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].

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.

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.

October Horse Story 5: A Devoted Mother and a Less Dutiful Son

Hortensia Tertia

Dawn broke early on the morning of the Ides, my husband was heading out to the fields to tend to the flocks.[i] Thankfully the crop has been brought in early this year but even so Marcus is still unable to attend the chariot race and sacrifice at the Campus Martius with us because there is a problem with the sheep.[ii] The children were excited to see the festival of the October Horse.[iii]

HOrtensia Tertia with her sons, Lucius and Quintus.

Hortensia Tertia with her sons Lucius and Quintus. © CLAS3920 Wiki Group 10, 2011.

I made breakfast and woke the children, even though it was early, as we had a long walk to the Campus Martius.[iv] We set off into the city. The boys were eagerly waiting to see the sights and wanted me to point them out, but I did not enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city. As we passed through I spotted the Regia in the Forum Romanum and explained to my sons what was going to happen in today’s festival.[v] I told them that one of the horses they saw in the race today would be very important and that its tail would be placed here in the Regia above the hearth.[vi] I tried to explain that the horse, which was bred to be brave for war, was willing to be sacrificed with the spear thrown by Mars’ special priest, the flamen Martialis, but although Lucius looked less troubled it was clear that Quintus did not understand.[vii] After a drink from one of Agrippa’s many fountains we marched on to the edge of the Pomerium.[viii]

We arrived early at the Campus Martius so I took Lucius and Quintus to see the Altar of Mars where the sacrifice would take place later.[ix] We wandered around the altar where a few people were walking past and there was a buzz of chattering concerning the day’s activities. We could see Pompey’s theatre in the distance and took the opportunity of arriving early to get a good viewpoint for the race. Lucius, inquisitive about the buildings around the Campus Martius, asked me what they all were. I pointed out the Baths of Agrippa and the Saepta Julia, where elections take place. By the time I had finished describing our surroundings the crowd had grown substantially and a rowdy group of young men had gathered near us. I looked around to see if I could move us to a quieter spot but the crowd was too dense. I could hear the young men discussing the upcoming race and the following tussle for the horse’s head – I do not think they are behaving in a suitable manner.

Before I can say anything to them, however, the teams line up and the crowd begins to cheer as the chariots took their places. My boys wanted the Blue team to win because their father has always supported them and started cheering.[x] The race began and the teams sped off, the Green team pulled ahead and their supporters began to cheer wildly. I was so busy trying to control my excited children that I missed the point when the White team pulled in front and won the race. The crowd went wild! I decided to move the boys out of the crush and towards the altar, so we could get a good place for the sacrifice.

A little while later the crowd followed us down to the Altar of Mars, all talking animatedly about the race. The masses calmed down as the horse was led down from the race ground. The flamen Martialis raised the ceremonial spear as one of the priests began intoning a prayer to the god. Quintus asked what was happening but I shushed him to avoid undue attention. Lucius grabbed my hand as the spear was lanced at the subservient horse.[xi] The crowd cheered as the horse was felled and one of the priests moved in to end the beast’s suffering with an axe.[xii] By this point Quintus was in tears and Lucius was wide eyed – both were clearly unsettled by the horse’s death. The young men behind us started to become rowdy and jeered at the crowd from the Sacra Via. As insults were hurled and returned with increasing aggression, the situation quickly escalated towards violence and I determined to move the boys to a safer spot.

Having hurried to the edge of the crowd, I explained to Lucius and Quintus the ceremony that they had just witnessed. I told them that the horse was used to represent the man-made horse of the Greeks, which deceived our Trojan ancestors.[xiii] Lucius was curious as to why the priest was collecting the blood from the animal and I told him that the blood was special; it was going to be used in the Parilia festival by the Vestal Virgins and that festival is especially kind to men like his father because it allows him to keep his sheep healthy.[xiv] This shows that the horse sacrifice is beneficial for our family and other Roman farmers and not something to be sad about or upset by. As I finished explaining, the runner with the horse’s tail sprinted past us heading for the Regia.

The rival groups of the Subura and the Sacra Via quickly became violent but the men from the Subura swiftly emerged with the horse’s head and made their way cheering into the city. The crowd dispersed, some to follow them and some to make their way home.[xv]

We make our way back home through the city. The boys are very quiet after what they had seen, so as we pass the Regia I point out the horse’s tail and tell the boys to make a wish on the tail to help their father. That lightened their mood. After a long walk we arrived home, exhausted from our experience, and awaited my husband’s arrival from the fields. When he returned he asked the boys about their day and what a story they had to tell!


I woke up groggy on the morning of the Ides – my head pounding from the wine I had consumed the night before – only to suffer one of father’s boring lectures on how it isn’t ‘appropriate’ to behave in such a manner any more because I will soon be entering the army.[xvi] Once I had pretended to listen to his speech, I left the house to make my way to meet Porcius.

The atmosphere in the Subura was bubbling with anticipation for today’s race and the outcome of the battle for the horse’s head.[xvii] Last night’s festivities had led to a tussle with the Sacra Via crowd and today would probably be no different. Every year the two groups fight for the head of the October Horse and it is particularly important to me to win the head this year because I will be serving in the Roman army and after the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest we need this festival more than ever.[xviii] Winning the head has always been a matter of great pride for the inhabitants of the Subura, especially as it was once home to Gaius Julius Caesar.

Sextus and Porcius

Sextus and Porcius. © CLAS3920 Wiki Group 10, 2011.

I saw Porcius standing near a drinking fountain, white as a sheet and gulping water down.[xix] “Sextus!”, he exclaimed slightly hoarsely, “I feel awful!” I laughed and joked that he should not try to out drink me and we made our way towards the Campus Martius.[xx] Porcius had buried a defixio in the race grounds last night when he was inebriated and told me that he thought it would help the Whites win the race.[xxi]

Porcius wondered aloud why they didn’t hold the race in the Circus Maximus and the sacrifice in the Forum Romanum, he can be such an ass sometimes, I explained that because it was a dedication to Mars it could not be held inside the Pomerium due to its military connotations, of course all I got in return was a dumb look as he plodded on.[xxii] As we continued we saw some of the Sacra Via boys walking to the Campus Martius and Porcius tried to make a run for them, but I told him to wait until after the sacrifice. As we passed the Regia, Porcius told me a story about Gaius Julius Caesar during the year of his and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus’ consulship, when chose two mutinous soldiers to be sacrificed and had their heads attached to the Regia.[xxiii]

Finally we reached the Campus Martius where a large crowd was gathered. We wanted a good view of our competition – the Sacra Via men (and of course the chariots!) and found a perfect spot next to a mother and her two small children. The chariots came out and someone passed around wine, which added to the already charged atmosphere. We began cheering for the Whites but as soon the race began the Greens pulled ahead, much to our disappointment. Porcius was beside himself until the Whites nudged ahead at the turn in a skilful feat. Everyone was urging them on and the noise was deafening, within seconds the race was over… The Whites had won!

When we saw one of the winning horses being led down to the altar, we followed to watch the sacrifice and Porcius said that he found in odd that a bull that was not the sacrificial animal because it was normally used for sacrifices to Mars.[xxiv] I interjected that many cultures use a horse as a sacrificial animal – especially the warlike Spartans.[xxv] I realised that the disgruntled-looking mother and her two children were in front of us once again.

The priest came down, signalling the start of the sacrifice and the jeering crowd calmed; we watched in reverence as the flamen Martialis raised the spear and plunged it into the horse.[xxvi] The children in front of us seemed disturbed by this, more so than they had been by our taunting of the Sacra Via boys. The head of the October Horse was severed with a heavy blow and insults started to fly as the opposing sides squared up to each other, all eyeing our chance to make our move. The children were moved away at this point, lest they get trampled, which cleared our path forwards. The tail was handed to the runner who would speed it to the Regia and the tension steadily mounted as the priests collected the blood and finally stepped back from the head.[xxvii]

Our moment had come! The fight broke out instantly, as both teams charged to gain possession of the head. I saw Porcius in the fray being tackled by two burly Sacra Via thugs but he was giving as good as he got. I ignored the fighting and seized the opportunity to dash into the middle of the scrum to get the head. I weaved, dodged, ducked and tangling my fingers firmly in its mane I dragged it from beneath the feet of the grappling men. Keeping low I emerged from the mob and shouted to my crowd that we were victorious. Without looking back, I ran as fast as I could but the head was very heavy and slick with blood. As my grip began to falter and I stumbled I felt the strong hands of my comrades seize me and my precious burden. They hoisted me shoulder high and we ran cheering through the streets together towards the turris Mamilia where we would pin the head and later garland it with loaves.[xxviii]

Coated in blood, sweat and grime I felt elated and excited for yet another night of celebrations. My father would be so proud!


[i] The Ides of the month fell on either the 13th or the 15th, depending upon the length of the month (the Ides of October fell on the 15th), and originally coincided with the full moon. The Ides was sacred to Jupiter and a sacrifice was made to him in his temple on the Capitol.

[ii] The main points of the festival appear to be fairly certain: a two-horse chariot race started the festival; the right-hand horse from the winning pair that was sacrificed to Mars with a thrown spear; the horse was decapitated with an axe; the inhabitants of the Subura (see n.[xvi]) and the Sacra Via (see n.[xiii]) fight over possession of the head; the tail was sent by runner to the Regia (see n.[v]) and the head was garlanded with loaves before being displayed.

Sheep farming and agriculture were very important in Rome and seen as very worthwhile. It is likely that Hortensia’s husband would either have worked on a large farm or have been granted a small one by Augustus as payment for service in the army or have bought one with his army pension. For the rural realities underpinning roman pastoral poetry, see M.C. Howatson, (1989), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford: 62.

[iii] Equus October (‘October Horse’) was the name of the horse sacrificed not the festival itself.

[iv] The Campus Martius (‘Field of Mars’), named for the Altar of Mars erected on it, was located outside the Pomerium (the sacred boundary of Rome) on the flood plain of the river Tiber, which meant that it had few buildings and was used for recreation by the Romans, both for games and festivals. For further information see the map of landmarks provided by D. Favro, (1996), The Urban Image of Augustan Rome, Cambridge: 257. For a detailed but brief history and description, see S.B. Platner, (1929), completed, revised edition by T. Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London: 91-94.

Model of the Augustan Campus Martius from the Mausoleum of Augustus looking towards the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon.

The Augustan Campus Martius from the Mausoleum of Augustus looking towards the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon. Model in the Ara Pacis Museum, Rome. © saholc, 2012. http://viaggidiunapecorainitalia.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/fourth-of-july-in-rome-augustan-buildings/

[v] The Regia was originally the royal palace, which was said to have been built by King Numa, at the foot of the Palatine on the edge of the Forum Romanum. In Republican times it was the official headquarters of the Pontifex Maximus, see further Howatson, n.[ii]: 480.

[vi] The tail of the October Horse was removed and raced to the Regia, where it was pinned so that the blood dripped onto the hearth. It has been suggested that in surviving accounts ‘tail’ is a euphemism for the horse’s penis and scrotum because a horse’s tail does not have the blood supply necessary to still be dripping blood by the time it reached the Regia, see G. Devereux, 1970, ‘The Equus October Ritual Reconsidered’, Mnemosyne 23: 297-301: 299.

The Forum Romanum was the centre Rome and the focus of the city’s political, social and commercial life. It contained temples, judicial and administrative buildings and even market stalls, see further R. Seindall, (2003), Forum Romanum. For a 3D tour of a digital reconstruction of the Forum Romanum, see altair4, (2010), The Roman Forum.

An Augustan denarius minted by the flamen Martialis.

