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April 28 – The Floralia: The Ancient Roman Flower Festival

Get ready for some ancient Roman flower power, dude! April 28 was date of the Floralia, a festival dedicated to the goddess Flora, the ancient Roman goddess of flowers and fertility. Flora was associated with Spring, the season of new life and color, and her feast day was a lavish festival dedicated to honoring and celebrating the spring season. There were theatrical performances, competitions, and games. Bright multi-colored clothing was worn by the people to emulate the various flower colors, and women wore wreathes of flowers around their heads and laced into their hair. In ancient Rome, April 28 was a day to let your freakus flaggus flyus!!!

Image © Jason R. Abdale. November 10, 2018.

The origins of this holiday are somewhat difficult to determine. On the face of it, it would appear that the ancient Romans dedicated this holiday to the goddess Flora to celebrate the coming of Spring. Throughout the ages and among numerous civilizations, flowers are regarded as emblematic of the Spring season, and the ancient Romans were no different.

Flowers are not just pretty to look at – they are also extremely important to an agriculture-dominant society. Most fruits and vegetables are created as a result of pollenated flowers. If the flower blossoms abruptly died before they could be pollenated, or if the plants didn’t even blossom at all for some reason, then not only would the farmer have a miniscule harvest, meaning that his finances would suffer a severe down-turn, but also a devastating famine would break out. Thus, it was important to honor, celebrate, and placate the flower goddess to ensure a good Spring blossoming and a good Autumn harvest.

In Ovid’s Fasti, the poet puts these words into Flora’s mouth: “Perhaps you think I only rule over tender garlands. But my power also commands the farmers’ fields. If the crops have flourished, the threshing-floor is full: If the vines have flourished, there’ll be wine: If the olive trees have flourished, the year will be bright, and the fruit will prosper at the proper time. If the flower’s damaged, the beans and vetch die, and your imported lentils, Nile, die too. Wine too, laboriously stored in the vast cellars, froths, and clouds the wine jars’ surface with mist. Honey’s my gift: I call the winged ones who make honey, to the violets, clover and pale thyme. I carry out similar functions, when spirits run riot, and bodies themselves flourish” (1).

Photo by Jason R. Abdale. March 22, 2021.

What do we know about Flora herself? Marcus Terentius Varro claims that Flora was a Sabine goddess. There was apparently a very old temple to Flora located within “the Sabine Quarter” of the city of Rome, and order of priests had been established to preside over her holy rites (2).

According to the poet Ovid, Flora was originally named Chloris, but an error in spelling led to the Romans mistakenly writing her name as Floris, and later Flora. She was neither woman nor goddess, but was a nymph – a divine spiritual entity which inhabited woods, fields, and other wild places. According to Roman legend, she was captured and raped by Zephyrus (I am amazed and disgusted how much rape is in ancient Greek and Roman mythology), and the two of them were afterwards married. The two lived in a house set in the fields, located near a spring, and Flora was given the duty of tending to the garden. Thus, she became “the mistress of the flowers” (3).

But as with anything involving ancient history, nothing is EVER that straight-forward. The Roman writer Lactantius, who wrote during the 300s AD, gives us the story that Flora was not a goddess or a nymph, but was in fact, a famous prostitute. This woman had acquired a massive amount of wealth as a result of her midnight activities. When she died, she decreed in her will that all of her money was to be donated to the Roman people, and stipulated that a portion of her wealth was to be set aside so that public games could be celebrated each year, which would be known as the Ludi Floriales, “the Games of Flora”. The men of the Roman Senate, who presented an image of being very dignified and virtuous, was ashamed of this woman’s activities. Consequently, they re-wrote her history, claiming that she was, in fact, a goddess who presided over flowers and blossoms, an that the games were necessary in order to please her and assure a good Autumn harvest (4).

It is said that the Floralia was celebrated for the first time in 238 BC. During that year, all of Italy was ravaged by prolonged periods of bad weather, and large quantities of the year’s crops were destroyed. Italy was threatened with famine and mass starvation. The Roman Senate consulted the Sibyl, the great oracle of the Roman world, as to what ought to be done. In response, she commanded the Roman people to hold a great festival in honor of the goddess Flora as a way to gain her favor and grant protection over flowers and blossoms. This was done, and the harvest was miraculously saved. However, it wasn’t until 174 or 173 BC that the Floralia was celebrated every year (5).

