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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.

 

Bibliography:

 

December 28 – The Massacre of the Innocents

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, the Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea’, they replied…Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him’…Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route…When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi”.

  • The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-5, 7, 12, 16.

The so-called Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day itself and ending on “Twelfth Night” on January 5th, were usually a period of feasting and merriment. However, December 28th is a particularly somber day within this festive season. According to Christian tradition, December 28th marks the day in which King Herod the Great (an agnomen which was definitely not fitting with his character), the pro-Roman ruler of the kingdom of Judea, ordered the deaths of all male children who were 2 years old or younger. Christians refer to this event as “the Massacre of the Innocents”. There is no way of knowing how many babies and toddlers were put to the sword on Herod’s orders, but it surely must have been in the hundreds.

A scene from a Medieval French manuscript, dated from 1200 to 1260, depicting soldiers murdering infants. Le Roman de la Rose, par Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meun (MS. Fr. 25526). Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Paris, France. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6000369q.image#

However, some historians claim that this event never actually happened, since no mention of it is made in the other three Gospels and it is not mentioned in any historical texts. Some state that this references the Egyptian pharaoh’s orders to kill all of the Jewish children in his kingdom, which is reported in the Book of Exodus. Other people are firm in their convictions that King Herod’s shocking command actually occurred and that the butchery did indeed take place. Until there is some evidence of this in ancient documents, we will likely never know for certain.

One of the earliest known Christmas carols, dated to 1534, was about the Massacre of the Innocents. The lyrics of this song are given by a mother who weeps for her dead child, killed on Herod’s orders. By extension, it could also be the mournful farewell given by any mother to her dead child. Child mortality rates were extremely high prior to modern times, and people living in those days would, unfortunately, have been all too familiar with children unexpectedly dying from sickness, plagues, accidents, murder, and war.

Today on December 28th, the day known as “Children’s Mass”, we remember and pray for all of the children who died this past year.

Fruitachampsa, the crocodile-bear-cat of the Morrison Formation

Meet the Jurassic Period’s analog of the common house cat. This is Fruitachampsa callisoni, a prehistoric reptile which inhabited western North America during the late Jurassic Period. However, this was not a dinosaur. In fact, Fruitachampsa was a distant relative of crocodiles.

The fossils of this animal were discovered by James M. Clark and George Callison near Fruita, Colorado during the middle and late 1970s within the rocks of the Morrison Formation dated to about 150 million years ago (MYA). By the late 1980s, this creature was unofficially known by the name “Fruitachampsa”, but since it had not been officially named or described in any scientific research article, this name could not yet be used. It wasn’t until 2011 that the animal was officially classified under the name Fruitachampsa callisoni, “George Callison’s Crocodile from Fruita”.

Clark, James M. “A new shartegosuchid crocodyliform from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of western Colorado”. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, volume 163, issue supplement 1 (December 2011): S152–S172.

Fruitachampsa belonged to a group of reptiles which were related to crocodiles known as the “shartegosuchids”. These reptiles are known from the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous Periods, and all known specimens have been found in North America, Europe, and Asia. Shartegosuchids have distinctive skull features, including:

  1. A lack of anteorbital fenestrae (the hole between the nostril and the eye socket) in the upper jaw.
  2. Within the upper jaw’s palate, the chonae (the holes that connect the nostril to the inside of the mouth) are set within a deep depression in the center of the palate.
  3. The palatal bones, which form most of the inside of the mouth of the upper jaw, are joined together medially.
  4. The teeth in the lower jaw never extend posteriorly past the mandibular fenestrae.
  5. The edges of the teeth in both the upper and lower jaws are ridged with serrations – quite unlike the smooth cone-shaped teeth that are often associated with crocodilians.

The shartegosuchids are visibly similar to earlier primitive crocodyliforms such as Protosuchus, and have even been ascribed to the same family as that genus. However, they appear to be slightly more advanced than Protosuchus and other members of Protosuchidae, and may represent the next evolutionary development of crocodilians.

Fruitachampsa measured three feet long, and its body was more-or-less about the same size as a cat. Like a cat, it also had large eyes, and was therefore possibly nocturnal, preying upon the small rodent-like mammals which inhabited the Morrison Formation.

