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Altispinax: The Mysterious Meat-Eater of Early Cretaceous England

Introduction

There are many dinosaur species which have been identified based upon very scant remains, and this article concerns one of them: a meat-eating dinosaur named Altispinax dunkeri. If you’ve never heard of this animal before, you’re not alone. It’s not exactly a name that readily springs to mind when one thinks of dinosaurs. After all, Altispinax is only known from three vertebrae that were found back in the 1850s, and nothing else has been found since then which can be positively attributed to this animal. Other isolated fossils have been found here and there, but there’s really no way to tell if all of these isolated bones, teeth, and claws all belong to the same creature. Broadly, we are reasonably sure that it was a meat-eating dinosaur, but aside from that, there’s not much else to go on.

Discovery and Description

In 1855, a British lawyer and amateur fossil hunter named Samuel H. Beckles (April 12, 1814 – September 4, 1890) was prospecting for fossils in southeastern England. Not far from the site of the Hastings battlefield, he discovered a series of three vertebrae with unusually tall dorsal spines, measuring about 14 inches (35 centimeters) from the top of the centrum disk to the top of the spine (1).

The holotype specimen of Altispinax (collections ID code: BMNH R1828, or maybe it’s NHMUK R1828). Image from “Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia” by Darren Naish and David M. Martill (2007). Journal of the Geological Society, volume 164. Page 503, Figure #7 (Pages 493-510).
https://darrennaish.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/naish-martill-2007-gsl-british-dinosaurs-pt-i-saurischia.pdf.

The following year in 1856, the famous British paleontologist Sir Richard Owen wrote a description of this fossil in which he ascribed it to the genus Megalosaurus, which had been classified about thirty years earlier. The description of the fossil reads as follows:

“Three anterior dorsal vertebrae: p, parapophysis, or lower transverse process: t, accessory tubercle contributing some attachment to the head of the rib: d, diapophyses, or upper transverse process, fractured, which gave attachment to the tubercle of the rib: b, oblique buttress extending from the parapophysis to the diapophysis, and contributing to the support of the neural platform : z, the prozygapophysis, z’, the zygapophysis, forming the ends of the neural platform and articulating the neural arches of the vertebrae with each other, ns, the neural spine of the foremost of these vertebras, ns’, the neural spine of the second vertebra; it expands at its extremity, overhangs the anterior shorter spine, and developes a strong bony plate from its back part which fixes it to n”, the similarly developed and modified spine of the third vertebra. The extraordinary size and strength of the spines of these anterior dorsal vertebrae, indicate the great force with which the head and jaws of the Megalosaurus must have been used” (2).

This is a drawing (yes, that’s a drawing, not a photograph) of the vertebrae, made by Joseph Dinkel which accompanies Owen’s article. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Becklespinax.jpg.

The fossil vertebrae were found in the rocks of the “Wealden Supergroup”. This is a multi-layer series of geological formations consisting largely of sandstones and mudstones which are spread throughout much of southeastern England and date to the early Cretaceous Period. This geological super-formation is divided into several sub-units called “groups”, and each of these groups are divided further into “formations”. These include the “Hastings Beds Group” (dated from the Berriasian to Valanginian Stages of the early Cretaceous Period), the “Weald Clay Group” (Hauterivian and Barremian, possibly extending into the Aptian), and the “Wealden Group” (Barremian to Aptian) (3).

The vertebrae fossils were found in the rock layers of the “Hastings Beds Group”. Specifically, the fossils were found in the Wadhurst Clay Formation of East Sussex. This formation dates to the Valanginian Stage of the early Cretaceous Period, and even more specifically to the early to middle Valanginian. This would place the vertebrae’s date range at about 138-135 million years ago. During this same time, iconic early Cretaceous dinosaurs such as Iguanodon and Baryonyx had not yet evolved. Instead, Altispinax shared its habitat with the armored ankylosaur Hylaeosaurus, the sauropods Pelorosaurus and Xenoposeidon, and the small ornithopods Valdosaurus and Echinodon. Isolated fossils of Iguanodon-like animals have also been found here, as well as fossils of frogs, crocodiles, and small mammals. Since no other large carnivorous dinosaurs are known from this place and time, Altispinax might have been the top predator within its environment (4).

Discussion

Altispinax is not a well-known dinosaur, but even though it is not a major star in dinosaur paleontology circles and it is not a creature well-known to the general public, largely due to the fact that the only evidence for it comes from a single fragmentary specimen found nearly 170 years ago, Altispinax has received a surprisingly high amount of academic attention. Every now and then, professional paleontologists dabble in Altispinax speculation, analyzing these three vertebrae for the umpteenth time and pondering where exactly it fits in the theropod family tree.

Unsurprisingly, because these finds are 170 years old and are known only from fragmentary remains, Altispinax’s position in the dinosaur family tree has been regularly shuffled around because nobody, it seems, can make up their minds about what sort of animal it was. When it was first discovered, Sir Richard Owen believed that these spines belonged to Megalosaurus bucklandi, one of the first dinosaurs to be discovered and named. During the 19th and 20th Centuries, the name “Megalosaurus” was considered a “wastebasket taxon” – any remains of a meat-eating dinosaur which could not be positively identified were classified as Megalosaurus. As a result, this genus name acquired a long list of species names. Indeed, early reconstructions of Megalosaurus incorporated these three tall-spined vertebrae into its anatomy. For example, the British sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins created a statue of Megalosaurus for Crystal Palace Park in which it possessed a bison-like hump over its shoulders.

Middle 19th Century reconstruction of Megalosaurus by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, on display in Crystal Palace Park. Note the prominent bison-like hump over the shoulder. Photo by C. G. P. Gray (2007). Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:London_-Crystal_Palace-_Victorian_Dinosaurs_1.jpg
.

When Megalosaurus’ appearance was further refined during the late 1800s into a definitely dinosaurian appearance, but in an incorrect upright pose as championed by people such as Joseph Leidy and Louis Dollo, this reconstruction again showed Megalosaurus with tall neural spines, forming a low ridge running down the middle of its back.

