On the Roman Religion-Part 2

Roman Religion - Ceremonies


There were two types of rituals in Roman religion, the public sacrifices and feasts and the secret rites or mysteries. The public ceremonies were conducted at the altars outside the temples (on the eastern sides), and some of the formulæ spoken in the prayers and in the conduct of the rituals have been preserved by the historians and poets of Rome. The private ceremonies of the deities, the mysteries, were the most sacred and solemn events in the religion. The gods in public were worshipped under their public names, but almost all of the deities had secret names that were known only to their priests or initiates and which might be spoken only during their mysteries. Of the mysteries we know very little except by rumor or deduction. Even the mysteries of later deities such as Mithras have to be deduced from the ruins of the temples.


Public Ritual

It is virtually an universal belief that the offering of some portion of wealth to the deity from which it was conceived to have proceeded is pleasing to that deity, for it signifies that the sacrificer is cognizant of the bounty and is grateful thereof and is making an act of submission to the will of the god. It is the submission which is thought to be important, not the sacrificial item itself.

The sacrifice was made of those things in which the celebrant was rich, usually measured in numbers of animals or volumes of grain, the typical constituents of wealth in ancient societies. The sacrificer gave of what he had, but the intention of the person sacrificing was the true value of the sacrifice. In practice, it developed that the gods were thought to take pleasure also in the actual article being offered. From offerings of food, the gods were thought to take the same pleasures that the humans derived from its consumption. Indeed, there was one holiday, the Lectisternium, presided over by the Septemviri, the College of Seven, in which images of the gods were placed upon dining couches as in the triclinum and tables of food were set before them for a banquet. Likewise, men taking pleasure in works of their hands, the giving of precious objects skillfully made was thought to be a source of pleasure to the gods, too, born of the labor and of the pure material of the objects. In Rome, the typical items burnt at the sacrifice were wine, spelt 27, cakes of millet, laurel, incense, and salt.

Sacrifice, in general, was offered to reconcile the gods to man, to bring the human into harmony with the divine. In practice, sacrifices were made in expiation, in supplication, and in thanksgiving. A sacrifice was always offered after the manifestation of some prodigy, which was thought to indicate that the gods were angry.

Usually, the gods had been angered because some prescribed rite had not been performed, or had been performed imperfectly, which is the same as non-performance. Neglect or casualness in the performance of some ceremony was criminal omission. Acts of commission, by which some sacrilege was offered or some desecration made, were crimes of the highest, for which retribution, rather than simple penance, were exacted, although sacrifice was thought to mitigate, to some degree, the severity of the penalty. Sacrifices were then offered in appeasement of the gods, as penalties exacted to fit the crime. Atonement for errors in ritual might be made simply by correcting the flaw that had negated the original sacrifice. Often times, however, atonement could be made only by some increase in the order of magnitude of the sacrifice. The Romans had rules by which the progressive inflation of these succeeding sacrifices were calculated.

To prevent or reduce the occurrence of errors, the sacrifice was conducted from a liturgical script. The magistrate or priest was assisted by attendants or altar boys, one of whom was to act as a prompt, reading the prayers for the sacrificer, who then repeated the words. No sacrifice was deemed valid nor augury acccounted trustworthy which had not been made with a prayer. Each form of sacrifice had its own form of prayer, one type for supplication, another for expiation, and yet another for obtaining favorable auspices. A second attendant stood by to enforce silence among those present, lest any spoken word or noise should invalidate the service or divert the attention of the sacrificer. A third attendant acted as a guard, to keep away those who might approach the person making the sacrifice. And there was always a piper, who played so that no sound from the altar or the crowd should be heard above the prayer.

As noted above, the offering of living creatures to the gods was considered no different from the offering of grain and milk or objects fashioned from gold and silver. The creatures were measures of wealth and, thus, acceptable to the gods in most religions. Pythagoras, Numa Pompilius, Apollonius of Tyana and a minority of others in the Greco-Roman world believed that blood sacrifices were odious to the gods, because they involved the immortal spirit of the living being. It was, of course, the very preciousness of this spirit that made the sacrifice of value in the eyes of the majority. The opponents of blood sacrifice, however, held that the only value in the sacrifice came from the intellect of the worshipper, that the victim might as well be replaced by corn, milk, honey, and wine, which had the additional benefit of being inanimate. This view remained to the minority throughout Antiquity. It was noteworthy that some cultures, as they aged, softened their original sacrificial practices, moving from blood to cereal offerings.

It is also a factor in the continuance of the blood sacrifices, that they were usually the only meals in which the public at large were able to obtain meat. The sacrificial victims were, after the entrails had been offered to the gods, then distributed among the worshippers in a communal meal. For the most part, ancient people ate very little red meat, the bulk of their protein coming from fish and poultry. The sacrifice of cattle and sheep provided a village with a meal of high-quality protein.

Each of the deities had its proper victim. To Jupiter the ram or the bull was offered. To Juno was sacrificed the ewe. The sow was the victim for Ceres. The liver of a goose was offered to Io or Isis. A cock was sacrificed to Nox, goddess of night. The ass was sacrificed to Priapus. The goat was offered to Bacchus.

The ordinary order of sacrifice was the invocation (Hoc Age!), the leading of the victims in procession with music and hymns, purification by ablutions of the person making the sacrifice, libations poured from a clay vessel, the actual sacrifice of the victims accompanied by music, reading of the omens from the entrails, burning of the entrails and cooking of the meat, and communion in which the victim was consumed by the people attending the sacrifice. Some rituals were much more intricate.

Livy has left us record of an extraordinary sacrifice which followed the portents of 207 B.C., in particular the birth of an androgyne (q.v. below). The Etrurian soothsayers brought in as consultants on the proper procedure advised that a procession of twenty-seven virgins must parade through the city singing an hymn written by Livius Andronicus. The situation was complicated by a lightning bolt that struck the Temple of Juno while the girls were rehearsing the hymn in the nearby Temple of Jupiter Stator. (Talk about a tough audience.) This further portent was explained by the seers as referring to the married women of Rome, and all of the matrons from the city and from the area extending to ten miles outside the walls were compelled to assemble and to contribute to the purchase of a golden bowl which was to be offered to Juno. The original rites were amended, and the sacrifice proceeded.

