Liber and Libera
Liber, as his name suggests, is the god of the “free” and personifies freedom in various aspects of the word. The word liber also denotes the concept of libations – a ritual offering of drink. He is a god, who, like many other gods, plays different roles: he is the god of freedom, wine and viniculture, fertility, and also serves as a protection deity. He protects aspects of agriculture, including the grape vine and the seeds of grapes, wine, wine vessels (amphorae), along with male fertility.
Libera, his female equivalent, is almost identical to him and is sometimes completely merged with Liber – however, while Liber protects male fertility, Libera possesses the protection over a woman’s fertility.
Unlike some Roman gods, Liber does not have a Greek counterpart but is often identified alongside Bacchus / Dionysus and their mythology but is not entirely connected or incorporated by them. Liber can be linked back to two separate early archaic fertility cults: one being that of Ceres, an agricultural goddess, and Libera, who is Liber’s female equivalent. In late Republican Rome, Cicero describes Liber being the son of Ceres, however, his origins are not well known. His connections to Bacchus and Ceres brought him into the Aventine Triad and he carries various aspects of older Italian or Latin cults into the more concentrated center of Roman religion.
Shortly after the fall of the monarchy, Liber comes into Roman tradition and becomes more important as the plebeian class grew more upset with the patrician class. Liber now becomes the patron god of Rome’s plebeian class and becomes associated with forms of “plebeian disobedience” to religious, cultural, and civil authority of the patricians. Aspects of his cult were – and continue to remain – “un-Roman” – such as civil disobedience towards the patricians, to the point where Gaius Cassius Longinus minted coins with Liber(a)’s face after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Liber asserted the right to free speech, expression, and “ecstatic release,” as the personification of liberty and the plebeians.
According to Livy, A. Postumius, started a series of games and founded a joint temple to the Aventine Triad in 496 BCE. In 493, the temple was dedicated and the ludi scaenici were held in honor of Liber. These games included religious and “cultural” dramas, which were satirical in a religious context. These ludi have been identified as the early forms of the main festival for Liber and Libera – the Liberalia.
The Liberalia is held on 17 March each year and marks the time when sons at the age of 14 came of age. The festival is timed in the spring which marks the renewal of fertility. On 17 March, a portable shrine was carried through Rome’s neighborhoods and his priestesses, who wear ivy crowns, offered honey cakes and sacrifice. On this day, young men celebrated their coming of age. This means they cut off their first beard and dedicated them to the household lares, and if citizens, wore their toga virilus, and taken to be registered with their fathers in the Forum. They were then free to leave their father’s house, vote, marry, have children, serve in the military, etc.
Liber’s temples were often in the Ionic order – in between the severe Doric and decorated Corinthian and were said to have been made by Greek architects. His temples often held one of his symbols, which is the image of a phallus. In Lavinium, there was a month long festival, most likely held in March, where the phallic image was placed on a trolley and taken to local crossroad shrines before being taken to the main Forum and crowned by a respectable matron. This festival repelled any evil from the fields and houses and was made in hopes of a fertile year.
Liber’s divine power is in the grapes and wine and is offered the sacrima – the first pressing of the grape harvest. The wine produced under Liber’s patronage was not sacred and therefore, fit for non-religious purposes. While Liber plays a role in wine, Jupiter plays a different role. Jupiter was the patron of sacrificial wine (vinum inferium) and Liber is the patron of impure wine (vinum spurcum).
His role within the sphere of wine, drunkenness, and freedom, tie Liber close to Dionysus and in some cults, Liber was assimilated to Bacchus in his iconography. Did Liber share the same historical, heroic savior, founder identity? Pliny notes the “Triumph of Liber,” where several triumphs feature similar aspects to Bacchic elements. Around the end of the 5th century, in the Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, Liber Pater's mythic conquest of India is taken as an historical event, which left a harmless, naturally peaceful nation "dripping with blood, full of corpses, and polluted with [Liber's] lusts.” The connection with India points out the connection to Bacchus, where it is thought that Bacchus was a historical figure, a savior, founder, and conqueror of India. However, this portrayal of Liber was not ancient and Liber was never seen as a vengeful or “bloody” god.
Barbette Stanley Spaeth, The Roman goddess Ceres, University of Texas Press, 1996. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5g3YDlPvbeMC&lpg=PA142&vq=lavinium&dq=+Spaeth,+Barbette+S.,+&pg=PA92&hl=en#v=onepage&q=lavinium&f=false T.P. Wiseman, Remus: a Roman myth, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Olivier de Cazanove, "Jupiter, Liber et le vin latin", Revue de l'histoire des religions, 1988, Vol. 205, Issue 205-3, pp. 245-265 Paulus Orosius: Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, trans. and ed. A T Fear, Liverpool University Press, 2010, p. 57. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology by William Smith