March 1 – The Month of Mars

Roman soldiers marching

Ancient Roman re-enactors marching at Xanten, Germany. Photograph by Judith Meyer (June 23, 2012). CC0 Creative Commons.

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 infant 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”).


Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!

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