Holidays, Festivals, Triumphs, Time and Calendars in Ancient Rome

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replica of a portable sundial, Roman Egypt AD 4th century

The year one on the Christian calendar was regarded as the year 745 A.U.C (“ab urbe condita” —“from the foundation of the city”) on the Roman calendar. It marked the year that Romulus and Remus founded Rome. Romans initially counted days and the equivalent of weeks and months with Kalends, Nones and Ides.

The Romans developed the idea of the week and gave names to the months. They had an eight-day week which they later changed to seven. By the A.D. third century Romans divided the day into only two parts: before midday “(ante meridiem” A.M.) and after midday (“ post meridiem” P.M.). Someone was in charge of noticing when the sun crossed the meridiem since lawyers were supposed to appear before noon. Later the day was dived into parts: early morning, forenoon, afternoon, and evening and eventually followed a sundial that marked "temporary" hours.

The ancient Greeks had no weeks, nor names for the different days. They followed a 12 month calendar similar to the one used by Babylonians with 29 and 30 day lunar months and a 13th month added on the seventh of thirteen years to ensure that the calendar stayed in sync with the seasons. Each city state added the thirteen month at different times to mark local festivals and suit political needs. A complex system of "intercalculating" was employed to decide on meeting times between citizens of different states and to make arrangements for the pick-up and delivery of goods. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

The term the “dog days” of summer dates back to Roman times when it was observed that during the hottest days of summer the bright star Sirius rose and fell in the constellation Canis Major (the Big Dog).

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Sundials and Waterclocks in Ancient Rome

Although sun dials had been around at least since 1500 B.C. in ancient Egypt they became more sophisticated and common place under the Romans. Roman sundials not only mapped out hours they cut them into halves and quarters. Not everyone was happy about the advancement. The Roman playwright Plautus wrote in the 2nd century B.C.: “The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish the hours. Confound him, who in this place set up a sundial, to cut and hack up my days so wretchedly into small pieces!” Long before they were applied to time, seconds and minutes were used to represent units on a circle or arc. In the Greco-Roman era, Ptolemy used the units, based on the Babylonian base-60 system, on his maps. In the Middle Ages, minutes used on circular clock dials. Seconds as a time measurement were introduced in the late 17th century when clocks accurate enough to tick off seconds were developed.

waterclock from the Agora in Athens
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The place of our clock was taken in the peristylium or garden by the sundial (solarium), such as is often seen nowadays in our parks and gardens; this measured the hours of the day by the shadow of a stick or pin. It was introduced into Rome from Greece in 268 B.C. About a century later the water-clock (clepsydra) was also borrowed from the Greeks. This was more useful because it marked the hours of the night as well as of the day and could be used in the house. It consisted essentially of a vessel filled at a regular time with water, which was allowed to escape from it at a fixed rate, the changing level marking the hours on a scale. As the length of the Roman hours varied with the season of the year and the flow of the water with the temperature, the apparatus was far from accurate. Shakespeare’s reference in Julius Caesar (II, i, 192) to the striking of the clock is an anachronism.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Like their Athenian counterpart, the Roman waterclock was a bowl with a hole near the bottom that measured about 20 minutes. These devised were used in courts and government legal proceedings to limit the speaking time of lawyers, officials and orators. In Rome, the expression "to lose water" meant wasting time and "to grant water" meant to allocate a lawyer more time. Longwinded speakers in the Senate were chided that "their water should be taken away" By the time water clocks were perfected in Europe they were soon replaced by swinging pendulum and spring activated clocks.

Roman Calendar

Originally the Roman year began on March 25 and had 10 months (six 30-day months and four 31-day months) and a 60-day winter stretch that appears to have been ignored. In the 7th century B.C. the second Roman king, Numa Pompilius, added two months, January and February, and they became the beginning of the year. The year was still only 355 days though. A century later a 13th month was added that yielded a year with 366¼ days. By Caesar's time spring and the vernal equinox began in mid May. In 153 B.C., the Senate declared that the year would begin on January 1st but the changes didn't take place until 46 B.C. when Julius Caesar aimed to set the record straight.

Roman calendar
Early calendars had no year 0 because the Romans hadn't devised zero. The year of Christ' birth was designated as 1 A.D. Orthodox Christians continued to observe Easter according to Julian calendar. Other Christians now mark Easter by the Gregorian Calendar.

After spending time with Cleopatra in Alexandria and becoming exposed to the Egyptian calendar, Caesar returned home to Rome in 47 B.C. and adapted the Egyptian calendar to the Roman one. Caesar added 90 days to 46 B.C. which lasted 445 days and became known as the "Year of Confusion."

Julian Calendar

The Julian calendar, established in 46. B.C. by Julius Caesar and worked out by the Alexandrian astronomer Sosgenes, had 12 months, 365 days and one leap day every four years between February 23 and February 24. It was only 11 minutes and 14 seconds out of synch with the actual solar year (one revolution of the earth around the sun). Initially Romans read Caesar's edict for the new system wrong and leap day occurred every third year. Augustus rectified the error in 8 B.C.

