December 15 – A Day of Prayers, Sacrifices, and…Mule Racing? The Ancient Roman Consualia Festival

In the ancient Roman calendar, December 15 was (at least according to some ancient authors) one of the main feast days for the sea god Neptune. December 15 could also be called “Equine Appreciation Day”, because it was essentially a big “thank you” celebration for all of the empire’s equestrian animals. On this day, horses and donkeys were given the day off from work, and they were decorated with garlands and flowers. The big event of the day included an unusual chariot race in the Circus Maximus in which the chariots were pulled by mules instead of horses.

In ancient Rome, December 15 was the date for a festival known as the Consualia, “the Feast of Consus”. The ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, identified the god Consus with the Greek god Poseidon or the Roman god Neptune, both of which served as the god of the sea. However, the horse was also sacred to Poseidon, and he also served as the god of earthquakes (1). The ancient Greek historians Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus as well as the ancient Roman writer Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus (known more commonly by his modern Anglicized name Tertullian) all state that the Romans held the Consualia in honor of the sea god (2).

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus…

The Romans even to my day continued to celebrate the festival then instituted by Romulus, calling it the Consualia,​ in the course of which a subterranean altar, erected near the Circus Maximus, is uncovered by the removal of the soil round about it and honoured with sacrifices and burnt-offerings of first-fruits and a course is run both by horses yoked to chariots and by single horses. The god to whom these honours are paid is called Consus by the Romans, being the same, according to some who render the name into our tongue, as Poseidon Seisichthon or the ‘Earth-shaker’; and they say that this god was honoured with a subterranean altar because he holds the earth.​ I know also from hearsay another tradition, to the effect that the festival is indeed celebrated in honour of Neptune and the horse-races are held in his honour, but that the subterranean altar was erected later to a certain divinity whose name may not be uttered, who presides over and is the guardian of hidden counsels; for a secret altar has never been erected to Neptune, they say, in any part of the world by either Greeks or barbarians. But it is hard to say what the truth of the matter is” (3).

The site of the Circus Maximus. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.

However, Consus seems to have been a deity more closely related to agriculture than to the ocean. The ancient Roman pantheon included numerous gods and goddesses who presided over agricultural affairs, such as the earth goddess Tellus, the agriculture goddess Ceres, the fruit goddess Pomona, the war god Mars (whose job was also to protect farms against the depredations of enemy armies), and the Underworld ruler Dis Pater. Consus’ particular jurisdiction appears to have been as an agriculture-related protection god. His job was to watch over the gathering of the harvest to make sure that nothing impeded the collection of that year’s crops and to make sure that all of the harvested food was safely stored once it had been collected. (4). Consus is regarded as the god who oversaw the storage of the gathered harvest, and then watched over it to ensure that nothing happened to it (5). In fact, the name Consus appears to have been related to the Latin verb condere, which means “to store” (6). Consus is described as an ancient Italic god of both agriculture and the Underworld which was later incorporated into the Roman pantheon (7). One wonders, therefore, what the connection might be between a god in charge of storing crops and the god of the sea?

There were, in fact, two festivals in ancient Rome dedicated to the god Consus which were known as the Consualiae (singular: Consualia): one was held on either August 19 or 21 (nearly all of the sources say it was on the 21st), and a second was held on December 15. According to the Vallensian Calendar, it records on August 21 that a sacrifice “to Consus [shall be made] on the Aventine [Hill]” (8). Between the two of them, the August Consualia appears to have been regarded with more importance than the one held in December. This is because, according to Roman legend, the Rape of the Sabine Women took place in August around the time of the Consualia festival, so this date had much more historical and cultural importance to the Romans than the December Consualia (9).

The Temple of Consus stood upon the Aventine Hill. This temple was standing by at least 272 BC, and possibly earlier, for a depiction of the triumphal parade of Lucius Papirius Cursor, which was held in 272 BC, was on display inside this temple. According to the Vallensian Calendar, sacrifices to Consus took place within this temple on August 21, and according to the Amiternine Calendar, another round of sacrifices took place on December 12 (this is likely an error, as all of the sources agree that festivities took place on December 15th not the 12th). This is because the temple had been originally dedicated on August 21, but had fallen into dis-use and disrepair, and was afterwards restored and re-dedicated by Caesar Augustus on December 15 (10).

