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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.