The End of the Beginning

03 15 eid marToday it is the Ides of March. In 44 BC, a soothsayer warned Julius Caesar that harm would come to him before the Ides of March. When March 15th came, everything seemed fine and passing by the soothsayer he remarked “The Ides of March are come”. “Aye Caesar,” replied the soothsayer, “but not gone.” As you probably know, he was the victim of an assassination plot. He was attacked by as many as 60 people, was stabbed 23 times and died. It was one of the events that led the transition from Rome as a republic into Rome, the empire.

So today, I really wanted to have a look at the Ides of March, what is so significant about it and what it has to do with ends and beginnings. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the early Romans did not have their New Year celebrations in January, like we do. Their New Year was in March. Their year was divided up mainly into months of either 29 or 31 days as they considered even numbers unlucky. Only February had an even number of days, but as they believed that the final month of their year was beset by demons anyway, they perhaps thought the even number couldn’t make things much worse.

The Romans had an odd way of numbering their days. You’d think counting the days sequentially from the beginning of the month to the end would just be the obvious thing to do, but the Romans counted backwards from fixed points in the month. The first fixed point, the first day of the month was the Kalends, the next was the Nones at either the 5th or the 7th and the dates in between were numbered according to how many days it was before Nones. The second point was the Ides, the central point of the month at either the 13th or the 15th. So the days between Nones and Ides were numbered according to how many days it was until the Ides. All the days after that were a countdown to the next Kalends. It’s very confusing, but I suppose numbering the days that way means you’re always looking forward to something.

So at the beginning of March, the Romans were celebrating their New Year. The celebrations went on until the Ides of March and the feast of a goddess called Anna Perenna. Her name is related to our words ‘annual’ and ‘perennial’, so it represents both a thing that lasts a year and a thing that lasts for many years. We don’t know much about Anna Perenna, but the name probably says it all. A new year, lasts for twelve months, but there is always another one after that. Anna Perenna seems to have been presented sometimes as young and sometimes as very old. In one story, she is the sister of Dido. Aeneas invites her to stay with him much to the dismay of his wife Lavinia. Anna is warned of her jealousy, by her dead sister, in a dream. She runs away and either falls or deliberately jumps into the River Numicius and is drowned. But then she becomes a water nymph and is given the name Perenna.

In another story, she is a very old woman. The god Mars, who is in love with the goddess Minerva, enlists the help of Anna Perenna to persuade Minerva to marry him. Anna pretends to go along with this but, even up to the point when Mars thinks he has married Minerva, in fact, it has been Anna in disguise all along. When he lifts up her veil on their wedding night, he sees the old lady and she just laughs in his face. It might sound like a dangerous thing to do, upsetting the God of War, but that’s the thing with old ladies, they do what they want and they don’t care.

In the third story we have about Anna Perenna, she is again an old lady, but this time human and living in the town of Bollivae. It is set in the year 494 BC. The plebeians, the common people of Rome, were tired of paying taxes, of being drafted into the army and of having no say in government. So they just left the city and headed for the hills. There, they found themselves with no means of sustenance. Anna Perenna baked them cakes and kept them fed while they negotiated with the Senate back in Rome for a better deal. For this reason she became a bit of a hero for the ordinary and downtrodden people of Rome and her feast day was pretty popular.

So, in Anna Perenna, we seem to have a figure that provides both water and food for the Roman people so she’s probably some sort of nature goddess. But, to get back to 44 BC, On her feast day, the Ides of March, most of the common people of Rome would have left the city for a celebration beside the banks of the Tiber. They would have been lying about on the grass. They might have put a tent up, they might have built themselves a little hut out of branches and leaves. Also, they would all have been very drunk. In a toast to Anna Perenna they would drink one cup of wine for every year they hoped to live. In honour of the trick she played on Mars, they would also sing bawdy songs. I found lots of references to this but, disappointingly, could not find a single example. So, on that day, with the city relatively deserted, it would have been much easier for the conspirators to carry out their plan unopposed. Although I can’t approve of anyone’s life ending so violently, looking at the bigger picture, perhaps a time of New Year celebrations is the right time to end something and to begin something new. It worked out pretty well for the Romans in the end.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

I’m thinking about ends and beginnings today because I started writing this blog a year ago, over on tumblr. So  after 366 daily posts, my work there is done. Here on WordPress, I still have lots to tell you, so I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you all about another Roman festival Bacchanalia.

