Wheat in a field. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wheat_in_field.jpg.
It is now mid April. The cold chill of Winter has been banished, and there will only be warmer days to come. New green growth is springing up everywhere. The seeds for this year’s harvest, which had been planted into the soil earlier, have germinated and the first little green shoots are emerging up out of the ground.
For the ancient Romans, this was a joyous occasion. These were a people who were forever tied to the land, and the harvest meant more to them than fine marble monuments or glory on the battlefield. The Romans didn’t need to wage war upon their neighbors every year, but they definitely needed to ensure that there would be a harvest every year. To make sure that the crops would grow, the Romans did everything that they could think of to appease and please their gods. The seeds had been safely locked away in storage during the Winter, under the protection of Dis Pater, the god-king of the Underworld. The soil had been ritualistically purified on January 24, and the seeds themselves had been blessed on February 2. With these tasks complete, it was time to plant.
For the Roman farmers, planting the seeds into their furrows was a time filled with anxiety and restless worry. Would the seeds germinate? Would there be crops this year? Each year, the terrible specter of famine and starvation loomed over the land. For weeks, the farmers nervously awaited the first signs that their fields would come to life. By mid April, they would know for certain if their seeds were still viable. If they looked out upon their tilled fields and saw nothing but lifeless dirt, there would be desolation and sorrow – it would be a hungry year. If they saw little green sprouts peeping up out of the ground, there was unrestrainable joy!
For giving them food for the coming year, the ancient Romans gave thanks to the goddess Ceres. To modern-day people, her name might not be as familiar as Jupiter, Venus, or Mars, but Ceres was one of the most important deities within the ancient Roman pantheon. She was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture, similar in many respects to the ancient Greek goddess Demeter. Although she was the goddess of agriculture in general, she is most strongly associated in particular with cereal crops like wheat. In fact, her name is where we get the word “cereal” from. Being a people who were strongly focused on agriculture, the goddess Ceres was held in high regard by the ancient Romans.
“Ceres, Goddess of Agriculture”. Novelty card for William S. Kimball & Co. cigarettes, issued in 1889. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/n188-wm-kimball-goddesses-greeks-1933473237.
Roman mythology relates that Ceres was the daughter of Saturn and Rhea. By Jupiter, she gave birth to a daughter named Prosperine, known more commonly by her Greek name Persephone. Ceres’ principal abode was traditionally regarded as Enna, on the island of Sicily, largely due to Sicily’s association with grain farming. Roman legend says that one day, while Prosperine was out gathering flowers in the fields around Enna, she was kidnaped by Pluto or Dis Pater, the ruler of the Underworld. Horrified at her child’s kidnapping, Ceres swore that she would not rest until she had found her daughter. Lighting torches at the volcano of Mount Etna, she speedily set fort in a chariot pulled by a pair of snakes or dragons. For days, she scoured the entire island of Sicily day and night, until she came to the conclusion that her daughter was no longer on the island. Realizing this, she flew up to Heaven to demand an audience with her father Jupiter, the king of the gods, and ordered that her daughter be returned to her. Jupiter said that he would have Prosperine returned to her, but only if Prosperine had not eaten any food while she had been in the Underworld. Unfortunately for her, she had. Jupiter decreed that Prosperine could spend only half of the year above ground, but had to remain in the Underworld for the remaining time. Eventually, the emergence of Prosperine out from the Underworld was tied to emergence of the first sprouts of grain from the farmers’ fields (1).
Legend says that the Cerealia had its roots in far ancient times. According to ancient mythology, Ceres went to the Greek region of Attica and instructed Triptolemus, the son of King Celeus of Eleusis, in how to farm and how to make bread. In gratitude for her teaching him how to do these things, Prince Triptolemus instituted a feast day to her. By her command, he also travelled the world, teaching other people how to grow their own crops rather than being simple hunter-gatherers (2).
As stated earlier, the ancient Roman goddess Ceres was similar in many ways to the ancient Greek goddess Demeter. In fact, outwardly, the worship of Ceres was Greek in every way, and therefore it was likely introduced into Italy by Greek colonists. Her temple was constructed in the Greek architectural style, and was decorated by Greek artists, and the prayers annunciated within were spoken in Greek rather than Latin (3).
