Queen of the Underworld, goddess of female and agricultural fertility, and springtime growth
Marble statue of Proserpina, 2nd century AD. She is depicted holding a torch lighting her way and a sheaf of grain symbolizing abundance.
AbodeOrcus, in winter (Roman name for underworld, and for its ruling deity, equivalent to Greek Hades)
Symboltorch, sheaf, pomegranate
TemplesAventine Hill (with Liber and Ceres)
FestivalsLiberalia (uncertain)
Personal information
SiblingsLiber (various traditions)
ConsortLiber, Dis Pater or Orcus (various traditions)
Greek equivalentPersephone, Ariadne

Proserpina (/prˈsɜːrpɪnə/ proh-SUR-pih-nə;[1] Latin: [proːˈsɛrpɪna]) or Proserpine (/ˈprɒsərpn/ PROSS-ər-pyne[1]) is an ancient Roman goddess whose iconography, functions and myths are virtually identical to those of Greek Persephone. Proserpina replaced or was combined with the ancient Roman fertility goddess Libera, whose principal cult was housed in the Aventine temple of the grain-goddess Ceres, along with the wine god Liber.

Each of these three deities occupied their own cella at the temple. Their cults were served or supervised by a male public priesthood. Ceres was by far the senior of the three, one of the dii consentes, Rome's approximate equivalent to the Greek Twelve Olympians. She was identified with Greek Demeter and Liber was identified with Bacchus and Dionysus. Libera is sometimes described as a female version of Liber Pater, concerned with female fertility. Otherwise she is given no clear identity or mythology by Roman sources, and no Greek equivalent. Nothing is known of her native iconography: her name translates as a feminine form of Liber, "the free one". Proserpina's name is a Latinisation of "Persephone", perhaps influenced by the Latin proserpere ("to emerge, to creep forth"), with reference to the growing of grain.

Proserpina was imported from southern Italy as part of an official religious strategy, towards the end of the second Punic war, when antagonism between Rome's lower and upper social classes, crop failures and intermittent famine were thought to be signs of divine wrath, provoked by Roman impiety. The new cult was installed around 205 BC at Ceres' Aventine temple. Ethnically Greek priestesses were recruited to serve Ceres and Proserpina as "Mother and Maiden". This innovation might represent an attempt by Rome's ruling class to please the gods and the plebs; the latter shared strong cultural ties with Italian magna Graeca. The reformed cult was based on the Greek, women-only Thesmophoria, and was promoted as morally desirable for respectable Roman women, both as followers and priestesses. It was almost certainly supervised by Rome's Flamen Cerealis, a male priesthood usually reserved to plebeians. The new cult might have partly subsumed the Aventine temple's older, native cults to Ceres, Liber and Libera, but it also functioned alongside them. Liber played no part in the reformed cult. Ceres, Proserpina/Libera and Liber are known to have received cult in their own right, at their Aventine temple and elsewhere, though details are lacking.

The Roman cult of Mother and Maiden named Proserpina as queen of the underworld, spouse to Rome's king of the underworld, Dis pater, and daughter to Ceres. The cult's functions, framework of myths and roles involved the agricultural cycle, seasonal death and rebirth, dutiful daughterhood and motherly care. They included secret initiations and nocturnal torchlit processions, and cult objects concealed from non-initiates. Proserpina's forcible abduction by the god of the underworld, her mother's search for her, and her eventual but temporary restoration to the world above are the subject of works in Roman and later art and literature. In particular, her seizure by the god of the Underworld – usually described as the Rape of Proserpina, or of Persephone – has offered dramatic subject matter for Renaissance and later sculptors and painters.

