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March 31 – The Feast of the Moon

March 31 was the day held in honor of Luna, the divine personification of the Moon. As Ovid says, “The Moon rules the months: this month’s span ends with the worship of the Moon on the Aventine Hill” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 31).

Luna was depicted as wearing a dark cloak festooned with stars, and on her head was a tiara with the emblem of the moon on it. Her chariot was pulled by two white horses (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 5; “Roman Moon Goddess”).

The reason why March 31 is held in honor of the moon goddess is because this was the day that a temple dedicated to her was officially opened. The Temple of Luna, or Aedes Lunae, was located on the Aventine Hill near or next-door to the temples of Diana, Minerva, and Ceres. The first temple to Luna was built by King Servius Tullius and stood for the next 600 years in one form or another until the reign of Emperor Nero, when it was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64 AD. It was never rebuilt (Lawrence Richardson, Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 238; “Roman Moon Goddess”).

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Tyrannosaurus rex juvenile, two years old

Hello everyone. This is  drawing which I made of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, two years old. The anatomy is based upon the skeletons of juvenile Tarbosaurus (a tyrannosaur from Asia which is closely related to Tyrannosaurus) as well as from bones found in North America which may/may not belong to T. rex. There is a theory that the young were covered in a full or partial coating of feathery fuzz, and gradually lost it as they aged. Therefore, I have shown this 2 year old T. rex with a mottled camouflage coloring similar to that seen on wild boar piglets and some species of birds. This drawing was made with No. 2 pencil on printer paper.

March 25 – The Hilaria: The Festival of Joy

As a famous ancient Roman proverb says, “Don’t worry, be happy”. Well, not really, but that was the general feeling in Rome every March 25th. Why? Because this was the date of a festival called the Hilaria. If this word looks similar to “hilarious”, you wouldn’t be that far off. The word Hilaria means “the cheerful times”, although I think that it could be better translated as “the Festival of Joy”, the reasons for which I shall explain further on. It was a day dedicated to the goddess Cybele, and it was described as a feria stativa, meaning that there was to be no work this day. The courts were closed, shops were shut, school was cancelled, and everybody was given the welcomed luxury of having a day off (“Origins of April Fools Day”; “Hilaria”).

Flavius Vopiscus says that at the Hilaria festival, “everything that is said and done should be of a joyous nature” (Flavius Vopiscus, Historia Augusta, Book 25 – “The Life of Aurelian”, chapter 1). Certainly the children had cause to be joyous with class cancelled for the day, but why was this day in particular supposed to be one where happiness reigned? According to Roman mythology, March 25 was the day of the resurrection of Cybele’s lover Attis after being dead for three days – does this sound familiar? To Catholic Christians, a festival taking place in early Spring dedicated to the resurrection of a divine being who had been dead for the past three days should ring a bell.

So, let’s party! Everyone was required to be in a good mood on this day. No kill-joys or wet blankets were allowed to bring down everybody’s upbeat feelings, and certainly no arguing or fighting. The Hilaria was a public street fair full of dancing and music. A statue of the goddess Cybele was carried in procession through the streets accompanied by numerous banners, artwork, flower garlands, and precious jewels. Incense was given away for free to anyone who wanted some. People dressed in masks and costumes, and danced and partied all along the way. Picture a combination of Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, the Indian festival of Holi, the Gaelic festival of Wren Day, and the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and that should give you a good idea of what the day’s festivities were like (Flavius Vopiscus, Historia Augusta, Book 25 – “The Life of Aurelian”, chapter 1; Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 10, verse 5; book 1, chapter 11, verse 1).

Our best description of the activities that took place at the Hilaria are found in the writings of Herodian of Antioch. In his History of the Roman Empire, he explains…

“Every year, on a set day at the beginning of spring, the Romans celebrate a festival in honor of the mother of the gods [Cybele]. All the valuable trappings of each deity, the imperial treasures, and marvelous objects of all kinds, both natural and man-made, are carried in procession before this goddess. Free license for every kind of revelry is granted, and each man assumes the disguise of his choice. No office is so important or so sacrosanct that permission is refused anyone to put on its distinctive uniform and join in the revelry, concealing his true identity; consequently, it is not easy to distinguish the true from the false” (Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 10, verse 5).

