LGBTQ+ History

The Galli: Breaking Roman Gender Norms

The Galli were priests in the cult of the goddess Cybele. They may have been devoted specifically to her consort Attis, who had castrated himself in a fit of divine frenzy. On initiation to the cult the Galli also castrated themselves, and afterwards dressed exclusively in women’s clothing. They therefore occupied an ambiguous space in Roman notions of gender that many modern transgender and nonbinary people have identified with.

Altars to Cybele and figures of Attis have been found on Hadrian’s Wall at both Chesters Roman Fort and Corbridge, which means it is possible that the Galli worshipped in Britain. Here we consider their role in Roman society and literature and investigate their presence in Roman Britain.

A map showing Phyrgia in the Greco-Roman period
The goddess Cybele was originally worshipped in Phrygia, modern-day Turkey (centre left of map), shown here in the Greco-Roman period
© Public domain

Who were the Galli?

In the 3rd century BC, during Rome’s wars against Carthage, the cult of Cybele made a dramatic entrance into Rome. Her cult icon, a massive black rock was accompanied from Pergamon (in modern Turkey) by her priests.

Cybele’s icon had been sent for by the Roman state in a time of crisis and was offered a temple on the Palatine Hill. A later myth has it that her ship became grounded on a sandbank outside Rome – which would have been seen as very unlucky – but was miraculously pulled free by a virtuous Roman woman using only her sash.


A marble relief from the 2nd century AD depicting a Gallus, along with several objects associated with the cult of Cybele
A marble relief from the 2nd century AD depicting a Gallus, along with several objects associated with the cult of Cybele
© Public domain

The cult of Cybele, also known as Magna Mater, would be part of Rome’s fabric until its Christianisation. Her statue was paraded through the streets annually, accompanied by long-haired priests armed with musical instruments and flagellating themselves with whips made of knuckle bones. These priests were the Galli.

The Galli differentiated themselves from Romen's civic religion through their clothing and behaviour. After entering the cult and castrating themselves, the Galli wore the clothing and jewellery of a Roman woman. They may have received second-hand clothes and other goods from women in exchange for telling fortunes.

The Galli were led by a priest known as the Archigallus, whose finely carved funerary monuments have been found near Rome. Roman citizens could not initially become priests, but this may have changed during the cult’s lifetime.

A marble sculpture of Attis wearing a Phrygian cap, held in  the Museo Archeologico, Sarsina, Spain
A marble sculpture of Attis wearing a Phrygian cap, from the Museo Archeologico, Sarsina, Spain
© DeAgostini/Getty Images

Galli in Roman poetry

How men presented themselves was extremely important. The Galli, with their ambiguous gender performance, allowed men to examine masculinity without risking the solidity of their own identities. Throughout the Roman Republic there was a focus on the Galli’s un-Roman nature. Foreignness was the way in which the Magna Mater’s cult was placed apart, and they are often viewed as charming curiosities, marked out by their music and ecstatic processions.

Catullus (c84–54 BC) was an aristocratic Roman poet writing in the late Roman Republic. He wrote some of the most well-known Roman poetry, including many to his lover Lesbia. In Poem 63 he uses the Galli’s mythical ancestor Attis to examine Roman masculinity as a whole – is a castrated Attis a man? A woman? Or something else entirely? Attis’ grammatical gender shifts throughout the poem as they undergo castration, ecstatic celebration and regret. For poets like Catullus, a myth is a safe place to examine gender and masculinity from, and he can treat Attis with sympathy. It only becomes uncomfortable and strange when the body being examined is a real person.

However, attitudes towards the Galli changed in the early Empire. Under the rule of Augustus, there was a massive expansion of Roman territory. Many new peoples came to Rome and became citizens, heightening concerns about Roman identity and masculinity. The Galli became more visible inside Rome after Augustus’ rebuilding of the Magna Mater’s temple in AD 3, which made the cult more accessible to Roman citizens. From being a curiosity, they became a threat.

As the Galli’s gender performance became a focal point of discussion, it opened them up to new attacks, particularly from poets like Martial. Martial (AD 38/41 – AD 102/4) was a Roman poet, originally from Spain, who is best known for his witty and often obscene epigrams. He was deeply concerned with masculinity and sexuality. In epigram 5.41, he describes another man as being more feminine then Attis and questions his rights to the privileges of married Roman men. In his poetry castration is presented as being equivalent to emasculation, reflecting the importance to Roman masculinity of being able to produce legitimate heirs. The Galli are reduced to a tool with which to criticise other men.

The end of the cult

In the late Roman Empire, the Galli appear again in Roman literature. They are once more used as a tool to think with – although this time by Christians who are opposed to paganism and to castration. In Prudentius’ (AD 348–413?) Crown of Martyrs he describes the Galli in an attack on pagan religions. Interestingly he places them as being neither male nor female ‘[retaining] a gender between the two’ (Poem X, 1072), although it is unclear whether this is because this is how they described themselves or because it is intended to be insulting.

This attack came at the very end of the cult of Attis. Paganism had increasingly been repressed by the Roman state, and under the Theodosian decrees in AD 389–91, worship was essentially banned. The last known reference to the cult of Magna Mater is a dedicatory inscription at her temple in AD 390. The fate of any remaining Galli is unknown.

The altar to Cybele found at Corbridge on Hadrian’s Wall
The head from a statue to the god Attis, found at Corbridge in 1911

The Galli in Britain

Most figures in Roman Britain are shadowy at best: if we are very fortunate, they appear briefly to us through an inscription or a mention in a Roman writer’s work. We have no direct evidence for the Galli in Roman Britain, but the archaeological record suggests that they may have been present.

We know that Cybele and Attis were worshipped in Roman Britain, including on Hadrian’s Wall. An altar to Cybele was found at Corbridge in 1913, which had been the site of a Roman fort and town, and another was discovered at Chesters Roman Fort. The Corbridge altar was eventually broken up and used to fill a cavity under a floor. More images of Cybele’s consort Attis have been found across Britain. He is typically depicted wearing a Phrygian cap, a soft hat with a folded tip. One such figure was discovered at Corbridge and probably dates from the 3rd century AD. As the Galli were associated with both Attis and Cybele, these discoveries make the Galli’s presence in Britain very plausible.

The most enticing piece of evidence for the Galli’s presence in Roman Britain, however, is found south of Hadrian’s Wall, at Catterick in North Yorkshire – the site of Roman Cataractonium. In 2002 archaeologists uncovered an unusual burial. The skeletal remains appeared to be male, but were buried with women’s clothing and jet jewellery. Although all Romans wore jewellery, only women wore jet, which was associated with childbirth and magic. It is difficult for archaeologists to interpret identity through burial goods, but this is a strong indicator that this person was not seen as a man by the people who buried them.

Isotopic analysis of the remains, although inconclusive, has suggested that they grew up either in the south of Britain or in a similar climate. The quality and quantity of their jewellery, some of which might have come from nearby Whitby, also gives the impression that they were well off. Archaeologists have interpreted this individual as a Gallus, especially as we know that the cult of Attis and Cybele were present in northern Britain.

The Galli are striking as a case study in how gender expression has always been complex, which makes their history highly meaningful to many LGBTQ+ people today. Although we cannot know how they thought about their own identity, their presence in the historical record hints at a richer and queerer past than we can possibly imagine.

Top image: A relief of a Gallus making sacrifices to Cybele, from the 3rd century AD (© Public domain)

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