October Horse Story 8: A Lanista and Fan of Horseflesh

It has been thirty seven years since we gave our dearest Augustus his title of Imperator.[i] The Ides of October are upon us, the sun is shining, the gods are smiling and this sweetest dawn brings with it a day of rejoicing and entertainment.[ii] Today marks the annual sacrifice of a horse in honour of Mars.[iii] It’s unusual because the sacred Ides usually belong to the omnipotent Jupiter, but not today! Today is double the treat for us as citizens of Rome because we shall be celebrating the glory of both of these immortal beings.

Gladiators in a training bout.

Two gladiators (a retiarius, left, and a secutor, right) train under the watchful eye of a lanista (identified by his staff). A second to third century AD mosaic from the villa at Nennig, Germany.

I have made my way down to the Campus Martius.[iv] I’ve left the ludus in the hands of my younger brother, Quintus Marcus.[v] As Rome’s most famous lanista, I would be a fool to allow my competitors to gain a day’s advantage by giving my gladiators day off![vi] I hear from my loyal slaves that Cardillius is not allowing his men a day off training, so why should I bestow one on mine if it is to cost my house and family name honour in the arena?! I’m sure Mars would actually be thankful and proud of me for training my fighting men extra hard on his holy day because it will only add to the effort they are able to commit and the service they give him when they do battle and shed blood in his name and for his honour in the arena!

But never mind that! My thoughts this day should be focused on far lighter and more fulfilling things, for in only three hours time, on the Campus Martius, the chariot race will commence.[vii] The festival marks the end of the military campaign season, since the summer is now over and our noble soldiers have returned to their towns and homesteads to rest before the next year. It also asks for good fortune with regard to the wheat harvest of the coming year. Sometimes I wonder if we Romans just add things to our festivals for convenience’s sake! How can this, one of the most ancient festivals we maintain, be both for the good growth for next year’s wheat and thanks for this year’s military prowess and protection? I suppose these are thoughts and decisions beyond me as a trader and trainer of flesh… I’ll leave such thoughts to those wise and learned men of the priestly colleges.

Regardless of the fundamental reasons, the result of this race has been eagerly anticipated. The Blue team won the opening race of the campaign season five months ago at the Equiria and the Equus October, race in the previous year. I somewhat hope that they do not win because I have such great appreciation for the powerful racing mares that their stables produce – it would be a crying shame for one of them to be sacrificed for being the best. Although piety should have me feel joyous because it would be a truly noble offering, I fear I would not feel joy because our world would loose out on what could be the city’s finest race horse – especially as the sacrificed horse is to be the fastest, strongest and nimblest steed, the one that comes closest to the turning post and places the greatest part in steering the chariot safely round the dangerous turns…

3 hours later

The Campus Martius is full to the brim with people from all over Rome’s great empire! You can tell those from beyond Rome’s walls immediately, their materials, shaping and edging of their togas and tunics are far from the latest fashions and their women’s hair would not be incorrectly described as resembling unkempt and bedraggled grape vines! People are everywhere! Some of the extremely wealthy have brought a following of slaves along with them to watch… the show offs! The audience is mostly men, as you would expect, but there are a few women dotted about amongst the throng. The crowds are clambering up onto whatever they can in order to get the best view of the racecourse with its circuit marked out by a pair of temporary obelisks. I remember last year, when one plebeian, in an attempt to gain a better view, scaled the scaffolding of one of Augustus’ building projects and fell to his death on the crowd below him: it wasn’t high, he just landed badly.[viii] A truly shocking display as his screaming and flailing brought the madness of the crowd to the level of hysteria! This year I am standing away from the buildings, among the masses lining the banks of the Tiber which skirts the Campus Martius’ outer edge, looking up at the side of the Capitoline Hill and the villas I can only dream of inhabiting. One day, perhaps…. But it’s impossible to daydream, down here in the real world, in the crowd, the excitement for the spectacle that we are due to behold is palpable.

Charioteers and tracehorses of the Red and Blue teams.

The charioteers for the Red and Blue teams with their trace horses, from a 3rd century AD mosaic depicting charioteers and horses from all four stables. From a villa in Baccano belonging to the imperial Severi family. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Museums), Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of VRoma www.vroma.org

As if out of nowhere, the two racing chariots have stormed out onto the circuit in a cloud of dust. They are whirling and wheeling about, whipping up the crowd before they are each presented to us and the race can begin. They come to a halt, side by side and an official introduces the teams to us: Red and Blue. The horses are truly magnificent beasts. They have slightly sweated up from their antics and their muscles are visibly glistening as they pant in the still warm afternoon sun. Pythagoras may argue that we and beasts are one because we both draw breath and are made of the same flesh and that for this reason we should avoid their slaughter both for sacrifice and for food but, in this moment, it is the beauty and power of the animals that would stay my hand from their slaughter…[ix] Animals and Romans are far from kin and I think his followers should be silenced from spreading these mad words as soon as possible, not least because the beast shows and hunts reduce the number of gladiatorial bouts required. Can you imagine how many gladiators you’d need and how little time you’d get to train them to anywhere near crowd-pleasing competence if we, as a society, stopped killing animals? As I am thinking this to myself, the official turns to the charioteers and the race commences! The crowd goes wild, acting as wildly as the Bacchants of Euripides’ plays, as the horses tear away from the starting post.[x]

