In 17 BC, Augustus held the ludi saeculares, the secular games. Like many rituals, it is of obscure origin. The games, though probably not known as the secular games at that point, can be traced back to the regal period or very Republic. But the first plausible attestation is for 249 BC, which is attested in a fragment and in Livy, and the second iteration was sometime in the 140s.
It appears to have been brought into being when Rome was suffering from plague. The rituals were associated with gods of the underworld and were performed in a place called Tarentum, which was on the very edge of the Campus Martius. The idea was that the plague had been visited on the city by the unhappy spirits of the dead.
In 18 BC, Augustus ordered that a collection of prophecies, known as the Sibylline books, be edited. In those books was discovered a prophecy which is recounted in full by a late antique source, Zosimus (2.6).
An old translation of the oracle is available here. The oracle looks Augustan. It specifies a 110 year spacing between the holding of the games. The period is selected since no person can live as long as 110 years. The Romans seem to construe this period of 110 years as ‘an age’ or a saeculum. The games shifted in this invention from being a sacrificial cult to assuage the gods of the Underworld to becoming a mark of the passing of a whole age of Romans. The dead of that age were to be honoured in the Games.
Augustus consulted an expert antiquarian, Ateius Capito, to advise on the Games. He seems to have concluded that the games be held in 17 BC.
We have a detailed inscription relating to the games, which recounts a series of decrees of the senate about the management of the games (CIL VI 32323 Latin text and notes}).
The first decree states that the games will be organised by Caesar Augustus and Marcus Agrippa. They will act with the ‘Board of 15 for Performing Sacrifices’. The unmarried will be allowed to attend (they seem to have been prevented from attending other games).
The second decree allows for an account of the event to be inscribed on bronze and on marble to be a perpetual record of the games and that these be paid for by the senate.
The account of the events is fragmentary. It commences with a night sacrifice, which must be on a second or third day of festivities. Ewes and goats are sacrificed by Caesar, a prayer is read entrusting to the gods the people of Rome, Rome’s armies, the College of Fifteen, Augustus and his family and household. A performance is then held and 110 noble women hold a religious meal.
On June 1st, Augustus and Agrippa sacrifice bulls at the Capitol. A prayer similar to that of the previous night is voiced. There is a theatrical production. The Fifteen issue a decree reducing the period of mourning that women should follow. There is a night sacrifice of cakes by Augustus.
On June 2nd, Augustus and Agrippa sacrifice a cow and prayers are offered to Juno. There is then a prayer on behalf of the 100 women. More theatrical performances follow. In the night Augustus sacrifices a pregnant sow to Magna Mater, and the same prayer, slightly modified is performed. The ritual meal is also repeated.
On June 3rd, on the Palatine, Augustus and Agrippa sacrificed cakes to Apollo and Diana. The same prayer was offered. Then, Horace’s Carmen Saeculare was sung by 27 boys and 27 girls. They processed t the Capitol and the hymn was sung again.
Chariot racing was held on the Campus Martius. Horse riders performed. Then seven days of Latin theatre was put on, from June 5th, pantomimes were performed in Pompey’d theatre, and Greek plays in the Circus Flaminius.
On June 12th, there was an exhibition of hunting, and another procession, and more chariot racing.
This was a major event. What was it for?
- At face value, the Games were a traditional religious event. It was a restoration of an old Roman custom and an acknowledgement of Roman tradition.
- It was a festival for the Romans. It aimed to bring the whole population together and celebrate. We might think of it like an Olympic Games for city. It was meant to make the people feel good and feel part of one community.
- It was a performance in which Augustus and Agrippa took a central part. They represented the Roman people to the gods.
It was also innovative.
- The original festival was about the dead and driving off plague. This festival was much more celebratory.
- The importance of Apollo and Diana was an innovation. Apollo was Augustus’ patron deity. The events of June 3rd were at Augustus’ temple to Apollo on the Palatine.
- The prayers for the imperial house were monarchic.
- The festival represented Roman order in a potentially new way
- The 110 matrons displayed the importance of women to the Augustan representation of the regime.
- The 54 children who sang the hymn represented the future generations of Rome.
- Horace’s hymn presented a version of the Augustan moral programme. Augustan moral reform was a restoration of old values, which was now tied to the grand festival.
- The scale of the event is remarkable. It is difficult to believe that there had been anything like it before.
What was the festival meant to make people feel?
Horace’s poem tells us what the audience was meant to think, but what about feelings? History is not good on feelings. Feelings don’t leave documentary evidence. Feelings are subjective. How can we access the feelings of those long dead?
But an event like the Secular Games has to have been about more than its meaning and its messages. The night-time sacrifice (presumably illuminated by torches), the processions through the city, the dramatic gatherings, the solemn prayers, the games and festivities with which the festival concluded all added to the experience. How many people walked through the city? How crowded were the streets? Being in a crowd is in itself an emotional experience. A member of the crowd is an individual, but also part of a larger community.
The Games presented Rome to itself. It presented Rome to its citizens. The Games invited the Romans to participate if only as an audience. In participating, they were saying that they belonged to a city and an empire that had history and tradition and people and the sheer economic and administrative power to hold an event like this.
Of course, there might have been people who scoffed, and avoided participation, but what is more attractive, to belong or not to belong?
The festival was about a past and about the dead. It was also about the living who attended and participated and belonged. It was also about the future. The prayers were for the future of Rome. There was an implicit looking forward for the next 110 year. The children represented that future.
It was also a break in time. The old age of civil wars and discontent was over. The new age had come. Over all this, Augustus and Agrippa presided.