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Monthly Archives: January 2021

An Announcement: I’ll be giving a public lecture on ancient Roman history!

Greetings all! I am happy to report that I will be delivering my first-ever public lecture as a historian. I will be giving a talk about the Great Illyrian Revolt of 6-9 AD, one of the biggest, most consequential, and least-studied military conflicts in ancient Roman history.

The lecture will be hosted by the Queens Public Library and will be held virtually on WEBEX on Tuesday January 26 from 4:00-5:00 PM eastern time. It’s free, and you don’t need a library card or a library account to attend – you just need access to a computer. I have included the official Queens Public Library advertising announcement below. You can also click on the website link here: https://www.queenslibrary.org/calendar/fyi-the-great-illyrian-revolt-with-jason-r-abdale/002113-1220.

January 24 – The Feast of Tellus: Ancient Rome’s “Earth Day”

In ancient Rome, late January marked the beginning of the agricultural calendar because this was the time that the farmers of ancient Italy prepared to plant their crops for the new year. This important stage consisted of a multi-day purification period dedicated to Tellus, the goddess of Mother Earth, and to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. In the city of Rome itself, this feast day was known as the Sementivae, “the Festival of Seed Sowing”. In the rural farm-covered countryside, the same festival was known as the Paganalia, literally “the Country Festival” (1).

 

The Queens County Farm Museum, located only a few miles away from my house, in the midst of Winter. Photograph by Sarah Meyer, Queens County Farm Museum (December 31, 2018), used with permission.

 

The poet Ovid states that the “Festival of Seed-Sowing” was not celebrated on a fixed day in the Roman calendar, but was appointed by the priests: “That day is set by the priests”, he affirms. “Why are you looking for moveable feasts in the calendar? Though the day of the feast’s uncertain, its time is known, when the seed has been sown and the land’s productive” (2). The reason why the festival did not occur on a fixed day (but it usually began on January 24) is because of the weather. You did not want to plant your seeds when the weather was still bad, because your seeds were likely to be destroyed and there would be a famine. So, the priests decided when the appointed day that the planting ritual should take place on be based upon how amenable the season was.

The beginning to the ancient Roman farmer’s preparations for the new growing season was a two-part affair. The Feast of Tellus, which took place in late January, was the date of the purification/blessing of the earth – it was important to bless the ground before the seeds were sown. The Feast of Ceres, which took place a few days later in early February, was marked by the blessing of the seeds themselves.

The opening festivities were dedicated to Tellus, the Mother Earth goddess; from her was born all of the life that you see around you. Therefore, I suppose that January 24 was ancient Rome’s version of “Earth Day”. Because Mother Earth was responsible for controlling all things related to the natural world, such as the weather, wild animals, and especially greenery and growth, farmers offered sacrifices and prayers to her to ensure a good growing season. A pregnant sow and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, were offered up by families upon the household hearths. With this sacrifice, people prayed for a good growing season as well as protection for their crops against birds, insects, cold weather, drought, fungus, and weeds. People called upon Tellus to bless and purify their soil so that any pests or diseases that might damage their crops would be removed, and to pray for a prosperous harvest that Autumn (3).

Several days later in early February, usually February 2, the second part of this feast would take place. February 2 was dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers. What had previously occurred in late January was the blessing and purification of the earth, which was a multi-day process. Now that the soil had been ritually cleaned, the seeds could be planted within it. Just like with the Feast of Tellus several days prior, prayers were spoken and sacrifices were made. Like the Feast of Tellus, the Romans offered pork and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, to Ceres and asked for her to bless the seeds that they were about to plant and to remove any impurities from them, such as fungus, disease, or pests. Once all of the prayers and sacrifices had been made, the farmers planted the purified seeds into the purified soil (4). In the words of the poet Ovid…

