December 1 – The Kalends of December

Today is the first day of December. In the minds of some, this day marks the unofficial beginning of Winter, as the Autumn harvests have been gathered in, most of the leaves have fallen off of the trees by this point, and the temperature has gotten substantially colder; it’s even possible that snow might have already fallen. As the weather takes on the familiar hues of Winter, with its chilly breezes and cloudy overcast skies, one’s thoughts turn to warmer climes, and one longs to repose beside a crackling fire cozily wrapped in blankets and drinking tea or hot cocoa.

In ancient Rome, too, people scorned the cold temperatures which Old Man Winter brought with him and yearned for the warmth of Summer. No wonder, then, that fire held a special place in their minds and hearts during this time of year. In the ancient Roman calendar, the entire month of December was dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of fire. According to the poet Virgil in his landmark work the Aeneid, Vesta was the ancient Trojan goddess of fire, and within the city a sacred fire to her was always kept lit. However, when Troy was about to fall to the Greeks, Prince Aeneas was commanded by the ghost of the hero Hector to light a torch with the sacred fire and to carry it away with him, that way the fire of Vesta could still remain lit. He brought this sacred fire with him as he escaped to Italy, and there, he dedicated a shrine to Vesta, and ensured that her holy fire continued to blaze. December 1 marked the day that the Temple of Vesta was dedicated (1).

An illustration of the Temple of Vesta. From The Roman Forum: Its History and Its Monuments, by Christian Hülsen. Rome: Ermanno Loescher & Co., 1906.

Unlike other ancient Greek or Roman holy sites which were rectangular in construction, the Temple of Vesta was circular (the Temple of Hercules and the Temple of Dis Pater were also circular), with a hearth blazing within the center. It was closed to the public throughout most of the year, and was tended to only by the priestesses of Vesta who were known as the Vestal Virgins. There were always six of these priestesses in number, and were always selected from the most noble and prestigious Roman families. They were selected for their religious duties when they were just children, between the ages of 6 and 10, and they were required to serve the goddess unwaveringly for a period of thirty years. As their name suggested, they were banned from having sex or becoming involved in any relationships during the period of their religious devotions, and any Vestal Virgin who broke her vows could be severely punished. Their main purpose was to watch over the Sacred Fire of Vesta, a fire which was required to always be kept lit within the temple. It was believed that if this fire was extinguished, then Rome itself would be extinguished as well (2).

The Kalends of December was not the only day in the Roman calendar dedicated to Vesta. Other days dedicated to her veneration and worship included March 6, April 30, and a festive period lasting from June 6-15. Throughout most of the year, the Temple of Vesta was off-limits to the general public, accessible only to the priestesses who served her, but during that nine-day period in early to mid June, the temple was opened and the people could bring offerings and pray. Within this nine day period, June 9 seems to have been her principal feast day, known as the “Vestalia”. On that day, women walked barefoot as a gesture of humility to her temple, and the Vestal Virgins themselves offered cakes of grain upon the sacred fire (3).

In addition to being sacred to the goddess Vesta, December 1 was also the date for a feast dedicated to the goddess Fortuna, the divine personification of good luck. Specifically, the feast was held in honor of Fortuna Muliebris, who brought good luck to women in particular. The story has its roots in an event which took place during the 5th Century BC in the early years of the Roman Republic, when a Roman aristocrat named Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus was exiled from the city of Rome. Seeking revenge, he went to Rome’s enemies – a neighboring Italic tribe called the Volsci – and led an army of their warriors upon Rome with the goal of exacting bloody vengeance upon those who had banished him. The Roman Senate dispatched embassies to him to request peace, but he was out for blood and he rejected all offers of a deal. Finally, upon the road leading to Rome known as the Via Latina, just four miles outside of Rome’s walls, he was met by a crowd of women, including his own wife and mother, who begged and pleaded with him to spare the city. These appeals won him over, and he ordered the army to turn around and return from whence it came. Overjoyed, the Roman Senate offered to grant Rome’s women anything that they wished, and they requested that a temple dedicated to the goddess Fortuna should be built on the exact spot on the Via Latina where they had persuaded Coriolanus to withdraw his army. Their request was granted, and on December 1, the Temple of Fortuna Muliebris was officially dedicated (4).

Source Citations

  1. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 185; C. E. Freedman, ed., Virgil’s Aeneid, Volume X. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920. Page 9; The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 789.
  2. E. M. Berens, The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Clark and Maynard, 1886. Page 201.
  3. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 181, 182; Alexander Adam and Reverend John Richardson Major, Roman Antiquities: An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans, Twelfth Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1835. Page 290; E. M. Berens, The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Clark and Maynard, 1886. Page 201; 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. Page 148; Hutton Webster, “Rest Days: A Sociological Study”. The University Studies of the University of Nebraska, Volume XI – January-April 1911. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1911. Page 39.
  4. The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 789; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 185; Matthew Dillon and Lynda Garland, Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005. Page 396; Meghan J. DiLuzio, A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pages 85-86; History and Archaeology Online. “Commemorating Fors Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of Luck”, by Natasha Sheldon (June 21, 2019).  https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/commemorating-fors-fortuna-the-roman-goddess-of-luck/.

Bibliography

  • The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832.
  • Adam, Alexander; Major, Reverend John Richardson. Roman Antiquities: An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans, Twelfth Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1835.
  • Berens, E. M. The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Clark and Maynard, 1886.
  • Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854.
  • Dillon, Matthew; Garland, Lynda. Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • DiLuzio, Meghan J. A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • 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 Co., Ltd., 1899.
  • Freedman, C. E. ed. Virgil’s Aeneid, Volume X. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920.
  • Webster, Hutton. “Rest Days: A Sociological Study”. The University Studies of the University of Nebraska, Volume XI – January-April 1911. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1911.
  • History and Archaeology Online. “Commemorating Fors Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of Luck”, by Natasha Sheldon (June 21, 2019).  https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/commemorating-fors-fortuna-the-roman-goddess-of-luck/.


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