October Horse Story 6: An Old Army Veteran Comments

Autumn light in a Roman atrium.

September light in the atrium of the House of the Menander in Pompeii. © Matthias Kabel (2012).

The tender autumnal sun gives a dim amber glow to the confines of the atrium. My dented old shield glints proudly on the wall, a well-ingrained habit of mine to keep it buffed to impeccable standards after such a long period of service. It hasn’t seen service in a fair while now, but I’ll be talking tales of war later today when I meet with my old comrades, at least those that are still alive at such a venerable age! I’m especially excited to see Lucius Dacius who’s been so busy of late, relentlessly overseeing the training of his fine horses, which will participate in the chariot race later. I do hope he does well! What an honour it is to enter one’s chariot in such a fiercely contested race. And how everyone’s been looking forward to the Ides of October, I never thought I’d see such enthusiasm! I’d be fibbing if I said that I always look forward to these festivals- they come around so often![i]

A Roman (patrician) child.

Marble statue of a child (Nero) wearing a bulla (the amulet thought to keep children safe and healthy) and holding a scroll. c. 48-50AD. Louvre. © Barbara McManus (1999). Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been to so many festivals over the years that I’m a little tired of them! Before I leave the house I must quickly make an offering to the Lares. They have protected us so well over the years. How my family has prospered! I think my grandson, little Festus, might be better off staying home today though – despite his complaints; it could be more than a little too gruesome for a boy of four - even I may have to bite my lip. If his soldier father hadn’t gone to tidy up Varus’ mess in Germany, maybe he’d think differently about coming to the festival to prove he’s a brave boy and to pray for his father’s safe return. I’ll say that prayer for him.[ii]

Having left the house quietly, I meander down to the Campus Martius – a fair distance for me to go but although it’s October the weather is amenable for walking and it is not so damp as to make my joints ache.[iii]

What a place this is, Augustus really has transformed this whole area, there’s something for everyone. I’m particularly impressed with the Baths of Agrippa and they remind of his generosity to the city. In fact I remember the building programme coming to an end nearly thirty years ago in 19BC. That makes me feel old! What a generous and kind man to leave an endowment in his will in order to keep the baths open to the public and how much fun it is to meet up with friends here. Even when they can’t make it, at least I get some breathing space from my wife! I speak on behalf of all my friends when I say how grateful we are to Augustus for his improvements within the city. With Agrippa at his side, they really have transformed this wonderful place into a worthy capital of the Empire, and how well it serves to demonstrate our greatness and power.

Certainly Augustus’ legacy of love for Rome will live on, this is no short-term fix. Not only does he endeavour to physically improve this city for us, he’s also making efforts to promote religion. Certainly I attribute a degree of religious decline to the troublesome years of civil war, when Romans felt like the good of the city was taking second place to the needs and wants of certain individuals. Harking back to the civil war, the memories are still fresh in my head. It was a harder a period of service than any of today’s soldiers endure, despite this new sixteen-year stretch. But Actium was something else! How happy I was to finally triumph over Anthony under Octavian.[iv] The whole thing was so demoralising – with Roman gods being prayed to (or rather not prayed to) on both sides – that it’s great to see Augustus doing something to revive religion.

Statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

1st century AD statue of Augustus, with his head covered with his toga, as an officiating Pontifex Maximus. From the Via Labicana now in ther Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Museums), Rome. © Barbara McManus (2003). Courtesy of VRoma www.vroma.org

 Rome didn’t even have a flamen Dialis for seventy five years until Augustus found an appropriate replacement.[v] Surely that demonstrates what a dire condition religion was in! I’m no scholar but I actually remember old Dacius (who certainly thinks he’s pretty learned, having been a chum of Ovid before he was exiled) trying to explain to me that this vacant position actually could have been a sign of strength: that it showed adaptation within Roman religion, that it questioned the traditions and was an attempt to be more dynamic… Instead, under Augustus, Horace said that we must address the issues of neglecting the gods for so long in order to move on. It’s difficult not to hear Augustus’s own voice resonating in the literary works of Horace, but I guess it was Augustus who motivated Horace to present Augustus’ own voice on religion.[vi] So too, Horace’s personal debt to Augustus would explain such a favourable portrayal of him. We should be particularly grateful to Varro too, who under Julius Caesar clarified and reminded us of divine and human matters, certainly I remember an emotional Cicero expressing the debt of the people of Rome to him.[vii] It was Varro who encouraged us to re-engage with religion and personal participation certainly empowered me. How readily his ideas affected the illiterate I don’t know, but looking out across the throngs of people today, I’m pretty sure he had some impact! The amount of philosophical debate on the matter amongst my friends at dinner last night was remarkable![viii] 