The 11 minutes and 14 second error may not seem like much but over hundreds of years it adds up. By Columbus's time, the vernal equinox was occurring on March 11th instead of March 21st and farmers no longer relied on the calendar for planting and harvesting their crops. In 1582 the Julian calendar was updated and replaced by the Gregorian calendar devised by Pope Gregory XIII.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Caesar's solar calendar has become the world standard, but in most traditional societies the phases of the moon formed the basis for tracking the passage of time. The problem with a moon-only calendar, however, is that a period of 12 lunar months contains only about 354 days (an average lunation is 29.5 days), which is 11 days less than the 365 days it takes the earth to revolve around the sun. A lunar calendar thus loses time against the actual seasons at a pace of about 11 days each year. To correct this discrepancy, most lunar calendars incorporate a system for inserting extra months, called leap or intercalary months, at fixed intervals. The mathematics, which were worked out by the fifth century B.C. Greek astronomer Meton, produce a figure of seven extra months every 19 years. The Coligny calendar indicates that the ancient Celts employed a 30-year period, over which a total of 11 intercalary months were inserted. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, October 14, 2010]

Gregorian Calendar

Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) is the pope who gave us the Gregorian calendar that we use today. When he took over the papacy the Julian calendar was 11 days off out of sync with the seasons.

Roman calendar
In 1582, Pope Gregory inaugurated the calendar that would bear his name by ordaining that the day after October 4 was October 15. This aligned the seasons with the calendar but caused an uproar among servants who demanded a full month's wage but were refused it by their employers. The Gregory calendar also started the year on January 1st. To make sure the seasons and dates stayed aligned, leap years were omitted from years marking the beginning of a century. The calendar we follow today is virtually the same as the Gregorian calendar except from time to time top international time keeping bodies add a leap second to ensure that the time kept on earth is aligned with cosmos. ["The Discoveres" by Daniel Boorstien]

As a statement against the power of the Roman church some groups refused to go along with the Gregorian calendar. The eastern Orthodox Church held on to the Julian calendar for its calculations of Eastern Orthodox holidays. Russian didn't stop using the Julian calendar until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. After the French Revolution, around the same time the metric system was established, the French introduced a day with ten hours, an hour made up of 100 minutes with 100 seconds, and a week consisting of ten days. The time keeping system lasted for 13 years until 1805 when Napoleon brought back the old seve-day-week, 24-hour, 60-second minute system. In 1929 the Soviet Union tried to establish a calendar based on five-day-weeks with one-day weekends that were organized into six-week-months, but by 1940 they too returned to the Gregorian calendar. ["The Discoveres" by Daniel Boorstien]

Gregory decreed that lead days would not be added to in centennial years not divisible by 400. By this criteria 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not leap years but 2000 was. This helped to get rid of an 11-minute a year discrepancy that existed between calendar time and real time.

Romans Days and Months

Sunday is named for the sun; Monday is named after the moon; Tuesday is named after the Roman god Mars (the Anglo-Saxon god Tiu); Wednesday is named after the Roman god Mercury (the Anglo-Saxon god Woden); Thursday is named after the Roman god Jupiter (the Anglo-Saxon god Thor); Friday is named after the Roman god Jupiter (the Anglo-Saxon god Frigg); Saturday is named after the Roman god Saturn.

The original Roman 10-month calendar is source of some confusion among the months: September (now the ninth month) literally means "seventh:" October means "eighth;" November means "ninth" and December means "tenth." Why is December now the “twelfth” month not the "tenth." The answer to that is that in Roman time the year began in March. Back then spring was thought to be a good time to start the new year because it suggested renewal and growth. January and February were added in the 7th century B.C. Two months are named after Roman emperors — July after Julius Caesar and August after Augustus. July was originally called Quintilus and August was called Sextilis.

Hours of the Day in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The daylight itself was divided into twelve hours (horae); each was one-twelfth of the time between sunrise and sunset and varied therefore in length with the season of the year. “In the same way the hours may be calculated for any given day, if the length of the day and the hour of sunrise are known, but for all practical purposes the old couplet will serve: The English hour you may fix,/ If to the Latin you add six. When the Latin hour is above six it will be more convenient to subtract than to add. The length of the day and hour at Rome at different times of the year is shown in the following table:

Philippi sundial (reconstruction) from Philippi Greece, AD 250-350

Month and Day: December 23
Length of Day: 8 hours 54 minutes
Length of Hour: 44 minutes' 30 seconds
[Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Month and Day: February 6
Length of Day: 9 hours 50 minutes
Length of Hour: 49 minutes 10 seconds

Month and Day: March 23
Length of Day: 12 hours 00 minutes
Length of Hour: 1 hour 00 minutes 00 seconds

Month and Day: May 9
Length of Day: 14 hours 10 minutes;
Length of Hour: 1 hours 10 minutes 50 seconds

Month and Day: June 25
Length of Day: 15 hours 6 minutes
Length of Hour: 1 hours 15 minutes 30 seconds

Month and Day: August 10
Length of Day: 14 hours 10 minutes
Length of Hour: 1 hours 10 minutes 50 seconds

Month and Day: September 25
Length of Day: 12 hours 00 minutes;
Length of Hour: 1 hour 00 minutes 00 seconds

Month and Day: November 9
Length of Day: 9 hours 50 minutes;
Length of Hour: 49 minutes 10 seconds

Roman Hours in the Summer and Winter

a replica of the clock of Philippoi

Taking the days of June 25 and December 23 as respectively the longest and shortest of the year, the following table gives the conclusion of each hour for summer and winter:
Summer: 4 hours 27 minutes 00 seconds
Winter: 7 hours 33 minutes 00 seconds
[Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

