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p716 Ludi Saeculares

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp716‑717 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LUDI SAECULA′RES. If we were to judge from their name, these games would have been celebrated once in every century or saeculum; but we do not find that they were celebrated with this regularity at any period of Roman history, and the name ludi saeculares itself was never used during the time of the republic. In order to understand their real character we must distinguish between the time of the republic and of the empire, since at these two periods these ludi were of an entirely different character.

During the time of the republic they were called ludi Tarentini, Terentini, or Taurii,a while during the empire they bore the name of ludi saeculares (Festus, s.v. Saecul. ludi and Taurii ludi; Val. Max. II.4 §5). Their origin is described by Valerius Maximus, who attributes their institution to the miraculous recovery of three children of one Valerius, who had been attacked by a plague ranging at the time in Rome, and were restored to health by drinking some water warmed at a place in the Campus Martius, called Tarentum. Valerius afterwards offered sacrifices in the Tarentum to Dis and Proserpina, to whom the recovery of his children was supposed to be owing, spread lectisternia for the gods, be held festive games for three successive nights, because his three children had been saved. The account of Valerius Maximus agrees in the main with those of Censorinus (De Die Nat. c17) and of Zosimus (II.3), and all appear to have derived from the ancient annalist, Valerius Antias. While according to this account the Tarentine games were first celebrated by Valerius, another legend seems to consider the fight of the Horatians and Curiatians as connected with their first celebration. A third account (Festus, s.v. Taurii ludiº; Serv. ad Aen. II.140) ascribes their first institution to the reign of Tarquinius Superbus. p717A fearful plague broke out, by which all pregnant women were affected in such a manner that the children died in the womb. Games were then instituted to propitiate the infernal divinities, and sacrifices of sterile cows (taureae) were offered up to them, whence the games were called ludi Taurii. These games and sacrifices took place in the Circus Flaminius, that the infernal divinities might not enter the city. Festus (s.v. Saec. ludi) and Censorinus ascribe the first celebration to the consul Valerius Poplicola. This account admits that the worship of Dis and Proserpina had existed long before, but states that the games and sacrifices were now performed for the first time to avert a plague, and in that part of the Campus Martius which had belonged to the last king Tarquinius, from whom the place derived its name Tarentum. Valerius Maximus and Zosimus, who knew of the celebration of these games by Valerius Poplicola, endeavour to reconcile their two accounts by representing the celebration of Poplicola as the second in chronological order. Other less important traditions are mentioned by Servius (ad Aen. II.140) and by Varro (ap. Censorin.).

As regards the names Tarenti or Taurii, they are perhaps nothing but different forms of the same word, and of the same root as Tarquinius. All the accounts mentioned above, though differing as to the time at which and the persons by whom the Tarentine games were first celebrated, yet agree in stating that they were celebrated for the purpose of averting from the state some great calamity by which it had been afflicted, and that they were held in honour of Dis and Proserpina. From the time of the consul Valerius Poplicola down to that of Augustus, the Tarentine games were only held three times, and again only on certain emergencies, and not at any fixed time, so that we must conclude that their celebration was in no way connected with certain cycles of time (saecula). The deities in whose honour they were held during the republic, continued, as at first, to be Dis and Proserpina. As to the times at which these three celebrations took place, the commentarii of the quindecemviri and the accounts of the annalists did not agree (Censorin, l.c.), and the discrepancy of the statements still extant shows the vain attempts which were made in later times to prove that during the republic the games had been celebrated once in every saeculum. All these misrepresentations and distortions arose in the time of Augustus. Not long after he had assumed the supreme power in the republic, the quindecemviri announced that according to their books ludi saeculares ought to be held,b and at the same time tried to prove from history that in former times they had not only been celebrated repeatedly, but almost regularly once in every century. The games of which the quindecemviri made this assertion, were the ludi Tarentini.

The celebrated jurist and antiquary Ateius Capito received from the emperor the command to determine the ceremonies, and Horace was requested to compose the festive hymn for the occasion (carmen saeculare), which is still extant (Zosim. II.4). But the festival which was now held, was in reality very different from the ancient Tarentine games; for Dis and Proserpina, to whom formerly the festival belonged exclusively, were now the last in the list of the divinities in honour of whom the ludi saeculares were celebrated. A description of the various solemnities is given by Zosimus. Some days before they commenced, heralds were sent about to invite the people to a spectacle which no one had ever beheld, and which no one would ever behold again. Hereupon the quindecemviri distributed, upon the Capitol and the Palatine, among the Roman citizens, torches, sulphur, and bitumen, by which they were to purify themselves. In the same places, and on the Aventine in the temple of Diana, the people received wheat, barley, and beans, which were to be offered at night-time to the Parcae, or according to others, were given as pay to the actors in the dramatic representations which were performed during the festive days. The festival took place in summer, and lasted for three days and three nights. On the first day the games commenced in the Tarentum, and sacrifices were offered to Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Venus, Apollo, Mercury, Ceres, Vulcan, Mars, Diana, Vesta, Hercules, Latona, the Parcae, and to Dis and Proserpina. The solemnities began at the second hour of the night, and the emperor opened them by the river side with the sacrifice of three lambs to the Parcae upon three altars erected for the purpose, and which were sprinkled with the blood of the victims. The lambs themselves were burnt. A temporary scene like that of a theatre was erected in the Tarentum, and illuminated with lights and fires.

In this scene festive hymns were sung by a chorus, and various other ceremonies, together with theatrical performances, took place. During the morning of the first day the people went to the Capitol to offer solemn sacrifices to Jupiter; thence they returned to the Tarentum to sing choruses in honour of Apollo and Diana. On the second day the noblest matrons, at an hour fixed by an oracle, assembled on the Capitol, performed supplications, sang hymns to the gods, and also visited the altar of Juno. The emperor and the quindecemviri offered sacrifices which had been vowed before, to all the great divinities. On third day Greek and Latin choruses were sung in the sanctuary of Apollo by three times nine boys and maidens of great beauty whose parents were still alive. The object of these hymns was to implore the protection of the gods for all cities, towns, and officers of the empire. During the whole of the three days and nights, games of every description were carried on in all the circuses and theatres, and sacrifices were offered in all the temples.

The first celebration of the ludi saeculares in the reign of Augustus took place in the summer of the year B.C. 17 (Tacit. Ann. XI.11); the second took place in the reign of Claudius, A.D. 47 (Suet. Claud. 21); the third in the reign of Domitian, A.D. 88 (Suet. Dom. 4, with Ernesti's note); and the last in the reign of Philippus A.D. 248, and, as was generally believed, just 1000 years after the building of the city (Jul. Capitol. Gord. Tert. c33; compare Scaliger, De Emend. Tempor. p486; Hartung, Die Religion der Römer, vol. II. p92, &c., and the commentators ad Horat. Carm. Saec.).


Thayer's Notes:

a The identification of the Ludi Taurii with the Ludi Saeculares is by no means certain. By the 1890 edition, the Dictionary will back off from this idea: see the article Taurii Ludi in Daremberg & Saglio (with the text of Smith 1890 and further commentary).

b For a vivid account of Augustus's Ludi Saeculares with many further details, see Lanciani's Pagan and Christian Rome, pp73‑82.


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