July 15 – The Equitum Romanorum Probatio and the Lusus Troiae: The Public Exhibitions of the Ancient Roman Knightly Class

July 15 was the date for the Equitum Romanorum Probatio, “the Roman Knight Exhibition”. This event commemorated the anniversary of the Battle of Lake Regillus, in which the Roman Republic fought against its Latin neighbors during the 300s BC. Legend states that the divine twins Castor and Pollux fought on the Romans’ side, and under their inspirational leadership, led them to victory over their enemies. Afterwards when the battle was won, they rode back to Rome and informed the citizens of their victory. Ever since then, Castor and Pollux served as the mascots of the Roman knightly class.

As the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus relates…

“It is said that in this battle two men on horseback, far excelling in both beauty and stature those our human stock produces, and just growing their first beard, appeared to Postumius, the dictator, and to those arrayed about him, and charged at the head of the Roman horse, striking with their spears all the Latins they encountered and driving them headlong before them. And after the flight of the Latins and the capture of their camp, the battle having come to an end in the late afternoon, two youths are said to have appeared in the same manner in the Roman Forum attired in military garb, very tall and beautiful and of the same age, themselves retaining on their countenances as having come from a battle, the look of combatants, and the horses they led being all in a sweat. And when they had each of them watered their horses and washed them at the fountain which rises near the temple of Vesta and forms a small but deep pool, and many people stood about them and inquired if they brought any news from the camp, they related how the battle had gone and that the Romans were the victors. And it is said that after they left the Forum they were not seen again by anyone, though great search was made for them by the man who had been left in command of the city. The next day, when those at the head of affairs received the letters from the dictator, and besides the other particulars of the battle, learned also of the appearance of the divinities, they concluded, as we may reasonably infer, that it was the same gods who had appeared in both places, and were convinced that the apparitions had been those of Castor and Pollux. Of this extraordinary and wonderful appearance of these gods there are many monuments at Rome, not only the temple of Castor and Pollux which the city erected in the Forum at the place where their apparitions had been seen, and the adjacent fountain, which bears the names of these gods and is to this day regarded as holy, but also the costly sacrifices which the people perform each year through their chief priests in the month called Quintilis, on the day known as the Ides, the day on which they gained this victory” (1).

The first Equitum Romanorum Probatio was held in 304 BC, and was established by Quintus Fabius Rullianus. As the Roman historian Titus Livius (more commonly known by his Anglicized name Livy) states, “It was [Quintus] Fabius…who instituted the parade of the knights on the fifteenth of July” (2). As many as 5,000 mounted knights participated in the festivities. In a lavish parade, all of the knights with olive wreathes garlanding their heads rode white horses caprissoned in red and purple. The parade route lay along the Via Appia, travelling from the Temple of Mars, riding past the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and finally ending at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.

“There is the procession performed after the sacrifice by those who have a public horse and who, being arrayed by tribes and centuries, ride in regular ranks on horseback, as if they came from battle, crowned with olive branches and attired in the purple robes with stripes of scarlet which they call trabeae. They begin their procession from a certain temple of Mars built outside the walls, and going through several parts of the city and the Forum, they pass by the temple of Castor and Pollux, sometimes to the number even of five thousand, wearing whatever rewards for valour in battle they have received from their commanders, a fine sight and worthy of the greatness of the Roman dominion. These are the things I have found both related and performed by the Romans in commemoration of the appearance of Castor and Pollux; and from these, as well as from many other important instances, one may judge how dear to the gods were the men of those times” (3).

This festival gradually fell into obscurity, but was eventually brought back by Caesar Augustus as part of his numerous ways to bring favor to the Equestrian Order.

Another event which is somewhat related to the Equitum Romanorum Probatio was known as the Lusus Troiae, “Playing at Troy”. The ancient Roman calendar had many days which were dedicated to sporting events, including chariot races and athletic sports. However, unlike other major sporting events, the Lusus Troiae did not occur on a fixed calendar date. In fact, there were some years when it didn’t occur at all. This was an event that usually took place in association with another major event such as the dedication of a major temple, a triumphal parade, or the funerals of important government officials (4).

Roman tradition holds that this festival was first held by Prince Aeneas, the former Trojan Prince who fled to Italy following his home city’s fall to the Greeks. In the Aeneid, the poet Virgil states that it was held in commemoration of the funeral of Prince Aeneas’ father Anchises (5).

