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Sacrifices, an obligation to the gods

The Romans were convinced that, not only you had the obligation to make sacrifices to the gods, but you could as it were order  things from the gods by offering.

(Human?) sacrifices
These offerings could be very small, but on several occasions a Roman consul has  offered  his life,  in order to win a battle.  Not just by loosing his life, but dedicating himself to the death. He had to fulfill a specific ritual and after that he would seek the death in the battle. See Livius (8.9)

More common in such situations was vowing to build a new temple, games, a special sacrifice or a similar vow. Striking is though, that these occasions are only recorded in the annals, if the battle was a success. In case of a loss,all kinds of bad portents are recorded.

Human sacrifices were not very common in Rome, but they did happen.
Even in the above described situation, one can speak of a human sacrifice, because the augurs had observed bad omens and said that one of the two consuls had to devote himself to the death.

Also a vestal virgin who had lost her virginity, was in fact sacrificed to Vesta, in order to sooth the angry goddess.

In times of great dangers the Sibylline books were consulted. Occasionally was concluded that a human sacrifice was needed avert the dangers. In the two examples known, the smart Romans offered a foreign couple. They buried them alive.

    small table for sacrifices    

small table for sacrifices


Private sacrifices
Much more common were the offerings the father of the family (pater familias)would bring to the Lares at the lararium (house altar) in his house. Here he sacrificed food or drinks mostly wine and would ask to keep his family save or even more specific personal requests.

Public offerings
were made in the open air, in front of the temple of the god to whom the  sacrifice was made. Here it was extremely important that the ritual was carried out exactly as prescribed, the prayers were said exactly correct. If one, even small mistake was made then the whole ceremony had to be repeated. See for example Livius (2.36-37)

In public sacrifices mostly a domestic animal was killed; or more animals. At some occasions a hundred or more animals were offered. The animal had to be free of flaws or defects. The species and color depended on the god to whom the offering was made. In his book Roman antiquities 7.72.15 Dionysius of Halicarnassas describes how the ox, that had to be willing, was led in a procession to the altar.
Here the animal was sprinkled with wine and the mola salsa prepared by the Priestesses of Vesta. Then the animal was killed. Not by a priest or magistrate but by a victimarius, who also butchered the beast. Then the haruspex inspected the entrails. If the entrails, especially the liver, were perfect or auspicious, the sacrifice had been accepted by the god and the offering a success. All this time the priest had to utter the prescribed prayers and a flute was played, so the priest could not hear anything wrong. If he did hear anything wrong....
Or if he lost his miter

Was the offering accepted by the god, then the entrails and some other parts of the beast were burned at the altar. The rest of the meat was cooked and eaten by the attendant of the offer and the god was content with the smoke.
If not, it was a bad omen the god was angry and the whole ceremony had to be repeated the next day or worse.

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