“As we have discovered by research, the Romans are devoted to this goddess for the following reason – a reason which it seems worth while to relate here, since it is unknown to some of the Greeks. They say that this statue of the goddess fell from the sky; the exact material of the statue is not known, nor the identity of the artists who made it; in fact, it is not certain that the statue was the work of human hands. Long ago it fell from the sky in Phrygia (the name of the region where it fell is Pessinus, which received its name from the fall of the heavenly statue); the statue was discovered there” (Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 11, verse 1).

Another person who provides some rather questionable information regarding this day is the 19th Century writer Samuel F. Dunlap. His pseudo-academic ramblings on religious conspiracy theories remind me of the sort of thing that you’d see nowadays on the History Channel or in a supermarket tabloid, so his words need to be taken with an entire barrel of salt. He essentially claimed that Jesus went through several manifestations in human history, not just one, including the god Hermes, the hero Hercules, and the mythical figure of Attis or Adoni. In spite of his weird rantings, he does provide a few small snippits of info, though where he got this information from isn’t clear, and personally I think he made it up. In his book Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni, he says that the Hilaria was a resurrection festival dedicated to the Unconquered Sun, also known as Bromius the god of joy, who was the divine son of the sky god and the virgin daughter of the Phoenician hero Cadmus. On this day, people scattered violet flowers on the earth and put flowers in their hair, and there was plenty of flute-playing and singing (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Pages 127, 129). I can’t say much for Dunlap’s logic, but I can definitely see the Romans tossing flower petals around and putting flowers in their hair while singing and dancing to flute music.

I’d like to conclude this article with the following: Somebody (I can’t remember who) once said “In order to be sane, you need to go insane once in a while”. So lighten up, loosen up, and cheer up. Life’s short and it should be enjoyed as much as possible during the time that you have.

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March 23 – The Tubilustrium: Hear the Trumpet’s Call

Roman soldiers marching at Xanten, Germany. Photograph by Judith Meyer (June 23, 2012). CC0 Creative Commons.

March 23 was the date for an ancient Roman festival called the Tubilustrium. This was a day of important social and military significance, because it was the mustering day for the Roman Army, and was the official beginning of the military campaigning season.

As Marcus Terentius Varro explains, “The Tubilustrium ‘Purification of the Trumpets’ is named from the fact that on this day the tubae ‘trumpets’ used in the ceremonies lustrantur ‘are purified’ in Shoemaker’s Hall” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189).

The tuba (plural tubae) was the name that the Romans gave to what was a long straight thin tube made of brass with a small mouthpiece and a flared muzzle, similar to the stereotypical cartoon images that we have of a Pilgrim’s musket. (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

The trumpets that were sanctified on March 23 weren’t just any old trumpets. It appears that these were specifically used only for religious rituals. They are referred to as tubicines sacrorum, “sacred trumpets”, and would have been used by the priests for many religious purposes. They were often played to initiate games and were played during parades, funerals, and sacrifices (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

There were, apparently, three Tubilustria festivals, not one. One took place on either March 22 or 23 (of the two, March 23 is the more common date that’s given), another took place on May 23 (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23), and yet another on June 11. However, I must state that aside from one mention by one modern source, I have not seen any mention of such a ritual occurring on June 11, so this might be an error (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209).

In an earlier post, I described how the Feast of Minerva on March 19 initiated a five-day celebration known as the Quinquatria, meaning “the Festival of Five Days”, which lasted from March 19 to 23. Legend says that it was clever Minerva who invented the war trumpet, hence this festival took place on the last day of the Quinquatria. In reference to the ritual that took place on March 23, which was the last day of the Quinquatria, Ovid states “The last day of the five [days] exhorts us to purify the tuneful trumpets, and sacrifice to the mighty god [Mars]”. The purification ritual took place at the Atrium Sutorum, “Hall of the Shoe-Makers”, and the trumpets were made pure with the sacrifice of a lamb (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 23; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 129; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 64).

Concerning the festival held on May 23, Ovid states, “The next dawn belongs to Vulcan: they call it Tubilustria: when trumpets he makes are purified” (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23). Henry Riley, who translated Ovid’s works during the 19th Century, stated that the Tubilustria were held in honor of the gods Mars and Vulcan, because it was crafty Vulcan who created the weapons of war upon his heavenly forge, and it was war-like Mars who put them to use in battle. Concerning the gods that were worshiped or honored at these festivals, it appears that the first Tubilustrium in late March was dedicated to Mars while the second festival in late May was dedicated to Vulcan; why this distinction existed isn’t clear (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).

