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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Source citations

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

Introduction

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

 

The Origins of the Capitoline Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Capitoline Games are Established

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

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

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

 

The Equus Octobris: The “October Horse”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Other Activities

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

Source Citations

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

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

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

Videos:

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

 

October 1 – The Kalends of October

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

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

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

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

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

 

Source citations:

  1. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: 1700. Page 14; The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Page 103; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  2. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.
  3. Molly Pasco-Pranger, Founding the Year: Ovid’s Fasti and the Poetics of the Roman Calendar. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Page 180.
  4. The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Page 103.
  5. UNRV. “Roman Festivals”. https://www.unrv.com/culture/roman-festivals.php.
  6. Ár Ndraíocht Féin: Public Worship, Fellowship, and Practice. “Major Holidays of Rome October (Mensis October)”. https://www.adf.org/rituals/roman/roman-holidays3.html.
  7. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.

 

Bibliography:

February 23 – The Terminalia: The Feast Day of the Roman Border God

February 23 was the date of the Terminalia, the festival dedicated to the ancient Roman god Terminus, the god of property boundaries. Yep, that was a real thing. Agrarian societies like the Roman peasant class took land ownership extremely seriously. Trespassing on another person’s property was not a minor offense, and muscling in on another person’s property by letting your livestock graze on someone else’s land or plowing ground that didn’t belong to you were very serious offenses indeed. Not only was property sovereignty at issue, but in many cases life and death depended upon your ability to have the land provide for you and your family. If your neighbor’s cattle devoured all of your good pasture leaving no food behind for your own livestock, or if your grapes and olives were stolen before you could pick them, your family was going to be in for hard times. Therefore, property ownership and property disputes were taken very seriously.

The ancient Romans often ascribed gods to things, and would, rather un-imaginatively, name the god simply as the name of whatever it was the god of. For example, the Roman god of the sun was called Sol, which simply meant “sun” in Latin. By extension, Luna was the goddess of the moon, and luna was the word for “moon” in Latin. Terminus was the Latin word for “boundary marker”, so when the time came for the Romans to concoct a god specifically of boundary markers, unsurprisingly, they named him after the thing that he was the god of. In ancient Rome, properties were often demarcated by large stone pillars or obelisks, or else with wooden posts set into the earth. In addition to being the god that looked after the boundaries of individual properties, Terminus was also the god who protected the boundary of the Roman Empire itself. He was, in essence, the ultimate border guard. NONE SHALL PASS!!!

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the Terminalia festival was first conducted during the reign of King Numa Pompilius, one of Rome’s early kings. He passed a law stating that every individual property should be marked out so that there could no longer be disputes over who owned which piece of ground. He ordered that each household must draw a line around their property and then place stones along the property lines. Then, these stones were consecrated to “Jupiter Terminus” – Jupiter of the Boundaries – and he stated that the landowners should assemble at the boundary markers at a certain date and make sacrifices to them. In addition to demarcating private properties from one another, stones were also used to distinguish between private property and public property, and were also laid around the boundary of the Roman kingdom itself to mark the border between the city-state and foreign lands. King Numa furthermore stated that if anyone damaged or removed the stones, that person would be classified as an outlaw, outside of any legal protection, and anybody could kill that person with impunity (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74).

Ovid reports that the place where this festival was first held was located six miles away from the city limits of Rome, along the road towards the town of Laurentum. In archaic times, this milestone marker also marked the end of the city-state of Rome’s lands, and it was at this spot that the first Terminalia sacrifice was performed. There was, apparently, an inscription which either stated or illustrated that a sheep was sacrificed at this marker as a sacrifice to the god who watched over and protected Rome’s border (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

According to Marcus Varro, the Festival of Terminus occurred on February 23 because this was the last day of the Roman year. Before the calendar was reformed, the Roman year began with March, the month of the god of war, since the Romans claimed that Romulus and Remus were the sons of Mars. It wasn’t until later that the calendar was shuffled around so that the year began with January. Months in the Roman calendar previously followed the phases of the moon, which could lead to some problems because the full moon did not always fall on the same days each year. Therefore, the calendar was changed so that it more resembled the calendar that we have today (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 13. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

