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.