A huge bronze statue from Ancient Rome nears the end of its restoration. We only have this statue because of a custom back then to bury anything that nighttime lightning hit. People then thought that the god Summanus had claimed that thing for himself.
But who is Summanus? What do we know about him, and why did his worship die out? The answers are interesting, particularly now with nonstop news of increasing secularization in America.
Recently, the Vatican announced that it was restoring an astonishing bronze statue, the biggest from Classical times. And we have it because at one time, people buried lightning bolts.
Humans have done all kinds of things over our brief span of existence, and we have only barely scratched the surface of the fascinating customs our ancestors once observed. Here, we encounter a god who once united people in shared ritual observances, only to be forgotten centuries later—as has happened to thousands of other gods.
The birth of Summanus, sort of
I’m sure almost everyone knows that Jupiter was the Roman equivalent of Zeus, a god of thunder and lightning. But Jupiter was only half of the lightning equation. At one time, he ruled only the daytime portion of thunderstorms.
At night, Summanus governed thunderstorms.
Varro, a Roman scholar born in 116 BCE, mentions Summanus in a Latin dictionary. As an upper-class man from an equestrian family, Varro received an excellent education in Greek, Latin, history, and philosophy. He also served under Pompey during his brutally effective campaign against piracy from 67-65 BCE.
But even he didn’t know exactly how Romans ended up with Summanus. In his dictionary (74, from here), he wrote that the name of Summanus had the “scent of the speech of the Sabines,” who were an Iron Age tribe who lived where the Romans eventually settled.
Like most of their neighboring central Italian tribes, the Sabines spoke an Osco-Umbrian language which is distinct from Latin. Indeed, they weren’t Indo-Europeans.
Around 3000 BCE, Indo-European people began a massive series of migrations. Centuries later, these migrations finally reached Italy. In 753 BCE, some of them established an Italic settlement by the Tiber River (which runs through Rome today). They soon began to dominate the region. As one might expect, Sabines mixed with these new Romans (though the myth about “the rape of the Sabine women” is likely—and hopefully—just that). On occasion, Sabines ruled alongside and over Romans, and loaned some words to the Latin that soon dominated the region. That is how the Ancient Romans ended up with Summanus.
Summanus makes himself at home
The Tuscan books inform us, that there are nine Gods who discharge thunderstorms, that there are eleven different kinds of them, and that three of them are darted out by Jupiter. Of these the Romans retained only two, ascribing the diurnal kind to Jupiter, and the nocturnal to Summanus; this latter kind being more rare, in consequence of the heavens being colder, as was mentioned above.Natural History
(Related: What Pliny the Elder didn’t write about Jesus.)
In recognition of this god, the Romans formally dedicated a temple to Summanus in 278 BCE. But as Eric Orlin notes in a 2002 paper (p. 5), they put his temple on Aventine Hill, where foreign cults had to live. Summanus’ temple would not be located within their most sacred ground, the pomerium that outlined the official city of Rome itself.
William Warde Fowler, in his 1899 book The Roman Festivals at the Period of the Republic, offers an explanation for the decision to build the temple:
[T]he foundation was the result of the destruction by lightning, no doubt at night, of a figure of Jupiter on the Capitol.The Roman Festivals at the Period of the Republic, p. 160
Cicero asserts exactly this in his 1st-century-BCE work De divinatione (Book I, 10).
That said, even Ovid—a Roman poet who died shortly before Jesus Christ’s ministry supposedly began—wasn’t super-clear about just who Summanus was. In his book Fasti (“The Festivals”), he name-drops the god on June 20:
A shrine is said to have been dedicated to Summanus, whoeverOvid, Fasti, translated by A.S. Kline
He is, when you, Pyrrhus, were a terror to the Romans.
On that day, Summanus enjoyed special worship. This worship included offerings of circular cakes called summanalia. These are noted in Festi’s Latin dictionary (p. 475), written around the late 2nd century CE. Maybe not everyone was too sure about who Summanus was—but hey, any day involving cake is a good day.
Here lies buried Summanus himself
By 224 CE, people were still sacrificing animals to Summanus. An inscription recounting one such sacrifice is recorded by Beard, North, and Price in their 1998 book Religions in Rome (Vol 2, p. 151). In fact, while Jupiter got two basic castrated rams (wethers), Summanus needed two black wethers. As Natasha Sheldon notes, it looks like Summanus had become “the equal-and-opposite aspect of Jupiter.” Being the god of nighttime lightning, Summanus demanded dark animals’ deaths.