Silver denarius of Augustus minted in Rome by Lucius Cornelius Lentulus, the Flamen Martialis, in 12BC. The reverse has Augustus (right) placing a star on the figure (probably Divus Julius Caesar) holding a spear with his left hand and Victory on his outstretched right hand.

[vii] A spear was used in this sacrifice because it was a military weapon and also because it was believed to be imbued with magical powers, if not before the ritual then after it, see C. Bennett Pascal, (1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91: 266-8.

The Flamen Martialis was the Priest of Mars and would officiate at the festival.

[viii] Agrippa, while aedile, added a new aqueduct that resulted in fresh water being brought to an additional 700 basins and 500 fountains in the city of Rome, see Pliny the Elder Natural History 36.121.

The Pomerium was the sacred boundary of the city laid out by Romulus and separated military from domestic affairs. The Roman army was not allowed within it and sacrifices to Mars had to take place outside it, which is why the Altar of Mars was built on the Campus Martius (see further n.[iv] and n.[xxi]), which is outside the Pomerium.

[ix] The Altar of Mars was built on the Campus Martius (see further n.[iv]), outside the Pomerium, on which, see n.[viii]. The Altar of Mars is off the Via Flaminis, see Favro, n.[iv]: 257.

[x] Precise details of the number of competing chariots are not preserved, but it seems reasonable that the sources’ silence on this aspect reflects the fact that the race was not unusual: i.e. had four competing teams and used professional drivers (if not horses) from the established racing stables, between whom there was strong traditional rivalry. Tertullian (de Spectaculis 9) explains that the Red and White teams, dedicated to Mars and the West Winds respectively, were the oldest teams, with the Greens being dedicated to Mother Earth/spring and the Blues to sky and sea/autumn.

[xi] ‘Certain people say that the victim is sacrificed in that place to Mars the god of war, not as the vulgar think that it is taken up as a penalty because the Romans were sprung from Ilium and the Trojans were thus captured by a horse in effigy.’ (Festus de verborum significatu 190).

Festus used the word supplicium (‘penalty’) to indicate that the common people thought the horse was used as a penalty/expiation for the Trojan Horse. Hortensia, as a farmer’s wife, would probably have believed this was the reason for the sacrifice.

[xii] An axe was used after the spear rather than the usual mallet because the mallet was seen to lessen the dignity of the sacrifice of such a high-status animal as the horse. Bennett Pascal, n.[vii]: 266.

[xiii] The Sacra Via was the street connecting the Forum Romanum with the Velia. The name comes from the sacred buildings along the street, including the Temple of Vesta and the Regia. The inhabitants of Sacra Via region would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Regia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 593-4.

[xiv] The link between the October Horse and the Trojan Horse is made by Festus 190 (see, n.[xii]) and Plutarch Roman Questions 97.8-12. Festus used the word supplicium (‘penalty’) to indicate that the common people thought the horse was a penalty/expiation for the Trojan Horse. Hortensia, as a farmer’s wife, would probably have believed this was the reason for the sacrifice.

[xv] The agricultural festival of the Parilia on the 21st April was designed to purify and protect flocks (as well as being credited with being ‘Rome’s birthday’). The blood of a horse, often assumed to be that of the October Horse, was used to purify the festival’s fires, see H.H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 104. The Vestal Virgins, six women selected to protect the sacred hearth of Rome in the Temple of Vesta, officiated at the Parilia and provided the horse’s blood and other ingredients for the purificatory smoke, which included the ashes of calves killed at another festival in April; (dried) horse’s blood could have been kept from October to April by the Vestals.

[xvi] The Subura was a densely populated lower-class area in the middle of Rome made up of insulae (blocks of flats). Gaius Julius Caesar, whose mother inherited an insula to which she moved after his father’s death, was one of its more famous inhabitants. The inhabitants of the Subura had an ongoing rivalry with those of the Sacra Via and during this festival the two groups fought for the head of the October Horse. The inhabitants of the Subura would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the turris Mamilia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 542 and n.[xix] on the turris Mamilia.

The Sacra Via was the street connecting the Forum Romanum with the Velia. The name comes from the sacred buildings along the street, including the Temple of Vesta and the Regia. The inhabitants of Sacra Via region would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Regia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 593-4.

[xvii] The Ides of the month fell on either the 13th or the 15th, depending upon the length of the month (the Ides of October fell on the 15th), and originally coincided with the full moon. The Ides was sacred to Jupiter and a sacrifice was made to him in his temple on the Capitol.

[xviii] The main points of the festival appear to be fairly certain: a two-horse chariot race started the festival; the right-hand horse from the winning pair that was sacrificed to Mars with a thrown spear; the horse was decapitated with an axe; the inhabitants of the Subura and the Sacra Via fight over possession of the head; the tail was sent by runner to the Regia (seee n.[v]) and the head was garlanded with loaves before being displayed.

The Subura was a densely populated lower-class area in the middle of Rome made up of insulae (blocks of flats). Gaius Julius Caesar, whose mother inherited an insula to which she moved after his father’s death, was one of its more famous inhabitants. The inhabitants of the Subura had an ongoing rivalry with those of the Sacra Via and during this festival the two groups fought for the head of the October Horse. The inhabitants of the Subura would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Mamilian Tower. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 542.

The Sacra Via was the street connecting the Forum Romanum with the Velia. The name comes from the sacred buildings along the street, including the Temple of Vesta and the Regia. The inhabitants of Sacra Via region would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Regia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 593-4.

[xix] Equus October (‘October Horse’) was the name given to the horse sacrificed not the festival itself.

The Roman army suffered a great defeat in the forest of Teutoburg in AD 9. The commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, and most of his men were slaughtered by Germanic tribes (Velleius Paterculus Roman History 2: 117).

[xx] Agrippa, while aedile, added a new aqueduct that resulted in fresh water being brought to an additional 700 basins and 500 fountains in the city of Rome, see Pliny the Elder Natural History 36.121.


Model of the Augustan Campus Martius from the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon looking towards the Mausoleum of Augustus.

The Augustan Campus Martius from the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon looking towards the Mausoleum of Augustus. Model in the Ara Pacis Museum, Rome. © saholc, 2012. http://viaggidiunapecorainitalia.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/fourth-of-july-in-rome-augustan-buildings/

A folded curse pierced with a nail from Rome.

[xxii] A defixio (‘curse tablet’, plural defixiones) was part of a magical ritual which was widely in use from the 5th century BC to the 7th century AD. Defixiones have been found in connection with chariot races, specific examples coming from North Africa (e.g. ILS 8783). 

[xxiii] The Circus Maximus was Rome’s oldest and premier chariot-racing venue.

The Forum Romanum was the centre Rome and the focus of the city’s political, social and commercial life. It contained temples, judicial and administrative buildings and even market stalls, see further R. Seindall, (2003), Forum Romanum. For a 3D tour of a digital reconstruction of the Forum Romanum, see altair4, (2010), The Roman Forum.

The TEmple of Mars Ultor on an Augustan denarius.

Reverse of a denarius of Augustus minted in Spain in 19-18BC showing the proposed Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) on the Capitoline with a statue of Mars holding the legionary eagle standard. Augustus did build a temple to Mars Ultor but did so in the Augustan Forum. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. © Barbara McManus, 2005. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

The Pomerium was the sacred boundary of the city laid out by Romulus and separated military from domestic affairs. The Roman army was not allowed within it and sacrifices to Mars had to take place outside it, which is why the Altar of Mars was built on the Campus Martius (see further n.[iv] and n.[xxi]), which is outside the Pomerium. The sacrifice of the October Horse was dedicated to the god Mars and because of this it could not happen inside the Pomerium, see Plutach Roman Questions 97, Festus 190 and Bennet Pascal n.[vii]: 261.

[xxiv] The Regia was originally the royal palace, which was said to have been built by King Numa, at the foot of the Palatine on the edge of the Forum Romanum. In Republican times it was the official headquarters of the Pontifex Maximus, see further Howatson, n.[ii]: 480.

The execution of mutinous soldiers and the display of their heads by Julius Caesar took place in 46BC. Cassius Dio (Roman History 43.24.3-4) reports the ritual execution of two soldiers who had participated in rioting during Caesar’s triumph by the pontifices and the flamen Martialis on the Campus Martius and their heads being set up near the Regia. The location of the execution and the heads’ public display prompts observers to make a link between them and the October Horse. The precise significance of his action and public response to it is not reported.

[xxv] The sacrificial animal usually dedicated to Mars was a bull; possibly because Mars often takes on the shape of a bull, see F. Altheim, (1938), A History of Roman Religion, London: 69. In this instance the horse seems to embody martial spirit (as a warhorse) and agricultural labour (as a workhorse), evoking Mars as a war god with an apparent early agricultural dimension as a defender of the fields.

[xxvi] Festus (190) records the Spartan sacrifice of a horse on Mount Taygetus and also refers other cultures using horses in sacrifices as an attempt to explain Roman practice and the substitution of a horse for the usual bull at this festival to Mars, se also n.[xxv].

An Augustan denarius minted by the flamen Martialis.

Silver denarius of Augustus minted in Rome by Lucius Cornelius Lentulus, the Flamen Martialis, in 12BC. The reverse has Augustus (right) placing a star on the figure (probably Divus Julius Caesar) holding a spear with his left hand and Victory on his outstretched right hand.

[xxvii] The flamen Martialis (Priest of Mars), who ritually brandished Mars’ sacred spears when the Roman army was preparing for war and was one of the three major flamines, would have officiated at all festivals dedicated Mars, this one included.

A spear was used in this sacrifice because it was a military weapon and also because it was believed to be imbued with magical powers, if not before the ritual then after it, see Bennett Pascal n.[vii]: 266-8.

[xxviii] The tail of the October Horse was removed and raced to the Regia, where it was pinned so that the blood dripped onto the hearth. It has been suggested that in surviving accounts ‘tail’ is a euphemism for the horse’s penis and scrotum because a horse’s tail does not have the blood supply necessary to still be dripping blood by the time it reached the Regia, see Devereux, n.[vi]: 299.

[xix] The turris Mamilia is thought to have been a peel tower or keep belonging to the Mamilian family and located somewhere in the Subura. It was the place where the Subura inhabitants chose to fix the head of the October Horse if they won it. See, J.G. Frazer, (1922), The Golden Bough, London: 489.

The head was presumably garlanded with loaves because some Romans believed that the festival took place to ensure good crops and fertility. Scholars like Georges Dumézil argue that if it was a fertility festival corn would have been used not loaves indicating that the head is clearly dedicated to Mars, see discussion by Bennett Pascal n.[vii]: 266.

October Horse Story 4: An Inquisitive Baker and a Disgusted Pythagorean

It is the morning after the Ides of October. The Roman Forum displays the aftermath of the prestigious October Horse festival. Lucius Cornelius Rufus, a rich land owner and member of the senate, has just arrived in the forum to complete his daily business. His client, Gabinius Faustus, meets him in front of the Regia and takes the opportunity to ask his opinion of the October Horse festival.

Statue of a Roman man in a toga

Marble statue of an aristocratic Roman with toga and scroll (indicating his high status and role in public life). Hermitage Museum, St. Petersberg. © Barbara McManus, 1988. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

Gabinius Faustus: Good morning, Cornelius Rufus. How are you this morning?

L. Cornelius Rufus: Very well, thank you. Is there anything I can help you with today?

Gabinius Faustus: Well, Cornelius Rufus, as you know, yesterday was the prestigious annual October Horse festival. Today you can clearly see for yourself the remnants of the festival scattered around the Forum. The horse’s decapitated head is prominently displayed on the Regia, stained with dark-red blood and garlanded with golden loaves. I was curious to know your opinion of the festival because I am aware you are a Pythagorean and know you are against any cruelty to animals.

L. Cornelius Rufus: Good gracious! Well, your inquisitive nature never ceases to amaze me… You are correct that as a Pythagorean I abhor cruelty to animals, which means I have an aversion to the October Horse festival. In my opinion it is utterly barbaric for such an elegant, heroic creature to be butchered and paraded around the Forum – the centre of economic, political and religious activity – in the name of religion. I would never attend such a festival, but I am aware that you usually attend. Were you present at yesterday’s spectacle?

Gabinius Faustus: Why, yes, of course, although it may displease you to hear that I attended the festival. Please, let me take this time to explain the reasons why I believe the October Horse festival and attending it are so important to Rome.

L. Cornelius Rufus: Very well Gabinius, if you must…

Gabinius Faustus: Firstly, I attended the festival for the good of the city. It is widely believed that the festival gives thanks to Mars for his contribution to the safety of the crop by repelling the enemy and keeping them away from the fields. [i] Therefore, we must give thanks to Mars for allowing the fields to yield crops. Secondly, because, as you know, I am a baker, I feel it is my duty to thank Mars in person and on a personal level for protecting our fields so that I may prosper from the good grain that has been harvested. Additionally, as you are aware, loaves are used to crown the decapitated horse’s head which is fixed up there upon the Regia.[ii] This year I had the honour of being asked to bake those loaves, so this year there was an element of personal pride in my attendance too.

That’s one of the reasons why it would give me great pleasure if you would be so kind as to let me share the events of yesterday, even though I may not be able to alter your opinion of the festival.

L. Cornelius Rufus: Gabinius, after such I well-mannered request, what can I say? Even though it displeases me to learn the events of yesterday, I will allow you to continue.

Gabinius Faustus: Thank you, Cornelius Rufus. Yesterday the autumn morning was crisp and the clear sky was a vivid blue, reminiscent of spring time. As you know, we are at the end of the campaign season and the beautiful weather reminded me of the day back in March when I saw the Salii performing their ritual annual dance through Rome to celebrate the start of the campaign season.[iii] I mark the start and end of the campaign season because my son and I were soldiers, although unfortunately my son was killed during the Varrus disaster in the consulship of Quintus Sulpicius Camerinus and Caius Poppaeus Sabinus.[iv] I have been to the October Horse festival every year since I finished in the sixth legion and for me personally this festival has become not only a celebration of Mars, but also a celebration of my finishing my service in the army alive. But yesterday I woke before dawn to get a good position on the Campus Martius because this year I was to take my grandsons to watch the chariot race.[v]

We gathered in the Campus Martius and waited in anticipation for the chariot race to begin. The crowd gathered, among those present were the Salii, the Arval priests and the Fetiales.[vi]. I also noticed some Luperci on the other side of the field.[vii] I was standing among my fellow neighbours from the Sacra Via district, all of us hoping to be triumphant and take home the prize that we had been anticipating all year. I recalled the games in the Iliad held in honour of Patroclus’ death where ‘the fast charioteers gathered for the race’.[viii]

A bronze biga with gilded charioteer.

1st-3rd century AD bronze statuette of a biga (two-horse chariot), British Museum. The missing left-hand horse and charioteer have been digitally replaced. © Barbara McManus, 2003. Courtesy of VRoma www.vroma.org

When the race began I felt nervous because, as you may already know, the horse’s head has ended up in the arms of the Suburanenses for several years in a row now and this year we wanted to triumph.[ix] The charioteers sped around the track, the roar of the crowd spurring them along. The charioteer from the Suburra district sped ahead of his fellow competitor from Sacra Via. His tunic was pulled in tightly to his chest and around his arms so he could easily whip his horse to run faster, like the Greek charioteers.

However, the fierce charioteer from the Sacra Via glided towards the charioteer from the Subura district, as if he was Apollo in his chariot drawing the sun across the sky.[x] The gap between them drew ever narrower and a rush of excitement tingled through my body as I realised we were drawing closer to our long awaited victory. My body was perspiring in the midday heat and my heart was pounding to the beat of the drums of the Salii sounding in the distance. ‘They were cutting in very close driving their chariots and horses round the post and letting their bodies lean a little to the left of the horses’, just as Nestor had told his son Antilochus to do at Patroclocus’ funeral games in the Iliad.[xi]

The chariot race of the Funeral Games of Patroclus

Greek heroes compete in the four-horse chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus. Detail of black-figure crater 570-560BC painted by Cleitias (potted by Ergotimos) known as the François Vase. National Archaeological Museum 4209, Florence.

L. Cornelius Rufus: So how did this chariot race you so eloquently describe end? I despise this festival, did this one end as gruesomely as they usually do?

Gabinius Faustus: Well, if you will allow me to continue! A few laps later it was all over – I am extremely pleased to inform you that the winning charioteer was from our region of the Sacra Via: we were the victors in this particular part of the festival. Our charioteer drew his spear and launched it into the neck of the right-hand horse from the winning pair. The animal was killed with that single fatal blow.[xii]

The priest rushed over to perform the sacred rites and from my position it looked as though it was the flamen Martialis who took on this role.[xiii] The head of the horse was bowed down while the priest decapitated it with an axe.[xiv] The smell was horrific in the midday heat, but the crowd cheered as the blood from the horse spattered onto the dry ground and began running along the ground in a stream resembling a red Tiber. It made me think of the wars and the bloodshed we have withstood as a people.

The tail of the horse was sliced off. Once removed from the lifeless horse which lay before us, motionless in a widening pool of its own blood, the tail was immediately whisked away. The crowd roared as the tail left the arena making its way to the forum to be fixed upon the Regia.[xv]

L. Cornelius Rufus: Let me interrupt you here, Gabinius. Your delight in this religious festival appears to be stained with Epicurean satisfaction; your enjoyment of the festival thus far has had no religious meaning whatsoever. It is entirely reliant upon personal enjoyment, not unlike that gained by head-count spectators at the gladiatorial games![xvi] My personal views on the decapitation of such a glorious animal are as follows. As a Pythagorean, I believe in reincarnation, so the killing of any animal is against my convictions – which is why I follow a vegetarian lifestyle.[xvii] That horse, who was so cruelly butchered, may have been the soul of your poor son who tragically died on the Danube. You can see why a festival such as the October Horse distresses me.

Gabinius Faustus: But that distress – like mine at the death of my son – should be tempered by the benefit to Rome because the death of one saves the life of others. This festival is not distressing, it is intimately linked with the Spring festivals of Aprilis.[xviii] The blood collected from the October Horse is mixed with the ash of the calf burned at the Fordicidia and this mixture is used at the Parilia, to purify the flocks of sheep which provide us with wool from which to make the togas that are the sign of our citizenship. No wonder that the Parilia is also the birthday of the city of Rome![xix]

Also you talk about the festival as though it was barbaric, but giving our best to a god as part of fulfilling the contractual obligation between them and Rome is not barbaric.

That being said, let me tell you about my favourite part of the day: the battle for the head of the horse. I think it is unfair that after our success in the chariot race the challenge is still on as both sides compete for the prize of the horse’s head to take back to their respective areas of Rome as a symbol of their victory. I remember when I was young enough to participate in this scramble, but at my advanced age I felt it better to stand aside and watch my grandsons engage in this thrilling event. I felt as youthful as them, even though I was just watching and my heart had sunk into my stomach from nerves. People jumped on one another just to get a touch of the sacred animal’s head. They tussled, trying to keep the head in one piece, yet intent on bringing it home. Finally my grandsons emerged, up to their elbows in blood, with the horse’s head carried proudly above their own. Their faces were smeared with blood and their eyes shone with pride; as did mine. They raced the head out of the arena towards the Regia.

Like a swarm of bees the crowd descended onto the Sacra Via and towards the Forum Romanum. It was such a contrast from the orderly ranks of legionaries marching off to war at the beginning of the campaign season in March. I joined the crowd once it reached the Forum just in time to witness the blood from the tail of the horse being dripped onto the hearth.[xx]

My grandsons wove through the bustling crowd to find me. We gazed in delight upon the horse’s head which had been fixed upon the Regia displaying the victory of those from the Sacra Via. I was particularly proud because my loaves had been used to garland the precious beast’s head after decapitation.[xxi] We were standing close to where we are standing now…

We have to praise our gods because we know from past experience that religious decline and rising immorality in Rome brought down their wrath upon us, cxomplete with wars, death, famine and bad luck.[xxii] Now you have heard my account of the October Horse festival and know how much pride and excitement it brings to so many and the good it brings to the city. Have I been able to influence your opinion of this festival even a little…?


[i] C. Bennett Pascal ((1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-291: 264) considers that the festival was not an agricultural festival but a thanksgiving to Mars for a good harvest.

[ii] It has been suggested that if the festival were about fertility then the ‘horse’s head would have been adorned with seed or corn’ not loaves, e.g. Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 266.

[iii] The Salii (literally ‘leaping’) priests performed a ritual dance on several days in March and October of every year to celebrate the beginning and end of the campaign season. The armilustrium, the purification of the soldiers’ arms before putting them away for the winter also happened in October. See L. Adkins & R. Adkins, 1994, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Oxford: 197-198.

[iv] The Romans referred to the consuls of a year (as listed on the walls of the Regia) as a means of dating: AD 9 is ‘the consulship of Quintus Sulpicius Camerinus and Caius Poppaeus Sabinus’. In AD 9 Publius Quinctilious Varrus, who was a provincial governor, provoked a rebellion in the Roman-occupied territories of Germania. The Germani, under Arminius, defeated Varrus; annihilating three legions and nine auxillary corps in the Teutoburg forest. See the brief contemporary account of Velleius Paterculus’ Roman History 3 and M. le Glay, J.-L. Voisin & Y. le Bohec, (2005), tr. Antonia Nevill, A History of Rome, Boston: 215.

[v] The Campus Martius (‘Field of Mars’) was an area of Rome sacred to Mars that was used as the training ground for Roman soldiers and for meetings of the comitia centuriata, as well as being the gathering point for triumphs. See, Adkins & Adkins, n.[iii]: 36-37.

[vi] For the Salii, see n.[iii].

The Arval priests held a festival in honour of the goddess Dia Dea, which took place in the grove in May, and offered public sacrifices for the fertility of the fields. If the horse was perceived as a personification of the corn spirit it is possible that the Arval priests were involved in the October Horse festival, as suggested by Adkins & Adkins, n.[iii]: 255.

The Fetiales were involved with rituals that involved war and had a role in ensuring that a war was just. See, Plutarch Life of Numa 12.3 with comments by J.A. North, (2000), Roman Religion, Cambridge: 23.

[vii] These priests performed the sacrifices at the Lupercalia, see E. Kearns & S. Price, (2003), Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, Oxford: 321.

[viii] Homer Iliad 23.260-280.

[ix] The inhabitants of the Subura district.

[x] Euripides Medea 1575. Apollo was a god with many traits, but as Apollo Helios he is known for driving the sun-chariot across the sky. According to M.T. Boatwright, D.J. Gargola & R.J.A. Talbott (2006, A Brief History of the Romans, Oxford: 242), ‘[i]n standard arrangement four-horse chariots lapped at least seven times, for a total distance of 5.25 miles or 8.4 km. Each race took about fifteen minutes. And twenty-four races would usually take place in a day.’

[xi] Homer Iliad 23.335-340, tr. M. Hammond, (1987), Harmondsworth.

[xii] According to Bennett Pascal (n.[i]: 261), no ancient author tells us whether or how a killing blow was delivered. Therefore this is our own interpretation of the events.

[xiii] ‘It is commonly assumed, but without real evidence, that the officiating priest, and actual thrower of the spear, was the flamen Martialis. This has been inferred not only from the locale and presumed recipient of the sacrifice but also from Cassius Dio’s account of a grisly event in 46 BC.’ (Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 262).

[xiv] The sacrificial animal had to appear compliant.

[xv] Bennett Pascal (n[i]Regia was situated within the Forum. It was traditionally the home of King Numa, the second king of Rome, and was donated by him to the Pontifex Maximus, who used it as offices during the Republic. Inside the Regia were shrines dedicated to Mars, which held the sacred shields carried in procession by the Salii, see further n.[iii].

[xvi] Epicureans believed that while gods existed ‘they were remote from the world’, as M. Beard, J. North & S. Price ((1998), Religions of Rome, Vol. II: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 38) put it. This contradicts Roman religious belief, which has the world imbued with numina (‘spirits’). For this reason many Romans perceived Epicureanism as an excuse for ‘simple hedonism and the pursuit of pleasure’ (Beard et al., n.[xvi]: 35).

[xvii] Pythagoreans believed in metempsychosis/transmigration of the soul (Diodorus Siculus 1.98.2). ‘Transmigration is the belief that on death some aspect of us usually identified with the soul survives to enter another body’ (Kearns & Price, n.[viii]: 556-557). Therefore, Pythagoreans were against the idea of killing living things because any living thing could be inhabited by a human soul. Pythagoreans practiced vegetarianism and non-animal religious sacrifices (e.g. Plutarch Life of Numa 8.8). There were not many Pythagoreans in Rome and many of those were to be found amongst the members of the elite.

[xviii] Beard et al. (n.[xvi]: 63-64) survey the agricultural festivals occurring during the month of April.

[xix] The Fordicidia occurred on April 15th and was a festival in honour of Tellus (the god of the earth; tellus mater was ‘Mother Earth’). At the Fordicidia a pregnant cow was sacrificed and the calf was burned on the hearth by the Vestal Virgins. It is believed that the name of the Fordicidia derives from the Latin word forda (i.e. ‘pregnant cow’), although the festival was also referred to as the Hordicidia, see Varro (De Re Rustica 2.5.6) who states that ‘a pregnant cow is called “horda”’ and then goes on to refer to the Hordicidia as a day on which pregnant cows are sacrificed.

Beard, North & Price (n.[xvi]: 116-119) explore the Parilia, which occurred on the 21st April and consider the festival’s perceived mixed origins: the Parilia was Rome’s birthday (according to Plutarch Life of Romulus 12.1) and/or an ancient pastoral festival (Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 1.88) in honour of the deity Pales. During the festival the offerings, including horse-blood and calf’s ashes, are mixed into a paste before being distributed amongst shepherds to be burned and the smoke used to cleanse their flocks (Ovid Fasti 4.721-46, 783-806). The fumigants distributed most probably contained the ashes of the calf burned at the Fordicidia and the blood collected from the October horse.

[xx] The Vestal’s hearth was the flame of the city and symbolised both prosperity for the city and fertility, see Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 264. Similarly, the horse could symbolise the horse spirit and/or the vegetation daemon which is ritually killed at each harvest. The hearth of the city was kept alight by the Vestal Virgins, however some wealthy households, such as that of Augustus, also contained a shrine to Vesta with a hearth.

[xxi] ‘The sacrifice was performed on account of a successful crop of grain’ (Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 261).

[xxii] Religious decline was often used as an explanation for misfortunes affecting the Roman state. During the civil wars of the first century AD, for example, there was a sense that the Roman people were not worshipping the Gods in the correct manner. Augustus (whose name/title is derived from ‘augury’, the process of reading bird signs to understand the will of the Gods, as discussed by S.J. Green, 2009, ‘Malevolent Gods and Promethean Birds: Contesting Augury in Augustus’s Rome’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 139: 147-167: 147-8) introduced a number of religious reforms in an attempt to remedy this. He also built and repaired temples around the empire.

October Horse Story 3: A Centurion “Deserter”

Officers of the Praetorian Guard

Officers of the Praetorian guard from a bas-relief found in Rome, c. 51–52 AD. Louvre, Paris.

How did it come to this? Sitting here, picking at congealing scabs on my knuckles with the two fingers that remain unscathed from yesterday’s work, still covered in blood, both human and animal?  The darkness of the room allows my mind to roam freely but I’m often distracted by the Praetorians outside the door, whose laughter and footsteps shatter my reverie and whose shadows disturb the beam of light that creeps under the door.[i] How did it come to this?

The Deal

“Are you a fan of horses, soldier?” The man, even hooded, had stuck out like a pigmy amongst Gauls in such a tenth rate place for debauchery and watered wine.

Statue of Augustus as Imperator (Emperor)

The 1st century AD marble “Prima Porta Augustus” from the Villa Livia, Prima Porta, depicting Augustus as Imperator. Vatican Museums. © Till Niermann, 2007.

The deep scar on my face it seemed had given away my many years’ service to Imperator Augustus to the men now sitting companionably at my table.[ii] “For racing, or in the way that Pasiphae likes bulls?” I grunted into my goblet. My new companion sniggered showing me his well-kept teeth.

“Well… more the former” he answered, “My name is Gaius Mamilius Turrinus, and you, I hear, are Centurion Quintus Latinus, who deserted, along with a handful others, from Legio XVIII slaughtered under Varus’ auspices.[iii] Half your year has been spent here drinking weak wine bought with spoils taken from both friend and foe.”

“True…but they wouldn’t have a use for it. And I’m not a deserter. How could I desert a legion that has neither men nor eagles? It’s unlikely that I’d get my bonus now or claim my healthily increased salary because Rome’s military is a mess.[iv] My choice was clearly the lesser of two evils. Anyway, I could barely move my right arm for nine months, but now I have peace!”

“Spare me your excuses for not being with Tiberius, you don’t strike me as a pacifist.[v] If you could fight your way out of the Teutoburg forest and get back to Rome, even with injuries, you’re clearly the man I need.”

He rashly dropped a leather purse full of coins onto the table, alerting everyone to his presence and the opportunity for money. A harsh look from me turned everyone’s mind back to conversation.

“I am one of the gens Mamilia who were the intended inheritors of the kingship after Tarquin the Proud.[vi] After Tarquin’s fall, our favour was lost in the Republic and to the new inhabitant of the Regia.[vii] Each Ides of October we remind the people of our glory by entering a chariot team into a race.[viii] The right-hand horse of the winning pair is then slaughtered as a sacrifice to Mars out on the Campus Maritus. Then someone runs off with the horse’s tail and dribbles the blood into the hearth for Rome’s posterity for the year and others collect its blood.[ix] While that happens the head is removed and men of the Sacra Via and Subura fight over the horse’s head and either return it to either the Regia or the Turris Mamilia. And this, my friend, is where you come in.[x] If you happened to, say, join the Subura contingent, armed of course, and perhaps with some supporters, and gain the horse’s head by, well… any means necessary, I think you could become a richer man. You could certainly afford to drink in a better class of establishment than this pigsty.”

“Friend”, I said intoxicated by the purse, “you had best pay me after the head is won. My former brothers-in-arms and I would otherwise piss away that purse’s contents before the night is through.”

The Race

After awakening my five former brothers-in-arms with my customary bawl from wherever they had managed to collapse the night before, we headed for the Campus Martius in time for the chariot race to begin. All Rome seemed alive with activity as men and women jostled in the crowds to get to where the day’s entertainment was to be had. The more safety conscious citizens headed towards the Capitoline Hill for a good vantage point for the other action taking place that day.[xi]

We recovered our weapons from a well-hidden hole behind a dive on the Aventine, where we had stashed them for fear of being thought deserters, and concealed them under our cloaks. I noticed a high number of cripples with sturdy crutches. Few cases seemed genuine; the rest seemed to be able-bodied men with overly-expressed limps. Publius, who had been a fresh recruit to Legio XVIII, pointed out that sticks would be a good way of avoiding Augustus’ heavy enforcement of enlistment into the army, but I suspected differently.[xii] Only two in my party had ever been to the October sacrifice before and made vague guesses in response to our enquires, though Caius suggested that we bear the grudge of our Dardanian ancestors for being duped by a horse and that’s why a horse is sacrificed.[xiii] I can see there’s some kind of logic there but, surely, if this had anything to do with being duped by the Trojan horse wouldn’t a more fitting sacrifice be a Greek slave?[xiv]

We made our way through the Forum Boarium towards the Campus Martius, aiming for Augustus’ intended resting place, which is truly worthy of a god.[xv] If gods ever do die![xvi] There was an unclaimed patch of grass near the ciconiae nixae, away from the crowd that anxiously awaited the race, their arms active with greetings or subtly making bets and giving odds.[xvii] Even festivals are not free from gambling… Neither my companions nor I seemed to be affected by the religious aspect of the proceedings; this is not a dedication, it is entertainment. For years we observed the sacrifices our commanders, made to the Capitoline triad and Mars according to the will of Augustus, we praised Disciplina and Virtus and made sacrifices of our enemies or ourselves to the glory of our Eagle.[xviii] But our Eagles are lost and all our faith has been shaken and splintered.[xix] 

We too made bets on the outcome of the race; I could see our benefactor Mamilius frantically giving instruction to his pair’s driver. With this in mind I bet against his pair, secretly believing that a man like Mamilius would not waste an expensive horse needlessly. Happily I was right.

Modern "Roman" two-horse chariot racing

Roman biga (two-horse chariot) racing by Gerard Naprous’ Devil’s Horsemen. Available to hire through http://www.peterjohnson.co.uk

The crowd had uttered cries to rival those of any barbarian, such was their passion and fury with the race.[xx] What came next in the proceedings only appealed to a select few and many spectators hurried off to continue losing money and growing hoarse at the Capitoline Games. Those that remained were those who had kept almost silent during the race, out of piety, or through being better able to control their fighting spirit, or else not having any.

The Sacrifice

Portrait head of a flamen.

Sculpted marble portrait head of a flamen, c. 250-260 AD. Louvre.

The crowd followed the victorious horse and the priestly entourage a little way towards an altar dedicated to Mars on the northern edge of the Campus Martius.[xxi] By the altar the horse was tethered and its head was adorned with bread, perhaps a gesture of thanks for a good harvest or to ask for a good harvest to come, but it was certainly not for its protection![xxii] The flamen Martialis said a blessing over the horse and dribbled some grain over it and then a sturdy spear’s point was dragged along the horses’ spine and the horse appeared to shake his head in enjoyment.[xxiii] While this was occurring, Caius suggested that bets should be taken on whether the horse will need to be finished with the axe. Most of my group agreed that the horse would be felled by the flamen Martialis, but Primus and I disagreed.[xiv]

“Just look at him, boy!” I said, “He clearly spends most his time trying to stoke the hearth of the Vestals and must be more used to his own spear!”

Our suppressed laughter clearly still annoyed the more devoted congregation. Then the spear struck home. The horse fell on its side looking like it was trying to gallop away on the air. The axe was quickly put to the neck of the beast and it went still.[xxv] Children were led away by their family. Having earlier been so keen to see the graceful animals, now their faces spoke of horror. For me the whines had brought back the familiar sound of battle but I could feel neither pity nor appreciation for the beast that had given its life for the sake of Rome’s harvest, and I questioned whether it did.

“What’s the matter, sir?” asked Caius, “Have you become a Pythagorean or something?”[xxvi]

The tail was hastily removed and sent on its way to the Regia by an attendant of the priest to the sound of applause and blood from the horse’s neck was collected into a pot.[xxvii] The excitement and anticipation of the onlookers spoke of a longing to satisfy an urge. Men’s affiliation to the Subura or Via Sacra almost unconsciously moved them to take sides facing each other. There was a small smattering of those who looked particularly hungry who were trying their best to buy some cuts of horse from those preparing to burn what remained of the carcass, such was their desperation for cheap meat.[xxviii]

The Battle

“Now remember lads, We brought steel as a deterrent not for a bloody massacre. There are Praetorians about, so keep out of serious trouble. Just get to the head, call and we will rally to you.”

Once I was sure they knew their task, I examined the Via Sacra side; seemingly fewer in number than those of the Subura, but still a handful. Cripples had miraculously been cured of their ailments and brandished their sticks as clubs. The horse’s head was left on the floor where the beast fell. I forgot the pain in my arm, but hardly had I licked my lips when the cry went up.

The charge and the screams brought back years of campaign memories and it was a warming feeling. I needed the fight! With my hidden sword still sheathed, I struck my foe and dodged their blows. Once I reached the horse’s head I realised that both sides did not even care about the head, just two men tussled over it as its eye stared blindly at the sky. These men of Rome loved the fight, loyalty to others did not matter; this was primal.[xxix]

I ran for the head and managed to snatch it from the grasp of the two fighting men almost unnoticed and I shouted for my men to rally to me, but they did not come, they had been seized by their own lust for battle. Unfortunately, my shout did bring attention to the heavy horse’s head in my arms.

I let my scabbard fall to the floor…

The Consequences

“Well, Centurion, the horse’s head resides at the Turris Mamilia and can now spend the rest of the year in relative peace. I see from your nod that you feel that you’ve done your duty.”

The Praetorian Prefect, Publius Varius Ligur, was staring at me from behind a table in a very dark room.[xxx] My head ached from being forced to the ground by three Praetorians as they had tied up my hands. My quick glance towards my men told them not to free me by force. Around me lay the lifeless bodies of five well-armed Via Sacra men; it had taken five men to hammer home my message. The head must have been rushed off by my lads, who would have encountered little resistance after my performance.

“Five dead plus, doubtless, others that you wounded too. This does not look good, especially under the religious shadow of the sacrifice. What’s more you are a deserter…”

“I am a survivor! I am a survivor of a lost legion! I had no troops to command, therefore it was more prudent to save myself and others who could escape in the darkness while we were hounded by Arminius’ treacherous dogs!  

Arminius leads the Germans against Varrus' legions

“The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD” fresco on a school wall by H. Knackfuss (1890). Norddeutsches Schulmuseum, Friesland.

“I saved what few remained from both the enemy and the consequences of defeat!” I tried to scare away my fear by shouting this out.

“So here you are.” He seemed secretly pleased with himself. “You know, some people believe the proceedings today set an example to guide those who choose to flee rather than hold their ground. The irony is almost unbearable don’t you think?[xxxi] I do find it particularly insulting that you would blacken a day sacred to Mars and our respective professions with human sacrifices; you’re a regular Julius Caesar!”[xxxii]

Replica of the Roman festival calendar

Replica of the Roman festival calendar. © Barbara MacManus. Courtesy of www.vroma.org

I boldly muttered, “Does anyone know what today is for? I mean, although Mars is sacred to us from the perspective of war, what about his role in agriculture and growth and why adorn the head of the beast with bread?[xxxiii] It’s clearly not as important to Mars as other days otherwise it would have its place in the fasti.[xxxiv]

I can see the necessity of the various lustrations in March preparing for war and for the Armilustrium that purifies Rome’s soldiers from foreign blood; these are for the good of Rome.[xxxv] But I think today was a cheap excuse for someone to show off their skill with a spear. Calling it a sacrifice gives it legitimacy, but it’s demeaning! Mars, if anything, would be pleased that today he had a good day’s entertainment rather than the offering of a foul-tasting horse”. 

I hoped Ligur would respect honesty and would view things with a sense of perspective rather than superstition. The thin mouth and squinting eyes of Ligur gave nothing away, but he got up and opened the shutters to let in some midnight air into the room.

“I came to the same conclusions as you long ago, but one does not feel safe uttering religious criticisms so close to the Emperor’s ear. He has spent much restoring the gods to the people.”[xxxvi]

Then some warmth crept back into Ligur’s minimal features. “I’m not unsympathetic towards your actions as you have saved us and the Vigiles a lot of trouble. The Via Sacra has become increasingly full of pickpockets and house-breakers and the like.[xxxvii] One of those men had some recently-stolen jewellery belonging to my colleague’s wife on his person. Now I could have you court-martialled for abandoning your post, put on a trial for the murder of five men, or have you killed right now if I wished. Your life belongs to Rome but I will let you swear your life to me and join my guard, unpaid of course, until I see fit.”

He read my reply from my snap to attention and salute. A simple “Dismissed” and I was led to a room for the rest of the night, where I sat on the bench bed and thought, “How did it come to this?”


[i] The Praetorian guard were used for crowd control, see W.C. Terry III & K.V. Hartigan, (1982), ‘Police Authority and Reform in Augustan Rome and Nineteenth-Century England: Localizing and Nationalizing Police Work in Traditional and Modern Societies’, Law and Human Behaviour 6: 295-311: 300. C. Bennett Pascal ((1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-291: 289) claims that the authorities would have been desperate to keep riotous activities, such as the ‘battle royale’ of the equus October festival, under control.

[ii] Loyalty to the Imperial family was sworn by oath (Augustus, Res Gestae 3) and was thought to be unshakable (Tacitus, Annals I.34-5).

[iii] Cassius Dio Roman History 56.18-23 (tr. E. Cary). There is a monument to a Centurion who was killed during the Varian Disaster in 9AD and who served in the XVIII, see M.T. Boatwright, D.J. Gargola & R.J.A. Talbert, (2006), A Brief History of the Romans, New York: 190.

[iv] Boatwright et al. n.[iii]: 191.

[v] Cassius Dio Roman History 56.22 (tr. E. Cary)

[vi] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 280.

[vii] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 288.

[viii] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 288.

[ix] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 284 and 262.

[x] Festus 190.

[xi] J. Hunt, ‘October (Mensis October)’, Major Holidays of Rome 6.

[xii] Cassius Dio Roman History 56.23 (tr. E. Cary)

[xiii] Full participation was not necessary, see A.D. Nock, (1952), ‘The Roman Army and the Roman Religious’, The Harvard Theological Review 45: 187-252: 189.

[xiv] Festus 190.

[xv] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 286.

[xvi] Augustus’ image was an almost a religious symbol, see G.R. Watson (1981), Roman Soldier, London: 131.

[xvii] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 288.

[xviii] On sacrifices by commanders, see Nock, n.[xiii]: 192. Augustus may have been behind the regulation of sacrifices made in army camps, see Nock, n.[xiii]: 194-97. The eagle was a binding force for a legion and perhaps received extreme devotion, so its loss would have been traumatic, see Watson, n.[xvi]: 127-9.

[xix] Watson, n.[xvi]: 127-9.

[xx] The race has been thought of as a way of removing the aggression of the battle (e.g. Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 288). In addition, the ‘Romans were passionately devoted to chariot racing in the circus’, so this occasion could be no different (see, T.W. Africa, (1971), ‘Urban Violence in Imperial Rome’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2: 3-21: 6).

[xxi] J. Hunt, ‘October (Mensis October)’, Major Holidays of Rome 6.

[xxii] Bread may have been an offering to ask for a good future crop according to Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 266.

[xxiii] A representative of the gens Mamilia may have cast the spear according to Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 262.

[xxiv] Cassius Dio, Roman History 43.24.4 (tr. E. Cary).

[xxv] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 281. An implement was clearly needed to remove the head.

[xxvi] W. Warde Fowler, (1911), The Religious Experience of the Roman People,  London: 380. 

[xxvii] M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, (2007), Religions of Rome, Vol. 1: A History, Cambridge: 53. The October Horse’s blood was mixed with the dried ashes of an unborn calf sacrificed at the Fordicidia, which was sprinkled into the fire of the Parilia for purificatory purposes.

[xxviii] Rome generally had no taste for horse meat according to Pascal (n.[i]: 277), but D.G. Kyle ((1998), Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, London: 194) shows that people were willing to eat meat from hunts that took place in the arena and included horses, so perhaps this was a possibility.

[xxix] A. Futrell, (2001), Blood in the Arena, Austin, Texas: 48. 

[xxx] Whether Ligur was a Prefect is disputed. Further information on Publius Varius Ligur and the disputed prefecture can be found in S.J. Bingham, (1999),The Praetorian Guard in the Political and Social Life of Julio-Claudian Rome, Ottawa: 42.

[xxxi] Plutarch questions the meaning of the equus October sacrifice, asking whether it is: i) revenge for the Trojan horse, ii) a way to offer Mars the best of one of his creatures, or iii) “rather because the work of the god demands standing firm, and men that hold their ground defeat those that do not hold it, but flee? And is swiftness punished as being the coward’s resource, and do they learn symbolically that there is no safety for those who flee?” (Roman Questions 97 (tr. F. Cole Babbitt). The irony is that the fleetest horse, best able to flee, is sacrificed.

[xxxii] Cassius Dio recounts the story of Julius Caesar punishing rioting soldiers in a manner which echoes the sacrifice of the equus October, Roman History 43.24.4 (tr. E. Cary).

[xxxiii] Bennett Pascal, n.[i]: 284 and 267; Warde Fowler, n.[xxvi]: 96. 

[xxxiv] On the fasti and the appearance of the equus October, see Warde Fowler, n.[xxviii]: 97.

[xxxv] On the Armilustrium, see Warde Fowler, n.[xxviii]: 96-97. 

[xxxvi] For Augustus’ activities with regard to refurbishing temples and building new ones, see Augustus, Res Gestae 19-21.

[xxxvii] For criminal activities in the district, see Terry & Hartigan, n.[i]: 300. On violent crime and retribution, see Africa, n.[xx]: 5.

October Horse Story 2: First Experiences of the Festival – from a Farmer & Son to a Flamen

A Roman Farmer and his Son

The Ides of October have come around quickly again, which means the festival of the October Horse is upon us.[i] Once again it was a cool morning when I approached the city. However, this year is different. My wife has passed away in childbirth since last October and it is only my eldest son, Lucius, who will be joining me at the festival this year. My son is particularly excited because he has heard a lot about the festival in previous years and his first experience of the October Horse is important to me. Early this morning, we had attended to our animals and gone about our daily routine before setting off to the city for the festival. As farmers the festival is particularly important to us, because it is our chance to request a good harvest for the coming year.

Map of Rome showing the Circus Maximus and Campus Martius

Map of Rome showing the Circus Maximus and Campus Martius.

As we entered the city and walked past the Circus Maximus.[ii] I explain to my son that this is where chariot races and animal shows would usually take place during religious festivals but that the October Horse is a special religious festival that only takes place on the Campus Martius.[iii] It made me wonder how Lucius would react to the sacrifice of the horse that is the central part of the festival, particularly as he is very fond of all the animals on our farm. As we pass the Palatine Hill and then through the forum my son notices many painted advertisements for this festival, to which we had been looking forward since last year.[iv] As we get closer to the Campus Martius, where the festival is taking place, we can feel the atmosphere building. The crowd is thickening and I hold on to my son’s hand tightly.