Cult and myths

Origin of Libera

In early Roman religion, Libera was the female equivalent of Liber Pater, protector of plebeian rights, god of wine, male fertility and liberty, equivalent to Greek Bacchus or Dionysus. Libera was originally an Italic goddess, paired with Liber as an "etymological duality" at some time during Rome's Regal or very early Republican eras.[2] She enters Roman history as part of a so-called Triadic cult alongside Ceres and Liber, in a temple established around 493 BC on the Aventine Hill at state expense, promised by Rome's governing class to the plebs (Rome's citizen-commoners), who had threatened secession. Collectively, these three deities were divine patrons and protectors of Rome's commoner-citizens, and guardians of Rome's senatorial records and written laws, housed at the temple soon after its foundation. Libera might have been offered cult on March 17 during Liber's festival, Liberalia, or at some time during the seven days of Cerealia, held in mid-to-late April; in the latter festival, she would have been subordinate to Ceres; the names of both Liber and Libera were a later addition to Ceres's festival. Otherwise, Libera's functional relationship to her Aventine cult partners is uncertain. She has no known native iconography or mythology.[3]

Libera and Proserpina

Libera was officially identified as Proserpina from 205 BC, when she and Ceres acquired a Romanised form of Greek mystery rite, the ritus graecia cereris. This was part of Rome's religious recrecruitment of deities to serve as divine allies against Carthage, towards the end of the Second Punic War. In the late Republican era, Cicero described Liber and Libera as Ceres' children. At around the same time, Hyginus equated Libera with Greek Ariadne.[4][5] The older and newer forms of her names, cult, and rites, and their diverse associations, persisted well into the late Imperial era. St. Augustine (354–430 AD) wrote that Libera was a goddess of female fertility, just as Liber was a god of male fertility.[6]


Proserpina was officially introduced to Rome as the daughter of Ceres in the newly Romanised cult of "Mother and Daughter". The cult's origins lay in southern Italy, which was politically allied to Rome but culturally a part of Magna Graecia. The cult was based on the women-only Greek Thesmophoria, which was a part public and part mystery cult to Demeter and Persephone as "Mother and Maiden". It arrived in Rome along with its Greek priestesses, who were granted Roman citizenship so that they could pray to the gods "with a foreign and external knowledge, but with a domestic and civil intention".[7] In his commentary on Virgil, Servius writes that Proserpina's heavenly name is Luna, and her earthly name is Diana.[8]

The exclusively female initiates and priestesses of the new "Greek-style" mysteries of Ceres and Proserpina were expected to uphold Rome's traditional, patrician-dominated social hierarchy and traditional morality. Unmarried girls were expected to emulate the chastity of Proserpina, the maiden; married women were expected to seek to emulate Ceres, the devoted and fruitful Mother. Their rites were intended to secure a good harvest, and increase the fertility of those who partook in the mysteries.[9] Each of the Aventine triad's deities continued to receive cult in their own right. Liber's open, gender-mixed cult and festivals continued, though likely caught up in the suppression of the Bacchanalia some twenty years on.[10] Proserpina's individual cult, and her joint cult with Ceres became widespread throughout the Republic and Empire. A Temple of Proserpina was located in a suburb of Melite, in modern Mtarfa, Malta. The temple's ruins were quarried away between the 17th and 18th centuries; only a few fragments survive.[11]


See also: Persephone § Abduction myth

The Rape of Proserpina by Hans von Aachen (1587)
Copy of The Rape of Proserpina by Vincenzo de' Rossi, on view near Cliveden House

The best-known myth surrounding Proserpina is of her abduction by the god of the Underworld, her mother Ceres' frantic search for her, and her eventual but temporary restitution to the world above. In Latin literature, several versions are known, all similar in most respects to the myths of Greek Persephone's abduction by the King of the underworld, named variously in Latin sources as Dis or Pluto, and in Greek sources as Hades or Pluto. "Hades" can mean both the hidden Underworld and its king ('the hidden one'), who in early Greek versions of the myth is a dark, unsympathetic figure; Persephone is "Kore" ('the maiden'), taken against her will;[12] in the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, her captor is known as Hades; they form a divine couple who rule the underworld together, and receive Eleusinian initiates into some form of better afterlife. Renamed Pluto, the king of the underworld is distanced from his violent abduction of his consort.[13] In 27 BC Vergil presented his own version of the myth, in his Georgics. In the early 1st century AD, Ovid gives two poetic versions: one in Book 5 of his Metamorphoses and another in Book 4 of his Fasti[14] An early 5th century AD Latin version of the same myth is Claudian's De raptu Proserpinae; in most cases, these Latin works identify Proserpina's underworld abductor and later consort as Dis.