As files in the three squadrons all in line
Turned away, cantering left and right; recalled
They wheeled and dipped their lances for a charge.
They entered then on parades and counter-parades,
The two detachments, matched in the arena,
Winding in and out of one another,
And whipped into sham cavalry skirmishes
By baring backs in flight, then whirling round
With leveled points, then patching up a truce
And riding side by side. So intricate
In ancient times on mountainous Crete they say
The Labyrinth, between walls in the dark,
Ran criss-cross a bewildering thousand ways
Devised by guile, a maze insoluble,
Breaking down every clue to the way out.
So intricate the drill of Trojan boys
Who wove the patterns of their prancing horses,
Figured, in sport, retreats and skirmishes.

 – The Aeneid, 5.580-593. Translation by Robert Fitzgerald. (6)

It’s certainly possible that this event has archaic origins, since an Etruscan vase found in Tragliatella, Italy dated to the late 7th Century BC depicts what might be a portrayal of this festival. You can see this vase here. This event fell into obscurity for some time during the middle republican period. Then, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who served as the Roman Republic’s military dictator during the 80s and 70s BC, brought back this festival after a long period of dormancy. As Rome was further consumed by civil wars during the late republican period, Julius Caesar ordered the games to be held as part of his victory triumph in 46 BC. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa also sponsored the Lusus Troiae in the years 40 and 33 BC (7).

It was during the early imperial period, and specifically during the reign of Rome’s first emperor Caesar Augustus that the Lusus Troiae had its heyday. Caesar Augustus was an enthusiastic sponsor of the games. He first held the games in 29 BC to commemorate the dedication of a temple to Julius Caesar (8). The games were held again in 11 BC to mark the dedication of Marcellus’ theater. As Cassius Dio says, “He (Augustus) next dedicated the theatre named after Marcellus. In the course of the festival held for this purpose the patrician boys, including his grandson Gaius, performed the equestrian exercise called ‘Troy,’ and six hundred wild beasts from Africa were slain” (9). The event was always held in the Circus Maximus, where, according to Suetonius, Caesar Augustus “exhibited charioteers, runners, and slayers of wild animals, who were sometimes young men of the highest rank. Besides he gave frequent performances of the game of Troy by older and younger boys, thinking it a time-honoured and worthy custom for the flower of the nobility to become known in this way. When Nonius Asprenas was lamed by a fall while taking part in this game, he presented him with a golden necklace and allowed him and his descendants to bear the surname Torquatus. But soon after he gave up that form of entertainment, because Asinius Pollio the orator complained bitterly and angrily in the senate of an accident to his grandson Aeserninus, who also had broken his leg” (10).

After Augustus’ death, this ritual was performed very rarely. There do not seem to have been any circumstances in which the games were conducted under Augustus’ successor Emperor Tiberius. The games were once again performed in 38 AD during the reign of Gaius Caligula to mark both the dedication of a temple to Caesar Augustus as well as the funeral of his sister Drusilla. During the reign of Claudius, it was held in 47 AD to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of Rome by the divine twins Romulus and Remus. After this it was performed rarely and sporadically, and it gradually fell out of favor with later monarchs of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. We know that it was held in 204 and again in 211 AD in conjunction with the funeral of Emperor Septimius Severus (11).

What exactly happened during these events? All of the ancient sources agree that the Lusus Troiae was primarily an equestrian exhibition in which only young men of the Equestrian Order could participate, but aside from that, there isn’t much to go on, and this has caused disputes amongst scholars of ancient history. One of the problems is that this event was performed only on special occasions as opposed to a fixed date, be it every year or every few years. Another problem is the historical records can be misleading regarding the purpose behind this event.

In the Aeneid, Virgil describes the Lusus Troiae as pugnae simulacra, “a simulation of fighting”. This has given some a false impression of what this event entailed. On the face of it, the term that Virgil uses may evoke images of an ancient Roman version of a medieval tournament. However, there is no evidence of athletic competitions between the knights like you would see at a medieval tournament or any other horse-related shows: no fence-jumping, no ring-spearing, no javelin throwing, no jousting, no foot combat, nothing. Furthermore, if this truly was some sort of martial exhibition which was meant as a way for the young men of Rome’s knightly class to demonstrate their skills and show off to the crowds, why not make such an event a regular mandatory occurrence? Some other explanation is needed.