Indeed, on p. 254 of Festi’s Latin dictionary we find a mention of Summano that positions him in exactly this way:
And so it happens to Jupiter’s lightning and to Summanus, that Jupiter’s diurnal and Summanus’s nocturnal lightnings are considered.Sextus Pompeius Festus, De verborum significatione
But Summanus jostled uncomfortably with the deities of Rome. It could well be that lightning eventually struck his temple, too, around 197 BCE, as Livy recounts in his accounting of Roman history (32.29 here).
Eventually, Jupiter supplanted Summanus. Augustine of Hippo, writing in the 4th century, noted that the grandeur of Jupiter’s temple had poached a number of former Summanus worshipers:
For, as we read in their own authors, the ancient Romans paid greater honours to I know not what Summanus, to whom they attributed nocturnal thunderbolts, than to Jupiter, to whom diurnal thunderbolts were held to pertain. But, after a famous and conspicuous temple had been built to Jupiter, owing to the dignity of the building, the multitude resorted to him in so great numbers, that scarce one can be found who remembers even to have read the name of Summanus, which now he cannot once hear named.Augustine of Hippo, City of God, 23
By the 5th century CE, Martianus Capella—a legal scholar and writer—wrote in his De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii that Summanus was simply another name for Pluto. Summanus had been almost forgotten.
From then on, Summanus is used simply as an alternate name for Jupiter. (Two lovely examples: “The Lusiad,” a poem by Luís de Camões, p. 149, and John Milton’s “In Quintum Novembris,” which looks back at the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and compares Summanus to Satan.)
As time does to everything, it eventually buried the memory of the god of nighttime lightning.
The last holdout of a god
Quite a ways north-northwest of the Venetian lagoons, Mount (Monte) Summano rises into the clouds. At 1291m/4235′, it dominates the otherwise fairly flat landscape around it. Its north side is way more impressive, with trees growing right up along its slopes. You can find all kinds of hiking and bike-riding activities suggested for the area (and even hang-gliding!). It is beautiful. There’s even a haunted castle in one of the towns nearby, Piovene Rocchette.
As the name suggests, Monte Summano has strong associations with Summanus, along with Pluto and the Manes, who were sorta like Roman death-spirits. (They were important. If you ever see a Latin tomb inscription of “DM,” it stands for Dis Manibus, or “to the Manes.” For a while, even Christians used DM in their inscriptions.) The area tamed to Catholic rule very slowly. The Catholic diocese covering the area, Vicenza, didn’t even get its own bishop until 590.
The archaeology of Summano sounds fascinating. From Neolithic times, people have lived around the mountain. And they seem to have noticed quickly that this mountain gets a lot of lightning storms.
Naturally, the earliest Christians wanted to destroy everything associated with this god and his worship. An old story recounts how the Bishop of Padua, San Prosdocimo, climbed the mountain in 77 CE. Specifically, he wanted to tear down a statue of Summanus (Summus Manium) built there. In the late 8th century CE, Saint Orso made a pilgrimage there, after which point Catholics finally got a chapel and monastery built near its base to the south. They had pilgrimages up the mountain for many years, but I suspect that custom’s fallen by the wayside in recent times.
I wonder if people there ever hear Summanus roaring sometimes at night, when the storms reach their peak and the rolling thunder chases the wind.
Here lies buried Summanian lightning
Even as versed as I am in Italian history, Summanus took me by surprise. I’d never heard of him before today’s actual story.
About 150 years ago, a Roman banker, Pietro Righetti, decided to renovate his estate. While workmen labored there, they found a buried statue.
That wasn’t very unusual. Since at least the 14th century CE, rich men’s estate renovations had been uncovering similar treasures from Ancient Rome. Other Romans were rediscovering those treasures by accident. These glorious artifacts electrified Italian artists’ imaginations, which were already blossoming in a culture that had recently experienced intense stress due to the Black Death, wealth-shifting on an unprecedented scale (mostly because of that plague, it must be said), and a vast increase in learning among the upper classes.
Very often, these wealthy, learned men simply place their new treasures around their homes. After Pope Sixtus IV established a museum in 1471 with a gift of bronze statues, though, they began to donate them to the city’s various museums. As Charles Stinger notes in his 1998 book The Renaissance in Rome, many ancient Greek and Roman statues that once decorated the magnificent Lateran now gaze out at visitors from the museums of the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
That is how the Vatican came by the statue of Hercules. Oh, it’s not the first Classical-era Hercules they’ve gotten. Sixtus IV’s men had found one of those, too, near the Roman Forum. This one was unearthed in 1864. It hasn’t been hidden away all this time, either, but has long been on display in the Vatican Museum’s Round Hall.
