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This webpage reproduces an article in
Classical Philology
Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jan. 1908), pp65‑73.

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p65  The Ara Martis
By Samuel Ball Platner

In the third part of the first volume of Jordan's Topographie der Stadt Rom, recently published, Professor Hülsen maintains (pp475‑77) that there were two important shrines of Mars in the campus Martius, besides the temple built in Circo Flaminio by D. Junius Brutus Callaicus in 138 B.C. which does not enter into the present discussion. As there are no remains that can be identified with any temple or altar of Mars, the question resolves itself into an interpretation of ancient evidence. So far as I know, no one has hitherto assumed the existence of two cult-centres of Mars in the campus Martius (exclusive of the temple of Callaicus), although Fowler (Roman Festivals, p242) remarks: "Perhaps the position of the latter (the old ara Martis) had changed as the campus came to be built over." As this new theory is important, if true, it may be worth while to review the evidence again, in spite of the strong presumption that Hülsen is right as usual.

For convenience the evidence in the case will be given here, and reference to it will be made by the numbers in parentheses:

(1) Fest. 189 (purporting to be a citation from the leges regiae of Numa: opima spolia: qui cepit aeris CC, secunda spolia in Martis aram in campo solitaurilia utra voluerit caedito.

(2) Liv. XXXV.10.12 (193 B.C.): alteram (porticum) a porta Fontinali ad Martis aram, qua in campum iter esset, perduxerunt.

(3) Liv. XL.45.8 (193 B.C.): comitiis confectis ut traditum antiquitus est, censores in campo ad aram Martis sellis curulibus consederunt.

(4) Dio Cass. LVI.24 (9 A.D.): ὅ τε γὰρ τοῦ Ἄρεως νεὼς ὁ ἐν τῷ πεδίῳ αὐτοῦ ὢν ἐκαυρωνήθη.

(5) Ovid Fast. II.856‑60 (shortly before 8 A.D.):

iamque duae restant noctes de mense secundo

Marsque citos iunctis curribus urget equos:

ex vero positum permansit Equiria nomen

quae deus in campo prospicit ipse suo.

(6) Ibid. iii.519, 520:

altera gramineo spectabis Equiria campo

quem Tiberis curvis in latus urget aquis.

 p66  (7) Fest. 178: October equus appellatur qui in campo Martio mense Octobre immolatur quotannis Marti . . . . eiusdem coda tanta celeritate perfertur in regiam ut ex ea sanguis destillet in focum participandae rei divinae gratia.

(8) Fasti Philocali ad Oct. 15 (CIL I2, p332 [354 A.D.]): equus ad nixas fit.

(9) CIL VI.1785 = 31931 (fourth or fifth century): falancariis qui de Ciconiis ad templum cupas referre consuerunt . . . . professionariis de Ciconiis statim ut adveniret vinum. . . .

(10) Philoxen. gloss. (CGI II.201): trigarium τόπος ὅπου ἵπποι γυμνάζονται.

(11) Notitia, Reg. IX: campum Martium, trigarium, ciconias nixas, pantheum.

(12) CIL VI.31545 (about the middle of the first century): Paullus Fabius Persicus . . . . ripam cippis positis terminaverunt a trigario ad pontem Agrippae.

(13) Consolatio ad Liviam (first century):


armataeque rogum celebrant de more cohortes:

has pedes exequias reddit equesque duci . . . .


ipse pater flavis Tiberinus adhorruit undis,

sustulit et medio nubilus amne caput. . . . .


vix capit adiectas alveus altus aquas.

iamque rogi flammas extinguere fluminis ictu,

corpus et intactum tollere certus erat:

sustentabat aquas cursusque inhibebat equorum,

ut posset toto proluere amne rogum.

sed Mavors templo vicinus et accola campi

haec dixit siccis verba neque ipse genis . . . .

