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History Lecture – “The Great Illyrian Revolt” at the Queens Public Library – January 26, 2021

Greetings everyone! On January 26, 2021, I conducted my first ever public lecture as a historian when I delivered a talk for the Queens Public Library via WEBEX concerning the Great Illyrian Revolt, a massive uprising which took place against the Roman Empire from 6 to 9 AD. The lecture was recorded on the host’s personal computer, and she sent me the link to the video, but I didn’t know how to download this video file onto my own computer until a few hours ago. After some very frantic computer work, here it is! The video lasts for a just a tad longer than an hour and twelve minutes. I hope you enjoy it.

If you like this lecture please purchase a copy of my book The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9, published by Pen & Sword Books in 2019.

An Announcement: I’ll be giving a public lecture on ancient Roman history!

Greetings all! I am happy to report that I will be delivering my first-ever public lecture as a historian. I will be giving a talk about the Great Illyrian Revolt of 6-9 AD, one of the biggest, most consequential, and least-studied military conflicts in ancient Roman history.

The lecture will be hosted by the Queens Public Library and will be held virtually on WEBEX on Tuesday January 26 from 4:00-5:00 PM eastern time. It’s free, and you don’t need a library card or a library account to attend – you just need access to a computer. I have included the official Queens Public Library advertising announcement below. You can also click on the website link here: https://www.queenslibrary.org/calendar/fyi-the-great-illyrian-revolt-with-jason-r-abdale/002113-1220.

January 16, 7 BC – The Day that Germany Surrendered to Rome

The date of January 16, 7 BC is important for both Roman and German history.

Ten years earlier in the year 17 BC, three German tribes crossed the Rhine and raided Gaul, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. It wasn’t long before the barbarians ran into a Roman cavalry unit and forced them to retreat. Pursuing them, the Germans stumbled upon the commander of the 5th Legion, Marcus Lollius, and in the skirmish, the Germans captured the 5th Legion’s eagle. This event would provide the pretext for a Roman invasion of Germania (1).

A map of the Germanic tribes, circa 15 BC. Illustration by Jason R. Abdale, 2013.

In 13 BC, Caesar Augustus dispatched his 25-year-old stepson Drusus Claudius Nero to lead a military campaign against the Germanic tribes. An experienced commander who had won some fame in the conquests of Rhaetia and Vindelicia, the invasion of Germania would be a prestigious commission. He arrived on the Rhine River that same year and surveyed the situation, collecting as much information as possible. Throughout the following year, he built a series of forts along the Gallic side of the Rhine to serve as staging posts, he stockpiled supplies, and he accumulated a mass of intelligence from his scouts and recon forces. After he felt that he had enough men and enough info, he was ready (2).

In 11 BC, Drusus Claudius Nero designated Fort Vetera (modern-day Xanten) as his operation headquarters. Rome’s campaign to conquer western Germania began that year when Drusus’ men intercepted another Germanic raiding party that had crossed into Gaul, and beat them so hard that the Germans were forced to run. Afterwards, Drusus and his soldiers crossed the Rhine – the first time that a Roman army had crossed the Rhine since the days of Julius Caesar – and proceeded to lay waste to the land. In a single campaign season, he defeated four German tribes (3).

In the Spring of 10 BC, Drusus’ men once again attacked the border tribes, and then advanced inland. His troops pushed as far east as the Weser River, but they had to stop because they had run out of supplies. As the Roman army marched back to their winter quarters, they were ambushed by a large force of Germanic warriors. The Germans inflicted heavy casualties upon Drusus’ army and came very close to completely destroying it. However, the barbarians were cocky and believed that this would be an easy victory, but Drusus rallied his forces and they fought their way out of the ambush. Drusus led the survivors back to safety, but the Germans pursued them and harassed them the whole way. Despite this loss, the overall campaign was a success. Drusus returned to the city of Rome during Winter to give an account of his actions. Impressed with what he had accomplished so far, it was decided that a triumphal arch was to be erected in his honor. (4).

In the spring of 9 BC, Drusus was once again in action against the Germans. He spent the whole of that campaign season fighting against one tribe, the powerful Chatti tribe that occupied a large piece of southwestern Germania, and who may have been the third-strongest of all of the Germanic tribes. By the end of the campaign season, they were still not yet subdued (5).

In the spring of 8 BC, defying bad omens for the coming year, Drusus resumed his fight against the Chatti and pushed further eastwards towards the Elbe River. Once he reached this point, he and his men turned back, but disaster struck when Drusus was thrown off of his horse and broke his leg. The injury quickly became infected. After languishing for thirty days, Drusus Claudius Nero died of gangrene at the height of his glory. His body was brought back to Rome for a hero’s funeral, while his loyal soldiers erected a monument to him in Mainz, which can still be seen today. It was also decided to posthumously award him the honorific agnomen “Germanicus”, a name that would be borne by all of his male descendants (6).

The Drusus Monument, located in Mainz, Germany. Photograph by Carole Raddato (September 5, 2013). Creative Commons Attribute Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Drusus’ untimely death did not put a halt to Rome’s military operations in western Germania. With Drusus dead, his older brother Tiberius took command. At first, he was more interested in consolidating and controlling the territories that Drusus’ men had taken the previous year. Tiberius and his troops went up and down the country during that winter, subduing the tribes and suffering minimal or no losses (7).

Members of Legio V Macedonica, an ancient Roman re-enactment group based in Russia, march through the snow. Image courtesy of Legio V Macedonica, used with permission.

Finally, the Germanic tribes decided that they had enough. The Roman poet Ovid states in his Fasti that, after many years of war, the western Germanic tribes surrendered to Tiberius Claudius Nero on January 16, 7 BC. To commemorate the peace treaty, Tiberius ordered the construction of a shrine to the goddess Concordia, the goddess of peace, harmony, and friendship. Cassius Dio relates that for the rest of 7 BC, all of Germania was quiet. In the year 6 BC, confident that everything in Germania had been taken care of, Tiberius retired to the island of Rhodes (8).

Bust of Tiberius Claudius Nero. Museo Archaeologico Regionale, Palermo, Sicily. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain image.

Unfortunately, the German barbarians’ surrender to Rome on that winter day did not create a lasting peace. In the year 1 AD, the Germanic tribes revolted against the Roman military occupation of their land, a revolt that would take three years to suppress (9).

In the year 10 AD, the year following the disaster at the Battle of Teutoburg, the old temple to Concordia which lay within the city of Rome, and which had been built many years earlier and had fallen into disrepair, was restored and re-dedicated. This effort was funded using the spoils of war that had been taken in battle against the Germans and the Illyrians. Tiberius Claudius Nero was the one who performed the dedication ceremony, and the names of both he and his dead bother Drusus were inscribed upon it (10).

This temple that’s mentioned in the writings of Suetonius and Cassius Dio might be the same as the “shrine” to Concordia that Ovid is referring to, but I doubt it. Ovid specifically states that Tiberius built a shrine to Concordia specifically in response to the surrender of the German tribes on January 16, 7 BC, which brought peace to that region of the world. I find it a bit off-putting for Tiberius to have dedicated a shrine in direct response to establishing peace with the Germans the year after the Germans massacred three Roman legions in the region of Teutoburg; some people might find such an action to be exceptionally tactless. Therefore, I believe that the shrine and the temple are two separate structures: one established immediately after the peace treaty was made in 7 BC, and another that was restored and dedicated in 10 AD.

 

Source citations:

  1. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 20; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
  2. Adrian Murdoch, Rome’s Greatest Defeat. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2006. Pages 31-33.
  3. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 32.
  4. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 33.
  5. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 36.
  6. Ovid, The Heroïdes, or Epistles of the Heroines; The Amours; Art of Love; Remedy of Love; and, Minor Works of Ovid. G. Bell, 1893. Page 503; The Germanic Tribes, episode 1 – “Barbarians against Rome”; Livy, Periochae, from book 142; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 55, chapters 1-2; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 7; book 5, chapter 1.
  7. Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
  8. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 16; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, Book 55, chapters 6, 9.
  9. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 53, chapter 26; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapters 104-106.
  10. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 56, chapter 25; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 20.