“You bullocks, crowned with garlands, stand at the full trough; your labour will return with the warmth of spring. Let the farmer hang the toil-worn plough on its post: The wintry earth dreaded its every wound. Steward, let the soil rest when the sowing is done, and let the men who worked the soil rest too. Let the village keep festival: farmers, purify the village and offer the yearly cakes on the village hearths. Propitiate Earth and Ceres, the mothers of the crops, with their own corn and a pregnant sow’s entrails. Ceres and Earth fulfill a common function: one supplies the chance to bear, the other the soil. Partners in toil, you who improved on ancient days replacing acorns with more useful foods, satisfy the eager farmers with full harvest, so they reap a worthy prize from their efforts. Grant the tender seeds perpetual fruitfulness, don’t let new shoots be scorched by cold snows. When we sow, let the sky be clear with calm breezes, and sprinkle the buried seed with heavenly rain. Forbid the birds that prey on cultivated land to ruin the cornfields in destructive crowds. You too, spare the sown seed, you ants, so you’ll win a greater prize from the harvest. Meanwhile let no scaly mildew blight its growth, and let no bad weather blanch its colour. May it neither shrivel, nor be over-ripe and ruined by its own rich exuberance. May the fields be free of darnel that harms the eyesight, and no barren wild oats grow on cultivated soil. May the land yield rich interest, crops of wheat and barley, and spelt roasted twice in the flames. I offer this for you, farmers, do so yourselves, and may the two goddesses grant our prayers” (5).

Ovid says that in the archaic past, the Romans would only offer grain and salt to their gods. However, they later added animal sacrifices to their rituals, and says that Ceres was the first god to have this done in her honor. On her feast day, a pig was sacrificed to her, supposedly as punishment for pigs uprooting a farmer’s crops. As Ovid relates, “Ceres was first to delight in the blood of the greedy sow, her crops avenged by the rightful death of the guilty creature. She learned that in Spring the grain, milky with sweet juice, had been uprooted by the snouts of bristling pigs. The swine were punished, terrified by that example” (6).

Marcus Terentius Varro reports that at the Temple of Tellus, there was a map of Italy painted on one of the walls. The reason for this is given by a Roman knight named Gaius Agrius, who was an acquaintance of Varro’s: “You have all travelled through many lands; have you seen any land more fully cultivated than Italy?” (7).

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Pages 294-295; Nova Roma. “Paganalia”. http://www.novaroma.org/nr/Paganalia.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  7. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 1, chapter 2.

Bibliography:

 

January 16, 7 BC – The Day that Germany Surrendered to Rome

The date of January 16, 7 BC is important for both Roman and German history.

Ten years earlier in the year 17 BC, three German tribes crossed the Rhine and raided Gaul, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. It wasn’t long before the barbarians ran into a Roman cavalry unit and forced them to retreat. Pursuing them, the Germans stumbled upon the commander of the 5th Legion, Marcus Lollius, and in the skirmish, the Germans captured the 5th Legion’s eagle. This event would provide the pretext for a Roman invasion of Germania (1).

A map of the Germanic tribes, circa 15 BC. Illustration by Jason R. Abdale, 2013.

In 13 BC, Caesar Augustus dispatched his 25-year-old stepson Drusus Claudius Nero to lead a military campaign against the Germanic tribes. An experienced commander who had won some fame in the conquests of Rhaetia and Vindelicia, the invasion of Germania would be a prestigious commission. He arrived on the Rhine River that same year and surveyed the situation, collecting as much information as possible. Throughout the following year, he built a series of forts along the Gallic side of the Rhine to serve as staging posts, he stockpiled supplies, and he accumulated a mass of intelligence from his scouts and recon forces. After he felt that he had enough men and enough info, he was ready (2).

In 11 BC, Drusus Claudius Nero designated Fort Vetera (modern-day Xanten) as his operation headquarters. Rome’s campaign to conquer western Germania began that year when Drusus’ men intercepted another Germanic raiding party that had crossed into Gaul, and beat them so hard that the Germans were forced to run. Afterwards, Drusus and his soldiers crossed the Rhine – the first time that a Roman army had crossed the Rhine since the days of Julius Caesar – and proceeded to lay waste to the land. In a single campaign season, he defeated four German tribes (3).