Late 19th Century reconstruction of Megalosaurus by Christian Von Meyer, in which the animal is portrayed with tall neural spines on its dorsal and sacral vertebrae. Illustration from Extinct Monsters, 5th Edition, by Reverend Henry N. Hutchinson. London: Chapman and Hall, 1897. Page 78. https://archive.org/details/extinctmonsters00hutciala.

In 1923, the famed German paleontologist Friedrich Von Huene took a look at the three spines from southern England, as well as a single tooth that was discovered in Germany which had been given the name Megalosaurus dunkeri. Von Huene lumped these fossils together in the belief that they both came from the same species, and determined that they did not, in fact, come from Megalosaurus. So he gave these spines and the solitary tooth a new name – Altispinax dunkeri, “Dunker’s high-spined ruler” (5).

Later researchers justifiably felt that Von Huene had jumped the gun by assuming that the tooth from Germany and the vertebrae from England belonged to the same species. Furthermore, new species had been discovered since then. In the late 1940s in the United States, another large theropod was discovered with a prominent ridge running down its back which looked remarkably similar to the three vertebrae found in England. In 1950, the American dinosaur was named Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, and other paleontologists began to wonder if the mysterious vertebrae found in England came from a similar animal. In the 1980s, paleontologist and paleo-artist Gregory Paul felt that the three vertebrae represented a European version of Acrocanthosaurus, so he gave it a provisional name of “Acrocanthosaurus altispinax”, though he wasn’t absolutely certain if he was correct. In 1991, George Olshevsky stated that these three spines did not belong to Acrocanthosaurus, but belonged to a new genus, and so it was named Becklespinax altispinax, named in honor of Samuel Beckles who had discovered the vertebrae in 1855 (6).

Skeleton of Acrocanthosaurus on display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo by Famille Wielosz-Caron (August 4, 2007). Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Illustration of Becklespinax made by the paleo-artist James Robins in the magazine Dinosaurs!, issue #46, page 1084. Durham: Atlas Editions Partworks, Inc., 1994.

The name Becklespinax remained in place for the next twenty-five years until 2016 when it was challenged by Michael Maisch. He said that since Friedrich Von Huene recognized this animal as a distinct species back in 1923, this pre-dated George Olshevsky’s recognition of this animal as a distinct species in 1991. Therefore, the name Altispinax held priority over the more recent name Becklespinax, and therefore the name Becklespinax should be discarded. So in 2016, the old name of Altispinax dunkeri was resurrected (7).

Just as its name has been altered over the years, Altispinax’s phylogeny has also changed. In 1856, Sir Richard Owen classified this animal as a megalosaur. Then, following the discovery of Acrocanthosaurus in the late 1940s, it was believed to be an allosaur (later, Acrocanthosaurus was re-classified as a carcharodontosaurid). In 1991, George Olshevsky classified Altispinax once again as a megalosaur, specifically in the family Eustreptospondylidae. By the late 1990s, it was re-classified again as being more closely-related to a Middle Jurassic allosaur from China called Sinraptor, and was therefore placed in the allosauroidean family Metriacanthosauridae, which includes Metriacanthosaurus, Sinraptor, and Yangchuanosaurus. These species measured 20-25 feet long (which was the same size estimate commonly seen for Altispinax), had curvaceous skulls, and unusually tiny hands with stubby fingers and claws. Allosaurus, with its gigantic hands and meat hook claws, was a rough-and-tumble attacking predator (numerous injuries on fossils prove this), but its cousin Sinraptor did not have such well-developed hands. In 2003, Darren Naish classified this creature as belonging to the more evolutionarily-advanced super-family Allosauroidea, but didn’t hazard placing it into a specific allosaur family (8). In a 2007 article, Darren Naish wrote “Several other tetanurans exhibit a similar pattern of neural arch laminae to Becklespinax, including Condorraptor, Piatnitzkysaurus and Sinraptor, and Sinraptor in particular exhibits a superficially similar morphology: this could mean that Becklespinax is a sinraptorid, but there are no uniquely shared characters that might demonstrate this. For now, pending further discoveries, Becklespinax remains an indeterminate tetanuran of unknown affinities. Its combination of characters, and uniquely expanded neural spines tips, mean that it is a valid, diagnosable taxon” (9).

Skeleton of Sinraptor. Photo by Ian Armstrong (April 17, 2005). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Some people wondered if Altispinax might have been a spinosaur or perhaps a carcharodontosaur, since species from both groups have been found in Europe, and especially considering that carcharodontosaurs like Acrocanthosaurus and spinosaurs like Suchomimus and Ichthyovenator were known to have tall neural spines on its vertebrae forming a dorsal ridge. In a 2007 article, back when the animal was still referred to as Becklespinax, Darren Naish wrote “there are no shared derived characters that might unite Becklespinax with either spinosaurids or carcharodontosaurids, and these suggestions can’t be supported”(10). But not long after this was written, Concavenator was discovered in Spain, and old questions were resurrected regarding Altispinax’s position on the theropod family tree. It was determined that Concavenator was a carcharodontosaurid, and there were several noticeable similarities between this animal and Altispinax. Now, many people are once again changing Altispinax’s phylogeny, saying that, yes, it is a carcharodontosaur, but as to whether or not it is, it’s anybody’s guess at this point. Darren Naish re-classified Altispinax as a carcharodontosaurid in 2011, and the science website Palaeos also classifies Altispinax (identified on the web-page as Becklespinax) as a member of the family Carcharodontosauridae (11).