 

Bibliography:

 

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

 

October 19 – The Armilustrium: Another Campaign Season Comes To An End

The Roman Army was the mightiest fighting force of ancient times from the 3rd Century BC until arguably the 3rd Century AD.  Each year, the soldiers were sent out to search for and fight the empire’s enemies. However, the legions were not constantly in action. As Autumn moved closer to Winter, the soldiers prepared to hang up their armor and weapons and move into their Winter quarters. The soldiers would no longer be on active duty, and fighting would be put on hold for a few months until the weather warmed up again in Spring and the legions could once again be sent out for another campaign.

Roman soldiers marching at Xanten, Germany. Photograph by Judith Meyer (June 23, 2012). CC0 Creative Commons.

The Roman Army’s campaigning season officially began on March 23 with a festival called the Tubilustrium. With the necessary sanctification rituals performed, the Roman Army could now march, fight, and conquer with the gods’ blessings.

As Summer changed to Autumn, the soldiers’ thoughts increasingly turned to returning to their homes and bringing in the Fall harvest. By the middle of October, the time had come to dismiss the troops. October 19 officially marked the end of the year’s military campaign season, and this feast day was known in ancient Rome as the Armilustrium (1).

It’s said that the name “Armilustrium” comes from the Latin words arma (“weapon”) and lustrere (“to be reviewed”) (2). However, a better translation might be arma followed by lustrantur “purified” (3). Then again, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the ancient Romans loved puns and plays on words, and it’s possible that both definitions are correct. Here, the soldiers would be assembled one last time, and the necessary purification rituals would be performed before the troops were taken off of active duty.

Where did this ritual take place? We have two possible contenders. The first and most commonly-accepted proposal is that the Armilustrium festival took place upon the Campus Martius, “the Field of Mars”. This was Rome’s military training ground, their version of Parris Island or Salisbury Plain, where the new recruits would be trained in how to be legionnaires, and where those who were already in the Army would sharpen their skills as well as their swords. If you’re going to be conducting a religious ritual that is centered upon Rome’s military, then the Campus Martius sounds like a logical place (4).

Not so fast, though, because there’s a second option. The ancient historian Plutarch says that there was a place called Armilustrum, located on the Aventine Hill (one of the seven hills that makes up the city of Rome), where King Titus Tatius of the Sabines was entombed (5). It has been supposed that the Armilustrium was actually a ritualized performance held in honor of Titus Tatius, possibly performed by the Salian priesthood with helmets, shields, and spears. (6). However, this view is not well-regarded by most scholars, who believe that the name “Armilustrium” referred to a religious ritual, not a geographic location, and that it centered upon the Roman military, not a semi-legendary ancient king.

Now that we’ve established where this ritual likely took place, we turn our attention to what exactly happened here. Just as with ascertaining the ceremony’s location, determining what went on during the ceremony is a bit difficult. As mentioned earlier, there are two possible translations, but both are of a military nature. The name Armilustrium translates to either “weapons are reviewed” or “weapons are purified”. In either case, both translations involve weapons.

Numerous sources claim that this was a general review of the army, with the soldiers standing in formation, fully armed and armored as if ready for battle (7). What was the purpose behind this? The word “review” is telling. Perhaps this was where the general surveyed his soldiers on parade, inspected their appearance and their kit, where the troops displayed their awards, and where their commander could give them a few encouraging words.

One source from the 1820s says that the men and officers “wore crowns” while on parade (8). These are assuredly not royal crowns or even mock royal crowns. Instead, they were likely battle awards that were in the shape of crowns, and the Roman military had several of these. Perhaps the most common was the corona civilis, “the civic crown”, crafted from oak leaves, which was given as an award for saving the life of another Roman citizen. A soldier who had rescued one of his comrades in battle would be awarded such an ornament. However, there were other crown awards, too. The corona muralis, “the wall crown” was an award given to the first soldier who was able to penetrate through an enemy’s fortifications. Of all of these coronae, perhaps the most coveted and the most respected was the corona graminea. This was a crown that was given to a victorious battlefield commander, crafted by the soldiers that he led out of the very grasses and plants that grew out of that battlefield. Only a handful of Roman generals were given this award, which means that the victory had to be on a truly epic scale.

What about the reference to purification during this ritual – what exactly was the thing that needed to be purified? Based upon the name, most people have stated that the soldiers’ weapons were the things that needed to be both physically as well as ritualistically cleaned (9). Only one source from the early 1800s claims that the soldiers themselves were purified, not the weapons (10). This is similar to the idea which is seen several times in the Bible that people who had shed blood were “unclean” and needed to be cleansed of their blood-guilt before they were once again re-admitted into society.

Numerous sources claim that sacrifices were made on this day (11), but what kind were they? They were likely not sacrifices of live animals, known in Latin as agonaliae, because every time live animals were sacrificed the Romans clearly stated so. One notable example of an agonalia was one conducted in honor of Mars which occurred in March 17, in which a ram was sacrificed to the Roman war god. So, the sacrifices likely consisted of offerings of meat, harvested crops, or prepared goods like honey cakes, which were a common sacrificial offering.

Nobody says who is actually carrying out these sacrifices. Charles James, writing in the early 1800s, stated that it was the Roman Army’s generals who carried out the sacrifices, not members of the priesthood (12). However, there are more sources which state that it is either inferred or assumed in the Roman records that the Salii priests performed the ceremonies (13). The Salii, or the Salians (no relation to the Salian Franks of the 4th and 5th Centuries), were an order of priests who were devoted to worshiping the god Mars. Their name is derived from the Latin verb salit meaning “to jump or leap”. So they were, literally, the Leaping Priests. They were known for dancing while carrying shields and weapons, in order to please the war god. Plutarch wrote “They move with much grace, performing, in quick time and close order, various intricate figures, with a great display of strength and agility” (14). On this day, it’s likely that the priests of Mars danced and sang prayers to Mars, giving thanks to him for a successful campaign.

Meanwhile, a source from the 1800s says that it was the soldiers themselves who were doing the dancing, while wearing all of their armor in fact (15). I am VERY skeptical about this, but who knows, it might be true. War dances are common to many cultures, and this idea of the Romans soldiers dancing while fully dressed for battle sounds like something known as the pyrrhiche or “Pyrrhic Dance”, which was a dance performed by young men while wearing armor (16).

The things that were used in purification rituals are better described concerning another ceremony called the Palilia, a festival dedicated to gaining divine protection for your livestock, which took place on April 21. Here, various substances were burned including the blood and ashes of sacrificed animals, dried beans, sulfur, rosemary, chips of fir wood, and incense. The smoke which emanated from these burnt offerings would be used to purge and purify places, animals, and people of any unclean influences. Also, cleansing rituals would be performed by using laurel branches to sprinkle holy water on the people and the places where they lived and worked (17). Because the Armilustrium had purification at its heart, it is highly likely that the same sacrificial and ceremonial purification rituals were conducted on October 19 as they were on April 21.

All of the sources which write about the Armilustrium are in agreement that the festivities were accompanied by the blasting of war trumpets, and possibly added to by other musical instruments that were employed upon the battlefield. What was the purpose behind this? There were numerous other sacrificial and purification rituals which were conducted by the ancient Romans which were not accompanied by music of any sort, so why was the Armilustrium different? Many scholars have pointed to the Armilustrium’s militaristic nature as the reason why martial musical instruments were played. Another reason likely has to do with the Armilustrium being paired with the earlier Tubilustrium festival of March 23; the Tubilustrium began the campaign season, and the Armilustrium concluded it, and both days were sacred to the war-god Mars. In the Tubilustrium musical instruments, especially trumpets, were a core component to the day’s celebrations. As Marcus Terentius Varro explains, the name Tubilustrium meant “the purification of the trumpets”, and the trumpets in question were sacred trumpets that were used in association with religious rituals and other formal ceremonies (18). Since the Armilustrium marked the end of the military campaign season, it’s possible that this was the day where the war trumpets were sounded for the last time. The weapons, shields, and armor were purified and afterwards locked up in the armory until the next campaign season.