However, regarding the Consualia on December 15, the sacrifices to the god didn’t take place at Consus’ temple. Instead, the sacrifice took place at the Circus Maximus racetrack, where a small shrine to Consus was located, although exactly where within that massive stadium is a bit difficult to determine. This altar seems to have been erected first, and it wasn’t until much later that the temple was constructed atop the Aventine Hill (11). The Altar to Consus (or Ara Consi as its name is recorded in Latin) was buried underground for most of the year, but it was ceremonially uncovered just prior to the chariot race which took place here as part of the Consualia celebrations (12). The Roman writer Tertullian relates that there was an inscription engraved upon this altar which invoked Consus, Mars, and the Lares of the crossroads (please read my two articles on the Compitalia festivals, here and here, for more info about this) (13). Consus’ altar was located underground because the gathered grain was kept in underground storage cellars (please read my article about Dis Pater, the god-ruler of the Underworld, for more information about this), and as the god responsible for watching over the gathered harvest, it would make sense that he be regarded as maybe not an underworld deity but at least an underground deity. Tertullian states that sacrifices were offered on August 21 at the Altar of Consus by the Vestal Virgins and the Flamen Quirinalis (14). Dionysius of Halicarnassus elaborates that the sacrifices consisted of the first fruits of the harvest as well as burnt offerings (15). Tertullian does not make mention of similar sacrifices carried out on December 15, but there surely must have been.

Interestingly, Dionysius of Halicarnassus expressed his doubts that the underground Altar of Consus was dedicated to Poseidon/Neptune: “I know also from hearsay another tradition, to the effect that the festival is indeed celebrated in honour of Neptune and the horse-races are held in his honour, but that the subterranean altar was erected later to a certain divinity whose name may not be uttered, who presides over and is the guardian of hidden counsels; for a secret altar has never been erected to Neptune, they say, in any part of the world by either Greeks or barbarians. But it is hard to say what the truth of the matter is” (16). In addition to Dionysius’ report, the Greek historian Plutarch writes that Romulus, the first king of Rome, discovered this altar at this location, indicating that it had been erected by some other civilization which once inhabited that area (17). It is possible that Romulus had stumbled upon a long-abandoned altar to the Greek god Poseidon which had been put there by either the Greeks or the heavily Hellenized Etruscans, and this may be the reason why Consus is so often muddled with Neptune. In Greece, and especially within the northern region of Thessaly which was renowned for its horsemanship, it was common for horse races to be held in Poseidon’s honor. As for the Roman sea god Neptune, although many people nowadays regard him as nothing more than a Roman version of Poseidon, it must be noted that, according to ancient Roman mythology, Neptune does not have any special affinity towards horses in the same way that Poseidon does (18).

The Greek writer Plutarch remarks that on the date of the Consualia of December 15, both horses and asses (in this case, “asses” probably refers to both true asses as well as donkeys) were given the day off from work, and they were decorated with garlands of flowers. Plutarch posits that this might be in reference to an increasing amount of trade being conducted by sea rather than overland in long trade caravans, but I think this is incorrect (19). Considering the god Consus’ close connection with the gathering of the harvest, it’s far more likely that this was a grand “thank you” gesture by the Romans to their equine companions for all of their hard work plowing the fields and carrying the gathered harvest to the collection places, and as a reward for all of their labors, they were honored and praised by their owners and were given a well-deserved holiday.

Mules at Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.

The big event of the December Consualia was not the sacrifice made at the Altar of Consus – that was merely the opener. No, the big event of the day which people came to see was a chariot race that would be held in the Circus Maximus. Except this particular race had a twist to it. Instead of being pulled by horses, this time the chariots were pulled by mules. Why?

