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December 28 – The Massacre of the Innocents

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, the Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea’, they replied…Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him’…Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route…When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi”.

  • The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-5, 7, 12, 16.

The so-called Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day itself and ending on “Twelfth Night” on January 5th, were usually a period of feasting and merriment. However, December 28th is a particularly somber day within this festive season. According to Christian tradition, December 28th marks the day in which King Herod the Great (an agnomen which was definitely not fitting with his character), the pro-Roman ruler of the kingdom of Judea, ordered the deaths of all male children who were 2 years old or younger. Christians refer to this event as “the Massacre of the Innocents”. There is no way of knowing how many babies and toddlers were put to the sword on Herod’s orders, but it surely must have been in the hundreds.

A scene from a Medieval French manuscript, dated from 1200 to 1260, depicting soldiers murdering infants. Le Roman de la Rose, par Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meun (MS. Fr. 25526). Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Paris, France. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6000369q.image#

However, some historians claim that this event never actually happened, since no mention of it is made in the other three Gospels and it is not mentioned in any historical texts. Some state that this references the Egyptian pharaoh’s orders to kill all of the Jewish children in his kingdom, which is reported in the Book of Exodus. Other people are firm in their convictions that King Herod’s shocking command actually occurred and that the butchery did indeed take place. Until there is some evidence of this in ancient documents, we will likely never know for certain.

One of the earliest known Christmas carols, dated to 1534, was about the Massacre of the Innocents. The lyrics of this song are given by a mother who weeps for her dead child, killed on Herod’s orders. By extension, it could also be the mournful farewell given by any mother to her dead child. Child mortality rates were extremely high prior to modern times, and people living in those days would, unfortunately, have been all too familiar with children unexpectedly dying from sickness, plagues, accidents, murder, and war.

Today on December 28th, the day known as “Children’s Mass”, we remember and pray for all of the children who died this past year.

Fruitachampsa, the crocodile-bear-cat of the Morrison Formation

Meet the Jurassic Period’s analog of the common house cat. This is Fruitachampsa callisoni, a prehistoric reptile which inhabited western North America during the late Jurassic Period. However, this was not a dinosaur. In fact, Fruitachampsa was a distant relative of crocodiles.

The fossils of this animal were discovered by James M. Clark and George Callison near Fruita, Colorado during the middle and late 1970s within the rocks of the Morrison Formation dated to about 150 million years ago (MYA). By the late 1980s, this creature was unofficially known by the name “Fruitachampsa”, but since it had not been officially named or described in any scientific research article, this name could not yet be used. It wasn’t until 2011 that the animal was officially classified under the name Fruitachampsa callisoni, “George Callison’s Crocodile from Fruita”.

Clark, James M. “A new shartegosuchid crocodyliform from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of western Colorado”. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, volume 163, issue supplement 1 (December 2011): S152–S172.

Fruitachampsa belonged to a group of reptiles which were related to crocodiles known as the “shartegosuchids”. These reptiles are known from the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous Periods, and all known specimens have been found in North America, Europe, and Asia. Shartegosuchids have distinctive skull features, including:

  1. A lack of anteorbital fenestrae (the hole between the nostril and the eye socket) in the upper jaw.
  2. Within the upper jaw’s palate, the chonae (the holes that connect the nostril to the inside of the mouth) are set within a deep depression in the center of the palate.
  3. The palatal bones, which form most of the inside of the mouth of the upper jaw, are joined together medially.
  4. The teeth in the lower jaw never extend posteriorly past the mandibular fenestrae.
  5. The edges of the teeth in both the upper and lower jaws are ridged with serrations – quite unlike the smooth cone-shaped teeth that are often associated with crocodilians.

The shartegosuchids are visibly similar to earlier primitive crocodyliforms such as Protosuchus, and have even been ascribed to the same family as that genus. However, they appear to be slightly more advanced than Protosuchus and other members of Protosuchidae, and may represent the next evolutionary development of crocodilians.

Fruitachampsa measured three feet long, and its body was more-or-less about the same size as a cat. Like a cat, it also had large eyes, and was therefore possibly nocturnal, preying upon the small rodent-like mammals which inhabited the Morrison Formation.

Fruitachampsa also possessed unusually long legs in proportion with the rest of its body. However, like a crocodile, it walked in a “plantigrade” style, walking on the flats of its feet like a human or a bear, rather than walking “digitigrade”, on its toes, like a cat. So perhaps we should think of Fruitachampsa less like a cat and more like a pygmy-sized long-legged bear.

Fruitachampsa possessed a double-row of rectangular osteoderms which ran down the middle of its back, in which the row in front slightly overlapped the row behind, like roof shingles or a ancient Roman legionnaire’s body armor.

Fruitachampsa callisoni. © Jason R. Abdale. December 19, 2020.

Keep your pencils sharp, everybody.

 

December 11 – The Septimontium: The Day of the Seven Hills

Ancient Rome was known far and wide as “the City of the Seven Hills”. The seven eminences which the city of Rome was built upon were known as the Palatine, Capitoline, Aventine, Quirinal, Caelian, Viminal, and Esquiline. For some reason, the Janiculum Hill has not been traditionally included.

A scene from the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

The Mons Palatinus, or Palatine Hill, “the Hill of the Palace”, was the place where Romulus, the founder of Rome, had his house. It later served as the site of the imperial palace of the Roman emperors. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that the hut of Romulus was on display on the Palatine Hill in Rome, continuously restored using the same materials and the same construction techniques to make it appear exactly as it would have been approximately 750 BC.

“Their life was that of herdsmen, and they lived by their own labour, generally upon the mountains in huts which they built, roofs and all, out of sticks and reeds. One of these, called the hut of Romulus, remained even to my day on the flank of the Palatine hill which faces towards the Circus, and it is preserved holy by those who have charge of these matters; they add nothing to it to render it more stately, but if any part of it is injured, either by storms or by the lapse of time, they repair the damage and restore the hut as nearly as possible to its former condition” (1).

The Capitolinus, “the Capitoline Hill”, was formerly the property of the Sabines, a neighboring tribe of the Romans. The hill was sacred to the god Saturn, and atop this hill there once stood a village called “Saturnia”, “the city of Saturn”, in much the same way that Athens was named in honor of the goddess Athena. For this reason, the Capitoline used to be called the Saturnine Hill in the distant past. Afterwards, the hill was re-named as the Tarpeian Hill, named after a Vestal Virgin named Tarpeia who had been murdered by the Sabines, who beat her to death with their shields, and buried her there. Finally, when the Romans took possession of it, it was re-named once again to the Capitoline Hill. There’s a story that the Capitoline Hill got its name because, when the Romans were digging the foundation to build a temple to the god Jupiter, they discovered a human skull buried in the ground. The Romans took it as a sign, claiming that this hill would serve as the head (capit) of the Roman world. As such, the Capitoline Hill became the seat of Roman government. Here stood the Senate House and all of the other important offices of State (2).