March was the month of Mars, the time when the snows of Winter had melted and armies could once again be sent out to attack Rome’s enemies. October, too, was a month dedicated to Mars, but for the opposite reason, because this was the month when the soldiers returned home. The army is assembled, their awards and commendations are displayed for everyone to envy. The sound of the war trumpets echoes for one last time and the thick smoke of burnt sacrificial offerings hangs heavily in the air, while the priests and the troops sing the praises of the war god and give thanks to him for seeing them through another year. Now, it’s time to put away their war-like things, and devote their time to the matter of the harvest, of their families, and making it through the cold Winter. In a few more months, they will be assembled on the parade ground again, ready to fight on the command of the emperor, and for the glory of Rome.

 

Source citations

  1. William Darrach Halsey, Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company, 1984. Page 626.
  2. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  3. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189.
  4. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  5. Robert Burn, Rome and the Campagna. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1876. Page 205.
  6. John Bell, New Pantheon, Volume I. London: J. Bell, 1790. Page 94.
  7. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  8. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  9. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741).
  10. The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 693.
  11. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741; Charles James, A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  12. Charles James, A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805.
  13. Fastorum Libri Sex. The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3 – Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Edited and Translated by James George Frazer. Page 145.
  14. Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13.
  15. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  16. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 60, chapter 7; Lauren Curtis, Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Page 179.
  17. William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859. Page 850.
  18. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189; John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36; The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”; The Roman War Machine, episode 1 – “First Our Neighbors, Then The World”. 1999.

 

Bibliography

  • Bell, John. New Pantheon, Volume I. London: J. Bell, 1790.
  • Burn, Robert. Rome and the Campagna. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1876.
  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  • Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854.
  • Curtis, Lauren. Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Dio, Cassius. Roman History, book 60, chapter 7.
  • Halsey, William Darrach. Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company, 1984.
  • James, Charles. A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805.
  • Plutarch. Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Numa*.html.
  • Smith, William ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Ziolkowski, John. “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31-58.
  • Fastorum Libri Sex. The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3 – Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Edited and Translated by James George Frazer.
  • The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.
  • The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y479bKPEzLQ.
  • The Roman War Machine, episode 1 – “First Our Neighbors, Then The World”. 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fawPwsOfHTk.

October 15 – The Ludi Capitolini: The Capitoline Games of Ancient Rome

Introduction

The ancient Romans named the middle part of each month as the “Ides”, and each of these days was dedicated to Jupiter, King of the Gods. Sometimes, these days were marked for holding special celebrations. The Ides of October, in particular, was the date of the Ludi Capitolini, “the Capitoline Games”, one of the oldest festivals in Roman history.

 

The Origins of the Capitoline Games

Throughout the 400s and into the early 300s BC, the Roman Republic had been almost continuously engaged in wars with the Etruscan city-states to the north. The state of Veii had put up especially stern resistance, and the Romans spent many years trying to conquer it. At last in 392 BC, the Romans were able to take the city (1). Understandably, they felt proud of themselves. Then in the Summer of 390 BC, the Romans faced an enemy that they had never encountered before – the Celts.

The Celts were a collection of tribes that appear to have originated in what is now Austria. By the early 4th Century BC, they had spread and had become the dominant culture throughout much of western and central Europe. They had even crossed the Alps and had occupied most of what is now northern Italy as far south as the Arno River. The Etruscans lay directly south of them, and now they were coming under repeated attacks from the Celts. One by one, the northern Etruscan city-states fell to these warriors as the Celts pushed south. With the Celts attacking from the north, and the Romans attacking from the south, the Etruscans were being squeezed on two fronts, and it would not be long before they were overwhelmed (2).

The Etruscan city-state of Clusium, which lay a hundred miles north of Rome, was the next to come under threat from Celtic attacks. Although the Etruscans and Romans had been enemies for many years, the Etruscans feared these northern newcomers far more than the Romans, and so the leaders of Clusium decided to undertake the desperate measure of sending a message to Rome, asking their enemies for help fighting these northern barbarians. In response, the Roman Senate refused to provide military support, but they did send a delegation to Clusium to see if they could mediate an agreement between the two sides, and also gather as much information about these unknown people as they could (3).

The first meeting between the Celts, led by Chief Brennus, and the Roman envoys did not go well. The Romans saw that there was no reasoning with these people, and they joined sides with the Etruscans. One of the Roman emissaries named Quintus Fabius Ambustus killed one of the high-ranking warriors in the Celtic force. When Chief Brennus sent a message to the Roman Senate demanding that the offender be handed over to them for punishment, the Senate refused. Enraged at this insult, Brennus ordered his warriors to march south and attack Rome (4).

The Romans, who had lost many of their men due to the repeated wars with the Etruscans, now frantically cobbled together a new army out of hastily-trained recruits, most of whom had no prior military experience, and sent them against the Celtic horde. The result was inevitable. At the Battle of the Allia River, fought just eleven miles north of Rome on July 18, 390 BC, this rag-tag Roman force was outmaneuvered, overwhelmed, and slaughtered. Some of the survivors managed to make it back to the city, where they warned the people that the army had been defeated and that the Celts were coming (5).

The panic-stricken Romans realized that they did not have enough strength to adequately defend the whole city, so it was decided to withdraw to the city’s central defensive position – the citadel located atop the Capitoline Hill – and make a stand there. The Celts entered the city. Facing no resistance, they went on a looting rampage, plundering the houses and then setting them on fire. Then they discovered that the people had crowded together into the fortified central stronghold on the Capitoline Hill. For the next two weeks, the Celts besieged the citadel with little success. By early August, the people who had hunkered down inside the citadel were suffering from hunger and sickness, and a ceasefire was called. Chief Brennus demanded a massive sum of treasure to induce him and his warriors to abandon Rome, which was grudgingly given up to him. The date of August 3, 390 BC would be a date burned into Rome’s memory as the day that the city fell to the barbarians (6).

However, Chief Brennus would not bask in his glory for long. Word arrived that his lands were under attack from other tribes, and he was forced to quickly return to northern Italy to deal with matters there. With this development, Rome now saw a chance to exact some payback (7).

The Roman Senate designated a man named Marcus Caedicius as the commander of all Roman military forces and urged him to strike the retreating Celts. However, he didn’t want the job, stating that there was another man who was more suitable to leading the counter-attack against the Celts. That man was Marcus Furius Camillus, the famed Roman general who had commanded the Roman Army in its attacks against the Etruscans, and who had been instrumental in capturing the city of Veii two years earlier. However, Camillus had experienced a falling-out with his countrymen, who had become jealous of his prestige and glory. Camillus had gotten so sick and tired of their constant attacks on his character that he packed his bags and moved to the town of Ardea, saying that they will be sorry that they had forced him to leave and that one day they will come begging for his help. Sure enough, he was right. Caedicius and a few companions journeyed to the town of Ardea, and urged Marcus Camillus to put aside his grudge against the Roman bureaucrats who had destroyed his career and reputation and work for the good of the Roman people. Marcus Camillus agreed to come to Rome’s aid, and he took command of the Roman Army (8).

On their way back to northern Italy, the Celts laid siege to the town of Veascium, which was a Roman ally. Marcus Camillus attacked them, killed many of them, and re-took the plunder that they had taken from Rome. Thus, the Celts left Rome empty-handed and in a worse condition than before (9).

 

The Capitoline Games are Established

The Roman historian Titus Livius states that the Capitoline Games were instituted shortly after Marcus Furius Camillus’ defeat of the Celts. Camillus himself proposed an idea to the Senate of establishing games to be held in honor of the god Jupiter, partly because the citadel on the Capitoline Hill had not fallen to the enemy, and partly because Jupiter’s temple was located atop that hill. Camillus was convinced that the god himself had intervened and had prevented the city from being completely destroyed, even though most of it was (10).

The Senate approved establishing them in either 390 or 387 BC. The Senate’s decree stated that the games would be run and supervised by an order of priests chosen by Camillus from among those who resided upon the Capitoline Hill and within the Citadel. These priests would be known as the “Capitolini”. These games were intended to be held every year on October 15 in honor of either Jupiter Optimus Maximus “Jupiter the Best and Greatest” or Jupiter Capitolinus “Jupiter of the Capitoline Hill”. The Ludi Capitolini were in fact the oldest of the Roman games (11).