One Giant Leap

02 29 leap yearToday is a leap day. If today is your birthday then, congratulations, you are a leapling which sounds like a joyous thing to be. February 29th is mostly added to the calendar every four years to make up for the fact that it actually takes our planet a little under 365¼ days to orbit the sun. It may seem to us that it absolutely comes round every four years without question, but that is because of the period in history we are living in. It is not actually the case. Having a leap year every four years makes our calendar drift off by about three days every four hundred years. So leap years do not happen in any year that is divisible by one hundred, unless it is also divisible by four hundred. So, for us the year 2000 was a normal leap year. The last time the leap year was skipped was 1900, which was a very long time ago, and the next one will be 2100, which needn’t trouble many of us.

This might be a little more complicated than you thought, but it is nothing compared to what the Romans had to put up with before Julius Caesar swept in and reformed the calendar. In the early days of Rome, the calendar was only ten months long. It covered the period from March to December. You can still see a remnant of this in the names of our months; September, October, November and December. Septem, octō, novem and decem being Latin for seven, eight, nine and ten. Nobody was very clear what went on in the rest of the year, where we have January and February. But as they were an agricultural people, they didn’t really need to do anything then, so it didn’t matter.

As the population became more urban, they really needed something that would cover the whole year. According to legend, the months of Ianuarius and Februarius were added by Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, in around the seventh century BC. This was a bit better, but it left the Romans with a year that was 355 days long, which is way too short. So, rather than having to add an extra day like we do, they occasionally had to add a whole extra leap month. That month was called Mercedonius. To make it even more confusing, it was created by lopping a few days off the end of February and cramming a few more in. So, when this happened, it gave them a year that was 377 or 378 days long.

The decision about whether the leap month was needed lay with the Pontifex Maximus who was the High Priest of Rome. He was supposed to keep an eye on the seasons and decide if they were drifting out of line but unfortunately this is not what happened. The Pontifex Maximus generally had an interest in politics as well, so he could insert the extra month to keep someone he liked, who was in a government position, in office for a bit longer. If he wanted them out quickly he could withhold Mercedonius for another year. Also he might make it a last minute decision, so you never knew if the leap month was coming or not. If you lived anywhere outside of Rome, you had little hope of knowing what day it was. Add to that the fact that Rome was often at war and might forget about Mercedonius all together for a few years and you can see how difficult it all must have been for everyone.

By the time Julius Caesar reformed the calender in 46 BC things had gone very wrong indeed. As Julius Caesar was also Pontifex Maximus he was able to add the extra month, but it wasn’t enough. He needed to make a giant leap. To bring the calendar year back into alignment with the solar year he needed to add a whole extra two months between November and December which are sometimes referred to as Undecember and Duodecember. 46 BC was 445 days long. It is called ‘the last year of confusion’.

In addition to this he sprinkled an extra ten days throughout the year, bringing the year up to a much more manageable 365 days and added a single leap day every four years. Everyone must have been extremely relieved. So relieved that, after he died in 44 BC they changed the name of Quintilis (the fifth month) to Julius instead. Which is why we now call it July.

Women Only

12 03 cornucopiaToday is the Ancient Roman festival of Bona Dea. The name just means ‘good goddess’ and her real name was so secret that nobody knows what it was. The rituals that were associated with the festival were also secret, but we do know that they were only attended by women. She seems to have been a mother goddess who was strongly associated with snakes and strong wine, but definitely not with the plant myrtle. She is often portrayed holding a cornucopia and with a snake wound around her arm. Roman historians have speculated her true identity. Some have suggested Maia, the universal earth goddess. Others have mentioned Fauna, who was either the wife, sister or daughter of Faunus (the Roman version of Pan) perhaps she was all three, Roman gods don’t seem that fussy. Fauna was beaten by Faunus with myrtle twigs either for drinking in secret or for refusing to have sex with him.

There was a temple dedicated to her in Rome which, unusually, had a wall around it and harmless snakes lived in its precincts. It seems to have been a centre for healing and kept a store of medicinal herbs. The only men allowed within its walls were those allowed by the goddess herself, and presumably they were not allowed into the inner sanctum.

Bona Dea had two festivals, one at the temple in May 1st, which was for the common people and another on December 3rd which was at the home of the magistrate and was for Rome’s elite. It was supervised by the Vestal Virgins. The only reason we know anything about the ceremony at all is because there was a massive scandal at the Winter rites in 62BC. It was during the reign of Julius Caesar, and his wife, Pompeia, was officiating at that year’s ceremony. It was being held at the house of a man called Clodius, with whom she may or may not have been having an affair.