There were many religious holidays dedicated to Ceres within the Roman calendar, but her principal feast day known as the Cerealia, “the Festival of Ceres”, occurred on April 19. The reason why this was the date for Ceres’ primary feast day was that this was the date in which a temple to her was officially dedicated (April 19, 493 BC). The Temple of Ceres was located at the base of the Aventine Hill, close to the Circus Maximus. While tradition states that April 19, 493 BC was the date that her temple was opened, the oldest confirmed date that we have of April 19 being celebrated as the feast day of the goddess Ceres isn’t until the year 216 BC, when it was held under the direction of the city aedile Gaius Memmius Quirinus. However, the festival might have existed prior to this, possibly as far back as Rome’s earliest history (4).
At some point in the late 200s BC, the festivities were extended from just April 19 to now spanning eight days, beginning on April 12 and concluding on April 19. The festivities were known as the Ludi Ceriales, “the Games of Ceres”, and the first recorded date of the Ludi Ceriales being celebrated is in 202 BC. From 175 BC onwards, theatrical performances were held on April 12-18 (5).
The Cerealia festivities occurred hard upon those of the Feast of Cybele “the Great Mother”, which spanned from April 4-10. It would seem that the first two-thirds of April was just a never-ending party. Or was it? In 191 BC, the Sibyl decreed that the people should fast. Originally, this fast was to be performed once every four years, but later it was performed annually. People fasted for eight days, in emulation of Ceres going without food for eight days as she searched for her daughter Prosperine, and could eat only after the sun had set. This was likely in emulation of Prosperine eating the pomegranate seeds when she had been brought down into the darkness of the Underworld. The celebrations of Cybele were largely attended by patricians, whereas the celebrations of Ceres were attended almost exclusively by plebeians, and particularly plebeian women (6)
All who were in mourning were excluded from the festival. It was noted that if any public emergency or great disaster occurred, then the games would be cancelled. For example, following the Battle of Cannae, a disastrous defeat for the Roman Republic against Hannibal of Carthage, the Cerealia was cancelled. The prevailing rule was that all who were morning a deceased family member were barred from the festivities, and since Cannae was such an overwhelming defeat for the Romans, there was not a single family in all of Rome who did not suffer at least one loss. Consequently, the Cerealia was cancelled for that year. Later, when Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC, the Cerealia for that year was cancelled as well. This was partly because the attending magistrates were required to dress in the black toga pulla as a gesture of mourning, but in in order to preside over the games, they were required to dress in white. Since dressing in white would be an insult to the manes, the spirits of the dead, then the magistrates would refuse to attend. Since the games could not be held if the magistrates were not present, the games would therefore be cancelled (7)
So what do we know about the actual festivities themselves which occurred from April 12 to 19?
On April 12, the first day of the Cerealia festival period, sacrifices of pork, wheat, salt, and incense were offered to Ceres. Cattle sacrifices were not allowed during this time. In the words of the poet Ovid…
“Ceres delights in peace: Pray, you farmers, pray for endless peace and a peace-loving leader. Honour the goddess with wheat, and dancing salt grains, and grains of incense offered on the ancient hearths, and if there’s no incense, burn your resinous torches. Ceres is pleased with little, if it’s pure in kind. You girded attendants lift those knives from the ox: Let the ox plough, while you sacrifice the lazy sow. It’s not fitting for an axe to strike a neck that’s yoked. Let the ox live, and toil through the stubborn soil” (8).
The priest who offered the sacrifice upon April 12 offered up invocations not only to Ceres herself but also to twelve heavenly spirits who were said to assist farmers with their labors (9):
- Vervactor (whose name derives from vervactum, “fallow”) who makes the soil fertile and who guides the plow when the farmer plows his soil;
- Reparator (whose name literally means “he who plows again”), who guides the plow when the farmer re-plows his soil (Roman farmers often plowed their land multiple times to thoroughly break up the soil prior to sowing);
- Imporcitor, who helps to prepare the ground into furrows to receive the seeds;
- Promitor, who distributes the seeds from the storage containers to the farmers;
- Insistor, who helps the farmer to sow his seeds;
- Obarator, who plows the land over after the sowing, covering up the seeds;
- Occator, who harrows the ground and spreads the seeds evenly;
- Sarritor, who helps the farmer wield his hoe;
- Subruncinator, who helps to remove unwanted weeds;
- Messor, who helps the farmer wield his scythe when he reaps the grain;
- Convector, who ensures that the harvest is gathered in safely and without delays,
- Conditor, who ensures that the seeds for next year’s harvest are safely stored away.