Having become part of the city, the Campus Martius is a low lying plain situated outside the pomerium with the river Tiber to the west.[v] Its size is remarkable and during the emperor Caesar Augustus’ reign this area has changed dramatically with the construction of a number of great buildings. Every one of the buildings has a story to tell about one of Rome’s great achievers. I point many out to Lucius, especially the Theatre of Pompey, the Villa Publica and the Ara Pacis.[vi] We take our place amongst the crowd in view of the race track, where the festival will begin.

Statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

1st century AD statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus from the Via Labicana. Rome, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Museums). © Barbara McManus (2003). Courtesy of www.vroma.org

After a few minutes a silence fells over us all because the arrival of Caesar Augustus is announced. Leading the procession are the Praetorian guards, who ensure the safety of the Emperor and are carrying spears and shields. Following closely behind is the flamen Martialis, who will be carrying out the sacrifice, accompanied by the Salii.[vii] The flamen Martialis is particularly recognisable because of his distinctive priestly dress.

Next comes the eagerly anticipated emperor, with his wife Livia, and we pay our respects by cheering them loudly. Caesar himself holds the important religious position of Pontifex Maximus and because of that today his head is veiled.[viii] We watch as the emperor takes his place in the most prominent position, so that he is visible to us all and has a prime view of events.

The beginning of the race is announced by Caesar, who regularly takes a direct role in such festivities, and the crowd, buzzing with excitement, surges forward trying to get the best view. I grab Lucius and swing him up onto my shoulders from fear of losing him in the crush and so that he can get a better view of the race over the heads of the many people now standing in front of us. A drum roll sounds and the crowd suddenly erupts into cries and cheers as the horses bolt forward. The race has begun!

A Roman chariot race

Second half of 1st century AD terra cotta relief with a scene from the Circus Maximus showing a charioteer driving a quadriga ready to round the turning post. He is preceded by a jubilator on horseback and part of the body of a fallen driver can be seen at the foot of the turning post.
London, British Museum. © Barbara McManus (2003). Courtesy of www.vroma.org

Everyone is eager to get a glimpse of the chariots as they thunder down the track. As they approach the hairpin bend, I hold my breath because I know from previous years how dangerous this bend has proven to be as chariots have toppled over and  charioteers been injured. The crowd jostles like the stormy seas that Aeneas faced on his journey to Latium, as the horses pass by where my son and I are standing. As they do, everyone whoops and cheers for their favourites and I feel Lucius quiver with excitement as his grip tightens around my neck. The horses fly down the final straight, neck and neck all the way, the ground shaking under their hooves. By a nose, Parnassius, the favourite, crosses the line first after an intense race. The crowd cheers loudly, but I see some people sneaking off through the crowds, presumably to collect their winnings!

Now that the race has taken place, the crowd separate into the opposing communities in anticipation of the sacrifice and the coming battle for the head of the winning horse.  We up a place near the inhabitants of Sacra Via and prepare to watch the forthcoming proceedings.[ix] The Emperor descends from where he had been watching the race, to watch over as well as participate in the sacrifice of the horse. I watch on sympathetically as the right-hand horse of the winning pair is led up to the altar of Mars, and although I know the sacrifice is essential for the hope of a good harvest, I can’t help but feel slightly sad for this great and noble creature.[x] Having animals back at our farm, I feel particularly moved. I have always thought it unusual that a horse is sacrificed at an agricultural festival, however some believe the festival has a military significance, especially as the animal is a sacrificial victim of Mars.[xi] At this point I check on Lucius, whose view from my shoulders means he has missed nothing and now has gone still and quiet. I gently remind him that watching the sacrifice is one of his civic duties and the horse is being sacrificed for the good of the city. The leading priest, the flamen Martialis, comes forward accompanied by several other priests. I watch as they approach the tethered horse and seeing that the flamen Martialis appears somewhat hesitant, I wonder if he too feels some sympathy for the animal and what he might be think about the festival…

A priest and flamines from the Ara Pacis frieze.

A priest and four of the fifteen flamines (wearing the distinctive leather skull cap with olive-wood spike) follow behind Augustus in the procession of the south frieze of the Ara Pacis, 13-9 BC. Rome, Ara Pacis Museum. © Sailko, 2006.

The Flamen Martialis

I am nervous about my duties this year. It is my first time leading the October Horse festival and I have never performed the sacrifice of a horse before. This festival is going to be particularly different for me, as there will be no sacrificial meal and no ordinary disposal of the animal.[xii] My companions have positioned themselves around the horse to hold it still and for it to appear to the crowd that the animal is compliant, which is especially important.[xiii] I raise my spear, gripping it tightly as I plunge it into the thick neck – not deep enough. I draw the bloody spear back and plunge it with greater force a second time into the gushing wound.[xiv] Blood spurts out and trickles down the horse’s legs onto the grass, staining it a deep crimson. The horse hits the ground with a thud and the audience applauds.[xv] I step back in relief and watch as the next stage of the sacrifice begins.

Our emperor and Pontifex Maximus, Caesar Augustus, is standing by as the tail is sliced off, ready to pass it to the runner, who is stationed beside me. Speed is vital to the correct procedure of this festival.[xvi] Immediately, without hesitation, the runner dashes through the already parted crowd. This courtesy is because they know the importance of a dripping tail reaching the Regia so that the blood can be sprinkled on the hearth.[xvii] Being the flamen Martialis, priest of Mars, god of War, this festival has for me a particular military significance. The festival marks the end of another successful year of military campaigns so many of us gather together to offer thanks to Mars.[xviii] My belief is that the horse is sacrificed because it is the animal of warfare and not, as some used to assume – mistakenly – a link to the Trojan horse.[xix]

I can feel the tension of the crowd building as the two sides prepare for the struggle.

The crowd is pressing in as the horse’s head is hacked off ready for the impending battle. I step back, ready to observe the chaos that always ensues at this point of the proceedings. The head is positioned in the middle between the two opposing sides, the Sacra Via and the Subura, and they surge forward. This is always my least favourite part of the festival, however I appreciate the importance of gaining the horse’s head for the winning side for there to be a successful harvest in the year to come Suddenly, after a drawn out and lengthy struggle, the winner is announced. Sacra Via, for the second year in a row, has claimed the horse’s head.

This community proceeds to adorn the horse’s head with a garland of loaves, a further symbol of a prosperous crop for the winning side in the coming year  – it’s a good job that both sides are Roman![xx] I join the procession towards the Regia.[xxi] It is a joyous celebration and the mood is jubilant. Two well-regarded men from the Sacra Via community take the role of nailing the head of the horse to wall of the Regia, which they perform with difficulty. With each nail that penetrates the horse’s head, the crowd cheers louder and with more animation. Once they have finished, everybody steps back to admire their prize. As I take my place at the front of the crowd to make the closing prayers of the festival, the crowd appears fatigued after the physical battle, yet proud of their success in winning of the head. I have enjoyed my first experience as leading priest of the October Horse festival, the day devoted to my god has gone well and I am sure he will be pleased….

The Roman Farmer and his Son

As Lucius and I wearily return to our farm, we are in high spirits. We have both enjoyed the experience of our first festival together. Although I have missed my wife dreadfully and could not help but remember attending the previous year’s festival year with her, Lucius and I have made the most of this day. As the day draws to a close, and the sun sinks behind the hills, we look forward to a prosperous harvest and to next year’s October Horse festival with great anticipation.


[i] The Ides of the month fell on either the 13th or 15th day. These dates were supposed to coincide with the full moon. The specific date would be announced at the start of each month by a priest. In the case of the October festival the Ides fell on the 15th.

‘October Horse’ is a translation of Roman name for the festival, which is Equus October, see Festus, On the Meaning of Words, who provides a précis of Paulus, the text is reproduced in G. Dumézil, (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago.

[ii] During the 1st century AD animal shows would have been located in the Circus Maximus, see A. Futrell, (1997), Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power, Austin, Texas: 29 and J. Balsdon, (1969), Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome, London.

[iii] The Campus Martius, or ‘Field of Mars’, is an area of Rome situated near the Tiber. The area was dedicated to the god Mars due to the military focus of the area. According to D. Favro ((1996), The Urban Image of Augustan Rome, Cambridge: 38), at this time the southernmost part was quite urban whereas further north the density of buildings decreased and it became more of a marshland.

[iv] Painted adverts were a common sight in Rome. They were used to promote forthcoming games or festivals. They would generally feature the name of the host of the games or festival, the date it was to be held and in the case of festivals, the particular god that was to be honoured.

[v] The pomerium was the sacred boundary surrounding the city of Rome. For a full description of its significance, see Livy, The History of Rome 1.44.

[vi] The Ara Pacis Augustae (‘the altar of Augustan Peace’) is an altar to represent peace. The altar was meant to be a vision of Roman civil religion. The altar was commissioned by the Roman Senate on the 13th July 13BC to honour Augustus’ triumphant return to Rome from Gaul and Hispania and was consecrated on 30th January 9BC by the Senate to celebrate the peace established in the Empire after Augustus’ victories. See Augustus, Res Gestae 2.2; 8.5 (tr. S. A. Takács in W. Eck, (2007), The Age of Augustus, Oxford) and brief discussion by C. Crow, (2006), ‘Ara Pacis’, History Today 56: 5

[vii] The flamen Martialis was the priest of Mars, the god of War, and he was leader of public rites to honour Mars. Furthermore, ‘[i]t is commonly assumed, but without real evidence, that the officiating priest, and actual thrower of the spear, was the Flamen Martialis’ according to C. Bennett Pascal, (1981), ‘October horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91; 262.

For the Equus October festival as indicative of Mars’ early origins as a god, see W.K.C. Guthrie, (1960), ‘H. J. Rose: Some Problems of Classical Religion. Pp. 53. Oslo: University Press, 1958. Paper, kr. 7.50’, The Classical Review 10:178-179: 178.

[viii] The Pontifex Maximus was the elected leader of the pontifices and the most powerful of the great political priests. Augustus assumed the title in 12BC after the death of Lepidus. See Augustus, Res Gestae 7.3 (tr. S. A. Takács in W. Eck, (2007), The Age of Augustus, Oxford) and M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome: Vol 1: A History, Cambridge: 186-9.

[ix] The two neighbouring communities of the Sacra Via and Subura fought over the head of the horse. The winners fastened the horse’s head to a conspicuous building in their quarter of the city. If the Sacra Via side won possession of the head, they fixed it to the wall of the Regia. If the Subura side won they fixed it to the wall of the turris Mamilia. See W. Warde Fowler, (1989), The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An introduction to the study of the religion of the Romans, London: 242.

[x] There is much dispute over the original meaning of the festival. Some regard it as an agricultural festival deriving from Festus’ remark that its ‘sacrifice was made for crops’, e.g. H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York: 193. In this interpretation the horse represented a Corn-spirit and the sacrifice was conducted in hope for a successful harvest.

[xi] Usually at a Roman festival the sacrificial animal is an ox, however in this case a horse is appropriate because the festival honours Mars, the god of war, who was commonly depicted with a horse. See Paulus (quoted by Dumézil, n.[i]) and Plutarch, Roman Questions 97, tr. F.C. Rabbitt), both discussed by Bennett Pascal n.[vii].

An ox being led to sacrifice

A 1st century AD altar relief with an ox being led to a tripod altar in front of a tetrastyle temple hung with bunting; the victimarius holds a hammer with which to stun the bull before its throat is cut, while the presiding magistrate, his head veiled, holds out a patera with which libations are made. From the sanctuary of the Genius of Augustus in the Forum of Pompeii. © Barbara McManus (2003). Courtesy of www.vroma.org

[xii] Unlike most Roman festivals, the sacrificed animal was not consumed; apparently because the horse was an animal not deemed suitable for consumption. Only head and the tail of the animal were used in the sacrifice, possibly because it was believed they represented the whole animal. What became of the rest of the carcass is unknown, on which see, Rose, n.[vii].

[xiii] The attitude of the animal being sacrificed was vital to the success of the ritual. Effective sacrifices were thought to result from willing victims. If the animal appeared to struggle then this was thought of as a bad omen and ropes were used to prevent this and to ensure an impression of the compliance of the animal, see Pliny, Natural History 8.183.

[xiv] A spear is used for the sacrifice of the horse due to its military significance (Polybius 12.4.10, tr. W. R. Paton).

[xv] According to Polybius 12.4.10 (tr. W. R. Paton) omens can be identified from the manner of which the horse falls.

[xvi] A runner was chosen for their speed because it was vital for the horse’s tail to reach the Regia while it was still dripping with blood (Warde Fowler, n.[ix]: 242), so this had to be accomplished before the blood clotted or dried in the air.

[xvii] The Regia was a religious building located in the Forum (Beard et al., n.[viii]: 39). It was originally the home of the kings of Rome and then became the headquarters of the pontifices. It is disputed whether the blood from the tail of the sacrificed horse was used together with the ashes of the unborn calves in the Parilia, which was a festival conducted by the Vestals on April 21st. See Warde Fowler, n.[ix]: 243.

[xviii] It has been suggested that the sacrifice is made to Mars as a purification of the army after their summer campaigns (Scullard, n.[x]: 193).

[xix] The link between this festival and the Trojan Horse comes from Timaeus, who claimed that the Romans wanted to remember the fall of Troy, however this possibility was rejected by many ancient authors, including Polybius (12.4.b, tr. W. R. Paton) and Paulus (quoted by Dumézil, n.[i]: 197).

[xx] The head of the sacrificed horse was adorned with loaves, making it an effigy of the corn spirit, which brings fertility to and wards off evil influences from the crops in the year to come. (Warde Fowler, n.[ix]: 246).

[xxi] The Regia was a religious building located in the Forum (Beard et al., n.[viii]: 39). It was originally the home of the kings of Rome and then became the headquarters of the pontifices.

October Horse Story 1: A Young Farmer and a Retired Soldier Comment

A Young Farmer

A Farmer leading oxen

1st century AD Roman relief in Thasian marble of a farmer and oxen wending their weary way homeward. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland. © Mary Harrsch (2009)

Finally, the 15th of October! The hot summer sun has gone from Rome, my crops and fields have been harvested and today I will attend the sacrifice of the Equus October, that most wonderful horse that embodies the corn spirit.[i] For me, and many other of Rome’s farmers I should think, today is the pinnacle of all the harvest festivals of the autumn. It has been a hot and difficult summer but now that the hardest work is out of the way I am keen to celebrate. On this day, the Ides of October, I will give thanks that Mars has given me a more successful harvest than ever before. Who knows, perhaps today’s ceremony will be the best of all my years and maybe even the best in the seven hundred and sixty three years since the foundation of Rome!

There are military men in Rome who suppose that the sacrifice of the October Horse is held in honour of Mars, so that he might purify the army as it returns from the campaigns of the summer. I suppose our Emperor Augustus would count himself among their number, but I pay no heed to this interpretation, not least because of the tradition that has been instilled in me by my father and his father before him; we know that from the beginning of Rome, Mars has been the god of nature.[ii] I do not know when Mars began to be seen as the God of War rather than agriculture and vegetation.[iii] My grandfather says that it in the days before Augustus became our Emperor, farmers were also soldiers,[iv] and many of the gods had functions that encompassed the agricultural and the military life of Rome, so the Equus October became a double celebration for many men.

On the eleventh day before the Kalends of May I attended the festival of the Parilia and I intend to go again next year.[v] The blood of the horse sacrificed today will be mixed by the Vestals,[vi] with the blood of the unborn calves sacrificed at the Fordicidia.[vii] That festival is for the purification of sheep and the men that look after them rather than the crops and harvest, but I like to celebrate it nevertheless.

A Roman chariot race

A 3rd century AD marble relief of a chariot race in the Circus Maximus showing the imperial enclosure (pulvinar) with the emperor holding the mappa in his right hand. Rome, Vatican Museum (Chiaramonti). © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org

Today, as always, I plan to leave in good time so that my father, grandfather and I might beat the crowds flocking to the Campus Martius on the banks on the Tiber and be able to stand in a good position to get a clear view of the race and the sacrifice.[viii] I remember that once my father lifted me above his head so that I might get a better view of the chariot race; I hope I might be able to do that for a son of my own one day.

My excitement always builds as the chariots line up to start the race. Although we do not have horses on our farm, my father taught me how to read the signs of a good horse, so I decide which I think is the best and from that deduce which chariot will win the race and provide the sacrifice. The suspense can be felt around the Campus Martius and all of a sudden a strange silence descends upon everyone as the host of the race raises the mappa.[ix] When the mappa is dropped on the ground to signal the beginning of the race, the chariot drivers whip the horses and the noise of the crowd rises again. Traditionally, it is the Emperor who begins the race; I hope I’ll catch a glimpse of Augustus today. The speed of the horses and the ferocity of the drivers always make for a very exciting race. The drivers always hold the reins of the horse in their left hand and a whip in their right and some of them secure a curved knife to their waists so that, in the event of a crash they can cut themselves free.[x] The sacrificial victim is the right-hand horse of the winning chariot. It is the best because it has the harder work of the pair because at every turn it is urged to its fullest speed, while its partner is slowed slightly.[xi] I am embarrassed to admit that I used to wonder why it was the best horse that was sacrificed, I thought it was a waste as, clearly, the horse was very good; it ran the fastest and was the most sure-footed, after all. I know now that we must sacrifice the best of what we have to the gods, so that they give us all of their favour in return, that’s why we sacrifice the horse with the greatest physical strength, which has the strongest blood and the strongest charge of numen.[xii]

Many people dislike the sight of the blood and guts that come from the horse but I prefer to see it as a skill on the part of the attendants rather than a brutal act. After all it is for the good of the agricultural life of the city that the deed is done. Of course, I believe that bloodshed without a reason, such as sacrifice, is socially and ethically unjust. In some ways it is sad to see such a beautiful animal killed and beheaded, but, like I said, it is done in honour of the gods and our livelihoods rely on it. Yesterday I overheard a man saying that he would not attend the festival, he was questioning the killing of an innocent animal and the morals of the priests and the people that watched the killing. I did not understand how he could be saying such things and how he did not feel compelled to take part in praying and giving thanks to the gods. I know other people must have heard him too, but as they did not question him or ask him to keep his mutterings to himself I kept quiet. My father says this must be one of the many new philosophical ideas being talked about around the city but that I should not concern myself with them. I don’t know if this is because he thinks I wouldn’t understand or because he is offended by them… I daren’t think what my grandfather’s opinion of those people would be; he has been attending the Equus October festival, and all the other harvest festivals all his life and I don’t think he would take kindly to someone questioning his beliefs.[xiii]

With the sacrifice over, the Sacravienses and the Suburanenses [xiv] fight over the head of the horse, another gruesome sight! The tail of the horse is taken to the Regia, we always follow the procession and witness the blood being dripped on the sacred hearth of the Vestal Virgins. For me, this is the most important part of the whole festival because of its relationship to the Fordicidia and the Parilia, [xv] I can’t wait to see it and give thanks today.

A Retired Soldier

The bright October sun is glaring at me, the morning dew is wet on my feet, the sky is clear and it is the Ides of October. This can only mean that the Equus October festival is finally upon us once more, signalling the end of the campaign season and the return of our city’s brave warriors.[xvi] Today their bodies and weapons will be purified of human blood and foreign contact, their cleansed swords and spears being stored away until the Ides of March and the Equirria festival, exactly six months from now.[xvii] I put my hand to my face to shield my eyes from some of the light so I can better look around the glorious Campus Martius, used for centuries to train the armies of our great city and now used to celebrate our many military triumphs. [xviii] I have been here many times, but every time it never fails to take my breath away. I look to the North towards the magnificent Theatre of Marcellus and Augustus’ Mausoleum, then West to the Pantheon, but as always my eyes are drawn to the Ara Pacis – the Altar of Peace – the Senate’s recognition that our beloved Augustus and his armies have brought peace and security to our vast empire.

Theatre of Marcellus, Mausoleum of Augustus, Pantheon, and Ara Pacis

Clockwise from top left: Theatre of Marcellus (model), Mausoleum of Augustus (model), Pantheon, Ara Pacis. Composite of images © Eleanor OKell (2012), original images courtesy of www.vroma.org

As I view our surroundings I glance to the opposite side of the Campus Martius and see a large crowd of the agricultural class, a class that I personally have some respect for because they fought for our city before glorious Augustus made the honour of fighting for Rome a paid career! Having said this, however, I am pleased I am far enough away that I can only see and not smell them. Pray Jupiter the blustery October wind doesn’t pick up!

One can also only laugh at their intelligence, or lack of, as they believe the Equus October festival is only to help their crops grow! How can they possibly believe that a chariot race where the right hand horse of the winning chariot, both of which are war horses, is sacrificed to Mars can be have anything other than military significance? If it were an agricultural festival, would not a bull or a cow be sacrificed? And an axe or a mallet used instead of a spear?[xix] Their attitude’s an insult to me, when so many fine soldiers have given their lives so that farmers’ fields are not overrun by foreign savages. Furthermore, would not sacrificing to Mars merely keep enemies from those farmers’ fields rather than make them more fertile?[xx] I often try to comprehend their point of view at this time of the year, but I find it impossible. Mars is the god of War and cares not for bread and crops but for the many brave Roman legions which please him so much. My father always made a point of telling me that if this festival was indeed intended to increase fertility then surely the horse’s head would be surrounded by grain and seed, not loaves of bread.[xxi] He was a wise man; he fought for Julius Caesar instead of Pompey in the Civil War. He died a happy man also, seeing glorious Augustus retrieve Crassus’ lost standards from the Parthians. They had been lost a year before I was born and my father always moaned about what an insult this was to our great city. He always told me the same story to ensure I was well behaved for my dear mother whilst he was away fighting: he said that, when I was six, Julius Caesar sacrificed two badly behaved soldiers instead of a horse at this very festival, and attached their heads and hands to the walls of the Regia![xxii] I still do not know to this day whether it was a true story, but it would be fair to say I never misbehaved and neither did my own children when I was away!

With the chariot race over and the victor celebrated, his right-hand horse is led North to the Tarentum, near the Ciconiae Nixae for the sacrifice to Mars. I always note that the horse is never hesitant nor does it decide to bolt, a testament to the mettle of fine Roman horses bred for war! And this year is no different. The horse is halted in front of the Flamen Martialis, who then moves to the side of the magnificent black creature.[xxiii] As I have done since I was a child, I hold my breath as the Flamen raises the spear above his head and draws it back into a prime striking position. He releases, the crowd gasps, the spear appears to pierce the horse around the base of the neck, but my view is a little obstructed.[xxiv] The crowd applaud whilst the spirit of the horse leaves his body and ascends to the heavens as an offering to almighty Mars. This offering to the god of War will keep our soldiers safe on the battlefield and keep savages from our gates, not ensure that vegetables grow in farmers’ fields!

An artist' reconstruction of the Regia
Reconstruction drawing of the Regia in the Roman Forum from S.B. Platner, (2nd ed., 1911), The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome, Boston: 213: fig. 39.

The tail of the horse is sliced off and carried quickly through the excitable crowds to the Regia, so that the potent blood can fall upon the hearthstone there.[xxv] That blood is saved for the Parilia next April when it is mixed with the ashes of the unborn calf from the Fordicidia.[xxvi] The head is then severed and blood gushes out. Mothers tell their children not to watch, but you can sense the squirming of young boys and girls as they try to see the inside of the horse’s head and neck.

The head is then garlanded with a string of loaves, but this is not the end of its purpose. Suddenly the Sacravienses and Subarnenses emerge from the crowds and fight for possession of the head.[xxvii]. My father told me that this has been going on for centuries, saying that the fighting pleases almighty Mars, the god of War. If the Sacravienses claim the head it is attached to a wall of the Regia, but if the Subarnenses are victorious it will be fastened to the Mamilian Tower. The fighting is fierce and the crowd are split between the two sides, cheering and applauding. The Sacravienses, however, fight harder this year and are victorious in claiming the head. Shortly they will proceed with it back along the Via Sacra and proudly attach it to the Regia, with the Subarnenses cursing their luck and wishing they were attaching it to the Mamillian Tower. My wife and I will follow the procession up the Via Sacra before returning to our insula on the Aventine Hill, to reflect upon another fantastic Equus October festival and to thank Mars for the safe return of so many of our brave soldiers.


[i] In this interpretation the horses’ tail represents the last sheaf of corn to be cut during the harvest.

[ii] T. Ely, (2003), The Gods of Greece and Rome, Mineola: 176.

Statue of Mars Ultor

A statue of Mars Ultor (‘Mars the Avenger’) from the Foro Transitorio dated to the end of the 1st century AD. Capitoline Museums: Palazzo Nuovo, Rome. © Ann Raia, 2005. Courtesy of www.vroma.org

[iii] Mars: a major Roman god, with festivals celebrated in March and October. Mars is a war and warrior god, who exercised his wild function in various contexts. Under Augustus he obtained an important new title, Ultor, ‘avenger’, in recognition of the victory over Caesar’s assassins. For more information see S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (eds), (2004), The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, Oxford: 453.

[iv] M. Beard, J. North &amp S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome, Vol.1: A History, Cambridge: 48.

[v] The Kalends is the first day of the month in the Roman calendar. The Parilia was an ‘ancient Roman festival celebrated annually on April 21 in honour of the god and goddess Pales, the protectors of flocks and herds.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

[vi] The Vestals were priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the (hearth) fire and one of the twelve major deities. Her cult expressed and guaranteed Rome’s permanence. Vesta’s main public shrine was a circular building located to the South East of Augustus’ arch in the Forum Romanum. In the late Republic its form was that of a primitive house, symbolising a connection between public and private cults of the hearth. There was no statue of Vesta within the shrine: it contained only the fire and, in the inner sanctum, the sacred things that may not be divulged.

[vii] The Fordicidia festival is variously called the Fordicidia, Fordicalia, Hordicidia and Hordicalia. Its name derives from horda or forda, a country expression for a pregnant cow. It was celebrated on April 15th in honour of Tellus, a few days before the Parilia, as part of a set of springtime ceremonies designed to provide for the welfare of the people and the fertility of both the earth and animals. The main act of the Fordicidia was the sacrifice of a pregnant cow. The unborn calf was burnt by the Chief Vestal on the hearth of the Regia. The ashes were mixed with the blood of a horse, thought to be that of the October Horse (although no Roman source confirms this, there is no other horse sacrifice which could provide the blood to be found in the Roman religious calendar), and distributed to the people for the celebration of the Parilia.

[viii] The Campus Martius (literally, ‘Field of Mars’) was a floodplain of the Tiber River and the site of the Altar of Mars and the Temple of Apollo from the 5th century BC. It was originally used as a military exercise ground, but was later drained and, by the 1st century BC, was covered with large public buildings – baths, an amphitheatre, theatres, a gymnasium, a crematorium, and many temples. Livy called the area campus ignifer (‘Field of Fire’) due to the volcanic smoke often seen there.

[ix] The mappa is a handkerchief, which was dropped to signal the start of a chariot race. See further, G. Milani-Santarpia, ‘Ancient Roman Chariot Races‘ for www.mariamilani.com.

[x] See further, Milani-Santarpia, n.[ix].

[xi] G. Dumézil, (1975), 2nd edition, Fêtes romaines d’été archaïque, Paris: 217.

[xii] Dumézil, n.[xi]: 217. Numena are spirits believed to inhabit objects or preside over a place. In the case of the October Horse, the corn spirit manifests in the horse’s tail.

[xiii] Other Harvest Festivals include the Ambarvalia, Vestalia, Consus and Ops Consiva, see W. Warde Fowler, (1911), The Religious Experience of the Roman People, London: 243.

[xiv] The Sacravienses are the inhabitants of the Via Sacra (‘Sacred Street’), which is the oldest and best-known street in Rome, being the main route from the Palatine Hill to the Forum Romanum. Its route and level changed drastically over time but its name and significance have endured. The Suburavienses are the inhabitants of the Subura district. Further on the fight, see L. Adkins &amp R.A. Adkins, (2001), Dictionary of Roman Religion, Oxford: 168.

[xv] For the Parilia, see n.[v]. For the Fordicidia, see n.[vii].

[xvi] Beard et al. n.[iv]: 47.

[xvii] C. Bennett Pascal, (1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91: 264.

[xviii] The Campus Martius (literally, ‘Field of Mars’) was a floodplain of the Tiber River and the site of the Altar of Mars and the Temple of Apollo from the 5th century BC. It was originally used as a military exercise ground, but was later drained and, by the 1st century BC, was covered with large public buildings – baths, an amphitheatre, theatres, a gymnasium, a crematorium, and many temples. Livy called the area campus ignifer (‘Field of Fire’) due to the volcanic smoke often seen there.

[xix] Pascal, n.[xvii]: 263.

[xx] Pascal, n.[xvii]: 266.

[xxi] Pascal, n.[xvii]: 266.

[xxii] Cassius Dio (Roman History, 43.24.4, tr. E. Cary) reports that Julius Caesar had three men sacrificed on the Campus Martius by the pontifices and the flamen Martialis (see n.[xxiii]), and that their heads were set up near the Regia.

The Regia (‘King’s House’) situated at the east end of the Forum Romanum, between the Via Sacra and the precinct of Vesta, was traditionally the home of King Numa, which he had passed on to the Pontifex Maximus. During the Republic it was the seat of authority of the Pontifex Maximus and contained his archives, in addition to shrines dedicated to Mars (which held the sacred shields carried in procession by the Salii) and Ops. The external walls, after 36BC were decorated with lists of consuls and triumphators going back to Romulus. For a description of the Regia, its history, function, destruction and excavation, see Ch. Heulsen, (2nd ed., 1909), tr. J. B. Carter, The Roman Forum: its history and monuments, New York: 192-197.

[xxiii] The flamen Martialis is the flamen (priest) who served the cult of Mars. He was usually a patrician and, having been chosen by the Pontifex Maximus, served for life. See, Adkins et al. n.[xiv] and Pascal n.[xvii]: 262.

[xxiv] Pascal (n.[xvii]: 267) suggests that it may have been considered a bad omen not to kill the horse in one blow due to Polybius describing the action in only one word, translated as ‘to spear him down’. See Polybius, Roman Histories 12.4b, tr. R. Waterfield, (2010), Oxford.

[xxv] Festus, On the Meaning of Words 295. For the Regia, see n.[xxii].

[xxvi] For the Parilia, see n.[v]. For the Fordicidia, including the question of the origin of the horse blood used in that festival, see n.[vii].

[xxvii] The Sacravienses are the inhabitants of the Via Sacra (‘Sacred Street’), which is the oldest and best-known street in Rome, being the main route from the Palatine Hill to the Forum Romanum. Its route and level changed drastically over time but its name and significance have endured. The Suburavienses are the inhabitants of the Subura district. Further on the fight, see Adkins et al. n.[xiv]: 168.

October Horse: An Introduction


The festival takes place on 15th October (the Ides of October: Id. Oct). The day is known as Feriae Iovi, with the name Equus October only given in the late Calendar of Philocas.

Proceedings in order

  • A two-horse chariot-race takes place
  • The right-hand horse of the victorious pair is felled with a spear and sacrificed on the altar to Mars in the Campus Martius (“Plain of Mars”)
  • The horse’s head is cut off and decorated with loaves
  • The inhabitants of the Via Sacra contend with those of the Suburra to claim this trophy. If those from the Via Sacra win the horse’s head, they nail it to the Regia; if those from the Suburra, it is fixed to the Turris Mamilia.
  • The horse’s tail, dripping with blood, is brought quickly to the Regia and is allowed to fall on the sacred hearth.

1st century B.C. Historical Impact

In 44 BC, Caesar handed over two mutinous soldiers to the flamen Martialis who killed them in the Campus Martius and had their heads fixed on the Regia – was this a grim civil-war version of the October Horse? (Dio 43.24.4)

Controversies and Opinions 

What was the origin of the festival? 

  • Was it agricultural, the last in series of harvest festivals?
  • Was it military, owing to the sacrifice to Mars, its proximity to the end of summer campaigning season and the Armilustrium (19 October) and th echo of the horse race (Equirria, 14 March), which marked the beginning of the campaign season?
  • Or did an agricultural festival develop into a military festival over time, in the same way that Mars, god of war, is thought to have started life as an agrarian deity?
  • Was the festival influenced by a royal Vedic (Indian) ritual? Is this a royal battle between two groups of pretenders, the king (those who take the trophy to the Regia) and the Mamilii (historical claim to an emblem of kingship?)

Why a horse? Does it symbolise the Trojan Horse, making the festival a revenge ritual in which the Romans (descended from the Trojans) take revenge on the Greeks who destroyed their mother city? Or is the horse a warlike and spirited animal that is sacrificed for a like-minded (military) deity?

What sort of horse is sacrificed? Is it an agricultural animal? Or a military one?

Is the flamen Martialis involved in the ritual at all?

Does the spear actually kill the horse, and who wields it?

Is the blood of the October horse used at the Parilia the following April? No ancient source states this, but we are only told that the Parilia uses the blood of a horse (origin unspecified). But isn’t it too much of a coincidence, given that no other horse is sacrificed in Roman religion?

Did the blood really drip, or put another way, is the tail really a tail? There are physical problems to consider here, as by the time a horse’s tail would have arrived at the Regia, the blood would have coagulated (clotted). This means it would have been very difficult to arrive at the Regia with a ‘dripping tail’. If ‘tail’ in our sources is really a euphemism for the horse’s penis/genitals, which contain a lot of blood, these could still feasibly be dripping blood on arrival at the Regia.

What was the Turris Mamilia? The identity of this building is unknown. The Mamilii are said to have given their name to it; they were originally Tusculans but might claim links with Roman royalty through a connection to the Tarquins.

Are elements of the festival vested with magical properties (such as the spear and the decapitation)?

Major Ancient Testimony

CASSIUS DIO, 43.24.4

PAULUS, p. 197, 326 Lindsay


PLUTARCH, Roman Questions, 97

FESTUS, pp. 190, 246, 295-6 Lindsay

[The obscure primary sources are conveniently located and translated in Dumézil (1970) 215-16 and Bennett Pascal (1981) 261]

Secondary Reading

C. Bennett Pascal (1981), “October horse”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85, 261-91

G. Devereux (1970), “The equus October ritual reconsidered”, Mnemosyne 23, 297-301

G. Dumézil (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago, 213-28

H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic,New York, 193-4