1st Hour
Summer: 5 hours 42 minutes 30 seconds
Winter: 8 hours 17 minutes 30 seconds

2nd Hour
Summer: 6 hours 58 minutes 00 seconds
Winter: 9 hours 2 minutes 00 seconds

3rd Hour
Summer: 8 hours 13 minutes 30 seconds
Winter: 9 hours 46 minutes 30 seconds

4th Hour
Summer: 9 hours 29 minutes 00 seconds
Winter: 10 hours 31 minutes 00 seconds

5th Hour
Summer: 10 hours 44 minutes 30 seconds
Winter: 11 hours 15 minutes 30 seconds

6th Hour
Summer: 12 hours 00 minutes 00 seconds
Winter: 12 hours 00 minutes 00 seconds

7th Hour
Summer: 1 hours 15 minutes 30 seconds
Winter: 12 hours 44 minutes 30 seconds

8th Hour
Summer: 2 hours 31 minutes 00 seconds
Winter: 1 hours 29 minutes 00 seconds

Roman sundial

9th Hour
Summer: 3 hours 46 minutes 30 seconds
Winter: 2 hours 13 minutes 00

10th Hour
Summer: 5 hours 2 minutes 00 seconds
Winter: 2 hours 58 minutes 00 seconds

11th Hour
Summer: 6 hours 17 minutes 30 seconds 3 hours 42 minutes 30 seconds

12th Hour
Summer: 7 hours 33 minutes 00 seconds
Winter: 4 hours 27 minutes 00 seconds

Roman Holidays

December 25 was not selected as the day for Christmas because it was the date of Jesus' birth but rather because that was the time of the riotous Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, which early Christians aimed to get rid of by having it replaced by Christmas. In ancient Rome, people celebrated Saturnalia for the entire week leading up to the solstice. Historical sources indicate that it was the most wild and popular festive period in the year.

April Fool's day is thought to date back to the Roman Empire and may have evolved from a festival honoring the goddess Ceres who foolishly chased echos of her daughter Proserpina while Pluto carried her off from the Elysian meadows.

Lemuria was a holiday in which people scattered beans, displayed their treasured possessions on a special cabinet and ate fish sausage.

Forncalia, or “Feast of the Ovens” was a movable feast held in February that centered around baking small cakes from the ground and roasted seeds of the oldest variety of wheats. During the baking an offering was made to the spirit of the oven. After the cakes were cooked the community gathered to eat them.

Terminalia was the main purification holiday of the year. Held in late February and dedicated to Terminus, the god of boundaries and endings, it featured the sacrifice of a lamb and a young pig and a feast with wine and songs. Property owners decorated the boundary stones between properties with garlands and wreaths. A temporary altar was set up and a fire was kindled using a flame brought from the family hearth. Fruit, honey and cakes was thrown into the fire by girls. During a feast everyone wore white. The original purpose of the holiday seems to have been to avoid disputes by standardizing local boundaries.



The early Romans practiced a purifying ritual called Lupercalia. Priests sacrificed goats and a dog at the Lupercal, the cave where legend says Romolus and Remus were suckled, and their blood was smeared on two youths. Young women were whipped across their shoulders in the belief it bestowed fertility. The rite was performed in mid February at an altar near Lapis Niger, a sacred site paved with black stones near the Roman Forum until A.D. 494 when it was banned by the pope.

According to persweb: “Half of the Roman year was spent in holiday. Two of the most famous Roman holidays are Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Lupercalia came in the spring and was symbolic of the fertility that spring brought forth. A group of young priests, named the Luperci, ran from Lupercal, a cave at the foot of the Palatine, through the streets, back to the Palatine. They were completely naked, except for a goat skin that was left over from a sacrifice earlier that day. As they made their way through the streets of Rome, the Luperci struck topless women on the breasts with strips of goat skin in order to make them fertile. They also purified the ancient site of Lupercal in this interesting festival. Ovid wrote of the Lupercalia, "Neither potent herbs, nor prayers, nor magic spells shall make of thee a mother, submit with patience to the blows dealt by a fruitful hand."


“Saturnalia was the winter celebration to the god Saturn. Saturn was identified with the Greek god Kronos, and he was sacrificed to according to Greek ritual during this festival. The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontifices, was dedicated on the Saturnalia, and the woolen bonds which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue within were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god. [Source: ~~]

The Saturnalia festival lasted seven days and was celebrated for during week leading up to the winter solstice. Historical sources indicate that it was the most wild and popular festive period in the year. Saturnalia was marked by gift giving. This is one reason why people believe that Saturnalia was absorbed into Christmas. The festival also had a day where the slave and master would trade places. The masters would serve their slaves and the slaves would go out into the streets and gamble with dice, a pastime that was illegal during the rest of the year. On the day of the festival, a sacrifice took place at the Temple of Saturn which was followed by a public banquet. As they left the banquet, the citizens are reputed to have shouted "IO, Saturnalia!"” ~

Candida Moss wrote in The Daily Beast: Just like Christmas today, Saturnalia was part religious festival and part opportunity to skip work and drink too much. According to the agricultural writer Columella, it was officially celebrated on December 17, but by the time of Cicero (first century B.C.) it lasted for three or even seven days. It was a raucous affair with people greeting one another with the traditional “Io, Saturnalia.” Catullus called it “the best of days” complete with food, drink, games, gambling, and gift giving. Homes were decorated with evergreen wreaths and berries and, on the final day (December 23), candles and small terracotta figurines (sigallaria) were given as gifts, particularly to children. The noise of the celebrations got so bad that the Roman statesman and writer Pliny had to construct a special writing chamber to block out the din.[Source: Candida Moss, The Daily Beast December 25, 2022]

A religious festival that involves candles, gift-giving, evergreen decor, songs, and food, it all sounds a touch familiar but was Saturnalia the source of Christian revelry? There’s no shortage of memes and videos out there but, once again, the timeline is a bit off. Saturnalia finished by December 23 and while we might be tempted to say “well, close enough” the precise date was enormously important because it said something about the importance of Jesus.