March 23 and May 23 were necessary for purifying the religious trumpets because on the following days (March 24 and May 24 respectively) the Comitia Curiata met to sanction wills (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 63).

As I mentioned earlier, these trumpets weren’t only used for religious reasons. Trumpets also had important military functions, usually for issuing commands upon the battlefield. Also, at the beginning of every campaign season, the troops were called to the assembly area by a blast of the trumpet or tuba in Latin. For this reason, March 23 marks the beginning of the year’s offensive. Upon their assembly into ranks, the army’s herald yelled out three times to the men assembled “Are you ready for war?”, and in response three times, the men answered that they were (The Roman War Machine, episode 1; The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”).

March is the month of Mars, god of war. The battle trumpet calls men to their ranks. The army is assembled, the men stand armed and ready. The herald calls to them “Sons of Mars, are you ready for war?!”, and from their mouth come the thunderous roar “READY!!! READY!!! READY!!!”

As an added bonus, I discovered that there is a piece of classical music entitled “Tubilustria”, written by the Estonian composer René Eespere. Here is the link to listen to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHSxaLVZfF4.

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March 19 – The Feast of Minerva

March 19 marked the beginning of the Quinquatria, “the Festival of Five Days”, spanning from March 19 to 23. This was a five day long celebration of the goddess Minerva, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena. She was a goddess of wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, cleverness, wit, strategy, creativity, and artistic inspiration, and she served as the patron goddess of philosophers, writers, artists, musicians, doctors, and teachers. The festival was originally called the Quinquatrus, “the Fifth Day”, because it took place on the fifth day after the Ides of March (even though it’s actually four days). Later, this got changed to a five day festival and it was renamed the Quinquatria, “Five Days” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

“The Quinquatrus: this day, though one only, is from a misunderstanding of the name observed as if there were five days in it. Just as the sixth day after the Ides is in similar fashion called the Sexatrus by the people of Tusculum, and the seventh day after is the Septimatrus, so this day was named here, in that the fifth day after the Ides was called the Quinquatrus” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 187, 189).

The main day of celebration was the first day, March 19, which served as the feast day of the goddess Minerva. Festus claims that the reason why Minerva’s feast day fell on March 19 was because this was the day that her temple on the Aventine Hill was consecrated. Religious law dictated that no blood could be shed on March 19. Therefore, there were no hunts, no animal butchering, no preparing of meat, no gladiator fights, and no physical harm done to anyone. However, there were gladiatorial games for the four days afterwards (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 19). Women also consulted sooth-sayers and fortune-tellers on this day. As a protector goddess, women were understandably anxious about the fate of themselves and their families (“Quinquatrus or Quinquatria”).

The Feast of Minerva was a day dedicated to creativity and the arts. It was a special day for artists and craftsmen, a day to let their muse truly shine. As Ovid states…

“Pray now you boys and tender girls to Pallas [“the Protector”, a title given to the Greek goddess Athena, and adopted by the Romans for Minerva]. He who can truly please Pallas is learned. Pleasing Pallas let girls learn to card wool, and how to unwind the full distaff. She shows how to draw the shuttle through the firm warp, and close up loose threads with the comb. Worship her, you who remove stains from damaged clothes, worship her, you who ready bronze cauldrons for fleeces. If Pallas frowns, no one could make good shoes, even if he were more skilled than Tychius. And even if he were cleverer with his hands than Epeus once was, he’ll be useless if Pallas is angry. You too who drive away ills with Apollo’s art, bring a few gifts of your own for the goddess. And don’t scorn her, you schoolmasters, a tribe so often cheated of its pay. She attracts new pupils. Nor you engravers, and painters with encaustics, nor you who carve the stone with a skillful hand. She’s the goddess of a thousand things, and song for sure. If I’m worthy may she be a friend to my endeavours. Where the Caelian Hill slopes down to the plain, at the point where the street’s almost, but not quite, level, you can see the little shrine of Minerva Capta, which the goddess first occupied on her birthday. The source of the name is doubtful: we speak of ‘Capital’ ingenuity; the goddess is herself ingenious. Or is it because, motherless, she leapt, with a shield from the crown of her father’s head (caput)? Or because she came to us as a ‘captive’ from the conquest of Falerii? This, an ancient inscription claims. Or because her law ordains ‘capital’ punishment for receiving things stolen from that place? By whatever logic your title’s derived, Pallas, shield our leaders with your aegis forever” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 19).

