Etymology: From the Latin cloaca meaning “Sewer” Other meanings are Cleanser and Purifier.
Epitaphs & Other Names: Mistress of the Great Sewer, “The Cleanser,” Venus Cloacina (Venus the Cleanser)
Cloacina is the Roman Goddess of Sewers, Filth, and Purity. Before you laugh, the Romans had a spirit or deity for nearly everything. Naturally, when it comes to taking care of sewage and drainage, the Romans also have a deity for this. Enter Cloacina, the goddess responsible for purifying filth and whatever nasty things are in the sewers that we don’t want to think about.
Sphere of Influence: Cleansing, Purification, Rivers, Sewers
Tool: Incense Burner
It is generally accepted that Cloacina was an Etruscan goddess first before being adopted by the Romans. The Etruscans lived in the northern and central part of Italy called Tuscany where they were called Tusci or Etusci by the Romans.
Not much is known about the Etruscans, a few words have survived into the Latin language. What little we do have and know, shows that many deities were adapted and adopted by the Romans into their belief systems.
Plus, the whole story of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus comes to us from Etruscan stories. It’s also interesting to track history meeting myth and where things get muddled. Titus Tatius for example is credited as being the Sabine King co-ruling with Romulus and erecting a statue honoring Cloacina and the Great Sewer. Traditionally, Romulus is said to have ruled between 753 and 717 B.C.E., and Lucius Tarquinius Priscus’ rule from 616-579 B.C.E. and when the sewer’s construction is done. Which would put Titus Tatius about a century ahead of schedule.
Back to Cloacina, when we look at Rome’s foundation myth, we see that the king of Sabine, Titus Tatius commissions the statue where the Sabines and Romans meet to end the conflict following the rape of the Sabine women. It is Tatius who instituted the lawful marriage between Sabines and Romans to unite them as one people. This new peace between the Sabines and Romans would be noted by a cleansing ritual using myrtle performed near an old Etruscan shrine to Cloacina by a small stream. The same stream that would become part of the Cloaca Maxima.
Side Note: Myrtle is also one of Venus’ symbols, the Romans would later equate Cloacina with Venus in her function as a goddess of peace, union, and reconciliation. In this sense, Cloacina would be known as Venus Cloacina or Venus the Cleanser as she also presided over the purification of sex during marriage.
Goddess Of Water
In her early Etruscan origins, Cloacina began as a goddess of water and in that aspect, her attributes were that of Cleanser and Purifier. The stream that Cloacina was originally associated with was part of a marshy region that would empty out to the Tiber River. This region was also prone to flooding by the Tiber as well.
Goddess Of The Sewers
And thus filth, in this respect Cloacina is responsible for purification and cleansing to keep the streets and City of Rome clean.
Despite this seemingly unsavory position, Cloacina was greatly revered and respected by the Romans as they had statues of Fortuna in their latrines, shrines, art, and even prayers for her.
We’re talking that Roman sewers were well maintained to keep the streets and City of Roman free from flooding, diseases, and vermin such as rats.
This is the vast sewer system in Rome that kept the city clean and relatively free of excrement. At its peak, Rome had over a million people living in the city and it was very important to keep the place disease-free. Even today, the Cloaca Maxima still functions and works, which speaks a testament to the engineering abilities of the ancient Romans, notably Tarquin as one of the building projects he overtook for Rome. What we know, is that the Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus is credited as beginning the work on the Cloaca Maxima which would be completed by Tarquinius Superbus.
The Cloaca Maxima was originally built as an open-air canal that ran through the main Forum, collecting water from streams and emptying it into the Tiber River. Over time, it came to be built over and enclosed with later sections and branches being tunneled out as the city grew. In Ovid’s Fasti, it is mentioned that the Forum had been built on an area with swamp-like conditions.
This is the name of the shrine that Romans built in the Forum to petition Cloacina’s aid to keep the streets and City of Rome clean. The Forum is where one could expect to find statues and shrines to all the major Roman gods like Jupiter, Saturn, Juno, and Minerva. From there, there was a manhole access cover to the sewer below. Today, the foundations of this shrine can still be seen. There are a number of layers of stonework that show how ancient this shrine is as the entrance had been raised many times and upkeep by the Romans. There is a set of stairs with a railing that leads down to where a pair of small statues stand that are either both Cloacina or Cloacina and Venus. Each statue holds an incense burner and a flower.
As a side note, Cloacina’s image can be found on the backside of Roman coins, opposite that of Julius Caesar dating from 44 B.C.E. These coins were likely tossed into the water as offerings to Cloacina for her favor and to be free from diseases. Another interesting note to this is that the Hall of Curia, where Julius Caesar was assassinated was turned into a public toilet and the waste from this hall would flow into the Cloaca Maxima.
There are even prayers and poems written to Cloacina as the Mistress of the Great Sewer.
A couple of these poems and prayers are as follows:
“Then Cloacina, goddess of the tide,
Whose sable (black) streams beneath the city glide
Indulged the modish flame, the town she roved,
A mortal scavenger she saw she loved.”
“O Cloacina, Goddess of this place,
Look on thy suppliants with a smiling face.
Soft, yet cohesive let their offerings flow,
Not rashly swift nor insolently slow.”
Venus – Roman
This one is somewhat surprising as Venus is the Roman goddess of Love and Beauty. This does make sense that one of Venus’ functions is that as a purifier and that’s also what Cloacina does too. Though if you ask some historians like Pliny the Elder why Cloacina is identified with Venus, he couldn’t tell you. But it makes sense when you look at one of Venus’ functions as a unifier, peace, and reconciliation, and that where the ancient Sabines and Romans made peace is right on the same location for Cloacina’s shrine. Plus, Rome had this thing for Pax Romana for trying to keep peace and stability within their empire that would extend to trying to appease every god that they had, even if it meant some becoming epitaphs or another name for a deity to try and keep the list down and simplified.
Posted on May 11, 2022, in Cleanliness/Sanitation, Construction, Deity, Disease - Illness, Etruscan, Marriage, Myrtle, Peace, Purification, Rape, Reconciliation, Ritual, River, Roman, Sabine, Sewer, Sex, Tuscany, Water and tagged Deity, Mythology, Roman. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
I have never heard this and I love Greek and Roman gods. Awesome! Thanks
You’re welcome. It’s part of my love and fascination with all the various mythologies, folklore, and beliefs.