Cybele is an Anatolian mother goddess and is Phrygia’s only known goddess.

Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia, and mural crown. Roman marble, c. 50 AD. Getty Museum. (c) Marshall Astor

In Rome, Cybele was known as Magna Mater (“Great Mother”). The Roman state adopted and developed a particular form of her cult after the Sibylline oracle recommended her conscription as a key religious ally in the Second Punic War. Roman mythographers reinvented her as a Trojan goddess and thus an ancestral goddess of the Roman people by way of the Trojan prince Aeneas. With Rome’s eventual hegemony over the Mediterranean world, Romanised forms of Cybele’s cults spread throughout the Roman Empire. The meaning and morality of her cults and priesthoods were topics of debate and dispute in Greek and Roman literature, and remain so in modern scholarship.

Marble statue of Cybele, 1st c. BC, from Formia, Lazio. (c) ChrisO

Augustan ideology identified Magna Mater with Imperial order and Rome’s religious authority throughout the empire. Augustus claimed Trojan ancestry through his adoption by Julius Caesar and the divine favour of Venus; in the iconography of Imperial cult, the empress Livia was Magna Mater’s earthly equivalent, Rome’s protector and symbolic “Great Mother”; the goddess is portrayed with Livia’s face on cameos and statuary. By this time, Rome had absorbed the goddess’s Greek and Phrygian homelands, and the Roman version of Cybele as Imperial Rome’s protector was introduced there.

Bronze fountain statuette of Cybele on a cart drawn by lions 2nd c. AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cybele and Attis in a chariot drawn by four lions, surrounded by dancing Corybantes, detail from the Parabiago plate; embossed silver, c. 200–400 AD, Archaeological Museum of Milan. (c) Giovanni Dall’Orto

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