Story of Rome - Arthur Gilman

The Roman Republicans Serious and Gay

It is easier to think of the old Roman republicans as serious than gay, when we remember that they considered that their very commonwealth was established upon the will of the gods, and that no acts—at least no public acts—could properly be performed without consulting those spiritual beings, which their imagination pictured as presiding over the hearth, the farm, the forum—as swarming throughout every department of nature. The first stone was not laid at the foundation of the city until Romulus and Remus had gazed up into the heavens, so mysterious and so beautiful, and had obtained, as they thought, some indication of the fittest place where they might dig and build. The she-wolf that nurtured the twins was elevated into a divinity with the name Lupa, or Luperca (lupus, a wolf), and was made the wife of a god who was called Lupercus, and worshipped as the protector of sheep against their enemies, and as the god of fertility. On the fifteenth of February, when in that warm clime spring was beginning to open the buds, the shepherds celebrated a feast in honor of Lupercus. Its ceremonies, in some part symbolic of purification, were rude and almost savage, proving that they originated in remote antiquity, but they continued at least down to the end of the period we have considered, and the powerful Marc Antony did not disdain to clothe himself in a wolfskin and run almost naked through the crowded streets of the capital the month before his friend Julius Caesar was murdered. It was a fitting festival for the month of which the name was derived from that of the god of purification (februare, to purify).

It was at the foot of a fig-tree that Romulus and Remus were fabled to have been found by Faustulus, and that tree was always looked upon with special veneration, though whenever the Roman walked through the woods he felt that he was surrounded by the world of gods, and that such a leafy shade was a proper place to consecrate as a temple. A temple was not an edifice in those simple days, but merely a place separated and set apart to religious uses by a solemn act of dedication. When the augur moved his wand aloft and designated the portion of the heavens in which he was to make his observations, he called the circumscribed area of the ethereal blue a temple, and when the mediaeval astrologer did the same, he named the space a "house." On the Roman temple an altar was set up, and there, perhaps beneath the spreading branches of a royal oak, sacred to Jupiter, the king of the gods, or of an olive, sacred to Minerva, the maiden goddess, impersonation of ideas, who shared with him and his queen the highest place among the Capitoline deities, prayers and praises and sacrifices were offered.

When the year opened, the Roman celebrated the fact by solemnizing in its first month, March, the festivity of the father of the Roman people by Rhea Silvia, the god who stood next to Jupiter; who, as Mars Silvanus, watched over the fields and the cattle, and, as Mars Gradivus (marching), delighted in bloody war, and was a fitting divinity to be appealed to by Romulus as he laid the foundation of the city. As spring progressed, sacrifices were offered to Tellus, the nourishing earth; to Ceres, the Greek goddess Demeter, introduced from Sicily B.C. 496, to avert a famine, whose character did not, however, differ much from that of Tellus; and to Pales, a god of the flocks. At the same inspiring season another feast was observed in honor of the vines and vats, when the wine of the previous season was opened and tasted.

In like manner after the harvest, there were festivals in honor of Ops, goddess of plenty, wife of that old king of the golden age, Saturnus, introducer of social order and god of sowing, source of wealth and plenty. The festival of Saturnus himself occurred on December 17th, and was a barbarous and joyous harvest-home, a time of absolute relaxation and unrestrained merriment, when distinctions of rank were forgotten, and crowds thronged the streets crying, Io Saturnalia! even slaves wearing the pileus or skullcap, emblem of liberty, and all throwing off the dignified toga for the easy and comfortable synthesis, perhaps a sort of tunic.

Other festivals were devoted to Vulcanus, god of fire, without whose help the handicraftsmen thought they could not carry on their work; and Neptunus, god of the ocean and the sea, to whom sailors addressed their prayers, and to whom commanders going out with fleets offered oblations. Family life was not likely to be forgotten by a people among whom the father was the first priest, and accordingly we find that every house was in a certain sense a temple of Vesta, the goddess of the fireside, and that as of old time the family assembled in the atrium around the hearth, to partake of their common meal, the renewal of the family bond of union was in later days accompanied with acts of worship of Vesta, whose actual temple was only an enlargement of the fireside, uniting all the citizens of the state into a single large family. In her shrine there was no statue, but her presence was represented by the eternal fire burning upon her hearth, a fire that Aeneas was fabled to have brought with him from old Troy. The purifying flames stood for the unsullied character of the goddess, which was also betokened by the immaculate maidens who kept alive the sacred coals. As Vesta was remembered at every meal, so also the Lares and Penates, divinities of the fireside, were worshipped, for there was a purification at the beginning of the repast and a libation poured upon the table or the hearth in their honor at its close. When one went abroad he prayed to the Penates for a safe return, and when he came back, he hung his armor and his staff beside their images, and gave them thanks. In every sorrow and in every joy the indefinite divinities that went under these names were called upon for sympathy or help.

In the month of June the mothers celebrated a feast called Matralia, to impress upon themselves their duties towards children; and at another they brought to mind the good deeds of the Sabine women in keeping their husbands and fathers from war. This was the Matronalia, and the epigrammatist Martial, who lived during the first century of our era, called it the Women's Saturnalia, on account of its permitted relaxation of manners. At that time husbands gave presents to their wives, lovers to their sweethearts, and mistresses feasted their maids.

The Lemuria was a family service that the father celebrated on the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth of May, when the ghosts of the departed were propitiated. It was thought that these spirits were wont to return to the scenes of their earthly lives to injure those who were still wrestling with the severe realities of time, and specially did they come up during the darkness of night. Therefore it was that at midnight the father rose and went forth with cabalistic signs, skilfully adapted to keep the spectres at a distance. After thrice washing his hands in pure spring water, he turned around and took certain black beans into his mouth, and then threw them behind him for the ghosts to pick up. The goodman then uttered other mystic expressions without risking any looks towards the supposed sprites, after which he washed his hands, and beat some brazen basins, and nine times cried aloud: "Begone, ye spectres of the house!" Then could he look around, for the ghosts were harmless.

Thus the Roman forefathers worshipped personal gods, but they did not, in the early times, follow the example of the imaginative Greeks, and represent them, as possessing passions like themselves, nor did they erect them into families and write out their lines of descent, or create a mythology filled with stories of their acts good and bad. The gods were spiritual beings, but the religion was not a spiritual life, nor did it have much connection with morality. It was mainly based on the enjoyment of earthly pleasures. If the ceremonious duties were done, the demands of Roman religion were satisfied. It was a hard and narrow faith, but it seemed to tend towards bringing earthly guilt and punishment into relation with its divinities, and it contained the idea of substitution, as is clearly seen in the stories of Curtius, Decius Mus, and others.

As time passed on the rites and ceremonies increased in number and intricacy, and it became necessary to have special orders to attend to their observance, for the fathers of the families were not able to give their attention to the matter sufficiently. Thus the colleges of priests naturally grew up to care for the national religion, the most ancient of them bearing reference to Mars the killing god. They were the augurs and the pontifices, and as the religion grew more and more formal and the priests less and less earnest, the observances fell into dull and insipid performances, in which no one was interested, and in time public service became not only tedious, but costly, penny collections made from house to house being among the least onerous expedients resorted to for the support of the new grafts on the tree of devotion.

As early as the time of the first Punic war, a consul was bold enough to jest at the auspices in public. Superstitions and impostures flourished, the astrology of ancient Chaldea spread, the Oriental ceremonies were introduced with the pomps that accompanied the reception of the unformed boulder which the special embassy brought from Pessinus when the weary war with Hannibal had rendered any source of hope, even the most futile, inspiring. Then the abominable worship of Bacchus came in, and thousands were corrupted and made vicious throughout Italy before the authorities were able to put a stop to the midnight orgies and the crimes that daylight exposed.

Cato the elder, who would have nothing to do with consulting Chaldeans or magicians of any sort, asked how it were possible for two such ministers to meet each other face to face without laughing at their own duplicity and the ridiculous superstition of the people they deceived. Cato was very much shocked by the preaching of three Greek philosophers: Diogenes, a stoic; Critolaus, a peripatetic; and Carneades, an academic, who visited Rome on a political mission, B.C. 155; because it seemed to him that they, especially the last, preached a doctrine that confounded justice and injustice, a system of expediency, and he urged successfully that they should have a polite permission to depart with all speed. The philosophers were dismissed, but it was impossible to restrain the Roman youth who had listened to the addresses of the strangers with an avidity all the greater because their utterances had been found scandalous, and they went to Athens, or Rhodes, to hear more of the same doctrine.

Thus in time the simplicity of the people was completely undermined, and while they became more cosmopolitan they also grew more lax. They used the Greek language, and employed Greek writers, as we have seen, to make their books for them, which, though bearing Greek titles, were composed in Latin. The public men performed in the forenoon their civil and religious acts; took their siestas in the middle of the day; exercised in the Campus Martius, swimming, wrestling, and fencing, in the afternoon; enjoyed the delicacies of the table later, listening to singing and buffoonery the while, and were thus prepared to seek their beds when the sun went down. At the bath, which came to be the polite resort of pleasure-seekers, all was holiday; the toga and the foot-coverings were exchanged for a light Greek dressing-gown, and the time was whiled away in gossip, idle talk, lounging, many dippings into the flowing waters, and music. Pleasure became the business of life, and morality was relaxed to a frightful extent.

When we consider the gay moods of the Roman people we turn probably first to childhood, and try to imagine how the little ones amused themselves. We find that the girls had their dolls, some of which have been dug out of ruins of the ancient buildings, and that the boys played games similar to those that still hold dominion over the young English or American school-boy at play. In their quieter moods they played with huckle-bones taken from sheep, goats, or antelopes, or imitated in stone, metal, ivory, or glass. From the earliest days these were used chiefly by women and children, who used five at a time, which they threw into the air and then tried to catch on the back of the hand, their irregular form making the success the result of considerable skill. The bones were also made to contribute to a variety of amusements requiring agility and accuracy; but after a while the element of chance was introduced. The sides were marked with different values, and the victor was he who threw the highest value, fourteen, the numbers cast being each different from the rest. This throw obtained at a symposium or drinking party caused a person to be appointed king of the feast.

One of the oldest games of the world is that called by the Romans little marauders (latrunculi), because it was played like draughts or checkers, there being two sets of "men," white and red, representing opposed soldiers, and the aim of each player being to gain advantage over the other, as soldiers do in a combat. This game is as old as Homer, and is represented in Egyptian tombs, which are of much greater antiquity than any Grecian monuments. In this game, too, skill was all that was needed at first, but in time spice was given by the addition of chance, and dice (tessera, a die) were used as in backgammon; but gambling was deemed disreputable, and was forbidden during the republic, except at the time of the Saturnalia, though both Greeks and Romans permitted aged men to amuse themselves in that way.

The games of the Romans range from the innocent tossing of huckle-bones to the frightful scenes of the gladiatorial show. Some were celebrated in the open air, and others within the enclosures of the circus or the amphitheatre. Some were gay, festive, and abandoned, and others were serious and tragic. Some were said to have been instituted in the earliest days by Romulus, Servius Tullius, or Tarquinius Priscus, and others were imported from abroad or grew up naturally as the nation progressed in experience or in acquaintance with foreign peoples. The great increase of games and festivals and their enormous cost were signs of approaching trouble for the republic, and foretold the terrible days of the empire, when the rabblement of the capital, accustomed to be amused and fed by their despotic and corrupt rulers, should cry in the streets: "Give us bread for nothing and games forever!" It was gradually educating the populace to think of nothing but enjoyment and to abhor honest labor, and we can imagine the corruption that must have been brought into politics when honors were so expensive that a respectable gladiatorical show cost more than thirty-five thousand dollars (£7,200). If money for such purposes could not be obtained by honest means, the nobles, who lived on popular applause, would seek to force it from poor citizens of the colonies or win it by intrigue at home.

There were impressive games celebrated from the fourth to the twelfth of September, called the great games of the Roman Circus, but it is a disputed point what divinities they were in honor of. Jupiter was thought surely to be one, and Census another, by those who believed the legends asserting that they were a continuation of those established by Romulus when he wished to get wives from the Sabines. Others think that Tarquinius Priscus, after a victory over the Latins, commemorated his success by games in a valley between the Aventine and the Palatine hills, where the spectators stood about to look on, or occupied stages that they erected for their separate use. The racers went around in a circuit, and it is perhaps on this account that the course and its scaffolds was called the circus (circum, round about). The course was long, and about it the seats of the spectators were in after times arranged in tiers. A division, called the spina (spine), was built through the central enclosure, separated the horses running in one direction from those going in the other.

A variety of different games were celebrated in the circus. The races may be mentioned first. Sometimes two chariots, drawn by two horses or four each (the biga or the quadriga), entered for the trial of speed. Each had two horsemen, one of whom, standing in the car with the reins behind his back to enable him to throw his entire weight on them, drove, while the other urged the beasts forward, cleared the way, or assisted in managing the reins. Before the race lists of the horses were handed about and bets made on them, the utmost enthusiasm being excited, and the factions sometimes even coming to blows and blood. The time having arrived, the horses were brought from stalls at the end of the course, and ranged in line, a trumpet sounded, or a handkerchief was dropped, and the drivers and animals put forth every exertion to win the prize. Seven times they whirled around the course, the applause of the excited spectators constantly sounding in their ears. Now and then a biga would be overturned, or a driver, unable to control his fiery steeds, would be thrown to the ground, and, not quick enough to cut the reins that encircled him with the bill-hook that he carried for the purpose, would be dragged to his death. Such an accident would not stop the onrushing of the other competitors, and at last the victor would step from his car, mount the spina, and receive the sum of money that had been offered as the prize.

[Illustration] from The Story of Rome by Arthur Gilman


Another game was the Play of Troy, fabled to have been invented by Aeneas, in which young men of rank on horses performed a sham fight. On another occasion the circus would be turned into a camp, and equestrians and infantry would give a realistic exhibition of battle. Again, there would be athletic games, running, boxing, wrestling, throwing the discus or the spear, and other exercises testing the entire physical system with much thoroughness. One day the amphitheatre would be filled with huge trees, and savage animals would be brought to be hunted down by criminals, captives, or men especially trained for the desperate work, who made it their profession.

For the purposes of these combats the circus was found not to be the best, and the amphitheatre was invented by Curio for the celebration of his father's funeral games. It differed from a theatre in permitting the audience to see on both sides (Greek amphi, both), but the distinctive name was first applied to a structure built by Caesar, B.C. 46. The Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum, of which the ruins now stand in Rome, was the culmination of this sort of building, and affords a good idea of the general arrangement of those that were not so grand. That of Caesar was, however, of wood, which material was used in constructing theatres also; the first one of stone was not erected until 30 B.C., when Augustus was consul.

Variety was given to the exhibitions of the amphitheatre by introducing sufficient water to float ships, and by causing the same wretched class that fought the wild beasts to represent two rival nations, and to fight until one party was actually killed, unless preserved by the clemency of the ruler.

It must not be supposed that all these exhibitions were known in early times, for, in reality, they were mostly the fruit of the increased love of pleasure that characterized the close of the period of the republic, and reached their greatest extravagance only under the emperors.

The departure of a Roman from this world was considered an event of great importance, and was attended by peculiar ceremonies, some of which have been imitated in later times. At the solemn moment the nearest relative present tried to catch in his mouth the last expiring breath, and as soon as life had passed away, he called out the name of the departed and exclaimed "Vale!" (farewell). The ring had been previously taken from the finger, and now the body was washed and anointed by undertakers, who had been called from a place near the temple of Venus Libitina, where the names of all who died were registered, and where articles needed for funerals were hired and sold.

A small coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased to pay Charon the ferryman who was to take it across the rivers of the lower world, the body was laid out in the vestibule, with its feet toward the door, wearing the simple toga, in the case of an ordinary citizen, or the toga praetexta in case of a magistrate, and flowers and leaves were used for decorations as they are at present. If the deceased had received a crown for any act of heroism in life, it was placed upon his head at death. We have already seen that cypress was put at the door to express to the passer-by the bereavement of the dwellers in the house. If the person had been of importance, the funeral was public, and probably it would be found that he had left money for the purpose; but if he had omitted to do that, the expenses of burial would devolve on those who were to inherit his property. These charges in case of a poor person would be but slight, the funeral being celebrated; as in the olden times of the republic, at night and in a very modest style.

The master of the funeral, as he was called, attended by lictors dressed in black, directed the ceremonies in the case of a person of importance. On the eighth day the body would be taken to its cremation or burial, accompanied by persons wearing masks, representing the ancestors of the deceased and dressed in the official costumes that had been theirs, while before it would be borne the military and civic rewards that the deceased had won.