After falling out of fashion for a long time, the Capitoline Games were re-instituted by Emperor Domitian in July of 86 AD. There were some notable differences, though. For starters, the name was changed to Agones Capitolini. Secondly, the games were to be held every five years instead of annually. Thirdly, the games were diversified to include a number of activities such as poetry readings, orators and academics making speeches and educational lectures, and musicians playing their compositions. Emperor Domitian gave out awards to the best person in each category, thus turning an event which was intended to be a gesture of gratitude to the supreme god for saving them from death into being a sort of talent show (12). I have not found any record of these games being performed after Domitian’s reign, so I must assume that they fell out of favor when he was murdered in 96 AD.

 

The Equus Octobris: The “October Horse”

Of all of the activities that were conducted during the Capitoline Games, the most important and most well-known was the so-called Equus Octobris, “the October Horse”, which took place on the first day of the games on October 15. This was the opening event of the games, consisting of a chariot race dedicated to the war-god Mars, but with a twist – the winning horse would be sacrificed.

The chariots involved were called bigae, because they were drawn by two horses, in contrast with trigae which were pulled by three horses or the quadrigae that were pulled by four. Of the two horses that pulled the chariot, the horse which ran on the right side was the one that was chosen for sacrifice (13).

The Romans prized athleticism, so the horses that were both the fastest and the strongest was sure to please Mars as an honorable sacrifice. One wonders why the race was dedicated to Mars instead of Jupiter, since the Capitoline Games as a whole were meant to honor the king of the Roman pantheon. The historical records don’t state how many laps the chariots had to run around the racetrack, but I can’t imagine that it could have gone on for very long because there were other events that were on the schedule. Like modern-day horse races such as the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes, the chariots probably only ran a single lap. One wonders how the jockeys felt, knowing that one of the two horses that pulled his chariot was doomed to be offered up on an altar. Perhaps a few who were fond of their steeds deliberately raced slower than they usually did in order to ensure that his beloved animals would not be killed, but we will never know this for certain.

Horse sacrifice is an attribute commonly associated with primitive cultures, so it’s possible that this rite is an ancient one which goes back far beyond Rome’s founding. Polybius states that the sacrifice was carried out for the good of the city, while Paul the Deacon states that the sacrifice was carried out for the good of the harvest. As to the significance of why a horse was sacrificed and not some other animal, Plutarch pondered that it might have to do with the horse being used in warfare, since October was a month dedicated to Mars, or it might have been done as a reference to the Trojan War because Troy had supposedly fallen in the month of October thanks to the wooden horse. The fact that Plutarch did not know the answer and had to surmise the reasoning behind such a strange ritual implies that this ceremony had been going on for so long that the Romans of his day had long forgotten its origins, and it implies that this was, indeed, a very archaic ritual which had survived into his day (14).

The sacrifice was carried out at the Ara Martis, the Altar of Mars, located in the Campus Martius. The horse was killed by being run through with a spear, being the weapon associated with the war-god Mars. Once the horse had been killed, both its head and tail were cut off. The tail was brought as quickly as possible to the home of the pontifex maximus, the chief priest, and the sacred blood was allowed to drip on the hearth. The rest of the blood within the tail was carefully stored in a container and kept within the temple of Vesta (15).

There was some connection between the sacrifice of the October Horse and that of another Roman ritual known as the Palilia, which was held on April 21, and was designed to purify the flocks kept by shepherds and other herdsmen:

“It must be observed that in early times no bloody sacrifice was allowed to be offered at the Palilia, and the blood of the October horse, mentioned above, was the blood which had dropped from the tail of the horse sacrificed in the month of October to Mars in the Campus Martius. This blood was preserved by the Vestal virgins in the temple of Vesta for the purpose of being used at the Palilia” (16)

As for the head, when it was cut off, it was fought over by the inhabitants of the two neighborhoods of Subura and Via Sacra. If the people of Subura won, they hang the decapitated horse’s head from the Regia, which had formerly been the residence of the old Roman kings and now served as the residence of the pontifex maximus; if the people of Via Sacra won, it is suspended from the Turris Mamilia, “Mamilius’ Tower”. (17).

 

Other Activities

In addition to the opening chariot race to Mars, there were other activities as well, especially during the reign of Emperor Domitian in the 90s AD. In the words of the historian Suetonius:

“He also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation both in Greek and in Latin; and in addition to those of the lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone, without singing; while in the stadium there were races even between maidens. He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well” (18).

According to Plutarch, one of the unusual sights seen at the games was some random herald yelling out over and over again “Sardians for sale! Sardians for sale!” while pulling along by a leash or a chain an old man dressed up in a purple toga praetexta and wearing a golden bulla medallion around his neck. This was a reference to the numerous wars that the Roman Republic had fought against the various Etruscan city-states, in particular the state of Veii. The Romans believed that the Etruscans came from the eastern region of Lydia, with Sardis serving as its major city. Both the toga praetexta and the bulla were of Etruscan origin. The bulla was a small pouch worn by children around their necks, filled with good luck charms and herbs which were meant to ward off evil. It was a way in which parents protected their child due to the high number of child mortality cases in ancient times. This “medicine bag”, to use a term associated with Native Americans, was removed when the child had reached adulthood. This old man was meant to be a representation of the Etruscan king of Veii – an old man who still behaved like a child – and was an object of mockery (19).

There is also a questionable reference made to Roman merchants and businessmen offering sacrifices to the god Mercury on this day (20). However, I have not been able to find any mention of this in any primary source, or any other secondary source, and I am inclined to believe that the un-named author confused October 15 with May 15, which was the date of a festival dedicated to Mercury.

 

Conclusion

The Capitoline Games were the first example of organized athletic celebrations conducted in the name of religious devotion. There would be many more of these under a variety of other names which would be established by the Romans throughout their history. Sometimes they took the form of chariot races, other times in the form of gladiatorial contests, and in other cases simple feats of athletic prowess. It’s remarkable that, considering its age and its social significance, the Capitoline Games did not last very long. They were first disbanded due to their association with Marcus Camillus, whose inflated ego became too much for the Roman people to bear, and they were likely disbanded a second time due to their association with an incompetent and egotistical emperor. By contrast, other games such as the Ludi Magni Romani, the Great Roman Games” and the Ludi Plebei, “the Plebeian Games” were more popular and would be practiced by the Romans for many generations.

 

Source Citations

  1. Rome: Power & Glory, episode 1 – “The Rise”.
  2. Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapters 17-18; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 15-16; In Search of History: The Celts; The Celts, episode 1 – “The Man with the Golden Shoes”; The History of Ancient Rome, lecture 3 – “Pre-Roman Italy and the Etruscans”; William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, Volume 1. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854. Pages 934-935.
  3. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapter 113; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 13, chapter 11; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapter 17.
  4. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapters 113-114; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 13, chapter 12; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 17-18.
  5. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapter 114; Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapter 18; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 18-19.
  6. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapters 115-116; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 13, chapters 6-9; Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapter 18; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapter 20.
  7. Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapter 18.
  8. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 12, chapter 14; book 13, chapter 5; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 2-14, 22-29.
  9. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapter 117; Festus, Breviarium, part 6; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapter 23.
  10. Titus Livius, The History of Rome, book 5, chapter 50.
  11. Titus Livius, The History of Rome, book 5, chapter 50; Herodian, History of the Roman Empire. Translated by Edward C. Echols. University of California Press, 1961. Page 24; James Lempriere, A Classical Dictionary, 6th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1806; Abraham Rees, The Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Volume VI. London: Longman, Hurst, Reese, Orme, & Brown, 1819; William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859. Page 715.
  12. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12 “The Life of Domitian”, chapter 4; John Feltham Danneley, An Encyclopaedia, or Dictionary of Music. London: Preston, 1825; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, Eighth Edition. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1854. Page 220; Edward Greswell, Origines Kalendariae Hellenicae: The History of the Primitive Calendar among the Greeks, Before and After the Legislation of Solon, Volume III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1862. Page 306.
  13. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; Reverend Thomas Wilson, An Archaeological Dictionary, or Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, Alphabetically Arranged. London: 1783.
  14. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 241; Leonardo Magini, Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001. Pages 62-63.
  15. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott & Co., 1872. Page 222; James Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume XII. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922. Page 697; Leonardo Magini, Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001. Pages 62-63.
  16. William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859. Page 850.
  17. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; Leonardo Magini, Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001. Page 62.
  18. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12 “The Life of Domitian”, chapter 4.
  19. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #53; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, Eighth Edition. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1854. Page 220; William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859. Page 715.
  20. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

  • Adam, Alexander. Roman Antiquities, or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott & Co., 1872.
  • Danneley, John Feltham. An Encyclopaedia, or Dictionary of Music. London: Preston, 1825.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, Eighth Edition. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1854.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
  • Greswell, Edward. Origines Kalendariae Hellenicae: The History of the Primitive Calendar among the Greeks, Before and After the Legislation of Solon, Volume III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1862.
  • Hastings, James, ed. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume XII. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.
  • Lempriere, James. A Classical Dictionary, 6th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1806.
  • Magini, Leonardo. Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001.
  • Rees, Abraham. The Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Volume VI. London: Longman, Hurst, Reese, Orme, & Brown, 1819.
  • Smith, William ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, Volume 1. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854.
  • Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.
  • Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary, or Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, Alphabetically Arranged. London: 1783.

Videos:

  • In Search of History: The Celts. Greystone Communications, Inc., 1997.
  • Rome: Power & Glory. Episode 1 – “The Rise”. Narrated by Peter Coyote. Questar, 1998.
  • The Celts. Episode 1 – “The Man with the Golden Shoes”. Hosted by Frank Delaney. BBC, 1987.
  • The History of Ancient Rome. Lecture 3 – “Pre-Roman Italy and the Etruscans”. Hosted by Prof. Garrett G. Fagan. The Teaching Company, 1999.

 

October 5 – The Opening of the Pit of the Underworld

“Then I saw an angel coming down from Heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while” – The Book of Revelations, chapter 20, verses 1-3.

For many modern-day people, October is the spookiest month of the year due to its association with Halloween. October is the month in which TV channels air marathons of horror movies, it’s when people put out decorations of ghosts and monsters, and it’s when children get a little bit more conscious about what might be lurking in their closet. It seems that throughout the whole of October, other-worldly supernatural entities increase their power, culminating on that special day at the end of the month. Those who are of a religious disposition feel that October 31 is the day in which Mankind is the closest to succumbing to the powers of Darkness.

The ancient Romans did not have Halloween, but it’s true that they had several days on their calendar which filled them with dread. Perhaps the most well-known was the time called the Lemuria, which occurred on May 9, 11, and 13. This was a time devoted to pacifying the lemures, the restless malevolent spirits of the dead, who might visit your home and cause mischief or harm. They might even take possession of your house, or even of you! Thus it was important to placate them with treats, or to ward them off with spells. This was, in effect, ancient Rome’s version of trick-or-treating, except these weren’t pint-sized munchkins dressed up in monster costumes – here, the monsters were real.

However, the Lemuria was not the only day that the ancient Romans felt apprehensive about. The fifth day of October (some sources say it was the fourth day) was an ominous day for the ancient Romans, for it was on this day that the portal to the Underworld would be opened, and the Romans were understandably worried about what things might come out.

October 5 was known as the Mundus Patet, “the Open World”. It was a day dedicated to Dis Pater, the god-ruler of the Underworld, and all of the other beings and entities that dwelt within his realm. The name Dis Pater means “the Father of Riches”. He was the Roman synonym of the Greek god Hades, who ruled the Underworld. Hades’ subterranean counterpart Pluto (who is often believed to be the same as Hades) was the god of riches – it was he who made all of the gold, silver, and other precious things which were mined out of the ground. The ancient Roman god Dis Pater combined attributes of both of these Greek gods. (1)

As an anecdote, within his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar writes that all of the Gallic Celts claim to be descended from the god of the Underworld, which he equates to Dis Pater (2).

The Underworld god Dis Pater is known to have had one temple dedicated to him within the greater area of the city of Rome. It was a small temple or shrine, and consisted of an underground chamber, with a single round room, and a round altar table within. This subterranean room was located on the edge of the Campus Martius near where the Tiber River flowed at a place known as the Terentum (no relation to the city of southern Italy named Tarentum). The term means “the crossing place”, and it likely referred to the place where people crossed over the Tiber River from one side to the other. However, in a spiritual sense, this was also a place where human and non-human beings would cross over from the world of the spirits into the mortal human world, and vice-versa. This is similar to the Celtic belief of Samhain (pronounced “saowein”), which said that the boundary separating the world of the living and the world of the spirits became so thin that entities from “the other side” could cross over into the human world (3).

There was a second location that is often ascribed to be that of the temple of Dis Pater. This was a small circular shrine made of bricks, with a small room large enough for only one person to stand inside, which was located on the Palatine Hill at the cross intersection of two main roads known as the Quadrata. This shrine marked the exact center of the city of Rome, and was the location of the omphalos, the naval, the center of the Roman world. In Latin, it was known as the Umbilicus Urbis Romae, the belly button of the city of Rome (4).

There is reference to certain stone located not far from this shrine within the district called the Comitium which was known as the lapis niger, “the black stone”, and in 1898, it was discovered. It was square, made of several slabs of black marble, and bordered with white marble. Upon it were inscriptions written in an archaic version of Latin, implying that it was of great antiquity; the inscription was dated to approximately 500 BC. Underneath this black stone were found numerous devotional offerings, including several figurines, dated from the 8th to the 6th Centuries BC. The ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus says that this stone marked an unlucky spot, where the Romans intended to bury either Romulus or his foster-father Faustulus. Among the inscriptions, there is a curse upon anyone who defiles or desecrates the location, and anyone who does so shall forfeit his life to Soranus. “Soranus” was the name of the Etruscan god of the Underworld, so the inscription is essentially saying that anyone who defiles this place will die and be sent to Hell. It has been proposed that this “black stone” might have served as the altar to the beings of the Underworld because black was the color associated with the Underworld and the beings who lived within it, and due to the fact that an Underworld god is mentioned by name in one of the inscriptions (5).

For most of the year, the temple to Dis Pater was shut. However, on just three days in the year – August 24, October 5, and November 7 – the door was opened. The opening of the temple of Dis Pater was a solemn occurrence, because it wasn’t just the doorway to the temple that was opened – the Romans believed that on these three days, the gate to the Underworld itself would be opened as well (6).

Within the temple, there was a portal to the Underworld. This opening was covered by a large stone known as the Lapis Manalis, “the Stone of the Manes”; the manes were the spirits of the ancestors. For most of the year, this gateway was sealed shut, except for three days, when the spirits of the dead were allowed to enter the human world. It’s possible that the stone altar itself was the Lapis Manalis and served as the covering for this portal, and therefore implying that the altar rested atop a hollow base (7).

The pit might have originally served as an underground cellar used for grain storage, which would explain why the pit was opened during times that are associated with the harvest season, but over the centuries the pit took on a more otherworldly significance. Evidence to support this hypothesis is found in the original name of this ritual. The ceremonial opening of these pits was originally referred to by the ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus as Mundus Cereris Patet, “The World of Ceres is Opened” Ceres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers; Ceres was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. The Romans had several feast days dedicated to her, and often grain or bread were offered as sacrifices (8).

The pit was opened for the first time on August 24, the day before the festival known as the Opeconsiva, the Feast of the Bountiful Goddess. This was a festival dedicated to the earth goddess, giving thanks to her for a bountiful harvest. She might have been a form of either the agriculture goddess Ceres or the Mother Earth goddess Tellus. In the words of Marcus Terentius Varro…

“The day named Opeconsiva (August 25) is called from Ops Consiva (Goddess of Abundance, the wife of Saturn, as planter or sower; another aspect of Terra) ‘Lady Bountiful the Planter,’ whose shrine is in the Regia; it is so restricted in size that no one may enter it except the Vestal Virgins and the state priest. ‘When he goes there, let him wear a white veil,’ is the direction; this suffibulum ‘white veil’ (an oblong piece of white cloth with a colored border, which the Vestal Virgins fastened over their heads with a fibula ‘clasp’ when they offered sacrifice) is named as if sub-figabulum from suffigere “to fasten down’” (9).

William W. Fowler speculates that on August 24, the seeds that were to be used for next year’s planting were set aside and were put away in storage until the time came for them to be planted. These seeds would be housed in a sacred chamber, under the protection of the earth goddess, who would watch over them and protect them so that the Romans would have food during the next year and not starve. However, depending upon circumstances, the grain crop did not become ready for harvest at the same time everywhere – different patches ripened at different times. Having three specific days, not just one, spread out over a few months where the seeds for next year’s crop could be collected and deposited would be very convenient for Roman farmers (10). The Romans would have been conscious about keeping the storage chamber sealed most of the time. If the chamber was left open, the seeds would be exposed to rodents, insects, fungi, and mold. If this happened, all of the seeds which were set aside to provide the following year’s food would be destroyed, and famine would rage throughout the city. In order to ensure the survival of the crop, the grain chambers needed to be opened only briefly, and then promptly sealed shut in order to minimize the chances of contamination.

So, if this chamber was originally intended as a storage pit for the next year’s seeds, then where did the idea of ghosts and goblins come from? It’s possible that the subterranean temple of Dis Pater was meant to be a stylized representation of a cave. Caves are regarded by many cultures as places imbued with elevated spiritual powers. The Celts, for example, believed that caves were entrances to the spirit world (11).

Now, let’s turn our attention to another question. If the Romans believed that this was a passage to the Underworld, then why on earth would they open it for any reason at all, allowing God-knows-what to come out? According to Plutarch in his work The Life of Romulus, when the city of Rome was founded, the early Romans placed offerings of the first fruits of the harvest into this chamber. Likewise in later years, when the portal was opened, offerings of the harvest would be thrown in (12). This again lends credence to the idea that these three days were originally associated with the harvest season and not ghosts. However, at some point in Rome’s social and cultural history, the logical pragmatic practice of placing seeds into underground storage containers to be kept safe until the time came for them to be planted the following year changed into the superstitious practice of throwing offerings of food into a pit that was believed to be the gate of the Underworld (shakes my head in Latin).

The Roman writers Macrobius and Varrone state that numerous activities were banned on the three dates that this otherworldly gate was opened, believing that bad luck was sure to follow. These included enlisting soldiers into the military, to start a war, engaging in battle, sail on a voyage, or get married (13).

In addition to sacrifices being offered at the temple of Dis Pater on the ominous dates of August 24, October 5, and November 7, sacrifices were also offered upon this altar during the Ludi Saeculares, “the Games of the Age”. The term saeculum in Latin refers to one’s lifespan. The Ludi Saeculares, sometimes incorrectly translated as “the Secular Games” (which falsely implies that they were non-religious in nature), were supposed to be held every 100 years, since this was regarded as the maximum age that a person could naturally live, and were meant to commemorate the passing of one saeculum into another – that is to say, one lifespan into another, thus commemorating the cycle of life, death, and renewal. These games were intended to be held every 100 years of Rome’s existence. One might rightfully assume that the games were supposed to be held in late April (according to legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC), and were to be held in the years 653 BC, 553 BC, 453 BC, 353 BC, 253 BC, 153 BC, 53 BC, 47 AD, 147 AD, 247 AD, 347 AD, and 447 AD. However, if you look at the record of when the Ludi Saeculares were actually held, you will discover that they were not held rigidly every 100 years, nor did they occur on the dates that were previously listed. We know that these games were celebrated as early as the middle 200s BC, but they might have been celebrated earlier. The following is a list of dates for the Ludi Saeculares (14):

  1. 249 BC (four years off-date).
  2. 149 BC.
  3. May 31 to June 2, 17 BC.
  4. 47 AD. This was the ONLY date in which the Ludi Saeculares were performed on schedule.
  5. 88 AD.
  6. 146 AD.
  7. 204 AD.
  8. 248 AD.

Gradually, the superstitions of the pagan pantheon gave way to the faith of Christianity. Ideas held by the Roman people about their gods and spirits, many of which appear bizarre or nonsensical to us today, would slowly fall away and become forgotten, and the temples and shrines which were once dedicated to the old gods would crumble into ruins.

Source Citations

  1. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190; Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, Ltd., 1986. Page 141.
  2. Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  3. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 351; The Haunted History of Halloween.
  4. William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 211; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120; What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”.
  5. Leon Ter Beek, “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 17-25; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120; Matthew Dillon and Lynda Garland, Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005. Page 8.
  6. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  7. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
  8. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html; Thomas Morell and William Duncan, An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862. Pages 29-30; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 21. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 193-195.
  10. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
  11. The Celts, episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”.
  12. Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 11; Reverend John T. White and Reverend J. E. Riddle, A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869. Page 1,240.
  13. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  14. Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pages 350-351; “Coins of the Ludi Saeculares and Rome’s Millennial Games”.

Bibliography

Books

  • Aitchison, Alexander. The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807.
  • Caesar, Julius. Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  • Dillon, Matthew; Garland, Lynda. Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
  • Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publsher, Ltd., 1986.
  • Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Romulus*.html.
  • Richardson Jr., Lawrence. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
  • Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • White, Reverend John T.; Riddle, Reverend J. E. A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.

Articles

  • Bradley, Mark. “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 103-121.
  • Ter Beek, Leon. “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 11-30.
  • Warde Fowler, William. “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.

Websites

Videos

  • The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”. Hosted by Frank De Laney. BBC, 1987.
  • The Haunted History of Halloween. Narrated by Harry Smith. The History Channel, 1997.
  • What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”. Hosted by Jack Turner. The Science Channel, 2005.

October 1 – The Kalends of October

It is now the month of October in ancient Rome. The weather has begun to cool, the Autumn harvest is ready to be gathered, and the soldiers are preparing themselves to return home after another season of fighting abroad.

The whole month of October was dedicated to Mars, the god of war (1). This is likely due to the fact that October was the month when the year’s military campaigning season came to an end. The campaigning season officially terminated on October 19 with the ceremony known as the Armilustrium, but that’s a story for another day.

The first day of every month was known as the kalends, which is where the word “calendar” comes from. These were days in which all business was put on hold, possibly because merchants and businessmen were afraid of being jinxed (2).

In the ancient Roman calendar, the first day of every month was sacred to the goddess Juno, Queen of the Gods (3). However, the first day of October was also dedicated to the war-god Mars (4) as well as to Fides, the divine personification of faith (5). This is because October 1 was the date that a temple to Fides located on the Capitoline Hill was dedicated during the 3rd Century BC by Aulus Atilius Calatinus. This temple was often used as a place where oaths were taken, or where contracts and treaties were signed. Copies of treaties that Rome had signed with other nations were put on display within (6).

October 1 was also the date of a purification ritual known as the Tigillo Sororio, “the Beam of the Sister”, whose origins go back to the founding of the Roman Republic. Legend states that Horatius Cocles, one of the great heroes of the civil war between the monarchists and the republicans which lasted from 509 to 499 BC, returned home after being victorious in a battle, bringing with him the spoils of his defeated enemies. However, his sister was betrothed so a man who was on the monarchists side. When she saw her fiancé’s cloak, she knew that he was among the slain and she began to cry. Her brother Horatius, fired up with patriotic furor, accused her of showing sympathy to the Republic’s enemies and killed her on the spot. Horatius was acquitted of murder, but he was forced to undergo a purification ritual to expiate his blood-guilt. At least that’s the story, but it appears that this purification ritual existed before the era of the civil war, so then what was its original purpose? Perhaps, just as Horatius had to expunge his unclean self after shedding the blood of his own sister, so to might early Roman warriors have needed to purify their bodies and souls of blood-guilt prior to re-entering the city (7). This bears some resemblance to the Armilustrium, in which the weapons of war were ritualistically purified before being re-housed in the armories over the winter lull.