Beginning at the Shrine of Apollo in the Flaminian Meadows, two white cows were lead in procession into the city by way of the Gate of Carmenta. Behind the cows were carried two statues of Juno made of cypress wood. Next came the twenty-seven virgins, singing and marching in time to the music of the hymn. The decemvirs completed the train of the procession, dressed in their purple-bordered togas and their heads crowned with wreaths of laurel. The parade route took the procession by way of the Vicus Jugarius to the Forum, where it paused. The girls, each holding to a rope (to lead the cows?) then exited the Forum by the Vicus Tuscus, still singing and marching in time, passed the Forum Boarium, climbed the Publician Hill, and entered the precincts of the Temple of Juno on the Aventine. There the two cows were sacrificed, and the images of Juno were placed in the Temple.

We can assume that all state sacrifices had some similarity of form to this ritual, although on a less grand and elaborate scale.

Human Sacrifice

As the offering of living creatures was thought to be valuable on account of the immortal spirit of the creatures, the offering of human victims was believed to be of the greatest possible value. It was common throughout the Ancient Mediterranean to sacrifice human beings in times of extraordinary danger, when war, pestilence, unremitting drought, or other calamities threatened to destroy entire nations. Both the Greeks29 and the Romans participated in this type of sacrifice in the very distant past, as is shown by the story of Iphigenia , but the use of human victims, surprisingly, persisted in Roman society into the historical era, and, in one form, at least, was countenanced30 far into the Imperial age.

That the Romans slew men, women, and children as offerings to their gods is an unpleasant fact, supported by historical testimony. That they could deplore the sacrificing of human beings in other cultures, and suppressed it wherever it formed a regular practice is also clear. Tacitus and Julius Cæsar both speak of the Druidical and Germanic sacrificial rites involving human victims as being abominable. Tiberius suppressed the late Carthaginian immolation of children, an holdover from the very ancient Punic/Canaanitish rites of Moloch .Yet the Romans, themselves, were sometimes to follow in the same path as those whom they contemned.31

Livy (AUC, XXVII.37) records that in 207 B.C. a newborn baby of Frusino, androgenous and of unusual birth weight (supposedly the size of a four-year old child), was judged a prodigy which must be destroyed and removed from Roman soil; on advice from the Etruscan seers, this monstrosity was deposited in a wooden box while still living, rowed out to sea, and thrown into the water, there to sink into the depths. While Romans might routinely expose infants that were defective or unacknowledged, this was clearly an act of religious expiation, which was followed by an elaborate ritual.

We are told by Plutarch (Marcellus, Lives), that during the interruption of the Punic Wars, the Gallic nation of Insubrians arose against the Romans and threatened to carry their insurrection down the length of Italy. So great was the fear of the Gauls in the wake of the total destruction of the city by Brennus, that the Romans, in addition to all of their other religious expedients, made human sacrifices to ward of the impending Gallic invasion. Two Greeks, one of each sex, and two Gauls, a male and female, were slain by inhumation, and it was the habit to make expiatory sacrifices in the Beast Market, the site of their burial, every November thereafter to appease the affronted spirits of the victims.

Pliny (Natural History, XXVII.3.12) records a similar story which he said occurred within living memory, in which a Greek man and woman and others of nations against whom the Romans were making war were said to have been sacrificed in the Ox Market.

boario vero in foro Graecum Graecamque defossos aut aliarum gentium cum quibus tum res esset etiam nostra aetas vidit.XVvirum cellegi magister si quis legat, profecto vim carminum fateatur, ea omnia aprobantibus DCCCXXX annorum eventibus.

He also says (Ibid, XXX.3.12) that the Senate had passed a resolution in 657 AUC (97 B.C.) prohibiting the immolation of human victims, from which he concludes that the rite had been practised down to that date.

DCLVII demum anno urbis Cn. Cornelio Lentulo P. Licinio Crasso cos. senatusconsultum factum est ne homo immolaretur palamque in tempus illut sacra prodigiosa celebrata.

Sacrifice of human victims by inhumation was usually reserved to Vestals32 who had broken their vows and whose lives were thus forfeited to the gods in that manner . It is probable, therefore, that the form of the sacrifice of the four victims took that of the ritual for the living burial of the Vestals. The victim was scourged, bound to a litter and muffled up, carried through the city, which was silent and decked in mourning, and then placed in a subterranean chamber beneath a tumulus, there to expire from asphyxia.33

It is likewise said that Vercingetorix, the great Gallic chieftain whose resistance was so dangerous to Cæsar, and which ended only with the Roman victory before the besieged Alise 34, was also sacrificed to the gods of Rome after the celebration of Cæsar's Gallic triumph in 46 B.C., six years after his surrender.35

There is some etymological36 evidence to support the idea that, in the more distant past, the Romans habitually sacrificed to the gods the captives of any foreign people, not only those of Gaul, taken in war. The Latin words for sacrificial victim (hostia) and enemy (hostes) derive from the same root (HAS), and it is logical to assume that enemies taken in battle were considered the most acceptable sacrificial victims to Duellus.

(It is recorded in Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, Augustus), that it was said of Octavian that he had 300 men of Perusia executed on the Ides of March as victims on the altar of the Deified Julius. This seems improbable, a calumny invented by partisans of Antony.)

In battle itself, a man may vow that he or some other should offer himself to the gods that the army may be victorious. Publius Decius, the Roman consul at the battle of Veseris during the Latin War, made this vow. With his head covered by his toga and with his toga-draped hand to his chin, he stood on a spear and recited a formula of devotion: In Livy (Ab Urbe Condita, 8.9) occurs this passage:

Iane, Juppiter, Mars pater, Quirine, Bellona, Lares, Divi Novensiles, Di Indigetes, Divi, quorum est potestas nostrorum hostiumque, Dique Manes, nos precor veneror, veniam peto feroque, uti populo Romano Quiritium vim victoriam prosperetis hostesque populi Romani Quiritium terrore formidine moreteque adificatis. Sicut verbis nuncupavi, ita pro re publica populi Romani Quiritium, exercitu, legionibus, auxiliis, populi Romani Quiritium, legiones auxiliaque mecum Deis Manibus Tellurique devoveo.

