The ancient Romans named the middle part of each month as the “Ides”, and each of these days was dedicated to Jupiter, King of the Gods. Sometimes, these days were marked for holding special celebrations. The Ides of October, in particular, was the date of the Ludi Capitolini, “the Capitoline Games”, one of the oldest festivals in Roman history.
The Origins of the Capitoline Games
Throughout the 400s and into the early 300s BC, the Roman Republic had been almost continuously engaged in wars with the Etruscan city-states to the north. The state of Veii had put up especially stern resistance, and the Romans spent many years trying to conquer it. At last in 392 BC, the Romans were able to take the city (1). Understandably, they felt proud of themselves. Then in the Summer of 390 BC, the Romans faced an enemy that they had never encountered before – the Celts.
The Celts were a collection of tribes that appear to have originated in what is now Austria. By the early 4th Century BC, they had spread and had become the dominant culture throughout much of western and central Europe. They had even crossed the Alps and had occupied most of what is now northern Italy as far south as the Arno River. The Etruscans lay directly south of them, and now they were coming under repeated attacks from the Celts. One by one, the northern Etruscan city-states fell to these warriors as the Celts pushed south. With the Celts attacking from the north, and the Romans attacking from the south, the Etruscans were being squeezed on two fronts, and it would not be long before they were overwhelmed (2).
The Etruscan city-state of Clusium, which lay a hundred miles north of Rome, was the next to come under threat from Celtic attacks. Although the Etruscans and Romans had been enemies for many years, the Etruscans feared these northern newcomers far more than the Romans, and so the leaders of Clusium decided to undertake the desperate measure of sending a message to Rome, asking their enemies for help fighting these northern barbarians. In response, the Roman Senate refused to provide military support, but they did send a delegation to Clusium to see if they could mediate an agreement between the two sides, and also gather as much information about these unknown people as they could (3).
The first meeting between the Celts, led by Chief Brennus, and the Roman envoys did not go well. The Romans saw that there was no reasoning with these people, and they joined sides with the Etruscans. One of the Roman emissaries named Quintus Fabius Ambustus killed one of the high-ranking warriors in the Celtic force. When Chief Brennus sent a message to the Roman Senate demanding that the offender be handed over to them for punishment, the Senate refused. Enraged at this insult, Brennus ordered his warriors to march south and attack Rome (4).
The Romans, who had lost many of their men due to the repeated wars with the Etruscans, now frantically cobbled together a new army out of hastily-trained recruits, most of whom had no prior military experience, and sent them against the Celtic horde. The result was inevitable. At the Battle of the Allia River, fought just eleven miles north of Rome on July 18, 390 BC, this rag-tag Roman force was outmaneuvered, overwhelmed, and slaughtered. Some of the survivors managed to make it back to the city, where they warned the people that the army had been defeated and that the Celts were coming (5).
The panic-stricken Romans realized that they did not have enough strength to adequately defend the whole city, so it was decided to withdraw to the city’s central defensive position – the citadel located atop the Capitoline Hill – and make a stand there. The Celts entered the city. Facing no resistance, they went on a looting rampage, plundering the houses and then setting them on fire. Then they discovered that the people had crowded together into the fortified central stronghold on the Capitoline Hill. For the next two weeks, the Celts besieged the citadel with little success. By early August, the people who had hunkered down inside the citadel were suffering from hunger and sickness, and a ceasefire was called. Chief Brennus demanded a massive sum of treasure to induce him and his warriors to abandon Rome, which was grudgingly given up to him. The date of August 3, 390 BC would be a date burned into Rome’s memory as the day that the city fell to the barbarians (6).
However, Chief Brennus would not bask in his glory for long. Word arrived that his lands were under attack from other tribes, and he was forced to quickly return to northern Italy to deal with matters there. With this development, Rome now saw a chance to exact some payback (7).
