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.
- “Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition, by William Warde Fowler (1911). https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Argei.
- “Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929). http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/_Texts/PLATOP*/Argeorum_Sacraria.html.
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/home.html.
- A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Gellius/10*.html.
- Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21. Translated by Reverend Canon Roberts. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905. http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/livy/livy01.html.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 16. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
- Ovid Fasti, book 5, May 14. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFive.php.
- Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
- Plutarch, Roman Questions, #86. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.