And later (8.10):

Illud adiciendum videtur licere consuli dictatorque et praetori, cum legiones hostium devoveat non utique se sed quem velit ex legione Romana scripta civem devovere; si is homo qui devotus est moritur, probe factum videri; ni moritur, tum signum septem pedes altum aut maius in terram defodi et piaculum hostia caedi;

from which we see that the magistrates were permitted to sacrifice any man in the legions in order to insure the destruction of their enemies. It is clear that the man on whom the vow falls and the enemies that are slain are considered as having been sacrificed to the gods. It is not clear that any captives must be slain, but seems to be so implied, for a man's life having been dedicated to the gods, a man's life must be taken to satisfy that vow. The son of Decius himself made the same vow in the war against the Samnites and the Gauls, saying that it was the fate of his family to offer themselves as expiatory sacrifices to the gods to insure the safety and success of the Roman people. (Livy, AUC, 10.28)

Datum hoc nostro generi est ut luendis periculis publicis piacula simus. Iam ego mecum hostium legiones mactandas Telluri ac Dis Manibus dabo.

This is not the same self-sacrifice and uncommon gallantry and valor of which the modern hero is made, when, placing himself in the line of fire, a soldier lays down his life to preserve his comrades-in-arms, rather it is, by reason of the vow, transmuted into a religious offering, supported by oaths.37 The soldier involves not himself alone but the entire army against which he is fighting. The modern hero knows that he may, believes that he will, die, but hopes that he may not. The Roman hero intends to die.38 He places himself deliberately in the way of his own death in order that he may effect the total destruction of his enemy. In the above instance, the Pontiff explicitly announces that the deceased has removed all danger from the Romans by his death, and is drawing down the army of the enemy to Mother Tellus and the Manes. The two Decii threw themselves into the fiercest fighting, amidst the best of the enemy's infantry and troopers. In each case (here the text is suspiciously repetitive) the body of the dead leader was not recovered until the day following the battle, and then only after the heaps of the slaughtered enemies had been cleared. The man who does not die, having made such a vow, has not only cheated Death, but has cheated all of the gods to whom he has vowed. The survivor suffers religious disability by his very survival. He has not tried hard enough to die. It is for this reason that expiation must be made by the survivor.

The Romans were capable of heroism in the modern sense, also, which distinguishes the sacrificial nature of the vowed heroism. Cæsar in his Commentaries on the Gallic War takes special notice of the personal heroism of a veteran centurion, one Publius Sextius Baculus 39, who in three separate battles, even though disabled by wounds and illness, rose up to rally the infantry in moments of crisis, and thereby to repulse the advancing enemy. His exceptional bravery and leadership are models for the soldiers of the ages, but they were not of the type of the avowed heroism of the Decii. Sextius, though contemptuous of death, did not offer himself as the sole instrument of victory. Rather, his acts were ones of spontaneous courage and determination, acts of personal honor befitting the code of conduct of a Roman Legionary. Another example is offered by Marcus Porcius Cato, who lauded the unwavering courage and selflessness of the tribune Quintus Caedicius. During the First Punic War, the Roman army in Africa had been out-manuevered by the Carthaginians, and was certain to be destroyed. Caedicius advised the consul that the only hope of saving the army was to send out a detachment of 400 men to occupy a tactically defensible hill, upon which the enemy would direct its attack, thereby providing a diversion and allowing the Roman army to force a passage out of the trap into which it had fallen. The 400 would be slaughtered, but the army would be saved. The consul approved this plan, but he asked, "Where shall I find a man to lead the detachment?" Caedicius replied that, if no more suitable leader could be found, then he would accept the command himself. The consul so ordered the tribune to take and occupy the hill until the army could make its escape. As predicted, the detachment drew the best of the enemy's soldiers to attack the position, and the Roman army was able to fight through and escape, while the 400 men of the detachment held out bravely to the last man. It was said that Caedicius alone was found alive, although gravely wounded, and that he was restored to health, going on to serve in other battles. Again, while this is gallantry of the highest order, it is not the same as the avowed sacrifice of oneself to achieve the victory. Caedicius expected to die, but he did not expect the Romans to win the battle, merely to escape, and he absolutely did not expect that the Carthaginians would be crushed, both of which are key features of the devotion.

On other unspecified occasions, cited by Athenaeus from Euphorion of Chalcis40, we are told that the Romans would solicit persons to submit to decapitation for a sum of money to be paid to their heirs, and that when there were more applicants than were required, those who would earn the reward would dispute among themselves who had the better right to be executed.41 Such a public advertisement for victims can only have had some religious purpose affecting the safety of the state. In those circumstances, it would have been accounted an honor to sacrifice one's life to preserve the Roman state. In addition, volunteers would no doubt consider that they were better paid than the soldiers who went to war and were slain in combat.

There are other instances in Roman religion in which human lives have been offered to the gods in one or another manner. The most famous ancient priesthood in Roman religion was that of Diana of the Grove of Nemi, the Rex Nemorensis42, the very peculiarity of which prompted Frazer to begin the investigations that swelled into the volumes of The Golden Bough. The priesthood of Diana Nemorensis was by law open only to those candidates who were escaped slaves, and the priest himself was selected by the goddess herself in mortal combat between the incumbent and any challengers who wished to succeed him. The situation was necessarily lifelong. The loser, the predecessor priest, could only be regarded as a sacrificial victim in the context of the ritual combat. That the lives of the persons contending for the post were already forfeit if they were caught and returned to their masters, who might flog and then crucify the fugitives, is motivation for the attempt, for the parole of the successful candidate and his eventual honorable death would have been preferable to the immediate alternative, and even the deaths of the unsuccessful contenders must have seemed a boon to men facing a prolonged and shameful execution.

Another more familiar type of combat, that of the gladiators, had also religious significance. All games and public exhibitions, whether of plays or poetical competitions or of wild animals, had anciently some religious purpose. All were connected to some religious festival or memorial observance. Gladiatorial games were a feature of the major Roman holy days. The Greek festivals of Dionysus were the source of the theatrical drama, and the presence in the Circus of an altar to Neptune or Consus offers proof of the religious nature of even the horse races, for the altar was uncovered only during the races. Athletic contests were commonly instituted as funeral celebrations for some or other hero, and it was the custom of the Romans to hold gladiatorial combats as part of the funereal honors given to great men. Julia, daughter of Julius Cæsar, was the first woman in whose honor such combats were given. Further, we have the evidence of Tertullian, who, though not unprejudiced, gives us this history of the development of gladiatorial combat: Tertullian, De Spectaculis 12.2-4

(2) For in time long past, in accordance with the belief that the souls of the-dead are propitiated by human blood, they used to purchase captives or slaves of inferior ability and to sacrifice them at funerals.

(3) Afterwards, they preferred to disguise this ungodly usage by making it a pleasure. So, after the persons thus procured had been trained--for the sole purpose of learning how to be killed!-- in the use of such arms as they then had and as best as they could wield, they then exposed them to death at the tombs on the day appointed for sacrifices in honor of the dead. Thus they found consolation for death in murder.

(4) Such is the origin of the gladiatorial contest. But gradually their refinement progressed in the same proportion as their cruelty. For the pleasure of these beasts in human shape was not satisfied unless human bodies were torn to pieces also by wild beasts. What was then a sacrifice offered for the appeasement of the dead was no doubt considered a rite in honor of the dead.43

From this we can surmise that the Romans had originally, as did many other peoples44, the belief that the honored dead would require in the afterlife those same services and objects of which they stood in need in this life. The sacrifice of servants was probably the means by which the dead should be provided with the same level of comforts in death as they had in life, not merely the means by which the decedent's thirst for blood was satisfied.

This progression from an arbitrary cruelty from which there was no appeal to the relative amelioration offered by the chance of survival through victory may seem but small improvement, but it does represent a diminution of the absolute certainty of death at the altar. The religious nature of the gladiatorial contests is, at least, made transparent, and we can, in some degree, begin to understand the spectacles. The existence of a religious purpose serves to explain the usage, although it does not excuse it. It renders comprehensible a public act which, without such explanation, would remain incomprehensible. The gladiatorial combats were a custom that had with the Romans the sanction of Etruscan origin, pointing both to the great antiquity and authority that they possessed in Roman culture. For this we have the testimony of Nicolas of Damascus, as cited by Athenaeus45.

We have, also, in evidence of the religious motive for gladiatorial combats, that they were given in fulfillment of vows or in thanksgiving, as in the cases of the games given by the Vitellian victors at Capua and Bedriactum following the defeat and suicide of Otho. Too, the Decemvirs were among those who gave the judgments of the contests, deciding if the losers in the combats were to die. There is no doubt that the victims in all publicly exhibited gladiatorial combats were considered as having been sacrificed to the gods.46

Lastly, we have in Ovid the indirect evidence that the Romans in some distant era threw men into the Tiber as a sacrifice to the god of the river, a sacrifice which by historical times had been modified to the extent that dummies were precipitated into the water rather than men.

Taken altogether, the evidence reveals that the Romans, from a very early point in their pre-history, were not averse to offering human victims to their gods, and that, in the context of the spectacles, the Roman gods continued to receive human lives in sacrifice down into late Imperial times.

With all of the aforesaid in mind, we might be justified in speculating on the story of Romulus and Remus. That there were two consuls and that Romulus and Remus were twins, one of whom was killed during the laying of the foundations of Rome, seems to suggest that the Romans had in their prehistory a sacred dual kingship, one of the partners in which was regularly sacrificed. This is a pattern that is repeated in many cultures. We might say that Remus existed solely to be made a sacrificial victim, for his one memorable act was his death, leaping over the newly constructed walls of his brother's city. It is probable that he was sacrificed in the pit that was dug before the walls and into which offerings had been placed by all of the people. It was customary in the founding of cities to make such a sacrifice. The ritual by which the avowed man expiated his survival comes to mind here. In that ceremony, an image (signum) of a man is buried on the battlefield and sacrifice is made. The most likely spot to bury such an image would be in the entrenchment before the military camp. No Roman magistrate might thereafter step on the spot, which was considered unhallowed. Surely this custom is related to the story of Romulus and Remus, for it is permitted only to the consuls, the dictator, or the praetors to make such a vow, and it is up to the colleague of the deceased magistrate to perform the funereal rites. We might also speculate that the god Consus, whose buried altar was discovered by Romulus, was in reality none other than Remus himself in his deified state. Consus is linked to the consuls by Plutarch. We might reasonably conclude that human sacrifice in Rome was integral with both the government and religion in its very earliest age, and that the myth of Romulus and Remus was the attempt of a more civilized posterity to explain this practice while preserving the true meaning.


A Note on Sources

The primary source for our knowledge of the meaning of the Roman calendar is Ovid's Fasti, an incomplete poem, in which he methodically worked his way through the days of the year, relating the stories attached to the holidays and observances. The poem was unfinished at the time of his death, and only the months through June are treated. For the remaining months we must rely upon the scattered notations that have survived in the works of Pliny, Livy, the fragments of Varro, etc. We know much about the Roman religious celebrations, but it is broad and shallow knowledge. This condition is partly the result of the loss of sources, but it is also due in large part to the ignorance of the Romans themselves about their own religious history.

As we said at the outset, the Roman Religion was compounded from the pervasive Greek system of cosmology and religious practice and the local, aboriginal Italian beliefs and worship. For the great gods, those called the Consentes, there was a generally accepted body of myth and religious formulæ from which the Romans could extract a basis for their own Pantheon, applying the services and the stories of the Greeks to the Roman counterparts of the Olympians. But for the Indigetes, the truly local deities, there was no such organized body of literary and theological doctrine. All that existed were the oral traditions of the aboriginal peoples as told by the Etruscans, the Sabines, the Latins, and others who lived in the region surrounding Rome, and from whom the Romans inherited much of their religion. Each of those people had their own deities, religious formalities, shrines, places of pilgrimage, oracles, and sanctuaries, and, although some deities were shared and some important temples were visited by all the nations, there was a great diversity in religious lore from which the Roman Religion developed its own peculiar character. It was not until the Romans themselves began to write down these diverse traditions that any sort of attempt was made to reconcile the stories that were attached to the local deities. It was the habit of ancient peoples, the Romans included, to associate their own religious traditions with those of foreign peoples by comparison of the attributes of the various deities of the nations, and thereby to form a common body of lore. It was in this way that Mercury, who was patron of merchants, inventor of writing, and attendant to the great deities, was likened to the Greek god Hermes and Hermes to the Egyptian god Thoth. In just this way, the local deities were associated one to another, though often those deities had no real relation in fact. Thus, a body of mismatched stories, from which no real consensus had emerged, underlay that part of Roman Religion which had sprung from the Italian soil. To complicate matters, the Romans were not on friendly terms with their neighbors, and conquered peoples might not be depended upon to give truthful answers to questions concerning their most sacred and protected knowledge. Therefore, the Romans, who had begun only late in the day to collect the lore of the local religion, were largely uninformed about their own religious heritage.

