowly status, which is emphasized all the more explicitly when they appear alongside the aristocrats who will be completing the sacrifice by making the preliminary offerings. At the same time, however, the strength required to perform these duties and the fact that the victimarii, because of the limus, had to appear semi-naked, meant that victimarii were presented in a more idealized manner that emphasized their muscular frames, and gave them a heroic attribute that otherwise might be denied to them.
Some of our most revealing evidence comes from tombstone commemorations written and erected by the sacrificial attendants themselves. These corroborate various statements from the literary evidence, such as the recurring use of ‘lucky’ names which, due to their slave/freed statuses, could be assigned to them specifically with their role as victimarii in mind. Such names could even be tailored to suit the context in which they performed their duties, as with the recruitment of L. Valerius Victor to serve in the legions. Those who did serve in the army did so as a specialist division whose status and importance were recognized in law, and might be found anywhere where the Roman army was present, even in the prestigious Praetorian Cohort or on the staff of a provincial governor. Moreover, from the view of the victimarii themselves, this was not a profession to be kept hidden. Rather, the evidence from tombstones (status symbols in and of themselves) points to it having been a profession that came with its own hierarchy, which could be revealed proudly to passers-by both through words and images of the axe and culter. As a result, there appears to be a need for greater attention to be paid to the victimarii, and for them to be incorporated more fully within wider discussions not only of sacrificial procedure but also, more generally, religious life and experience in ancient Rome. The position offered one of the best opportunities for men and women of lower birth to become involved more directly in some of the most prominent rites of the state, and for an ex-slave to stand shoulder to shoulder with the emperor himself.