We can smell the horses and feel their power as the two charioteers blast past us. A storm of grit and dust is thrown up into the clear sky, cascading down on us, blinding the weak and causing me to turn away to protect my eyes and face. The teams fly round the first corner, as fast as if these horses were sired by the wind. Red takes the lead after a straight of side-by-side action. The chariots clashing, wheels almost interlocking, horses bashing each other and whips thrashing… The two chariots race on for another fourteen laps, until the horses are run ragged and the drivers fatigued from whipping. However the crowd’s enthusiasm is actually increasing as we approach the end of the race and the start of the next stage: the sacrifice. The Red team, which only just held on to its narrow lead, have been declared the champions of the day. I am pleased, especially as the Blues will not loose another winning horse. Yet a champion horse is a champion horse, regardless of its team’s colours, and I am still saddened as the adrenalin of the race fades and I realize the fate that lies in store for the victorious steed.Out of the crowd, a priest reveals himself: it is the flamen Martialis, who is followed by several other priests and attendants, one bearing a giant golden ceremonial spear fit for Mars himself.[xi] The others bear a basin of water, garlands of flowers and a basket of loaves, among other things. The flamen Martialis raises his hands and the crowd parts further, revealing the altar, to which he leads the right-hand horse of the winning Red team. The charioteer is in tears as his steed – the equus October of this year – is taken away from him to the table of the gods.

The horse is still fired up from the race, breathing heavily and patterned with white rings of sweat; although a little heavy on his feet with fatigue, he trots over willingly enough with the flamen Martialis. I see the flamen Martialis say a few words, dedicating the next actions to the noble and fearsome deity, Mars, before he sprinkles the horse with water and it shakes its head vigorously, a sign that is it willing to be sacrificed. Then the spear-bearing attendant approaches him and the horse…Ahhh! The crowd has reared up in a glorious roar, arms waving and people leaping and cheering and obscuring my view! When next I am able to see the ceremony, the horse lies dead in a river of its own blood – as if the Tiber itself has burst its banks with the thick red blood of the beast – with the golden spear thrust into its heart. A sad sight. I am unsure who did the deed; I saw the spear-bearing priest approach the flamen Martialis and the noble steed, however, I assume that it was the flamen Martilais who was the final bringer of death to the horse for glory to Mars. The flamen Martilalis now takes up his sacrificial utensils and begins to dismember the fallen equine, first the head is removed and put to one side and decorated with cakes and loaves of bread, then the tail is removed and placed in a separate position.[xii] The tail did not stay there for long, as it was rushed away to the Regia to be hung over the sacred hearth so that the horse’s blood may drip down onto it.[xiii] The idea is that the more blood that flows from it, the more pleased the god will be and the more good fortune he will bring to the city. Then the rest of the body is skinned and sliced, fat from meat and meat from bone. The meat is plated up and the skin, bone and fat taken to the altar to be offered to the god through fire.

I have heard tales of how back in the Republic, prior to our fine emperor Augustus, when two Roman tribes in the Palatine-Esquiline community, the Velia and Subura, would fight ferociously between themselves for the head of the horse. If the Velii won the head, they would hang it on the wall of the Regia.[xiv] If the Suburenses won the head, they  would hang it on the walls of their castle.[xv] The winner of the head was able to claim rank and premiership above the other. Ooooh, the past is baffling…

And that is that! The day is done. Of course the next three days are festival days and a holiday for all, although I am reluctant to let my men stop training. Yet, I feel I must as an act of piety, especially now I have been here and witnessed this today. I feel that I am a part of the ceremony and should uphold my side of the deal with Mars. Besides, my gladiators are the finest in the empire! A day off or two shouldn’t hurt…  


[i] Augustus was officially given the title of Imperator (‘General’/’Commander’, later interpreted as ‘Emperor’) by the Senate in 27BC.

[ii] The Ides of October fall on the 15th October and this is when the celebration of the October Horse takes place.

[iii] The October Horse festival was to give thanks to the god Mars for protecting firstly the coming year’s crops (Mars was foremost a protector of crops rather solely a god of warfare) and secondly the soldiers that had returned to Rome at the end of the year’s campaign season, which ran from the Ides of March to the Ides of October. The October Horse festival consisted of several stages: first there was a two-horse chariot race to select the appropriate sacrificial victim, namely the right-hand horse of the winning team; second there was a sacrifice of that horse using a spear to initially kill the animal, followed by decorating the decapitated head with loaves and transporting the still-bleeding tail to the hearth in the Regia; finally there was a fight for possession of the decapitated head between two rival neighbourhoods. For an delineation and exploration of the sources, see C. Bennett Pascal, 1981, ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91.

[iv] The Campus Martius (‘Plain of Mars’) is a flood plain in the north west of the city of Rome, between the Capitol and the Tiber. It was used for military training and elections and was the place where the census was taken. From the time of Cicero it was already starting to be built over, see D.H. Berry, 2000, Cicero: Political Speeches, Oxford.

[v] The ludus was the training ground for gladiatorial fighters.

[vi] The lanista was the chief trainer of gladiators at a ludus (see n.[v]).

[vii] The entertainment for the day was provided in the form of a chariot race, which took place on the Campus Martius. The right-hand horse of the victorious team was sacrificed by the flamen Martialis (Priest of Mars) to Mars at the Altar of Mars to ensure good crops. See L. Adkins & R.A. Adkins, 2000, The Dictionary of Roman Religion, Oxford. Further on the flamen Martialis, see n.[xi].

[viii] During his time in power Augustus undertook with Agrippa a large series of public building works. This included a number of projects on the Campus Martius, e.g. the Mausoleum of Augustus and Augustus’ Ara Pacis (‘Altar of Peace’), the Baths of Agrippa and Agrippa’s Pantheon.

[ix] Pythagoras argued that humans and animals shared the same breath and therefore that animals should not be treated as meat but treated on the same principal as other humans: cannibalism was taboo in Greek and Roman cultures.

[x] Euripides has a chorus of Bacchants (worshippers of Dionysus/Bacchus who are possessed by the god and perform whirling dances) in the Bacchae and recounts the Bacchants’ actions in this and other plays, particularly that they run wild on mountainsides and are possessed of unusual strength, being able to tear animals (and humans) apart with their bare hands.

[xi] The flamen Martialis is the special priest of Mars and participates in all the religious ceremonies which involve this god. In 10AD the office of flamen Martialis, one of the three major priesthoods, was held by Lunius Silanus.

Priests and flamines in procession behind Augustus.

Priests (with laurel wreaths) and flamines (with their heavy woollen cloaks and distinctive leather skull caps topped with olive-wood spikes) behind Augustus on the south frieze of the Ara Pacis (‘Altar of Peace’), 13-9BC. Ara Pacis Museum, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

The ceremonial spear was thrust into the horse with a single blow, what makes this different from other sacrifices is that a warrior’s weapon is used to inflict a wound whereas in other sacrifices a mallet is used to stun the victim before their throat is cut with a sacrificial knife. Bennett-Pascal (n.[iii]) raises the question of whether the choice of a horse (itself an unusual animal to sacrifice) and the spear are symbolic of this festival being dedicated to a warrior god.

[xii] The horse, once it was killed with the sacrificial spear, was at once decapitated with an axe. Bennett-Pascal (n.[iii]) and W. Warde Fowler ((1911), The Religious Experience of the Roman People, London) both argue that while the change of implement had a practical purpose (an axe making it easier to cut through the horse’s cervical spine) it could also relate to the cleanliness of the single thrust from the sacrificial spear (it being unlikely that a single blow would kill).

We have reflected the sources’ inexactitude by having the crowd obscure our lanista‘s view at a point where conclusive evidence is lacking.

[xiii] There have been arguments as to whether or not it was in fact the tail that was hung above the hearth, rather than the animal’s penis or complete genitals (depending upon whether geldings participated in the race or how the ‘tail’ was removed). However, Bennett Pascal (n.[iii] refutes this claim on the grounds that some ancient author would have referred to this explicitly or in explaining the festival’s link to (crop) fertility.

[xiv] The Regia was a consecrated building that contained a number of shrines. It was believed to have been built by Numa and for a while to have been his home before becoming the headquarters and house of the Pontifex Maximus. During the Republic, it was the official headquarters, but not the residence, of the Pontifex Maximus. Among the shrines contained within the Regia was a shrine to Mars with an image of the god himself, see Adkins & Adkins, n.[vii].

[xv] It had been common practice for the two neighbourhoods of the Subura and the Sacra Via (Velia) to fight over the decapitated horse’s head. If the Suburenses won the battle then the horse’s head was placed on the Mamilian Tower (although we are not sure quite what this entailed or the precise nature and location of the building in the Subura). Likewise, if the Sacra Viaenses won the battle then the horse’s head was placed upon the wall of the Regia. Apparently, this practice had died out by AD10, see Warde Fowler, n.[xiii].