Votive pillar reading Diti Patri et Proserpin[ae] sacrum, "Holy to Dīs Pater and Proserpina", identifying Dīs Pater as Proserpina's husband
A Pre-Raphaelite Proserpine (1873–1877) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Tate Gallery, London)

In Claudian's version, the unprepossessing Dis yearns for the joys of married love and fatherhood, and threatens to make war on the other gods if he remains alone in Erebus. The Fates (Parcae), who determine the destinies of all, arrange a future marriage for Dis, to prevent the outbreak of war. Jupiter orders Venus to bring love to Dis, in fulfillment of the prophecy. Ceres has already sought to conceal the innocent Proserpina by sending her to safety in Sicily, Ceres' earthly home and sanctuary; but Dis comes out from the volcano at Mount Etna in his chariot, seizes Proserpina at the Pergusa Lake near Enna, and takes her down into the underworld. The poem ends at this point.[15]

Proserpina's mother, Ceres, seeks her daughter across the world, but in vain. The sun sinks and darkness falls as Ceres walks the earth, stopping the growth of crops and creating a desert with each step. Jupiter sends Mercury to order Dis to free Proserpina; but Proserpina has melted Dis' hard heart, and eats "several" of the pomegranate seeds he offers her;[16] those who have eaten the food of the dead cannot return to the world of the living. Pluto insists that she had willingly eaten his pomegranate seeds and in return she must stay with him for half the year. Virgil asserts that Proserpina agrees to this, and is reluctant to ascend from the underworld and re-unite with her mother. When Ceres greets her daughter's return to the world of the living, the crops grow, flowers blossom, and in summer all growing crops flourish, to be harvested in Autumn. During the time that Proserpina resides with Pluto, the world goes through winter, when the earth gives no crops. [17] The earth can only be fertile when she is above.[18]

Orpheus and Eurydice

The most extensive myth of Proserpina in Latin is Claudian's (4th century AD). It is closely connected with that of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Virgil's Georgics, Orpheus' beloved wife, Eurydice, died from a snake-bite; Proserpina allowed Orpheus into Hades without losing his life; charmed by his music, she allowed him to lead his wife back to the land of the living, as long as he did not look back during the journey. But Orpheus could not resist a backward glance, so Eurydice was forever lost to him.[19][20]

In artwork

Proserpina's figure inspired many artistic compositions, eminently in sculpture (Bernini,[21] see The Rape of Proserpina (Bernini) ) in painting (D.G.Rossetti,[22] a fresco by Pomarancio, J. Heintz,[23] Rubens,[24] A. Dürer,[25] Dell'Abbate,[26] Parrish[27]) and in literature (Goethe's[28] Proserpina and Swinburne's Hymn to Proserpine and The Garden of Proserpine) The statue of the Rape of Prosepina by Pluto that stands in the Great Garden of Dresden, Germany is also referred to as "Time Ravages Beauty". Kate McGarrigle's song about the legend was one of the last things she wrote prior to her death, and received its only performance at her last concert at Royal Albert Hall in December 2009.


