The Economic Function of the Latin Sanctuaries of Fortuna Primigenia and Hercules Victor

Three questions arise when conducting research on the economic function of the Latin sanctuaries of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, modern-day Palestrina, and Hercules Victor at Tibur, modern-day Tivoli. How and why did these two sanctuaries become so wealthy in the second century BC? Secondly, who was involved in their construction? And thirdly, was it just the action of the local administration, or was there a deeper social, political and economic cause?

In order to reach an answer, the popularity of the two cults in the pre-Roman period was investigated. Fortuna Primigenia and Hercules Victor were deeply rooted in Latium and also in the wider peninsula. The evidence for the worship of Hercules dates back to the sixth century BC, as we see from an inscription found at Tivoli. The hero’s worship should be understood in relation to his mythological account. The itinerary of Hercules’ travels could confer prestige to specific towns and cities, such as Patavium and Rome. Similarly, I have also examined the god’s presence within the pastoral landscape of Italy. Archaeological evidence shows that shrines to the god were present near the so-called calles publicae, the drove roads used by shepherds for the transhumance of flocks. Since agriculture and livestock represented the main economic sources in early Italy, we should not be surprised that the hero reached such a high degree of popular devotion.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 10.19.55 pmModel of 2nd BCE Sanctuary of Fortuna, Palestrina

With the goddess Fortuna, the picture becomes more complicated. At Praeneste, the evidence for her worship is limited. We have a fourth-century cista, which depicts the use of sortes in accordance with the Ciceronian account. The orator had described the oracular process at the Prenestine sanctuary: a child is seen coming out of a well, while another man in toga, perhaps a sortilegus, interprets the response. The cista, therefore, allows us to understand that Fortuna was already consulted in the fourth century BC. Similarly, a third-century inscription mentions a dedication to Fortuna Primocenia. Although Gatti links this inscription to a different Praenestine sanctuary, we can assume that Fortuna’s cult at Praeneste was ancient and that there could have been a pre-existing devotional centre before the second century BC. The ancient presence of the goddess should not surprise us. Since Praeneste was an Etruscan site, the goddess could have been influenced by that civilization.

Although Etruscan religion has not been fully explored, we know about the Etruscans’ concern with Fate. The so-called dii involuti, which formed one of the Etruscans’ divine councils, were gods of Fate, of which Fortuna might have been a later manifestation. At the same time, her typically Latin name and the negative Etruscan attitude to Fate point toward a non-Etruscan origin. However, the use of sortes was widely popular in Etruscan sites, such as Caere, Falerii, Appenninus, in the sanctuary of Clitumnus and at Patavium. The turning point for Fortuna’s popularity can be identified in two episodes: first, when she was associated with the Hellenistic goddess Isis, as we see on the island of Crete during the second century BC; secondly, when she was adopted by Rome. Whereas in 240 BC, the Senate vetoed Lutatius Cerco to consult the oracular site, in 204 BC she was considered as a protector of Rome. In 194 BC, a temple was dedicated to her in the Urbs. In this period, other deities were adopted in Rome. As Jacqueline Champeaux notes, the adoption of Fortuna Primigenia and Juno Sospes can be linked to Rome’s interest in establishing links to the wider region. Therefore, both Hercules, through its economic component, and Fortuna had become by the second century BC regional, rather than local, deities. 

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Engraving of the goddess Fortuna (1501-2) by Albrecht Dürer

Sanctuaries could accumulate wealth in three major ways: precious objects, land usage and monetary donations. Precious objects could have been deposed in temples as an act of devotion. Although this was not typical of every temple and the evidence for Praeneste and Tibur does not specify this type of offers, we could postulate that the popularity of the sanctuaries might have resulted in the deposition of artistically valuable items. In the case of Praeneste, for instance, when king Prusias visited the site, he also dedicated a statue of Fortuna. At the same time, while they might have indicated the sanctuaries’ prestige, these objects could not provide an economic income. They were given to the deity, thus under his or her property.

The ownership and use of land could provide an economic income, although not a substantial one. First, we need to distinguish between land of the collegia and land of the temples. The collegia were given lands, according to tradition, already in the regal period in order to support themselves. Only the land of temples could be used for the temple itself. However, Italic temples did not possess a great amount of land. They did not enjoy the extensive ownership of their counterparts in Egypt and Greece. Moreover, the lands of Italic temples included luci, which could not have been used for an economic purpose. An inscription from Spoletum prohibits any activity that could resolve in a substantial economic income from a lucus.

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Aerial view of Sanctuary of Hercules Victor. Photo credit: The Art Newspaper

The third form of income comprises monetary donations and fees. Given the popularity of the sanctuaries of Fortuna Primigenia and Hercules Victor, there would have been a high number of pilgrims. They could have contributed either through voluntary donations, known as decumae, or through cultic fees. Both Fortuna and Hercules were the main recipients of decumae since they were linked to economy and luck in financial enterprises. The worshippers would have also had to pay for the access into the sanctuary, for the sacrifices and other devotional rites. Even priesthoods contributed to the wealth of temples. The entry into a collegium required the payment of a substantial amount. The Salii at Tibur, for instance, had to meet the requirement of belonging to the patrician order. Similarly, the civic magistracies at Praeneste, involved in the running of the sanctuary, would come from the local elite.

The banking function of temples impacted on the notion that the sanctuaries were extremely wealthy. In the case of Fortuna Primigenia and Hercules Victor, the prestige of the sanctuaries could have pushed people to depose money for safekeeping, further stressing the sanctuaries’ image of wealth. Nevertheless, Roman temple could not make a profit out of monetary depositions. Whereas Greek and Egyptian temples could grant loans with interest rates, Roman and Italic temples only allowed private individuals to deposit money. There are two main reasons for this: first, moneylending in temples might have blurred the line between sacred and profane; secondly, such a lucrative activity would have interfered with the publicani and monetales.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 11.57.28 pmA blue print of what Porticus Metelli may have looked like

After the end of the Latin war (338 BC), both Praeneste and Tibur had to cede lands to Rome. Although they enjoyed a foedus aequum with Rome, they did not completely avoid the influence of the Urbs. From the third century BC, wealthy Roman families started building villas around the territory of Tibur and Praeneste. The contact with the Romans might have been a determinant factor in the rise of Praenestine and Tiburtine senators in the Roman senate. They could have also adopted the Roman practice of civic patronage. Monumental buildings are not typical only of Latium. In Rome, we see the Porticus Metelli, built in 147 BC, as a paramount example of monumental architecture.

The reason behind the monumentalisation of the sanctuaries at Praeneste and Tibur can be explained by the struggle for honour. Already in Rome, members of the elite would compete against each other for honour. The construction of a temple allowed an easy way to associate one’s family name with a grandiose monument. The elite at Praeneste and Tibur, given the presence of Praenestine and Tiburtine senators in Rome, emulated this practice. The local senates and the civic magistrates were the main political and administrative bodies involved in the construction of sanctuaries. The inscriptions inform us that most of the works were performed de senatus sententia. Thus, we can postulate a civic function for the construction of the two sanctuaries. This is further proved by the civic elements of the two sites. At Praeneste, for instance, the so-called “lower sanctuary” does not have any religious element related to the proper sanctuary. Rather, according to Coarelli, it followed the architectural structure of a Forum, with a carcer, an aerarium and a temple to Jupiter. Similarly, at Tibur, economic activities would take place in specific areas of the sanctuary without any religious or cultic relevance. Furthermore, the construction of a theatre might also point to an interest in asserting the towns’ prestige. We can provide two views for the construction of the sanctuaries: on one side, the local elite was trying to assert its civic privilege in order to access Roman politics, as evinced from the high number of Praenestine and Tiburtine senators in Rome; on the other side, since the sanctuaries were built in many phases, the association of a magistrate with a specific construction phase could have allowed him to acquire more prestige, thus highlighting a local struggle for honour within the towns.

– Luca Ricci

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