The festivities began on April 28 and lasted into May 3. The reason that the date of April 28 was chosen was that a shrine or a temple dedicated to Flora was established at the Circus Maximus and was dedicated on April 28. Flora’s temple was located very close to the Temple of Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture. James Elmes stated that April 28 was actually Flora’s birthday (6).

It’s noteworthy that this flower festival extends through the first days of May. May 1 is the date of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltaine, which marks the first day of Summer in the Celtic calendar. The ancient Celtic and ancient Roman seasonal calendars were different from ours. To us, the Summer Solstice in late June marks the beginning of Summer, but to the Celts and Romans, that was the middle, the high-point, of Summer. To them, the real beginning of Summer occurred between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, sometime in early May. To the ancient Celts, the festival of Beltaine marked the beginning of Summer. Just like with the Roman Floralia, flowers played a core part in the Celtic festival of Beltaine. In the Celtic world, on May 1, the outside of people’s houses were decorated with hawthorn branches and flowers, and doors, windows, and cattle would be adorned with yellow flowers because they represented the sun (7).

Photo by Jason R. Abdale. June 29, 2018.

The Floralia was held in the Campus Martius, in the shadow of Flora’s shrine, and the aediles were responsible for conducting and overseeing the day’s festivities. The festival’s expenses were paid for by allocating a portion of the fines that had been collected from people who illegally set their livestock on publicly-owned land (8). The festivities began with the blasting of a trumpet. Torches were lit throughout the city during this multi-festival, blazing throughout the night. In the words of Ovid, putting words in the mouth of the goddess herself, “Lights are thought to be fitting for my day, because the fields glow with crimson flowers, or because flowers and flames aren’t dull in colour, and the splendour of them both attracts the eye: or because the licence of night suits my delights, and this third reason’s nearest to the truth” (9). The Celtic festival of Beltaine was also marked by the lighting of the Beltaine Bonfire, which was believed to ward off pestilence and evil spirits and to bestow fertility upon livestock (10).

“Spring”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1894)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alma_Tadema_Spring.jpg

The Floralia was a time of great merriment and celebration. During this time, more latitude was given to engage in activities which otherwise would have been frowned upon. In the words of the ancient Roman poet Ovid, “A goddess comes framed in a thousand varied garlands of flowers, and the stage has freer license for mirth… Mother of the flowers, approach, so we can honour you with joyful games!” (11). The Floralia was intended to be a day for fun and celebration, and the whole population as encouraged to lighten up and loosen up. Dining tables were covered with rose petals, people wore bright boldly-patterned clothes to mimic the vibrant rainbow of flower petals, and they wore garlands of flowers around their heads. There was dancing in the streets and a great deal excessive drinking! It was a day that the wine god Bacchus himself would have reveled in. After all, Ovid quipped, Bacchus loves flowers and he was often seen wearing crowns of them (12). During the reign of Emperor Galba, one of the monarchs who ruled during “the Year of the Four Emperors” in 69 AD, a new novelty circus attraction was exhibited for the first time: “In celebrating the games of the Floralia in his praetorship he gave a new kind of exhibition, namely of elephants walking the rope” (13).

A scene from a 1990s Xerox commercial showing an Olympian god wearing a tie-dyed toga, claiming he needs more color in his life. During the Floralia festival, he would have fit right in.

Many of the features of this day’s celebrations could be quite raunchy! Among the day’s festivities were strippers, nude dancers, plays in which all of the actors and actresses should be naked, female wrestlers, and female gladiator fights – no mention is made if they fought naked (14). In the words of the poet Juvenal…

“The female wrestling ring; who hasn’t seen the battered training-post, hacked by repeated sword-blows, scarred by her shield. The girl’s fully trained, totally qualified, ready for the fanfare and fights at the Floralia, unless that is she plans something more, practises now for the wider arena. How can you call her decent, a helmeted woman who spurns her very own gender? She loves a fight, even so she’d not wish to be a man; the pleasure we get is so little, after all! What a sight, if they auctioned off the wives’ paraphernalia, the sword-belts, arm-protectors, crests, and the half-size left-leg shin-guards! Or if it’s a different fight she wages, how happy you’d be if she managed to sell off her greaves. Yet these are the girls who sweat in the thinnest dress, whose delicate skins are chafed by the smoothest wisps of silk. Hear her cries as she drives home the thrusts she’s learned, feel how heavy the helmet is that she bows beneath, see the breadth, the thickness, of those bandages round her knees, and laugh when she takes to a chamber-pot, fully armed! Grand-daughters of Lepidus, blind Metellus, and Fabius Maximus Gurges too, what gladiator’s wife ever wore stuff like this? When did Asylus’s wife grunt at the training-post?” (15)