At 4m/13′ tall, it is the largest known bronze statue from ancient times.
And it’s gilt. Yes, with gold.
It survived because the ancient Romans respected Summanus a lot more than modern ones apparently do these days.
A city in a near-permanent state of rebirth and renovation
As an NBC news site tells the story, Righetti’s men found the statue near the Campo dei Fiori square. Historians think it was crafted between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE and once adorned Pompey’s Theatre, which was in the area.
In ancient Rome’s heyday, that theatre was very grand indeed. Alas, Stinger tells us, it had fallen into disrepair by the early Renaissance. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, though, the city’s masters began to renovate it. And apparently those renovation efforts continued through the centuries to follow—for good or ill.
For decades now, the museum’s restoration staff have worked to restore the statue to its original condition. Their efforts have been hampered by a 19th-century attempt at renovation that involved coating the statue in wax. But they’re already finding out some fascinating details about how statues like this one were made. As just one example, the artisans who made the statue fused mercury to gold before gilding it so the gilding would stay intact longer.
The mental picture I get of Rome in general is of a city that has been actively rebirthing and rediscovering itself for centuries now. And even in recent years, we keep finding new things all the time from that part of Italy.
A buried lightning bolt shines again, but the god who demanded it is long gone
A plaque buried with Hercules reads “FCS.” That stands for fulgur conditum summanium, which in turn means “Here is buried a Summanian thunderbolt.”
That plaque tells us that long, long ago, lightning struck this statue. It must have been hit at night, too. Otherwise, the Romans wouldn’t have dedicated it to Summanus. Not only had Summanus spoken for the statue, but he’d also claimed the very ground under it as sacred. The statue might have been a real achievement and an artistic miracle, but look: there were proprieties to be observed here. Ancient Romans took these responsibilities seriously.
It just amazes me to learn about Summanus. This god enjoyed popularity for centuries, only to lose popular favor later. Then, the adherents of a notoriously intolerant new upstart religion declared him an enemy. After centuries, they finally trampled him and his worship out of existence.
Religions have cycles, just like birth and death does. When the old mother religion closes her eyes, a new one opens its own.
That new one isn’t necessarily better, alas. But there’s always something new.
We hover at the edge of a sea change in religious history
Thanks to a whole series of machinations and oodles of temporal power, Christianity ruled much of the earth for nearly two thousand years. But it’s not the longest-running religion. So far, that tropy may belong to Anu, who was worshiped from 3500 BCE until about 500 BCE. It’s not even the oldest extant religion.
We know very little about some of these gods. Some, like Senuna/Senua, fell out of favor before very many people could write down their details.
It makes me wonder what an old priest of Mithras must have thought around 350 CE when he saw people heading for Christian churches and meeting-houses. Though their languages differ enormously, I bet his sentiments would have sounded achingly familiar to today’s Christian pastors.
(There’s one big difference, of course: that old priest of Mithras would have had genuine persecution to complain about. For decades around that time, Roman rulers used Mithraism and Christianity as political footballs. Today’s Christians in America are only suffering, at most, from a peeling-back of the coercive power they held unfairly for so long in this country.)
Our toes cling to the edge of the precipice; our hands windmill at our sides
A dying religion, especially a big one that once held great power, is a fascinating idea. Don’t get me wrong. Christianity is nowhere near dying. At most, it is becoming irrelevant.
No, we are nowhere near the days when travelers will ask some passing shepherd what that strange-looking domed hill is, off in the distance, and learn that it is the cursed ruin of Vah-Tii-K’Ahn, where shrouded ghosts in funny pointed hats moan and grumble in cracked, faded parquet halls overgrown with ivy and moss, and those travelers will scoff at such legends because the hunting is simply too good to be true in that area, and that shepherd afterward will guide his flocks back toward his village nestled along the west bank of the Tiber, shaking his head for a long time over the vain foolishness of outsiders.
But one day, its last priests will close their eyes. All religions run their course eventually. None of them ever lasts forever. Eventually, even Anu was forgotten. On that day, I wonder what new one will open their own.
Oh, chances are good that I’ll be long gone by then.
I hope it’s better than what came before.
I think it has the potential to be.
I’ll do what I can to shape it in the years I have left to me.