Fruitachampsa also possessed unusually long legs in proportion with the rest of its body. However, like a crocodile, it walked in a “plantigrade” style, walking on the flats of its feet like a human or a bear, rather than walking “digitigrade”, on its toes, like a cat. So perhaps we should think of Fruitachampsa less like a cat and more like a pygmy-sized long-legged bear.

Fruitachampsa possessed a double-row of rectangular osteoderms which ran down the middle of its back, in which the row in front slightly overlapped the row behind, like roof shingles or a ancient Roman legionnaire’s body armor.

Fruitachampsa callisoni. © Jason R. Abdale. December 19, 2020.

Keep your pencils sharp, everybody.

 

December 11 – The Septimontium: The Day of the Seven Hills

Ancient Rome was known far and wide as “the City of the Seven Hills”. The seven eminences which the city of Rome was built upon were known as the Palatine, Capitoline, Aventine, Quirinal, Caelian, Viminal, and Esquiline. For some reason, the Janiculum Hill has not been traditionally included.

A scene from the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

The Mons Palatinus, or Palatine Hill, “the Hill of the Palace”, was the place where Romulus, the founder of Rome, had his house. It later served as the site of the imperial palace of the Roman emperors. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that the hut of Romulus was on display on the Palatine Hill in Rome, continuously restored using the same materials and the same construction techniques to make it appear exactly as it would have been approximately 750 BC.

“Their life was that of herdsmen, and they lived by their own labour, generally upon the mountains in huts which they built, roofs and all, out of sticks and reeds. One of these, called the hut of Romulus, remained even to my day on the flank of the Palatine hill which faces towards the Circus, and it is preserved holy by those who have charge of these matters; they add nothing to it to render it more stately, but if any part of it is injured, either by storms or by the lapse of time, they repair the damage and restore the hut as nearly as possible to its former condition” (1).

The Capitolinus, “the Capitoline Hill”, was formerly the property of the Sabines, a neighboring tribe of the Romans. The hill was sacred to the god Saturn, and atop this hill there once stood a village called “Saturnia”, “the city of Saturn”, in much the same way that Athens was named in honor of the goddess Athena. For this reason, the Capitoline used to be called the Saturnine Hill in the distant past. Afterwards, the hill was re-named as the Tarpeian Hill, named after a Vestal Virgin named Tarpeia who had been murdered by the Sabines, who beat her to death with their shields, and buried her there. Finally, when the Romans took possession of it, it was re-named once again to the Capitoline Hill. There’s a story that the Capitoline Hill got its name because, when the Romans were digging the foundation to build a temple to the god Jupiter, they discovered a human skull buried in the ground. The Romans took it as a sign, claiming that this hill would serve as the head (capit) of the Roman world. As such, the Capitoline Hill became the seat of Roman government. Here stood the Senate House and all of the other important offices of State (2).

The Aventinus, “the Aventine Hill”, is not the tallest of the Seven Hills of Rome, but it is the largest in terms of the sheer amount of physical acreage that it takes up. The name of the Aventine Hill has several etymological explanations. The Roman writer Titus Livius claims that it was named after an ancient king who was buried atop its summit (3). He also claimed that a large flock of birds were seen on its summit, and Romulus’ brother Remus saw this as a sign to found the city upon this hill and not the Palatine (4). Marcus Terentius Varro was of the opinion that the name was a corruption of advent, meaning “arrival”, because people would often cross over the Tiber River and arrive at this spot. Even in Varro’s day, there was a ferry service which transported people and cargo back and forth across the Tiber at this location (5). Atop this hill was constructed a temple to the goddess Diana (6).

The Quirinalis, “the Quirinal Hill”, was owned by the Sabines and was named in honor of the Sabine god Quirinus (7). The hill is noted for having a pair of large marble horse statues erected atop it, for which reason it was sometimes referred to as the Mons Caballi or Mons Caballinus (8).

The Caelius, “the Caelian Hill”, is named in reference to an Etruscan nobleman named Caeles Vibenna who fought alongside King Romulus against the Sabines. He was, apparently, the leader of an Etruscan community which resided atop this hill. However, the Romans became suspicious of these people and re-located them elsewhere (9). It might also be a reference to the Latin word caelum, meaning “sky”.

The Viminalis, “the Viminal Hill” was named in reference to the large numbers of willow trees (vimineta) which grew there. Later, a temple dedicated to Jupiter was erected atop this hill which was given the name Jupiter Viminius, “Jupiter of the Willows” (10).

The Esquilinus, “the Esquiline Hill”, has a name of uncertain origins. Some say it is in reference to a grove of oak trees (aesculata) which once grew on the hill, while others say it is in reference to soldiers being posted on watch duty (excubiae) there, but both of these explanations are unlikely (11). It is more likely that this hill was once thought of as a community on the outskirts of Rome before it was absorbed as part of the Eternal City; the people who lived within the city limits were known as the inquilini “the inside dwellers”, while the people who lived beyond the city limits were called the exquilini, “the outside dwellers” (12).

December 11 was the date of an ancient Roman festival called the Septimontium, “the Day of the Seven Hills”, named in reference to the seven hills of the city of Rome (13). In Varro’s words, “Where Rome now is was called the Septimontium from the same number of hills which the City afterwards embraced within its walls” (14).

Archaeological evidence of habitation of Rome dates to about 1000 BC. It would appear that each of the hills that made up the fabled “Seven Hills of Rome” were originally independent hilltop settlements. At some point, all of these separate communities merged together to form a single interconnected community, likely due to a rise in population. This political merging is known as synoikism, meaning “coming together” (15). It’s possible that this feast day on December 11 marks the date in which the separate hilltop communities merged together into one city. This is corroborated in the writings of the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, who states “The festival Septimontium they observe in commemoration of the addition to the city of the seventh hill, by which Rome was made a city of seven hills” (16).

According to the Roman writer Titus Livius, known to posterity simply as Livy, that the expansion of Rome was a gradual piecemeal process taking place over several decades, until it eventually encompassed the seven hills that would make it famous. According to his chronicles, the Palatine Hill was the epicenter of Rome, and it was from this point that the Romans spread outwards to subjugate and dominate their neighbors. The Capitoline Hill was the next to come under the Roman sway. This hill belonged to the Sabines, a neighboring tribe, until the Romans took possession of it during Romulus’ reign. It is uncertain when the Caelian Hill came under Roman authority, as different sources ascribe this event to different persons: Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that it was taken by King Romulus (17); Titus Livius says that it was taken by Tullus Hostilius, Rome’s war-mongering third king who reigned from 673 to 642 BC (18); the Greek geographer Strabo says that the hill was taken by Ancus Marcius, Rome’s fourth king who reigned from 642 to 617 BC (19); the Roman historian Tacitus states that the hill was taken by Tarquinius Priscus, “Tarquin the Ancient”, Rome’s fifth king, who reigned from 616 to 579 BC (20). Based upon all of the possible dates given, it seems likely that the hill was taken sometime during the 600s BC. Ancus Marcius, Rome’s fourth king who reigned from 642 to 617 BC, took possession of the Aventine Hill (21). Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king who reigned from 579 to 535 BC, took possession of the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline Hills (22).

The Roman writer Suetonius makes mention of when Emperor Domitian presided over the feast day of the Septimontium: “In the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plentiful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights, and smaller one to the commons” (23).

It appears that December 11, although called a “feast day” in the sources, was actually more a date of historical importance to the Romans rather than a date of public celebration. By contrast, April 21, the legendary date that Rome was founded by Romulus, was indeed a public holiday of merriment and spectacle. To use a modern analogy, modern-day Americans loudly and boisterously celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, but hardly anybody gets merry over “Constitution Day” on September 17, which established the system of government that has been in place within the United States since 1787. I think we need to look at Roman attitudes towards April 21 and December 11 in much the same way.