According to the historian Suetonius, the emperor Domitian took the Feast of Minerva very seriously; it was one of his favorite holidays…

“He celebrated the Quinquatria too every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12, chapter 4)

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March 17 – The Feast of Mars

Today is March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day. While people all over the world celebrate everything that it means to be Irish, things would have been different two thousand years ago. Tradition states that Saint Patrick died on March 17, but we don’t know for sure if he did indeed die on this day, or was born on this day, or whatever. That being said, if Ireland’s patron saint really does have nothing to do with this particular day, then why did the Church place Patrick’s feast day on March 17? It was common practice among the Catholic Church to take pre-existing pagan holidays and give them a Christian spin in order to gain converts and to suppress previous religious beliefs.

So what was so important about March 17 that made the Catholic Church want to Christianize it? March 17 was important to the ancient Romans for three reasons. Firstly, this was the date of the Feast of Mars, the ancient Roman god of war. The god Mars actually had several days held in his honor (March 1, March 14, March 17, and March 23), but March 17 was regarded by the ancient Romans as THE feast day of their god of battles. Secondly, March 17 was the date in which Roman adolescent boys ceremonially crossed the threshold of manhood. Picture an ancient Roman version of a bar mitzvah, and you get the idea. Thirdly, March 17 was the day of the Liberalia, a festival dedicated to the spirit of freedom. “Liber” was one of the titles that was given to the god Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and celebration, and thus was a Roman parallel of the ancient Greek god Dionysus. Bacchus Liber was, therefore, the god of freedom, licentiousness, and unrestrained behavior. On this day, people were uninhibited by normal social conventions, and I imagine that the Catholic clergy would have been shocked by a lot of the casual care-free behavior of the revelers.

Let’s turn our attention first towards Mars. Most people who are familiar with Roman civilization are pretty confident that they know who Mars is – he’s the Roman god of war, the parallel of the ancient Greek war god Ares. However, it’s more complicated than that. For starters, Mars wasn’t even a Roman god – he was an Etruscan god named Maris that the Romans adopted into their pantheon. Secondly, he wasn’t a war god, not at first anyway, but he gradually became associated with that role. I think I can explain it better here…

“Perhaps the god most identified with Rome was the war-god Mars, since Mars was the father of Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome. Originally a god of fertility and agriculture, based upon the Etruscan god Maris, he slowly became a war god, which may be due in part to his duty as a protector of fields and pastures – in other words, he guarded the homeland. As Rome’s borders expanded due to the frequent wars against its neighbours, the homeland expanded with it, and Mars’ job as a guardian of Roman soil took on greater importance until he became a full-fledged god of battles” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2016. Page 6).

Now that we know Mars’ background, let’s survey the rituals that are associated with his feast day on March 17. For many of my posts, I have used Ovid as a key reference because his book Fasti concerns explanations of key events in the Roman calendar; he regrettably died before he was able to complete it. You would think that the worship of one of the Roman pantheon’s main gods would be a focus of particular interest for him. However, intriguingly and puzzlingly, Ovid makes no mention whatsoever in his Fasti of any significance that March 17 held for the war god Mars. Instead, we have received most of our information concerning Mars’ feast day from the writings of Plutarch and Marcus Terentius Varro.

March 17 was the day of the Agonalia of Mars. In a previous post, I explained than an agonalia was a holy day in which live animal sacrifices were conducted, usually a ram. So we already know from the name given to this ritual that a ram would be sacrificed to Mars at some point during the day. I find it an interesting coincidence that the astrological sign of the ram is Aries, which is similar to the name of the ancient Greek war god Ares, which many regard as a synonym of Mars.

Plutarch provides us with the most information regarding the rituals of the Agonalia of Mars. In his work The Life of Numa Pompilius, he describes the rituals that were practiced by the priests of Mars. Numa Pompilius was one of the fabled kings of Rome, and his claim to notoriety was that he invented many of Rome’s religious practices. One of these was the establishment of a priesthood dedicated to the worship of the god Mars. This was the Salian Order, derived from the Latin verb salit meaning “to jump or leap”. So they were, literally, the Leaping Priests. Please restrain yourself from making any Blackadder jokes about the Jumping Jews of Jerusalem.