The Aventinus, “the Aventine Hill”, is not the tallest of the Seven Hills of Rome, but it is the largest in terms of the sheer amount of physical acreage that it takes up. The name of the Aventine Hill has several etymological explanations. The Roman writer Titus Livius claims that it was named after an ancient king who was buried atop its summit (3). He also claimed that a large flock of birds were seen on its summit, and Romulus’ brother Remus saw this as a sign to found the city upon this hill and not the Palatine (4). Marcus Terentius Varro was of the opinion that the name was a corruption of advent, meaning “arrival”, because people would often cross over the Tiber River and arrive at this spot. Even in Varro’s day, there was a ferry service which transported people and cargo back and forth across the Tiber at this location (5). Atop this hill was constructed a temple to the goddess Diana (6).

The Quirinalis, “the Quirinal Hill”, was owned by the Sabines and was named in honor of the Sabine god Quirinus (7). The hill is noted for having a pair of large marble horse statues erected atop it, for which reason it was sometimes referred to as the Mons Caballi or Mons Caballinus (8).

The Caelius, “the Caelian Hill”, is named in reference to an Etruscan nobleman named Caeles Vibenna who fought alongside King Romulus against the Sabines. He was, apparently, the leader of an Etruscan community which resided atop this hill. However, the Romans became suspicious of these people and re-located them elsewhere (9). It might also be a reference to the Latin word caelum, meaning “sky”.

The Viminalis, “the Viminal Hill” was named in reference to the large numbers of willow trees (vimineta) which grew there. Later, a temple dedicated to Jupiter was erected atop this hill which was given the name Jupiter Viminius, “Jupiter of the Willows” (10).

The Esquilinus, “the Esquiline Hill”, has a name of uncertain origins. Some say it is in reference to a grove of oak trees (aesculata) which once grew on the hill, while others say it is in reference to soldiers being posted on watch duty (excubiae) there, but both of these explanations are unlikely (11). It is more likely that this hill was once thought of as a community on the outskirts of Rome before it was absorbed as part of the Eternal City; the people who lived within the city limits were known as the inquilini “the inside dwellers”, while the people who lived beyond the city limits were called the exquilini, “the outside dwellers” (12).

December 11 was the date of an ancient Roman festival called the Septimontium, “the Day of the Seven Hills”, named in reference to the seven hills of the city of Rome (13). In Varro’s words, “Where Rome now is was called the Septimontium from the same number of hills which the City afterwards embraced within its walls” (14).

Archaeological evidence of habitation of Rome dates to about 1000 BC. It would appear that each of the hills that made up the fabled “Seven Hills of Rome” were originally independent hilltop settlements. At some point, all of these separate communities merged together to form a single interconnected community, likely due to a rise in population. This political merging is known as synoikism, meaning “coming together” (15). It’s possible that this feast day on December 11 marks the date in which the separate hilltop communities merged together into one city. This is corroborated in the writings of the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, who states “The festival Septimontium they observe in commemoration of the addition to the city of the seventh hill, by which Rome was made a city of seven hills” (16).

According to the Roman writer Titus Livius, known to posterity simply as Livy, that the expansion of Rome was a gradual piecemeal process taking place over several decades, until it eventually encompassed the seven hills that would make it famous. According to his chronicles, the Palatine Hill was the epicenter of Rome, and it was from this point that the Romans spread outwards to subjugate and dominate their neighbors. The Capitoline Hill was the next to come under the Roman sway. This hill belonged to the Sabines, a neighboring tribe, until the Romans took possession of it during Romulus’ reign. It is uncertain when the Caelian Hill came under Roman authority, as different sources ascribe this event to different persons: Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that it was taken by King Romulus (17); Titus Livius says that it was taken by Tullus Hostilius, Rome’s war-mongering third king who reigned from 673 to 642 BC (18); the Greek geographer Strabo says that the hill was taken by Ancus Marcius, Rome’s fourth king who reigned from 642 to 617 BC (19); the Roman historian Tacitus states that the hill was taken by Tarquinius Priscus, “Tarquin the Ancient”, Rome’s fifth king, who reigned from 616 to 579 BC (20). Based upon all of the possible dates given, it seems likely that the hill was taken sometime during the 600s BC. Ancus Marcius, Rome’s fourth king who reigned from 642 to 617 BC, took possession of the Aventine Hill (21). Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king who reigned from 579 to 535 BC, took possession of the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline Hills (22).

The Roman writer Suetonius makes mention of when Emperor Domitian presided over the feast day of the Septimontium: “In the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plentiful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights, and smaller one to the commons” (23).

It appears that December 11, although called a “feast day” in the sources, was actually more a date of historical importance to the Romans rather than a date of public celebration. By contrast, April 21, the legendary date that Rome was founded by Romulus, was indeed a public holiday of merriment and spectacle. To use a modern analogy, modern-day Americans loudly and boisterously celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, but hardly anybody gets merry over “Constitution Day” on September 17, which established the system of government that has been in place within the United States since 1787. I think we need to look at Roman attitudes towards April 21 and December 11 in much the same way.

 

Source Citations

  1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 79.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 41-42. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 39; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 520.
  3. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 3.
  4. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 6.
  5. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 43-44. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 39 and 41.
  6. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 520.
  7. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 51. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 49.
  8. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 46. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 43.
  10. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 51. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 49; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  11. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  12. Gaius, The Elements of Roman Law, Second Edition, book 1, chapter 3. Translated by Edward Poste. London: Macmillan and Co., 1875. Page 31.
  13. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 24. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 197.
  14. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verse 41. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 39.
  15. The History of Ancient Rome, lecture 4 – “The Foundation of Rome”.
  16. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #69.
  17. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 50.
  18. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 30.
  19. Strabo, Geography, book 5, chapter 3.
  20. Tacitus, The Annals, book 4, chapter 65.
  21. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 33.
  22. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 44; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Pages 520-521.
  23. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12 – “The Life of Domitian”, chapter 4.

 

Bibliography

 

More photos of Allosaurus from the AMNH

Greetings friends. In an earlier post from 2014, I put up some photographs which I took of the two Allosaurus skeletons that are on public display in the American Museum of Natural History (or AMNH for short) in New York City. I’ve recently uncovered some other photos which I took during a visit there in March 2019, and so I’m posting them here. Enjoy!

 

 

November 24 – The Brumalia: The Ancient Roman Winter Fest

Daylight is certainly getting shorter these days, and to commemorate it is the Brumalia, the Festival of Shortening Days. This was not a single feast day, but rather a festival period beginning on November 24 and lasting until the Saturnalia on December 17 (1). You might call it an ancient Roman “Winter Fest”.

“Bruma” was the name that the Romans gave to the Winter Solstice, as Marcus Terentius Varro explains: “Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissumus, ‘shortest’” (2). Therefore, Brumalia means “the Festival of Bruma” or “the Festival of Shortening Days”. On the first day of the Brumalia period, offerings were made to Ceres and Bacchus, and prophecies were made as to whether the coming Winter would be good or bad.

Incidentally, the name Bruma survives nowadays in the term “brumation”, which is a relaxed sluggish state that cold-blooded animals like reptiles go into when subjected to cold temperatures. The term is a reference to the coldness of Winter and the shortened days that come with that season.

Horace Wetherill Wright says that offerings were made to both Ceres and Bacchus (the names are given in the source as Demeter and Dionysus, the Greek names of these gods), but no further information is given as to the nature of these offerings (3). However, we can make some assumptions based upon other sacrificial rites which were offered to these deities on other feast days. Sacrifices which were commonly given to the agriculture goddess Ceres were pigs, olive oil, and grain, while those which were made in honor of the wine god Bacchus consisted of goats, wine, and honey cakes.

According to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, the reason why goats were sacrificed to Bacchus was a tradition of revenge. One day, a grape farmer saw a goat chewing on his vines, and decided he would get payback by catching that goat and offering it as a sacrifice to the wine god. In the words of Ovid, “You should have spared the vine-shoots, he-goat. Watching a goat nibbling a vine, someone once vented their indignation in these words: ‘Gnaw the vine, goat! But when you stand at the altar, there’ll be something from it to sprinkle on your horns’. Truth followed: Bacchus, your enemy is given you to punish, and sprinkled wine flows over its horns” (4).

On a somewhat lighter note, honey and honey cakes were traditionally offered to Bacchus because, according to Roman myth, he had discovered honey. In the words of Ovid, “Honey-cakes are baked for the god [Bacchus], because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey” (5). Of the two deities which were propitiated on November 24, it appears that Bacchus took higher importance. In fact, Brumas (or variations of that name) was one of the many appellations of the wine god (6).

One wonders if the Romans decorated their homes and their public buildings during this festive period the way that so many people do during the modern-day holiday season. It seems that everywhere you look from Thanksgiving to December, there are Christmas trees, holly wreaths, and poinsettia plants. As far back as the Renaissance and possibly earlier, this symbolic “re-greening” of one’s house carried on. In England during the Tudor Dynasty, people decorated the inside of their homes as well as their local churches with holly, ivy, bay, and rosemary. These green shrubs were seen as preserving life during the lifelessness of Winter. It’s also thanks to this ritual that we have two of our most well-known Christmas carols: “Deck the Halls” and “The Holly and the Ivy” (8). Did the Romans do anything similar? Possibly. According to William Burder and Joel Parker, “The fir, the ivy, the fig, and the pine, were consecrated to Bacchus, and goats were sacrificed to him” (7). It is therefore quite possible that the Romans would have decorated their homes with boughs of fir, pine, and ivy, with figs consumed with just as much relish as fire-roasted chestnuts.

Each day had a letter of the Greek alphabet allocated to it, and it was customary for a person to hold a banquet for their friends on the day which was marked with the first letter of their name (9). One wonders if the first day of the festivities had all A-themed events, and so forth as the festive period continued.

In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which had a very large Greek-speaking population, the Brumalia was known as the Ambrosiana. The name comes from ambrosia, the term that was given to the special food which only gods ate, which was said to bestow immortality upon anyone who consumed it (10).

Even into Christian times, this festival continued to be celebrated. In the Byzantine Empire during the 6th Century AD, the Brumalia was still celebrated each year, though possibly without the sacrifices to the pagan gods Ceres and Bacchus. The Roman Christian writer Tertullian (155-240 AD) wrote that the Brumalia was one of the pagan festivals that were still practiced by Christians, which he criticized his fellow church-goers for. In the year 694 AD, an edict from the Council of Trullo banned the celebration of pagan festivals, including the Brumalia, on penalty of excommunication from the Christian Church. Not even the highest office was exempt from this rule. During the 8th Century, Emperor Constantine Copronymus, which literally means “Shit Name”, was still making offerings to pagan gods – hence the name that he was given by a staunchly Christian population. (11).

 

Source Citations

  1. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 8. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 181.
  3. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 54.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17.
  6. John Mason Good, Olinthus Gregory, Newton Bosworth. Pantalogia, Volume 2: BAR-CAZ. London: T. Davidson, 1813.
  7. William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  8. A Merry Tudor Christmas, hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.
  9. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53.
  10. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: J. Nicholson, 1700; John Lempriere, A Classical Dictionary. New York: D. & J. Bruce, 1809.
  11. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53; Reverend James Gardner, The Faiths of the World, Volume I: A-G. Edinburgh: A. Fularton & Co., 1858. Pages 393-394.

 

Bibliography

  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • Danet, Pierre. A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: J. Nicholson, 1700.
  • Gardner, Reverend James. The Faiths of the World, Volume I: A-G. Edinburgh: A. Fularton & Co., 1858.
  • Good, John Mason; Gregory, Olinthus; Bosworth, Newton. Pantalogia, Volume 2: BAR-CAZ. London: T. Davidson, 1813.
  • Lempriere, John. A Classical Dictionary. New York: D. & J. Bruce, 1809.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 8. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Wetherill Wright, Horace. “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Pages 52-54.
  • A Merry Tudor Christmas. Hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.

November 1 – The Kalends of November: The Month of the Hunt

It is now November. The cool crisp breezes skim through the air, wafting the scents of pumpkin spice and apple cider, while the leaves on the trees are ablaze with the full glory of the Autumn colors. Halloween has come and gone, and people are increasingly turning their attention towards the upcoming holiday season. Other people might be thinking more of the upcoming hunting season, as their imaginations delight in the prospect of bringing home a prize 8-point stag to roast over an open fire.

In ancient Rome, too, people’s minds turned towards other matters with the beginning of November – namely, gathering enough meat to tide them over during the Winter lull. October may have been the harvest season, but November was the hunting season.

Like all months in the ancient Roman calendar, the first day of each month was known as the Kalends, which is where we get the word “calendar” from. The first day of every month was dedicated to Juno, the queen of the gods, who was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera. In addition to specific days being dedicated to this god or another, entire months were also dedicated to various deities. In ancient Rome, the month of November was dedicated to Diana, the goddess of the hunt (1). She was the Roman equivalent of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, the moon, the wilderness, and wild animals.

 

Roman mosaic of the goddess Diana hunting a deer, dated to 150-200 AD. Bardo National Museum, Tunis, Tunisia. Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bardo_Diane_chasseresse.jpg.