 

Source Citations

  1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 79.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 41-42. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 39; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 520.
  3. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 3.
  4. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 6.
  5. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 43-44. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 39 and 41.
  6. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 520.
  7. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 51. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 49.
  8. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 46. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 43.
  10. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 51. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 49; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  11. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  12. Gaius, The Elements of Roman Law, Second Edition, book 1, chapter 3. Translated by Edward Poste. London: Macmillan and Co., 1875. Page 31.
  13. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 24. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 197.
  14. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verse 41. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 39.
  15. The History of Ancient Rome, lecture 4 – “The Foundation of Rome”.
  16. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #69.
  17. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 50.
  18. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 30.
  19. Strabo, Geography, book 5, chapter 3.
  20. Tacitus, The Annals, book 4, chapter 65.
  21. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 33.
  22. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 44; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Pages 520-521.
  23. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12 – “The Life of Domitian”, chapter 4.

 

Bibliography

 

More photos of Allosaurus from the AMNH

Greetings friends. In an earlier post from 2014, I put up some photographs which I took of the two Allosaurus skeletons that are on public display in the American Museum of Natural History (or AMNH for short) in New York City. I’ve recently uncovered some other photos which I took during a visit there in March 2019, and so I’m posting them here. Enjoy!

 

 

November 24 – The Brumalia: The Ancient Roman Winter Fest

Daylight is certainly getting shorter these days, and to commemorate it is the Brumalia, the Festival of Shortening Days. This was not a single feast day, but rather a festival period beginning on November 24 and lasting until the Saturnalia on December 17 (1). You might call it an ancient Roman “Winter Fest”.

“Bruma” was the name that the Romans gave to the Winter Solstice, as Marcus Terentius Varro explains: “Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissumus, ‘shortest’” (2). Therefore, Brumalia means “the Festival of Bruma” or “the Festival of Shortening Days”. On the first day of the Brumalia period, offerings were made to Ceres and Bacchus, and prophecies were made as to whether the coming Winter would be good or bad.

Incidentally, the name Bruma survives nowadays in the term “brumation”, which is a relaxed sluggish state that cold-blooded animals like reptiles go into when subjected to cold temperatures. The term is a reference to the coldness of Winter and the shortened days that come with that season.

Horace Wetherill Wright says that offerings were made to both Ceres and Bacchus (the names are given in the source as Demeter and Dionysus, the Greek names of these gods), but no further information is given as to the nature of these offerings (3). However, we can make some assumptions based upon other sacrificial rites which were offered to these deities on other feast days. Sacrifices which were commonly given to the agriculture goddess Ceres were pigs, olive oil, and grain, while those which were made in honor of the wine god Bacchus consisted of goats, wine, and honey cakes.

According to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, the reason why goats were sacrificed to Bacchus was a tradition of revenge. One day, a grape farmer saw a goat chewing on his vines, and decided he would get payback by catching that goat and offering it as a sacrifice to the wine god. In the words of Ovid, “You should have spared the vine-shoots, he-goat. Watching a goat nibbling a vine, someone once vented their indignation in these words: ‘Gnaw the vine, goat! But when you stand at the altar, there’ll be something from it to sprinkle on your horns’. Truth followed: Bacchus, your enemy is given you to punish, and sprinkled wine flows over its horns” (4).

On a somewhat lighter note, honey and honey cakes were traditionally offered to Bacchus because, according to Roman myth, he had discovered honey. In the words of Ovid, “Honey-cakes are baked for the god [Bacchus], because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey” (5). Of the two deities which were propitiated on November 24, it appears that Bacchus took higher importance. In fact, Brumas (or variations of that name) was one of the many appellations of the wine god (6).

One wonders if the Romans decorated their homes and their public buildings during this festive period the way that so many people do during the modern-day holiday season. It seems that everywhere you look from Thanksgiving to December, there are Christmas trees, holly wreaths, and poinsettia plants. As far back as the Renaissance and possibly earlier, this symbolic “re-greening” of one’s house carried on. In England during the Tudor Dynasty, people decorated the inside of their homes as well as their local churches with holly, ivy, bay, and rosemary. These green shrubs were seen as preserving life during the lifelessness of Winter. It’s also thanks to this ritual that we have two of our most well-known Christmas carols: “Deck the Halls” and “The Holly and the Ivy” (8). Did the Romans do anything similar? Possibly. According to William Burder and Joel Parker, “The fir, the ivy, the fig, and the pine, were consecrated to Bacchus, and goats were sacrificed to him” (7). It is therefore quite possible that the Romans would have decorated their homes with boughs of fir, pine, and ivy, with figs consumed with just as much relish as fire-roasted chestnuts.

