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January 3-5 – The Compitalia: Ancient Rome’s Winter Street Fair

The Compitalia was an ancient Roman festival celebrated from January 3-5 in honor of the Lares Compitales, the guardian spirits of crossroads; the name Compitalia comes from the Latin word compitum, meaning “crossroad”. Marcus Terentius Varro gives a brief explanation behind the meaning of the festival: “The Compitalia is a day assigned to the Lares of the highways; therefore, where the highways competunt ‘meet’, sacrifice is then made at the compita ‘crossroads’. This day is appointed every year” (1).

Thankfully the poet Ovid, verbose as always, provides a much more thorough examination of this festival’s origins…

“Hear of what I’ve learned from the old men. Jupiter, overcome with intense love for Juturna, suffered many things a god ought not to bear. Now she would hide in the woods among the hazels, now she would dive into her sister waters. The god called the nymphs who lived in Latium, and spoke these words in the midst of their throng: ‘Your sister is an enemy to herself, and shuns a union with the supreme god that would benefit her. Take counsel for both: for what would delight me greatly would be a great advantage to your sister. When she flees, stop her by the riverbank, lest she plunges her body into the waters’. He spoke: all the nymphs of the Tiber agreed, those too who haunt your spaces, divine Ilia. There was a naiad, named Lara: but her old name was the first syllable twice-repeated, given her to mark her failing. Almo, the river-god often said: ‘Daughter, hold your tongue’, but she still did not. As soon as she reached the pools of her sister Juturna, she said: ‘Flee these banks’, and spoke Jupiter’s words. She even went to Juno, and showing pity for married women said: ‘Your husband loves the naiad Juturna’. Jupiter was angered, and tearing that tongue from her mouth that she had used so immoderately, called Mercury to him: ‘Lead her to the shadows: that place is fitting for the silent. She shall be a nymph, but of the infernal marshes’. Jove’s order was obeyed. On the way they reached a grove: Then it was they say that she pleased the god who led her. He prepared to force her, with a glance instead of words she pleaded, trying to speak from her mute lips. Heavy with child, she bore twins who guard the crossroads, the Lares, who keep watch forever over the City” (2).

It appears that the Compitalia was originally a countryside festival, where offerings were made at the places where major roads intersected. However, by the late 500s BC, when Rome was still rules by kings, these festivals were occurring within the city of Rome itself. During Caesar Augustus’ reign, the city of Rome was divided into fourteen neighborhoods, and each one had a shrine dedicated to the protective spirit of that neighborhood. Since these shrines were erected at road intersections, these spirits were referred to as lares compitales, “the guardian spirits of the crossroads” (3).

Most Roman holidays took place upon important astrological dates. For example, the Compitalia occurred when the constellation Cancer is no longer visible in the night sky. As the poet Ovid said, “When the third night before the Nones has come, and the earth is drenched, sprinkled with heavenly dew, you’ll search for the claws of the eight-footed Crab in vain: it will plunge headlong beneath the western waves” (4). However, things have changed in the past 2,000 years, and the constellations have shifted in the sky.

Although the Compitalia commonly took place in early January, there was no fixed date in which it always took place. It was therefore classified as a feriae conceptivae, a “moveable feast”, whose date shifted around on the calendar each year. During the late Republican period of Roman history, the date for the upcoming Compitalia festival was publicly announced by the city of Rome’s praetor (the chief administrative official of the city) eight days beforehand. It wasn’t until later in the Roman Empire’s history that the date for the Compitalia was permanently established at January 3 to 5 (5).

According to the writings of Aulus Cornelius Gellius, “It will be sufficient to show the undeviating usage of the men of old, if I quote the regular formula of the praetor, in which, according to the usage of our forefathers, he is accustomed to proclaim the festival known as the Compitalia. His words are as follows: ‘On the ninth day the Roman people, the Quirites, will celebrate the Compitalia; when they shall have begun, legal business ceases’. (6)

Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the inhabitants of each houses offered sacrifices of honey cakes at the junction of where roads intersect. The people who carried out the functions of the rituals were slaves, not freemen. However, this was a day in which social conventions were suspended and slaves were free to act any way that they wished.

