September 5-19 – The Ludi Magni Romani, “The Great Roman Games”

The Chariot Race in the Circus Maximus, painted by Alfredo Tominz (1890).
Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.

Let the games begin! September was an exciting time in ancient Rome, because it was in early to middle September that one of the greatest sporting events in the ancient world took place – the Ludi Magni Romani, “the Great Roman Games”. This was essentially ancient Rome’s version of the Olympics.

According to Roman legend, as recorded by the Roman writer Titus Livius (commonly known by his modern Anglicized name “Livy”), these games were established by King Lucumo Tarquinius Priscus, “Lucumo the Ancient from Tarquinii”. He was an Etruscan by birth, hailing from the Etruscan town of Tarquinii, who became the fifth king of Rome and reigned from 616 to 579 BC. He is most well-known in the Roman annals for his awe-inspiring construction projects. It was his intention to turn Rome from being a relatively unimportant small town into being one of the great cities of the ancient world. To carry out his dream of turning Rome into Italy’s shining jewel, he instituted a massive building program, erecting many great structures throughout the city, including a massive temple to Jupiter atop the Capitoline Hill, and also a huge athletic stadium known as the Circus Maximus (1). It would be within this stadium that the Great Roman Games would be held. According to Titus Livius, the Circus Maximus, “the Great Ring”, was laid out by Tarquinius Priscus specifically for the purpose of exhibiting the Ludi Magni Romani, which included chariot races and boxing matches. The construction of this building was paid for using the booty which had been plundered from Apiolae, which was a town of the Latins that Tarquinius had conquered. The seats in this grand theater were divided into thirty sections, one for each of the thirty curia neighborhoods which made up the city of Rome. The senators and the knights sat on the raised sets elevated twelve feet above the ground (2).

It’s possible that Livius’ report is more fiction than fact, as he was writing about events which took place 600 years before he was born – the equivalent of somebody today writing about the Battle of Agincourt – and there’s very little evidence to go on to support these claims other than taking his word for it. Other ancient Classical writers such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Marcus Tullius Cicero state that the Great Roman Games weren’t instituted until much later. The oldest recorded instance that we have of the Great Roman Games being celebrated dates to either 367 or 366 BC, depending on which source you read (3). However, it’s possible that these games were instituted much earlier than that, but the records simply don’t survive. One source says that the Great Roman Games were administered by the Senatorial consuls until the year 366 BC, when the supervision of the games was transferred to the aediles (4).

The Great Roman Games were first instituted as ludi votivi, “votive games”: that is, games which were carried out as a way to gain the favor of the gods or as a way to give thanks to the gods for their favor. As such, they were not performed rigidly on a particular date on the calendar, which would be ludi stati, “fixed games”. It wouldn’t be until later that the Great Roman Games were performed annually every September (5). As an example of ludi votivi, the Roman general Marcus Furius Camillus decreed that games ought to be held in Jupiter’s honor for sparing the Capitol from destruction when Rome was besieged by the Gauls. This served as the origin for the “Capitoline Games”, which were separate from the Great Roman Games since the Capitoline Games were held in October, whereas the Great Roman Games were held in September (6). Like the Capitoline Games, the Great Roman Games were originally held as a festival dedicated to the supreme god Jupiter. During the Second Punic War, when the Roman Republic was at war against Hannibal of Carthage, General Fabius Maximus, who had recently been appointed as Rome’s dictator, pledged that he would sacrifice 300 oxen to Jupiter, as well as sacrificing a pure white ox to the other gods, and hold great games in Jupiter’s honor if he should return from his campaign against the Carthaginians (7). Likewise, Manius Acilius made similar vows to hold games in honor of Jupiter if he should emerge victorious in his war against King Antiochus of the Seleucid Empire (8).

“Triumphant going to the Capitol to make offerings to Jupiter”. Collectible trading card from Liebig’s Beef Extract, Belgian issue, 1906.

The Great Roman Games originally lasted for just one day. They were held on September 13, which was the date of the Epulum Jovis, “the Feast of Jove”, which was another name for Jupiter. However as time went on, the time of the festivities was extended into a multi-day event. By the early 100s BC, the Great Roman Games lasted for ten days (9). By the 50s or 40s BC, they had been extended further to fifteen days, lasting from September 5 to 19 (10). Immediately following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, a motion was put forward in the Roman Senate to add an extra day, September 4th, to the festive period in honor of Caesar’s memory – a motion which Marcus Tullius Cicero loudly ridiculed (11).

Right from the beginning, the games were always held within the Circus Maximus. Originally intended to honor only Jupiter, the devotions were later expanded to be dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (12). The festivities began with a grand and formal procession of the participants, accompanied by government officials, priests, musicians, and dancers. The ancient Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus goes into a long description of this opening entrance procession…

Before beginning the games the principal magistrates conducted a procession in honour of the gods from the Capitol through the Forum to the Circus Maximus. Those who led the procession were, first, the Romans’ sons who were nearing manhood and were of an age to bear a part in this ceremony, who rode on horseback if their fathers were entitled by their fortunes to be knights, while the others, who were destined to serve in the infantry, went on foot, the former in squadrons and troops, and the latter in divisions and companies, as if they were going to school; this was done in order that strangers might see the number and beauty of the youths of the commonwealth who were approaching manhood. These were followed by charioteers, some of whom drove four horses abreast, some two, and others rode unyoked horses. After them came the contestants in both the light and the heavy games, their whole bodies naked except their loins…The contestants were followed by numerous bands of dancers arranged in three divisions, the first consisting of men, the second of youths, and the third of boys. These were accompanied by flute-players, who used ancient flutes that were small and short, as is done even to this day, and by lyre-players, who plucked ivory lyres of seven strings and the instruments called barbita.​ The use of these has ceased in my time among the Greeks, though traditional with them, but is preserved by the Romans in all their ancient sacrificial ceremonies. The dancers were dressed in scarlet tunics girded with bronze cinctures, wore swords suspended at their sides, and carried spears of shorter than average length; the men also had bronze helmets adorned with conspicuous crests and plumes. Each group was led by one man who gave the figures of the dance to the rest, taking the lead in representing their warlike and rapid movements, usually in the proceleusmatic rhythms…After the armed dancers others marched in procession impersonating satyrs and portraying the Greek dance called sicinnis. Those who represented Sileni were dressed in shaggy tunics, called by some chortaioi, and in mantles of flowers of every sort; and those who represented satyrs wore girdles and goatskins, and on their heads manes that stood upright, with other things of like nature. These mocked and mimicked the serious movements of the others, turning them into laughter-provoking performances…After these bands of dancers​ came a throng of lyre-players and many flute-players, and after them the persons who carried the censers in which perfumes and frankincense were burned along the whole route of the procession, also the men who bore the show-vessels made of silver and gold, both those that were sacred owing to the gods and those that belonged to the state. Last of all in the procession came the images of the gods, borne on men’s shoulders, showing the same likenesses as those made by the Greeks and having the same dress, the same symbols, and the same gifts which tradition says each of them invented and bestowed on mankind” (13).

When the procession ended, the priests and the Senatorial consuls carried out the sacrifices: “After washing their hands they purified the victims with clear water and sprinkled corn​ on their heads, after which they prayed and then gave orders to their assistants to sacrifice them. Some of these assistants, while the victim was still standing, struck it on the temple with a club, and others received it upon the sacrificial knives as it fell. After this they flayed it and cut it up, taking off a piece from each of the inwards and also from every limb as a first-offering, which they sprinkled with grits of spelt and carried in baskets to the officiating priests. These placed them on the altars, and making a fire under them, poured wine over them while they were burning” (14).

What sort of events took place during these festivities? Titus Livius states that, when the games were first instituted, chariot races and boxing matches were held (15). As the dates for the festival expanded, new events were included such as various athletic competitions as well as theatrical performances of all sorts (16). The first four days of the games were devoted to theatrical performances (17). Afterwards came a variety of athletic competitions including boxing and wrestling (18). On September 13 was the Epulum Jovis, “The Feast of Jove”, which you can read about in more detail here. On September 14 was held a review of the Roman knights on horseback known as the Equorum Probatio (19); this was similar in many respects to the Equitum Romanorum Probatio of July 15th, which you can read about in more detail here. The dates of September 15 to 19 were devoted to chariot racing (20). The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus reports that the sports on those days included a horse race, a race of four-horse chariots, a race of two-horse chariots, and a foot race. Crowns were awarded to the winner in each competition (21).

Carreras Cigarettes, card number 8 – “Roman Chariot Races”. 1927.