 

Source citations:

  1. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: 1700. Page 14; 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. Page 103; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  2. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.
  3. Molly Pasco-Pranger, Founding the Year: Ovid’s Fasti and the Poetics of the Roman Calendar. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Page 180.
  4. 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. Page 103.
  5. UNRV. “Roman Festivals”. https://www.unrv.com/culture/roman-festivals.php.
  6. Ár Ndraíocht Féin: Public Worship, Fellowship, and Practice. “Major Holidays of Rome October (Mensis October)”. https://www.adf.org/rituals/roman/roman-holidays3.html.
  7. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.

 

Bibliography:

The Battle of Teutoburg: A Problem with Dating

September 9 to 11 of the year 9 AD is often attributed in modern sources as the date for the legendary Battle of Teutoburg, more commonly known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – except the battle lasted for four days, not three, and it was fought in a forest only on the first two days of the engagement. But how accurate is this date? Very rarely do the primary sources provide precise dates for historical events. In fact, if you take the pains to read through all of the ancient documents that mention and describe this important battle, you will be struck by something puzzling and shocking – no ancient source mentions when exactly the battle took place.

So, if that is the case, then why is it commonly perpetuated that the Battle of Teutoburg was fought specifically from September 9 to 11?

The oldest reference to the Battle of Teutoburg taking place on September 9th to the 11th is dated to the 19th Century. Found within an issue of Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art is an article entitled “Decisive Battles of History”, dated to January 7, 1871. Within this article, the un-named author provides a list of battles of historical importance, with some being provided longer descriptions than others. The Battle of Teutoburg is placed upon that list, and of it, the article mentions the following: “The battle of Teutoburg, on the 9th, 10th and 11th of September, 9 B. C., between the Germans, led by Hermann, and the Romans, under Varus” (“Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871. Page 20). Where the author of this article managed to obtain these dates is unknown, since, as mentioned before, no primary source gives exact dates for the battle.

These dates were repeated in A Popular History of Germany, Volume 1, written by Wilhelm Zimmerman and published in 1878. In a chapter devoted exclusively to this battle, Zimmermann writes “The battle took place on the 9th, 10th, and 11th days of September” (William Zimmermann, A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878. Page 57). Again, Zimmermann provides no sources for this information.

These dates seem to have been forgotten until the 1990s, when the battlefield was discovered and a thorough archaeological survey could be made of the site. Among the items found was the skeleton of a mule and around its neck was a bell that had been stuffed with straw…straw that had presumably been collected from nearby, in order to keep the bell from ringing. It was this find that enabled forensic analysts to give an approximate date of the battle.

In my own book about this battle Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, I state the following…

“It is common knowledge among ancient and military historians that the battle took place in the year 9 AD, but during what time of year? At the excavation of the site, the skeleton of a mule was found with a bell around its neck. The bell had been stuffed with straw, presumably to keep it from making noise. Forensic analysis of the straw showed that it had been cut in late summer or early fall, placing the battle in late September (Peter S. Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003), 55). So, not only did the battle’s date have a year, but also a month – September of 9 AD. The battle is popularly conceived as being begun on September 9, 9 AD, but this is a date that seems to be chosen at random. Forensic evidence places the battle at late summer/early fall, which would make it fall somewhere in late September, not early September” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016. Page 128.

 

Bibliography

  • “Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871.
  • Abdale, Jason R. Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016.
  • Wells, Peter S. The Battle that Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003.
  • Zimmermann, William. A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878.

 

July 15 – The Equitum Romanorum Probatio and the Lusus Troiae: The Public Exhibitions of the Ancient Roman Knightly Class

July 15 was the date for the Equitum Romanorum Probatio, “the Roman Knight Exhibition”. This event commemorated the anniversary of the Battle of Lake Regillus, in which the Roman Republic fought against its Latin neighbors during the 300s BC. Legend states that the divine twins Castor and Pollux fought on the Romans’ side, and under their inspirational leadership, led them to victory over their enemies. Afterwards when the battle was won, they rode back to Rome and informed the citizens of their victory. Ever since then, Castor and Pollux served as the mascots of the Roman knightly class.

As the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus relates…

“It is said that in this battle two men on horseback, far excelling in both beauty and stature those our human stock produces, and just growing their first beard, appeared to Postumius, the dictator, and to those arrayed about him, and charged at the head of the Roman horse, striking with their spears all the Latins they encountered and driving them headlong before them. And after the flight of the Latins and the capture of their camp, the battle having come to an end in the late afternoon, two youths are said to have appeared in the same manner in the Roman Forum attired in military garb, very tall and beautiful and of the same age, themselves retaining on their countenances as having come from a battle, the look of combatants, and the horses they led being all in a sweat. And when they had each of them watered their horses and washed them at the fountain which rises near the temple of Vesta and forms a small but deep pool, and many people stood about them and inquired if they brought any news from the camp, they related how the battle had gone and that the Romans were the victors. And it is said that after they left the Forum they were not seen again by anyone, though great search was made for them by the man who had been left in command of the city. The next day, when those at the head of affairs received the letters from the dictator, and besides the other particulars of the battle, learned also of the appearance of the divinities, they concluded, as we may reasonably infer, that it was the same gods who had appeared in both places, and were convinced that the apparitions had been those of Castor and Pollux. Of this extraordinary and wonderful appearance of these gods there are many monuments at Rome, not only the temple of Castor and Pollux which the city erected in the Forum at the place where their apparitions had been seen, and the adjacent fountain, which bears the names of these gods and is to this day regarded as holy, but also the costly sacrifices which the people perform each year through their chief priests in the month called Quintilis, on the day known as the Ides, the day on which they gained this victory” (1).

The first Equitum Romanorum Probatio was held in 304 BC, and was established by Quintus Fabius Rullianus. As the Roman historian Titus Livius (more commonly known by his Anglicized name Livy) states, “It was [Quintus] Fabius…who instituted the parade of the knights on the fifteenth of July” (2). As many as 5,000 mounted knights participated in the festivities. In a lavish parade, all of the knights with olive wreathes garlanding their heads rode white horses caprissoned in red and purple. The parade route lay along the Via Appia, travelling from the Temple of Mars, riding past the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and finally ending at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.

“There is the procession performed after the sacrifice by those who have a public horse and who, being arrayed by tribes and centuries, ride in regular ranks on horseback, as if they came from battle, crowned with olive branches and attired in the purple robes with stripes of scarlet which they call trabeae. They begin their procession from a certain temple of Mars built outside the walls, and going through several parts of the city and the Forum, they pass by the temple of Castor and Pollux, sometimes to the number even of five thousand, wearing whatever rewards for valour in battle they have received from their commanders, a fine sight and worthy of the greatness of the Roman dominion. These are the things I have found both related and performed by the Romans in commemoration of the appearance of Castor and Pollux; and from these, as well as from many other important instances, one may judge how dear to the gods were the men of those times” (3).

This festival gradually fell into obscurity, but was eventually brought back by Caesar Augustus as part of his numerous ways to bring favor to the Equestrian Order.

Another event which is somewhat related to the Equitum Romanorum Probatio was known as the Lusus Troiae, “Playing at Troy”. The ancient Roman calendar had many days which were dedicated to sporting events, including chariot races and athletic sports. However, unlike other major sporting events, the Lusus Troiae did not occur on a fixed calendar date. In fact, there were some years when it didn’t occur at all. This was an event that usually took place in association with another major event such as the dedication of a major temple, a triumphal parade, or the funerals of important government officials (4).

Roman tradition holds that this festival was first held by Prince Aeneas, the former Trojan Prince who fled to Italy following his home city’s fall to the Greeks. In the Aeneid, the poet Virgil states that it was held in commemoration of the funeral of Prince Aeneas’ father Anchises (5).