“He [King Servius Tullius] ordered that the citizens inhabiting each of the four regions should, like persons living in villages, neither take up another abode nor be enrolled elsewhere; and the levies of troops, the collection of taxes for military purposes, and the other services which every citizen was bound to offer to the commonwealth, he no longer based upon the three national tribes, as aforetime, but upon the four local tribes established by himself. And over each region he appointed commanders, like heads of tribes or villages, whom he ordered to know what house each man lived in. After this he commanded that there should be erected in every street by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood chapels to heroes whose statues stood in front of the houses, and he made a law that sacrifices should be performed to them every year, each family contributing a honey-cake. He directed also that the persons attending and assisting those who performed the sacrifices at these shrines on behalf of the neighbourhood should not be free men, but slaves, the ministry of servants being looked upon as pleasing to the heroes. This festival the Romans still continued to celebrate even in my day in the most solemn and sumptuous manner a few days after the Saturnalia, calling it the Compitalia, after the streets; for compiti is their name for streets. And they still observe the ancient custom in connexion (sic) with those sacrifices, propitiating the heroes by the ministry of their servants, and during these days removing every badge of their servitude, in order that the slaves, being softened by this instance of humanity, which has something great and solemn about it, may make themselves more agreeable to their masters and be less sensible of the severity of their condition” (7).

Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, in his work on agriculture, states that it was common practice during the Compitalia for the farm’s master and his overseer to switch duties, so that the overseer was in charge and the master had to follow his orders (8)

The Roman writer Macrobius states that the ancient Roman king Tarquinius Superbus had established the Compitalia in honor of Mania and of the lares. Mania was the goddess of the spirits of the dead, and the lares were protective guardian spirits of the household. Macrobius says that King Tarquinius did this after receiving an oracle from the god Apollo commanding him to do so, saying that the god’s favor should be gained “with heads”. He took this very literally, and ordered human sacrifices to be carried out in order to propitiate Apollo, Mania, and the lares spirits. However, after the expulsion of the Tarquin Dynasty, the new consul Brutus decided to re-interpret the god’s words. After all, Apollo said that heads were to be sacrificed, but heads of what? It didn’t explicitly state that they had to be the heads of people. Therefore, he decreed that instead of decapitating sacrificial victims and offering them up on a pyre, the Romans should instead make offerings of heads of garlic and heads of poppy. Consequently, it became the common custom in Rome for people to hang up an effigy of Mania outside their household’s door, and to make sacrifices to her of garlic and poppies (9).

The Roman writer Festus sates that, in addition to hanging up effigies of Mania, each family also hung dolls made of wool representing men and women, with a prayer that Mania and the lares would bless these figures and spare the people living within any bad luck. Slaves offered up balls of wool or fleece instead of dolls (10).

The festival was intended to be a lustratio, a protection ritual for the people living within that neighborhood. A sacrificial pig would be led around the neighborhood before being taken to the altar. At other times, the lares were offered garlands of flowers. Public games known as the Ludi Compitalicii, stage plays, and street performances were included as part of the festival, but they were abolished by a Senatorial decree in either 68 or 67 BC. The reason for the Senate outlawing the Compitalia was due to its associations with rabble-rousing and the gathering of public mobs. The Compitalia festival was brought back in 56 BC with the passage of the Lex Clodia de Collegiis, but by the dictatorship of Julius Caesar a decade later, the Compitalia had gradually fallen out of practice. However, they were brought back by Caesar Augustus, possibly between the years 14 to 7 BC when Augustus began a serious reform and revitalization of the cults associated with the lares (11).

Suetonius says that Caesar Augustus issued an edict stating that the city of Rome’s Compitalia shrines needed to be adorned with flowers twice per year with the flowers of Spring and Summer (12), Indeed, Ovid, the Venusine Calendar, and the Antiatine Calendar hint that there were numerous venerations of the spirits of the crossroads, the lares compitales, during those times, specifically on the Kalends of May, the Ides of August, and the Ides of October (13). It would therefore appear that in ancient Rome there was a Winter Compitalia (January 3rd to 5th), a Spring Compitalia (May 1st), a Summer Compitalia (August 15th), and an Autumn Compitalia (October 15th).

So, this coming January 3, get out your pork, garlic, honey cakes, and poppies, and pray that your local community sees good fortune during the Winter season.