The celebrations opened with the entry procession of the priests. Leading the way was the high priest of Mars, the Flamen Martialis, who carries the sacred Spear of Mars. Behind him are twelve priests of the Salian Order, garbed in short purple cloaks, a broad belt studded with brass, a metal helmet with a chinstrap and capped with a metal spike, and they carry a dagger and a bronze ancilia shield. The shield itself was curvilinear, almost like a figure eight. Look at the Battersea Shield, and you get an idea of what it looked like. As these men advance, the Salians leap and dance, striking their daggers against their shields and chanting out songs. From the description, it almost sounds like something tribal, and one gets the idea that this might have been a very archaic ritual that was performed by the primitive inhabitants of Italy centuries before this (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13).

Speaking of archaic things, we have some information about the song that these twelve priests chanted. The Carmen Saliare, also known as the Carmine Saliorum, was a chant sung by the Salian Priests on this day. Written in Archaic Latin (that is to say, a very primitive form of Latin), only a couple of fragments have survived, recorded by Marcus Terentius Varro in his book De Lingua Latina, “On the Latin Language”…

Cozevi oborieso. Omnia vero ad Patulc[ium] commisse[i]. Ianeus iam es, duonus Cerus es, du[o]nus Ianus. Ven[i]es po[tissimu]m melios eum recum…Divum em pa cante, divum deo supplicate”.

“O Planter God, arise. Everything indeed have I committed unto (thee as) the Opener. Now art thou the Doorkeeper, thou art the Good Creator, the Good God of Beginnings. Thou’lt come especially, thou the superior of these kings… Sing ye to the Father of the Gods, entreat the God of Gods” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, verses 26 and 27. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 292-295).

Remember that I had mentioned earlier that Mars started off as an agriculture god and gradually became associated with warfare? Invoking him as “Planter God” is a reference to this. Anyway, back to our description of the Agonalia ritual. After the entrance procession has ended, the priest offer prayers to Mars, and then they sacrifice a white ram to him – sacrificial victims were almost always colored white.

So much for the holy rites offered to Mars. Now let us turn our attention to the ritual of coming-of-age and of the ceremonies held in honor of Bacchus. The two of these are related, or perhaps the transition from boy to man is in relation to the feast of Mars, which seems more likely. Ovid himself was uncertain as to why the ceremony of manhood was held on this day. One hypothetical explanation that he gave was that since today was the day of freedom, graduating from a boy to man granted you freedoms that you didn’t have as a child (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).

Once you turned 16 or so, the boy would take off his bulla, the small leather pouch that hung around his neck which held good luck charms (note the strong similarity here to the customs of some of the Native American tribes, in which a “medicine pouch” was carried with them for protection and strength). Now that he was no longer a child, he would not need these things to keep him safe. The gods had safeguarded him through his youth. Now, he was a man, and he would have to look out for his own well-being. He then put on the toga virilis, “the toga of manhood” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). As recognized adults, they were now eligible for military service. No wonder that the Liberalia and the Feast of Mars occurred on the same day.

Now that he had graduated to manhood, it was time to party. On March 17, a feast was held dedicated to Bacchus. The festival may have had its origins in ancient Greece. “In March the Greeks celebrated the FEAST OF BACCHUS and carried his statue to a temple in the Keramicus” (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).

The poet Ovid hails Bacchus’s feast, one dedicated to the spirit of Liberty:

“Liber (the god or spirit of freedom), before your birth the altars were without offerings, and grass appeared on the stone-cold hearths. They tell how you set aside the first fruits for Jupiter, after subduing the Ganges region, and the whole of the East. You were the first to offer up cinnamon and incense from conquered lands, and the roast entrails of triumphal oxen. Libations derive their name from their originator, and cake (liba) since a part is offered on the sacred hearth. Honey-cakes are baked for the god, because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey… Father Liber loves honey: its right to offer its discoverer glittering honey diffused through oven-warm cakes” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).