 

According to the ancient Roman poet Marcus Manilius in his book Astronomica, each month had a god or goddess assigned to it who would be responsible for regulating the movements of the Zodiac constellations which would appear in the sky during that time. As such, the Roman goddess Diana was associated with the astrological sign of Sagittarius the Hunter, which is understandable given her chosen profession (2).

With Autumn half-way over, and with Winter approaching soon, people needed to think seriously about stocking up their food supplies. It was usually in November and December when farmers slaughtered their livestock and prepared the meat for Winter storage. Nowadays, people can eat meat during any time of the year. However in earlier times, even as recently as the middle of the 19th Century, your options as to what you could eat and when you could eat it were much more limited. Your diet was dictated by the seasons, and meat was almost always something that was eaten during Winter.

In an age without refrigeration, keeping your meat edible was a big concern. Two common methods for preserving meat were salting and smoking, but even these didn’t help much if the weather was hot and humid. In warm or wet weather, meat spoils quickly, even when it has been cured. It must be said that the curing process does not prevent the meat from spoiling – it just delays it. All food will go rotten eventually. To minimize the threat of bacterial contamination, farm animals were often eaten completely on the day that they were slaughtered. Anything that was not eaten would be given to neighbors or to your servants or slaves, if you had any. Considering that some animals are rather large, eating a whole sheep or a whole pig was usually something done for a big family or during a community celebration, such as religious feast days or social holidays.

The only way that you could be sure of safely storing your smoked or salted meat for prolonged periods of time was by having it only during the coldest time of the year. The cold temperatures acted like a natural refrigerator, decreasing the likelihood of bacteria spoiling the meat, and it also kept the flies away. Therefore, it was in late Autumn or early Winter that farmers butchered their pigs, goats, and other livestock, and when hunters ventured into the wilderness in search of rabbits, deer, and wild boars. Understandably, Diana, the wilderness goddess of the hunt, would need to be especially propitiated during this time in order to gain her favor, and that’s the reason why the ancient Romans dedicated the month of November to her.

The ancient Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro reports in his work De Re Rustica, “Of Countryside Things”, that some wealthy men had private hunting preserves on their vast estates where rabbits, deer, and wild boars roamed. He also claims that these same men had fish ponds – some freshwater and others saltwater – where they raised pike, lampreys, mullet, and goldfish. There were also bird aviaries, rabbit warrens, and beehives. In his book, he states “Nowadays people enclose many acres within walls, so as to keep numbers of wild boars and roes” (3). Varro goes into further detail on these private hunting preserves. He reports that a man named Quintus Fulvius Lippinus, who had an estate near the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, had a private hunting preserve measuring forty jugera in area (approximately twenty-five modern acres), upon which were rabbits, red deer, roe deer, and wild sheep. Another man named Titus Pompeius had a private hunting ground in Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) which was so large that it was measured in square miles rather than square acres (4).

Maintaining these private hunting grounds needed some careful planning, as Marcus Terentius Varro explains. Simply having a fence would not do – you needed to have a brick or stone wall which was covered with plaster, forming a smooth uniform surface, so that no weasels or other animals could squeeze through. It also had to have a deep foundation so that animals could not burrow underneath it, as well as be high enough to prevent the animals from jumping over it. Depending upon which animals you wished to keep, certain particulars needed to be put in place. For raising rabbits and hares, Varro explains, you should have several covered places for the animals to hide, with lots of bushes and grass for cover, along with numerous massive trees with wide-spreading branches to prevent eagles from swooping down. Only two male and two female rabbits would be sufficient, because in a short time the whole preserve will be full of them (5).

As for wild boars, Varro reports that they could be kept in these enclosures without much trouble and will readily eat whatever they can scrounge (6). It is a statement that most pig farmers and boar hunters will concur with – pigs are remarkably adaptable animals, able to survive and thrive in a multitude of environments, although they appear to have a particular fondness for wooded areas. If domesticated pigs manage to break out of their barnyard pens and escape into the wilderness, they revert back to their original wild state surprisingly quickly.

 

A mosaic from Roman-era Carthage depicting a boar hunt. Bardo National Museum, Tunis, Tunisia. Photo by Pascal Radigue (2001). Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chasse_sanglier_Carthage_Bardo_National_Museum.JPG.

 

Mosaic depicting a boar hunt, dated to the late 3rd to early 4th Century AD. Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy. Photo by Gerd Eichmann (June 8, 1986). Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Villa_Casale-112-Eberjagd-1986-gje.jpg.

 

One favored way of hunting the wild boar in the Roman Empire was by impaling it with a spear. But this wasn’t your basic everyday pole-arm; this was a weapon that was specifically designed for this task. In my book The Great Illyrian Revolt, I wrote the following passage concerning the kinds of spears that the Illyrian warriors carried in battle…

“The word that the Romans used…was venabulum, the Latin word for “hunting spear”, although the word literally translates to “an instrument used in hunting”, which could mean anything. Hunting spears are differentiated from combat spears by being typically fitted with larger-than-average heads which are used to take down large and dangerous prey like lions, bears, and especially wild boars. In fact, during the Middle Ages, these kinds of spears were called “boar spears”. In addition to having larger heads, they are also fitted with a cross-guard at the base of the spearhead to prevent the spear from digging into the animal so far that it penetrates the animal’s body up to the shaft. The ancient Roman venabulum looked remarkably similar to medieval and modern hunting spears, and they were a common tool used by the bestiarii, the “beast men” who fought against wild animals in the arena. The only difference between the ancient and medieval versions which I can see is that the crossguards on the Roman spears are V-shaped with the two points directed towards the front, while on the medieval ones they are fashioned into a straight horizontal bar” (7)

Varro also provides an anecdote that one fellow, rather than searching out for animals to hunt, had trained the wild animals to come to him! A man named Marcus Pupius Piso had an estate outside the town of Tusculum, and within this property was erected an elevated platform. From here, Piso would blow a horn, and then throw food down to the ground for the wild animals to eat. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the animals within this preserve came to associate the sound of the horn with food, like ringing a dinner bell. After a time, whenever he blew the horn, the animals would immediately emerge from the woods and walk towards him, expecting to find their next meal scattered on the ground below his tower. However, they were now an easy mark for Piso’s bow and arrow (8).

On a side note, during Christian times, the Pantheon was re-dedicated as a Christian church on November 1st (9). This temple, which was formerly dedicated to all of the gods within the Roman polytheistic religion, now served as a temple dedicated to all of the Christian saints. This action became the foundation for “All Saints Day” on November 1, which is still part of the Catholic Christian calendar to this day.

 

Source citations

  1. Lewis Moreri et al, eds., The Great Historical, Geographical and Poetical Dictionary. London: Henry Rhodes, 1694; Dictionarium Sacrum deu Religiosum: A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  2. Lewis Moreri et al, eds., The Great Historical, Geographical and Poetical Dictionary. London: Henry Rhodes, 1694; The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Pages 101, 103.
  3. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 3.
  4. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 12.
  5. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 12.
  6. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 13.
  7. Jason R. Abdale, The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2019. Pages 42-43.
  8. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 13.
  9. Thomas Ignatius Forster, The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824. Page 596.

 

Bibliography

  • Abdale, Jason R. The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2019.
  • Dictionarium Sacrum deu Religiosum: A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  • Forster, Thomas Ignatius. The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824.
  • Moreri, Lewis et al, eds. The Great Historical, Geographical and Poetical Dictionary. London: Henry Rhodes, 1694.
  • The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. De Re Rustica, book 3. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica/3*.html.

 

An Ancient Academic’s Rant: My Gripes with Antiquarians of Prior Centuries

I love ancient history, but I hate reading it.

That’s a statement that some people may find bizarre. I adore the histories of ancient civilizations and cultures. I fantasize about what it must be like to walk the streets of Rome during the reign of Caesar Augustus, or to be on a Greek trireme in the Aegean Sea, or to fight a battle somewhere in the northern wilderness alongside Celtic or Germanic warriors. The histories of ancient times appeal greatly to my creative and imaginative side, and I think that’s why most ancient scholars end up studying ancient history in the first place.

However, I often find the act of researching and studying ancient history to be aggravating and frustrating, and often lead me to yell out some very colorful vocabulary while I’m combing through stacks of info (especially when the records are confusing or contradictory). For this, I largely blame my fore-bearers: the antiquarians, the amateur and quasi-professional scholars of ancient history who lived during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Scholars from the 1700s and 1800s had several tendencies which really get on my nerves, and most of them are founded in having a Classically-rounded education. During the 1700s and 1800s, studying Latin and ancient Greek was a basic part of your elementary school education. Every well-educated child learned Xenophon’s Anabasis and Julius Caesar’s Commentaries along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Because of this, certain assumptions were taken for granted, namely the assumption that every educated person was fluent in Latin and ancient Greek, and the assumption that you were familiar with every ancient text that had been published. In fact, most early academic texts were written in Latin, and it wasn’t until much later that they were published in English and other contemporary languages.

So, here is a list of the four principle things that many of these people do which really piss me off.

Firstly, they hardly ever cite their sources. Again, this infers that the reader is so familiar with the ancient texts that he/she automatically KNOWS which one the author is referencing without needing to specify it. This makes it extremely difficult for modern scholars to verify their claims because you don’t know whether they are paraphrasing something from a true ancient text or if they’re just making stuff up.

Secondly, whenever they DO cite their sources, they often use only abbreviations, usually consisting of a puzzling series of letters and numbers which look almost like computer coding. Take the following example: Plin.NH.I:4. What this means is “Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 1, chapter 4″. Why they simply couldn’t take the effort to write out the citation in-full is beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately, I know a lot of modern-day historians and classicists who still do this (groan). The assumption here is that you are so thoroughly familiar with every ancient document out there that you should just automatically know what these abbreviations stand for. By contrast, I always write out my citations in-full, and I sincerely hope that those who read my books and articles appreciate it.

Thirdly, whenever they quote from someone, they often do it in the original Latin or Greek without providing a translation. In an age when Classical education in Latin and ancient Greek was a basic part of your elementary school education, it was taken for granted that you’d be able to read it without needing a translation. However, things have changed. Latin and ancient Greek are no longer compulsory components of grammar school, and indeed many colleges and universities are dispensing with their Classical curriculums altogether, but that’s a rant for another day. Most people today cannot read Latin or ancient Greek, but thankfully many ancient documents have been translated by now. However, many more aren’t, especially ones that are obscure. It’s extremely tiresome when your reading suddenly stops dead in its tracks because you have to divert yourself away to your Latin dictionary (or in my case, dictionaries, emphasis on plural) and clumsily translate a passage word-for-word, which might take hours.

Fourthly – and perhaps the one that I hate the most – because ancient history has a lot of gaps in the records, these 18th and 19th Century antiquarians were not averse to filling in those gaps with their own imaginations. When in doubt, make stuff up! Just for the record, I am not talking about offering a hypothesis about how events might have played out in order to plausibly connect dots to each other. I do that sort of thing all the time. If you have Point A, Point C, and Point D, then what would the most likely situation be for the missing Point B so that the entire storyline of events makes sense? This is, of course, with the understanding that the author states outright that this is a personal opinion based upon educated guesswork and logical inferencing rather than arbitrarily making stuff up. However, that’s not what many of these Victorian antiquarians have done. They definitely arbitrarily made stuff up. They take a guess, and pass it off as cold hard fact rather than a personal opinion. Sometimes, it boggles the mind to wonder where they came up with some of their info, especially when the information that they give is ridiculously specific. Where on earth did they come up with this? They had to have read it somewhere, right? And that, my friends, is the great trap. The more specific and detailed it sounds, the more authentic it sounds, and the more likely you are to believe it. Never mind the fact that it’s pure BS.

So, with that being said, how do you sort out the BS from the non-BS? The answer: do A LOT of reading. Compare and contrast, analyze, back-check your sources, take proper notations and citations of things so that you can cross-reference them later. After a while, you’ll start to become aware of what’s plausible verses what’s the product of some Victorian’s imagination. However, be prepared for a lot of headaches, tired eyes, and aggravation. There will be times when you make great progress, and there will be times that you’ve researched and wrote all day, only to discover that your original source material was all lies that have been taken-for-granted as truth, and you have to throw an entire day’s work into the trash can. It’s just part of the game.

So, to any would be ancient academics, or indeed to any currently-working academics, please take the following suggestions to heart: don’t assume that I know what you’re talking about, please cite your sources, write out your citations in full without those damned abbreviations, please provide translations, and above all, don’t lie to me.

October 23 – The Feast of Bacchus, Liber Pater

It’s no secret that the ancient Roman calendar was chock-full of holidays, feast days, and festivals. Any excuse for a party, I suppose. However, determining which days are truly authentic dates for celebrations within the ancient Roman calendar, and which ones are the fictional conjurings of 18th and 19th Century antiquarians, can be a bit tricky.

One example concerns a feast day which was supposedly held on October 23. Numerous secondary sources claim that this was a one of several days in the ancient Roman calendar dedicated to the veneration of the god Bacchus. Although he is commonly thought of as being the god of wine, the Roman parallel of the ancient Greek god Dionysus, Bacchus had other divine associations and attributes as well. As two examples Bacchus was also the god of dancing and divination (1).

Bacchus’ feast on October 23 was specifically known as the Feast of Liber Pater, “the Free Father”. This was a title that the wine-god Bacchus was known by. According to the Dictionary of Polite Literature, published in 1804, “LIBER, LIBER PATER. Epithets of Bacchus, from λυω, [meaning] to unloose, or set free, because he frees men from constraint, and puts them on an equality” (2). The Roman historian Plutarch asked why Bacchus was known by the title of Liber Pater as part of his series known as Roman Questions. In the words of the 17th Century scholar Robert Burton, “It makes the mind of the king and of the fatherless both one, of the bond and freeman, poore (sic) and rich it turneth all his thoughts to joy and mirth, makes him remember no sorrow or debt, but enricheth his heart, and makes him speak by talents…It gives life itself, spirits, wit, &c. For which cause the Ancients called Bacchus Liber Pater…and sacrificed to Bacchus and Pallas still upon an altar” (3).

For this reason, it is stated in two sources that Bacchus’ feast on October 23 was known as the Liberalia, the Feast of Freedom, a care-free celebration devoted to ridding one’s self of one’s troubles, accompanied by a liberal consumption of alcohol. After all, to paraphrase the Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene, wine was given to Man as a gift from the gods to help people forget about their problems (4).

However, there is a problem with this claim. There was another festival known as the Liberalia, dedicated to Bacchus Liber Pater, which was held on March 16 or 17, a day dedicated to both Bacchus and Mars. You can read about this day in more detail by clicking here. By all accounts, this festival in mid-March was the ONLY day that was officially known as the Liberalia. As to why these 19th Century authors also gave that title to the festival on October 23, I think that it is largely to do with grammatical inferencing. Liber or Liber Pater were two of the titles that Bacchus was known by, according to Plutarch, and “-alia” is a suffix which means “festival of…”. Therefore, a feast day dedicated to Bacchus under this cognomen should read as Liberalia, “the Festival of Liber”. From a linguistic standpoint, this makes perfect sense. However, from a historical and anthropological standpoint, it’s wrong. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that the ancient Romans referred this this feast day by this title. It is an assumption which is being presented as indisputable fact.

A silver denarius coin dated to the 190s AD, during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, shows Bacchus under the persona of Liber Pater (the inscription reads LIBERO PATRI) carrying a thyrsus staff and accompanied by a cat. This coin was minted from 194 to 198 AD (5).

Sacrifices were made to Bacchus on October 23, and William King states that people wore crowns of fir branches when making sacrifices to him. As to the offerings that were made, the most common sacrifices offered to Bacchus consisted of goat meat, wine, honey, and honey cakes (6).

The celebrations conducted on October 23 seem to be of a more subdued nature than the Bacchanalia festival of September 3. The Bacchanalia is frequently associated with debauched hedonism, a day devoted to drinking, feasting, and sex. By contrast, the feast held on October 23 seems to have been just your basic run-of-the-mill ancient Roman religious feast day – a day that began with sacrifices and ended with a party.

“A Harvest Festival”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1880).

Source Citations

  1. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 136.
  2. Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804.
  3. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1638. Page 386; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #104; Thomas Ignatius Forster, The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824. Page 579; Rev. Edward Smedley, Rev. Hugh James Rose, and Rev. Henry John Rose, eds., Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge. Volume XVI. London: 1845. Page 150.
  4. Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804; Seth William Stevenson, C. Roach Smith, and Frederic W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889. Page 514.
  5. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 42-43.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17; William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.

 

Bibliography

  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1638.
  • Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804.
  • Forster, Thomas Ignatius. The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824.
  • King, William. An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #104. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
  • Rowan, Clare. Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Smedley, Rev. Edward; Rose, Rev. Hugh James; Rose, Rev. Henry John, eds. Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge. Volume XVI. London: 1845.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, C. Roach; Madden, Frederic W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.

September 3 – The Bacchanalia: The Feast of Bacchus, God of Wine

“Today is a day to drink and dance! Let us rival the priests of Bacchus with feasts to deck the couches of the gods!” – Aristarchus of Athens, Greek orator, 1st Century BC

The quotation that you see above are the first two sentences of a grandiose speech which was delivered in the first episode of the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius. The speech was performed for Caesar Augustus and his companions during a dinner party commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Actium, fought on September 2, 31 BC, which is regarded as one of the most important battles of ancient history. The person who delivered this speech was a certain Greek orator named Aristarchus of Athens, who, in the words of Augustus himself, was “the greatest orator of our time”.

In reality, almost everything about this is pure make-believe. There was no such orator named Aristarchus of Athens who lived during the 1st Century BC – the character is entirely fictional. Likewise, too, is the speech that he makes commemorating Caesar Augustus’ victory over Antony and Cleopatra. However, the above quote makes an interesting reference to the god Bacchus, the ancient Roman god of wine, and this is because the Battle of Actium was fought on the day before this god’s primary feast day.

September 3 was the date of the Bacchanalia, the Feast of Bacchus. Although this god had several other feast days dedicated to him, some of which fell on March 16 or 17, October 23, (perhaps) and November 24, the Bacchanalia festival of September 3 was the most important day held in his honor.

“A Dedication to Bacchus”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1889). Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

Bacchus, it is said, was born in the city of Thebes within the Greek region of Boeotia. He was the son of Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, and Semele, the beautiful daughter of the Phoenician hero Cadmus. The story goes that Jupiter lusted after Semele, and Juno, the queen of the gods, learned of this. Rather than dissuade her husband from pursuing an affair, she appeared to Semele and told her to request Jupiter to have sex with her, and to make him swear by death itself that he would make love to her with all of the passion that he did with his wife. However, this divine hook-up would lead to Semele’s death. The act of a mortal woman having sex with a god ended up killing her, and she was consumed by fire and burned into nothing but ashes. However, the act had made her pregnant, and her conceived child was transferred into Jupiter’s body to keep the baby from being burned as well. It was his father Jupiter, therefore, who gave birth to Bacchus – thus, he was born of both a man and a woman as his two mothers (1).

Bacchus’ status as being conceived by a woman and given birth to by a man might have something to do with his outward appearance. Bacchus was said to be a hermaphrodite, or at least to have an androgenous appearance, being “both male and female” at the same time. He is frequently represented in Roman art as a young man without a beard, and sometimes his facial features and even his body as a whole bear an effeminate appearance (2). Bacchus is traditionally shown wearing a crown made of ivy or grape leaves. Sometimes, in one of his hands, he holds a javelin or spear called a thyrsus with a vine garland wrapped around it (3).

Bacchus was attended by a group of women, and these priestesses were referred to by many titles. Mostly, they were known as Bacchae, because they served Bacchus, but also because, like their wine-guzzling master, they were prone to excessive drinking. For that reason, they were also sometimes called the Mimallones, “the mimickers” because they copied the drunkenness of their divine lord. Sometimes, they were known by the name Maenades, because their ecstatic devotions were mistaken for madness. Other times, they were called Thyades due to their forceful nature. There’s a story that when a Theban woman named Alcithoe mocked these female servants, Bacchus was so offended that he turned her into a bat. Even nowadays, “bat” is a metaphor that is sometimes applied to loud-mouthed women who are difficult to deal with (4).

Roman mythology tells that Bacchus performed many miracles. For example, he once struck the earth with his staff, and out sprang rivers of milk and honey. On another instance, he cut a sheep into pieces, and then put it back together again, whereupon the sheep continued to graze in the fields as if nothing had happened (5).

Bacchus was also a bringer of knowledge. He taught to Mankind the arts of how to plant crops, how to collect honey, how to make wine, and gave them knowledge of astronomy, and also instructed them as to how to conduct sacrifices to the gods. Like the Egyptian god Osiris, he traveled the world bestowing this knowledge on all of the people that he encountered. Thus, Bacchus was regarded as a bringer of civilization to the furthest parts of the world. In fact, it is stated that the Bacchanalia festival of September 3 was meant to commemorate Bacchus’ arrival in India, which to the Romans must have been seen as the opposite side of the world (6).

In official religious processions, Bacchus was clothed in a leopard pelt and drawn in a chariot. Beside him, he was accompanied by satyrs and other entities of the rustic countryside, playing flutes and beating cymbals and making lofty exclamations about him and his glory, while huge tigers and leopards prowled around his chariot. Also in his retinue were the entities of the forest – the nymphs, lenae, and naiades – crowned with wreaths of ivy, their hair hanging down loose, and wearing only animal pelts for clothing, and carrying staffs garlanded with ivy. One source said that they had snakes in their hair and had snakes wrapped around their waist. However, this might be better interpreted as wearing headbands and waistbelts made of snakeskin (7).

Interestingly, Bacchus’ chariot was pulled not by horses, but by large cats (mostly tigers, but sometimes lions, and other times leopards) – some records state that it was pulled by two cats, while others say it was four. Cats were frequently associated with Bacchus, especially big cats. It has even been claimed that tigers were sacred to him, based upon the writings of Seneca and Martial (8).

A silver denarius coin dated to the 190s AD, during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, shows Bacchus under the persona of Liber Pater (the inscription reads LIBERO PATRI) carrying a thyrsus staff and accompanied by a cat. This type of coin was minted from 194 to 198 AD (9). Another example of a silver denarius made during the reign of Severus’ successor Caracalla, dated to the year 206 AD, depicts Bacchus riding in a chariot being pulled by a team of four big cats (10).

It is said that in the war between the gods and the titans, Bacchus actually transformed himself into a lion and fought ferociously in battle. However, he was overwhelmed and the titans hacked his body into pieces. When the battle was over, Pallas gathered together all of the pieces and brought them to Jupiter, who fused them back together and brought Bacchus back to life (11).

According to William King, ivy, fir, oak, ropeweed, and daffodils were associated with Bacchus. By contrast, according to William Burder and Joel Parker, ivy, fir, pine, and fig were sacred to Bacchus. William King says that people would wear daffodil flowers in their hair during Bacchus’ feasts because of a Roman superstition that the flowers would induce a drunk-like state. However, he also says that people would wear crowns of fir branches when making sacrifices to Bacchus (12).

In ancient Athens, the wine-god Dionysus was celebrated in two festivals: one in Spring and another in Autumn. Originally a stately affair, in later times, it descended into a depraved orgy of earthly pleasures. “Vice, debauchery, and licentiousness became their distinguishing characteristics”. (13). As the philosopher Plato reported, the whole population of Athens fell into a state of drunkenness (14).

The rituals of the ancient Greek Dionysia eventually made their way into Italy as the Etruscans came into contact with the Greeks, and from the Etruscans it became known to the Romans. Under the Romans, the feast became known as the Bacchanalia, derived from the secret religious sanctuary of Bacchus known as the Bacchanal. Here, the sacred rites to the wine-god were performed in secret. Originally, it was a purification festival which was intended to admit new priestesses into Bacchus’ service. For nine days, the selected women feasted and drunk excessively, and on the tenth day, they underwent a purification. These rituals were known as “orgies” (15).

“Roman Orgy” by Vasily Alexandrovich Kotarbinsky (1898). The State Russian Museum, Moscow, Russia.

The ceremony changed from a private affair and took on a more public nature during the 2nd Century BC. For this, we have to thank Pacula Annia, a woman from the southern Italian region of Campania. Claiming to be acting under the direct command of Bacchus himself, she became the chief priestess of his service and began changing nearly everything about the rites and ceremonies concerning the wine god. Previously served only by women, she admitted men into the Bacchan priesthood. Also, she changed the Bacchanalia from being held annually to being held for a five-day period every month. During this time, the conduct of the orgies hit new heights of excess and immorality, to the point where things got so out of hand that in 186 BC the Roman Senate abolished the festival entirely. However, it was simply too popular to be outlawed forever, and it was brought back. The drunken hedonistic celebrations of the Bacchanalia were carried out with full fervency during the imperial period, as noted by authors such as Virgil, Livy, and Juvenal. It would not be until the moralizing of the Christian era that the Bacchanalia and other pagan rituals were again outlawed and eventually faded into history (16).

 

Source Citations

  1. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 131.
  2. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 133.
  3. William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  4. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Pages 133, 134.
  5. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 133.
  6. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 136; W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  7. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  8. Seth William Stevenson, C. Roach Smith, and Frederic W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889. Page 514.
  9. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 42-43.
  10. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 73.
  11. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Pages 134-135.
  12. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  13. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  14. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  15. Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854. Page 120.
  16. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114; Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854. Page 120.

 

Bibliography

  • Brande, W. T.; Cauvin, Joseph, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852.
  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • King, William. An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731.
  • Rowan, Clare. Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Smith, Sir William; Anthon, Charles. A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, C. Roach; Madden, Frederic W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889.

October 25-30 – The Potentially Fictional Feast of Vertumnus, the God of the Changing Seasons

For many, the end of October is the height of the harvest season. As October draws to a close, fall fairs and harvest festivals are taking place, apple cider flows freely, pumpkins decorate every front yard, and every coffee shop, diner, and restaurant for miles around is serving pumpkin-flavored everything.

It would appear that for the ancient Romans as well, the end of October was an important time for the harvest. Sources indicate that the Romans might have held a religious feast day commemorating the conclusion of the harvest season, and specifically the end of the apple-picking season.