Once the introductory sacrifices were made, games were held in the Circus Maximus in Ceres’ honor, with the attendants obliged to only dress in white. April 12 marked the Equirria of Ceres, a horse race held within the Circus Maximus in Ceres’ honor. Note that it was a horse race, not a chariot race. While the racetracks of the Roman Empire are most associated today with chariot races, they were not exclusively of that nature, as we shall see later. Horse races were also held there to, as well as a number of other athletic spectacles (10).
“Ancient Greek Horse Race”. Novelty card for Carreras Cigarettes, issued in 1927.
From April 12 to 18, theatrical performances would be held during the day. During the night, women dressed completely in white, carrying torches throughout the city, in direct mimicry of Ceres searching for her lost daughter Prosperine. Their appearance within Rome’s streets must have seemed very eerie (11).
On April 19, the official feast day of the goddess Ceres and the last day of the Cerealia festival, the Circus Maximus was the sight of a spectacle which would be shocking to us today, but to the ancient Romans it was full of powerful social and religious significance. On this day, foxes had lit torches tied to their tails and were then released into the Circus Maximus to run helter-skelter all over the racetrack, shrieking in pain, slowly being burned alive, while the spectators assuredly cheered. According to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, this tradition of blatant animal abuse was based upon an event which occurred on a small farm located outside the Italian town of Carseoli. On this farm, a couple lived who had a 12 year old son, a mischievous tyke who clearly had psychopathic tendencies and had no qualms about inflicting intense pain for sport. A fox had come by and eaten some of the farm’s chickens, so the son decided to exact revenge. He caught the fox, and as punishment for eating his chickens, he wrapped the fox with hay and straw, and then set it on fire. However, it was the boy and his family who were punished for this act, for the terrified animal fed through the farm’s fields setting all of their crops on fire. A strong wind which had been blowing that day whipped up the fire to such an extent that the entire farm was destroyed. That’s what you get for torturing animals for fun. Now, you might think “That’s karma” – the boy did something horrible, and he got punished for it. However, to the ancient Romans, it was the fox who was held to blame for all of this, not the boy. In the Romans’ minds, Man always had to be superior over Nature, and this act of the fox daring to destroy the farm’s crops was an unforgiveable act of insubordination. So, the foxes needed to be punished. The town of Carseoli, where this event supposedly occurred, ordered that all of the foxes found within the town’s vicinity were to be killed. Furthermore, in punishment for daring to destroy a Roman’s farm, the final day of the Cerealia festival saw a macabre and horrifying spectacle. Foxes had torches tied to their tails, and were then set alight, and released in the Circus Maximus, fleeting for their lives in panicked bewilderment from the fire which was burning them. This ritual served to reinforce and emphasize the power of Man over Nature. Interestingly, while numerous secondary sources say that the Romans burned foxes (emphasis on the plural), the poet Ovid states that the Romans burnt a fox (emphasis on the singular). It’s possible that this might have been a real fox, but then again, it’s also possible that it might have been some sort of wicker effigy of a fox which was set on fire, the way that an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, today. However, I feel that Ovid would have definitely mentioned this if this was the case (12).
In modern times, the ancient Cerealia festival has been revised in Italy. However, in contrast to the original ancient Roman festival which took place in mid April, the modern Cerealia takes place in June, and instead of lasting for eight days, it lasts for only four. This festival was first instituted in 2011, and it has been going strong every year since then. In the words of the event’s producers…
“Cerealia is a festival dedicated to all grains, as indeed happened in ancient Roman rites of Vesta and Ceres, the Ludi. In a broader view, the festival is extended to all countries of the Mediterranean area, from which the subtitle ‘Ceres and the Mediterranean’. The ancient rituals of the Vestal Virgins and the Ludi of Ceres, recalled in staged form, are the “Roman” element that characterizes each edition of the festival. The connection to the Mediterranean, gives to the event an international exposition, enhancing the intercultural exchange and presenting every year a different country. The Mediterranean has been and still is the meeting point of a myriad of societies belonging to cultural systems partially connected but also substantially different. Cultural pluralism has been, since ancient times, a permanent feature of the Mediterranean basin. The event will be then, not only a moment of historical commemoration, but also of cultural exchange, thereby tackling issues such as nutrition, environment, economy, territory and social dimension, issues presented in the current context, which characterizes the varied world of grains. The social and economic importance of grains, essential components of the human food pyramid, is undisputed. Cerealia seeks to increase awareness on the value of land and of indigenous cultures, to renew ties between areas producing grains and consumers, and to revitalize ancient customs based on the respect for the earth and its bounty… Cerealia’s organizing system operates using a balanced combination of the ‘glocal model’ [global and local] and the ‘State model of identity’. According to this management model, the Festival’s producer support the partners at the local level and act as a network for international efforts as well as to design content and activities. The intent is to use a ‘light’ management structure, through which the producer seeks to avoid duplication of central responsibilities, encouraging partners to work together to achieve the common goals of all the festival’s stakeholders, both public and private. Both profit and nonprofit organizations partners of the Festival can offer their unique know-how, human and material resources, services, and structure. Cerealia’s partners, in charge of the activities organized at the local level, cooperate with the Festival producer, responsible for its main contents and overall management. This flexible governance framework facilitates the potential development of activities suggested from diverse territories. Cerealia is a participatory festival enhancing shared economy, and highlighting the positive impact of new consumption and production patterns, more respectful of natural ecology and human needs. The calendar of activities, based on producer’s and partners’ initiatives, includes: seminars, conferences and workshops; live performances; food tastings and themed menus; guided tours, photo and fine arts exhibitions; educational workshops for adults and children” (13).