The Roman Senate designated a man named Marcus Caedicius as the commander of all Roman military forces and urged him to strike the retreating Celts. However, he didn’t want the job, stating that there was another man who was more suitable to leading the counter-attack against the Celts. That man was Marcus Furius Camillus, the famed Roman general who had commanded the Roman Army in its attacks against the Etruscans, and who had been instrumental in capturing the city of Veii two years earlier. However, Camillus had experienced a falling-out with his countrymen, who had become jealous of his prestige and glory. Camillus had gotten so sick and tired of their constant attacks on his character that he packed his bags and moved to the town of Ardea, saying that they will be sorry that they had forced him to leave and that one day they will come begging for his help. Sure enough, he was right. Caedicius and a few companions journeyed to the town of Ardea, and urged Marcus Camillus to put aside his grudge against the Roman bureaucrats who had destroyed his career and reputation and work for the good of the Roman people. Marcus Camillus agreed to come to Rome’s aid, and he took command of the Roman Army (8).
On their way back to northern Italy, the Celts laid siege to the town of Veascium, which was a Roman ally. Marcus Camillus attacked them, killed many of them, and re-took the plunder that they had taken from Rome. Thus, the Celts left Rome empty-handed and in a worse condition than before (9).
The Capitoline Games are Established
The Roman historian Titus Livius states that the Capitoline Games were instituted shortly after Marcus Furius Camillus’ defeat of the Celts. Camillus himself proposed an idea to the Senate of establishing games to be held in honor of the god Jupiter, partly because the citadel on the Capitoline Hill had not fallen to the enemy, and partly because Jupiter’s temple was located atop that hill. Camillus was convinced that the god himself had intervened and had prevented the city from being completely destroyed, even though most of it was (10).
The Senate approved establishing them in either 390 or 387 BC. The Senate’s decree stated that the games would be run and supervised by an order of priests chosen by Camillus from among those who resided upon the Capitoline Hill and within the Citadel. These priests would be known as the “Capitolini”. These games were intended to be held every year on October 15 in honor of either Jupiter Optimus Maximus “Jupiter the Best and Greatest” or Jupiter Capitolinus “Jupiter of the Capitoline Hill”. The Ludi Capitolini were in fact the oldest of the Roman games (11).
After falling out of fashion for a long time, the Capitoline Games were re-instituted by Emperor Domitian in July of 86 AD. There were some notable differences, though. For starters, the name was changed to Agones Capitolini. Secondly, the games were to be held every five years instead of annually. Thirdly, the games were diversified to include a number of activities such as poetry readings, orators and academics making speeches and educational lectures, and musicians playing their compositions. Emperor Domitian gave out awards to the best person in each category, thus turning an event which was intended to be a gesture of gratitude to the supreme god for saving them from death into being a sort of talent show (12). I have not found any record of these games being performed after Domitian’s reign, so I must assume that they fell out of favor when he was murdered in 96 AD.
The Equus Octobris: The “October Horse”
Of all of the activities that were conducted during the Capitoline Games, the most important and most well-known was the so-called Equus Octobris, “the October Horse”, which took place on the first day of the games on October 15. This was the opening event of the games, consisting of a chariot race dedicated to the war-god Mars, but with a twist – the winning horse would be sacrificed.
The chariots involved were called bigae, because they were drawn by two horses, in contrast with trigae which were pulled by three horses or the quadrigae that were pulled by four. Of the two horses that pulled the chariot, the horse which ran on the right side was the one that was chosen for sacrifice (13).
The Romans prized athleticism, so the horses that were both the fastest and the strongest was sure to please Mars as an honorable sacrifice. One wonders why the race was dedicated to Mars instead of Jupiter, since the Capitoline Games as a whole were meant to honor the king of the Roman pantheon. The historical records don’t state how many laps the chariots had to run around the racetrack, but I can’t imagine that it could have gone on for very long because there were other events that were on the schedule. Like modern-day horse races such as the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes, the chariots probably only ran a single lap. One wonders how the jockeys felt, knowing that one of the two horses that pulled his chariot was doomed to be offered up on an altar. Perhaps a few who were fond of their steeds deliberately raced slower than they usually did in order to ensure that his beloved animals would not be killed, but we will never know this for certain.
Horse sacrifice is an attribute commonly associated with primitive cultures, so it’s possible that this rite is an ancient one which goes back far beyond Rome’s founding. Polybius states that the sacrifice was carried out for the good of the city, while Paul the Deacon states that the sacrifice was carried out for the good of the harvest. As to the significance of why a horse was sacrificed and not some other animal, Plutarch pondered that it might have to do with the horse being used in warfare, since October was a month dedicated to Mars, or it might have been done as a reference to the Trojan War because Troy had supposedly fallen in the month of October thanks to the wooden horse. The fact that Plutarch did not know the answer and had to surmise the reasoning behind such a strange ritual implies that this ceremony had been going on for so long that the Romans of his day had long forgotten its origins, and it implies that this was, indeed, a very archaic ritual which had survived into his day (14).
The sacrifice was carried out at the Ara Martis, the Altar of Mars, located in the Campus Martius. The horse was killed by being run through with a spear, being the weapon associated with the war-god Mars. Once the horse had been killed, both its head and tail were cut off. The tail was brought as quickly as possible to the home of the pontifex maximus, the chief priest, and the sacred blood was allowed to drip on the hearth. The rest of the blood within the tail was carefully stored in a container and kept within the temple of Vesta (15).
There was some connection between the sacrifice of the October Horse and that of another Roman ritual known as the Palilia, which was held on April 21, and was designed to purify the flocks kept by shepherds and other herdsmen:
“It must be observed that in early times no bloody sacrifice was allowed to be offered at the Palilia, and the blood of the October horse, mentioned above, was the blood which had dropped from the tail of the horse sacrificed in the month of October to Mars in the Campus Martius. This blood was preserved by the Vestal virgins in the temple of Vesta for the purpose of being used at the Palilia” (16)
As for the head, when it was cut off, it was fought over by the inhabitants of the two neighborhoods of Subura and Via Sacra. If the people of Subura won, they hang the decapitated horse’s head from the Regia, which had formerly been the residence of the old Roman kings and now served as the residence of the pontifex maximus; if the people of Via Sacra won, it is suspended from the Turris Mamilia, “Mamilius’ Tower”. (17).
In addition to the opening chariot race to Mars, there were other activities as well, especially during the reign of Emperor Domitian in the 90s AD. In the words of the historian Suetonius:
“He also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation both in Greek and in Latin; and in addition to those of the lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone, without singing; while in the stadium there were races even between maidens. He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well” (18).
According to Plutarch, one of the unusual sights seen at the games was some random herald yelling out over and over again “Sardians for sale! Sardians for sale!” while pulling along by a leash or a chain an old man dressed up in a purple toga praetexta and wearing a golden bulla medallion around his neck. This was a reference to the numerous wars that the Roman Republic had fought against the various Etruscan city-states, in particular the state of Veii. The Romans believed that the Etruscans came from the eastern region of Lydia, with Sardis serving as its major city. Both the toga praetexta and the bulla were of Etruscan origin. The bulla was a small pouch worn by children around their necks, filled with good luck charms and herbs which were meant to ward off evil. It was a way in which parents protected their child due to the high number of child mortality cases in ancient times. This “medicine bag”, to use a term associated with Native Americans, was removed when the child had reached adulthood. This old man was meant to be a representation of the Etruscan king of Veii – an old man who still behaved like a child – and was an object of mockery (19).
There is also a questionable reference made to Roman merchants and businessmen offering sacrifices to the god Mercury on this day (20). However, I have not been able to find any mention of this in any primary source, or any other secondary source, and I am inclined to believe that the un-named author confused October 15 with May 15, which was the date of a festival dedicated to Mercury.
The Capitoline Games were the first example of organized athletic celebrations conducted in the name of religious devotion. There would be many more of these under a variety of other names which would be established by the Romans throughout their history. Sometimes they took the form of chariot races, other times in the form of gladiatorial contests, and in other cases simple feats of athletic prowess. It’s remarkable that, considering its age and its social significance, the Capitoline Games did not last very long. They were first disbanded due to their association with Marcus Camillus, whose inflated ego became too much for the Roman people to bear, and they were likely disbanded a second time due to their association with an incompetent and egotistical emperor. By contrast, other games such as the Ludi Magni Romani, the Great Roman Games” and the Ludi Plebei, “the Plebeian Games” were more popular and would be practiced by the Romans for many generations.
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