The physical evidence provided in the 7th Century BC Etruscan vase found in Tragliatella, Italy is just as perplexing. The design upon it might show one of the contests held during these festivities – riding the horse through an elaborate maze-like racetrack, full of curves and tight hair-pin turns. This “labyrinth” is referenced several times in secondary interpretations, with some claiming that it’s a track or perhaps an exercise performed by the riders to dexterously weave their horses in and out of various obstacles. However, it would appear that this “labyrinth” is not a prepared obstacle course or trotting course, but rather described the elaborate evolutions of the horsemen weaving in and out amongst each other as part of the spectacle (12).

Several hypotheses have been proposed by modern scholars as to what exactly the Lusus Troiae was, some sensible and others perplexing. Mark Petrini says that the purpose of the games was to prepare the youth of Rome’s knightly class for war, while John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro state that the purpose of the games ostensibly appeared to have been to put the knightly youth of Rome through their paces in a public exercise, but also contained deep-rooted symbolism, and David Ross elaborates on this by saying that the event changed from a commemorative funeral procession to being an event of high nationalistic importance to the Roman culture (13).

It would therefore appear that the most likely explanation of the Lusus Troiae would be that it was an elaborate dressage exhibition with synchronized movements of multiple groups of horsemen, their riders armed and armored for battle and making deliberate flourished choreographed motions with their weapons. This does not bear the description of an athletic exhibition, but rather of a scripted theatrical performance. It has even been described as an ancient Roman version of a war dance or a militarized ballet performance. It is most similar to the pyrrhiche, or Pyrrhic Dance, which was “a Greek choral dance performed by young men with weapons and full armor” (14). The major difference between the ancient Greek pyrrhiche and the ancient Roman Lusus Troiae was that the participants performed on horseback (15).

The Equitum Romanorum Probatio was a public exhibition of horsemanship by Rome’s knightly class. By contrast, the Lusus Troiae was a well-choreographed equestrian parade with a lot of theatricality thrown in. It’s possible that the events of the Equitum Romanorum Probatio and the Lusus Troiae merged together since both involved public formalized equestrian exhibitions by Rome’s knights. However, there is no hard proof in any of the historical texts that these two events eventually merged together into a single event that took place on the same day. After all, it specifically says in the sources that the Equitum Romanorum Probatio was held every year on July 15, while the Lusus Troiae took place at the discretion of the reigning emperor. It is therefore certain that these were indeed two separate events, although of a similar nature.

 

Source Citations

  1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 6, chapter 13.
  2. Livy, History of Rome, book 9, chapter 46.
  3. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 6, chapter 13
  4. Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  5. Aeneid, 5.545-603; Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  6. The Aeneid 5.5.580-593. Translation by Robert Fitzgerald. Early Church History. “Ancient Game of Troy”. https://earlychurchhistory.org/entertainment/ancient-game-of-troy/.
  7. Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”; John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 40; David O. Ross, Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Page 102.
  8. John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 41; Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  9. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 54, chapter 26.
  10. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 2, chapter 43.
  11. John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 41; Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  12. Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”; John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 43.
  13. Michael Grant, The Army of the Caesars. New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc., 1974. Page 72. Mark Petrini, The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Page 93; John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 41; David O. Ross, Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Page 102.
  14. Lauren Curtis, Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Page 179.
  15. John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Pages 42-43, 45; Lauren Curtis, Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Page 179.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

 

Secondary Sources

Books:

  • Bell, Sinclair. “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172. https://www.academia.edu/1601485/_Lusus_Troiae._.
  • Burgersdijk, Diederik. “The Troy Game: The Trojan Heritage in the Julio-Claudian House”. In Troy: City, Homer, Turkey, by Jorrit Kelder et al, eds. https://www.academia.edu/2768810/The_Troy_Game_the_Trojan_heritage_in_the_Julio-Claudian_House.
  • Curtis, Lauren. Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Grant, Michael. The Army of the Caesars. New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc., 1974.
  • Petrini, Mark. The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Ross, David O. Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  • Scheid, John; Svenbro, Jesper. The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Translated by Carol Volk. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Websites



Categories: History, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: