March 6th: A Day to Celebrate

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

It is officially March, or Martius as the Romans knew it. This meant a return to the active life of farming, military campaigning, and sailing for the Romans.

Statue of Mars from the Forum of Nerva (2nd Century AD), Capitoline Museums.

The month was named for Mars, the Roman god of war who was also regarded as a guardian of agriculture and an ancestor of the Roman people through his sons Romulus and Remus. His month of Martius was the beginning of the season for both farming and warfare, and the festivals held in his honor during the month were mirrored by others in October, when the season for these activities came to a close.

Martius was densely packed with religious observances dating from the earliest period of Roman history. Because of its original position as the 1st month of the earliest Roman calendar, a number of festivals originally associated with the New Year occurred in March.

Martius remained the start of the Roman calendar year perhaps as late as 153 BC, when it became the 3rd month, following Februarius (February) and preceding Aprilis (April). Even in late antiquity, Roman mosaics picturing the months sometimes still placed March first.

In the Imperial period, March was also a time for public celebration of syncretic or international deities whose cultus was spread throughout the empire, including Isis and Cybele.

Keeping that in mind, today we celebrate a pair of events that the Romans held on VI Martius!

Roman Calendar

The earliest of the 2 events celebrated today was a Supplicatio for Vesta and the Di Penates. In Ancient Roman religion, a Supplicatio was a day of public prayer when all the people of Rome traveled in procession to religious sites around the city praying for divine aid in times of crisis.

Wreaths and laurel twigs

During this process the population as a whole wore wreaths, carried laurel twigs, and attended sacrifices at temple precincts throughout the city. Supplications might also be ordered in response to prodigies (prodigia).

Supplicatio was decreed for 2 different reasons: 1) as a thanksgiving when a great victory had been gained or 2) as a solemn supplication and humiliation decreed in times of public danger and distress and on account of prodigies to avert the anger of the gods.

The number of days during which the Supplicatio was to last would be proportionate to the importance of the victory.

The Triumph of Julius Caesar by Andrea Mantegna.

A Supplication of 10 days was first decreed in honor of Pompey at the conclusion of the war with Mithridates, while Caesar was a Supplicatio of 20 days after his conquest of Vercingetorix.

No great victory had been recorded on 6 March by the Romans, so today’s Supplicatio was to avert the anger of the gods. It may have well even been considered a thanksgiving of sorts since Vesta was the virgin goddess of hearth, home, and family.

The Virgo Vestalis Maxima depicted in a Roman statue.

Vesta was among the Dii Consentes, 12 of the most honored gods in the Roman pantheon. She was the daughter of Saturn and Ops, and sister of Jupiter, NeptunePlutoJuno, and Ceres.

The myths depicting Vesta and her priestesses were few. Most were limited to tales of miraculous impregnation by a phallus appearing in the flames of the hearth – the manifestation of the goddess.

Remains of the Temple of Vesta located in the Roman Forum near the Regia and the House of the Vestal Virgins.

Rarely depicted in human form, Vesta was often personified by the fire of her temple in the Forum Romanum. Entry to her temple was permitted only to her priestesses, the Vestals, who tended the sacred fire at the hearth in her temple.

As she was considered a guardian of the Roman people, her festival, the Vestalia (7-15 June), was regarded as one of the most important Roman holidays. Such was Vesta’s importance to Roman religion that hers was one of the last republican pagan cults still active following the rise of Christianity until it was forcibly disbanded by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I in AD 391.

The Di Penates, or simply Penates, were among the dii familiares (household deities) invoked most often in domestic rituals. When the family had a meal, they threw a bit into the fire on the hearth for the Penates.

Di Penates with Lares

They were thus associated with Vesta, the Lares, and the Genius of the paterfamilias in the little universe of the domus. Like other domestic deities, the Penates had a public counterpart.

An etymological interpretation of the Penates would make them in origin tutelary deities of the storeroom or innermost part of the house, where they guarded the household’s food, wine, oil, and other supplies. As they were originally associated with the source of food, they eventually became a symbol of the continuing life of the family.

The Penates of Rome (Penates Publici Populi Romani) had a temple on the Velia (Velian Hill) near the Mons Palatinus (Palatine Hill). Dionysius of Halicarnassus says it housed statues of 2 youths in the archaic style.

Aeneas and the Penates, from a 4th-Century manuscript.

The public cult of the ancestral gods of the Roman people originated in Lavinium, where they were also closely linked with Vesta. One tradition identified the public Penates as the sacred objects rescued by Aeneas from Troy and carried by him to Italy thus becoming portable deities.

Busts of the co-Emperors Marcus Aurelius (left) and Lucius Verus (right), British Museum.

Up next on the celebrations for today came the dies imperii for the joint reign of Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. A Roman Emperor’s dies imperii was the date on which he assumed Imperium aka the anniversary of his accession as Emperor.

The date was observed annually with renewed oaths of loyalty and Vota Pro Salute Imperatoris, vows and offerings for the wellbeing (salus) of the Emperor. Observances resembled those on 3 January, which had replaced the traditional vows made for the salus of the Roman Republic after the transition to one-man rule under Augustus.

The dies imperii was a recognition that succession during the Empire might take place irregularly through the death or overthrow of an Emperor. This contrasted the annual terms of office for the Republic’s Magistrates when the year was designated by the names of Consuls serving their 1-year term.

Portrait head of Lucius Verus, found in Athens (National Archaeological Museum of Athens).

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus came to office in 161 AD. Verus would reign until he succumbed to symptoms attributed to food poisoning in 169, while Marcus Aurelius would reign until his death in March 180 AD.

During their reign, the Roman Empire defeated a revitalized Parthia in the east. In Central Europe, Aurelius fought the MarcomanniQuadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars.

Despite the minor differences between them, Marcus Aurelius grieved the loss of his adoptive brother Verus. He accompanied the body to Rome, where he offered games to honor his memory.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius in the Musée Saint-Raymond (Toulouse, France).

After the funeral, the Roman Senate declared Verus deified and to be worshipped as Divine Verus (Divus Verus). Marcus Aurelius acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain his after death when he too was immediately deified.

We hope you enjoyed today’s celebrations, since you had more than 1 choice. Please join us again soon as we explore some other time and place in Roman History.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



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