For the next four days afterwards, from September 20 to 23, Rome held a mercatus, or market fair (22). This was to take advantage of the large numbers of people who had crowded into the city to watch the games in the hope of making a lot of money and stimulating the local economy. The official name of this particular street fair was the Mercatus Romani, or Market Fair of the Romans. I suppose you could think of it as ancient Rome’s annual Fall Street Fair, but that might be a bit of a stretch. Similar market fairs were held at other times in the year. Mid-July was the time of the Mercatus Apollinares, or Market Fair of Apollo, held from July 14-19 (23). This took place immediately after the Games of Apollo, held on July 13, which consisted of gladiator fights, horse races, plays, and beast hunts. Mid-November was the time of the Mercatus Plebeii, or Market Fair of the Plebeians, held from November 18-20 (24); this fair immediately followed the Plebeian Games, held from November 4 to 17, dedicated to the goddess Diana. There was possibly a third market fair in late December following the Saturnalia. There might have been others that we don’t know about, or were possibly convened for special occasions (25).

Source Citations

  1. The History of Ancient Rome, lecture 5 – “The Kings of Rome”.
  2. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 35; Henry Malden, History of Rome, Volume 2. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1830. Page 19.
  3. Valerie M. Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Page 115.
  4. Harry Thurston Peck, ed., Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. New York: American Book Company, 1923. Page 973.
  5. Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia: The Antiquities of Rome, 12th Edition. London: W. Innys, 1754. Pages 302-303; Ernst Guhl and Wilhelm Kohner, The Life of the Greeks and Romans. Translated by F. Hueffer. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898. Pages 544, 546; William Ramsay, A Manual of Roman Antiquities, Ninth Edition. London: Charles Griffin and Company, 1873. Page 346; 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 Company, 1899. Page 217.
  6. Livy, The History of Rome, book 5, chapter 50.
  7. Livy, The History of Rome, book 22, chapters 9-10.
  8. Livy, The History of Rome, book 36, chapter 2.
  9. Livy, The History of Rome, book 36, chapter 2; book 39, chapter 22.
  10. Cicero, The First Oration against Caius Verres, part 1, section 31; Valerie M. Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Page 115.
  11. Cicero, The Philippics, speech 2, section 110; J. Bert Lott, Death and Dynasty in Early Imperial Rome: Key Sources, with Text, Translation, and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 313.
  12. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 35; Henry Malden, History of Rome, Volume 2. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1830. Page 19; Johann Joachim Eschenburg, Manual of Classical Literature, Fourth Edition. Translated by N. W. Fiske. Philadelphia: W. S. Fortescue & Co., 1875. Page 242; Valerie M. Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Page 115.
  13. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 7, chapter 72.
  14. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 7, chapter 72.
  15. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 35.
  16. Valerie M. Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Page 115.
  17. Tacitus, The Annals of Tacitus, Books I-VI: An English Translation. Translated by George Gilbert Ramsay. London: John Murray, 1904. Page 207, footnote #1.
  18. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 7, chapter 73.
  19. J. Bert Lott, Death and Dynasty in Early Imperial Rome: Key Sources, with Text, Translation, and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 313.
  20. J. Bert Lott, Death and Dynasty in Early Imperial Rome: Key Sources, with Text, Translation, and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 313.
  21. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 7, chapter 73.
  22. 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 Company, 1899. Page 27.
  23. 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 Company, 1899. Page 25.
  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 Company, 1899. Page 29.
  25. Claire Holleran, Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pages 189-190.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

  • Eschenburg, Johann Joachim. Manual of Classical Literature, Fourth Edition. Translated by N. W. Fiske. Philadelphia: W. S. Fortescue & Co., 1875.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Company, 1899.
  • Guhl, Ernst; Kohner, Wilhelm. The Life of the Greeks and Romans. Translated by F. Hueffer. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898.
  • Holleran, Claire. Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Kennett, Basil. Romae Antiquae Notitia: The Antiquities of Rome, 12th Edition. London: W. Innys, 1754.
  • Lott, J. Bert. Death and Dynasty in Early Imperial Rome: Key Sources, with Text, Translation, and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Malden, Henry. History of Rome, Volume 2. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1830.
  • Peck, Harry Thurston, ed. Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. New York: American Book Company, 1923.
  • Ramsay, William. A Manual of Roman Antiquities, Ninth Edition. London: Charles Griffin and Company, 1873.
  • Warrior, Valerie M. Roman Religion: A Sourcebook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.
  • The History of Ancient Rome. Lecture 5 – “The Kings of Rome”. Hosted by Prof. Garrett G. Fagan. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 1999.


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