Marble statue of a Roman priestess

Roman, about AD 20-50
From Atrapaldo, southern Italy

Portrayed at the moment of sacrifice

The statue, carved from a slab of Carrara marble, shows the priestess wearing a tunic and a mantle wrapped in heavy folds around her. She is portrayed at the moment of sacrifice, with her head covered by a veil, similar to images of male priests and emperors who are shown capite velato - with the head covered by a hood-like fold of the toga. The hands of the priestess, carved separately and now lost, would have held objects connected with sacrifice, for example a patera (ritual dish), knife or jug.

The act of sacrifice and the reading of auspices before, during and after the act itself were central to Roman religion. Such ceremonies were to appease the gods and avert misfortune, rather than for any idea of obtaining salvation, a key difference between pagan and Christian beliefs. So great was the demand for sacrificial animals, especially pigs and cattle, that a special market existed in Rome: the Forum Boarium (cattle market) with its own guild of cattle dealers - the negotiatores boarii.

The statue is modelled on a portrait of Livia Drusilla, wife of the emperor Caesar Augustus, though the portrait is certainly not the empress herself. Priestesses were highly esteemed and by joining the priesthood of one of the many different deities, including the imperial cult, women could attain considerable power in Roman society.

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Height: 205.750 cm (about)

Museum number

GR 1873.8-20.741 (Sculpture 1988)


Castellani collection


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