Musicians playing doleful strains headed the procession, followed by hired mourners who united lamentations with songs in praise of the virtue of the departed. Players, buffoons, and liberated slaves followed, and of the actors one represented the deceased, imitating his words and actions. The couch on which the body rested as it was carried was often of ivory adorned with gold, and was borne by the near relatives or freedmen, though Julius Caesar was carried by magistrates and Augustus by senators.

Behind the body the relatives walked in mourning, which was black or dark blue, the sons having their heads veiled, and the daughters wearing their hair dishevelled, and both uttering loud lamentations, the women frantically tearing their cheeks and beating their breasts. As the procession passed through the forum it stopped, and an oration was delivered celebrating the praises of the deceased, after which it went on through the city to some place beyond the walls where the body was burned or buried. We have seen that burial was the early mode of disposing of the dead, and that Sulla was the first of his gens to be burned. In case of burning, the body was placed on a square, altar-like pile of wood, still resting on the couch, and the nearest relative, with averted face, applied the torch. As the flames rose, perfumes, oil, articles of apparel, and dishes of food were cast into them. Sometimes animals, captives, or slaves were slaughtered on the occasion, and, as we have seen, gladiators were hired to fight around the flaming pile.

When the fire had accomplished its work, and the whole was burned down, wine was thrown over the ashes to extinguish the expiring embers, and the remains were sympathetically gathered up and placed in an urn of marble or less costly material. A priest then sprinkled the ashes with pure water, using a branch of olive or laurel, the urn was placed in a niche of the family tomb, and the mourning relatives and friends withdrew, saying as they went Vale, vale! When they reached their homes they underwent a process of purification, the houses themselves were swept with a broom of prescribed pattern, and for nine days the mourning exercises, which included a funeral feast, were continued. In the case of a great man this feast was a public banquet, and gladiatorial shows and games were added in some instances, and they were also repeated on anniversaries of the funeral.

[Illustration] from The Story of Rome by Arthur Gilman


The public buried the illustrious citizens of the nation, and those whose estates were too poor to pay such expenses; the former being for a long time laid away in the Campus Martius, until the site became unhealthy, when it was given to Maecenas, who built a costly house on it. The rich often erected expensive vaults and tombs during their own lives, and some of the streets for a long distance from the city gate were bordered with ornamental but funereal structures, which must have made the traveller feel that he was passing through unending burial-places. If a tomb was fitted up to contain many funeral ash-urns, it was known as a columbarium, or dove-cote (columba, a dove), the ashes of the freedmen and even slaves being placed in niches covered by lids and bearing inscriptions. The Romans ornamented their tombs in a variety of ways, but did not care to represent death in a direct manner. The place of burial of a person, even a slave, was sacred, and one who desecrated it was liable to grave punishment—even to death,— if the bodies or bones were removed. Oblations of flowers, wine, and milk were often brought to the tombs by relatives, and sometimes they were illuminated.

Almost every country lying under a southern sun is accustomed to rejoice at the annual return of flowers, and ancient Rome was not without its May-day. Festivals of the sort are apt to degenerate morally, and that, also, was true of the Floralia, as these feasts were called at Rome. It is said that in the early age of the republic there was found in the Sibylline books a precept commanding the institution of a celebration in honor of the goddess Flora, who presided over flowers and spring-time, in order to obtain protection for the blossoms. The last three days of April and the first two of May were set apart for this purpose, and then, under the direction of the aediles, the people gave themselves up to all the delights and, it must be confessed, to many of the dissipations of the opening spring. The amusements were of a varied character, including scenic and other theatrical shows, great merriment, feasting, and drinking. Dance and song added to the gay pleasures, and flowers adorned the scenes that met the eye on every hand. Probably no particular deity was honored at these festivals at first. They were simply the unbending of the rustics after the cold of winter, the rejoicings natural to man in spring; but finally the personal genius of the flowers was developed and her name given to the gay festival.

The rustic simplicity represented well the primal homeliness of the nation during the heroic ages; the orgies of the crowded city may be put for the growing decay of the later period when, enriched and intoxicated by foreign conquest and maddened by civil war, the republic fell, and the way was made plain for the great material growth of the empire, as well as for the final fall of the vast power that had for so many centuries been invincible among the nations of the earth;—a power which still stands forth in monumental grandeur, and is to-day studied for the lessons it teaches and the warnings its history utters to mankind.