In the Spring of 10 BC, Drusus’ men once again attacked the border tribes, and then advanced inland. His troops pushed as far east as the Weser River, but they had to stop because they had run out of supplies. As the Roman army marched back to their winter quarters, they were ambushed by a large force of Germanic warriors. The Germans inflicted heavy casualties upon Drusus’ army and came very close to completely destroying it. However, the barbarians were cocky and believed that this would be an easy victory, but Drusus rallied his forces and they fought their way out of the ambush. Drusus led the survivors back to safety, but the Germans pursued them and harassed them the whole way. Despite this loss, the overall campaign was a success. Drusus returned to the city of Rome during Winter to give an account of his actions. Impressed with what he had accomplished so far, it was decided that a triumphal arch was to be erected in his honor. (4).

In the spring of 9 BC, Drusus was once again in action against the Germans. He spent the whole of that campaign season fighting against one tribe, the powerful Chatti tribe that occupied a large piece of southwestern Germania, and who may have been the third-strongest of all of the Germanic tribes. By the end of the campaign season, they were still not yet subdued (5).

In the spring of 8 BC, defying bad omens for the coming year, Drusus resumed his fight against the Chatti and pushed further eastwards towards the Elbe River. Once he reached this point, he and his men turned back, but disaster struck when Drusus was thrown off of his horse and broke his leg. The injury quickly became infected. After languishing for thirty days, Drusus Claudius Nero died of gangrene at the height of his glory. His body was brought back to Rome for a hero’s funeral, while his loyal soldiers erected a monument to him in Mainz, which can still be seen today. It was also decided to posthumously award him the honorific agnomen “Germanicus”, a name that would be borne by all of his male descendants (6).

The Drusus Monument, located in Mainz, Germany. Photograph by Carole Raddato (September 5, 2013). Creative Commons Attribute Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Drusus’ untimely death did not put a halt to Rome’s military operations in western Germania. With Drusus dead, his older brother Tiberius took command. At first, he was more interested in consolidating and controlling the territories that Drusus’ men had taken the previous year. Tiberius and his troops went up and down the country during that winter, subduing the tribes and suffering minimal or no losses (7).

Members of Legio V Macedonica, an ancient Roman re-enactment group based in Russia, march through the snow. Image courtesy of Legio V Macedonica, used with permission.

Finally, the Germanic tribes decided that they had enough. The Roman poet Ovid states in his Fasti that, after many years of war, the western Germanic tribes surrendered to Tiberius Claudius Nero on January 16, 7 BC. To commemorate the peace treaty, Tiberius ordered the construction of a shrine to the goddess Concordia, the goddess of peace, harmony, and friendship. Cassius Dio relates that for the rest of 7 BC, all of Germania was quiet. In the year 6 BC, confident that everything in Germania had been taken care of, Tiberius retired to the island of Rhodes (8).

Bust of Tiberius Claudius Nero. Museo Archaeologico Regionale, Palermo, Sicily. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain image.

Unfortunately, the German barbarians’ surrender to Rome on that winter day did not create a lasting peace. In the year 1 AD, the Germanic tribes revolted against the Roman military occupation of their land, a revolt that would take three years to suppress (9).

In the year 10 AD, the year following the disaster at the Battle of Teutoburg, the old temple to Concordia which lay within the city of Rome, and which had been built many years earlier and had fallen into disrepair, was restored and re-dedicated. This effort was funded using the spoils of war that had been taken in battle against the Germans and the Illyrians. Tiberius Claudius Nero was the one who performed the dedication ceremony, and the names of both he and his dead bother Drusus were inscribed upon it (10).

This temple that’s mentioned in the writings of Suetonius and Cassius Dio might be the same as the “shrine” to Concordia that Ovid is referring to, but I doubt it. Ovid specifically states that Tiberius built a shrine to Concordia specifically in response to the surrender of the German tribes on January 16, 7 BC, which brought peace to that region of the world. I find it a bit off-putting for Tiberius to have dedicated a shrine in direct response to establishing peace with the Germans the year after the Germans massacred three Roman legions in the region of Teutoburg; some people might find such an action to be exceptionally tactless. Therefore, I believe that the shrine and the temple are two separate structures: one established immediately after the peace treaty was made in 7 BC, and another that was restored and dedicated in 10 AD.