Source citations:

  1. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 25. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 199.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21.
  3. Tesse Dieder Stek, “A Roman cult in the Italian countryside? The Compitalia and the shrines of the Lares Compitales”. Babesch, volume 83 (2008). Pages 112-113.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 3.
  5. Harriet I. Flower, The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. Page 162; Tesse Dieder Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Changes in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society after the Roman Conquest. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009. Page 188; J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Page 36.
  6. Aulus Cornelius Gellius, Attic Nights, book 10, chapter 24.
  7. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 4, chapter 14.
  8. Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, On Agriculture, chapter 5, verse 3.
  9. Macobius, Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 7, verses 34-35.
  10. Gordon Laing, “The Origin of the Cult of the Lares”. Classical Philology, volume 16, issue 2 (April 1921). Page 127.
  11. Titus Calpurnius Siculus and Marcus Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus, The Eclogues. Translated by Charles Haines Keene. London: George Bell & Sons, 1887. Page 109, footnote #125; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. John Murray, London, 1875. Pages 347-348; John V. A. Fine, “A Note on the Compitalia”. Classical Philology, volume 27, issue Number 3 (July 1932). Page 268; J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pages 36-37, 44.
  12. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 2 – “The Life of Caesar Augustus”, chapter 31, verse 4.
  13. Edward Greswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae: Nundial Calendars of Ancient Italy, in Four Volumes, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Pages 120-121.

 

Bibliography:

 

December 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

 

November 24 – The Brumalia: The Ancient Roman Winter Fest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Source Citations

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Source citations

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

 

Bibliography

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

 

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

I love ancient history, but I hate reading it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 23 – The Feast of Bacchus, Liber Pater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Citations

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

 

Bibliography

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

October 25-30 – The Potentially Fictional Feast of Vertumnus, the God of the Changing Seasons

For many, the end of October is the height of the harvest season. As October draws to a close, fall fairs and harvest festivals are taking place, apple cider flows freely, pumpkins decorate every front yard, and every coffee shop, diner, and restaurant for miles around is serving pumpkin-flavored everything.

It would appear that for the ancient Romans as well, the end of October was an important time for the harvest. Sources indicate that the Romans might have held a religious feast day commemorating the conclusion of the harvest season, and specifically the end of the apple-picking season.

In 19th Century books, there are a handful of curious references made to a feast taking place at the end of October dedicated to the ancient Roman god Vertumnus, the shape-shifting god of the changing seasons. Although he’s not one of the most well-known gods within the Roman pantheon, Vertumnus was regarded as one of the most important, if not the most important god within Etruria. Within the city of Rome itself, there was a statue of Vertumnus erected at the base of the Caelian Hill (1). The Roman poet Sextus Propertius dedicated one of his poems to this god. He mentions that Vertumnus had no temple, but a statue of him stood along the road known as the Vicus Tuscus, and overlooked the Roman forum. The first statue of the god was carved from maple wood, but this was later replaced by a bronze statue crafted by the artist Mamurius Veturius (2).

The theologian Adam Clark writes that feasts dedicated to the god Vertumnus were held on October 25 and October 30 (3). Perhaps it ought to be read that the festivities began on the 25th and ended on the 30th, making it a six-day-long celebration of the harvest season. Thomas Forster’s Perennial Calendar, which was published the following year in 1824, states that October 25 was the date of the “Vertumnalia”, but no mention is made of a similar festival taking place on the 30th (4).

Adam Clarke says that the ancient Roman grammarian Marcus Terentius Varro makes reference to this. However, it’s more likely that this is a mis-reading of “Volturnalia”, a festival dedicated to the Etruscan god Volturnus, which was held on August 27 (5).

It is known that a feast day dedicated to both Vertumnus and his wife Pomona, the goddess of fruits and vegetables, took place on August 13 (click here to read an article about this). This date marked the beginning of the apple harvest – while most apples ripen in Autumn, there are a handful of varieties which ripen earlier in the middle of Summer. The apple was the symbol of the goddess Pomona, and she served as the patron goddess of orchards, particularly apple orchards. Although a handful of apple varieties ripen in the middle of August, which is the date of Pomona’s feast day, the vast majority of apple varieties have their fruits ripen in September or October. Therefore, a feast taking place at the end of October would possibly mark the conclusion of the apple harvest in ancient Rome.