Skeleton of Concavenator, a 20 foot carcharodontosaurid from Spain. Photograph by Santiago Torralba (August 22, 2008). Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Reconstructed skeleton of Concavenator. (May 1, 2019). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Reconstruction

Well, time to reconstruct what the whole animal may have looked like. It is not yet clear if Altispinax was more closely related to Sinraptor or to Concavenator. Although both of these animals had different features to the structure of their skull, outwardly they would have looked very similar to each other. Both groups of animals also had short arms with small hands, and would have had an allosaur-ish body structure. One wonders if the carcharodontosaurids evolved directly from the metriacanthosaurids like Sinraptor, but this is just a guess on my part.

As for the sail, that was a bit difficult. For years, paleo-artists depicted sail-backed bipedal dinosaurs, like the old renditions of Spinosaurus, with a sail located on the back between the arms and the legs. But the best position for a theropod’s sail is directly over the hips, not between the front limbs and hind limbs as is often seen. Animals that have their sails positioned between the front legs and back legs are quadrupedal animals, like Dimetrodon, and also what we now know Spinosaurus to be like. In a four-legged animal, the body is held off of the ground in an arch, braced by the four legs, and as such the main body has the structural support necessary to carry a sail over the back. However, in a bipedal animal, the hips form a fulcrum which balances the animal. If a bipedal animal had a sail located in a Dimetrodon-like way, positioned between the arms and legs, it would make the animal front-heavy. Therefore, a sail would be better positioned over the hips. Of course, this discounts the possibility that the animal had an unusually long tail to counter-balance the weight in the front. This is with the assumption that Becklespinax’s sail was short, extending only a small distance along the length of its back. It’s possible that it may have had a skeleton similar to Acrocanthosaurus, which had raised dorsal spines running all along its back, from the base of the skull, and extending down to the tip of the tail. However, this cannot be definitively stated to be the case until more of this animal is discovered.

The drawing that you see below was made with No. 2 pencil.

Altispinax dunkeri. © Jason R. Abdale (May 3, 2021).

Source Citations:

  1. Everything Dinosaur. “Remembering Samuel Husbands Beckles (1814-1890)”, by Mike Walley (August 24, 2014).; I Know Dino podcast. Episode 54 – “Becklespinax” (December 8, 2015).
  2. Richard Owen (1856). “Monograph on the fossil Reptilia of the Wealden Formation. Part IV”. Palaeontographical Society Monographs, volume 10.
  3. Darren Naish, “Pneumaticity, the early years: Wealden Supergroup dinosaurs and the hypothesis of saurian pneumaticity”. In Richard T. J. Moody, E. Buffetaut, Darren Naish, and David M. Martill, eds., Geological Society Special Publication No. 343 – Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. London: The Geological Society, 2010. Pages 229-230.
  4. David B. Weishampel, ‎Peter Dodson, ‎Halszka Osmólska, eds., The Dinosauria, Second Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Page 73; Darren Naish, “Pneumaticity, the early years: Wealden Supergroup dinosaurs and the hypothesis of saurian pneumaticity”. In Richard T. J. Moody, E. Buffetaut, Darren Naish, and David M. Martill, eds., Geological Society Special Publication No. 343 – Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. London: The Geological Society, 2010. Page 230; Mindat. “Becklespinax”; British Geological Survey. “Wadhurst Clay Formation”; Oladapo Odunayo Akinlotan (October 2015), The Sedimentolody of the Ashdown Formation and the Wadhurst Clay Formation, Southeast England. PhD Thesis, University of Brighton. Page 1.
  5. Smithsonian Magazine. “B is for Becklespinax”, by Riley Black (October 22, 2012).
  6. Smithsonian Magazine. “B is for Becklespinax”, by Riley Black (October 22, 2012).
  7. Michael W. Maisch (2016), “The nomenclatural status of the carnivorous dinosaur genus Altispinax v. Huene, 1923 (Saurischia, Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of England”. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie – Abhandlungen, volume 280, issue 2. Pages 215-219.
  8. George Olshevsky (1991). “A revision of the parainfraclass Archosauria Cope, 1869, excluding the advanced Crocodylia”. Mesozoic Meanderings, volume 2. Pages 22-23 (1-196); Theropod Database. “Carnosauria”; Dinosaur Mailing List. “Re: Becklespinax” (February 18, 1997); Darren Naish (2003), “A definitive allosauroid (Dinosauria; Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of East Sussex”. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, volume 114. Pages 319-326; Darren Naish and David M. Martill (2007), “Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia”. Journal of the Geological Society, volume 164. Pages 502-503, Figure #7 (Pages 493-510).
  9. Tetrapod Zoology. “Of Becklespinax and Valdoraptor”, by Darren Naish (October 2, 2007).
  10. Tetrapod Zoology. “Of Becklespinax and Valdoraptor”, by Darren Naish (October 2, 2007).
  11. Theropod Database. “Carnosauria”; Naish, Darren (2011). “Theropod Dinosaurs”. In Batten, ed., English Wealden Fossils. The Palaeontological Association. Pages 526-559; Smithsonian Magazine. “B is for Becklespinax”, by Riley Black (October 22, 2012); Palaeos. “Theropoda: Avetheropoda: Carcharodontosauridae”.

Bibliography:

Ceratodus: The Iconic Lungfish of the Mesozoic Era

Ceratodus was a genus of prehistoric lungfish which existed on Earth for a surprisingly long time, from the middle of the Triassic Period approximately 227 million years ago to the beginning of the Eocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period about 55 million years ago – a jaw-dropping span of 172 million years! That’s impressive by ANYBODY’S standards!

Lungfish as a whole are a primitive group of fish. They first appeared during the early Devonian Period about 416 million years ago (MYA), and it’s believed that they represent an evolutionary “missing link” between fish and amphibians. The closest relatives of the lungfish are the coelacanths, meaning “hollow spines”. That’s not surprising, considering that both lungfish and coelacanths have prehistoric origins as well as that both groups are classified as “lobe-finned fish”.

Lungfish do not have individual teeth like many fish today. Instead, they have four large bone plates (two in its upper jaw, and another two in its lower jaw) that were ridged in texture and crowned with thick triangular projections, and were used for crushing and cracking. Many species of modern lungfish feed on worms, freshwater snails, crustaceans, small fish, and amphibians.