Please click here for more info about this modern agricultural symposium: https://www.cerealialudi.org/en/.
The logo of the modern Cerealia festival, held in Italy in early-to-mid June.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 12”; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, 8th Edition. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1854. Page 387; The Colchester Archaeologist. “Roman festival of Cerealia at the Circus Maximus” (April 12, 2016).
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, 8th Edition. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1854. Page 387.
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1897. Page 320.
- William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Volume II. London: Walton and Maberly, 1862. Page 1026; 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 73-75.
- Baron de Théis, Travels of Polycletes. London: J. Souter, 1826. Page 233; 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 72-73; The Colchester Archaeologist. “Roman festival of Cerealia at the Circus Maximus” (April 12, 2016).
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 4”; Baron de Théis, Travels of Polycletes. London: J. Souter, 1826. Page 233; Harry Thurston Peck, Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1897. Page 320.
- Livy, History of Rome, book 22, chapter 56; Livy, History of Rome, book 34, chapter 6; Baron de Théis, Travels of Polycletes. London: J. Souter, 1826. Page 233; William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Volume I. London: John Murray, 1873. Page 895; William Smith, ed., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Page 268.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 12”.
- William Smith, ed., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 49-53; William S. Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1898. Page 871; James Hastings and John A. Selbie, eds., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume II. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1910. Page 32.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 12”; William Smith, ed., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Page 268; The Colchester Archaeologist. “Roman festival of Cerealia at the Circus Maximus” (April 12, 2016).
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 12”; Baron de Théis, Travels of Polycletes. London: J. Souter, 1826. Page 233; William Smith, ed., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Page 268; 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 72-73; The Colchester Archaeologist. “Roman festival of Cerealia at the Circus Maximus” (April 12, 2016).
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 19”; The Haunted History of Halloween.
- Cerialia Ludi. “About Us”; Cerialia Ludi. “The Structure of the Festival”.
Primary Source Books
- Livy. History of Rome, book 22, chapter 56, verse 4. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0152%3Abook%3D22%3Achapter%3D56.
- Ovid. Fasti, book 4, “April 4”. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Ovid. Fasti, book 4, “April 12”. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Ovid. Fasti, book 4, “April 19”. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
Secondary Source Books
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, 8th Edition. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1854.
- De Théis, Baron. Travels of Polycletes. London: J. Souter, 1826.
- 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.
- Hastings, James; Selbie, John A. eds. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume II. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1910.
- Peck, Harry Thurston. Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1897.
- Smith, William, ed. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875.
- Smith, William, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Volume I. London: John Murray, 1873.
- Smith, William, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Volume II. London: Walton and Maberly, 1862.
- Walsh, William S. Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1898.
- Cerialia Ludi. “About Us”. https://www.cerealialudi.org/en/festival-presentazione/. Accessed on April 3, 2022.
- Cerialia Ludi. “The Structure of the Festival”. http://www.cerealialudi.org/en/festival-presentazione/la-struttura-del-festival/. Accessed on April 3, 2022.
- The Colchester Archaeologist. “Roman festival of Cerealia at the Circus Maximus” (April 12, 2016). https://www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk/?p=26227. Accessed on April 3, 2022.
- The Haunted History of Halloween. Narrated by Harry Smith. The History Channel, 1997.