In 19th Century books, there are a handful of curious references made to a feast taking place at the end of October dedicated to the ancient Roman god Vertumnus, the shape-shifting god of the changing seasons. Although he’s not one of the most well-known gods within the Roman pantheon, Vertumnus was regarded as one of the most important, if not the most important god within Etruria. Within the city of Rome itself, there was a statue of Vertumnus erected at the base of the Caelian Hill (1). The Roman poet Sextus Propertius dedicated one of his poems to this god. He mentions that Vertumnus had no temple, but a statue of him stood along the road known as the Vicus Tuscus, and overlooked the Roman forum. The first statue of the god was carved from maple wood, but this was later replaced by a bronze statue crafted by the artist Mamurius Veturius (2).

The theologian Adam Clark writes that feasts dedicated to the god Vertumnus were held on October 25 and October 30 (3). Perhaps it ought to be read that the festivities began on the 25th and ended on the 30th, making it a six-day-long celebration of the harvest season. Thomas Forster’s Perennial Calendar, which was published the following year in 1824, states that October 25 was the date of the “Vertumnalia”, but no mention is made of a similar festival taking place on the 30th (4).

Adam Clarke says that the ancient Roman grammarian Marcus Terentius Varro makes reference to this. However, it’s more likely that this is a mis-reading of “Volturnalia”, a festival dedicated to the Etruscan god Volturnus, which was held on August 27 (5).

It is known that a feast day dedicated to both Vertumnus and his wife Pomona, the goddess of fruits and vegetables, took place on August 13 (click here to read an article about this). This date marked the beginning of the apple harvest – while most apples ripen in Autumn, there are a handful of varieties which ripen earlier in the middle of Summer. The apple was the symbol of the goddess Pomona, and she served as the patron goddess of orchards, particularly apple orchards. Although a handful of apple varieties ripen in the middle of August, which is the date of Pomona’s feast day, the vast majority of apple varieties have their fruits ripen in September or October. Therefore, a feast taking place at the end of October would possibly mark the conclusion of the apple harvest in ancient Rome.

However, I must state that although I have found several references in texts from the early 1800s about a feast to Vertumnus taking place in late October, I have not been able to find any mention of such a date within any primary source. What is even more maddening is that these writers seldom, if ever, attest where they obtained their information from. This makes me wonder where these 19th Century writers got this idea.

Adam Clarke also makes a curious notation for October 30 saying “Games consecrated” (6). This is explained in a little bit more detail in an 1829 article concerning Roman ceremonies taking place within the month of October, which says “On the thirtieth [of October] was held the Vertumnalia, a feriae instituted in honor of Vertumnus, when the Sarmation (sic) games were performed” (7).

Apparently, the so-called “Sarmatian Games” were established by Emperor Constantine I after winning a victory over the Sarmatians and their allies in the year 332 AD. This campaign is mentioned in The Ecclesiastical History, written by Sozomen, and is discussed in more detail in Zosimus’ New History:

“He conquered the Sarmatians and the people called Goths, and concluded an advantageous treaty with them. These people dwelt upon the Ister; and as they were very warlike, and always ready in arms both by the multitude and magnitude of their bodies, they kept the other tribes of barbarians in awe, and found antagonists in the Romans alone. It is said that, during this war, Constantine perceived clearly, by means of signs and dreams, that the special protection of Divine Providence had been extended to him. Hence when he had vanquished all those who rose up in battle against him he evinced his thankfulness to Christ by zealous attention to the concerns of religion, and exhorted the governors to recognize the one true faith and way of salvation” (8)

“Constantine hearing that the Sauromatae, who dwelt near the Palus Maeotis, had passed the Ister in boats, and pillaged his territories, led his army against them, and was met by the barbarians, under their king Rausimodus. The Sauromatae attacked a town which was sufficiently garrisoned, but its wall was built in the lower part of stone, and in the upper part of wood. They therefore thought that they might easily take the town by burning all the wooden part of the wall; and with that view set it on fire, and in the meantime shot at those who stood on the walls. The defenders threw down darts and stones upon the barbarians, and killed many of them; and Constantine then coming up and falling on them from a higher ground, slew a great number, took wore alive, and put the rest to flight. Rausimodus, having lost the greater part of his army, took shipping and crossed the Ister, with an intention of once more plundering the Roman dominions. Constantine, hearing of his design, followed them over the Ister, and attacked them in a thick wood upon a hill, to which they had fled, where he killed many of them, amongst whom was Rausimodus.  He also took many of them prisoners, giving quarter to those that would submit; and returned to his head-quarters with an immense number of captives” (9)

As to the “games” in question, all I have to go on is Adam Clarke’s reference and a single notation from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (10). This notation claims that the Sarmatian Games were celebrated in November to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over the Sarmatians and their allies. It also says that further information on this subject is found in Zosimus’s New History, book 1, chapter 2, but this statement is false – Zosimus makes absolutely no mention of any of these events within that part of his text. It is also said in this notation that information is found within “the Panegyric of Optatianus (c. 32)”. Again, this is false. Publilius Optatianus Porfirius was a poet who was alive in the 4th Century AD. He had been banished from Rome, but managed to flatter his way back into Emperor Constantine I’s good graces by writing a panegyric dedicated to him. A “panegyric” was essentially a grandiose version of political ass-kissing where a writer would make extremely flowery over-the top claims about what an amazing person his subject was. Porfirius’ panegyrics are a collection of twenty-something poems which are collected together under the title of Carmina. Of these poems, Poem VI and Poem XXIII make reference to Constantine’s attacks on the Sarmatians. Contrary to what is seen in the notation, there is no 32nd poem.

As you can see, dear reader, there is a lot of frustration and confusion regarding these things. This makes it difficult for historians and classicists to get a good idea about what is true and what is not true. Many times, I am tempted to think that much of the information which is presented to us about ancient Rome are nothing more than fictitious concoctions from the minds of 18th and 19th Century theologians and antiquarians. This is the reason why I was cautious in the early part of this article, making suppositions that the ancient Romans might have carried out a feast to Vertumnus in late October rather than definitively stating so as if it were indisputable fact. While it might make practical pragmatic sense for the Romans to celebrate a feast day commemorating the end of the apple harvest, I would caution you away from taking guesses and assumptions and assuming them to be the truth.

Source Citations

  1. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verse 46. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 43.
  2. Sextus Propertius, The Elegies, book 4, chapter 2, verses 1-64.
  3. Adam Clarke, The New Testament, with Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume 2. New York: A. Paul, 1823. Page 160.
  4. Thomas Ignatius Forster, The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824. Page 584.
  5. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 21, footnote. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 194.
  6. Adam Clarke, The New Testament, with Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume 2. New York: A. Paul, 1823. Page 160.
  7. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  8. Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chapter 8.
  9. Zosimus, New History, book 2, chapter 21.
  10. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 14, Note 099.

Bibliography