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, which you can read here, 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.
The “Altar of Mars and Venus”. Note the presence of ram heads draped with decorative garlands. Temples, shrines, and altars were decorated with garlands of ivy, laurels, and flowers prior to sacrifices, and the presence of ram heads in a reference to the sacrificing of rams to Mars. The two-horse chariot, known as a biga, is a reference to the “October Horse” sacrifice which was carried out to Mars on October 15 during the Capitoline Games. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy. Photograph by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (February 28, 2014). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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).
“Numa Pompilius hands over the ancilia to the Salians”. Collectible card from Liebig’s Beef Extract, Dutch issue, 1911.
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.
- Abdale, Jason R. Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2016.
- Dunlap, Samuel Fales. Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFive.php.
- Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Numa*.html.
- Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 7, verses 26 and 27. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.