October Horse Story 7: A Farmer, his Wife and their Eldest Son

Colossal statue of Mars, god of War.

1st century AD marblke statue of Mars in his military persona as god of War, with spear and shield. Capitoline Museums, Rome. © Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (2013).

As I walk out of the inn I have been staying at with my son for the night, I become eager to reach the Campus Martius. It is the Ides of October and, as every year, we have come to show our gratitude to the god Mars at Equus October.[i] We celebrate Mars in relation to both military and farming matters. Our reasoning for this is that without Mars’ ability to protect us from attacks we would be unable to grow grain.

I am a farmer and my son is a soldier. He often goes outside Italy on on expeditions to help control the Empire of Augustus and protect the friends and allies within ever-widening boundaries of the territory of the city of Rome.

Statue of Imperator (General) Augustus.

The ‘Prima Porta Augustus’, a first century BC marble statue of Augustus in his military persona as Imperator (General). Vatican Museum, Rome. © Till Niermann, 2007.

My wife and I, therefore, see this as an extremely important festival to attend. Not only because it has benefited our crops but also because it will keep my eldest son safe through ensuring Rome’s success. We have travelled in our mule cart and although the journey means that we will be absent from our fields and our younger children for three days, we know that showing our respect to Mars is vital for our farm and for the city to do well in the future. We celebrate this festival with the thought of ob frugum eventum.[ii]

This festival revolves around a two-horse chariot race, held in order for the sacrificial victim to be selected. The race is my favourite part of the day because it creates so much excitement. I can recall my younger days when my father used to bring me here and the horses’ hooves would make the ground tremble as they thundered past.

A charioteer and victorious two-horse team.

A victorious charioteer for the Greens with victory palm and wreath in his biga (two-horse chariot). Fresco in Ostia (Port of Rome). © James Hills (2007): Shutter Snaps.

We are now nearing the hustle and bustle of the other worshippers of Mars and the atmosphere is buzzing. Near us the stall owners try to tempt us with their delicious food and intriguing souvenirs. We Romans do not eat horse meat, so there is no sacrificial feast at the Equus October, which is why we decide to grab some food before we head for the race track.

My son and I head over to get the best view of the horse race, leaving my wife to watch from further back with the other women. People scramble around us to get into a position to be almost among the action. As we look on, the horses and chariots are prepared for the race. The anticipation steadily builds. The crowds cheer in excitement at the prospect of which team will win. My favourite is a team consisting of two tremendous horses with strong muscular legs and gleaming chestnut coats. These qualities are clear signs that they are at their physical peak and potential winners. It is always the horse on the right-hand side of the winning chariot which is sacrificed, because it has pulled the most weight when going round the turning posts, thereby proving its quality over the others. This process ensures that the strongest horse is selected for the best numen.[iii]

The trumpet sounds for the race to begin and a raucous cheer from the crowd ignites the spectators’ enthusiasm. The sign is given for the race to begin and the chariots are soon pounding down the straight. It is a close start but the turning point is always the most exciting part of the race because that tests the expertise of the horses and charioteers. There is a moment of anxiety as they approach the post, still in a close pack. Fortunately, they make it round, to all our relief – the last thing we want is a mass pile up and no winner! As the chariots approach the finishing post my favourite is lagging slightly behind. I yell until my voice is hoarse and a tremendous surge of energy comes over the team as they put one final effort into defeating their opponents, straining those powerfully muscled legs to their utmost. The next moment the charioteer is reining them in beyond the finishing line and the crowd explodes into an even louder roar as I turn to my son and wink.

White takes the lead, as blue accerlerates round the turnming post and green tries to stay on track.

A re-enactment of a biga (two-horse chariot) race in the Hippodrome in Jerash, Jordan. White takes the lead, as blue accerlerates round the turnming post and green tries to stay on track.

Once the race is over the winning horse is presented for all to see. The crowd and horse then move together to the Altar of Mars for the sacrifice and we take the opportunity to rejoin my wife. The sacrifice of the horse is the dubious part of the festival, though it is the most important, because some view it as cruel and a waste of its abilities but I, as a lover of animals and a farmer, know that good will come from the sacrifice and that is far more important than anyone’s feelings.[iv] The sacrifice of the horse to Mars will bring prosperity to our community and Emperor; an act I deem to be imperative. We do not sacrifice horses in any other festival but, as has rightly been pointed out, the horse is used for both military and agricultural purposes, so its sacrifice is fitting for a festival that links war and agriculture by honouring a god of both.[v]

As we come closer to the altar it is easy to find yourself lost in the crowd. When I was a youngerster I used to run to the front to feel more involved, now I’m older I have less desire to, especially as I’d like to keep my wife from getting crushed, but my son encourages me so that we move nearer. Once everyone has gathered around, the complex ritual begins, with the horse’s body being divided into three parts. The priest spears the animal with the sacred spear that represents warfare and then the head and tail are removed with a sacrificial axe because they are charged with the richest symbolism.[vi] A selected runner then takes the severed tail to the Regia where the drops of blood are scattered on the hearth so that Rome’s soil will become fertile for the next harvest.[vii]

I recall the stories that I have heard of the blood’s role in the Parilia.[viii] The blood and the ashes of the unborn calf from the Fordicidia are placed on a bed of straw which is set alight by Vesta’s holy fire.[ix] The participants then jump across the fire three times with their hands covered in laurel dew to celebrate Rome’s birthday.[x]  After this everyone feasts and celebrates the day’s events with drinking. I have not attended this festival myself, but I would like to one day because it is a rustic festival celebrated in Rome and also because it benefits my farm. Showing your pietas towards the gods is an important duty to ensure the prosperity of your crops and for your prosperity in everyday life.

Once the horse’s head is severed, it is decorated with cakes, bread and ribbons to prepare it as a prize for the next part of the festival. The cakes and bread used are made from the produce from the year’s harvest, in order to show the success of the numen from the previous Equus October.[xi] A struggle then takes place between the ‘royal’ group from Sacra Via and an ‘common’ group from the Subura. This is always an extremely competitive time during the festival because both teams wish to play their part in ensuring the city’s fertility. The two teams fight for possession of the head so that they can display it on their appropriate edifice. If the Sacra Via wins then they will take the head and fix it to the Regia but if the Subura are successful then they will take the head and fix it to the turris Mamilia.

One year the fight for the horse’s head became uncontrollable and officials had to step in so that the head itself was not damaged.[xii] As today’s fight progresses two men stand out from the rest due to the passionate desire with which they strive to obtain the sacred head for their people. The competition ends with a Via Sacra victory and they take the prized head to the Regia.

The festival is now over, so we begin the short journey back to my son’s lodgings before we set out on the long journey back to my farm, remembering to reclaim our younger children from my wife’s sister on the way. I look forward to telling them about the day’s events on our return, especially because my younger sons were already enthusiastic about the chariot race before we left. I am sure that will be their favourite part of the festival once they are old enough to travel and attend themselves. On our journey back to the inn, in which we will stay overnight, I think of the good I trust Mars to bring from the festival and the harvest I hope to make from the sacrifice.


[i] The Equus October took place on the Ides of October (15th October) and was the festival dedicated to Agrarian Mars. Mars, in this form, was a watchful god connected to agriculture and cattle-raising. The festival took place on the Campus Martius, outside the sacred boundary (pomerium) of Romulus’ Rome because it involved a sacrifice to Mars, who was also a god of War. During the festival a horse was sacrificed to Mars in order to gain successful crop growth in the coming year. The horse was chosen for the sacrifice after being victorious in a chariot race; this ensured that the best animal was selected for Mars and therefore that the best/strongest numen (see n.[iii]) was manifested, see G.Dumézil, 1970, Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago.

[ii] ob frugum eventum was the saying used to explain the reason for the sacrifice. It ‘looks backward, to a benefit received’, i.e. for Mars having protected the previous year’s crop, see C. Bennett Pascal, (1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91: 266.

[iii] Bennett Pascal (n.[ii]: 279) discusses the significance of the race for finding the best horse to sacrifice to Mars: ‘the horse with the greatest physical strength would also carry the strongest charge of numen. To stop him in mid-career, drawing the first drops of blood with a weapon which perhaps itself was loaded with magical force, would be to catch the numen at its highest pitch’.

The numen was supposed to ‘show the actual and particular will’ of a deity (S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth, (2003), 3rd edition, revised, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford & New York: 1054). By providing Mars with the October Horse’s blood the Romans felt they were satisfying his desires and that he would reciprocate by fulfilling their wishes.

[iv] Plutarch (Roman Questions 97) questions the purpose of the festival:

‘Why, on the Ides of December [NB this should read October], after a horse race, is it the right-hand horse of the winning chariot that is consecrated and sacrificed to Mars, and why does someone cut off its tail, carry it to what is called the Regia, and there bloody the altar, while, with respect to the head, certain men, some descending from what is called the Sacra Via and others from the Subura, engage in battle?’

This quotation (discussed by Dumézil, n.[i]: 215), shows how confused some individuals could be by how this festival benefited the people, due to the fact that it included a slightly more unusual set of events than other festivals.

[v] Festus notes that the horse was dedicated as a thank offering at the festival because horses were used for farming and warfare, which connects to Mars’ two roles as a deity: as a war god who shields Rome from enemy attacks, which would jeopardise the fields and their crops, and provides victories for expansionists seeking to support an expanding populace by increasing the amount of farmland available. Festus’ comment is discussed fully by Bennett Pascal, n.[ii].

[vi] Polybius’ use of the phrase ‘spear him down’ suggests that a spear was used to initially injure the horse and stop it from moving, see discussion by Bennett Pascal, n.[ii]: 267.

[vii] ‘Readily grasped by the runner, the tossing plume would be easily visible to spectators along the route of its frantic progress to the Forum’ (Bennett Pascal, n.[ii]: 283).

The Regia was ‘traditionally the home of King Numa’ until the Republic when it became part of the ‘precinct of Vesta’ and contained ‘shrines dedicated to Mars’ (Hornblower & Spawforth, n.[v]: 1297).

Festus (de Lingua Latina 190) describes how the tail ‘is conveyed to the Regia, with speed enough for the blood to drip from it onto the hearth, for partaking in a divine service’, see discussion by Bennett Pascal, n.[ii]: 261.

[viii] The Parilia festival, dedicated to the deity Pales, took place on the 21st April on the Palatine Hill in Rome and was a celebration of Rome’s birthday.

[ix] The Fordicidia festival, dedicated to the deity Tellus, took place on 15th April and was named after its sacrifice of a pregnant cow (forda). The unborn calf is burned and its ashes are (mixed with horse blood) used in the Parilia festival (see further, n.[viii]).

Bennett Pascal (n.[ii]: 278) suggests that the Romans’ beliefs in relation to the Parilia provide an explanation for the selection of the October Horse with the best numen – because of what it brought to the people and agriculture: similarly, ‘[t]he blood added to the April fires recharges the numen of the people and animals coming into contact with the smoke, if not to increase their fertility, then to fortify their resistance to the diseases and hazards of the coming growing season’. This supports the idea that the Romans felt the blood had a magical element to it because of its ability to bring prosperity.

[x] Ovid (Fasti 4.721-82) goes into more detail about the rituals of the Parilia. As the Master of Ceremonies on one occasion he recalls telling the people to: ‘leap, with nimble feet and straining thighs over the crackling heaps of burning straw’ (Ovid Fasti 4.781-2).

[xi] The loaves which were used were baked from the most recent harvest’s grain, in order to symbolise the success of the previous October Horse sacrifice: ‘[t]he head of the animal, presumably after the sacrifice, was garlanded with loaves “because the sacrifice was performed on account of a successful crop of grain”’ (Bennett Pascal, n.[ii]: 261 with quotation from Festus). This allows Mars’ followers to show their gratitude for what he has given them before and what they wish for him to give them again, see also n.[ii].

[xii] The struggle that ensues between the two neighbourhoods the Sacra Via and the Subura for possession of the horse’s head is described by Festus as a non levis contentio (‘not a light-hearted struggle’), see Dumézil, n.[i]: 226.