Festivals in Ancient Rome

One way Romans showed their respect and reverence of the gods was through festivals. The festivals which were celebrated in honor of the gods were very numerous and were scattered through the different months of the year. The old Roman calendar contained a long list of these festival days. The new year began with March and was consecrated to Mars and celebrated with war festivals. Other religious festivals were devoted to the sowing of the seed, the gathering of the harvest, and similar events which belonged to the life of an agricultural people such as the early Romans were. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]


Prayers, offerings and sacrifices were key elements of these festivals. The prayers were addressed to the gods for the purpose of obtaining favors, and were often accompanied by vows. The religious offerings consisted either of the fruits of the earth, such as flowers, wine, milk, and honey; or the sacrifices of domestic animals, such as oxen, sheep, and swine. \~\

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Hellas” (c. A.D. 175): “Every year too the people of Patrai celebrate the festival Laphria in honor of their Artemis, and at it they employ a method of sacrifice peculiar to the place. Round the altar in a circle they set up logs of wood still green, each of them sixteen cubits long. On the altar within the circle is placed the driest of their wood. Just before the time of the festival they construct a smooth ascent to the altar, piling earth upon the altar steps. The festival begins with a most splendid procession in honor of Artemis, and the maiden officiating as priestess rides last in the procession upon a car yoked to deer. It is, however, not till the next day that the sacrifice is offered, and the festival is not only a state function but also quite a popular general holiday. For the people throw alive upon the altar edible birds and every kind of victim as well; there are wild boars, deer and gazelles; some bring wolf-cubs or bear-cubs, others the full-grown beasts. They also place upon the altar fruit of cultivated trees. Next they set fire to the wood. At this point I have seen some of the beasts, including a bear, forcing their way outside at the first rush of the flames, some of them actually escaping by their strength. But those who threw them in drag them back again to the pyre. It is not remembered that anybody has ever been wounded by the beasts.” [Source: Pausanias, Pausanias' Description of Greece, translated by A. R. Shilleto, (London: G. Bell, 1900)]


Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “The ludi were public games that were normally held in conjunction with religious festivals, though there were occasional events which were secular in nature. Many of them were annual events, especially the religious ones, and the most famous was the Ludi Romani, which honored Jupiter and was held each September. (It’s the oldest of the ludi and was the only one held in Rome for 300 years after it first began.) [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]

“Ludi normally consisted of chariot races, as well as animal hunts. Later editions incorporated gladiatorial combat and there were even special ludi, which were strictly theatrical performances. The ludi with the largest gap in celebration was probably the Ludi Saeculares, or Secular Games. Held in honor of a saeculum, or the longest estimated human lifespan, the Ludi Saeculares were held once every 110 years. (Historian Zosimus actually blames the fall of the Roman Empire on the Romans neglecting to honor this ancient festival.)”

Festival Entertainment in Roman-Era Greece

Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (c. A.D. 20): “A festival is celebrated every year at Acharaca; and at that time in particular those who celebrate the festival can see and hear concerning all these things; and at the festival, too, about noon, the boys and young men of the gymnasion, nude and anointed with oil, take out a bull and with haste run before him into the cave; and, when they arrive at the cave, the bull goes forward a short distance, falls, and breathes out his life. [Source: Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, translated by H. C. Hamilton, & W. Falconer, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857)

The Roman-era Greek orator Dio Chrysostom wrote (A.D. 110): “Some people attend the festival of the god out of curiousity, some for shows and contests, and many bring goods of all sorts for sale, the market folk, that is, some of whom display their crafts and manufactures while others make a show of some special learning — many, of works of tragedy or poetry, many, of prose works. Some draw worshipers from remote regions for religion's sake alone, as does the festival of Artemis at Ephesos, venerated not only in her home-city, but by Hellenes and barbarians.

Clementis Recognitiones wrote (c. A.D. 220): “Most men abandon themselves at festival time and holy days, and arrange for drinking and parties, and give themselves up wholly to pipes and flutes and different kinds of music and in every respect abandon themselves to drunkenness and indulgence.”

Bacchanalian scene

Wild Dionysus Festivals

The Dionysus (Bacchus) Cult was very much alive in the Roman Empire as it was in ancient Greece. To pay their respect to Dionysus, according to ancient sources, the citizens of Athens and other places, held a winter-time festival in which a large phallus was erected and displayed. After competitions were held to see who could empty their jug of wine the quickest, a procession from the sea to the city was held with flute players, garland bearers and honored citizens dressed as satyrs and maenads (nymphs), which were often paired together. At the end of the procession a bull was sacrificed symbolizing the fertility god's marriage to the queen of the city. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,"]

The word “maenad” is derived from the same root that gave us the words “manic” and “madness”. Maenads were subjects of numerous vase paintings. Like Dionysus himself they often depicted with a crown of ivy and fawn skins draped over one shoulder. To express the speed and wildness of their movement the figures in the vase images had flying tresses and cocked back head. Their limbs were often in awkward positions, suggesting drunkenness.

The main purveyors of the Dionysus fertility cult "These drunken devotees of Dionysus," wrote Boorstin, "filled with their god, felt no pain or fatigue, for they possessed the powers of the god himself. And they enjoyed one another to the rhythm of drum and pipe. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart some little animal that they had nourished at their breast. Then, as Euripides observed, they would enjoy 'the banquet of raw flesh.' On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn'"μ

One time the maenads got so involved in what they were doing they had to be rescued from a snow storm in which they were found dancing in clothes frozen solid. On another occasion a government official that forbade the worship of Dionysus was bewitched into dressing up like a maenad and enticed into one of their orgies. When the maenads discovered him, he was torn to pieces until only a severed head remained."

It is not totally clear whether the maenad dances were based purely on mythology and were acted out by festival goers or whether there were really episodes of mass hysteria, triggered perhaps by disease and pent up frustration by women living in a male'dominate society. On at least one occasion these dances were banned and an effort was made to chancel the energy into something else such as poetry reading contests.

Bacchanal by Nicolas Poussin

Roman-Era Dionysus Festivals

Lucian De Salt wrote (c. A.D. 160): “The Bacchic dance is taken especially seriously in Ionia and Pontus, although it belongs to Satyric drama, and has so taken hold of people there that, in the festival time, they put aside everything else and sit the day through, watching corybants, satyrs, and shepherds; and people of the best lineage and foremost in every city dance, not in the least embarrassed but proud of it

Each town or region celebrates the festivals of the gods with its own rites; thus, to Egyptian deities generally by lament, to the Hellenic for the most part by choruses, but to the non-Hellenic by the clangor of cymbalists, drummers, and flutists....At Delos not even the sacrifices are offered without dancing. Boy choruses assembled and, to the pipe and kithara, some moved about, singing, while the best performed a dance in accompaniment; and hymns written for such choirs are called dances-for-accompaniment."

In a letter to Aureleus Theon, expressing the business side of the festival, Aurelius Asclepiades wrote (c. A.D. 295): “I desire to hire from you Tisaïs, the dancing girl, and another, to dance for us at our festival of Bacchias, for fifteen days from the 13th Phaophi by the old calendar. You shall receive as pay 36 drachmai a day, and for the whole period 3 artabai of wheat, and 15 loaves; also, three donkeys to fetch them and take them back.”

Roman Triumphs

Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “In ancient Rome, a triumph was an extraordinarily special ritual, a parade saved for a victorious general, and the highest honor that could be bestowed on a military man. (Although, the rite was abused in the later years of the Republic, with the aristocracy vying to outdo each other.) Various requirements, including a kill count, were set and the entire thing had to be approved, as well as paid for, by the Senate. When the Republic fell, all triumphs went to the Emperor, as he was seen as the commander-in-chief and all military honors went to him. [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]

“Basically, a long parade took place in Rome. Members of the Senate, musicians, sacrificial animals, and prisoners walked in front of the general, who had a gold crown held over his head by a slave. Bringing up the rear were his fellow soldiers, who traditionally sang songs poking fun at their commander; this was believed to ward off the evil eye. It culminated in the sacrifice of animals at the Temple of Jupiter, as well as the killing of the prisoners of war.

In a review of “The Roman Triumph” by Mary Beard, Greg Wolff wrote in The Guardian, “A great procession sets off from the Field of Mars, the grassy meadow around which the Tiber makes a great arc. Rome's citizen army, returned from yet another victorious campaign, parades through the streets of the city. The soldiers follow an ancient route flanked by temples dedicated after previous victories, through the great circus, on into the forum until, to catcalls and fanfares, and leading barbarian kings and great piles of booty, they escort their general up to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. Impassively he stands in his chariot, a wreath held over his head, and behind him a slave whispers, again and again, "Remember you are mortal." Easy to forget, since he wears the clothes of a god. [Source: Greg Woolf, The Guardian, December 22, 2007,  Greg Woolf is professor of ancient history at the University of St Andrews ==]

"Or not ... for almost every detail of this picture - familiar as it is from sword-and-sandal epics and Asterix books - is, according to Mary Beard, up for grabs. Yes, the triumph was a vivid and central part of Roman culture. In fact, she argues, it was in some ways more central than we have ever realised. Triumphal imagery and triumphal language bled into the Roman games and seeped into the ceremonies that marked the election of a consul or the arrival (or through deification, the departure) of a new emperor. Triumph was inscribed into the architecture of arches, theatres and temples, and also sarcophaguses and tombs. It penetrated epic and erotic poetry and comic drama too. But almost every detail of this great ceremony is maddeningly difficult to seize upon. Everything on which we were agreed turns out to be just that little bit more difficult to demonstrate than anyone ever imagined.==

Triumphus Pacis

"Beard has in her sights three processions. The first is that long historical sequence of actual celebrations. The second is a series of rich and extravagant accounts of triumphs, what she calls "rituals in ink" although they include a mass of images too, such as the Arch of Titus. Third, there is a long procession of classical scholars, who follow Beard's chariot with placards hung around their necks detailing their wild conjectures, hypotheses and claims about what the triumph "really meant". ==

"It would be convenient if each could be examined separately, but the processions keep colliding in the winding, narrow streets of Roman cultural history. The actual triumphs are known to us only through the representations, and these are difficult to disentangle from the dense foliage of scholarly exegesis. Beard prunes ferociously. The evidence for the triumphal route is alarmingly inconsistent. The slave in the chariot whispering to the general is a modern composite, compiled of late testimony, no one piece of which tells exactly this story. The clothes borrowed from the god, the chariot itself are insecure. So is much more. ==

"Once the factoids are swept away we are left with modern attempts to create some sort of general rule-book for triumphs. How many enemies did you need to kill? What sort of general could celebrate? Who decided? Ancient writers made many claims, but their generalisations stand up no better than those of the moderns. It does not help that when a Polybius or a Livy or a Josephus sets out to describe a particular triumph, he focused on what was remarkable, extraordinary, controversial and bizarre. And who was to say what was "normal" and what excessive? ==

"Our witnesses concentrated on the most spectacular stagings of the triumph. Some of the most entertaining parts of Beard's boisterous demolition invite us to imagine the second and third-rate triumphs, the lines of not many captives, the displays of hardly any booty, the rather petty squabbles over spoils between generals and the soldiers on whom they depended for their cast of thousands on the big day. Grander theories fall even flatter. Was the triumph some collective rite of passage from war to peace? Was the general a sort of temporary god? Was this an ancient trace of Etruscan kingship? No, not really, probably not. Too much has been built on too little." ==

Book: “The Roman Triumph” by Mary Beard (Harvard, 2007)

Triumph for Vespasian and Titus after the Jewish War

In “The Jewish War”, Book VII Josephus describe the triumph for Vespasian and Titus after their victory in the Jewish war: “So Titus took the journey he intended into Egypt, and passed over the desert very suddenly, and came to Alexandria, and took up a resolution to go to Rome by sea. And as he was accompanied by two legions, he sent each of them again to the places whence they had before come; the fifth he sent to Mysia, and the fifteenth to Pannonia: as for the leaders of the captives, Simon and John, with the other seven hundred men, whom he had selected out of the rest as being eminently tall and handsome of body, he gave order that they should be soon carried to Italy, as resolving to produce them in his triumph. So when he had had a prosperous voyage to his mind, the city of Rome behaved itself in his reception, and their meeting him at a distance, as it did in the case of his father. But what made the most splendid appearance in Titus's opinion was, when his father met him, and received him; but still the multitude of the citizens conceived the greatest joy when they saw them all three together, (i.e. Vespasian, and his sons Titus and Domitian) as they did at this time; nor were many days overpast when they determined to have but one triumph, that should be common to both of them, on account of the glorious exploits they had performed, although the senate had decreed each of them a separate triumph by himself. So when notice had been given beforehand of the day appointed for this pompous solemnity to be made, on account of their victories, not one of the immense multitude was left in the city, but every body went out so far as to gain only a station where they might stand, and left only such a passage as was necessary for those that were to be seen to go along it. [Source: Flavius Josephus: (A.D. 37- after 93), “An Imperial Triumph”, “The Jewish War”, Book VII. 3-7 A.D. 71), translated by William Whiston]

20120225-Titus and Vespasian Triumph of 2.jpg
Titus and Vespasian Triumph

“Now all the soldiery marched out beforehand by companies, and in their several ranks, under their several commanders, in the night time, and were about the gates, not of the upper palaces, but those near the temple of Isis; for there it was that the emperors had rested the foregoing night. And as soon as ever it was day, Vespasian and Titus came out crowned with laurel, and clothed in those ancient purple habits which were proper to their family, and then went as far as Octavian's Walks; for there it was that the senate, and the principal rulers, and those that had been recorded as of the equestrian order, waited for them. Now a tribunal had been erected before the cloisters, and ivory chairs had been set upon it, when they came and sat down upon them. Whereupon the soldiery made an acclamation of joy to them immediately, and all gave them attestations of their valor; while they were themselves without their arms, and only in their silken garments, and crowned with laurel: then Vespasian accepted of these shouts of theirs; but while they were still disposed to go on in such acclamations, he gave them a signal of silence. And when every body entirely held their peace, he stood up, and covering the greatest part of his head with his cloak, he put up the accustomed solemn prayers; the like prayers did Titus put up also; after which prayers Vespasian made a short speech to all the people, and then sent away the soldiers to a dinner prepared for them by the emperors. Then did he retire to that gate which was called the Gate of the Pomp, because pompous shows do always go through that gate; there it was that they tasted some food, and when they had put on their triumphal garments, and had offered sacrifices to the gods that were placed at the gate, they sent the triumph forward, and marched through the theatres, that they might be the more easily seen by the multitudes.

“Now it is impossible to describe the multitude of the shows as they deserve, and the magnificence of them all; such indeed as a man could not easily think of as performed, either by the labor of workmen, or the variety of riches, or the rarities of nature; for almost all such curiosities as the most happy men ever get by piece-meal were here one heaped on another, and those both admirable and costly in their nature; and all brought together on that day demonstrated the vastness of the dominions of the Romans; for there was here to be seen a mighty quantity of silver, and gold, and ivory, contrived into all sorts of things, and did not appear as carried along in pompous show only, but, as a man may say, running along like a river. Some parts were composed of the rarest purple hangings, and so carried along; and others accurately represented to the life what was embroidered by the arts of the Babylonians. There were also precious stones that were transparent, some set in crowns of gold, and some in other ouches, as the workmen pleased; and of these such a vast number were brought, that we could not but thence learn how vainly we imagined any of them to be rarities. The images of the gods were also carried, being as well wonderful for their largeness, as made very artificially, and with great skill of the workmen; nor were any of these images of any other than very costly materials; and many species of animals were brought, every one in their own natural ornaments.

“The men also who brought every one of these shows were great multitudes, and adorned with purple garments, all over interwoven with gold; those that were chosen for carrying these pompous shows having also about them such magnificent ornaments as were both extraordinary and surprising. Besides these, one might see that even the great number of the captives was not unadorned, while the variety that was in their garments, and their fine texture, concealed from the sight the deformity of their bodies. But what afforded the greatest surprise of all was the structure of the pageants that were borne along; for indeed he that met them could not but be afraid that the bearers would not be able firmly enough to support them, such was their magnitude; for many of them were so made, that they were on three or even four stories, one above another. The magnificence also of their structure afforded one both pleasure and surprise; for upon many of them were laid carpets of gold. There was also wrought gold and ivory fastened about them all; and many resemblances of the war, and those in several ways, and variety of contrivances, affording a most lively portraiture of itself. For there was to be seen a happy country laid waste, and entire squadrons of enemies slain; while some of them ran away, and some were carried into captivity; with walls of great altitude and magnitude overthrown and ruined by machines; with the strongest fortifications taken, and the walls of most populous cities upon the tops of hills seized on, and an army pouring itself within the walls; as also every place full of slaughter, and supplications of the enemies, when they were no longer able to lift up their hands in way of opposition. Fire also sent upon temples was here represented, and houses overthrown, and falling upon their owners: rivers also, after they came out of a large and melancholy desert, ran down, not into a land cultivated, nor as drink for men, or for cattle, but through a land still on fire upon every side; for the Jews related that such a thing they had undergone during this war. Now the workmanship of these representations was so magnificent and lively in the construction of the things, that it exhibited what had been done to such as did not see it, as if they had been there really present. On the top of every one of these pageants was placed the commander of the city that was taken, and the manner wherein he was taken. Moreover, there followed those pageants a great number of ships; and for the other spoils, they were carried in great plenty. But for those that were taken in the temple of Jerusalem, they made the greatest figure of them all; that is, the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the candlestick also, that was made of gold, though its construction were now changed from that which we made use of; for its middle shaft was fixed upon a basis, and the small branches were produced out of it to a great length, having the likeness of a trident in their position, and had every one a socket made of brass for a lamp at the tops of them. These lamps were in number seven, and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews; and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews. After these spoils passed by a great many men, carrying the images of Victory, whose structure was entirely either of ivory or of gold. After which Vespasian marched in the first place, and Titus followed him; Domitian also rode along with them, and made a glorious appearance, and rode on a horse that was worthy of admiration.

“Now the last part of this pompous show was at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, whither when they were come, they stood still; for it was the Romans' ancient custom to stay till somebody brought the news that the general of the enemy was slain. This general was Simon, the son of Gioras, who had then been led in this triumph among the captives; a rope had also been put upon his head, and he had been drawn into a proper place in the forum, and had withal been tormented by those that drew him along; and the law of the Romans required that malefactors condemned to die should be slain there. Accordingly, when it was related that there was an end of him, and all the people had set up a shout for joy, they then began to offer those sacrifices which they had consecrated, in the prayers used in such solemnities; which when they had finished, they went away to the palace. And as for some of the spectators, the emperors entertained them at their own feast; and for all the rest there were noble preparations made for feasting at home; for this was a festival day to the city of Rome, as celebrated for the victory obtained by their army over their enemies, for the end that was now put to their civil miseries, and for the commencement of their hopes of future prosperity and happiness.”

Triumph of Pompey

Pompey’s Triumph After the Conquest of the East

On Pompey’s triumph in Rome (September 30th, 61 B.C.), Appian wrote: “At the end of the winter [63-62 B.C.] Pompey distributed rewards to the army, 1500 Attic drachmas [Arkenberg: about $3857 in 1998 dollars] to each soldier, and in like proportion to the officers, the whole, it was said, amounting to 16,000 talents [Arkenberg: about $229 million in 1998 dollars]. Then he marched to Ephesus, embarked for Italy, and hastened to Rome, having dismissed his soldiers at Brundisium to their homes, by which act his popularity was greatly increased among the Romans. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 118-120, 123-127]

“As he approached the city he was met by successive processions, first of youths, farthest from the city; then bands of men of different ages came out as far as they severally could walk; last of all came the Senate, which was lost in wonder at his exploits, for no one had ever before vanquished so powerful an enemy and at the same time brought so many great nations under subjection and extended the Roman rule to the Euphrates.

“He was awarded a triumph exceeding in brilliancy any that had gone before. It occupied two successive days; and many nations were represented in the procession from Pontus, Armenia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, all the peoples of Syria, besides Albanians, Heniochi, Achaeans, Scythians, and Eastern Iberians; 700 complete ships were brought into the harbor; in the triumphal procession were two-horse carriages and litters laden with gold or with other ornaments of various kinds, also the couch of Darius [the Great], the son of Hystaspes, the throne and scepter of Mithridates Eupator himself, and his image, eight cubits high, made of solid gold, and 75,000,000 drachmae of silver coin [Arkenberg: about $193 million in 1998 dollars]. The number of wagons carrying arms was infinite and the number of prows of ships. After these came the multitude of captives and pirates, none of them bound, but all arrayed in their native costume.

“Before Pompey himself were led the satraps, sons and generals of the kings against whom he had fought, who were present — some having been captured, some given as hostages — to the number of three hundred and twenty-four. Among them were five sons of Mithridates, and two daughters; also Aristobulus, king of the Jews; the tyrants of the Cilicians, and other potentates. There were carried in the procession images of those who were not present, of Tigranes king of Armenia, and of Mithridates, representing them as fighting, as vanquished, and as fleeing. Even the besieging of Mithridates and his silent flight by night were represented. Finally, it was shown how he died, and the daughters who perished with him were pictured also, and there were figures of the sons and daughters who died before him, and images of the barbarian gods decked out in the fashion of their countries.

A tablet was borne, also, inscribed thus:
Ships with brazen beaks captured dccc:
Cities founded
In Cappadocia viii:
In Cilicia and coele-syria xx:
In Palestine the one now called seleucis.
Kings conquered:
Tigranes the Armenian:
Artoces the Iberian:
Oroezes the Albanian:
Aretas the Nabataean:
Darius the Mede:
Antiochus of Commagene.

“Pompey himself was borne in a chariot studded with gems, wearing, it is said, the cloak of Alexander the Great, if any one can believe that. This was supposed to have been found among the possessions of Mithridates. . . . His chariot was followed by the officers who had shared the campaigns with him, some on horseback, and others on foot. When he reached the Capitol, he did not put any prisoners to death, as had been customary at other triumphs, but sent them all home at the public expense, except the kings. Of these Aristobulus alone was shortly put to death, and Tigranes son of Tigranes the king of Armenia some time later.”

Nero's Triumph

Triumphs of Caesar, Augustus and Nero

When Caesar returned to Rome after the battle of Thapsus in Spain, he came not as the servant of the senate, but as master of the world. He crowned his victories by four splendid triumphs, one for Gaul, one for Egypt, one for Pontus, and one for Numidia.Suetonius wrote: “Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, four in a single month, but at intervals of a few days, after vanquishing Scipio; and another on defeating Pompeius' sons. The first and most splendid was the Gallic triumph, the next the Alexandrian, then the Pontic, after that the African, and finally the Hispanic, each differing from the rest in its equipment and display of spoils. As he rode through the Velabrum on the day of his Gallic triumph, the ae of his chariot broke, and he was all but thrown out; and he mounted the Capitol by torchlight, with forty elephants bearing lamps on his right and his left. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces of the procession an inscription of but three words, "I came, I saw, I conquered," [ 'Veni, vidi, vici'] not indicating the events of the war, as the others did, but the speed with which it was finished. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum, Divus Iulius” (“The Lives of the Caesars, The Deified Julius”), written A.D. c. 110, Suetonius, 2 vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: William Henemann, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 3-119]

The Res Gestae is a list of deeds performed by Augustus. Part of it reads: “Twice have I had the lesser triumph [i.e., the ovation]; thrice the [full] curule triumph; twenty-one times have I been saluted as "Imperator." After that, when the Senate voted me many triumphs, I declined them. Also I often deposited the laurels in the Capitol, fulfilling the vows which I had made in battle. On account of the enterprises brought to a happy issue on land and sea by me, or by my legates, under my auspices, fifty-five times has the Senate decreed a thanksgiving unto the Immortal Gods. The number of days, too, on which thanksgiving was professed, fulfilling the Senate's decrees, was 890. Nine kings, or children of kings, have been led before my car in my triumphs. And when I wrote these words, thirteen times had I been consul, and for the thirty-seventh year was holding the tribunician power.

On the parade Nero ordered up himself after his fixed victories at the Olympics, Suetonius wrote: “Returning from Greece, since it was at Neapolis that he had made his first appearance, he entered that city with white horses through a part of the wall which had been thrown down, as is customary with victors in the sacred games. In like manner he entered Antium, then Albanum, and finally Rome; but at Rome he rode in the chariot which Augustus had used in his triumphs in days gone by, and wore a purple robe and a Greek cloak adorned with stars of gold, bearing on his head the Olympic crown and in his right hand the Pythian, while the rest were carried before him with inscriptions telling where he had won them and against what competitors, and giving the titles of the songs or the subject of the plays. His car was followed by his clique as by the escort of a triumphal procession, who shouted that they were the attendants of Augustus and the soldiers of his triumph. Then through the arch of the Circus Maximus, which was thrown down, he made his way across the Velabrum and the Forum to the Palatine and the temple of Apollo. All along the route victims were slain, the streets were sprinkled from time to time with perfume, while birds, ribbons, and sweetmeats were showered upon him. He placed the sacred crowns in his bed chamber around his couches, as well as statues representing him in the guise of a lyre-player; and he had a coin, too, struck with the same device. So far from neglecting or relaxing his practice of the art after this, he never addressed the soldiers except by letter or in a speech delivered by another, to save his voice; and he never did anything for amusement or in earnest without an elocutionist by his side, to warn him to spare his vocal organs and hold a handkerchief to his mouth. To many men he offered his friendship or announced his hostility, according as they had applauded him lavishly or grudgingly.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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