Today, there are only six surviving species of lungfish, and all of them are found in hot tropical environments. With the exception of one species found in the Amazon Jungle and another species found in northern Australia, the remaining lungfish species are found in Africa.

  1. The South American Lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa), found in the Amazon River.
  2. The Marbled Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus), which is found throughout much of eastern and central Africa.
  3. The Gilled Lungfish (Protopterus amphibius), which is also found in eastern Africa.
  4. The West African Lungfish (Protopterus annectens), which is found, not surprisingly, in western Africa.
  5. The Spotted Lungfish (Protopterus dolloi), which inhabits the Congo Jungle of central Africa.
  6. The Australian Lungfish, also called the Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), found in northeastern Australia. Of all of the extant lungfish species, this one is believed to be the most primitive.

Special attention must be given to the Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), for not only is this species regarded as the most archaic of all of the extant lungfish, but it was once believed to be the sole surviving member of the prehistoric lungfish genus Ceratodus alive in modern times.

Skeleton of Neoceratodus forsteri. From Günther, Albert. “Description of Ceratodus, a Genus of Ganoid Fishes, Recently Discovered in Rivers of Queensland, Australia”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume 161 (1871). Plate XXX. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/109041.pdf.

The lower jaw of Neoceratodus forsteri, seen from above. From Krefft, Gerard. “Description of a gigantic amphibian allied to the genus Lepidosiren from the Wide-Bay district, Queensland”. Proceedings of the Zoological Society, volume 16 (April 28, 1870). Page 222. https://ia800405.us.archive.org/16/items/biostor-107043/biostor-107043.pdf.

The genus Ceratodus was established in 1837 by the famed Swiss ichthyologist Louis Agassiz based upon teeth which were found in European rock layers dated to the Triassic and Jurassic Periods. Most Ceratodus fossils that are found consist of isolated tooth plates, and different species have been named based largely upon difference in tooth morphology. Twenty-two species of Ceratodus have been named since the genus was first described in 1837. For a long time, Ceratodus was what is known as a “waste basket taxon” – all North American lungfish fossils were ascribed to this genus, regardless of how different they were from each other. Recently, a careful re-examination of lungfish fossils have revealed that these animals are remarkably different from each other and may constitute numerous genera, not just one. If that’s the case, then the overall lifespan of Ceratodus as a genus may be dramatically shorter than was previously supposed (Günther, Albert. “Description of Ceratodus, a Genus of Ganoid Fishes, Recently Discovered in Rivers of Queensland, Australia”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume 161 (1871). Page 512).

File:Ceratodus.jpg

Ceratodus, painted by Heinrich Harder. From Animals of the Prehistoric World (1916). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ceratodus.jpg.

Ceratodus’ length varied depending on the species. Most sources which I have seen give an average length of 3 feet long. However, one species of Ceratodus may have reached truly gigantic proportions, possibly reaching 10 to 12 feet long. This estimate is based upon a single bone plate, which is the largest-known of any lungfish. The tooth plate was found in central Nebraska in rocks dated to the Miocene or Pliocene Epochs of the Tertiary Period. Shimada and Kirkland hypothesized that the tooth had been carried into central Nebraska by river from older rock layers that were located further to the west within Wyoming, in rocks dated to either the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous Periods. However, the tooth isn’t as banged up as you would expect from such a long journey. It’s possible that the tooth is endemic to central Nebraska, and if that is the case, 1) Ceratodus was alive in North America for a much longer geologic time span than previously supposed, or 2) This species is mis-identified and belongs to a new un-described genus of giant lungfish which lived in central North America about 5 million years ago, or 3) This was a species which happened to have unusually large teeth within its jaws, and the overall length of the animal was much smaller than the 4 meter estimate given by Shimada and Kirkland. Unfortunately, only one tooth plate has been discovered. Until more specimens are found, everything that we have to say about this specimen needs to be taken with a great degree of skepticism. (Kenshu Shimada and James I. Kirkland, “A Mysterious King-Sized Mesozoic Lungfish from North America”. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, volume 114, issue 1 (2011). Pages 135-141. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261964060_A_Mysterious_King-Sized_Mesozoic_Lungfish_from_North_America).

For the artwork accompanying this article, I decided to change up my style. For this drawing, I chose to evoke the whimsical style of the paleo-art of Patricia Bujard. If you don’t know who Patricia Bujard is, then I highly recommend that you check out her work. She is a children’s author and illustrator with a love for prehistoric life, and I find her artwork adorable. There aren’t too many people who can make an Allosaurus “cute”, but dag-nabbit, she somehow manages to pull it off. You can see her artwork on her WordPress page, Pete’s Paleo Petshop. My own drawing, which you can see below, was made with an ordinary Crayola black marker.

Ceratodus © Jason R. Abdale. February 9, 2021.

Keep your pencils sharp, and in this case, also keep your markers properly stored so they don’t dry out.

Promastodonsaurus

This is Promastodonsaurus, literally meaning “before Mastodonsaurus”. Despite its saurian name, it was not a dinosaur, or even a reptile – it was actually a large amphibian. Fossils of Promastodonsaurus were found in Argentina within the rocks of the Ischigualasto Formation, dated to the middle Triassic Period approximately 230 million years ago. The species was officially named in 1963 by the famed South American paleontologist José Bonaparté, in reference to another large amphibian named Mastodonsaurus which lived in Europe during a slightly later time.

Cladistically-speaking, this animal belonged to a large group of amphibians called the “labyrinthodonts”, so-named because a cross-section of their teeth looked like a maze. Within this broad group is a sub-division called the “temnospondyls”, “the cut vertebrae” because each of their backbones is divided into several parts. The temnospondyls were a diverse group of labyrinthodont amphibians which first appeared during the Carboniferous Period and lasted into the Cretaceous Period – a span of nearly 200 million years. Within the order Temnospondyli is the sub-order “Stereospondyli”, and within this is a division called the “capitosaurians”, “the head lizards”, so-named due to their freakishly huge heads; Promastodonsaurus was a member of this group. It was essentially a giant meat-eating salamander with the head of an alligator.

The only evidence that we have of this animal is a single partial skull. Based upon its similarity to the skulls of other temnospondyl amphibians within its family, it is believed that the animal’s head measured 45 centimeters long (Hans-Dieter Sues and Nicholas C. Fraser, Triassic Life on Land: The Great Transition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Page 69). This in turn would make the entire animal somewhere in the vicinity of 6 feet long, as big as a medium-sized alligator.

Promastodonsaurus bellmani. © Jason R. Abdale. February 9, 2021.

During the middle Triassic Period, crocodilians did not exist, so the capitosaurians like Mastodonsaurus and Promastodonsaurus essentially filled in that ecological niche as crocodilian analogs. Large amphibians like these would continue to dominate freshwater environments until they were replaced by the phytosaurus during the late Triassic Period, who in turn would be replaced by crocodilians during the Jurassic Period.

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.

February 2 – The Feast of Ceres and the Blessing of the Seeds

Today is February 2. Most Americans know this as “Groundhog Day” in which, according to their superstitions, a groundhog is able to predict if warm or cold weather will come. The story is that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, it will become frightened by it and scurry back inside. The act of returning to its burrow signifies that Winter is still here and it’s not practical to go outside looking for food just yet. However, if the groundhog exits its underground home and does not see its shadow, it will stay outside. This symbolizes that the groundhog is not afraid to venture out from its place of Winter hibernation and that Spring is right around the corner.

Many people nowadays scoff at such nonsense. How can an animal predict the coming of Spring? But did you know that there is an ancient religious background to this modern-day ritual? The beginning of February is important in a few religious calendars. It’s the time of the Feast of Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers; Ceres was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. It’s also the date for the ancient Celtic holy day of Imbolc. In ancient Ireland, the beginning of February was marked by a feast dedicated to the goddess Brigid, who was later turned into a Catholic Christian saint. Finally, early February marks the Catholic Christian festival of Candle Mass, which is either held in honor of the Virgin Mary or the day that the infant Jesus Christ was officially presented to the Jewish temple. This day was marked by a great lighting of candles in the churches and carried in processions, and it has been proposed that this ritual procession of people carrying candles originated in ancient Rome, because the Romans performed a nearly identical ritual in commemoration of the purification god Februus (1)

All three of these religious days have one thing in common: early February, either February 1 or 2, marks the half-way point between the coming of Winter and the coming of Spring. The beginning of February celebrates that Winter is half-way over, that the days are getting longer, and that warmer weather is on its way.

The ancient Roman seasonal calendar was different from ours. To us, the Vernal Equinox in late March marks the beginning of Spring, but to the ancient Romans, the Vernal Equinox marked the middle of Spring. To them, the real beginning of Spring was in early February, somewhere between February 1-4. Therefore, to the Romans, February 2 was their true Spring Festival.

Now that you know that warmer weather is coming, you need to get ready to plant your crops. In an earlier post, which you can read here, I described the ancient Roman agriculture festivals that took place in late January and early February. In that article, I stated that the Romans conducted a pair of religious rituals several days apart dedicated to the Mother Earth goddess Tellus and agriculture goddess Ceres. The Feast of Tellus, which was customarily observed on January 24 (although it didn’t always fall on this date), served to purify the soil by removing any pests and diseases in it and also called upon the Mother Earth goddess to bring good weather and other profitable growing conditions. The purification process would take several days, probably depending on how large your field was. Then on February 2, the second of the pair was celebrated, a festival dedicated to the goddess Ceres.

Like the first festival, the second was designed with the goal of purification. February 2 was marked by the Blessing of the Seeds, in which the Roman priests offered sacrifices of pork and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, to Ceres and asked her to bless the seeds which they were about to plant into the ground and to remove any impurities from them, such as fungus, disease, or pests. Once all of the prayers and sacrifices had been made, the farmers planted the purified seeds into the purified soil (2).

The seeds which the Romans were about to plant had been kept in storage since October. It was prudent for farms to set aside the seeds that they intended to plant the following year. However, to keep these seeds safe, they needed to be locked away. If anything should happen to them, such as animals eating them or leaving them out to go moldy and rotten, there would be no food and the country would be gripped with famine. So, once the Autumn harvest was taken in, the Romans placed the following year’s seeds into underground storage containers, which were dedicated to Ceres. You can read more about this by clicking here (3).

The ancient Roman poet Ovid says that in the archaic past, the Romans would only offer grain and salt to their gods. However, they later added animal sacrifices to their rituals, and says that Ceres was the first god to have this done in her honor. On her feast day, a pig was sacrificed to her, supposedly as punishment for pigs uprooting a farmer’s crops. As Ovid relates, “Ceres was first to delight in the blood of the greedy sow, her crops avenged by the rightful death of the guilty creature. She learned that in Spring the grain, milky with sweet juice, had been uprooted by the snouts of bristling pigs. The swine were punished, terrified by that example” (4).

“Satisfy the eager farmers with full harvest, so they reap a worthy prize from their efforts. Grant the tender seeds perpetual fruitfulness, don’t let new shoots be scorched by cold snows. When we sow, let the sky be clear with calm breezes, sprinkle the buried seed with heavenly rain. Forbid the birds, that prey on cultivated land, to ruin the cornfields in destructive crowds. You too, spare the sown seed, you ants, so you’ll win a greater prize from the harvest. Meanwhile let no scaly mildew blight its growth, and let no bad weather blanch its colour, may it neither shrivel, nor be over-ripe and ruined by its own rich exuberance. May the fields be free of darnel that harms the eyesight, and no barren wild oats grow on cultivated soil. May the land yield rich interest, crops of wheat and barley, and spelt roasted twice in the flames” (5)

Note that Ovid makes NO MENTION of an agricultural festival occurring on February 2. All of the information that we have about this is mentioned in conjunction with the activities which took place on January 24.