Each day had a letter of the Greek alphabet allocated to it, and it was customary for a person to hold a banquet for their friends on the day which was marked with the first letter of their name (9). One wonders if the first day of the festivities had all A-themed events, and so forth as the festive period continued.

In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which had a very large Greek-speaking population, the Brumalia was known as the Ambrosiana. The name comes from ambrosia, the term that was given to the special food which only gods ate, which was said to bestow immortality upon anyone who consumed it (10).

Even into Christian times, this festival continued to be celebrated. In the Byzantine Empire during the 6th Century AD, the Brumalia was still celebrated each year, though possibly without the sacrifices to the pagan gods Ceres and Bacchus. The Roman Christian writer Tertullian (155-240 AD) wrote that the Brumalia was one of the pagan festivals that were still practiced by Christians, which he criticized his fellow church-goers for. In the year 694 AD, an edict from the Council of Trullo banned the celebration of pagan festivals, including the Brumalia, on penalty of excommunication from the Christian Church. Not even the highest office was exempt from this rule. During the 8th Century, Emperor Constantine Copronymus, which literally means “Shit Name”, was still making offerings to pagan gods – hence the name that he was given by a staunchly Christian population. (11).

 

Source Citations

  1. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 8. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 181.
  3. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 54.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17.
  6. John Mason Good, Olinthus Gregory, Newton Bosworth. Pantalogia, Volume 2: BAR-CAZ. London: T. Davidson, 1813.
  7. William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  8. A Merry Tudor Christmas, hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.
  9. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53.
  10. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: J. Nicholson, 1700; John Lempriere, A Classical Dictionary. New York: D. & J. Bruce, 1809.
  11. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53; Reverend James Gardner, The Faiths of the World, Volume I: A-G. Edinburgh: A. Fularton & Co., 1858. Pages 393-394.

 

Bibliography

  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • Danet, Pierre. A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: J. Nicholson, 1700.
  • Gardner, Reverend James. The Faiths of the World, Volume I: A-G. Edinburgh: A. Fularton & Co., 1858.
  • Good, John Mason; Gregory, Olinthus; Bosworth, Newton. Pantalogia, Volume 2: BAR-CAZ. London: T. Davidson, 1813.
  • Lempriere, John. A Classical Dictionary. New York: D. & J. Bruce, 1809.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 8. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Wetherill Wright, Horace. “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Pages 52-54.
  • A Merry Tudor Christmas. Hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.

November 1 – The Kalends of November: The Month of the Hunt

It is now November. The cool crisp breezes skim through the air, wafting the scents of pumpkin spice and apple cider, while the leaves on the trees are ablaze with the full glory of the Autumn colors. Halloween has come and gone, and people are increasingly turning their attention towards the upcoming holiday season. Other people might be thinking more of the upcoming hunting season, as their imaginations delight in the prospect of bringing home a prize 8-point stag to roast over an open fire.

In ancient Rome, too, people’s minds turned towards other matters with the beginning of November – namely, gathering enough meat to tide them over during the Winter lull. October may have been the harvest season, but November was the hunting season.

Like all months in the ancient Roman calendar, the first day of each month was known as the Kalends, which is where we get the word “calendar” from. The first day of every month was dedicated to Juno, the queen of the gods, who was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera. In addition to specific days being dedicated to this god or another, entire months were also dedicated to various deities. In ancient Rome, the month of November was dedicated to Diana, the goddess of the hunt (1). She was the Roman equivalent of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, the moon, the wilderness, and wild animals.

 

Roman mosaic of the goddess Diana hunting a deer, dated to 150-200 AD. Bardo National Museum, Tunis, Tunisia. Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bardo_Diane_chasseresse.jpg.

 

According to the ancient Roman poet Marcus Manilius in his book Astronomica, each month had a god or goddess assigned to it who would be responsible for regulating the movements of the Zodiac constellations which would appear in the sky during that time. As such, the Roman goddess Diana was associated with the astrological sign of Sagittarius the Hunter, which is understandable given her chosen profession (2).

