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Goddess joke – Venus Cloacina

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Forum Romanum - remains of the shrine of Venus Cloacina
Forum Romanum - remains of the shrine of Venus Cloacina

Forum Romanum is a place where every stone tells a story. Today I will tell you about one of the most inconspicuous relics of Roman civilization that can be found in the Forum – the shrine of Venus Cloacina.

There are many Roman legends associated with it. One of them tells that in this place a virtuous republican woman – a certain Verginia – was killed by her own father, who was the only way to protect his daughter’s honor from the temptations of the wicked decemvir Appius Claudius. Another story connects this place with the reconciliation between the Romans and the Sabines during their conflict at the dawn of Rome.

The chapel is easy to miss – it is just a small, round, stone platform standing near the Senate Curia, next to the ruins of the Emilian Basilica. Because it does not protrude high above the ground level, it sometimes almost gets lost in the grass.

You can often come across a simple explanation that the chapel was dedicated to the cult of the goddess Venus, who takes care of the largest sewer in Rome – Cloaca Maxima (hence the name: “Cloacina”). However, this is probably a great simplification, because in fact the roots of the chapel go back to the oldest centuries of Roman history, and the evolution of Roman beliefs that led to the connection of Venus with the sewer are not entirely clear.

Let’s start from the beginning, let’s go back to the times when Rome was just a loose collection of small villages. At that time, a small stream flowed between the Quirinale and the Viminal, reaching the valley where the Roman Forum was built much later, and then flowing into the Tiber. Water flowing down from between the hills accumulated in the area of ​​the future Forum, making it a swampy and unhealthy place. The protector of this stream was Cloacina – an ancient Etruscan deity. Perhaps it already had a place of worship near the future Forum. When at the turn of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE the stream was regulated, deepened and walled up to drain the marshy area of ​​the future Forum, Cloacina became the patron of the new canal.

In the distant past, it is not entirely known when and why, the cult of Cloacina was combined with the cult of Venus. But be careful – in those distant times, Venus was not yet the powerful goddess of love, goddess of beauty, patroness of Rome. On the contrary – originally it was just an inconspicuous nymph that looked after vegetable gardens. For some reason, the cults of Venus and Cloacina merged. Why did this happen? I have no idea. Maybe it was because the waters of the stream that Cloacina looked after were used to irrigate the flower beds whose patron was Venus? Or maybe rather that the drainage of the Forum thanks to the construction of Cloaca Maxima allowed the drained areas to be used for crops? I guess we’ll never know. Whatever the reasons, from then on Cloacina became closely associated with Venus. And even many centuries later, that is, at a time when, under the influence of Greek culture, the Romans identified the humble gardener Venus with the powerful and beautiful Aphrodite – the goddess of love and beauty, Venus in the form of Cloacina still took care of the oldest sewer in Rome.

In the times of the glory of the Roman Empire, the chapel of Venus Cloacina was still very modest. We are very lucky because its appearance was recorded on coins minted in the 1st century BCE. So we know that it was just a low, round platform, in the middle of which stood two statues of Cloacina on a pedestal – one with a sprig of myrtle in her hand, the other with a shield. Today, the remains of the platform are practically at ground level – this was also the case in the times of the Empire. But when the chapel was built, i.e. in the Republican times, the level of the Forum was slightly lower, so the chapel seemed to be a little higher.

The platform was fenced with a wrought bronze balustrade. Interestingly, if you look closely today, the traces of the railing attachment are still visible. In front of the platform there was a small altar on which offerings could be made. However, under the platform there was an empty space – it was a well or a cistern lined with volcanic tuff.

Today, the Romans’ association of Venus with a sewer may raise a smile or surprise. As I showed earlier, Venus’s relationship with Cloacina is ancient and can be explained by the site’s intricate history. But there is a certain irony in this – because although Venus is today associated with love, the evolution of the human race has meant that – whether we like it or not – in our bodies, the act of love is also inextricably linked to the excretory system… ;-) Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe a joke of the ancient Venus Cloacina…?

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