Men were strictly excluded from the occasion. The house was ritually cleansed and there must be nothing masculine in it whatsoever. Not only did all the men have to leave, but any male animal was also turned out. They even removed all portraiture of men. Then the women made bowers of vine leaves and all sorts of other plants, as long as it wasn’t myrtle. They laid a banquet and prepared a couch for their goddess, her image was brought from the temple by the Vestals and laid on it, along with the image of a snake. They sacrificed a sow and drank strong sacrificial wine. Then, there was a women only banquet which went on through the night, there were female musicians, there were games. Nobody on the outside knew what they were because they only heard the revels from a distance.

In 62BC, Clodius disguised himself as a lute girl and tried to sneak in to the celebrations. He was rumbled by Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, after he declined to play the lute with her, which was rude. She questioned him about who he was and where he had come from and as soon as he spoke, he gave himself away. There was a terrible scene, everyone was horrified that there was a man there and the whole ceremony was ruined. Clodius was sentenced to death for his transgression, though he was later let off. Julius Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, though he later said that he didn’t really think she was guilty of adultery. When asked why it was, he replied it was because he thought the wife of Caesar should not even be under suspicion.

The whole affair called into question the reputation of the Vestal Virgins. Now that some of the details of the rituals had been revealed, men began to pruriently imagine all sorts of things about the women only celebrations. Suddenly no one was very sure that it was a good idea to let women drink strong wine and party all night. By the time the satirist Juvenal was writing about Bona Dea’s festival a hundred or so years later he called it an opportunity for women of all classes, most shamefully those of the upper class – and men in drag (“which altars do not have their Clodius these days?”) – to get drunk and cavort indiscriminately in a sexual free-for-all.

Invasion Postponed

08 27 julius caesarRobert Chamber’s tells us that on this day in 55 BC, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar first landed in Britain. Of course we can’t know the exact date but Chambers has done an awful lot of research. He has looked at the date of the autumn equinox, the phases of the moon, even the times of the tides in that year. He even tells us that it was a Sunday and I believe him. Robert Chambers published a book in 1869 describing notable events on every day of the year. I like him very much and look to him on days when wikipedia lets me down. As I’m in Edinburgh at the moment I will probably, at some point, be on the street named after his brother, but I digress.

In the early days of the Roman Empire, Britain was right on the edge of the known world. It was so on the edge that some people believed it to be a mythical place. Others though knew it to be an excellent source of tin. Once the Romans had started to move in on Gaul they wanted to see what Britain was like. If Caesar had intended to invade our island, it didn’t go very well. It seems that they tried to land at Dover, but were kept away by angry Britons throwing spears at them from the cliffs. They were forced to move further along the coast, perhaps to Deal. Chamber’s source, a Mr. Lewin, thinks that the tide would have taken them west, to Romney Marsh, he further suggests that may be how the marsh got it’s name.

Some of the Roman ships were unable to reach the shore because of a storm. The ones that did make it didn’t fair too well either. The Romans, being from the Mediterranean, were surprised by the high tides and storms that we have here. Caesar’s beached war ships filled with water. The ones anchored further from the shore were driven against each other and many were wrecked or rendered unseaworthy. By now the Britons were hoping the Caesar would be stranded over the winter months and they would be able to starve him into submission. But the Romans managed to repair enough of their ships to make it back to Gaul before the weather worsened.

Even the Roman Emperor, who was pretty full of himself, had to admit that his mission hadn’t resulted in his ‘accustomed success’. Back in Rome though news of the landing had still been a cause for celebration. The Senate organised a twenty day festival of thanksgiving. Even then politicians were good at spin.

Caesar returned to Britain the following year but still failed to make any headway. Ostensibly he wanted to conquer Britain because they were helping the Gauls in their battles against the Roman invaders. It is quite likely though, that they were hoping to plunder the rich mineral sources here. What they found were a people that already had strong trading links, not just with Gaul, but as far away as Phoenicia. The Britons were, we’re told, polygamous and had other unspecified ‘exotic social habits’ and were fond of painting themselves blue. Caesar was most impressed by their skill with chariots in warfare.

It would be almost another hundred years before the Romans launched a successful invasion of Britain. Emperor Caligula did try in 40 AD but he was a bit strange and just came back to Rome with a load of sea shells that he had made his troops gather from the coast of Gaul. He claimed that is was plundered from Neptune, the god of the sea and everyone had to pretend it was marvellous.