With Autumn half-way over, and with Winter approaching soon, people needed to think seriously about stocking up their food supplies. It was usually in November and December when farmers slaughtered their livestock and prepared the meat for Winter storage. Nowadays, people can eat meat during any time of the year. However in earlier times, even as recently as the middle of the 19th Century, your options as to what you could eat and when you could eat it were much more limited. Your diet was dictated by the seasons, and meat was almost always something that was eaten during Winter.

In an age without refrigeration, keeping your meat edible was a big concern. Two common methods for preserving meat were salting and smoking, but even these didn’t help much if the weather was hot and humid. In warm or wet weather, meat spoils quickly, even when it has been cured. It must be said that the curing process does not prevent the meat from spoiling – it just delays it. All food will go rotten eventually. To minimize the threat of bacterial contamination, farm animals were often eaten completely on the day that they were slaughtered. Anything that was not eaten would be given to neighbors or to your servants or slaves, if you had any. Considering that some animals are rather large, eating a whole sheep or a whole pig was usually something done for a big family or during a community celebration, such as religious feast days or social holidays.

The only way that you could be sure of safely storing your smoked or salted meat for prolonged periods of time was by having it only during the coldest time of the year. The cold temperatures acted like a natural refrigerator, decreasing the likelihood of bacteria spoiling the meat, and it also kept the flies away. Therefore, it was in late Autumn or early Winter that farmers butchered their pigs, goats, and other livestock, and when hunters ventured into the wilderness in search of rabbits, deer, and wild boars. Understandably, Diana, the wilderness goddess of the hunt, would need to be especially propitiated during this time in order to gain her favor, and that’s the reason why the ancient Romans dedicated the month of November to her.

The ancient Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro reports in his work De Re Rustica, “Of Countryside Things”, that some wealthy men had private hunting preserves on their vast estates where rabbits, deer, and wild boars roamed. He also claims that these same men had fish ponds – some freshwater and others saltwater – where they raised pike, lampreys, mullet, and goldfish. There were also bird aviaries, rabbit warrens, and beehives. In his book, he states “Nowadays people enclose many acres within walls, so as to keep numbers of wild boars and roes” (3). Varro goes into further detail on these private hunting preserves. He reports that a man named Quintus Fulvius Lippinus, who had an estate near the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, had a private hunting preserve measuring forty jugera in area (approximately twenty-five modern acres), upon which were rabbits, red deer, roe deer, and wild sheep. Another man named Titus Pompeius had a private hunting ground in Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) which was so large that it was measured in square miles rather than square acres (4).

Maintaining these private hunting grounds needed some careful planning, as Marcus Terentius Varro explains. Simply having a fence would not do – you needed to have a brick or stone wall which was covered with plaster, forming a smooth uniform surface, so that no weasels or other animals could squeeze through. It also had to have a deep foundation so that animals could not burrow underneath it, as well as be high enough to prevent the animals from jumping over it. Depending upon which animals you wished to keep, certain particulars needed to be put in place. For raising rabbits and hares, Varro explains, you should have several covered places for the animals to hide, with lots of bushes and grass for cover, along with numerous massive trees with wide-spreading branches to prevent eagles from swooping down. Only two male and two female rabbits would be sufficient, because in a short time the whole preserve will be full of them (5).

As for wild boars, Varro reports that they could be kept in these enclosures without much trouble and will readily eat whatever they can scrounge (6). It is a statement that most pig farmers and boar hunters will concur with – pigs are remarkably adaptable animals, able to survive and thrive in a multitude of environments, although they appear to have a particular fondness for wooded areas. If domesticated pigs manage to break out of their barnyard pens and escape into the wilderness, they revert back to their original wild state surprisingly quickly.

 

A mosaic from Roman-era Carthage depicting a boar hunt. Bardo National Museum, Tunis, Tunisia. Photo by Pascal Radigue (2001). Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chasse_sanglier_Carthage_Bardo_National_Museum.JPG.

 

Mosaic depicting a boar hunt, dated to the late 3rd to early 4th Century AD. Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy. Photo by Gerd Eichmann (June 8, 1986). Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Villa_Casale-112-Eberjagd-1986-gje.jpg.