The only person who records this detail about the mule race is the ancient Roman writer Sextus Pompeius Festus – no other ancient author provides this information. In fact Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that horses raced, not mules, and that the festivities of the day included both a horse race and a chariot race (20). Festus explains that the reason why it was decided to have chariots pulled by mules rather than horses was it was a way for the Romans to honor those animals, for they thought that mules were the first animals to be harnessed. In Festus’ own words, Mulis celebrantur ludi in Circo Maximo Consualibus, quia id genus quadrupedum primum putator coeptum curru vehiculoque adiungi – “The Consualia is celebrated with games in the Circus Maximus with mules, for it is thought that this type of quadruped was the first to have been joined to chariots and other vehicles” (21).

However, both history and archaeology have proven that Festus’ assertion is incorrect. We know for a fact that wild asses, not mules, were the first animals to have been harnessed, at least within the greater Classical world which was known to the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans. These were likely onagers, a species of wild ass which is native to the Middle East and is the smallest species of equine which currently exists. Archaeological evidence shows that the Sumerians of Mesopotamia had domesticated these animals and had harnessed them to chariots or war-waggons by at least 2,500 BC, and possibly even earlier (22). All of this proves that we, as modern scholars, cannot take claims made by ancient authors at face value and automatically assume that such statements must be the truth, because sometimes they’re not.

The Royal Standard of Ur, originating from the Mesopotamian kingdom of Sumer and dated to around 2,500 BC, depicting 4-wheeled chariots being pulled by teams of four wild asses, likely onagers. Currently housed within the British Museum (collections ID code: BM 121201).
https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1928-1010-3.

So if we cannot use Festus’ argument, then why indeed were mules used in the Consualia chariot race instead of horses? Perhaps it’s because the ancient records state that horses and donkeys were traditionally given the day off from doing any work, but other beasts-of-burden are conspicuously not included. This includes cattle, oxen, and mules. Since Roman chariots were pulled by horses, and since a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey (both of which were forbidden to be employed on this day), and since it’s difficult if not impossible to conduct a chariot race with oxen, that left only one option left to choose from – mules. So, it appears that the reason why mules were chosen to pull the chariots during the race had to do with a theological loop-hole! I’ve seen some other explanations given by 19th Century antiquarians and theologians which say something to the effect that mules were regarded highly by Underworld deities and that’s the reason why mules were hitched to the chariots instead of horses. However, the evidence presented by these “scholars” is very flimsy and can largely be put down as a hypothesis or a personal opinion rather than cold hard fact.

In 1901, fragments of a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus were found within Vienne, France. One of these fragments appears to depict a charioteer driving a team of mules rather than horses (23). Regrettably I haven’t been able to find any further information on this artifact or any photographs of it.

So, on this December 15th, show some love and affection towards our fine hoof-footed friends. They work hard pulling plows, pulling wagons, and carrying loads on their backs, and just like people they need a rest.

In closing, I’d like to make you aware of an organization based in my home-state of New York called “Equine Advocates”. This is a horse rescue and sanctuary whose mission is “to promote the humane and responsible treatment of horses”. Many of us who have seen TV commercials for the Humane Society, ASPCA, or other organizations designed to counter cruelty to animals often focus on dogs and cats, because these are the most common pets that people have. But horses suffer too…a lot…not just pets, but also working horses on farms and ranches as well as racehorses, all of whom are pushed by their heartless owners into performing hard physical tasks hour after hour, day after day, with little rest, little food, and little medical attention. If you would like to help save horses, mules, or donkeys from abuse, over-work, and starvation, as well as save a few from being sent to the slaughterhouse or the glue factory, please contact Equine Advocates and let them know that you want to do your part.