As far as Ovid was concerned, all of this was perfectly natural. Surely, for a such a light-hearted and care-free goddess as Flora, dour solemnity would be banned on her feast days. These were the days to feel alive, to embrace the vigors of one’s youth, because you’re only young for a brief time, so make the most of it while you can: “I was going to ask why there’s greater wantonness in her games, and freer jests, but it struck me that the goddess isn’t strict, and the gifts she brings are agents of delight…The reason the crowd of whores celebrate these games is not a difficult one for us to discover. The goddess isn’t gloomy, she’s not high-flown, she wants her rites to be open to the common man, and warns us to use life’s beauty while it’s in bloom” (16)

However, for the prudish Lactantius, these festivities were a scandalous abomination: “Those games, therefore, are celebrated with all wantonness, as is suitable to the memory of a harlot. For besides licentiousness of words, in which all lewdness is poured forth, women are also stripped of their garments at the demand of the people, and then perform the office of mimeplayers, and are detained in the sight of the people with indecent gestures, even to the satiating of unchaste eyes” (17)

The sexual licentiousness associated with the Floralia festival might also have social connections with the pagan calendars of the Romans and Celts. This was, after all, “the lusty month of May”. In the Celtic world during May, marriage vows were temporarily suspended and people were given full permission to have affairs with whomever they wished. Men and women got their rocks off as if there was no tomorrow in the hope that their raging horniness would encourage flowers to bloom and crops to grow (18).

Beast hunts were held in the Circus Maximus on the last day of the celebration Hunting rabbits, deer, wild goats, and other herbivorous animals was encouraged on this day, but the hunting of predatory animals such as lions, wolves, foxes, and bears was not. The reason for this was that these herbivorous animals were a frequently-encountered pest in one’s farms and gardens. They devoured and destroyed acres of crops, and ate the green shoots before they had a chance to blossom and fruit. Such animals, went Ovid, were repugnant to Flora and to other gods and goddesses associated with the Earth’s produce, and therefore they needed to be culled to prevent them from causing too much damage. However, since creatures like lions and wolves did not eat grain, fruits, or flowers, they were no threat to farmers, and therefore could be left alone for today (19).

So on April 28 to May 3, go crazy! Lighten up, loosen up, and live it up! Put some flowers in your hair and wear outrageously colorful clothing. Eat, drink, and be merry, and enjoy the joys of life. Summer is a-comin’ in.

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, chapter 74. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 71; Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, chapter 45. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 311; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 92.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  4. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 18, chapter 69; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 389; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238; 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 92-93.
  7. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 224-225.
  8. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Reverend Thomas Wilson, An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 92.
  9. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 390.
  10. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 218-225.
  11. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  12. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180.
  13. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 7 – “The Life of Galba”, chapter 6.
  14. Quintus Valerius Maximus, Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, book 2, chapter 10, verse 8; Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
  15. Juvenal, Satire #6.
  16. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  17. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
  18. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 228-229; “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”.
  19. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741.
  • Elmes, James. A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
  • 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.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Kennett, Basil. Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695.
  • Seyffert, Oskar. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891.
  • Smith, William. A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, Charles Roach; Madden, Frederick W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
  • Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783.
  • Huff Post. “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”, by Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway (May 1, 2014). https://www.huffpost.com/entry/greenwood-marriages-and-t_b_5242087.

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.

October 23 – The Feast of Bacchus, Liber Pater

It’s no secret that the ancient Roman calendar was chock-full of holidays, feast days, and festivals. Any excuse for a party, I suppose. However, determining which days are truly authentic dates for celebrations within the ancient Roman calendar, and which ones are the fictional conjurings of 18th and 19th Century antiquarians, can be a bit tricky.

One example concerns a feast day which was supposedly held on October 23. Numerous secondary sources claim that this was a one of several days in the ancient Roman calendar dedicated to the veneration of the god Bacchus. Although he is commonly thought of as being the god of wine, the Roman parallel of the ancient Greek god Dionysus, Bacchus had other divine associations and attributes as well. As two examples Bacchus was also the god of dancing and divination (1).