 

Source citations:

  1. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 20; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
  2. Adrian Murdoch, Rome’s Greatest Defeat. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2006. Pages 31-33.
  3. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 32.
  4. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 33.
  5. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 36.
  6. Ovid, The Heroïdes, or Epistles of the Heroines; The Amours; Art of Love; Remedy of Love; and, Minor Works of Ovid. G. Bell, 1893. Page 503; The Germanic Tribes, episode 1 – “Barbarians against Rome”; Livy, Periochae, from book 142; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 55, chapters 1-2; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 7; book 5, chapter 1.
  7. Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
  8. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 16; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, Book 55, chapters 6, 9.
  9. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 53, chapter 26; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapters 104-106.
  10. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 56, chapter 25; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 20.

 

Bibliography:

 

January 11 and 15 – The Feast of Carmenta, the Ancient Roman Goddess of Prophesy and Childbirth

Will it be a good year for the crops? Are you going to meet the man of your dreams? Should you invest your dinarii in your deadbeat brother-in-law’s latest get-rich-quick scheme? Maybe you should consult Carmenta, the ancient Roman goddess of prophecy and childbirth. Her eyes will see into the future and let you know what awaits you.

There’s a legend that Carmenta, or Carmentis as her name is otherwise given, was originally a female prophet from the Greek region of Arcadia; her name is also recorded as either Themis or Nicostrata. Carmenta was unusual in that, when she would fall into a hypnotic trance, she would give out her prophesies in song form – hence she was known as Carmenta, which means “the chanter”. However, she did not always possess this gift. She was married to Pallas, the ruler of Arcadia, but her son Evander was the product of a union between her and the god Hermes/Mercury. It was not until “her spirit absorbed the heavenly fire” (1), as Ovid puts it, that she acquired the gift of prophesy. Following Pallas’ murder by his son, she and Evander were forced to flee from their native Greek homeland, and eventually landed at the mouth of the Tiber River in west-central Italy. In those days, the Italian Peninsula was inhabited exclusively by small tribal societies. When she arrived at the mouth of the Tiber, she experienced a divine vision in which she saw the arrival of a prince, the founding of a great city on the river’s bank, and that city’s rise to imperial glory. In later years, the Romans would venerate Carmenta as the woman who foresaw the coming of Prince Aeneas, the establishment of the city of Rome, and the creation of the Roman Empire, and would elevate her to the status of a goddess of prophesy. He son Evander established a community on the Tiber which he named Pallantium, and it was here that Prince Aeneas of Troy came seeking shelter and his native kingdom was destroyed by the Achaeans (2).

However, there’s another story stating that Carmenta is actually one of the Fates, a group of divine entities who were responsible for the ebb and flow of people’s lives. Specifically, Carmenta was the Fate responsible for looking after mothers in childbirth and determining the lives of children. As such, Roman mothers paid a great deal of reverence to her, hoping that in pleasing her, she would grant their children good health and a long life. In an age when child mortality was very high, this was a very real worry. Another concern was the mother not surviving childbirth. In pre-modern times, mothers dying in childbirth was an unfortunately frequent occurrence. Praying to Carmenta to look after you during those difficult hours might grant you her favor (3).

A small shrine (note that the Roman authors uses the words fanum “shrine” or sacellum, “chapel” to describe the building rather than templum or aedes both of which mean “temple”) dedicated to Carmenta, whose construction was funded by Roman mothers, stood at the base of the Capitoline Hill next to the Porta Carmentalis, the Gate of Carmenta. Roman legend says that the shrine was constructed directly atop the site of what once was Carmenta’s house. Carmenta’s priest was known as the Flamen Carmentalis, as recorded by Marcus Tullius Cicero (4).

The story behind how and why Carmenta’s shrine was constructed is almost comical. In the year 215 BC, the Roman Senate passed a law called the Lex Oppia, which stated that from now on Roman women were forbidden from riding in litters or driving horse-drawn carriages (carpentum) within the city of Rome; previously, this was not an issue. Infuriated at this sexist discrimination, the women of Rome resolved that, as a form of payback, they would never have sex with their husbands until this nonsensical law was dispensed with. For an astounding twenty years, men and women “went without”. In 195 BC, this law was finally repealed, ostensibly because the birth rate within the city of Rome had sharply dropped and the Roman Senate was concerned that the city might suffer a population decline. With the law gone, wives once again returned to their husband’s beds, and that year, the city of Rome experienced a baby-boom. The mothers were grateful that so many children had been born, and born without any difficulties or tragedies, that they paid to have a shrine dedicated in honor of Carmenta, who they believed had a hand in ensuring that their children were strong and healthy and also ensuring that they themselves did not suffer or die as a result. (5).

A replica of an ancient Roman carpentum carriage. Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany. Photography by Carole Raddato (October 18, 2012). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The date of the Carmentalia, the Feast of Carmenta, which is mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro (Liguae Latina, VI:12) was held on tJanuary 11 and January 15; the first date in in reference to when Carmenta and her son Evander left Arcadia, and the second date is in commemoration of when the Lex Oppia was repealed (6). One source that I have seen says that it was a multi-day festival spanning nearly a week, beginning on January 11 and ending on January 15. However, every other source which I looked at claims that these two dates were the only dates that celebrations were carried out, so there would have been a three day long gap in between the festivities. The Roman poet Ovid states that venerations to Carmenta took place only on January 11 and 15, and not on the days in between. The Praenestine Calendar, the Maffeian Calendar, and the Caeretan Calendar all indicate the occurrence of this festival on the dates of January 11 and January 15 with the letters KARM, KAR, or CAR. In Philocalus’ Calendar, the date of January 11 is marked with the words Dies Carmentariorum, “the Day of the Carmentalia”, but there is no similar description for January 15. Likewise in Polemius Silvius’ calendar, January 11 is marked with the description Carmentalia de nominee matris Evandri, “the Feast of Carmenta, the name of the mother of Evander”. Yet again, Silvius does not provide a similar description for January 15 (7).

One source infers that the original feast of Carmenta occurred solely on January 11, and it wasn’t until later that a second feast day dedicated to her was enacted on January 15 (8). Considering that some of the ancient Romans records give the date of the Carmentalia only on January 11 and not on both days, I am inclined to believe this explanation. The Carmentalia was celebrated exclusively by women, who would give offerings at her shrine known as sacerdus carmentalis (9). It was forbidden to bring into Carmenta’s shrine anything made of leather or animal pelts, since it was unfitting that things associated with death should be brought into a shrine to a goddess whose purpose was to safeguard life (10).

Not only was Carmenta regarded as a guardian goddess of mothers in childbirth, but apparently her gift of prophesy also made her sought out by anyone, be they man or woman, who wished to know the future. As the poet Ovid records, “Where shall I find the cause and nature of these rites? Who will steer my vessel in mid-ocean? Advise me, Carmentis, you who take your name from song, and favour my intent, lest I fail to honour you” (11). Although perhaps I may be reading too much into Ovid’s tendency for poetic flourish. Regardless of whether Ovid’s entreaty was a reference to Carmenta being frequently consulted about the future, or if he just wanted her to guide his muse in his writings (which is the explanation I favor), praying for divine guidance on decisions to be made concerning important events has always been with us, and always will be.

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 112.
  3. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pages 177-178, footnote I.462.
  4. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462; Page 182, footnote I.462; Page 188, footnote I.467.
  5. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Pages 110-111.
  6. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  7. Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462.
  8. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  9. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  10. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  11. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.

 

Bibliography:

  • A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  • The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767.
  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  • Danet, Pierre. A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 11. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid. Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #56. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
  • Pettazzoni, Raffaele. Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967.

January 9 – The Feast of Janus

January is the month of Janus, the ancient Roman god of new beginnings and the patron god of windows and doors – yes, I’m serious. He is depicted as a man with a double face, able to look forwards and backwards at the same time. This symbolizes reflecting on the past and looking towards the future. Janus is invoked by those who are starting a new chapter in their lives, like moving, getting a new job, getting married, having kids, etc.

Although the entire month of January was dedicated to the god Janus, he also had a specific feast day on January 9th, known as the Agonalia of Janus. An “agonalia” is a holy feast day that has live animal sacrifices. These sacrifices originally took place upon the top of the Quirinal Hill, one of the fabled Seven Hills of Rome; in archaic times, the Quirinal Hill used to be called the Agonal Hill, the Hill of Sacrifices. There were several agonalia festivals throughout the year dedicated to various gods. In addition to the Agonalia of Janus on January 9th, there was also the Agonalia of Mars on March 17th, the Agonalia of Vediovis (a Roman god who was sort of a mixture between the Greek gods Apollo and Asclepius) on May 21st and the Agonalia of Sol, the god of the sun, held on December 11th (1).

Ovid says regarding January 9th, “Janus must be propitiated on the Agonal day…Some believe that the day is called Agonal because the sheep do not come to the altar but are driven (agantur). Others think the ancients called this festival Agnalia, ‘of the lambs’, dropping a letter from its usual place. Or because the victim fears the knife mirrored in the water, the day might be so called from the creature’s agony? It may also be that the day has a Greek name from the games (agones) that were held in former times. And in ancient speech agonia meant a sheep, and this last reason in my judgement is the truth. Though the meaning is uncertain, the king of the rites, must appease the gods with the mate of a woolly ewe” (2).

The central event of the Agonalia was the sacrifice of a ram to the god Janus. The ancient Roman poet Ovid states that the sacrificial altar was decorated with garlands of purple violet flowers, and that the top of the altar was adorned with bowls that burned juniper incense and laurel leaves. “The altar was happy to fume with Sabine juniper, and the laurel burned with a loud crackling. He was rich, whoever could add violets to garlands woven from meadow flowers” (3).

The presiding priest was called the rex sacrificulus, “the king of sacrifices”, and the sacrifice took place at a location called the Regia, where the former kings of Rome used to reside. When the ram was brought to the altar, the priest would invoke the name of the god and ask whether or not the sacrifice ritual should continue. “Always, before he stains the naked blade with hot blood, he asks if he should, and won’t unless commanded” (4). When the god reveals to him that the sacrifice should continue (how this happens is never mentioned), then the ram is killed and offered to the god. Offerings of dates, figs, and honey within sealed white jars were also made to Janus as part of the ceremony (5).

Source citations:

  1. William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32; “Agonalia”.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. “Roman Festivals & Holidays”; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32.

Bibliography:

January 3-5 – The Compitalia: Ancient Rome’s Winter Street Fair

The Compitalia was an ancient Roman festival celebrated from January 3-5 in honor of the Lares Compitales, the guardian spirits of crossroads; the name Compitalia comes from the Latin word compitum, meaning “crossroad”. Marcus Terentius Varro gives a brief explanation behind the meaning of the festival: “The Compitalia is a day assigned to the Lares of the highways; therefore, where the highways competunt ‘meet’, sacrifice is then made at the compita ‘crossroads’. This day is appointed every year” (1).

Thankfully the poet Ovid, verbose as always, provides a much more thorough examination of this festival’s origins…

“Hear of what I’ve learned from the old men. Jupiter, overcome with intense love for Juturna, suffered many things a god ought not to bear. Now she would hide in the woods among the hazels, now she would dive into her sister waters. The god called the nymphs who lived in Latium, and spoke these words in the midst of their throng: ‘Your sister is an enemy to herself, and shuns a union with the supreme god that would benefit her. Take counsel for both: for what would delight me greatly would be a great advantage to your sister. When she flees, stop her by the riverbank, lest she plunges her body into the waters’. He spoke: all the nymphs of the Tiber agreed, those too who haunt your spaces, divine Ilia. There was a naiad, named Lara: but her old name was the first syllable twice-repeated, given her to mark her failing. Almo, the river-god often said: ‘Daughter, hold your tongue’, but she still did not. As soon as she reached the pools of her sister Juturna, she said: ‘Flee these banks’, and spoke Jupiter’s words. She even went to Juno, and showing pity for married women said: ‘Your husband loves the naiad Juturna’. Jupiter was angered, and tearing that tongue from her mouth that she had used so immoderately, called Mercury to him: ‘Lead her to the shadows: that place is fitting for the silent. She shall be a nymph, but of the infernal marshes’. Jove’s order was obeyed. On the way they reached a grove: Then it was they say that she pleased the god who led her. He prepared to force her, with a glance instead of words she pleaded, trying to speak from her mute lips. Heavy with child, she bore twins who guard the crossroads, the Lares, who keep watch forever over the City” (2).