Equine Advocates
P.O. Box 354
Chatham, New York 12037-0354
(518) 245-1599
www.equineadvocates.org

Source Citations

  1. James George Frazer, ed., Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3: Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pages 50-53.
  2. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #48; Plutarch, Parallel Lives, book 2 – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 14, section 3; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapters 30-31; Tertullian, Spectacles, chapter 5, section 5.
  3. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 31.
  4. Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Volume 1. Translated by Reverend William P. Dickson. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1869. Pages 219-220.
  5. John Wordsworth, Fragments and Specimens of Early Latin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874. Page 545.
  6. Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Volume 1. Translated by Reverend William P. Dickson. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1869. Page 219; John Wordsworth, Fragments and Specimens of Early Latin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874. Page 545.
  7. Samuel B. Platner and Thomas Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 1929. Pages 140-141.
  8. James George Frazer, ed., Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3: Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 53.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, chapter 20; Edward Gresswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Pages 547-549; Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Volume 1. Translated by William P. Dickson. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1869. Page 220; James George Frazer, ed., Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3: Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pages 50-51.
  10. James George Frazer, ed., Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3: Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 53.
  11. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 31; Tertullian, Spectacles, chapter 5, section 7; Plutarch, Parallel Lives, book 2 – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 14, section 3; Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, chapter 20; James George Frazer, ed., Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3: Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 51.
  12. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 31; Tertullian, Spectacles, chapter 5, section 7; Plutarch, Parallel Lives, book 2 – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 14, section 3.
  13. Tertullian, Spectacles, chapter 5, section 7.
  14. Tertullian, Spectacles, chapter 5, section 7.
  15. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 31.
  16. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 31.
  17. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, book 2 – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 14, sections 3-4.
  18. Thomas Henry Dyer, The History of the Kings of Rome. London: Bell and Daldy, 1868. Pages 68-69.
  19. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #48.
  20. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 31.
  21. Sextus Pompeius Festus, De Verborum Significatu Quae Supersunt Cum Pauli Epitome, Volume I. Edited by Aemilius Thewrewk de Ponor. Budapest: Hungarian Literary Academy, 1889. Page 133.
  22. Zoobooks. Volume 9, issue 2 (November 1991) – “Wild Horses”, by John Bonnett Wexo. San Diego: Wildlife Education Ltd., 1991. Pages 12, 14-15; Great Battles of the Ancient World, lecture 3 – “Sumer, Akkad, and Early Mesopotamian Warfare”.
  23. James M. Paxton (1904), “Archaeological News, 1904”. America Journal of Archaeology, volume 8 (January-June 1904). Page 368.

Bibliography

  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapters 30-31. Translated by Earnest Cary. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1937. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/2B*.html.
  • Dyer, Thomas Henry. The History of the Kings of Rome. London: Bell and Daldy, 1868.
  • Festus, Sextus Pompeius. De Verborum Significatu Quae Supersunt Cum Pauli Epitome, Volume I. Edited by Aemilius Thewrewk de Ponor. Budapest: Hungarian Literary Academy, 1889.
  • Frazer, James George, ed. Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3: Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Gresswell, Edward. Origines Kalendariae Italicae, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854.
  • Mommsen, Theodor. The History of Rome, Volume 1. Translated by Reverend William P. Dickson. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1869.
  • Paxton, James M. (1904). “Archaeological News, 1904”. America Journal of Archaeology, volume 8 (January-June 1904). Pages 338-401.
  • Platner, Samuel B.; Ashby, Thomas. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #48. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1936. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/moralia/roman_questions*/home.html.
  • Plutarch. Parallel Lives, book 2 – “The Life of Romulus”. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1914. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/romulus*.html.
  • Tertullian. Spectacles, chapter 5, sections 5-7. Translated by Rudolph Arbesmann, Sister Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin A. Quain. In Roy Joseph Deferrari et al, eds., The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, Volume 40. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959. Pages 60-61.
  • Wordsworth, John. Fragments and Specimens of Early Latin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, chapter 20. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Great Battles of the Ancient World, lecture 3 – “Sumer, Akkad, and Early Mesopotamian Warfare”. Hosted by Prof. Garrett G. Fagan. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2005. DVD.
  • Zoobooks. Volume 9, issue 2 (November 1991) – “Wild Horses”, by John Bonnett Wexo. San Diego: Wildlife Education Ltd., 1991.



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