To list some of the many sacred feasts and games we have the regularly held Sacred Ludi (games) and the Votive Ludi (“one-off” petitions when setting off on a great task and asking for favour).
Amongst the Sacred Ludi we have:
- Megalenses (the great games to Magna Mater, the great mother or mother of the Gods, Cibele). Took place in April
- Cereales – games in honour of the goddess Ceres included games in the Circus. In April.
- Florales – celebrated in Spring and said to owe their origin to a famous prostitute who having achieved great riches left her estate to the people on condition that a regular feast should be held on her birthday. Flora was actually a Sabine goddess. The games would take place within a theatre where, to put it simply, women stripped naked and danced about. This was deemed offensive by many although not sufficiently to ban the celebrations.
- Martiales – games held in honour of Mars twice a year in May and August.
- Apollinares – Games in honour of Apollo. Initially held at the discretion of the Magistrates but later fixed to the Nones of July as part of an attempt to ward off an outbreak of plague in the city. Circus shows with everyone wearing Laurel crowns (the plant being sacred to Apollo)
- Ludi Augustales or Palatini – created to celebrate the deified Augustus. The Palatini were held in the imperial palace on the Palatine.
- The Ludi Capitolini, Romani, Consuales, Compitalitii, and Saeculares were amongst the oldest or more particular.
- The Lectisternium. It seems right to finish the list with the “lectisternium” as this was truly a banquet with the gods. The first such event was prescribed by the priesthood as a remedy for the plague at the time of the Gaulish invasion of Rome. The effigies of Apollo (health), Hercules (men), Diana (agriculture), Mercury (commerce) and Neptune (sea commerce) would be constructed and seated to join in a banquet with their mortal brethren.
The Ludi Megalenses, Megalensia or Megalesia: They took place around the middle of April and lasted six days. They were a period of invitation and entertainment amongst friends as well as scenic representations and sports. The procession included women dancing before the image of the goddess. All the priestly orders would participate. Slaves were forbidden from joining in.
These games held in the Circus in honour of the goddess Ceres during eight days in mid April. The procession included images and statues of the gods and famous men which were paraded around together with Magistrates, important women and horsemen.
Amongst the most ancient of the games, these were started with the building of the Circus Maximus by the king Tarquinius Priscus. They were held in honour of the Capitoline Trinity: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The lasted nine days from the day before the nones to the day before the ides of September.
Stemming from the name of the ancient god of counsel called Confus who was associated with Neptune and hence with horse riding. The games were first organised by Romulus in honour of the Sabine virgins which the Romans had abducted. These games consisted mostly of horse races and games in the Circus. The event was held on the twelfth of the kalends of September.
Named after the “Compita” or cross roads around which the earliest city of Rome grew. These public sacred games were in honour of the Lares, the family spirits who watched over streets and houses. The feast consisted chiefly of offering sacrifices to these gods.
The Ludi Saeculares were held every hundred years or so. They were started on behest of the Sibylline oracles who announced that the Romans and the city of Rome would flourish and dominate all other nations if they honoured the gods Pluto, Proserpine (daughter of Ceres), Juno, Apollo, Diana, Ceres and “the three fates” called Parcae. These celebrations were to take place at the beginning “of every age” and lasted three days and nights.
Before the empire the games were held on the city’s nativity whilst during the empire they were held in correspondence to the current emperor’s ascent to the imperial throne.
The Votive Ludi include:
- The Ludi Magni which were started on the bringing into Rome of the goddess Cibele at the time of the Carthaginian wars. Fabius Maximus devoted them to Jupiter and sacrificed several hundred Ox on the occasion. They tended to last four days and occurred more or less every five years.
- Victoriae. First held by Sylla after his victory over Marius during the civil wars of Rome at the end of the Republic.
- Quinquennales. Were started by Augustus and were held every five years to commemorate his victory over Marc Anthony at Actium, for this reason they were also known as the Ludi Actiaci. They were organised and presided over by four priesthoods.
- Decennales. These games were a great event held every ten years. Instituted by Augustus as a politically friendly means of appearing to hand over power and be given it for a further ten year mandate without allowing the people to feel menaced by a perpetual ruler.
- Triumphales, as part of a General’s triumph.
- Natalitii, on the Emperor’s birthday.
- Other votive games included the Ludi Juvenales or Ludi Juventutis, the Ludi Miscelli and finally
- the Ludi Funebres which according to Tertullian in his book De Spectaculis later developed into the Gladiatorial shows.
The Ludi Funebres
These were one of the earliest types of public games held in honour of the deceased. At first the person being celebrated was a high dignitary but with time this could also include the rich, who might include such fights to the death as part of their final wills. With time it came to be that the situation reversed itself in that the common people themselves came to expect the shows as a result of an important funeral. As a result of this the shows were increasingly organised out of public coffers.
Suetonius tells us that Julius Caesar also allowed the honour of Gladiatorial combat to be extended to the funeral of women when he treated the people of Rome with a show in honour of his deceased daughter.
Much more is said about the Gladiatorial shows in a specific section about the Colosseum and the Gladiators.
As already mentioned in the section about the priestly orders the feast of the Lupercalia was a feast of purification. The festivity was linked to the god of shepherds and woodlands Faun or Pan and focused on the image of the Wolf.
Although the name is reminiscent of the She wolf which had bred Romulus and Remus the very myth of Romulus tells us of the Lupercalia being celebrated by the Arcadians: a pastoral population which had come to Italy from Greece. The feast was regularly celebrated for some 1300 years of ancient Rome right through to the sixth century.
The ceremony began in the Lupercal cave on (in?) the Palatine hill where a goat and a dog would be sacrificed. The goat was intended as a symbol of the god because he had goat’s feet, whilst the dog was sacrificed because it is the shepherd’s usual companion and guards the sheep against wolves.
The blood stained knives would then be wiped over the foreheads of two children of noble family and subsequently the same blood would be wiped off with locks of wool dipped in milk. It seems that it was important that the boys should laugh when their foreheads were wiped clean.
The boys would then clothe themselves in the goat’s skin and run down the streets, in the manner of the god Faun/Pan, lashing out at the bystanders with whips, called “februa“, made of the same sacrificed hide they wore. Plutarch tells us that to be hit or touched was actually a good thing and was meant to assist women in conceiving or delivering children.
The name of the month February is derived from this feast.