  1. ^ a b "Proserpina". American English Dictionary. HarperCollins. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
  2. ^ The pairing of Libera and Liber identifies both as aspects of an 'etymological duality' – cf Roman Faunus and Fauna. See Spaeth, Barbette Stanley, The Roman Goddess Ceres, University of Texas Press, 1996, p. 8
  3. ^ T. P. Wiseman, "Satyrs in Rome? The Background to Horace's Ars Poetica", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 78 (1988), p 7, note 52.
  4. ^ Wiseman, T. P. (1988). "Satyrs in Rome? The Background to Horace's Ars Poetica". Journal of Roman Studies. 78: 7 n54. doi:10.2307/301447. ISSN 0075-4358. JSTOR 301447. S2CID 161849654.
  5. ^ Hyginus. Fabulae (in Latin). 224. Qui facti sunt ex mortalibus immortales ... Ariadnen Liber pater Liberam appellavit, Minois et Pasiphaes filiam;
  6. ^ Spaeth, 1996, p. 131, citing Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2.62, and Saint Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 4.11; both of whom most likely used the Late Republican polymath Varro as their source.
  7. ^ Spaeth, 1996, pp. 4, 6–13, citing Cicero, pro Balbo, 55. Arnobius mistakes this introduction as the first Roman cult to Ceres. His belief may reflect its high profile and ubiquity during the later Imperial period, and possibly the fading of older, distinctively Aventine forms of her cult.
  8. ^ Servius, Commentary on Virgil's Aeneid 6.118.
  9. ^ Spaeth, 1996, pp. 13, 15, 60, 94–97
  10. ^ Wiseman, T. P., Remus: a Roman myth, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.133
  11. ^ Cardona, David (2008–2009). "The known unknown: identification, provenancing, and relocation of pieces of decorative architecture from Roman public buildings and other private structures in Malta". Malta Archaeological Review (9): 43.
  12. ^ As in Hesiod's Theogony and the "Homeric Hymn to Demeter; see Rayor, Diane (2004). The Homeric Hymns. University of California Press. pp. 107–109.
  13. ^ As in the Greek Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus) and, in Latin, Hyginus. Fabulae. 146.
  14. ^ For treatment of Ovid's two versions, and comparison with his probable Greek sources, see Hinds, Stephen (1987). The Metamorphosis of Persephone: Ovid and the self-conscious Muse. Cambridge University Press.
  15. ^ Claudian. "Book I". The Rape of Proserpine. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
  16. ^ "Several" in Spaeth, The Roman goddess Ceres, pp. 130-131; Three in Ovid, Fasti 526, trans Frazer; seven in Ovid, Metamorphoses, 535-539, trans Humphries
  17. ^ Virgil, Georgics 1.38
  18. ^ Miles, p. 68
  19. ^ Virgil (2002). "English translation online". Georgics. Translated by Kline, A.S. Book 4, 453–527. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  20. ^ Claudius Claudianus. "online". De Raptu Proserpinae – via Divus Angelus.
  21. ^ "Bernini – Plutone e Proserpina". Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  22. ^ "Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti". 2008-07-31. Archived from the original on 2013-05-11. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  23. ^ "galenug288". OCAIW. Archived from the original on 2002-08-22. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  24. ^ "Genios de la Pintura – Ficha Rapto de Proserpina". Artehistoria. Archived from the original on 2008-12-04. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  25. ^ "Genios de la Pintura – Ficha Rapto de Proserpina". Artehistoria. Archived from the original on 2007-03-10. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
  26. ^ "Rape of Proserpina". Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
  27. ^ "Proserpina, aka Sea Nymphs – Maxfield Parrish Gallery". Archived from the original on 2013-10-17. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
  28. ^ Johann Wolfgang Goethe (2006-04-26). "Projekt Gutenberg-DE – SPIEGEL ONLINE – Nachrichten – Kultur". Retrieved 2011-09-05.

Further reading

... Diti patri dedicata est, qui dives ut apud Graecos Plouton, quia et recidunt omnia in terras et oriuntur e terris, Cui Proserpinam (quod Graecorum nomen est, ea enim est quae Persefone Graece nominatur) — quam frugum semen esse volunt absconditamque quaeri a matre fingunt.
[ With  Dis Pater is connected Proserpina (whose name is of Greek origin, being that goddess the Greeks call Persephone) who symbolises the wheat seed and whose mother looked for her after her disappearance ... ]