I can see my old friend Dacius nervously pottering around on the other side of the track. His horses are going to be put to the test at any minute! I’m going to try and get a better viewing position. Perhaps I’ll move away from the corner – that’s where all the big crashes and the overtaking happens, so it’s where the crowd likes to stand. I can see the Pontifex Maximus raised up above the crowds at the far end of the track, dressed in his standard toga and capite velo.[ix] The horses line up with their chariots in tow, two horses per chariot, each one with a brave driver waiting anxiously for the starter. So much rests on the driver, if they can get a good line into the first corner and avoid the melee at the first corner they’re in with a chance. Fortunately, Dacius’s charioteer, Tailos, has got bags of experience.

The official raises the flag to start the race and violently dashes it down as a signal for the drivers to lash out at their horses. As they rear up and begin to charge down the straight, it’s a tight race. Carnage ensues at the first corner but Tailos manages to stay clear and pulls into the lead. It’s a close race between him and the two other remaining chariots, whose livery I don’t recognise. After two laps of switching positions, they disappear into a cloud of dust at the last corner. The crowd erupts as the three chariots race to the finishing post. Tailos pulls to the outside, to use the sound of the crowd to urge his horses on. I’m unsure of the finishing positions as they cross the line, it’s just too close to call.

After a short while the winner is announced: “Dacius, owner of Dissuendum and Concidendum, driven by Tailos, may thank the gods for the good fortune they bestowed upon him today!” I never thought he’d do it, but all that time spent in training has paid off. What an honour it is to have your horse sacrificed to Mars on such a special day! Dacius will be pleased. I can see him in the distance, but he looks busy; the flamen Martialis is walking towards him.[x] I will congratulate him later.

The crowds are starting to disperse and move to towards the altar for the sacrifice. I had better start moving soon to get a good place, these old legs can’t move as quickly as they could. There is a good number of people here today, including many young soldiers back from the campaigns.[xi] Ah, here comes Dacius now, I’ve never seen him look more pleased!

Unfortunately, there isn’t much time for two old men to chat, the flamen Martialis and our Pontifex Maximus have arrived along with some other young priest from the Pontifical College. With the togas over their heads it’s hard to make each one out, but I’d recognise Augustus anywhere.

Two Roman hastae (spears).

Two different types of Roman spear (hasta), both suitable for hunting or military use as a non-thrown weapon.

After a few incantations and a blessing to Mars, one of the boy attendants passes a spear to the flamen Martialis. Dacius’ right-hand horse is brought over and with a firm strike the Flamen Martialis drives the spear into side of the horse’s neck.[xii] It’s quite gruesome but the worst is yet to come, even though I’ve seen worse on the battlefield. The flamen Martialis is now collecting the horse’s fresh blood whilst the boy who passed the spear is starting to cut the head free from the body. I thought a saw a tear in old Dacius’ eye in a moment of pride but he staunchly refuses to show his emotion for the warhorse that has served him so well.[xiii] The flamen Martialis now goes to the rear of the horse and cuts the tail clean off and, after quickly raising it high for all to see, passes it to an athletic-looking chap I haven’t seen before. I smile as I remember a few years ago now when the tail was passed to a very old man who didn’t have the legs on him to get the tail to the Regia quickly enough in order for the blood to drip onto the inner hearth of that sacred building. The man sets off smartly followed by many of the young, I’m confident that this year he’ll make it in time.

I can’t help but think of our ancestors today because this event has taken place so many times before. I wonder how many have men have run down the Sacra Via with the tail towards the Regia. I wonder if this festival was celebrated when Numa lived there and how many proud owners have won the chariot race and had their horse sacrificed. I wonder how many times the battle we are about to see for the head of the sacrificed horse has taken place. Certainly it started long ago when this great city was ruled by kings.

I can see the two sides getting ready to fight now, all for the glory of winning the sacrificed horse’s head, which has been garlanded with loaves.[xiv] The two sides are made up of the Suburanenses, residents of the Subura distrct and the Sacravienses who live along the Sacra Via. Each year they fight after the horse has been beheaded to decide where the horse’s head will be displayed. If the Suburanenses win the head will be displayed on the turris Mamilia deep in the Subura.[xv] However, if the Sacravienses win they will display the head on the Regia, the old residence of our kings.

Of course they are not fighting for real, for a start they only have wooden swords like the ones they give to slaves in the amphitheatre or soldiers during training.[xvi] I don’t take part this year because I’m far to old for war games now, instead I watch with some comrades I served with in the Praetorian Guard. We talk fondly of Augustus especially as we receive such a generous pension![xvii] The battle has now finished and the Suburanenses do not hesitate in taking the head back to attach to the turris Mamilia. This seems fair, after all the Regia already has the tail by now. 

It has been a good year and there is much to be thankful for. We have recently had a great harvest which will easily feed the city, so I am told, throughout the winter months.[xviii] This is why we celebrate this day, for the wellbeing of the city and all her citizens, not just the soldiers among us. It is an important day and I shall remember it next year at the Fordicidia and six days later at the Parilia, when the Vestals mix the blood collected today with the ashes of the unborn calf from the Fordicidia, before throwing the mixture on the fire to purify our flocks of sheep.[xix]

That’s the end for me for now, the sun is setting over the Tiber and it’s about time I got home to the wife for some fish and a relaxing cup of wine, or two… 


Roman festival calendar c.60BC.

The Fasti Antiates Maiores — a painting of the Roman calendar for public display of about about 60BC; before the Julian reform of the calendar.

[i] As demonstrated by the density of the Roman festival calendar, e.g. the Fasti Antiates Maiores(right) which dates to about 60BC, before the Julian reform of the calendar.  It contains the month Sextilis (‘SEX’), later renamed ‘Julius’, and the intercalary month (‘INTER’) which was used to  bring the months and the seasons back into alignment as the far righthand column. Further, see D. Feeney, (2007), Caesar’s Calendar: ancient time and the beginnings of history, California and A. Michels, (1967), The Calendar of the Roman Republic, Princeton. 

[ii] Varus was a Roman general who lost three legions against the Germans (under the commander Arminius) during the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. While this heavy defeat spurred Augustus’s desire to conquer Germany beyond the Rhine, as a result the army was withdrawn, see C. Whittaker, (2004), Rome and its frontiers: the dynamics of Empire, London.  

[iii] For an interactive map of Augustan Rome and the Campus Martiuis, see the Digital Augustan Rome project website (University of Arizona). Routes and buildings along the veteran’s way are based on A. Hare, (1883), Walks in Rome, London. On new building and rebuilding in Rome during the late Republic and Augustan periods, including Agrippa’s contribution, see O. Robinson, (1992), Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration, London. 

[iv] Suggested reasons for Octavian changing his name are that:

‘[Augustus] is a name allied to Jupiter on high. The fathers call sacred things “august”. “August” are called the temples duly dedicated by the hand of priests. From the root of this word also comes “augury”, and all such augmentation as Jupiter grants with his power’

(Ovid Fasti 1.607-12).

[v] The position of flamen Dialis was vacant from 96BC to 11BC and stimulated some debate, see J. Liebeschuetz, (1979), Continuity and Change in Roman Religion, Oxford. 

[vi] Suetonius implies that Horace was heavily influenced by Augustus:

‘As to his writings, Augustus rated them so high, and was so convinced that they would be immortal that he not only appointed him to write the Secular Hymn, but also bade him celebrate the victory of his stepsons Tiberius and Drusus over the Vindelici, and so compelled him to add a fourth to his three books of lyrics after a long silence… In this way he forced from Horace the selection which begins with these works’

(Life of Horace 39-43).

Perhaps the reason Horace was so favourable towards Augustus was because Horace fought for the Republican Brutuses (one of Caesar’s murderers) in the 40’s BC. Brutus’ forces were defeated by Antony. Horace survived and managed to switch sides to Octavian and was later commissioned to write for him. An example of Horace’s adulation and flattery of the Imperial family can be found in the early years of Augustus’ reign: ‘Caesar, this age has restored rich crops to the fields, closed the gates of Romulus’s temple, tightened the rein on lawlessness…’ (Odes 4.15).

Portrait bust of Cicero.

Marble bust of Cicero. Capitoline Museum, Rome. © Ann Raia (2005). Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

[vii] Cicero’s comment on Varrro is as follows:

‘Varro: your books have led us as it were home, when we were wandering and going astray like new arrivals, so that we were able to recognise who we were and where we were. You have revealed to us the life of our fatherland, the descriptions of the seasons, the laws of sacred rituals, the disciplines of the priests, the conduct of domestic and military affairs; you have clarified the position of the regions and districts, as well as the names, kinds, functions and causes of all divine and human matters.’ (Cicero Acad. 22).

