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April 28 – The Floralia: The Ancient Roman Flower Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile in ancient Rome, May 1st – the Kalends of May – was also the date of the Spring Compitalia Festival. The compitaliae were a series of public street fairs which were held in Rome which were dedicated to the guardian spirits of crossroads. Probably the most well-known of these was the Winter Compitalia, which was held in early January, but there was one held during each season. You can read more about these holidays by clicking here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source citations:

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

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741.
  • Elmes, James. A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Kennett, Basil. Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695.
  • Seyffert, Oskar. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891.
  • Smith, William. A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, Charles Roach; Madden, Frederick W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
  • Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783.
  • Huff Post. “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”, by Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway (May 1, 2014). https://www.huffpost.com/entry/greenwood-marriages-and-t_b_5242087.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source citations

  1. John Audley, A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804. Page 24; Reverend Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798. Pages 34-42; Augustine Calmet, Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813; Edward Augustus Kendal, Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811. Page 329; Hipolito San Joseph Giral del Pino, A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  3. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33; Thomas Morell and William Duncan, An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862. Pages 29-30; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.

Bibliography

  • Audley, John. A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804.
  • Bradley, Mark. “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Butler, Reverend Alban. The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798.
  • Calmet, Augustine. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813
  • Fowler, William Warde. “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
  • Kendal, Edward Augustus. Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811.
  • Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
  • Pino, Hipolito San Joseph Giral del. A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source citations

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

Bibliography

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source citations:

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

Bibliography:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source citations:

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

 

Bibliography:

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

January 9 – The Feast of Janus

January is the month of Janus, the ancient Roman god of new beginnings and the patron god of windows and doors – yes, I’m serious. He is depicted as a man with a double face, able to look forwards and backwards at the same time. This symbolizes reflecting on the past and looking towards the future. Janus is invoked by those who are starting a new chapter in their lives, like moving, getting a new job, getting married, having kids, etc.

Although the entire month of January was dedicated to the god Janus, he also had a specific feast day on January 9th, known as the Agonalia of Janus. An “agonalia” is a holy feast day that has live animal sacrifices. These sacrifices originally took place upon the top of the Quirinal Hill, one of the fabled Seven Hills of Rome; in archaic times, the Quirinal Hill used to be called the Agonal Hill, the Hill of Sacrifices. There were several agonalia festivals throughout the year dedicated to various gods. In addition to the Agonalia of Janus on January 9th, there was also the Agonalia of Mars on March 17th, the Agonalia of Vediovis (a Roman god who was sort of a mixture between the Greek gods Apollo and Asclepius) on May 21st and the Agonalia of Sol, the god of the sun, held on December 11th (1).

Ovid says regarding January 9th, “Janus must be propitiated on the Agonal day…Some believe that the day is called Agonal because the sheep do not come to the altar but are driven (agantur). Others think the ancients called this festival Agnalia, ‘of the lambs’, dropping a letter from its usual place. Or because the victim fears the knife mirrored in the water, the day might be so called from the creature’s agony? It may also be that the day has a Greek name from the games (agones) that were held in former times. And in ancient speech agonia meant a sheep, and this last reason in my judgement is the truth. Though the meaning is uncertain, the king of the rites, must appease the gods with the mate of a woolly ewe” (2).

The central event of the Agonalia was the sacrifice of a ram to the god Janus. The ancient Roman poet Ovid states that the sacrificial altar was decorated with garlands of purple violet flowers, and that the top of the altar was adorned with bowls that burned juniper incense and laurel leaves. “The altar was happy to fume with Sabine juniper, and the laurel burned with a loud crackling. He was rich, whoever could add violets to garlands woven from meadow flowers” (3).

The presiding priest was called the rex sacrificulus, “the king of sacrifices”, and the sacrifice took place at a location called the Regia, where the former kings of Rome used to reside. When the ram was brought to the altar, the priest would invoke the name of the god and ask whether or not the sacrifice ritual should continue. “Always, before he stains the naked blade with hot blood, he asks if he should, and won’t unless commanded” (4). When the god reveals to him that the sacrifice should continue (how this happens is never mentioned), then the ram is killed and offered to the god. Offerings of dates, figs, and honey within sealed white jars were also made to Janus as part of the ceremony (5).

Source citations:

  1. William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32; “Agonalia”.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. “Roman Festivals & Holidays”; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32.

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source citations:

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

 

Bibliography:

 

December 28 – The Massacre of the Innocents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.