Ancient writers agree that the campus Martius was consecrated to Mars and took its name from that fact. In this campus was an altar of Mars, ara Martis, dating from very early times, the existence of which is vouched for by (1), (2), (3), and (4). In (1) and (4) there is no indication of the part of the campus in which the altar stood; in (2) there is an indication but unfortunately the problem is complicated by the introduction of another unknown quantity, the porta Fontinalis. No explanation of this passage seems probable except that one of the earliest porticus of which we have any record was long enough to reach from the porta Fontinalis to the altar of Mars. Further evidence for a porta Fontinalis is found in Paul. Ep. 45: Fontinalia fontium sacra unde et Romae Fontinalis porta, and in some inscriptions of  p67 the imperial period, but there is nowhere any direct statement that this was a gate in the Servian wall. That is simply taken for granted. It was formerly located on the slope of the Quirinal, near the via Magnanapoli, but recent topographers have followed Hülsen in placing it at the northeast corner of the Capitoline, where the road came through from the Forum into the campus Martius — the road recently discovered by Boni under the foundations of the column of Trajan. The objection to this location is that, now at any rate, there appear to be no springs in the immediate neighborhood, whereas the name seems to have been given to the gate for precisely that characteristic of the locality. Whether the gate was here or a little further to the northeast, is perhaps not of great importance so far as the site of the altar is concerned, provided it was in the Servian wall at all. From Cicero De nat. deor. 3.52, we learn that Cn. Papirius Naso dedicated a temple to Fons in the year 251 B.C. from the booty taken in Corsica. It is easy to connect this with the porta Fontinalis, but, on the other hand, in view of the numerous fontes in Rome, it seems hazardous to press so indefinite a statement into the service of any particular theory. In spite of the ordinary meaning of perduxerunt ad (2), it is perhaps possible that Livy intended to say nothing more definite than that the porticus extended toward the altar without actually reaching it. We must remember that, with the exception of the Saepta and possibly two or three temples whose location is a matter of conjecture, there were probably no buildings northwest of the northeast corner of the Capitoline, between it and the river, at this period (193 B.C.).

The uncertainty of this passage has led a recent writer (Morpurgo, in the Bullettino Comunale, 1906, pp209‑23) to develop the theory that porta Fontinalis was only a popular designation of the porta Capena, due to the fact that in that part of the city the springs were very numerous and celebrated. The campus mentioned was the campus minor of Catullus (55.3), and the ara one erected at the side of this campus nearest to the city walls, and opposite the famous temple of Mars that was built at an early date outside the porta Capena. This explanation, however, is based upon too many assumptions to commend itself as valid.  p68 I think that we cannot escape the conclusion that Livy refers to an altar in the campus Martius.

From (3) it is natural to infer that the curule chairs of the censors were set up near the place where the election had been held. This was the site of the later Saepta, although we have record of the comitia being held elsewhere in the campus Martius, in Aesculeto, or in luco Petelino. As Livy says nothing about this comitia, it was probably held in the usual place, but this must have been quite extensive as the later Saepta was 440 metres long. The ara Martis might have been anywhere between the Capitoline and the Pantheon, and still be near the comitia. The usual location of the ara, therefore, has been near the piazza del Gesù with Hülsen, or directly east of the Pantheon on the north side of the via del Seminario with Lanciani.

We have now the two passages in Ovid to take into account, the first of which (5) refers to the earlier Equiria that occurred on February 27, a festival celebrated by races in the campus Martius, "which the god himself looks out upon in his own field." The natural explanation of this is that the race course was within sight of the temple of the god. (6) states that the second Equiria, on March 14, took place in the campus "against which on one side the Tiber rushes with his winding floods." There are three bends in the Tiber to which these words might apply, that at the piazza Nicosia, that at the pons Neronianus, and that at the Ghetto. The last is excluded for evident reasons, and of the other two it is entirely probable that the first is meant. Ovid says that the field in which the races were held stretched as far as the bend in the river northwest of the Pantheon, that is from the bank of the river to a point so near the shrine of Mars that the god could be said to look forth from it upon the sport. In accordance with this interpretation the Equiria is ordinarily located directly north and northeast of the site of the Pantheon and the thermae Neronianae. If it extended as far south as the present via del Seminario, the distance from it to the supposed site of the porta Fontinalis would be about 550 metres, and about 350 metres to the site assigned by Hülsen to the original altar of Mars. The porticus of 193 B.C. in that case need have been only 200 metres in length.  p69 Hitherto it has been generally assumed that the ara must be located somewhere on this line, and at a point such that the length of the porticus need not have been greater than was reasonable for that period and yet near enough to the Equiria to make Ovid's prospicit intelligible and appropriate.

For his new theory of a second temple of Mars in the campus Martius Hülsen relies principally upon what he regards as evidence in the Consolatio ad Liviam (13). The poet is describing the obsequies of Drusus, whose ashes were placed in the mausoleum of Augustus, as we know from Dio Cassius, and he says that the Tiber in his grief purposed to overflow his banks and extinguish the fire on the pyre of his favorite Drusus, but that Mars appeared and forbade him to carry out the threat. The rogus (217) is undoubtedly the ustrinum of the mausoleum of Augustus, for which we have epigraphical evidence, since it is unlikely that, if the ashes of Drusus were to be placed in the imperial mausoleum, his body would be burned anywhere except in the imperial crematory attached thereto. At any rate it would hardly have been burned at any great distance from it, and just below the site of the mausoleum is the point where the river is most likely to overflow its banks. This according to the poet is what the Tiber proposes to do, but Mars restrains him, Mars vicinus templo et accola campi. This, Hülsen thinks, proves that there was a shrine of Mars near the pyre of Drusus, a long way from the place where he puts the old ara. To this second temple he assigns the references in the two passages from Ovid (5), (6), and finds confirmation for his view in certain other allusions.

In the first place he thinks that in the well-known description of the sacrifice of the October horse (7) we can hardly understand the allusion to the speed with which the tail was borne along, if it had to be carried only the 800 metres from the ara to the Regia, whereas the distance from the assumed site of the second temple was twice that, and enough to make the reference intelligible. A swift runner, however, undoubtedly provided for the purpose, could easily run the longer distance in not more than six minutes, and with any care in the holding of the tail, no more blood need be lost in six minutes than in three. But as a matter of fact, I do  p70 not see how this passage can be cited as evidence for a second temple, for this sacrifice was one of the very oldest in Rome, dating back to a very early period when it is wholly improbable that there was a second shrine of Mars to dispute the supremacy with the original altar. The whole rite and its description are primitive, and belong to a time when there could have been only one altar of the god in the campus.

There is, however, another reference (8) to this sacrifice, that Hülsen also introduces as evidence for his view. In the calendar of Philocalus (354 A.D.) we find this entry under October 15: eques ad nixas fit — evidently an allusion to the old sacrifice of the October horse which seems to have been preserved through the long struggle with Christianity, or else to have been revived in the fourth century. The only nixae known to us is the Ciconiae nixae, a term used to designate a certain district of the city, probably an open square, in which there was a statue, or perhaps a relief on one of the surrounding buildings, of two or more storks with crossed bills. It occurs in the Notitia in this series: campum Martium, trigarium, ciconiae nixas, pantheum. In his enumeration of the buildings of the ninth region, the cataloguer is passing from those of the circus Flaminius northward through the Stadium of Domitian, where he turns northeast and proceeds to mention the campus Martius (a name applied at that date to that part of the whole campus which lay between the Trigarium and the ara Pacis), the Trigarium, the Ciconiae nixae, and the Pantheon. As the Pantheon is south of the campus Martius, so far as any indication from the Notitia goes, the Ciconiae nixae might lie to the north of the district marked on our maps as the campus Equiriorum, or at its southeastern end near the Pantheon. What its presence in the Notitia does show is that it was an important district, naturally to be mentioned next after the Trigarium, whether it lay to the south or north of the latter. We have, however, an inscription (9) of the fourth or fifth century, found near S. Silvestro and supposed to refer to the great temple of the Sun, of which the biographer of Aurelian says (Vit. Aur., 48): in porticibus templi Solis fiscalia vina ponuntur. Without going into the disputed question of the site of this temple, it  p71 seems clear that wines imported into Rome were brought to a storehouse in its portico from the Ciconiae, which appears to be the same as the Ciconiae nixae of the Notitia and the ad nixas of the calendar. Now if these wines were brought from any place near the Trigarium, after being imported, that place was probably on the bank of the river, and we cannot be far astray in accepting the usual location, near the piazza Nicosia.

The Trigarium is explained by a gloss in Philoxenus (10), and a terminal cippus (12) of the first century clearly implies that this open space was on the bank of the river. From its use, and from its position in the catalogue of the Notitia, it must have been near the campus Equiriorum. This is consistent with the identification of the Ciconiae nixae and the piazza Nicosia. Relying then on the notice in the calendar that the sacrifice of the October horse took place here, Hülsen maintains that this indicates that the old rite had survived all attempts of the Christians to suppress it, and that there must have been a temple or altar of Mars close by. It seems to me, however, that another explanation is the more natural. If the old altar had survived until the fourth century, it would undoubtedly have been described as taking place ad aram Martis. If there had been another temple of Mars near the Ciconiae nixae, the calendar would surely have spoken of the sacrifice as taking place at or near that temple. There would have been no reason for locating it ad nixas is there had been any shrine of the god himself near by, where the rite actually took place. The omission of any such reference seems to me direct evidence against Hülsen's view.

Returning to the Consolatio ad Liviam (13), Hülsen, as has been remarked, interprets the interference of Mars templo vicinus et accola campi as direct and conclusive evidence that there was a temple of the god close to the funeral pyre. I think, on the other hand, that the reason for the interference of Mars is to be found in his relation to Rome itself, to the whole campus Martius, and to the house of Augustus. There would be little propriety in singling out Mars simply because his temple happened to be the nearest at hand, and if that were not the reason, it would make  p72 little difference how far away his shrine stood, provided it was near enough to justify the words vicinus templo et accola campi. This might properly be said of a shrine standing anywhere in a very considerable part of the campus. There were a number of shrines in the campus Martius, north of the circus Flaminius, in the first century — the date to which the composition of the Consolatio is to be assigned — dedicated to Neptune, Vulcan, Fortuna, Juno, Jupiter Stator, Juturna, Minerva, and Isis and Serapis. To none of these gods could any such interest in the funeral of Drusus be assigned as to Mars. This line, therefore, need not be interpreted as applying only to a temple ad nixas, and none of the evidence thus far adduced for the existence of such a temple is conclusive.

There is another point, however, which no one seems to have noticed. When the Fasti (5), (6) were written, at the beginning of the first century, there were between Hülsen's site of the old ara Martis and the Equiria the thermae and Pantheon of Agrippa, the temple of Minerva Chalcidica, the first temple of Isis and Serapis, and the great Saepta Iulia, as well as the porticus Argonautarum and the basilica of Neptune. Now these structures completely surrounded the assumed site of the ara, and a glance at the map will convince anyone of the impropriety of Ovid's point, provided any definite topographical sense is to be assigned to the word at all. It is not the distance between this site and the Equiria that is the objection, but the fact that the former was quite cut off at this time from the latter. I believe that Ovid does give prospicere a distinct local meaning in this passage, as is his custom elsewhere in the Fasti in similar expressions (cf. vi.209), and, if this be true, we have but two alternatives, either to place the original and only altar of Mars at the southern end of the campus Equiriorum, east of the Pantheon, and north of the temple of Minerva Chalcidica, and not at the piazza del Gesù, or else with Hülsen to assume the existence of a second shrine as early as the time of Ovid. This latter hypothesis carries with it the further assumption that when the poet spoke in this way of Mars, people in general would apply his words to this second  p73 shrine and not to the famous old altar, consecrated by antiquity — certainly an improbable assumption. Now if my objections to the validity of Hülsen's arguments for the existence of a second shrine are well taken, there can be no objection raised against locating the ara near the Pantheon unless such an objection can be found in the passage from Livy (2). If we admit that the porta Fontinalis was probably in the Servian wall at the northeast corner of the Capitoline, and locate the ara near the Pantheon, the porticus must have been about 500 metres long to satisfy the meaning of (2). This is not an excessive length, when we compare the length of the porticus of the empire. Moreover, the early porticus were probably not at all elaborate, hardly more than covered walks, and it does not seem hazardous to assume that this particular porticus was long enough to afford shelter to pedestrians most of the way from the gate to the altar.

My conclusion is that on the whole there is as yet no sufficient evidence for assuming the existence of a second shrine of Mars in the campus Martius (always excepting that of Callaicus), and that the early area probably stood just east of the Pantheon.

Western Reserve University

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