Once all of the religious rituals had been conducted, the farmers could get to work sowing the seeds on their land. This was an important event in the minds of the ancient Romans. These were the first seeds planted in the year, and whether these seeds would do well or not would be a sign to the farmers about what the rest of the year would be like for them. If these first seeds did well, their Autumn harvest would be bountiful, but if they did poorly, they were likely going to suffer famine. In this way, we can see a similarity to the holiday of Groundhog Day – the good or bad fortune observed on this one day determines how things would play out in the future.

So on February 2, as you see snow blowing outside your window, be comforted in knowing that you are halfway towards sunshine and warmer days. Pray to Ceres for a good growing season for the coming Spring. Pray to Ceres to protect your seeds against birds, bugs, and bad weather. Offer sacrifices of pork and wheat cakes upon the household hearth.

Source citations

  1. John Audley, A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804. Page 24; Reverend Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798. Pages 34-42; Augustine Calmet, Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813; Edward Augustus Kendal, Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811. Page 329; Hipolito San Joseph Giral del Pino, A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  3. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33; 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.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.

Bibliography

  • Audley, John. A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804.
  • 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.
  • Butler, Reverend Alban. The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798.
  • Calmet, Augustine. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813
  • Fowler, William Warde. “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.
  • Kendal, Edward Augustus. Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811.
  • Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
  • Pino, Hipolito San Joseph Giral del. A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.

 

February 1 – The Month of Februus, the Ancient Roman God of Purification

In the ancient Roman calendar, several of the months are named after gods in the Roman pantheon. January is named after Janus, the god of new beginnings. March is named after Mars, the god of war. But what about February? February is the month of Februus, the god of purification. The name Februus comes from the Latin verb februa (which may have either Etruscan or Sabine roots), which means “to purge, purify, or cleanse”. The word “fever” is based on the same origin as the name “February”, because the Romans believed that you could purge sickness from your body by sweating it out of your system (1).

In addition to having the entire month dedicated in Februus’ honor, the ancient Romans also had a specific day dedicated to him in their calendar. This was called the Februalia, the Feast of Februus. In one source, it says that the Februalia purification ritual spanned from February 13 to 15 (2), but in all other sources that I have seen, it states that it only took place on the 15th. Later, the purification rituals of the Februalia were absorbed into the fertility ritual of the Lupercalia, which you can read about in more detail here.

In the past, the Roman calendar began with the month of March and ended with the month of February. Mars was seen as the divine father of the Romans, for he was the father of their first king Romulus; the year began with the month that bore his name. February, the final month of the calendar, was regarded as the death of the year, and consequently February was known for reverence to the dead (3). Traditionally, Roman government officials began their term-of-office on the first day of the year (March 1st) and exited on the last day of the year (February 28th or 29th). However, during the 150s to 130s BC, several important changes occurred within the Roman Republic, and many of these changes had to do with the Roman military campaigns in Spain. Military campaigns almost always began in March or April, when the temperature warmed, the snows melted, and the Roman Army could move. However, the immensities of the fighting in Spain meant that Roman military commanders were given precious little time to organize their campaigns. As a result of the wars in Spain, the rules and conventions of government needed to be changed due to the necessities of waging military operations in that theater, including extending the term-of-office for certain officials in order for them to more effectively carry out their duties, and even changing the Roman calendar. It was decided to shift the months of the calendar around. January and February, which had previously been the eleventh and twelfth months, were now moved to the beginning of the year to serve as the first and second months. Roman politicians and military commanders now assumed their powers on January 1 instead of March 1, which gave them at least sixty more days to prepare their troops for the upcoming military campaigns. This is also the reason why the months of September (literally translated to “Month Number 7”), October, November, and December now serve as the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year (4).

The Roman poet Ovid writes about the purification rituals of February in his Fasti:

“The fathers of Rome called purification ‘februa’. Many things still indicate that meaning for the word. The high priests ask the King and the Flamen for woolen cloths, called ‘februa’ in the ancient tongue. When houses are cleansed, the roasted grain and salt, the lictor receives, are called by the same name. The same name too is given to the branch, cut from a pure tree, whose leaves wreathe the priests’ holy brows. I’ve seen the priest’s wife (the Flaminica) ask for ‘februa’, and at her request she was given a branch of pine. In short anything used to purify our bodies, had that title in the days of our hairy ancestors. The month is so called, because the Luperci cleanse the earth with strips of purifying hide, or because the time is pure, having placated the dead, when the days devoted to the departed are over. Our ancestors believed every sin and cause of evil could be erased by rites of purification. Greece set the example: she considered the guilty could rid themselves of sins by being purified” (5)

Ovid also states that a gathering was held every February 1 at the Forest of Alernus, located where the Tiber River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, he does not provide any reason for this assembly of people at this wood, nor does he go into any description as to what activities occurred there. Elsewhere, at the tomb of Numa Pompilius and at Jupiter’s temple of the Capitoline Hill, a sheep was sacrificed. (6)

Ovid also states that February 1 marked the date that at least two temples were built dedicated to the goddess Juno, the queen of the Roman gods. However, Ovid remarks that these temples had long fallen into ruins by the time that he was writing (7).

Source citations

  1. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  2. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  4. Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 8 – “The Roman Conquest of Spain”.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.
  7. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.

Bibliography

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 24 – The Feast of Tellus: Ancient Rome’s “Earth Day”

In ancient Rome, late January marked the beginning of the agricultural calendar because this was the time that the farmers of ancient Italy prepared to plant their crops for the new year. This important stage consisted of a multi-day purification period dedicated to Tellus, the goddess of Mother Earth, and to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. In the city of Rome itself, this feast day was known as the Sementivae, “the Festival of Seed Sowing”. In the rural farm-covered countryside, the same festival was known as the Paganalia, literally “the Country Festival” (1).

 

The Queens County Farm Museum, located only a few miles away from my house, in the midst of Winter. Photograph by Sarah Meyer, Queens County Farm Museum (December 31, 2018), used with permission.

 

The poet Ovid states that the “Festival of Seed-Sowing” was not celebrated on a fixed day in the Roman calendar, but was appointed by the priests: “That day is set by the priests”, he affirms. “Why are you looking for moveable feasts in the calendar? Though the day of the feast’s uncertain, its time is known, when the seed has been sown and the land’s productive” (2). The reason why the festival did not occur on a fixed day (but it usually began on January 24) is because of the weather. You did not want to plant your seeds when the weather was still bad, because your seeds were likely to be destroyed and there would be a famine. So, the priests decided when the appointed day that the planting ritual should take place on be based upon how amenable the season was.

The beginning to the ancient Roman farmer’s preparations for the new growing season was a two-part affair. The Feast of Tellus, which took place in late January, was the date of the purification/blessing of the earth – it was important to bless the ground before the seeds were sown. The Feast of Ceres, which took place a few days later in early February, was marked by the blessing of the seeds themselves.

The opening festivities were dedicated to Tellus, the Mother Earth goddess; from her was born all of the life that you see around you. Therefore, I suppose that January 24 was ancient Rome’s version of “Earth Day”. Because Mother Earth was responsible for controlling all things related to the natural world, such as the weather, wild animals, and especially greenery and growth, farmers offered sacrifices and prayers to her to ensure a good growing season. A pregnant sow and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, were offered up by families upon the household hearths. With this sacrifice, people prayed for a good growing season as well as protection for their crops against birds, insects, cold weather, drought, fungus, and weeds. People called upon Tellus to bless and purify their soil so that any pests or diseases that might damage their crops would be removed, and to pray for a prosperous harvest that Autumn (3).

Several days later in early February, usually February 2, the second part of this feast would take place. February 2 was dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers. What had previously occurred in late January was the blessing and purification of the earth, which was a multi-day process. Now that the soil had been ritually cleaned, the seeds could be planted within it. Just like with the Feast of Tellus several days prior, prayers were spoken and sacrifices were made. Like the Feast of Tellus, the Romans offered pork and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, to Ceres and asked for her to bless the seeds that they were about to plant and to remove any impurities from them, such as fungus, disease, or pests. Once all of the prayers and sacrifices had been made, the farmers planted the purified seeds into the purified soil (4). In the words of the poet Ovid…

“You bullocks, crowned with garlands, stand at the full trough; your labour will return with the warmth of spring. Let the farmer hang the toil-worn plough on its post: The wintry earth dreaded its every wound. Steward, let the soil rest when the sowing is done, and let the men who worked the soil rest too. Let the village keep festival: farmers, purify the village and offer the yearly cakes on the village hearths. Propitiate Earth and Ceres, the mothers of the crops, with their own corn and a pregnant sow’s entrails. Ceres and Earth fulfill a common function: one supplies the chance to bear, the other the soil. Partners in toil, you who improved on ancient days replacing acorns with more useful foods, satisfy the eager farmers with full harvest, so they reap a worthy prize from their efforts. Grant the tender seeds perpetual fruitfulness, don’t let new shoots be scorched by cold snows. When we sow, let the sky be clear with calm breezes, and sprinkle the buried seed with heavenly rain. Forbid the birds that prey on cultivated land to ruin the cornfields in destructive crowds. You too, spare the sown seed, you ants, so you’ll win a greater prize from the harvest. Meanwhile let no scaly mildew blight its growth, and let no bad weather blanch its colour. May it neither shrivel, nor be over-ripe and ruined by its own rich exuberance. May the fields be free of darnel that harms the eyesight, and no barren wild oats grow on cultivated soil. May the land yield rich interest, crops of wheat and barley, and spelt roasted twice in the flames. I offer this for you, farmers, do so yourselves, and may the two goddesses grant our prayers” (5).

Ovid says that in the archaic past, the Romans would only offer grain and salt to their gods. However, they later added animal sacrifices to their rituals, and says that Ceres was the first god to have this done in her honor. On her feast day, a pig was sacrificed to her, supposedly as punishment for pigs uprooting a farmer’s crops. As Ovid relates, “Ceres was first to delight in the blood of the greedy sow, her crops avenged by the rightful death of the guilty creature. She learned that in Spring the grain, milky with sweet juice, had been uprooted by the snouts of bristling pigs. The swine were punished, terrified by that example” (6).

Marcus Terentius Varro reports that at the Temple of Tellus, there was a map of Italy painted on one of the walls. The reason for this is given by a Roman knight named Gaius Agrius, who was an acquaintance of Varro’s: “You have all travelled through many lands; have you seen any land more fully cultivated than Italy?” (7).

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Pages 294-295; Nova Roma. “Paganalia”. http://www.novaroma.org/nr/Paganalia.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  7. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 1, chapter 2.

Bibliography:

 

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:

 

January 11 and 15 – The Feast of Carmenta, the Ancient Roman Goddess of Prophesy and Childbirth

Will it be a good year for the crops? Are you going to meet the man of your dreams? Should you invest your dinarii in your deadbeat brother-in-law’s latest get-rich-quick scheme? Maybe you should consult Carmenta, the ancient Roman goddess of prophecy and childbirth. Her eyes will see into the future and let you know what awaits you.