However, I must state that although I have found several references in texts from the early 1800s about a feast to Vertumnus taking place in late October, I have not been able to find any mention of such a date within any primary source. What is even more maddening is that these writers seldom, if ever, attest where they obtained their information from. This makes me wonder where these 19th Century writers got this idea.

Adam Clarke also makes a curious notation for October 30 saying “Games consecrated” (6). This is explained in a little bit more detail in an 1829 article concerning Roman ceremonies taking place within the month of October, which says “On the thirtieth [of October] was held the Vertumnalia, a feriae instituted in honor of Vertumnus, when the Sarmation (sic) games were performed” (7).

Apparently, the so-called “Sarmatian Games” were established by Emperor Constantine I after winning a victory over the Sarmatians and their allies in the year 332 AD. This campaign is mentioned in The Ecclesiastical History, written by Sozomen, and is discussed in more detail in Zosimus’ New History:

“He conquered the Sarmatians and the people called Goths, and concluded an advantageous treaty with them. These people dwelt upon the Ister; and as they were very warlike, and always ready in arms both by the multitude and magnitude of their bodies, they kept the other tribes of barbarians in awe, and found antagonists in the Romans alone. It is said that, during this war, Constantine perceived clearly, by means of signs and dreams, that the special protection of Divine Providence had been extended to him. Hence when he had vanquished all those who rose up in battle against him he evinced his thankfulness to Christ by zealous attention to the concerns of religion, and exhorted the governors to recognize the one true faith and way of salvation” (8)

“Constantine hearing that the Sauromatae, who dwelt near the Palus Maeotis, had passed the Ister in boats, and pillaged his territories, led his army against them, and was met by the barbarians, under their king Rausimodus. The Sauromatae attacked a town which was sufficiently garrisoned, but its wall was built in the lower part of stone, and in the upper part of wood. They therefore thought that they might easily take the town by burning all the wooden part of the wall; and with that view set it on fire, and in the meantime shot at those who stood on the walls. The defenders threw down darts and stones upon the barbarians, and killed many of them; and Constantine then coming up and falling on them from a higher ground, slew a great number, took wore alive, and put the rest to flight. Rausimodus, having lost the greater part of his army, took shipping and crossed the Ister, with an intention of once more plundering the Roman dominions. Constantine, hearing of his design, followed them over the Ister, and attacked them in a thick wood upon a hill, to which they had fled, where he killed many of them, amongst whom was Rausimodus.  He also took many of them prisoners, giving quarter to those that would submit; and returned to his head-quarters with an immense number of captives” (9)

As to the “games” in question, all I have to go on is Adam Clarke’s reference and a single notation from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (10). This notation claims that the Sarmatian Games were celebrated in November to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over the Sarmatians and their allies. It also says that further information on this subject is found in Zosimus’s New History, book 1, chapter 2, but this statement is false – Zosimus makes absolutely no mention of any of these events within that part of his text. It is also said in this notation that information is found within “the Panegyric of Optatianus (c. 32)”. Again, this is false. Publilius Optatianus Porfirius was a poet who was alive in the 4th Century AD. He had been banished from Rome, but managed to flatter his way back into Emperor Constantine I’s good graces by writing a panegyric dedicated to him. A “panegyric” was essentially a grandiose version of political ass-kissing where a writer would make extremely flowery over-the top claims about what an amazing person his subject was. Porfirius’ panegyrics are a collection of twenty-something poems which are collected together under the title of Carmina. Of these poems, Poem VI and Poem XXIII make reference to Constantine’s attacks on the Sarmatians. Contrary to what is seen in the notation, there is no 32nd poem.

As you can see, dear reader, there is a lot of frustration and confusion regarding these things. This makes it difficult for historians and classicists to get a good idea about what is true and what is not true. Many times, I am tempted to think that much of the information which is presented to us about ancient Rome are nothing more than fictitious concoctions from the minds of 18th and 19th Century theologians and antiquarians. This is the reason why I was cautious in the early part of this article, making suppositions that the ancient Romans might have carried out a feast to Vertumnus in late October rather than definitively stating so as if it were indisputable fact. While it might make practical pragmatic sense for the Romans to celebrate a feast day commemorating the end of the apple harvest, I would caution you away from taking guesses and assumptions and assuming them to be the truth.

