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p1003 Salii

Unsigned article on p1003 of

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

SALII were priests of Mars Gradivus, and are said to have been instituted by Numa.a They were twelve in number, chosen from the patricians even in the latest times, and formed an ecclesiastical corporation (Liv. I.20; Dionys. II.70; Cic. Rep. II.14; lecta juventus patricia, Lucan, IX.478). They had the care of the twelve Ancilia, which were kept in the temple of Mars on the Palatine hill, whence those priests were sometimes called Salii Palatini to distinguish them from the other Salii mentioned below. The distinguishing dress of the Salii was an embroidered tunic bound with a brazen belt, the trabea, and the Apex, also worn by the Flamines [Apex]. Each had a sword by his side, and in his right hand a spear or staff (Dionys. l.c.).

The festival of Mars was celebrated by the Salii on the 1st of March and for several successive days; on which occasion they were accustomed to go through the city in their official dress carrying the ancilia in their left hands or suspended from their shoulders, and at the same time singing and dancing. In the dance they struck the shields with rods so as to keep time with their voices and with the movements of the dance (Liv. l.c.; Dionys. l.c.; Hor. Carm. I.36.1, IV.1.28). From their dancing Ovid, apparently with correctness, derives their name (Fast. III.387). The songs or hymns, which they sang on this occasion (Saliaria carmina, Hor. Ep. II.1.86; Tac. Ann. II.83), were called Asamenta, Assamenta, or Axamenta, of which the etymology is uncertain. Göttling (Gesch. der Röm. Staatsv. p192) thinks they were so called because they were sung without any musical accompaniment, assa voce; but this etymology is opposed to the express statement of Dionysius (III.32). Some idea of the subject of these songs may be obtained from a passage in Virgil (Aen. VIII.286), and a small fragment of them is preserved by Varro (L. L. VII.26, ed. Müller). In later times they were scarcely understood even by the priests themselves (Varro, L. L. VII.2; Horat. Ep. II.1.86; Quintil. I.6 p54, Bipont.). The praises of Mamurius Veturius formed the principal subject of these songs, though who Mamurius Veturius was, the ancients themselves were not agreed upon (Varro, L. L. VI.45). He is generally said to be the armourer, who made eleven ancilia like the one that was sent from heaven in the reign of Numa (Festus, s.v. Mam. Vet.; Dionys. II.71; Ovid. Fast. III.384),b but some modern writers suppose it to be merely another name of Mars. Besides, however, the praises of Mamurius, the verses, which the Salii sang, appear to have contained a kind of theogony, in which the praises of all the celestial deities were celebrated, with the exception of Venus (Macrob. Sat. I.12). The verses in honour of each god were called by the respective names of each, as Januli, Junonii, Minervii (Festus, s.v. Axamenta). Divine honour was paid to some of the emperors by inserting their names in the songs of the Salii. This honour was first bestowed upon Augustus (Monum. Ancyr.), and afterwards upon Germanicus (Tac. Ann. II.83); and when Verus died, his name was inserted in the song of the Salii by command of M. Antoninus (Capitol. M. Ant. Phil. 21).

At the conclusion of the festival the Salii were accustomed to partake of a splendid entertainment in the temple of Mars, which was proverbial for its excellencec (Suet. Claud. 33; Cic. ad Att. V.9; Hor. Carm. I.37). The members of the collegium were elected by co-optation. We read of the dignities of praesul, vates, and magister in the collegium (Capitol. Ibid. 4).

The shape of the ancile is exhibited in the annexed cut, taken from an ancient gem in the Florentine cabinet, which illustrates the accounts of the ancient writers that its form was oval, but with its two sides receding inwards with an even curvature, and so as to make it broader at the ends than in the middle. The persons engaged in carrying these ancilia on their shoulders, suspended from a pole, are probably servants of the Salii; and the representation agrees exactly with the statement of Dionysius (II.71) πέλτας ὑπηρέται ἠρτημένας ἀπὸ κανόνων κομίζουσι. At the top of the cut is represented one of the rods with which the Salii were accustomed to beat the shield in their dance, as already described (Gruter, Inscr. p. cccclxiv note 3).

[image ALT: An engraving of a horizon oval gem or cameo, depicting two men, one behind the other, carrying on their left shoulders a pole from which hang by straps three objects in general shape and size something like a case for a viola. Above the gem is depicted a separate engraving of a stick with a pommeled handle. It is a depiction of the ancilia of the Salian priests of ancient Rome, and of the type of rod with which these ancilia were beaten.]

Tullus Hostilius established another collegium of Salii in fulfilment of a vow which he made in a war with the Sabines. These Salii were also twelve in number, chosen from the patricians, and appeared to have been dedicated to the service of Quirinus. They were called the Salii Collini, Agonales or Agonenses (Liv. I.27; Dionys. II.70, III.32; Varro, L. L. VI.14). Niebuhr (Hist. of Rome, vol. III p351) supposes, that the oldest and most illustrious college, the Palatine Salii, were chosen originally from the oldest tribe, the Ramnes, and the one instituted by Tullus Hostilius or the Quirinalian from the Tities alone: a third college for the Luceres was never established (Compare Hartung, Die Religion der Römer, vol. II p163).

Thayer's Notes:

a In Rome, at least. Servius (ad Virg. Aen. VIII.285) traces the rites among the Etruscans to Morrius, a king of Veii.

b See also Plutarch's account — in which he has daggers rather than "rods" — in his Life of Numa, 13.

c In a passage about Scipio, Polybius (XXI.13.10) provides an interesting sidelight on the impediments that Roman religious practices sometimes threw in the way even of military campaigns; and he may provide a clue to why the Salii rated this gastronomic feast. According to him, they were one of the three top-ranking priestly colleges in charge of the major sacrifices; he additionally states that it was "forbidden for them to change their residence for thirty days during the celebration of the sacrifices" (τριακονθήμερον μὴ μεταβαίνειν κατὰ τὸν καιρὸν τῆς θυσίας).

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