The poet Ovid gives us details about how the rituals dedicated to Terminus would have proceeded. First, everyone who was involved was required to be dressed all in white clothes. The people involved would be the two families that lived in neighboring properties which the boundary marker separated, and a priest would be presiding over everything. Two men – the two property owners who owned the adjacent lands – would approach the boundary stone that separated their two properties from each other from opposite directions, carrying a flower garland. Then, both men would drape the flower garlands upon the side that faced towards their respective properties (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Nearby, a bonfire in the shape of a sacrificial altar was constructed out of branches and logs carefully stacked atop each other. It would have looked very similar to, if not identical to, a bustum cremation pyre. The matron from each household would bring hot coals from her own house’s hearth within a ceramic pot – these would later be used for igniting the pyre when the time came (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Now was the moment when the various sacrificial offerings were made by the sons and daughters of both families, and it is here that our historical sources conflict with each other. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC – 7 BC) states that the offerings consisted of cakes, grain, and the first-grown produce of the fields, and that no animals were used in this ritual because “it is not lawful to stain these stones with blood” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74). By contrast, Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD) states that piglets and lambs were sacrificed as part of the Terminalia (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23). The historian Plutarch makes some sense of the differing statements made by Dionysius and Ovid. In the fourth part of his book Parallel Lives, Plutarch reports that nowadays Romans conduct animal sacrifices to Terminus, but in centuries past this was not done. In his words, “Terminus signifies boundary, and to this god they make public and private sacrifices where their fields are set off by boundaries; of living victims nowadays, but anciently the sacrifice was a bloodless one, since Numa reasoned that the god of boundaries was a guardian of peace and a witness of just dealing, and should therefore be clear from slaughter” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, book 4 – “The Life of Numa”, chapter 16). Plutarch also speaks of this in his series of short musings entitled Roman Questions: “Why is it that they were wont to sacrifice no living creature to Terminus, in whose honour they held the Terminalia, although they regard him as a god? Is it that Romulus placed no boundary-stones for his country, so that Romans might go forth, seize land, and regard all as theirs, as the Spartan said, which their spears could reach; whereas Numa Pompilius, a just man and a statesman, who had become versed in philosophy, marked out the boundaries between Rome and her neighbours, and, when on the boundary-stones he had formally installed Terminus as overseer and guardian of friendship and peace, he thought that Terminus should be kept pure and undefiled from blood and gore?” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #15). It would therefore appear that it was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, who reigned from 31 BC to 14 AD, that the rules regarding what could and couldn’t be sacrificed during the Terminalia were changed. However, Caesar Augustus makes no mention of this in his Res Gestae, his list of accomplishments, and I do not know of any ancient writer who remarks that Augustus ordered the rule to be changed. It would therefore appear that it was not by imperial command, but rather, changing social attitudes that led to the change of sacrificial offerings.

Using both Dionysius and Ovid as references, each family brought a honey cake, grain (which was cast onto the pyre three times), the first-grown crops that emerged from the soil, sliced honeycomb, wine, a suckling pig, and a lamb. The piglet was killed and laid on the fire intact, but the lamb, which was brought to the altar last, was sacrificed differently. The lamb was slain and its blood was collected, presumably in a basin or pot or something, and laid aside for later. Then the lamb itself was laid upon the pyre along with all of the other sacrificial offerings (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74; Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Now was the time to light the fire. Dried bark and other tinder were shoved into the opening in between the logs. The hot coals that had been brought by both women of their households was carefully prodded inside, and soon, the wooden altar went up in smoke and flames. Nobody spoke at all during the whole course of all of this (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Finally, the lamb’s blood was then splattered onto both sides of the boundary marker (Ovid doesn’t say who specifically did this, but it was probably the priest), blessing it, and the priest presiding over the ritual would give a speech that sounded something like this: “Terminus, protector god of our nation’s boundaries, it is you who lays the lines for estates, cities, and great nations. Without you, every field’s ownership would be disputed. You are not flattered or distracted by others to make you forget your duty. In good faith, you guard the land that you are entrusted to watch over. Unlike other gods, you are not free to wander. Therefore, remain on guard at your post, and do not yield an inch to our enemies. Proclaim where you stand ‘That land there is yours, but this land here is ours’” (based upon Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Sources:

March 23 – The Tubilustrium: Hear the Trumpet’s Call

Ancient Roman re-enactors marching at Xanten, Germany. Photograph by Judith Meyer (June 23, 2012). CC0 Creative Commons.

