October 19 – The Armilustrium: Another Campaign Season Comes To An End

The Roman Army was the mightiest fighting force of ancient times from the 3rd Century BC until arguably the 3rd Century AD.  Each year, the soldiers were sent out to search for and fight the empire’s enemies. However, the legions were not constantly in action. As Autumn moved closer to Winter, the soldiers prepared to hang up their armor and weapons and move into their Winter quarters. The soldiers would no longer be on active duty, and fighting would be put on hold for a few months until the weather warmed up again in Spring and the legions could once again be sent out for another campaign.

Roman soldiers marching at Xanten, Germany. Photograph by Judith Meyer (June 23, 2012). CC0 Creative Commons.

The Roman Army’s campaigning season officially began on March 23 with a festival called the Tubilustrium. With the necessary sanctification rituals performed, the Roman Army could now march, fight, and conquer with the gods’ blessings.

As Summer changed to Autumn, the soldiers’ thoughts increasingly turned to returning to their homes and bringing in the Fall harvest. By the middle of October, the time had come to dismiss the troops. October 19 officially marked the end of the year’s military campaign season, and this feast day was known in ancient Rome as the Armilustrium (1).

It’s said that the name “Armilustrium” comes from the Latin words arma (“weapon”) and lustrere (“to be reviewed”) (2). However, a better translation might be arma followed by lustrantur “purified” (3). Then again, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the ancient Romans loved puns and plays on words, and it’s possible that both definitions are correct. Here, the soldiers would be assembled one last time, and the necessary purification rituals would be performed before the troops were taken off of active duty.

Where did this ritual take place? We have two possible contenders. The first and most commonly-accepted proposal is that the Armilustrium festival took place upon the Campus Martius, “the Field of Mars”. This was Rome’s military training ground, their version of Parris Island or Salisbury Plain, where the new recruits would be trained in how to be legionnaires, and where those who were already in the Army would sharpen their skills as well as their swords. If you’re going to be conducting a religious ritual that is centered upon Rome’s military, then the Campus Martius sounds like a logical place (4).

Not so fast, though, because there’s a second option. The ancient historian Plutarch says that there was a place called Armilustrum, located on the Aventine Hill (one of the seven hills that makes up the city of Rome), where King Titus Tatius of the Sabines was entombed (5). It has been supposed that the Armilustrium was actually a ritualized performance held in honor of Titus Tatius, possibly performed by the Salian priesthood with helmets, shields, and spears. (6). However, this view is not well-regarded by most scholars, who believe that the name “Armilustrium” referred to a religious ritual, not a geographic location, and that it centered upon the Roman military, not a semi-legendary ancient king.

Now that we’ve established where this ritual likely took place, we turn our attention to what exactly happened here. Just as with ascertaining the ceremony’s location, determining what went on during the ceremony is a bit difficult. As mentioned earlier, there are two possible translations, but both are of a military nature. The name Armilustrium translates to either “weapons are reviewed” or “weapons are purified”. In either case, both translations involve weapons.

Numerous sources claim that this was a general review of the army, with the soldiers standing in formation, fully armed and armored as if ready for battle (7). What was the purpose behind this? The word “review” is telling. Perhaps this was where the general surveyed his soldiers on parade, inspected their appearance and their kit, where the troops displayed their awards, and where their commander could give them a few encouraging words.

One source from the 1820s says that the men and officers “wore crowns” while on parade (8). These are assuredly not royal crowns or even mock royal crowns. Instead, they were likely battle awards that were in the shape of crowns, and the Roman military had several of these. Perhaps the most common was the corona civilis, “the civic crown”, crafted from oak leaves, which was given as an award for saving the life of another Roman citizen. A soldier who had rescued one of his comrades in battle would be awarded such an ornament. However, there were other crown awards, too. The corona muralis, “the wall crown” was an award given to the first soldier who was able to penetrate through an enemy’s fortifications. Of all of these coronae, perhaps the most coveted and the most respected was the corona graminea. This was a crown that was given to a victorious battlefield commander, crafted by the soldiers that he led out of the very grasses and plants that grew out of that battlefield. Only a handful of Roman generals were given this award, which means that the victory had to be on a truly epic scale.

What about the reference to purification during this ritual – what exactly was the thing that needed to be purified? Based upon the name, most people have stated that the soldiers’ weapons were the things that needed to be both physically as well as ritualistically cleaned (9). Only one source from the early 1800s claims that the soldiers themselves were purified, not the weapons (10). This is similar to the idea which is seen several times in the Bible that people who had shed blood were “unclean” and needed to be cleansed of their blood-guilt before they were once again re-admitted into society.

Numerous sources claim that sacrifices were made on this day (11), but what kind were they? They were likely not sacrifices of live animals, known in Latin as agonaliae, because every time live animals were sacrificed the Romans clearly stated so. One notable example of an agonalia was one conducted in honor of Mars which occurred in March 17, in which a ram was sacrificed to the Roman war god. So, the sacrifices likely consisted of offerings of meat, harvested crops, or prepared goods like honey cakes, which were a common sacrificial offering.

Nobody says who is actually carrying out these sacrifices. Charles James, writing in the early 1800s, stated that it was the Roman Army’s generals who carried out the sacrifices, not members of the priesthood (12). However, there are more sources which state that it is either inferred or assumed in the Roman records that the Salii priests performed the ceremonies (13). The Salii, or the Salians (no relation to the Salian Franks of the 4th and 5th Centuries), were an order of priests who were devoted to worshiping the god Mars. Their name is derived from the Latin verb salit meaning “to jump or leap”. So they were, literally, the Leaping Priests. They were known for dancing while carrying shields and weapons, in order to please the war god. Plutarch wrote “They move with much grace, performing, in quick time and close order, various intricate figures, with a great display of strength and agility” (14). On this day, it’s likely that the priests of Mars danced and sang prayers to Mars, giving thanks to him for a successful campaign.

Meanwhile, a source from the 1800s says that it was the soldiers themselves who were doing the dancing, while wearing all of their armor in fact (15). I am VERY skeptical about this, but who knows, it might be true. War dances are common to many cultures, and this idea of the Romans soldiers dancing while fully dressed for battle sounds like something known as the pyrrhiche or “Pyrrhic Dance”, which was a dance performed by young men while wearing armor (16).

The things that were used in purification rituals are better described concerning another ceremony called the Palilia, a festival dedicated to gaining divine protection for your livestock, which took place on April 21. Here, various substances were burned including the blood and ashes of sacrificed animals, dried beans, sulfur, rosemary, chips of fir wood, and incense. The smoke which emanated from these burnt offerings would be used to purge and purify places, animals, and people of any unclean influences. Also, cleansing rituals would be performed by using laurel branches to sprinkle holy water on the people and the places where they lived and worked (17). Because the Armilustrium had purification at its heart, it is highly likely that the same sacrificial and ceremonial purification rituals were conducted on October 19 as they were on April 21.

All of the sources which write about the Armilustrium are in agreement that the festivities were accompanied by the blasting of war trumpets, and possibly added to by other musical instruments that were employed upon the battlefield. What was the purpose behind this? There were numerous other sacrificial and purification rituals which were conducted by the ancient Romans which were not accompanied by music of any sort, so why was the Armilustrium different? Many scholars have pointed to the Armilustrium’s militaristic nature as the reason why martial musical instruments were played. Another reason likely has to do with the Armilustrium being paired with the earlier Tubilustrium festival of March 23; the Tubilustrium began the campaign season, and the Armilustrium concluded it, and both days were sacred to the war-god Mars. In the Tubilustrium musical instruments, especially trumpets, were a core component to the day’s celebrations. As Marcus Terentius Varro explains, the name Tubilustrium meant “the purification of the trumpets”, and the trumpets in question were sacred trumpets that were used in association with religious rituals and other formal ceremonies (18). Since the Armilustrium marked the end of the military campaign season, it’s possible that this was the day where the war trumpets were sounded for the last time. The weapons, shields, and armor were purified and afterwards locked up in the armory until the next campaign season.

March was the month of Mars, the time when the snows of Winter had melted and armies could once again be sent out to attack Rome’s enemies. October, too, was a month dedicated to Mars, but for the opposite reason, because this was the month when the soldiers returned home. The army is assembled, their awards and commendations are displayed for everyone to envy. The sound of the war trumpets echoes for one last time and the thick smoke of burnt sacrificial offerings hangs heavily in the air, while the priests and the troops sing the praises of the war god and give thanks to him for seeing them through another year. Now, it’s time to put away their war-like things, and devote their time to the matter of the harvest, of their families, and making it through the cold Winter. In a few more months, they will be assembled on the parade ground again, ready to fight on the command of the emperor, and for the glory of Rome.

 

Source citations

  1. William Darrach Halsey, Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company, 1984. Page 626.
  2. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  3. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189.
  4. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  5. Robert Burn, Rome and the Campagna. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1876. Page 205.
  6. John Bell, New Pantheon, Volume I. London: J. Bell, 1790. Page 94.
  7. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  8. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  9. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741).
  10. The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 693.
  11. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741; Charles James, A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  12. Charles James, A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805.
  13. Fastorum Libri Sex. The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3 – Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Edited and Translated by James George Frazer. Page 145.
  14. Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13.
  15. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  16. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 60, chapter 7; Lauren Curtis, Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Page 179.
  17. William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859. Page 850.
  18. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189; John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36; The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”; The Roman War Machine, episode 1 – “First Our Neighbors, Then The World”. 1999.

 

Bibliography

  • Bell, John. New Pantheon, Volume I. London: J. Bell, 1790.
  • Burn, Robert. Rome and the Campagna. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1876.
  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  • Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854.
  • Curtis, Lauren. Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Dio, Cassius. Roman History, book 60, chapter 7.
  • Halsey, William Darrach. Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company, 1984.
  • James, Charles. A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805.
  • Plutarch. Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Numa*.html.
  • Smith, William ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Ziolkowski, John. “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31-58.
  • Fastorum Libri Sex. The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3 – Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Edited and Translated by James George Frazer.
  • The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.
  • The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y479bKPEzLQ.
  • The Roman War Machine, episode 1 – “First Our Neighbors, Then The World”. 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fawPwsOfHTk.


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: