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.

Harvest Festival

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

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.


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