From a “Chubby” Goddess to the Virgin Mary – Encountering Religious Placemaking in Rome

I was sitting on the Palatine hill for two full days in the burning August sun, but was somehow still physically able to admire the huge Mater Magna temple complex as well as the very interesting adjacent buildings, such as the domus of the emperor Augustus and his wife Livia. Equally impressive were the remains of the Iron Age settlement, with the so called “house of Romulus”, the mythological founder of the city. While looking out over these fascinating buildings, I was pretty shocked, when I involuntarily overheard a tourist guide talking to a middle aged German couple. He gave them – I assume – a paid and private guided tour through the Archaeological Park. The moment they were standing in front of the ritual water basin, which was a part of the republican Mater Magna temple, and which was located at the far end of the monumental staircase of the first temple, the guide said: “Here, come and see, this is how Romulus lived”. Then after wrapping up the history of the first settlement and the urbanistic development of this magnificent and world-renowned metropolis in one sentence, he turned to his left, towards the East side of the podium walls of the Mater Magna temple, which has impressive remains that are still more than three metres high. He started to explain that this was the temple for a goddess called Cybele (as written on the sign). “She was manufactured in a chubby way (in German: “pummelig gefertigt”). As you might know, the ancient people liked fat women. They even tethered up the women’s feet to the table leg, so that they could not walk around.” The German tourist added: “Yes yes, that represented wealth”. And that was it! The guide and the couple left the scene. One might have hoped that somewhere a thick red curtain would fall and an audience would laugh or at least applaud. But it was just me, still sitting in the sun, listening to the background noises of the chattering tourist groups from atop and under the Palatine hill.

In my inner eye I recapitulated the history of the place. I saw the wet marshlands between the hills, the first settlers of the Iron Age that built up wooden houses which were made of clay and straw. The postholes of some of these houses are still visible today. They were carefully excavated and preserved under a protection roof of the Archaeological Park.

Amazingly, until the Roman imperial period, few of these straw houses were repeatedly renovated and after they burned down in several fires they were rebuilt with the older, traditional technique. This was a first impulse by the city inhabitants to spatially mark the place where the mythological narrative of the foundation of the city was supposed to have taken place. The city inhabitants of republican and imperial Rome, in full cognitive awareness of the historical significance of that place, presented the buildings as an open-air museum and declared at least one hut as the “original house of the city founder Romulus”, one of the twins, who were raised and fed by a she-wolf (nowadays it is the symbol of the football club AS Roma). As myth tells, upon the question on which hill to found the city – either Aventine or Palatine hill-, the two brothers disputed until one brother was brutally murdered by the other. Romulus and therefore the Palatine Hill won. Consequently, the area at the Palatine hill was considered as a mythical, even sacred, place, which in time turned into a place for urban nostalgia. However, the Palatine Hill is a place of multivocalities, as we shall see below

The archaeological remains evidently show that during the prehistoric period the area where Rome lies was a cluster of several settlements (synoikismos), starting from the 14th century BCE on the Palatine Hill and with houses from the 10th century BCE on the Quirinalis, as well as a burial place from the first half of the 10th century BCE, which is located near the later Sacra Via/Forum Romanum. In republican and imperial Rome, the political actors and the intellectuals chose to narrate a different story of a rather precise point of foundation of the city, either by Romulus or by Aeneas, who fled from Troy. We are coming back to Mater Magna, because her story was strongly aligned, even copied, with the story about the mythical arrival of Aeneas in Rome. Therefore, the goddess Mater Magna, who was formerly known as Cybele in Asia Minor and Greece, received a temple at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE right in the centre of the mythological urban core: the Palatine Hill.

The multi-layered history of the city, the multivocality of places, emerged through different religious and cultural practices of marking spaces, be they physical or imagined, later creations of complex narratives, for instance, reflect the urbanistic development of the Palatine Hill. All this is wrapped up with a neat and all-encompassing red ribbon, which I call “Religious Ancient Placemaking”. Ribbon, because it ties all elements, be it architectural, social, ethnic, economic, legislative or imaginative, together.

From the 5th century, a kind of religious placemaking is detectable at the Palatine Hill: the district is a very heterogenous one with dwelling houses and a monumental temple in the 5th century BCE. Several animal sacrifices that were offered as votives to the temple were found. However, the Roman upper class, which resided there, such as Cicero and Clodius turned the Palatine Hill into a vibrant district. Temples which represented Rome’s military strength were located there as well, such as the temple for Victoria.

Thus, during my stay in Rome, I had the possibility to meet Dr. Fulvio Coletti from the Beni Culturali/Archaeological Park, who fortunately found the time to guide me around the Palatine Hill, especially to the areas which are not accessible to tourists. With the information he provided me, the image of the religious placemaking on the Palatine Hill became even more complex and exciting.

Dr. Coletti, who has been a member of the excavation team for more than a decade, provided me with wide-ranging and detailed information about the development of the religious topography, as well as the urbanistic changes, which mostly correlated with each other, as well as his plans for future excavations and investigations in the field.

We discussed at length the already known, but extremely interesting findings of the Archaic temple complex under the Mater Magna temple. In proximity to the earlier, monumental temple of the 5th century BCE, the remains of two smaller buildings were found, which seem to be connected to the Archaic temple and could be considered as buildings (sacellum?) where the temple votives or inventories were stored. Consequently, we can state that the identity of the place has been religious for almost 200 years before the temple of the goddess Mater Magna was erected in 191 BCE. However, until the imperial period the place was the site of a range of multivocalities through various events:

1.The erection of the adjacent fulloniche (laundry for cleaning and dyeworks) at the West side of the Mater Magna temple. From the temple plateau a porticus (gateway) led to the substructures in which the fulloniche were situated. An inscription on one wall mentions the amount of urine that was delivered to the fulloniche. We must assume that in the area there was a lively flow of people, workers, traders, visitors to the temple, priesthood.

My students always ask, if the smell of the laundry and dye house using the urine for the clothes, was not horrible. And why people would accept such a smell next to a sacred temple. However, considering that today’s people in cities do not smell exhaust fumes from cars anymore, it is not surprising that the laundry smell might not have been that disturbing in the end. Furthermore, we must assume that in a temple incense or sacrifices might have been burned regularly. Moreover, food was cooked daily for the priests, and on certain occasions for guests. And, finally, behind the temple was a taberna, in which temple visitors and the priesthood, as the inscription of the Mater Magna priest Doryphoros shows, would eat snacks and drink wine; a further olfactory station.

2. The deinstallation of the basin and the covering of the platform surrounding the temple during the Severan period (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: View of the West side.

To cover completely the ritual basins made me think that specific religious practices became obsolete and were not held there anymore. For a thriving sanctuary that is dependent on incoming money by offering religious services, it was important to stay accessible to walk-in customers and provide the needed facilities. However, losing the facilities for a ritual bathing or cleaning could mean that either the place for the water ritual was shifted – for instance to the cistern between the Mater Magna temple and the Domus Tiberiana, or somewhere outside the Palatine Hill, or it was abandoned after it was useful for over 400 years.

3. The erection of the imperial palaces at the edge of the hill, facing towards the Circus Maximus, which prompted the demolition of private houses, such as the ones of Cicero and Clodius.

With the erection of the domus Augustus, domus Livia and the following imperial palaces near the Mater Magna temple, the South side of the Palatine plateau was closed. Access for the everyday practitioners of the city, who could easily use the stairs leading to the Mater Magna temple before and then walk to the Forum Boarium, was now restricted by architecture and by imperial guards patrolling the streets. The area was not a static district, because tabernae and libraries were nearby, however it seems that rather intellectuals, political and imperial actors mostly met there.

Still, it must have been a lively place with the temple, which might have been active until the 5th century CE. However, with the later burial right in the cella of the abandoned Mater Magna temple (Fig. 2), the identity of the place as sacred area did not change.

Fig. 2: Cella of the abandoned Mater Magna temple.

Although the actual building of the temple might not have been actively used, it was a spatial marker. Spatial markers are highly relevant for city inhabitants and their understanding of how religions should be perceived in the open public. This was the case in ancient Rome, as well as today.

During my stay, I passed by many images of the Virgin Mary, with an iconography that resembles Mater Magna and her companion Attis as a child. A shrine for the Virgin Mary at the Caelian Hill, where my hotel was located, shows a rather standardised picture of Mary with the child Jesus on her lap (Fig. 3 A and B). The shrine is decorated with flowers and red plastic candles, which you can buy for cemeteries. A further illumination is provided by electrical bulbs that are shaped like candles in a candleholder. The shrine at the Largo di Susanna is very similar, however, the flowers look nicer and the only light source comes from a modern-design electric lamp under the icon (Fig. 4 A and B). The third shrine that drew my attention was on the Via de Serpenti. No one seems to be disturbed that this beautiful image of the Virgin Mary, here without the child, is covered by huge bins (Fig. 5). Would anyone suggest that because of the everyday, profane rubbish, the icon would have less religious agency? Would that mean that prayers and votives, such as the flowers in the two vases in front of the icon, has less power or are less worth?

The last shrine is from the Vatican. Here, the icon is fenced, maybe in fear that all the tourists or pilgrims could destroy something or leave items as votive offerings there. A common practice for pilgrim sites all over the world and in all religions.

Fig. 6: Shrine in the Vatican.

With the story about the Mater Magna temple on the Palatine Hill and the contemporary Virgin Mary shrines I wanted to elaborate on the first practice of the so called Religious Ancient Placemaking (RAP) that I will present in this blog: the spatial marking. A cultural and religious technique that is omnipresent, attainable for every social layer and in multiple contexts of the urban. Spatial marking of a place for religious communication can be very different depending on the circumstances. It can be a monumental temple, a little shrine or an altar at a crossroad. The marking can be achieved physically or imaginatively through narrations, thereby turning topographical “place” into “space”. The spatially marked area is then sacralised, (re-)activated in specific, sometimes overlapping contexts leading to multivocalities of a place, which turn “space” again into a “place” with identity and meaning ascribed to it.

Stay tuned for the next practice of Religious Ancient Placemaking, it might be on “converting” (Fig. 7, Roman “Riefelsarkophag” as drinking fountain)

Fig. 7: Sarcophagus used as a drinking fountain.

Asuman Lätzer-Lasar

Asuman Lätzer-Lasar is a post-doctoral research fellow in the KFG. She is an archaeologist specialising in ancient Rome and the Mediterranean. 

Lätzer-Lasar, Asuman. “From a “Chubby” Goddess to the Virgin Mary – Encountering Religious Placemaking in Rome”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 06/04/2020.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2020, April 6). From a “Chubby” Goddess to the Virgin Mary – Encountering Religious Placemaking in Rome. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

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