The poet Ovid goes into considerable length to describe the celebrations associated with Bacchus Liber. The person who presided over the day’s festivities was an old woman crowned with a wreath made of ivy leaves. In the past, but not in Ovid’s time, games were held in the city of Rome in honor of Bacchus; he further comments that the date of these games were moved to April 19, the date of the Cerealia, and the games themselves switched to being dedicated to the agriculture goddess Ceres. In reference to the story of Bacchus discovering honey, on March 17 vineyard owners would go into town to sell honey cakes to the people (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). For the Romans, honey cakes was the food traditionally eaten on March 17, similar to the way that we often associate certain holidays with certain dishes, including corned beef, cabbage, Irish soda bread, and beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.

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March 16 – The Procession to the Argei

By mid-March, Spring had definitely come to central Italy. The weather was getting warmer and the first green shoots were emerging from the soil. It was also a date of important astrological significance. As the poet Ovid states, “When the next dawn has revived the tender grass, Scorpio’s pincers will be visible” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 16). However, the position of the stars in the sky has changed during the past two thousand years.

Ovid also makes reference to another significant aspect of March 16 and the day afterwards: “On this [March 17], and the preceding day [March 16], crowds go to the Argei” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). What is the Argei (Ar-GAY-ee)? What is Ovid writing about? The poet is referring to a curious and rather somber ritual that was conducted by the ancient Romans in which they begged for the blessings and favor of the gods (and Saturn in particular) by conducting human sacrifice, or at least the closest thing to it, since human sacrifice had been abolished by the time of Caesar Augustus. However, the Romans still invoked the gods’ power and favor by crafting substitutes to stand in place of the victims. Dummies made of straw and wicker were made in the shape of humans, and were used in place of humans when the time came to offer them to the gods.

Our first clue about these rituals comes from the writings of the ancient Roman historian Titus Livius, commonly known nowadays by his Anglicized name Livy, who wrote during the reign of Caesar Augustus. In his epic work The History of Rome, he explains how, in the early days, the monarchy of Rome marked out places for undertaking religious rituals: “There were many other sacrifices appointed by him [King Numa Pompilius] and places dedicated for their performance which the pontiffs call the Argei” (Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21). So, according to Livius, the argei were places within the city of Rome that were demarcated for conducting religious ceremonies, especially sacrifices.

However, the name argei not only referred to the places of sacrifice, but also the sacrificial victims themselves. In his work Roman Questions, the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch inquires about these rituals, specifically why the facsimiles of sacrificial victims were given the name argei. He suspected that the name might be related to the name “Argive”, and hypothesized that it might refer to captured Greek prisoners that the ancient Romans executed when they expanded through the rest of Italy, since “the men of old used to call all Greeks alike Argives” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86). However, I cannot find any evidence in any source, ancient or modern, that the Romans conducted executions of POWs in this manner.

Other ancient writers provide further information. The ancient Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus explains in his Roman Antiquities that, centuries ago, the primitive Romans carried out human sacrifices to the god Saturn, just as the Carthaginians did in former years and which some Celtic societies still performed in his own time. However, upon the urging of the hero Hercules, the people abolished this custom. Even so, they were concerned that Saturn would be angry at not being given the human sacrifices that he demanded, so the Romans crafted dummies made of straw and wicker and used them as substitutes. These wicker forms, which were known as argei, were fashioned to resemble men prepared for human sacrifice, with their arms and legs tied. The custom of human sacrifice involved the victims being drowned; note the similarity here to ancient Celtic rituals involving sacrifices and water. On the appointed day, preliminary religious offerings would be made, and then a procession consisting of representatives from the College of the Pontiffs, the Vestal Virgins, and the high-ranking members of the city’s government, all of whom were dressed in black as if preparing for a funeral, would carry these wicker effigies in solemn somber mourning to the Pons Sublicius, the old wooden bridge that had been constructed across the Tiber River during the time of the Roman kings. From its height overlooking the water, the figures were dropped into the river below and were swept away, and thus were ritualistically “drowned” when they sank into the sacred water. Thus, all of the particulars of the ritual would be carried out without there being any actual bloodshed (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32; “Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition (1911), by William Warde Fowler)

The number of straw mannequins that were used in this ritual has been subject to academic quarreling. Varro says that there were twenty-seven, while Dionysius claims that there were thirty in total. The exact number appears to be of little importance. However, it is stated that the number of these dummies was the same as the number of sacrificial shrines within the city. These shrines were known as the Sacraria, Sacella Argeorum, Sacella Argeiorum, or Argea, and these dummies were housed within until the time came for them to be carried away to meet their pre-destined purpose (“Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition (1911), by William Warde Fowler; “Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929); A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15).