As files in the three squadrons all in line
Turned away, cantering left and right; recalled
They wheeled and dipped their lances for a charge.
They entered then on parades and counter-parades,
The two detachments, matched in the arena,
Winding in and out of one another,
And whipped into sham cavalry skirmishes
By baring backs in flight, then whirling round
With leveled points, then patching up a truce
And riding side by side. So intricate
In ancient times on mountainous Crete they say
The Labyrinth, between walls in the dark,
Ran criss-cross a bewildering thousand ways
Devised by guile, a maze insoluble,
Breaking down every clue to the way out.
So intricate the drill of Trojan boys
Who wove the patterns of their prancing horses,
Figured, in sport, retreats and skirmishes.

 – The Aeneid, 5.580-593. Translation by Robert Fitzgerald. (6)

It’s certainly possible that this event has archaic origins, since an Etruscan vase found in Tragliatella, Italy dated to the late 7th Century BC depicts what might be a portrayal of this festival. You can see this vase here. This event fell into obscurity for some time during the middle republican period. Then, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who served as the Roman Republic’s military dictator during the 80s and 70s BC, brought back this festival after a long period of dormancy. As Rome was further consumed by civil wars during the late republican period, Julius Caesar ordered the games to be held as part of his victory triumph in 46 BC. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa also sponsored the Lusus Troiae in the years 40 and 33 BC (7).

It was during the early imperial period, and specifically during the reign of Rome’s first emperor Caesar Augustus that the Lusus Troiae had its heyday. Caesar Augustus was an enthusiastic sponsor of the games. He first held the games in 29 BC to commemorate the dedication of a temple to Julius Caesar (8). The games were held again in 11 BC to mark the dedication of Marcellus’ theater. As Cassius Dio says, “He (Augustus) next dedicated the theatre named after Marcellus. In the course of the festival held for this purpose the patrician boys, including his grandson Gaius, performed the equestrian exercise called ‘Troy,’ and six hundred wild beasts from Africa were slain” (9). The event was always held in the Circus Maximus, where, according to Suetonius, Caesar Augustus “exhibited charioteers, runners, and slayers of wild animals, who were sometimes young men of the highest rank. Besides he gave frequent performances of the game of Troy by older and younger boys, thinking it a time-honoured and worthy custom for the flower of the nobility to become known in this way. When Nonius Asprenas was lamed by a fall while taking part in this game, he presented him with a golden necklace and allowed him and his descendants to bear the surname Torquatus. But soon after he gave up that form of entertainment, because Asinius Pollio the orator complained bitterly and angrily in the senate of an accident to his grandson Aeserninus, who also had broken his leg” (10).

After Augustus’ death, this ritual was performed very rarely. There do not seem to have been any circumstances in which the games were conducted under Augustus’ successor Emperor Tiberius. The games were once again performed in 38 AD during the reign of Gaius Caligula to mark both the dedication of a temple to Caesar Augustus as well as the funeral of his sister Drusilla. During the reign of Claudius, it was held in 47 AD to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of Rome by the divine twins Romulus and Remus. After this it was performed rarely and sporadically, and it gradually fell out of favor with later monarchs of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. We know that it was held in 204 and again in 211 AD in conjunction with the funeral of Emperor Septimius Severus (11).

What exactly happened during these events? All of the ancient sources agree that the Lusus Troiae was primarily an equestrian exhibition in which only young men of the Equestrian Order could participate, but aside from that, there isn’t much to go on, and this has caused disputes amongst scholars of ancient history. One of the problems is that this event was performed only on special occasions as opposed to a fixed date, be it every year or every few years. Another problem is the historical records can be misleading regarding the purpose behind this event.

In the Aeneid, Virgil describes the Lusus Troiae as pugnae simulacra, “a simulation of fighting”. This has given some a false impression of what this event entailed. On the face of it, the term that Virgil uses may evoke images of an ancient Roman version of a medieval tournament. However, there is no evidence of athletic competitions between the knights like you would see at a medieval tournament or any other horse-related shows: no fence-jumping, no ring-spearing, no javelin throwing, no jousting, no foot combat, nothing. Furthermore, if this truly was some sort of martial exhibition which was meant as a way for the young men of Rome’s knightly class to demonstrate their skills and show off to the crowds, why not make such an event a regular mandatory occurrence? Some other explanation is needed.

The physical evidence provided in the 7th Century BC Etruscan vase found in Tragliatella, Italy is just as perplexing. The design upon it might show one of the contests held during these festivities – riding the horse through an elaborate maze-like racetrack, full of curves and tight hair-pin turns. This “labyrinth” is referenced several times in secondary interpretations, with some claiming that it’s a track or perhaps an exercise performed by the riders to dexterously weave their horses in and out of various obstacles. However, it would appear that this “labyrinth” is not a prepared obstacle course or trotting course, but rather described the elaborate evolutions of the horsemen weaving in and out amongst each other as part of the spectacle (12).

Several hypotheses have been proposed by modern scholars as to what exactly the Lusus Troiae was, some sensible and others perplexing. Mark Petrini says that the purpose of the games was to prepare the youth of Rome’s knightly class for war, while John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro state that the purpose of the games ostensibly appeared to have been to put the knightly youth of Rome through their paces in a public exercise, but also contained deep-rooted symbolism, and David Ross elaborates on this by saying that the event changed from a commemorative funeral procession to being an event of high nationalistic importance to the Roman culture (13).

It would therefore appear that the most likely explanation of the Lusus Troiae would be that it was an elaborate dressage exhibition with synchronized movements of multiple groups of horsemen, their riders armed and armored for battle and making deliberate flourished choreographed motions with their weapons. This does not bear the description of an athletic exhibition, but rather of a scripted theatrical performance. It has even been described as an ancient Roman version of a war dance or a militarized ballet performance. It is most similar to the pyrrhiche, or Pyrrhic Dance, which was “a Greek choral dance performed by young men with weapons and full armor” (14). The major difference between the ancient Greek pyrrhiche and the ancient Roman Lusus Troiae was that the participants performed on horseback (15).

The Equitum Romanorum Probatio was a public exhibition of horsemanship by Rome’s knightly class. By contrast, the Lusus Troiae was a well-choreographed equestrian parade with a lot of theatricality thrown in. It’s possible that the events of the Equitum Romanorum Probatio and the Lusus Troiae merged together since both involved public formalized equestrian exhibitions by Rome’s knights. However, there is no hard proof in any of the historical texts that these two events eventually merged together into a single event that took place on the same day. After all, it specifically says in the sources that the Equitum Romanorum Probatio was held every year on July 15, while the Lusus Troiae took place at the discretion of the reigning emperor. It is therefore certain that these were indeed two separate events, although of a similar nature.

 

Source Citations

  1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 6, chapter 13.
  2. Livy, History of Rome, book 9, chapter 46.
  3. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 6, chapter 13
  4. Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  5. Aeneid, 5.545-603; Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  6. The Aeneid 5.5.580-593. Translation by Robert Fitzgerald. Early Church History. “Ancient Game of Troy”. https://earlychurchhistory.org/entertainment/ancient-game-of-troy/.
  7. Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”; John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 40; David O. Ross, Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Page 102.
  8. John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 41; Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  9. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 54, chapter 26.
  10. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 2, chapter 43.
  11. John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 41; Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172.
  12. Sinclair Bell, “Lusus Troiae”; John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 43.
  13. Michael Grant, The Army of the Caesars. New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc., 1974. Page 72. Mark Petrini, The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Page 93; John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Page 41; David O. Ross, Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Page 102.
  14. Lauren Curtis, Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Page 179.
  15. John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Pages 42-43, 45; Lauren Curtis, Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Page 179.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

 

Secondary Sources

Books:

  • Bell, Sinclair. “Lusus Troiae”. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition, by Roger S. Bagnal et al, eds. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Page 4,172. https://www.academia.edu/1601485/_Lusus_Troiae._.
  • Burgersdijk, Diederik. “The Troy Game: The Trojan Heritage in the Julio-Claudian House”. In Troy: City, Homer, Turkey, by Jorrit Kelder et al, eds. https://www.academia.edu/2768810/The_Troy_Game_the_Trojan_heritage_in_the_Julio-Claudian_House.
  • Curtis, Lauren. Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Grant, Michael. The Army of the Caesars. New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc., 1974.
  • Petrini, Mark. The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Ross, David O. Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  • Scheid, John; Svenbro, Jesper. The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Translated by Carol Volk. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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