Further on Varro’s role in the conduct of Roman religious observance, see C. Green, (2002), ‘Varro’s Three Theologies and their Influence on the Fasti’ in G. Herbert-Brown (ed.), (2002), Ovid’s Fasti: historical readings at its bimillennium, Oxford: 71-8. Further on Cicero’s contribution to the debate about religion in Rome, see E. Rawson, (1975), Cicero: a portrait, London. A more general, and fuller, picture is provided by A. Momigliano, (1984), ‘The Theological Efforts of the Roman Upper Classes in the First Century B.C.’, Classical Philology 79: 199-211 and E. Rawson, (1975), Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic, London. 

[viii] The main philosophical debate was between Epicureans and Stoics, see P. Brunt, (1989), ‘Philosophy and Religion in the LateRepublic’ in M. Griffin & J. Barnes, eds., (1989), Philosophia togata: essays on philosophy and Roman society, Oxford: 174-98. Epicureanism promoted the idea that the senses are the source of all knowledge and are infallible and should therefore be obeyed in the search for pleasure. Gods exist because we have a mental image of them and they should be worshipped because they benefit us, not because they have any relation to humans or the earth. See, Lucretius On the Nature of Things written in the 60’s BC. Stoicism promoted the idea that the universe was created and controlled by their conception of divine power (pneuma, meaning ‘fiery breath’, the force/soul which animates all matter). They held that everything was predestined and as a result had a strong sense of purpose. 

[ix] The term capite velo (‘with veiled head’) refers to the drawing of the toga over the head by adult Roman males, including pontifices, while performing religious observances.

[x] The flamen Martialis was the chief priest assigned to the god Mars and was one of three chief priests of the priestly college. 

[xi] For the presence of soldiers at a festival dedicated to Mars, god of War, linked to the end of the campaign season, see C. Bennett Pascal ((1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91). G. Wissowa, ((1904), ‘Equus October’ in G. Wissowa, (1904), ‘De ferris anni Romanorum vetastissimi observationes selectae’ in Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur Römischen Religions- und Stadtgeschichte, Munich: 154-174: festivals of Mars: 164-167) says that this festival takes place at the end of the military campaign season in order to ‘cleanse the army of the taint of human blood and of foreign contact’ and suggests that within the Roman religious calendar the festival’s position corresponded with the Equirria, during which another horserace was held on the Campus Martius on the Ides of March. While the festivals are, as Bennett Pascal notes, ‘equidistant from the two ends of the year’ this observation is only germane after 153BC, once the New Year began in January rather than March, but both festivals trace their origin to before that date, suggesting symmetry of that kind was not a motivating factor in their inception. 

[xii] We are told that it is a spear that kills the selected horse by Timaeus ap. Polybus 12.4b. From Cassius Dio we can assume that the flamen Martialis is the person who drives the spear into the horse because he would have been the officiating priest, although there is no real evidence for this.

[xiii] For the horses as warhorses, see F. Jacoby, (1923-58), Die Fragmenter der griechischen Historiker, Berlin and Leiden: vol.3: 612, fragment 566.

[xiv] The garlanding with loaves (the basis of the Roman diet) reinforces the festival’s link with agriculture and is a visual reminder of the sacrifice’s purpose - quia id sacrificium fiebat ob frugum eventum (‘the sacrifice was performed for a successful crop of grain’) – according to Festus (de Lingua Latina 246, s.v. Panibus). 

[xv] We do not know exactly where the Mamilian Tower was, however we do know it was deep in the Subura and named after the family of the Mamilii, see Bennett Pascal, n.[xi]

[xvi] Roman legionaries attack.

[xvii] Augustus is credited with the creation of a new professional army. He increased the pay of the army and created pensions for soldiers who made it to the end of their term of service of about 12,000 sesterces (about fourteen years’ pay). In addition, he extended the term of service required from the duration of a campaign to a single term of sixteen years. These changes made the army into a career for a Roman citizen and made the army more professional because soldiers served more time with each other. See, L. Kepple, (1998), The Making of the Roman Army, London. For an informative short film (10 minutes) showing the clothing, armour and equipment of a Roman legionary stationed in the Rhineland in the first century AD, go to YouTube

[xviii] The garlanding with loaves (the basis of the Roman diet) reinforces the festival’s link with agriculture and is a visual reminder of the sacrifice’s purpose: quia id sacrificium fiebat ob frugum eventum (‘the sacrifice was performed for a successful crop of grain’) according to Festus (de Lingua Latina 246, s.v. Panibus). 

[xix] Ovid (Fasti 4.732ff.) is the source for suggesting that the Vestals mixed the blood of the horse killed at the October Horse festival was mixed with with the ashes of the Fordicidia’s unborn calf at the Parilia.