It must be said that no ancient source specifically states that sacrifices were carried out on March 16 and 17; all ancient sources make reference to these events occurring only in mid-May. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that the “sacrifice” was carried out on the Ides of May (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38). The poet Ovid goes into great detail on this, and he too states that these rituals occur on May 14: “On this day too, the Vestals throw effigies made of rushes, in the form of men of old, from the oak bridge” (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 14). The historian Plutarch explains that one of the reasons why men do not get married in May is because that’s the month where “the wicker men”, to use my own term, are sacrificed to the Tiber River (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #86). So what on earth do the argei have to do with mid-March? One hypothesis, which seems plausible, is that it was on these days that the wicker facsimiles of the sacrificial victims were ceremonially deposited within the shrines, and were held there for safe keeping until the middle of May, when they would be taken out to be “executed” for lack of a better word (“Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929)).

If March 16 and 17 were noted as the days for depositing these wicker sacrificial victims into the shrines, only to be taken out two months later, what do we know of the customs associated with this that took place in mid-March? The answer is “Not much”. Scant information is given to the date set aside for placing these figures within the shrines while far more information in the ancient sources is devoted to the date of the sacrifice two months afterwards. As stated earlier, Ovid says that on March 16 and 17, crowds journey to the Argei, although he makes no mention as to what happened when they got there (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). Cornelius Gellius writes concerning the priestess of Jupiter, “when she goes to the Argei, that she neither combs her head nor dresses her hair” (A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15). So it appears that religious personnel, including the priestess or priestesses of Jupiter, journeyed to the argei shrines in order to place the wicker statues within, and were likely accompanied by a crowd of followers and devotees.

No additional information is given which would allow us to reconstruct whatever rituals may have occurred on March 16, although I imagine, given what we know of other Roman religious rites, that they were very elaborate and were full of metaphoric or allegoric symbolism. Any attempts by modern scholars to craft what the ceremonies on March 16 would have looked or sounded like would be extremely hypothetical.

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March 15 – The Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March! Or should you? Well, for Julius Caesar, he certainly had reason to be wary of the arrival of March 15th. However, for most ancient Romans, there was nothing unlucky or ominous about this day. Far from it, actually. March 15 was a day of public celebration, often accompanied with friendly get-togethers, picnics, and parties. And sacrifices, don’t forget the sacrifices.

It’s no secret that the ancient Roman calendar was drenched with feasts which were either of a religious or social nature. Even if your knowledge of the Roman calendar is minimal, you can be confident that each month had at least one religious holiday, and you’d also be sure of when it took place too – right smack in the middle. The Ides was a day in the middle of each month, often on the 15th or thereabouts. The word “Ides” is related to the word “divide”, and it was a reference to the day which split the month in half. Originally, the Ides was celebrated on the day of the full moon. However, the lunar cycle was not synchronized with the Roman calendar, so they gradually fell out of time. It was therefore decided by some unknown authority that the middle of each month, regardless of the lunar phase, would be the date for the Ides celebration. Each of the Ides were dedicated to Jupiter, the king of the gods (“Ides of March: What Is It? Why Do We Still Observe It?”).

The day began with rituals meant to honor Jupiter, which occurred as follows. A white lamb known as the ovis idulis, which had been specifically set aside for this ritual, would be brought to the Temple of Jupiter to be sacrificed. The person who actually brought the lamb to the temple was none other than the flamen dialis, the high priest of the cult of Jupiter. The lamb was escorted down the Via Sacra, the route of holy rites, towards the temple, which stood on the Capitoline Hill (“Be Aware of the Ides of March – 4 Things to Know About the Infamous Day”).

As the poet Ovid explains, March 15 was a day for fun and leisure, a day to get away from the rush and hubbub of day-to-day life and take a breath of fresh air. People would gather together in parks, fields, or along the banks of the Tiber River for picnics, sports, singing, dancing, and friendly company. It was also a day accompanied by some rather indulgent consumption of alcohol.