It appears that the Compitalia was originally a countryside festival, where offerings were made at the places where major roads intersected. However, by the late 500s BC, when Rome was still rules by kings, these festivals were occurring within the city of Rome itself. During Caesar Augustus’ reign, the city of Rome was divided into fourteen neighborhoods, and each one had a shrine dedicated to the protective spirit of that neighborhood. Since these shrines were erected at road intersections, these spirits were referred to as lares compitales, “the guardian spirits of the crossroads” (3).

Most Roman holidays took place upon important astrological dates. For example, the Compitalia occurred when the constellation Cancer is no longer visible in the night sky. As the poet Ovid said, “When the third night before the Nones has come, and the earth is drenched, sprinkled with heavenly dew, you’ll search for the claws of the eight-footed Crab in vain: it will plunge headlong beneath the western waves” (4). However, things have changed in the past 2,000 years, and the constellations have shifted in the sky.

Although the Compitalia commonly took place in early January, there was no fixed date in which it always took place. It was therefore classified as a feriae conceptivae, a “moveable feast”, whose date shifted around on the calendar each year. During the late Republican period of Roman history, the date for the upcoming Compitalia festival was publicly announced by the city of Rome’s praetor (the chief administrative official of the city) eight days beforehand. It wasn’t until later in the Roman Empire’s history that the date for the Compitalia was permanently established at January 3 to 5 (5).

According to the writings of Aulus Cornelius Gellius, “It will be sufficient to show the undeviating usage of the men of old, if I quote the regular formula of the praetor, in which, according to the usage of our forefathers, he is accustomed to proclaim the festival known as the Compitalia. His words are as follows: ‘On the ninth day the Roman people, the Quirites, will celebrate the Compitalia; when they shall have begun, legal business ceases’. (6)

Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the inhabitants of each houses offered sacrifices of honey cakes at the junction of where roads intersect. The people who carried out the functions of the rituals were slaves, not freemen. However, this was a day in which social conventions were suspended and slaves were free to act any way that they wished.

“He [King Servius Tullius] ordered that the citizens inhabiting each of the four regions should, like persons living in villages, neither take up another abode nor be enrolled elsewhere; and the levies of troops, the collection of taxes for military purposes, and the other services which every citizen was bound to offer to the commonwealth, he no longer based upon the three national tribes, as aforetime, but upon the four local tribes established by himself. And over each region he appointed commanders, like heads of tribes or villages, whom he ordered to know what house each man lived in. After this he commanded that there should be erected in every street by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood chapels to heroes whose statues stood in front of the houses, and he made a law that sacrifices should be performed to them every year, each family contributing a honey-cake. He directed also that the persons attending and assisting those who performed the sacrifices at these shrines on behalf of the neighbourhood should not be free men, but slaves, the ministry of servants being looked upon as pleasing to the heroes. This festival the Romans still continued to celebrate even in my day in the most solemn and sumptuous manner a few days after the Saturnalia, calling it the Compitalia, after the streets; for compiti is their name for streets. And they still observe the ancient custom in connexion (sic) with those sacrifices, propitiating the heroes by the ministry of their servants, and during these days removing every badge of their servitude, in order that the slaves, being softened by this instance of humanity, which has something great and solemn about it, may make themselves more agreeable to their masters and be less sensible of the severity of their condition” (7).

Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, in his work on agriculture, states that it was common practice during the Compitalia for the farm’s master and his overseer to switch duties, so that the overseer was in charge and the master had to follow his orders (8)

The Roman writer Macrobius states that the ancient Roman king Tarquinius Superbus had established the Compitalia in honor of Mania and of the lares. Mania was the goddess of the spirits of the dead, and the lares were protective guardian spirits of the household. Macrobius says that King Tarquinius did this after receiving an oracle from the god Apollo commanding him to do so, saying that the god’s favor should be gained “with heads”. He took this very literally, and ordered human sacrifices to be carried out in order to propitiate Apollo, Mania, and the lares spirits. However, after the expulsion of the Tarquin Dynasty, the new consul Brutus decided to re-interpret the god’s words. After all, Apollo said that heads were to be sacrificed, but heads of what? It didn’t explicitly state that they had to be the heads of people. Therefore, he decreed that instead of decapitating sacrificial victims and offering them up on a pyre, the Romans should instead make offerings of heads of garlic and heads of poppy. Consequently, it became the common custom in Rome for people to hang up an effigy of Mania outside their household’s door, and to make sacrifices to her of garlic and poppies (9).

The Roman writer Festus sates that, in addition to hanging up effigies of Mania, each family also hung dolls made of wool representing men and women, with a prayer that Mania and the lares would bless these figures and spare the people living within any bad luck. Slaves offered up balls of wool or fleece instead of dolls (10).

The festival was intended to be a lustratio, a protection ritual for the people living within that neighborhood. A sacrificial pig would be led around the neighborhood before being taken to the altar. At other times, the lares were offered garlands of flowers. Public games known as the Ludi Compitalicii, stage plays, and street performances were included as part of the festival, but they were abolished by a Senatorial decree in either 68 or 67 BC. The reason for the Senate outlawing the Compitalia was due to its associations with rabble-rousing and the gathering of public mobs. The Compitalia festival was brought back in 56 BC with the passage of the Lex Clodia de Collegiis, but by the dictatorship of Julius Caesar a decade later, the Compitalia had gradually fallen out of practice. However, they were brought back by Caesar Augustus, possibly between the years 14 to 7 BC when Augustus began a serious reform and revitalization of the cults associated with the lares (11).

Suetonius says that Caesar Augustus issued an edict stating that the city of Rome’s Compitalia shrines needed to be adorned with flowers twice per year with the flowers of Spring and Summer (12), Indeed, Ovid, the Venusine Calendar, and the Antiatine Calendar hint that there were numerous venerations of the spirits of the crossroads, the lares compitales, during those times, specifically on the Kalends of May, the Ides of August, and the Ides of October (13). It would therefore appear that in ancient Rome there was a Winter Compitalia (January 3rd to 5th), a Spring Compitalia (May 1st), a Summer Compitalia (August 15th), and an Autumn Compitalia (October 15th).

So, this coming January 3, get out your pork, garlic, honey cakes, and poppies, and pray that your local community sees good fortune during the Winter season.

Source citations:

  1. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 25. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 199.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21.
  3. Tesse Dieder Stek, “A Roman cult in the Italian countryside? The Compitalia and the shrines of the Lares Compitales”. Babesch, volume 83 (2008). Pages 112-113.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 3.
  5. Harriet I. Flower, The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. Page 162; Tesse Dieder Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Changes in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society after the Roman Conquest. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009. Page 188; J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Page 36.
  6. Aulus Cornelius Gellius, Attic Nights, book 10, chapter 24.
  7. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 4, chapter 14.
  8. Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, On Agriculture, chapter 5, verse 3.
  9. Macobius, Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 7, verses 34-35.
  10. Gordon Laing, “The Origin of the Cult of the Lares”. Classical Philology, volume 16, issue 2 (April 1921). Page 127.
  11. Titus Calpurnius Siculus and Marcus Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus, The Eclogues. Translated by Charles Haines Keene. London: George Bell & Sons, 1887. Page 109, footnote #125; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. John Murray, London, 1875. Pages 347-348; John V. A. Fine, “A Note on the Compitalia”. Classical Philology, volume 27, issue Number 3 (July 1932). Page 268; J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pages 36-37, 44.
  12. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 2 – “The Life of Caesar Augustus”, chapter 31, verse 4.
  13. Edward Greswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae: Nundial Calendars of Ancient Italy, in Four Volumes, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Pages 120-121.

 

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