Bacchus’ feast on October 23 was specifically known as the Feast of Liber Pater, “the Free Father”. This was a title that the wine-god Bacchus was known by. According to the Dictionary of Polite Literature, published in 1804, “LIBER, LIBER PATER. Epithets of Bacchus, from λυω, [meaning] to unloose, or set free, because he frees men from constraint, and puts them on an equality” (2). The Roman historian Plutarch asked why Bacchus was known by the title of Liber Pater as part of his series known as Roman Questions. In the words of the 17th Century scholar Robert Burton, “It makes the mind of the king and of the fatherless both one, of the bond and freeman, poore (sic) and rich it turneth all his thoughts to joy and mirth, makes him remember no sorrow or debt, but enricheth his heart, and makes him speak by talents…It gives life itself, spirits, wit, &c. For which cause the Ancients called Bacchus Liber Pater…and sacrificed to Bacchus and Pallas still upon an altar” (3).

For this reason, it is stated in two sources that Bacchus’ feast on October 23 was known as the Liberalia, the Feast of Freedom, a care-free celebration devoted to ridding one’s self of one’s troubles, accompanied by a liberal consumption of alcohol. After all, to paraphrase the Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene, wine was given to Man as a gift from the gods to help people forget about their problems (4).

However, there is a problem with this claim. There was another festival known as the Liberalia, dedicated to Bacchus Liber Pater, which was held on March 16 or 17, a day dedicated to both Bacchus and Mars. You can read about this day in more detail by clicking here. By all accounts, this festival in mid-March was the ONLY day that was officially known as the Liberalia. As to why these 19th Century authors also gave that title to the festival on October 23, I think that it is largely to do with grammatical inferencing. Liber or Liber Pater were two of the titles that Bacchus was known by, according to Plutarch, and “-alia” is a suffix which means “festival of…”. Therefore, a feast day dedicated to Bacchus under this cognomen should read as Liberalia, “the Festival of Liber”. From a linguistic standpoint, this makes perfect sense. However, from a historical and anthropological standpoint, it’s wrong. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that the ancient Romans referred this this feast day by this title. It is an assumption which is being presented as indisputable fact.

A silver denarius coin dated to the 190s AD, during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, shows Bacchus under the persona of Liber Pater (the inscription reads LIBERO PATRI) carrying a thyrsus staff and accompanied by a cat. This coin was minted from 194 to 198 AD (5).

Sacrifices were made to Bacchus on October 23, and William King states that people wore crowns of fir branches when making sacrifices to him. As to the offerings that were made, the most common sacrifices offered to Bacchus consisted of goat meat, wine, honey, and honey cakes (6).

The celebrations conducted on October 23 seem to be of a more subdued nature than the Bacchanalia festival of September 3. The Bacchanalia is frequently associated with debauched hedonism, a day devoted to drinking, feasting, and sex. By contrast, the feast held on October 23 seems to have been just your basic run-of-the-mill ancient Roman religious feast day – a day that began with sacrifices and ended with a party.

“A Harvest Festival”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1880).

Source Citations

  1. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 136.
  2. Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804.
  3. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1638. Page 386; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #104; Thomas Ignatius Forster, The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824. Page 579; Rev. Edward Smedley, Rev. Hugh James Rose, and Rev. Henry John Rose, eds., Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge. Volume XVI. London: 1845. Page 150.
  4. Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804; Seth William Stevenson, C. Roach Smith, and Frederic W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889. Page 514.
  5. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 42-43.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17; William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.

 

Bibliography

  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1638.
  • Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804.
  • Forster, Thomas Ignatius. The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824.
  • King, William. An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #104. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
  • Rowan, Clare. Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Smedley, Rev. Edward; Rose, Rev. Hugh James; Rose, Rev. Henry John, eds. Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge. Volume XVI. London: 1845.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, C. Roach; Madden, Frederic W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.

September 3 – The Bacchanalia: The Feast of Bacchus, God of Wine

“Today is a day to drink and dance! Let us rival the priests of Bacchus with feasts to deck the couches of the gods!” – Aristarchus of Athens, Greek orator, 1st Century BC

The quotation that you see above are the first two sentences of a grandiose speech which was delivered in the first episode of the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius. The speech was performed for Caesar Augustus and his companions during a dinner party commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Actium, fought on September 2, 31 BC, which is regarded as one of the most important battles of ancient history. The person who delivered this speech was a certain Greek orator named Aristarchus of Athens, who, in the words of Augustus himself, was “the greatest orator of our time”.