The Romans, of course, were closer to the subject, both in terms of time and in vested interest, than are we, and they could draw conclusions and make assumptions upon a firmer footing of information, however defective, than we, who have been deprived of so much Roman literature and history. It is, therefore, in cases which seem to us unconvincing, for us to show that we have some reasonable basis for disagreement with the Romans who serve as our sources.

As Ovid was one of the Quindecemviri, we would expect that his knowledge in these matters would be authoritative, but we would probably be safer in assuming that his stories would be doctrinal, for his position of priest, although conferring access to pontifical learning, would also impose restrictions upon the conveying of that lore. Therefore, with the strictures of religious duty and the dearth of definitive knowledge confining his muse, the imagination of the poet must find what matter it can upon which to build his poem.

The other sources are often interrelated, sometimes quoting from one to another in a long chain of excerpts. If we find an illuminating passage in Plutarch, we might find that it has been quoted without attribution from Pliny, who has taken it in turn from Varro. Varro is the touchstone of Roman Antiquities, the one author whom all others respected and trusted above all others. If there is a disagreement among later authors, Varro is usually preferred.

Where we have some reason for disagreement with the historians, we have educed our evidence. Where we have found Ovid inconclusive or confusing, we have attempted to fill in the voids and to straighten out the tangles. At best, we have provided matter that, it is hoped, will spur additional investigation or stimulate independent speculation. Any alternatives offered should be viewed with skepticism. It is dangerous to disagree with one's sources, lest one undermine the whole structure of argumentation.

General Arrangement

The Roman calendar, like that of every other ancient people, was religious and agricultural in purpose, and the passage of the year was marked by religious celebrations which coincided with important agricultural events 47 such as plowing, planting, harvesting, lambing, etc. Each festival had its peculiar mode of sacrifice and its special ritual. Some rituals were also preliminary to succeeding ones, in that they provided the materials for later sacrificial rites. It is clear that the agricultural festivals were connected appropriately to gods of the native soil, while other feasts less involved with the essential sustenance of the people were connected to the more celestial, and often foreign or adopted, deities.

Days were divided among those on which public business could be conducted (fastus, permissible) and those on which business could not be conducted (nefastus, impermissible) as determined anciently by the augurs and the pontiffs. Public business days were defined as those on which the praetors could hold court and dispense justice 48. The suspension of the law courts and other public business was called justitium (jus+stare), while the suspension of all business, both public and private, were feriæ, or holidays, which by implication lasted more than one day. There were some days of mixed nature, on which the mornings were nefas and the afternoons fas.Every ninth day was market day, counting from the previous market inclusively, making the Roman week. Three days in every month were used for reckoning, the Calends (1st), the Nones (5th), and, the Ides (13th) 49. Additionally, there were black days, days on which it was unlucky to do anything of importance. These days were usually made unlucky, not by religious prohibitions, but by their association with disasters of the past, such as the loss of armies in battle. The days following the Calends, Nones, and Ides were all believed to be unlucky, or ill-omened (atros), because it had been observed, that whenever a sacrifice had been offered by a magistrate on one of those days, the next battle fought by Roman armies had brought a disaster to the nation. Such days were called religiosi. The unluckiness of a day could be erased by subsequent lucky events, such as a signal victory.50

This survey of the Roman calendar is by no means complete in the enumeration of the holidays that were celebrated at various stages of the Roman civilzation. Over more than a millennium, there were additions and subtractions in the recognized holidays, as older deities were forgotten and newer deities gained popularity or official sanction and support. Some deities passed into and out of and back into favor over the centuries as social fashions or needs changed. Not even Ovid could catalogue them all: there are omissions from the Fasti which seem puzzling. For instance, why did he omit to mention the ceremonies on May 10 of the Arval Brethern, one of the more interesting priesthoods, the fortunes of which had been revived by the admission of Augustus to their ranks? The attempt here, then, has been to provide a generalized representation of the Roman calendar, one which would have been applicable for most of the history of Rome from its founding to the early years of the Imperial revolution, but not one which includes every deity that ever was honored throughout that history. We will not even claim that every important holiday is noticed, for the importance of any particular deity is a matter that is open to argument. The exclusion of a deity from the Roman calendar was not then and is not now a measure of the vitality of the worship of that deity. Many important deities were not given holidays of their own. In simple terms, their were only so many days in a year, and had the Romans honored all of their gods by placing their feasts on the calendar, there would have been no business whatsoever conducted at Rome: every day would have been nefas, and some days would have been so crowded with observances, that the state would have collapsed from expense of supporting them. As it was, gods not given the official honor of a state holiday were honored none the less by the state and the people with sacrifices on their due days and at their appointed places.

Major Festivals


New Year's Day

Before the reconstruction of the Roman calendar by Numa, March had been the first month of the year. Numa added January and February, and January 1 became New Year's Day, sacred to Janus, the two-headed deity. Janus was a very old and mysterious god, whose origins and real character are lost. His name was thought to derive from eo, ire, to go (Eanus or Ianus). His ritual names were Patulcius and Clusius, from the words to open (pateo) and to close (claudere, clausus). His temple was on the Janiculum, and the doors were shut only in time of peace. Another temple was in the Forum. There was smaller shrine in the arch that separated the Julian and Roman fora. (Janus was probably a corruption of Dianus, and was, therefore, another name of the supreme god, Di, or Zeus, which is itself a corruption of Dios.) January 1 was always the first day of the week, designated by an A on the calendars. Successive days were lettered through H, and then the sequence repeated. The New Year was observed with the giving of gifts, originally of sweets like dates, figs, and honey, but later of money, a custom that in the early empire some emperors officially discouraged as offensive, those receiving the gifts being placed under obligation to the giver. (Therefore, those who gave large or expensive gifts to the emperor on January 1 were more or less giving notice that they expected something even more valuable in return, Imperial favor.)

New Year's Day was fas. The consuls began their terms of office on that day with a procession through the city to the Capitol where heifers were sacrificed. Wine and incense were offered to Janus.


The Carmentalia fell on January 11th and the rites were repeated on the Calends. The festival was to the worship of Carmenta (called Nicostrate in Greek), the inventor of the Latin alphabet, a seer, and mother of Evander the Arcadian, who came to the Tiber valley to found a settlement sixty years before the arrival of Æneas. The son of Evander, Pallas, was killed by Turnus, who was himself slain by Æneas. It is said that Hercules visited Evander's court at Pallentium while driving the cattle of Geryon back to Mycenae, and that he set up an altar, Ara Maxima, in the area that later was called the Ox Market in Rome. (The Forum Boarium was located along the Tiber, in the south-eastern part of the city, on the road leading to the Sublician Bridge. The Temple of Hercules Invicta was there.)

Building of Temple to Concordia

The building of the Temple of Concord, in fulfillment of a vow by Furius Camillus, was commemorated on the 16th. The Temple was below the Capitoline near the Hall of Records, northwest of the Forum.

The Sementiva

The Sementiva was the feast of the Sowing, obviously one of the more important dates in the old calendar, when the city was still only a rural village that depended upon its own resources to feed itself. This was a moveable feast, a sensible arrangement by which the planting could be adjusted to the variations in weather conditions from years to year, and was declared by the Curio Maximus. The date was in late January.

Dedication of Temple of the Dioscorides

The dedication of the Temple to Castor and Pollux, who had announced in Rome the victory of the Romans over the army of the expelled King Tarquinius Superbus at Regillus, was commemorated on the 27th. The twins were seen watering their horses, still covered in sweat, by a man to whom they announced that the Romans had won the battle before even the Romans at the scene were convinced that they had won. It is odd that they were not identified with those other twins, Romulus and Remus. The temple stood at the intersection of the New Street and the Tuscan Way.




February is supposedly so-named from the purgatory nature of its rites, the instruments of purgation being called februa. The Romans believed that all past sins could be expunged by purgation. It was a month rich in festivals.

The Ides was celebrated with a sacrifice to Faunus on the island in the Tiber. It was also the day on which the deaths of the 30051 Fabii were commemorated. Oddly enough, the Fabii were said to have marched out of the city through the Carmenta Gate, which was thereafter considered unlucky for those leaving the city.

The Lupercalia

One of the more important festivals in Rome, the Lupercalia was very ancient. It was celebrated by the two Colleges of Luperci, traditionally the Fabii and the Quintilii (or Quinctilii), on the 15th. The rites were supposedly in honor of Faunus, the Roman Pan, and were said, like many other ceremonies, to have been imported by Evander. During the Lupercalia, the Luperci sacrificed goats, the skins of which they cut into strips to be used in the famous purifications, during which the priests ran, nearly naked, through the streets of the city, sweeping the ground with the goat skins. It was believed that any recently married young matron whom they struck with the skin would be fertile. The runners started from a cave on the south-west side of the Palatine in which, it was said, the wolf that had suckled Romulus and Remus had lived. The festival was also associated with Juno Lucina, whose grove and Temple were between the Esquiline and the Viminal in the vicinity of Cispius. Juno Lucina was the aspect of the goddess who insured an easy delivery. Her name, although usually derived from lux (light), might also be derived from lyc (wolf), and relate to her wedded status to Jupiter Wolf.

That the runners emerged from a cave (Mother Earth), naked and smeared with the blood of the woolly skins in which they had wrapped themselves, indicates a ceremony of rebirth. Such a ceremony would be appropriate to the end of Winter and beginning of the Spring months. This interpretation need not be in conflict with the purificatory reputation of the rites, because the act of giving birth was regarding as unclean in many cultures, requiring a purification of the mother and the birthplace, in this case Earth and Rome. This theory would also explain why childbirth was supposedly promoted by the Lupercalia, and why sacrifices to Juno Lucina were made, she being charged with the safe and easy delivery of the mother.

The convergence of the Lupercalia and the anniversary of the defeat of the Fabii on the 13th is suspicious, but there is insufficient evidence from which to formulate any convincing arguments in explanation. Might the college have been founded to insure the continuance of the name of a distinguished family threatened with imminent extinction or to commemorate their devotion? If we were to seek some support for this notion, we might look no further than the fact that Julius Cæsar in 44 B.C., as part of his wholesale revision of Roman religion, created a third college, the Julii, named for another great family that, although at its zenith in his own person, was simultaneously at the point of evanishment. Further, Cæsar appointed Mark Antony as the principal flamen of the new college, who promptly offered the crown of Rome to Cæsar during that year's Lupercalia. To that point, Cæsar had regarded Antony almost as a son, and his appointment of his protégé to the Julian college of Luperci was tantamount to an adoption. Certainly, we know that Antony regarded himself as one of Cæsar's political heirs, and in Cæsar's funerary rites stood in the role of a son. All of this could indicate that the colleges provided some honorary membership to a distressed family. And, if we accept the idea of rebirth within the rituals themselves, we might find some hint of adoption of the priests into the gens from which the college drew its name.

Taking the notion of adoption one step further, the Quintilii and Fabii were associated with the two brothers, Romulus and Remus respectively, neither of whom left any heirs of the body. They had been adopted by their foster-parents, Faustulus and Larentia. Julius Cæsar had no living legitimate issue. His nearest living relation was his grand-nephew Octavian, whom he was to adopt in his will. This barrenness and the idea of fertility taken together suggests that the colleges offered a means of increasing the stock of a depleted family. We know that the priests of a god or the college of a god often took the name of the god or the college as their cognomen. By making Antony the head of the new college of the Julii Luperci, Cæsar was, at least symbolically, adopting Antony into the Julian clan, and we know that the relationship between them was described as that of father to son, at least until the rift that occurred, ironically, during the Lupercalia.