Source Citations

  1. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verse 46. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 43.
  2. Sextus Propertius, The Elegies, book 4, chapter 2, verses 1-64.
  3. Adam Clarke, The New Testament, with Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume 2. New York: A. Paul, 1823. Page 160.
  4. Thomas Ignatius Forster, The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824. Page 584.
  5. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 21, footnote. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 194.
  6. Adam Clarke, The New Testament, with Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume 2. New York: A. Paul, 1823. Page 160.
  7. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  8. Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chapter 8.
  9. Zosimus, New History, book 2, chapter 21.
  10. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 14, Note 099.

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 13 – The Fontanalia: The Blessing of the Fountains

By the reign of Caesar Augustus, the city of Rome had a population of a million people. With so many crammed into such a small area, disease was a big problem. Having fresh clean drinking water would greatly contribute to one’s health. The problem was that most Romans did not have personal access to running water in their homes. Instead, the vast majority of the Roman public got their drinking supply from public water fountains. Appeasing the divine entities that watched over Rome’s water supply was crucial to its very survival (1).

In ancient Rome, October 13 was the date of the Fontanalia, “the Festival of the Fountains”. This was a feast day dedicated to showing appreciation and thanks to the divine being which watched over springs, fountains, and water wells. Our only ancient source for this feast day is Marcus Terentius Varro. On October 13, he says, the people decorate the fountains with garlands of flowers, and throw flowers into the springs and wells (2). There was a god named Fons or Fontus (literally the Latin word for “spring”) who presided such places. There was an Ara Fontis, an altar to the fountain god, erected atop the Janiculum Hill. There was also a Porta Fontinalis, a gate or a doorway, constructed within the Campus Martius (3). However, for a culture that was as dependent upon fresh water as the Romans were, it is remarkable that Fons did not occupy a more prominent role within their pantheon.

Many ancient cultures ascribed divine attributes to water springs, notably the Celts. The Germans, too, even after adopting Christianity, continued to make pilgrimages and offer sacrifices at the site of springs to the spirits who dwelt within these places. Water bubbling up out of the ground was a remarkable and mysterious thing, and there surely must be some divine reason behind such a sight. Springs served as the sources for rivers and lakes, but they also served as the starting points for many of aqueducts which supplied the city of Rome with fresh water. At Rome’s height, nine aqueducts supplied the city with 46 million gallons of water…every day. If Rome was to survive, the water needed to keep flowing, so it was important to please the water god Fons as much as possible. (4)

Public water fountains did more than just provide a free supply of drinking water to the Roman masses. Central Italy was, and still is, a hot place. Nowadays, the large water fountains with their elaborate sculptures and spouts shooting water out in all directions and even straight up in the air may appear to be nothing more than ostentatious decoration. But in the sweltering summer, these fountains were vital to making the area a little bit more livable by helping to keep the surrounding air cool. As the fountains spray out their water, part of it is evaporated and part of the spray droplets are carried by the breeze – both actions cool the air. Thus, these fountains functioned like a natural air conditioner (5).

The Fontanalia festival is sometimes mistakenly recorded as the “Faunalia” in 19th Century books about Roman history and culture. This has led to some misconceptions that this was a festival dedicated to Faun or Pan, the half-man half-goat who embodied the spirit of the countryside and the wilderness, and who was perpetually trying to get his leg over. There actually was a festival dedicated to him, but it didn’t take place until December 5.

 

Source Citations

  1. Peter S Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003. Page 57; What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 22. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 195.
  3. William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 240.
  4. The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”; “The Water Supplies of Cities in Ancient Times”, by Walter Atlee (October 27, 1883). Engineering News and American Contract Journal, Volume X (January to December 1883). New York: Engineering New Publishing Co., 1883. Pages 507-508; What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”.
  5. What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”.

 

Bibliography

Books

  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 22. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • 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.

Articles

  • “The Water Supplies of Cities in Ancient Times”, by Walter Atlee (October 27, 1883). Engineering News and American Contract Journal, Volume X (January to December 1883). New York: Engineering New Publishing Co., 1883. Pages 507-509.

Videos

  • The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”. Hosted by Frank De Laney. BBC, 1987.
  • What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”. Hosted by Jack Turner. The Science Channel, 2005.