In reality, almost everything about this is pure make-believe. There was no such orator named Aristarchus of Athens who lived during the 1st Century BC – the character is entirely fictional. Likewise, too, is the speech that he makes commemorating Caesar Augustus’ victory over Antony and Cleopatra. However, the above quote makes an interesting reference to the god Bacchus, the ancient Roman god of wine, and this is because the Battle of Actium was fought on the day before this god’s primary feast day.

September 3 was the date of the Bacchanalia, the Feast of Bacchus. Although this god had several other feast days dedicated to him, some of which fell on March 16 or 17, October 23, (perhaps) and November 24, the Bacchanalia festival of September 3 was the most important day held in his honor.

“A Dedication to Bacchus”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1889). Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

Bacchus, it is said, was born in the city of Thebes within the Greek region of Boeotia. He was the son of Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, and Semele, the beautiful daughter of the Phoenician hero Cadmus. The story goes that Jupiter lusted after Semele, and Juno, the queen of the gods, learned of this. Rather than dissuade her husband from pursuing an affair, she appeared to Semele and told her to request Jupiter to have sex with her, and to make him swear by death itself that he would make love to her with all of the passion that he did with his wife. However, this divine hook-up would lead to Semele’s death. The act of a mortal woman having sex with a god ended up killing her, and she was consumed by fire and burned into nothing but ashes. However, the act had made her pregnant, and her conceived child was transferred into Jupiter’s body to keep the baby from being burned as well. It was his father Jupiter, therefore, who gave birth to Bacchus – thus, he was born of both a man and a woman as his two mothers (1).

Bacchus’ status as being conceived by a woman and given birth to by a man might have something to do with his outward appearance. Bacchus was said to be a hermaphrodite, or at least to have an androgenous appearance, being “both male and female” at the same time. He is frequently represented in Roman art as a young man without a beard, and sometimes his facial features and even his body as a whole bear an effeminate appearance (2). Bacchus is traditionally shown wearing a crown made of ivy or grape leaves. Sometimes, in one of his hands, he holds a javelin or spear called a thyrsus with a vine garland wrapped around it (3).

Bacchus was attended by a group of women, and these priestesses were referred to by many titles. Mostly, they were known as Bacchae, because they served Bacchus, but also because, like their wine-guzzling master, they were prone to excessive drinking. For that reason, they were also sometimes called the Mimallones, “the mimickers” because they copied the drunkenness of their divine lord. Sometimes, they were known by the name Maenades, because their ecstatic devotions were mistaken for madness. Other times, they were called Thyades due to their forceful nature. There’s a story that when a Theban woman named Alcithoe mocked these female servants, Bacchus was so offended that he turned her into a bat. Even nowadays, “bat” is a metaphor that is sometimes applied to loud-mouthed women who are difficult to deal with (4).

Roman mythology tells that Bacchus performed many miracles. For example, he once struck the earth with his staff, and out sprang rivers of milk and honey. On another instance, he cut a sheep into pieces, and then put it back together again, whereupon the sheep continued to graze in the fields as if nothing had happened (5).

Bacchus was also a bringer of knowledge. He taught to Mankind the arts of how to plant crops, how to collect honey, how to make wine, and gave them knowledge of astronomy, and also instructed them as to how to conduct sacrifices to the gods. Like the Egyptian god Osiris, he traveled the world bestowing this knowledge on all of the people that he encountered. Thus, Bacchus was regarded as a bringer of civilization to the furthest parts of the world. In fact, it is stated that the Bacchanalia festival of September 3 was meant to commemorate Bacchus’ arrival in India, which to the Romans must have been seen as the opposite side of the world (6).

In official religious processions, Bacchus was clothed in a leopard pelt and drawn in a chariot. Beside him, he was accompanied by satyrs and other entities of the rustic countryside, playing flutes and beating cymbals and making lofty exclamations about him and his glory, while huge tigers and leopards prowled around his chariot. Also in his retinue were the entities of the forest – the nymphs, lenae, and naiades – crowned with wreaths of ivy, their hair hanging down loose, and wearing only animal pelts for clothing, and carrying staffs garlanded with ivy. One source said that they had snakes in their hair and had snakes wrapped around their waist. However, this might be better interpreted as wearing headbands and waistbelts made of snakeskin (7).