Alternately, supposing that the Fabii were the descendants of Arcadian Evander, as they claimed, then their adoption into Rome might be inferred, their patron or adoptive father being Remus. The importance of Evander in Roman legend might thereby be explained. We might further surmise that the Quintilii were the household of Romulus. The original colleges might have marked the union of the two ancient houses to the Roman state under the sponsorship of the twins. In creating a new college, Cæsar was, therefore, advancing his own precedence, Iulus being the progenitor of the Alban line whence Ilia, mother of the twins, descended. The College of Julii would, thus, have a claim to leadership of the Luperci.

A third possibility is that the colleges were named for the consuls who were then serving at the time of their creation. Livy records that during the year of the 9th Census, the consuls were Fabius and Quinctilius. And the census was concluded by an act of purification.

The Quirinalia

February 17th was one of the days fixed for the celebration of sacrifices to Romulus in his transfigured form of Quirinus. The Quirinals were his priesthood. Since the day of his Ascension into heaven was in July, this was probably the birthday of Romulus and Remus.

The 17th was also the beginning of Stultorium Festa, Feast of Fools, the popular name for Fornacalia, the Feast of Ovens. It was an agricultural feast, the wheat grains being roasted in the ovens before being milled. This was another moveable feast. According Ovid, the days appointed for the celebration in the various wards were posted on placards in the fora, and those who were unable to read simply postponed the feast until the last possible moment, thereby giving it the popular name. This seems unlikely. Rather, since Priapus was the patron of the bakers (his image is found attached to ovens), the festival probably had some relationship to the ribald stories that were part of that deity's lore, one of which Ovid tells elsewhere in his Fasti. (Fornax was also the name of the arches under which the prostitutes were commonly to be found, the resemblance to the shape of the ovens giving the name to the place.) The feast was started by Numa.

The Feralia/Parentalia

Between the 18th and 21st of February were celebrated the Feralia, the feast of the tombs, during which the living members of the family were to gather at the ancestral graves and share a meal with the dead. Because of the relationship of the dead to the living, the feast was also called Parentalia. The offerings could be simple: garlands wrapped about a votive plaque, grain, salt, a bread sop soaked with wine, violets (for remembrance?). The offerings could be placed on a potsherd and left in the middle of the road (probably the road outside the cemetery), similar in fashion to the custom of leaving flowers at the grave of the departed, or of placing crosses and flowers at the roadside in remembrance of those killed in road accidents. It is the habit of some peoples to make an elaborate meal, and to carry it to the graveyard where it is eaten al fresco at the grave site. This appears to have been a common practice with the Etruscans as with the Egyptians. The funerary images on Etruscan tombs are sometimes portrayed reclining as at a meal, from which we may suppose that the family would gather on remembrance day and dine with their dead as usual, the statues providing the illusion of life. Mindful of the purgative meaning of the month, the Festival of the Tombs might also have had the purpose of appeasing the spirits of the dead for any slight that might have been done them throughout the year.

The feast of Tacita was also celebrated at this time. Tacita (The Silent One) was the goddess whom Numa particularly commended to the Romans. Her association with the Feralia seems to indicate that she was to be likened to Persephone, and her silence was appropriate to the silence of the dead and to the mournful rites performed by the living (one is reminded of the statue by Auguste Sainte-Gaudens at the grave of Mrs. Henry Adams). According one legend, her tongue had been torn out for gossiping about the amours of Jupiter. A peculiar magical ritual was performed in the presence of young girls by old women (probably the local witch) to silence the wagging tongues of spiteful gossips. Three lumps of incense were placed under the threshold. Enchanted threads were bound in lead, apparently as an amulet. (A magical verse or injunction would be inscribed on a sheet of lead and then folded or rolled up around a string that was passed through it, forming a necklace. The lead sheet would not be unrolled least the magic escape. Here, the string itself was also infused with some magical powers before the lead sheet was rolled about it, the threads being twisted into a yarn to serve as the string. This is reminiscent of the binding of a life in the threads of Clotho.) The old woman would mumble the charm with seven black beans in her mouth. The mouth of a fish's head would be sewn up with a bronze needle, sealed with pitch, and then roasted in the fire after being basted with a few drops of wine. For good measure, the remainder of the wine would be drunk by those present, and then, as she was leaving, the old woman would say, "hostiles linguas inimicaque vinximus ora" ("We have bound unfriendly mouths and hostile tongues.") The beans in the mouth were probably spit out onto the hearth.

This magical ritual probably had nothing whatever to do with the worship of Tacita, and likely was opportunistically affixed to her by the witches, who invoked her because of her silent nature, the object of the spell being to enforce silence on malicious gossips. In fact, the whole story which is told in connection with Tacita sounds like ignorant apostrophizing, the fabulist being unable or unwilling to provide the real details of the nature of the goddess. As described, she is not at all the sort of deity whom the pious Numa would have specially worshipped. She is probably more properly to be identified with Angerona, the silent tutelary goddess of Rome, who enjoined the reticence of the mysteries surrounding her true name. The worship of the protectress of Rome, whose solemn rites were never to be disclosed, would be more in keeping with the dignity of Numa. (Numa had also his gayer side, but this sort of levity does not accord the sobriety of the deity.)

If Tacita were Persephone, then the importation of magical rites by the witches would have some meager justification. The figure of the Muta might also be identified with the mourning Ceres.

The Terminalia

On the 23rd of February was the feast of Terminus, the god of boundaries. It was founded by Numa. The god was integral with the foundation of Rome, being implicitly recognized in the setting of the bounds of the original city on the Palatine by the plowing of a furrow by Romulus along which lay the line of the walls. The outline of the old city was preserved by the four stones that were set on the Palatine and that were remarked upon by writers down into late Imperial times. (It was Titus Tatius who had added the area of the Forum to the city.) A space on either side of the city walls, called the pomerium (post+murus, behind the walls), was consecrated and left clear of all buildings. As the city grew and the walls were moved to allow the expansion, the sacred area was moved in consequence, the old pomerium being exaugurated, or unhallowed, and new area being consecrated. From the founding of the city, through the entire Republic, and extending through the reigns of the first three Emperors, the Aventine was excluded from the area enclosed by the pomerium. This was due, it was said, to the fact that it was on the Aventine that Remus had received his auspices, which had proved ill, and it was to protect the integrity of the pomerium that this inauspicious area had been excluded. It was Claudius who, exercising the right of a general whose conquests had added to the territory of Rome, had finally admitted the Aventine within the pomerium. In later years, the inner pomerium was disregarded, so that houses were built up to the very walls. Crowding buildings against the walls weakened the city's defenses, because it permitted incendiary missiles to be shot unto the rooftops, whence fire could spread to the entire the city.