“The people come and drink there, scattered on the grass, and every man reclines there with his girl. Some tolerate the open sky, a few pitch tents, and some make leafy huts out of branches, while others set reeds up, to form rigid pillars, and hang their outspread robes from the reeds. But they’re warmed by sun and wine, and pray for as many years as cups, as many as they drink. There you’ll find a man who quaffs Nestor’s years, a woman who’d age as the Sibyl, in her cups. There they sing whatever they’ve learnt in the theatres, beating time to the words with ready hands, and setting the bowl down, dance coarsely, the trim girl leaping about with streaming hair. Homecoming they stagger, a sight for vulgar eyes, and the crowd meeting them call them ‘blessed’”. (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 15)

March 15 for the ancient Romans, just like April 15 for us, was a day that was dreaded by some Romans, and for nearly the same reasons. For them, March 15 was their deadline for paying their debts. What happened if you if you were in ancient Rome and you didn’t pay your bills when your time ran out? I don’t even want to think about that (“Ides of March: What Is It? Why Do We Still Observe It?”).

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My book “The Great Illyrian Revolt” is on sale – order today

Hello everybody. I am happy to report that I have received hundreds of congratulations messages from people all over the world regarding the publication of my latest history book The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9. This book is available at many major retailers, and to further encourage purchases, the book is on sale! I highly encourage you to take advantage of these offers while you can because I don’t think that they will last for long.

 

March 1 – The Month of Mars

March is the month dedicated to the ancient Roman war god Mars. By now, the weather is warming up, the snows have melted, and you can once again get your armies on the move. March is the month where you, literally, march off to war.

“Come Mars, God of War, lay aside your shield and spear. A moment, from your helmet, free your shining hair. What has a poet to do with Mars, you might ask? The month I sing of takes its name from you” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, introduction).

Here’s something that you might find interesting: did you know that the woodpecker was a bird sacred to Mars, and Romans were banned by religious law from eating them? Ovid makes mention of the woodpecker as “bird of Mars” as well as alluding to a legend that a woodpecker brought the infantry Romulus and Remus food to eat (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, introduction), and Plutarch explains why the Romans held woodpeckers in such high regard: “It is a courageous and spirited bird and has a beak so strong that it can overturn oaks by pecking them until it has reached the inmost part of the tree” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #21). Perhaps this is the reason why Roman officers wore those red crests on their helmets!

Many people think of the year beginning on January 1, but this wasn’t always the case. In ancient Rome, the calendar originally began on March 1. However, this was changed in the late Republican period due to problems with mobilizing the army. The Roman Army was not commanded by career military officers, but politicians who performed military service as part of their duties to the State. Elected politicians took their offices on March 1, the beginning of the year, but this gave them precious little time to get the army ready for mobilization when the Spring thaw came. Therefore, the Roman calendar was changed so that it started on January 1, known as “the Calends”, and this gave Rome’s consuls two months to prepare for the Spring offensive. One of the reasons for this shift in the calendar was the trouble that the Romans were having in conducting military operations in Spain, but that’s a story for another day (Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 7 – “Romans and Carthaginians in Spain”; Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 8 – “The Roman Conquest of Spain”).

In many Germanic societies, especially during the Dark Ages, March 1 was the day where the militia had to enroll for another season of military service. This was known as the Marchfeld, or “Mars Field” (this is likely a copy of the ancient Roman Campus Martius “the Field of Mars”, where Roman soldiers trained and were assembled for another year’s military service), and is well-attested in our records of the Frankish kingdom beginning in the 6th Century AD. The Lombards, another Germanic people, appear to have adopted this custom, since we have records dating to the 8th Century of a similar mustering ceremony occurring on March 1 in their kingdom. The Ostrogoths also conducted an annual mustering of warriors (Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. London: Routledge, 2003. Pages 43 and 82).

Ovid also explains that March 1 marked one of several feast days dedicated to Mars. During Rome’s war against the Sabines, a peace was formed between the two warring sides on this day, due in large part to the pleas and prayers of the women. For this reason, Ovid explains, March 1 was a day in which women honored Mars. Also, marriages were not allowed to take place on this day – it was considered bad luck for a woman to marry on a day dedicated to war, possibly out of the belief that her husband would be killed in battle. As Ovid says, “Girl, if you’d marry, delay, however eager both are. A little delay, at this time, is of great advantage. Weapons excite to war, war’s bad for those married. The omens will be better when weapons are put away” (Ovid, Fasti, book 1, “March 1”).

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