Interestingly, Bacchus’ chariot was pulled not by horses, but by large cats (mostly tigers, but sometimes lions, and other times leopards) – some records state that it was pulled by two cats, while others say it was four. Cats were frequently associated with Bacchus, especially big cats. It has even been claimed that tigers were sacred to him, based upon the writings of Seneca and Martial (8).

A silver denarius coin dated to the 190s AD, during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, shows Bacchus under the persona of Liber Pater (the inscription reads LIBERO PATRI) carrying a thyrsus staff and accompanied by a cat. This type of coin was minted from 194 to 198 AD (9). Another example of a silver denarius made during the reign of Severus’ successor Caracalla, dated to the year 206 AD, depicts Bacchus riding in a chariot being pulled by a team of four big cats (10).

It is said that in the war between the gods and the titans, Bacchus actually transformed himself into a lion and fought ferociously in battle. However, he was overwhelmed and the titans hacked his body into pieces. When the battle was over, Pallas gathered together all of the pieces and brought them to Jupiter, who fused them back together and brought Bacchus back to life (11).

According to William King, ivy, fir, oak, ropeweed, and daffodils were associated with Bacchus. By contrast, according to William Burder and Joel Parker, ivy, fir, pine, and fig were sacred to Bacchus. William King says that people would wear daffodil flowers in their hair during Bacchus’ feasts because of a Roman superstition that the flowers would induce a drunk-like state. However, he also says that people would wear crowns of fir branches when making sacrifices to Bacchus (12).

In ancient Athens, the wine-god Dionysus was celebrated in two festivals: one in Spring and another in Autumn. Originally a stately affair, in later times, it descended into a depraved orgy of earthly pleasures. “Vice, debauchery, and licentiousness became their distinguishing characteristics”. (13). As the philosopher Plato reported, the whole population of Athens fell into a state of drunkenness (14).

The rituals of the ancient Greek Dionysia eventually made their way into Italy as the Etruscans came into contact with the Greeks, and from the Etruscans it became known to the Romans. Under the Romans, the feast became known as the Bacchanalia, derived from the secret religious sanctuary of Bacchus known as the Bacchanal. Here, the sacred rites to the wine-god were performed in secret. Originally, it was a purification festival which was intended to admit new priestesses into Bacchus’ service. For nine days, the selected women feasted and drunk excessively, and on the tenth day, they underwent a purification. These rituals were known as “orgies” (15).

“Roman Orgy” by Vasily Alexandrovich Kotarbinsky (1898). The State Russian Museum, Moscow, Russia.

The ceremony changed from a private affair and took on a more public nature during the 2nd Century BC. For this, we have to thank Pacula Annia, a woman from the southern Italian region of Campania. Claiming to be acting under the direct command of Bacchus himself, she became the chief priestess of his service and began changing nearly everything about the rites and ceremonies concerning the wine god. Previously served only by women, she admitted men into the Bacchan priesthood. Also, she changed the Bacchanalia from being held annually to being held for a five-day period every month. During this time, the conduct of the orgies hit new heights of excess and immorality, to the point where things got so out of hand that in 186 BC the Roman Senate abolished the festival entirely. However, it was simply too popular to be outlawed forever, and it was brought back. The drunken hedonistic celebrations of the Bacchanalia were carried out with full fervency during the imperial period, as noted by authors such as Virgil, Livy, and Juvenal. It would not be until the moralizing of the Christian era that the Bacchanalia and other pagan rituals were again outlawed and eventually faded into history (16).

 

Source Citations

  1. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 131.
  2. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 133.
  3. William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  4. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Pages 133, 134.
  5. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 133.
  6. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 136; W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  7. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  8. Seth William Stevenson, C. Roach Smith, and Frederic W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889. Page 514.
  9. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 42-43.
  10. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 73.
  11. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Pages 134-135.
  12. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  13. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  14. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  15. Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854. Page 120.
  16. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114; Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854. Page 120.

 

Bibliography

  • Brande, W. T.; Cauvin, Joseph, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852.
  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • King, William. An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731.
  • Rowan, Clare. Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Smith, Sir William; Anthon, Charles. A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, C. Roach; Madden, Frederic W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889.