The god Terminus had practical as well as religious importance, for by the termini were disputes adjudicated over the rights of the respective property owners. To move a terminal marker was considered not only illegal in the judicial sense but sacrilegious. Respect for boundaries was made a sacred duty by Numa, who hoped by that means to impose an injunction against the violation of neighboring territories in war. When Tarquinius Superbus wanted to remove all of the temples and shrines that were within the proposed boundaries of the new Temple to Jupiter Capitoline, the augurs informed him that all except the shrine to Terminus could be moved. Despite his anger at this response, he obeyed. A small hole was left in the roof and ceiling of the Capitol to insure that the Terminal image kept there would always be exposed to the sky.

The sacred nature of bounds is evident in the idea of sanctuary, an area marked out as inviolable and within which persons claiming refuge cannot be harmed or apprehended, even for the most serious crimes. Romulus laid out such an enclosure on the Palatine, to which any might flee who would claim his protection, and thereafter be made citizens of Rome. Thus criminals and runaway slaves made up part of the early population of the city. The Asylum was located between the Citadel (Arx) and the Capitol.

Pliny (N.H., XVIII.2) tells us that there were three deities of the bounds, Seia, whose name was derived from sowing (serere), Segesta, whose name was derived from reaping (seges, crops), and a third, whose name he would not reveal and which it was sacrilegious to speak indoors. All three had statues in the Circus Maximus. (Certain deities could only be addressed (named) in the open air, usually because there were consequences for failing to do so. Naming a deity was an invocation, a calling in to the place, and some deities were destructive. Nor was it permitted to swear by Faith or Dius Fidius indoors, it being thought that one were attempting to hide from the deity if one were lying.

Varro in De Lingua Latina has this to say:

hoc idem magis ostendit antiquius Iovis nomen: nam olim Diovis et Di<e>spiter dictus, id est dies pater; a quo dei dicti qui inde, et dius et divum, unde sub divo, Dius Fidius. itaque inde eius perforatum tectum, ut ea videatur divum, id est caelum. quidam negant sub tecto per hunc deierare oportere.)

On this day, the blood of lambs and suckling pigs was smeared on the terms, and grain and honey were burned on a fire built near them. At the Sixth Milestone from Rome, on the road to the sea, a sheep was sacrificed.


On February 24th, the Flight of the King, the Regifugium, was celebrated. This sacrifice supposedly marked the end of the Kingdom of Rome and the beginning of the Republic. The day was distinguished by one of the more curious ceremonies in Roman religion. The Rex Sacrorum, who on other days had little official business, conducted the main event of the Regifugium, a sacrifice in the Comitium, upon the completion of which he fled at a run through the forum. No explanation for this peculiar conduct survives, but the Romans averred that it represented the hasty departure of the King from the city. Most post-classical commentators, however, reject this simple interpretation.

It were tedious to here rehearse in full the story of the expulsion of the kings, but a few of the details can be repeated. Tarquinius Superbus (the Proud) had usurped the Roman monarchy by assassination of his popular predecessor, Servius Tullius. Tarquin had neither the vote of the plebes nor of the Senate to ratify his succession, which he maintained by sheer brutality. He executed many of the senate, exiled others, and confiscated the estates of any whom he feared or envied. Against this cruel tyranny was balanced his one quality, military genius, which he exercised with great success. Among the nobles was one Lucius Junius Brutus, so called because of his supposed stupidity, which he, in fact, feigned in order to seem inoffensive to Tarquin, by which act he survived. While accompanying two of the sons of Tarquin to Delphi to seek explanation of an omen, Brutus was present when the sons asked the Oracle who would succeed Tarquin. The Oracle replied that the person who would hold supreme power in Rome was he who first kissed his mother. The others drew lots to determine which of them would be first to salute their mother on returning, but Brutus threw himself to the earth and kissed it. Onlookers, supposing that he had tripped and fallen in his clumsy manner, laughed.

When Brutus later assumed the role of liberator of the Romans, he was made one of the first two consuls under the republic. The office of Rex Sacrorum was created to provide a priest upon whom the King's religious duties would devolve, but he was deliberately made inferior to the Pontifex Maximus, says Livy, to indicate the new order of things in Rome, the power of the kings being replaced by that of the people and senate.

It was not unusual in Antiquity for a mummery that represented some mythical or legendary event to be performed within the body of a religious ritual: that was the origin of the Greek drama. It would not be impossible or even unlikely that the Expulsion of the King was actually played out in the climax of the sacrificial ceremony of the Regifugium, but one must admit that the abruptness of the transition from sacrifice to flight does induce some doubt concerning the correctness of the Roman interpretation. The actual nature of many of their rituals had been lost to the Romans themselves. However, it seems rather pretentious to differ with the Roman opinion on so important a matter in the absence of any evidence that they were making an incorrect statement. It may be the case that it is our understanding that is defective rather than their own. The rapid egress of the Rex Sacrorum might simply have been meant to demonstrate the inferiority of the office to the people and the law. The sacrifice was, after all, performed in the Comitium, the meeting place of the people. That the representation of the king should be made to leave that place, which was in itself sacred to the people, immediately his presence was no longer required by ceremony would be fitting. Indeed, for him to linger would have been improper.

It is possible, of course, that the haste of the departure had other meanings as well as the one stated, which the Romans would not or could not by law discuss. In some cases, popular traditions were substituted for official doctrine, simply because official doctrine was secret. However, in this case, the simple explanation is not deficient and is likely correct.


The Equirria were horse races held in honor of Mars on the Campus Martius beginning on the 27th. It is likely that they extended in March.


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