 

One favored way of hunting the wild boar in the Roman Empire was by impaling it with a spear. But this wasn’t your basic everyday pole-arm; this was a weapon that was specifically designed for this task. In my book The Great Illyrian Revolt, I wrote the following passage concerning the kinds of spears that the Illyrian warriors carried in battle…

“The word that the Romans used…was venabulum, the Latin word for “hunting spear”, although the word literally translates to “an instrument used in hunting”, which could mean anything. Hunting spears are differentiated from combat spears by being typically fitted with larger-than-average heads which are used to take down large and dangerous prey like lions, bears, and especially wild boars. In fact, during the Middle Ages, these kinds of spears were called “boar spears”. In addition to having larger heads, they are also fitted with a cross-guard at the base of the spearhead to prevent the spear from digging into the animal so far that it penetrates the animal’s body up to the shaft. The ancient Roman venabulum looked remarkably similar to medieval and modern hunting spears, and they were a common tool used by the bestiarii, the “beast men” who fought against wild animals in the arena. The only difference between the ancient and medieval versions which I can see is that the crossguards on the Roman spears are V-shaped with the two points directed towards the front, while on the medieval ones they are fashioned into a straight horizontal bar” (7)

Varro also provides an anecdote that one fellow, rather than searching out for animals to hunt, had trained the wild animals to come to him! A man named Marcus Pupius Piso had an estate outside the town of Tusculum, and within this property was erected an elevated platform. From here, Piso would blow a horn, and then throw food down to the ground for the wild animals to eat. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the animals within this preserve came to associate the sound of the horn with food, like ringing a dinner bell. After a time, whenever he blew the horn, the animals would immediately emerge from the woods and walk towards him, expecting to find their next meal scattered on the ground below his tower. However, they were now an easy mark for Piso’s bow and arrow (8).

On a side note, during Christian times, the Pantheon was re-dedicated as a Christian church on November 1st (9). This temple, which was formerly dedicated to all of the gods within the Roman polytheistic religion, now served as a temple dedicated to all of the Christian saints. This action became the foundation for “All Saints Day” on November 1, which is still part of the Catholic Christian calendar to this day.

 

Source citations

  1. Lewis Moreri et al, eds., The Great Historical, Geographical and Poetical Dictionary. London: Henry Rhodes, 1694; Dictionarium Sacrum deu Religiosum: A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  2. Lewis Moreri et al, eds., The Great Historical, Geographical and Poetical Dictionary. London: Henry Rhodes, 1694; The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Pages 101, 103.
  3. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 3.
  4. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 12.
  5. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 12.
  6. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 13.
  7. Jason R. Abdale, The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2019. Pages 42-43.
  8. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 3, chapter 13.
  9. Thomas Ignatius Forster, The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824. Page 596.

 

Bibliography

  • Abdale, Jason R. The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2019.
  • Dictionarium Sacrum deu Religiosum: A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  • Forster, Thomas Ignatius. The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824.
  • Moreri, Lewis et al, eds. The Great Historical, Geographical and Poetical Dictionary. London: Henry Rhodes, 1694.
  • The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. De Re Rustica, book 3. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica/3*.html.

 

An Ancient Academic’s Rant: My Gripes with Antiquarians of Prior Centuries

I love ancient history, but I hate reading it.

That’s a statement that some people may find bizarre. I adore the histories of ancient civilizations and cultures. I fantasize about what it must be like to walk the streets of Rome during the reign of Caesar Augustus, or to be on a Greek trireme in the Aegean Sea, or to fight a battle somewhere in the northern wilderness alongside Celtic or Germanic warriors. The histories of ancient times appeal greatly to my creative and imaginative side, and I think that’s why most ancient scholars end up studying ancient history in the first place.

However, I often find the act of researching and studying ancient history to be aggravating and frustrating, and often lead me to yell out some very colorful vocabulary while I’m combing through stacks of info (especially when the records are confusing or contradictory). For this, I largely blame my fore-bearers: the antiquarians, the amateur and quasi-professional scholars of ancient history who lived during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Scholars from the 1700s and 1800s had several tendencies which really get on my nerves, and most of them are founded in having a Classically-rounded education. During the 1700s and 1800s, studying Latin and ancient Greek was a basic part of your elementary school education. Every well-educated child learned Xenophon’s Anabasis and Julius Caesar’s Commentaries along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Because of this, certain assumptions were taken for granted, namely the assumption that every educated person was fluent in Latin and ancient Greek, and the assumption that you were familiar with every ancient text that had been published. In fact, most early academic texts were written in Latin, and it wasn’t until much later that they were published in English and other contemporary languages.

So, here is a list of the four principle things that many of these people do which really piss me off.

Firstly, they hardly ever cite their sources. Again, this infers that the reader is so familiar with the ancient texts that he/she automatically KNOWS which one the author is referencing without needing to specify it. This makes it extremely difficult for modern scholars to verify their claims because you don’t know whether they are paraphrasing something from a true ancient text or if they’re just making stuff up.

Secondly, whenever they DO cite their sources, they often use only abbreviations, usually consisting of a puzzling series of letters and numbers which look almost like computer coding. Take the following example: Plin.NH.I:4. What this means is “Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 1, chapter 4″. Why they simply couldn’t take the effort to write out the citation in-full is beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately, I know a lot of modern-day historians and classicists who still do this (groan). The assumption here is that you are so thoroughly familiar with every ancient document out there that you should just automatically know what these abbreviations stand for. By contrast, I always write out my citations in-full, and I sincerely hope that those who read my books and articles appreciate it.

Thirdly, whenever they quote from someone, they often do it in the original Latin or Greek without providing a translation. In an age when Classical education in Latin and ancient Greek was a basic part of your elementary school education, it was taken for granted that you’d be able to read it without needing a translation. However, things have changed. Latin and ancient Greek are no longer compulsory components of grammar school, and indeed many colleges and universities are dispensing with their Classical curriculums altogether, but that’s a rant for another day. Most people today cannot read Latin or ancient Greek, but thankfully many ancient documents have been translated by now. However, many more aren’t, especially ones that are obscure. It’s extremely tiresome when your reading suddenly stops dead in its tracks because you have to divert yourself away to your Latin dictionary (or in my case, dictionaries, emphasis on plural) and clumsily translate a passage word-for-word, which might take hours.

Fourthly – and perhaps the one that I hate the most – because ancient history has a lot of gaps in the records, these 18th and 19th Century antiquarians were not averse to filling in those gaps with their own imaginations. When in doubt, make stuff up! Just for the record, I am not talking about offering a hypothesis about how events might have played out in order to plausibly connect dots to each other. I do that sort of thing all the time. If you have Point A, Point C, and Point D, then what would the most likely situation be for the missing Point B so that the entire storyline of events makes sense? This is, of course, with the understanding that the author states outright that this is a personal opinion based upon educated guesswork and logical inferencing rather than arbitrarily making stuff up. However, that’s not what many of these Victorian antiquarians have done. They definitely arbitrarily made stuff up. They take a guess, and pass it off as cold hard fact rather than a personal opinion. Sometimes, it boggles the mind to wonder where they came up with some of their info, especially when the information that they give is ridiculously specific. Where on earth did they come up with this? They had to have read it somewhere, right? And that, my friends, is the great trap. The more specific and detailed it sounds, the more authentic it sounds, and the more likely you are to believe it. Never mind the fact that it’s pure BS.

So, with that being said, how do you sort out the BS from the non-BS? The answer: do A LOT of reading. Compare and contrast, analyze, back-check your sources, take proper notations and citations of things so that you can cross-reference them later. After a while, you’ll start to become aware of what’s plausible verses what’s the product of some Victorian’s imagination. However, be prepared for a lot of headaches, tired eyes, and aggravation. There will be times when you make great progress, and there will be times that you’ve researched and wrote all day, only to discover that your original source material was all lies that have been taken-for-granted as truth, and you have to throw an entire day’s work into the trash can. It’s just part of the game.

So, to any would be ancient academics, or indeed to any currently-working academics, please take the following suggestions to heart: don’t assume that I know what you’re talking about, please cite your sources, write out your citations in full without those damned abbreviations, please provide translations, and above all, don’t lie to me.