March 17 – The Feast of Mars

Today is March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day. While people all over the world celebrate everything that it means to be Irish, things would have been different two thousand years ago. Tradition states that Saint Patrick died on March 17, but we don’t know for sure if he did indeed die on this day, or was born on this day, or whatever. That being said, if Ireland’s patron saint really does have nothing to do with this particular day, then why did the Church place Patrick’s feast day on March 17? It was common practice among the Catholic Church to take pre-existing pagan holidays and give them a Christian spin in order to gain converts and to suppress previous religious beliefs.

So what was so important about March 17 that made the Catholic Church want to Christianize it? March 17 was important to the ancient Romans for three reasons. Firstly, this was the date of the Feast of Mars, the ancient Roman god of war. The god Mars actually had several days held in his honor (March 1, March 14, March 17, and March 23), but March 17 was regarded by the ancient Romans as THE feast day of their god of battles. Secondly, March 17 was the date in which Roman adolescent boys ceremonially crossed the threshold of manhood. Picture an ancient Roman version of a bar mitzvah, and you get the idea. Thirdly, March 17 was the day of the Liberalia, a festival dedicated to the spirit of freedom. “Liber” was one of the titles that was given to the god Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and celebration, and thus was a Roman parallel of the ancient Greek god Dionysus. Bacchus Liber was, therefore, the god of freedom, licentiousness, and unrestrained behavior. On this day, people were uninhibited by normal social conventions, and I imagine that the Catholic clergy would have been shocked by a lot of the casual care-free behavior of the revelers.

Let’s turn our attention first towards Mars. Most people who are familiar with Roman civilization are pretty confident that they know who Mars is – he’s the Roman god of war, the parallel of the ancient Greek war god Ares. However, it’s more complicated than that. For starters, Mars wasn’t even a Roman god – he was an Etruscan god named Maris that the Romans adopted into their pantheon. Secondly, he wasn’t a war god, not at first anyway, but he gradually became associated with that role. I think I can explain it better here…

“Perhaps the god most identified with Rome was the war-god Mars, since Mars was the father of Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome. Originally a god of fertility and agriculture, based upon the Etruscan god Maris, he slowly became a war god, which may be due in part to his duty as a protector of fields and pastures – in other words, he guarded the homeland. As Rome’s borders expanded due to the frequent wars against its neighbours, the homeland expanded with it, and Mars’ job as a guardian of Roman soil took on greater importance until he became a full-fledged god of battles” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2016. Page 6).

Now that we know Mars’ background, let’s survey the rituals that are associated with his feast day on March 17. For many of my posts, I have used Ovid as a key reference because his book Fasti concerns explanations of key events in the Roman calendar; he regrettably died before he was able to complete it. You would think that the worship of one of the Roman pantheon’s main gods would be a focus of particular interest for him. However, intriguingly and puzzlingly, Ovid makes no mention whatsoever in his Fasti of any significance that March 17 held for the war god Mars. Instead, we have received most of our information concerning Mars’ feast day from the writings of Plutarch and Marcus Terentius Varro.

March 17 was the day of the Agonalia of Mars. In a previous post, I explained than an agonalia was a holy day in which live animal sacrifices were conducted, usually a ram. So we already know from the name given to this ritual that a ram would be sacrificed to Mars at some point during the day. I find it an interesting coincidence that the astrological sign of the ram is Aries, which is similar to the name of the ancient Greek war god Ares, which many regard as a synonym of Mars.

Plutarch provides us with the most information regarding the rituals of the Agonalia of Mars. In his work The Life of Numa Pompilius, he describes the rituals that were practiced by the priests of Mars. Numa Pompilius was one of the fabled kings of Rome, and his claim to notoriety was that he invented many of Rome’s religious practices. One of these was the establishment of a priesthood dedicated to the worship of the god Mars. This was the Salian Order, derived from the Latin verb salit meaning “to jump or leap”. So they were, literally, the Leaping Priests. Please restrain yourself from making any Blackadder jokes about the Jumping Jews of Jerusalem.