March 23 was the date for an ancient Roman festival called the Tubilustrium. This was a day of important social and military significance, because it was the mustering day for the Roman Army, and was the official beginning of the military campaigning season.

As Marcus Terentius Varro explains, “The Tubilustrium ‘Purification of the Trumpets’ is named from the fact that on this day the tubae ‘trumpets’ used in the ceremonies lustrantur ‘are purified’ in Shoemaker’s Hall” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189).

The tuba (plural tubae) was the name that the Romans gave to what was a long straight thin tube made of brass with a small mouthpiece and a flared muzzle, similar to the stereotypical cartoon images that we have of a Pilgrim’s musket. (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

The trumpets that were sanctified on March 23 weren’t just any old trumpets. It appears that these were specifically used only for religious rituals. They are referred to as tubicines sacrorum, “sacred trumpets”, and would have been used by the priests for many religious purposes. They were often played to initiate games and were played during parades, funerals, and sacrifices (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

There were, apparently, three Tubilustria festivals, not one. One took place on either March 22 or 23 (of the two, March 23 is the more common date that’s given), another took place on May 23 (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23), and yet another on June 11. However, I must state that aside from one mention by one modern source, I have not seen any mention of such a ritual occurring on June 11, so this might be an error (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209).

In an earlier post, I described how the Feast of Minerva on March 19 initiated a five-day celebration known as the Quinquatria, meaning “the Festival of Five Days”, which lasted from March 19 to 23. Legend says that it was clever Minerva who invented the war trumpet, hence this festival took place on the last day of the Quinquatria. In reference to the ritual that took place on March 23, which was the last day of the Quinquatria, Ovid states “The last day of the five [days] exhorts us to purify the tuneful trumpets, and sacrifice to the mighty god [Mars]”. The purification ritual took place at the Atrium Sutorum, “Hall of the Shoe-Makers”, and the trumpets were made pure with the sacrifice of a lamb (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 23; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 129; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 64).

Concerning the festival held on May 23, Ovid states, “The next dawn belongs to Vulcan: they call it Tubilustria: when trumpets he makes are purified” (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23). Henry Riley, who translated Ovid’s works during the 19th Century, stated that the Tubilustria were held in honor of the gods Mars and Vulcan, because it was crafty Vulcan who created the weapons of war upon his heavenly forge, and it was war-like Mars who put them to use in battle. Concerning the gods that were worshiped or honored at these festivals, it appears that the first Tubilustrium in late March was dedicated to Mars while the second festival in late May was dedicated to Vulcan; why this distinction existed isn’t clear (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).

March 23 and May 23 were necessary for purifying the religious trumpets because on the following days (March 24 and May 24 respectively) the Comitia Curiata met to sanction wills (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 63).

As I mentioned earlier, these trumpets weren’t only used for religious reasons. Trumpets also had important military functions, usually for issuing commands upon the battlefield. Also, at the beginning of every campaign season, the troops were called to the assembly area by a blast of the trumpet or tuba in Latin. For this reason, March 23 marks the beginning of the year’s offensive. Upon their assembly into ranks, the army’s herald yelled out three times to the men assembled “Are you ready for war?”, and in response three times, the men answered that they were (The Roman War Machine, episode 1; The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”).

March is the month of Mars, god of war. The battle trumpet calls men to their ranks. The army is assembled, the men stand armed and ready. The herald calls to them “Sons of Mars, are you ready for war?!”, and from their mouth come the thunderous roar “READY!!! READY!!! READY!!!”

As an added bonus, I discovered that there is a piece of classical music entitled “Tubilustria”, written by the Estonian composer René Eespere. Here is the link to listen to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHSxaLVZfF4.

Sources:

March 17 – The Feast of Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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