The Banquet of Crassus: Politics, Myth, and Ritual

Below is the abstract of a paper I delivered at the American Philological Association (now the Society for Classical Studies) way back in January 2002 in Philadelphia (I will confess to having found the abstract here, which I’m glad for, since I can’t locate it or the paper anywhere else!).

The paper was well-received, as I recall, and I had been planning to work it up into an article. A lot of things were going in my life at that time, however– my second son would be born in April, and my wife and I were in the midst of negotiating two jobs at Sewanee. Eventually, we got those jobs, bought a house, and packed up for Tennessee. Leaving the Northeast and 9/11 behind was on our minds. Next thing you know, we had two kids, two tenure-track jobs, brand new lives altogether really. By March of 2002, my new department was in serious transition–one had died and another became acting dean, leaving me as the (untenured!) chair conducting several searches. Kelly has joked that our lives at that time resembled nothing so much as air-traffic controllers, busily trying to keep the various things we had in the air from crashing into the ground or into each other. 

During the next decade, after getting tenure and as my toddlers became tweens and teens, Crassus and Hercules seemed fairly distant. Unbeknownst to me, the abstract got a little traction in the meantime, being cited by the Roman historian Ann Vasaly in an important article (“Cicero, Domestic Politics, and the First Action of the Verrines,” Classical Antiquity 28.1 (April 2009) 109 n. 27). And I do believe my argument maybe kinda lies behind a moment in Tom Holland’s splendid novel Rubicon (2007), “With one hand [Crassus] splashed out on huge public banquets and free supplies of grain, while with the other he poured poison into his fellow senators’ ears abusing Pompey as a dangerous demagogueand maneuvering to block off any further crowd-pleasing measures” (148). 

Anyway, as I’ve noted, I can’t find the abstract on my laptop or in my files, and the paper itself has likewise gone down the memory hole. I still have a folder full of related articles on the topic, but the idea of working through them and through the argument again fills me with dread. And besides, there are no other contributions on the topic worth pursuing that take their cue from Vasaly, so why bother? So, here it is world– my thoughts on Crassus, the Ara Maxima, and the connection between myth and ritual, as I thought them a decade and a half ago. Do with them what you will. 

During his first consulship in 70 B.C., Marcus Licinius Crassus hosted a large public banquet on behalf of Hercules at the Ara Maxima, during which “10,000 tables were set out and each man additionally presented with an allowance of grain enough to last for three months” (Plutarch, Crass. 12). The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to consider the political circumstances of which this extravaganza was a part, and secondly, to show how this political situation helps to throw unexpected light on the connections between the Ara Maxima’s unique ritual and its foundation legend.

In this banquet, we find a sophisticated treatment of the Altar’s peculiar ceremonial practices which, while undertaken to score political points with the Roman crowd, nonetheless highlights the religious harmony of the Altar’s myth and rite. It must be noted that in 70, Crassus shared the consulship with Pompey, against whom he was desperately competitive (cf. A. Ward, Marcus Crassus [1977] 99ff.). Although both generals were fresh from military successes— Pompey in Spain, Crassus over Spartacus,— Crassus would enjoy only an ovatio, an honor of decidedly lesser distinction than the triumph awarded to Pompey for his Spanish victories. Beryl Rawson (Antichthon 4 [1970] 30ff.) has noted that much of Pompey’s propaganda in this year focused on Hercules of the Ara Maxima: to capitalize upon Hercules’ Spanish association, Pompey dedicated a new temple of Hercules in this forum to sit alongside this altar. It is in light of this bold initiative by Pompey that we must see Crassus’ elaborate banquet: such a large offering in the heart of the cattle market would, as Rawson aptly remarks, “give Crassus an excellent opportunity to steal Pompey’s thunder.”

But, in addition, this distribution must be seen in light of the Ara Maxima’s cult restrictions: Varro records that whatever was offered to Hercules at the Altar was required to be eaten in its entirety before the sanctuary (LL 6.54). Such a provision, while rare in Rome, can be parallaled in various other parts of the ancient world (cf. Burkert, GRBS 7 [1966] 104 n. 36). To understand how Crassus could give away a three-months’ amount of grain at his feast, we must turn to the relationship between the Altar’s myth and its rite. The ritual provision that no meat be taken away from the sanctuary thus can be seen to grow out of the action of the foundation legend, in which Hercules commemorated the recovery of his stolen cattle by giving an elaborate banquet. No cow must be taken away from Hercules— neither from the hero’s herd nor from the feast given in his memory. With this in mind, we see that Crassus’ offering kept scrupuloulsy within the ritual stipulations of the cult: whatever meat was offered at any of the 10,000 tables doubtlessly was discarded; the cereal offering, however, was not covered by this regulation and so was free to be taken away for private use.

In this cultic loophole, Crassus found a way to make a lavish gift to the people while simultaneously countering, and to a certain extent disarming, Pompey’s self-promotional usage of Hercules. Crassus’ handling of these ritual matters, moreover, allows us to see more clearly how the foundation myth of the Altar, which involves Hercules recovering his stolen cow in the Cattle Market, is connected to the odd provision of the rite disallowing the removal of any of the sacrifice.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Animals, Boston, Classics, Family, Military, Mythology, Sewanee, Tennessee, Time. Bookmark the permalink.

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