The celebrations opened with the entry procession of the priests. Leading the way was the high priest of Mars, the Flamen Martialis, who carries the sacred Spear of Mars. Behind him are twelve priests of the Salian Order, garbed in short purple cloaks, a broad belt studded with brass, a metal helmet with a chinstrap and capped with a metal spike, and they carry a dagger and a bronze ancilia shield. The shield itself was curvilinear, almost like a figure eight. Look at the Battersea Shield, and you get an idea of what it looked like. As these men advance, the Salians leap and dance, striking their daggers against their shields and chanting out songs. From the description, it almost sounds like something tribal, and one gets the idea that this might have been a very archaic ritual that was performed by the primitive inhabitants of Italy centuries before this (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13).

Speaking of archaic things, we have some information about the song that these twelve priests chanted. The Carmen Saliare, also known as the Carmine Saliorum, was a chant sung by the Salian Priests on this day. Written in Archaic Latin (that is to say, a very primitive form of Latin), only a couple of fragments have survived, recorded by Marcus Terentius Varro in his book De Lingua Latina, “On the Latin Language”…

Cozevi oborieso. Omnia vero ad Patulc[ium] commisse[i]. Ianeus iam es, duonus Cerus es, du[o]nus Ianus. Ven[i]es po[tissimu]m melios eum recum…Divum em pa cante, divum deo supplicate”.

“O Planter God, arise. Everything indeed have I committed unto (thee as) the Opener. Now art thou the Doorkeeper, thou art the Good Creator, the Good God of Beginnings. Thou’lt come especially, thou the superior of these kings… Sing ye to the Father of the Gods, entreat the God of Gods” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, verses 26 and 27. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 292-295).

Remember that I had mentioned earlier that Mars started off as an agriculture god and gradually became associated with warfare? Invoking him as “Planter God” is a reference to this. Anyway, back to our description of the Agonalia ritual. After the entrance procession has ended, the priest offer prayers to Mars, and then they sacrifice a white ram to him – sacrificial victims were almost always colored white.

So much for the holy rites offered to Mars. Now let us turn our attention to the ritual of coming-of-age and of the ceremonies held in honor of Bacchus. The two of these are related, or perhaps the transition from boy to man is in relation to the feast of Mars, which seems more likely. Ovid himself was uncertain as to why the ceremony of manhood was held on this day. One hypothetical explanation that he gave was that since today was the day of freedom, graduating from a boy to man granted you freedoms that you didn’t have as a child (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).

Once you turned 16 or so, the boy would take off his bulla, the small leather pouch that hung around his neck which held good luck charms (note the strong similarity here to the customs of some of the Native American tribes, in which a “medicine pouch” was carried with them for protection and strength). Now that he was no longer a child, he would not need these things to keep him safe. The gods had safeguarded him through his youth. Now, he was a man, and he would have to look out for his own well-being. He then put on the toga virilis, “the toga of manhood” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). As recognized adults, they were now eligible for military service. No wonder that the Liberalia and the Feast of Mars occurred on the same day.

Now that he had graduated to manhood, it was time to party. On March 17, a feast was held dedicated to Bacchus. The festival may have had its origins in ancient Greece. “In March the Greeks celebrated the FEAST OF BACCHUS and carried his statue to a temple in the Keramicus” (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).

The poet Ovid hails Bacchus’s feast, one dedicated to the spirit of Liberty:

“Liber (the god or spirit of freedom), before your birth the altars were without offerings, and grass appeared on the stone-cold hearths. They tell how you set aside the first fruits for Jupiter, after subduing the Ganges region, and the whole of the East. You were the first to offer up cinnamon and incense from conquered lands, and the roast entrails of triumphal oxen. Libations derive their name from their originator, and cake (liba) since a part is offered on the sacred hearth. Honey-cakes are baked for the god, because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey… Father Liber loves honey: its right to offer its discoverer glittering honey diffused through oven-warm cakes” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).

The poet Ovid goes into considerable length to describe the celebrations associated with Bacchus Liber. The person who presided over the day’s festivities was an old woman crowned with a wreath made of ivy leaves. In the past, but not in Ovid’s time, games were held in the city of Rome in honor of Bacchus; he further comments that the date of these games were moved to April 19, the date of the Cerealia, and the games themselves switched to being dedicated to the agriculture goddess Ceres. In reference to the story of Bacchus discovering honey, on March 17 vineyard owners would go into town to sell honey cakes to the people (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). For the Romans, honey cakes was the food traditionally eaten on March 17, similar to the way that we often associate certain holidays with certain dishes, including corned beef, cabbage, Irish soda bread, and beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Sources: