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!

Sextus

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.

[xxi]

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.