There’s a legend that Carmenta, or Carmentis as her name is otherwise given, was originally a female prophet from the Greek region of Arcadia; her name is also recorded as either Themis or Nicostrata. Carmenta was unusual in that, when she would fall into a hypnotic trance, she would give out her prophesies in song form – hence she was known as Carmenta, which means “the chanter”. However, she did not always possess this gift. She was married to Pallas, the ruler of Arcadia, but her son Evander was the product of a union between her and the god Hermes/Mercury. It was not until “her spirit absorbed the heavenly fire” (1), as Ovid puts it, that she acquired the gift of prophesy. Following Pallas’ murder by his son, she and Evander were forced to flee from their native Greek homeland, and eventually landed at the mouth of the Tiber River in west-central Italy. In those days, the Italian Peninsula was inhabited exclusively by small tribal societies. When she arrived at the mouth of the Tiber, she experienced a divine vision in which she saw the arrival of a prince, the founding of a great city on the river’s bank, and that city’s rise to imperial glory. In later years, the Romans would venerate Carmenta as the woman who foresaw the coming of Prince Aeneas, the establishment of the city of Rome, and the creation of the Roman Empire, and would elevate her to the status of a goddess of prophesy. He son Evander established a community on the Tiber which he named Pallantium, and it was here that Prince Aeneas of Troy came seeking shelter and his native kingdom was destroyed by the Achaeans (2).

However, there’s another story stating that Carmenta is actually one of the Fates, a group of divine entities who were responsible for the ebb and flow of people’s lives. Specifically, Carmenta was the Fate responsible for looking after mothers in childbirth and determining the lives of children. As such, Roman mothers paid a great deal of reverence to her, hoping that in pleasing her, she would grant their children good health and a long life. In an age when child mortality was very high, this was a very real worry. Another concern was the mother not surviving childbirth. In pre-modern times, mothers dying in childbirth was an unfortunately frequent occurrence. Praying to Carmenta to look after you during those difficult hours might grant you her favor (3).

A small shrine (note that the Roman authors uses the words fanum “shrine” or sacellum, “chapel” to describe the building rather than templum or aedes both of which mean “temple”) dedicated to Carmenta, whose construction was funded by Roman mothers, stood at the base of the Capitoline Hill next to the Porta Carmentalis, the Gate of Carmenta. Roman legend says that the shrine was constructed directly atop the site of what once was Carmenta’s house. Carmenta’s priest was known as the Flamen Carmentalis, as recorded by Marcus Tullius Cicero (4).

The story behind how and why Carmenta’s shrine was constructed is almost comical. In the year 215 BC, the Roman Senate passed a law called the Lex Oppia, which stated that from now on Roman women were forbidden from riding in litters or driving horse-drawn carriages (carpentum) within the city of Rome; previously, this was not an issue. Infuriated at this sexist discrimination, the women of Rome resolved that, as a form of payback, they would never have sex with their husbands until this nonsensical law was dispensed with. For an astounding twenty years, men and women “went without”. In 195 BC, this law was finally repealed, ostensibly because the birth rate within the city of Rome had sharply dropped and the Roman Senate was concerned that the city might suffer a population decline. With the law gone, wives once again returned to their husband’s beds, and that year, the city of Rome experienced a baby-boom. The mothers were grateful that so many children had been born, and born without any difficulties or tragedies, that they paid to have a shrine dedicated in honor of Carmenta, who they believed had a hand in ensuring that their children were strong and healthy and also ensuring that they themselves did not suffer or die as a result. (5).

A replica of an ancient Roman carpentum carriage. Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany. Photography by Carole Raddato (October 18, 2012). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The date of the Carmentalia, the Feast of Carmenta, which is mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro (Liguae Latina, VI:12) was held on tJanuary 11 and January 15; the first date in in reference to when Carmenta and her son Evander left Arcadia, and the second date is in commemoration of when the Lex Oppia was repealed (6). One source that I have seen says that it was a multi-day festival spanning nearly a week, beginning on January 11 and ending on January 15. However, every other source which I looked at claims that these two dates were the only dates that celebrations were carried out, so there would have been a three day long gap in between the festivities. The Roman poet Ovid states that venerations to Carmenta took place only on January 11 and 15, and not on the days in between. The Praenestine Calendar, the Maffeian Calendar, and the Caeretan Calendar all indicate the occurrence of this festival on the dates of January 11 and January 15 with the letters KARM, KAR, or CAR. In Philocalus’ Calendar, the date of January 11 is marked with the words Dies Carmentariorum, “the Day of the Carmentalia”, but there is no similar description for January 15. Likewise in Polemius Silvius’ calendar, January 11 is marked with the description Carmentalia de nominee matris Evandri, “the Feast of Carmenta, the name of the mother of Evander”. Yet again, Silvius does not provide a similar description for January 15 (7).

One source infers that the original feast of Carmenta occurred solely on January 11, and it wasn’t until later that a second feast day dedicated to her was enacted on January 15 (8). Considering that some of the ancient Romans records give the date of the Carmentalia only on January 11 and not on both days, I am inclined to believe this explanation. The Carmentalia was celebrated exclusively by women, who would give offerings at her shrine known as sacerdus carmentalis (9). It was forbidden to bring into Carmenta’s shrine anything made of leather or animal pelts, since it was unfitting that things associated with death should be brought into a shrine to a goddess whose purpose was to safeguard life (10).

Not only was Carmenta regarded as a guardian goddess of mothers in childbirth, but apparently her gift of prophesy also made her sought out by anyone, be they man or woman, who wished to know the future. As the poet Ovid records, “Where shall I find the cause and nature of these rites? Who will steer my vessel in mid-ocean? Advise me, Carmentis, you who take your name from song, and favour my intent, lest I fail to honour you” (11). Although perhaps I may be reading too much into Ovid’s tendency for poetic flourish. Regardless of whether Ovid’s entreaty was a reference to Carmenta being frequently consulted about the future, or if he just wanted her to guide his muse in his writings (which is the explanation I favor), praying for divine guidance on decisions to be made concerning important events has always been with us, and always will be.

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 112.
  3. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pages 177-178, footnote I.462.
  4. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462; Page 182, footnote I.462; Page 188, footnote I.467.
  5. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Pages 110-111.
  6. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  7. Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462.
  8. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  9. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  10. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  11. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.

 

Bibliography:

  • A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  • The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767.
  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  • Danet, Pierre. A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 11. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid. Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #56. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
  • Pettazzoni, Raffaele. Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967.