Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)

Dafna asked me to write about the Roman Saturnalia, a festival in honour of Saturn.

“Inspired by Richard’s musing about Christmas – she said – I just discovered the term: ‘Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time ….’ Sounds like fun.”

So here we are Dafna, although my mind is blurred by all this saturnalian revels, starting in Italy on Dec. 24 and ending with the Epiphany, Gen. 6.

Quite a long time isn’t it.

Ma poi ecco l’Epifania
che tutte le feste si porta via.

Saturn & the Golden Age

Saturn, the Roman god of seed and sowing, very ancient according to sources, had his temple built at the foot of the Capitoline hill. It housed a wooden (later ivory) statue of the god filled with oil, holding a scythe and whose feet bound with woollen threads were released only in the days of the Saturnalia – Dec. 17 onward.

The temple was rebuilt three times and today’s eight-column remnants (see the image below) represent what is left of its last remaking.

It is no coincidence, I believe, that the temple also housed what was most precious in Rome (coins, ingots etc.,) ie the city treasury or aerarium. Why?

Because to the Roman mind Saturn – who defeated by his son Jupiter had found refuge in Latium, on the Capitol – had brought to the Romans and Latins the mythical Golden Age (Aurea Aetas,) an era of bliss when men were equal, laws not necessary, spring eternal, earth spontaneously offering its blonde corn and rivers of milk and nectar marvellously flowing.

The temple of Saturn in the west end of the Roman Forum. Only the front portico with its 8 columns is now left standing. Click for attribution and to zoom in.

Words from the Past

Mario: “Wow, the Golden Age. Were men of solid gold too?”
MoR: “Possibly. Yes, if I well interpreted Lucian’s Saturnalia.”

Let us then listen to the arcane words of Ovid just to catch glimpses of it all (Metamorphoses, I, 89 & ff.)

aurea prima est aetas
(the Golden Age is first)
sponte sua sine lege fidem rectumque colebat
(which spontaneously, without laws, the true and the good nurtured)
nec supplex turba timebat iudicis ora suis, sed erant sine vindice tuti
(no crowd of suppliants fearing their judge’s face: they lived safely without protection)
mollia peragebant otia gentes
(in soft peace people spent their lives )
ver erat aeternum
(Spring was eternal)
per se dabat omnia tellus … fruges inarata ferebat
(by itself earth gave all … wheat, unmanured, bore)
flumina iam lactis, iam flumina nectaris ibant
(sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar)


Re-enacting a Lawless Age

Now it is clear that the Saturnalia was a sort of re-enactment of such primordial, lawless age when men lived in equality and abundance of all.

During Saturnalia the rich gifts of the earth were celebrated with feasts and banquets where celebrators, heated with wine, were allowed to trans-gress unto higher (sometimes lower) states of mind which could include wild games, spirituality, esoteric acts, gambling, sexual promiscuity, exchange of gifts, and where slaves were given the broadest license which reminded the ancient rule of equality amongst men. Many similar ancient collective ceremonies (like the rites of Dionysus known in Rome as the Bacchanalia) were often referred to by the Greek term ὄργια or the Roman term orgia.

[Note that the old terms are only partially connected with the modern term ‘orgy’, if only for the fact that they had a religious character]

Unlike the cult of Saturn almost unknown outside Latium, Saturnalia became the most popular festival in every province of the empire relished by the people of any social condition until the triumph of Christianity.

The Christians couldn’t entirely abolish Saturnalia so they absorbed it into Christmas and this pagan festival survived also in other disguised forms as we shall see (in Italy, England, Germany, France etc.)

Let us try to better understand. A few aspects of Saturnalia may in fact sound weird to us modern people.

maschera_carnevale_venezia

Cycles and Rites of Passage

Saturnalia belonged to those rituals typical of the most ancient agricultural cultures all the over world.

Such cultures had a cyclic more than a linear view of time.

Universe, history repeated themselves in an eternal return to mythical ages in a way that the end of a cycle (light, sun, year, moon or season cycles) coincided with a new beginning; that dissolution coincided with regeneration; that chaos, lawlessness and transgression transmuted themselves into a new order where people felt renewed and ready to get back to norm.

These passages were celebrated in festivals where “such dissolution – Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini argues – we notice in the overturning of social hierarchy and in sexual promiscuity, a way to achieve fertility; we notice it in Sacaea, a festival in Babylon or in Pontus in honour of the goddess Ishtar or Anaitis which included, among the rest, a king disguised as servant; in the Zagmuk celebrated in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the year and comprising both sexual license and a symbolic dethroning of the king; in the Kronia [in Athens and Attica, MoR] and in the Roman Saturnalia [Roman Saturn and Greek Kronos sort of merged] but also in women-only festivals like the Greek Thesmophoria [in honour of Demeter] or like the Bona Dea rituals in Rome [of which a description is in our Sex and the city (of Rome) 2] where women were offered a chance to indulge in some excess in their own way.”

Traces in Modern Minds

Now I believe this whole spiritual past (plus the evelasting effects of nature changes) left deep traces in today’s minds. We still feel this deeply emotional (and sometimes distressing) end-beginning of something during the Christmas / New Year festivities, like a seismic shift that takes hold of us a bit. And at the same time we feel the family sweetness and Christian religious vibrations.

Which brings us to Christ’s birth.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun.) Silver, Roman artwork, 3rd century AD. From Pessinus, Asia Minor. British Museum. Click for attribution

Saturnalia, the Sun God & Christ’s Birth

Given the popularity of Saturnalia the founders of Christianity desiring to win the pagans to the new faith absorbed the Saturnalia into the celebrations of the birth of Christ.

Saturnalia started Dec. 17 and ended Dec. 25, day of the winter solstice according to the old Julian (Julius Caesar’s) calendar (12/21 according to ours, the Gregorian.)

Now, when was Christ born? No one knew exactly – although some biblical evidence suggests Spring.

It was Pope Julius I who in 350 CE chose Dec. 25 (winter solstice according to Caesar’s calendar.) Which proved a wise decision not only because of Saturnalia end date but also because in that same 12/25 the birth of Mithra / Sol Invictus, the sun god, had long been celebrated – the winter solstice being in fact the death-rebirth of the sun.

And, it must be said, the sun god in all his forms was very popular. Before it was gradually replaced by Christianity Sol Invictus was actually the official cult of the late Roman empire.


Extropian:
“According to Tom Harpur (The Pagan Christ) “few Christians today realize that in the 5th century CE [so 4 centuries after the birth of Christ!] pope Leo the Great had to tell Church members to stop worshipping the sun.” ”

Mario: “I read something in a forum: this “rumour that the Saturnalia generally degenerated into a big party with orgy and drinking … it’s ironic in that Christians use this day to celebrate the birth of their Saviour who came to save them from such sins.”

MoR: “Well, as I have said, we all feel – a Westerly universal feeling – like a strange conflict during these holidays: between holiness and fun, excess and good-will, religious /family feelings and pagan consumerism.”

MoR: “A conflict generated perhaps by that old compromise – eg the adaptation of Pagan rites to Christian rites – and absent probably at the times of the Saturnalia, when trans-gression and religion (trans-gression in the original sense of ‘going beyond’, from Latin trans + gradior) were not always separated as they are today. On the contrary, they at times coincided. τὰ ὄργια or orgiae, characteristic of mystery cults, were a supremely mystical & ethical experience, which is incomprehensible today, after almost two thousand years of Christianity.”

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Read part 2:

Roman Saturnalia. Frenzy, Banquets, Slaves and Gifts (2)

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Saint Agatha’s festival in Catania, Sicily. Patron Saint of Catania, her festival is one of the biggest in the world. Courtesy of Pietro Nicosia. Click to zoom in.
Italian translation

Patron Saints & Areas of Patronage

As we wrote at the end of part 1 Roman polytheism based on a “departmental idea of divinity” – ie on specific deities helping people in specific aspects of human life – seems to survive today in the veneration of saints.

Nothing provides a more vivid idea of such polytheistic survivals than the lists of patron saints and their respective areas of patronage.

Patron saints are special saints who intercede to God for us in certain life situations. They are such either by the will of the Pontiff or by tradition.

A couple of these lists (for almost-once-century-ago Spanish and Italian peasants) I had seen in Gordon J. Laing’s Survivals of Roman Religion book (1931), which is guiding us a bit in this journey.

So revealing such lists looked to me that I searched around the web for more up-to-date catalogues.

Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Today’s saints’ lists appear even richer and incredibly detailed!

(I wonder why)

San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples

Saints’ Help with Hangovers, Snakes and AIDS

Very comprehensive is the Saints.SQPN.com web site, with 7,140 saints and 3,346 areas of patronage covered (check also AmericanCatholic.org and Catholic Online.)

Here just a fraction of what you can find at SQPN.

Animals. Apart from saints protecting cities and countries [for ex. Agatha is patron saint of Catania – see the image at the posting header -; or Gennaro, of Naples, see above] there are saints protecting against dog bites (Walburga, Hubert of Liege), snakes (Paul the Apostle), bees (Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux); or protecting cattle (Brigid of Ireland, Nicostratus), dogs (Rocco, Vitus), poultry farmers (Brigid of Ireland), salmons (Kentigern) and even swans and whales (Hugh of Lincoln and Brendan the Navigator respectively).

Education. There are saints for teachers (Cassian of Imola, Catherine of Alexandria, Francis de Sales, Ursula, Gregory the Great) and there are saints for students (Albert the Great, Isidore of Seville, Jerome, Ursula, Thomas Aquinas).

There is even a saint for test takers (!), Joseph of Cupertino.

Health. Any health problem has its specific protectors: angina pectoris (Swithbert), arthritis (Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Colman, James the Greater, Killian, Totnan), autism (Ubaldus Baldassini), hangovers (Bibiana), headache (Acacius, Anastasius the Persian, Aurelius of Riditio, Bibiana, Hugh of Grenoble, Teresa of Avila), breast cancer (Agatha of Sicily, Aldegundis, Giles), diabetes (Paulina do Coração Agonizante de Jesus), depression (Amabilis, Bertha of Avenay, Bibiana, Dymphna, Moloc of Mortlach), epilepsy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Valentine of Rome), lunacy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Vitus, Willibrord of Echternach) and so on.

The flower crowned skull of St Valentine exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Click for credits and to zoom in

There are saints for AIDS care-givers (Aloysius Gonzaga) and saints for AIDS patients (Aloysius Gonzaga, Peregrine Laziosi, Therese of Lisieux).

Family. Difficult marriages are taken care of (so many protectors, I’ll just mention Catherine of Genoa, Dorothy of Montau, Edward the Confessor, Philip Howard, Thomas More, Radegunde) and so are divorced people (Fabiola, Guntramnus, Helena). We have  saints for childless couples (Anne Line, Catherine of Genoa, Henry II, Julian the Hospitaller), for unmarried men and unmarried women, plus those who protect against the death of children, the death of fathers, of mothers, of both parents; saints against spouse abuse, incest, abortion and so forth.

If This Was Polytheism, Why Was It Tolerated?

As Ernest Renan (1823 – 1892), French philosopher and writer, once observed:

A saint’s arm bone, from the Cloisters section of the MET, NYC. Photo by Lichanos. Click on the image to reach Lichanos’ writing.

Every person “who prays to a particular saint for a cure for his horse or ox or drops a coin into the box of a miraculous chapel is in that act pagan. He is responding to the prompting of a religious feeling that is older than Christianity …” [quote from Laing’s book]

If this is even partly true why the leaders of Christianity, who certainly disliked polytheism, allowed such survivals of the older religions?

Polytheism (of any kind, not only ancient Roman) was probably too ingrained a religious attitude for Christianity to be able to root it out. So certain doses of syncretism (ie combinations, compromises) were the price the founders of Christianity had probably to pay in order to Christianize the unsophisticated pagi (ie rural districts of the former empire, thence the term paganus, pagan), together with the folks in the far outposts of the Roman world or right outside it.

[See a comment by Lichanos on this point. As for pagans as rural people, the word ‘heathen’ in English is probably a derivative of Goth haiþi ‘dwelling on the heath’: see the Etymology dictionary; and German Heide indicates both ‘pagan’ and ‘heath’]

“It may be that the founders of Christianity – argues Gordon J. Laing – found that the belief of the people especially the illiterate class in these specialized spirits of minor grade was one of their greatest problems. They recognized the people’s predilection for spirits that would help in specific situations, and they realized also that the masses felt more at home with beings who, while of divine nature or associations, were not too far removed from the human level.
They were keenly interested in winning the pagans to the faith and they succeeded. But undoubtedly one element in their success was the inclusion in their system of the doctrine of the veneration of Saints.”

The Holy Right, or the hand of St. Stephen. St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. Click for attribution and for a bigger image

Veneration and Worship

Now veneration and worship are considered differently by the Church. Veneration is a lesser-degree adoration, while worship is due to God alone.

[Veneration of saints is accepted today, as far as I know, not only by the Catholic Church but also by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutherans. Some of the saints mentioned above might belong to those churches too, hard for me to say]

Gordon J. Laing observed in 1931:

“The Church has never taught the worship of Saints […] but whether the peasants of southern Italy and other parts of Europe distinguish with any degree of precision between veneration and worship is another question. It is not likely that they do, and for those who are looking for evidence of the continuance of the creative power of Roman religion, the beliefs of the illiterate are of as much importance as the formulated doctrines of the Church. Our subject is not survivals of paganism in the modern Church but survivals in modern times.”

Roman Pompa vs San Gennaro’s Procession

Procession of San Gennaro in Naples. Photo by Antonio Alfano

We will finish our posting with a fascinating passage by Gordon J. Laing:

“The similarity in attitude of mind of pagan and Christian devotees and the survival of the polytheistic idea in modern times may be seen in a comparison of the behavior of the people who watched the procession which preceded the circus games in ancient Rome [pompa circensis was a grand procession before the games: read a description at LacusCurtius, MoR] and that of the crowd which fills the streets of Naples today on the occasion of the festival held in May in honor of San Gennaro [Saint Januarius,] the patron saint of the city.

In the old Roman procession a conspicuous place was given to the images of the gods that were borne along in floats; and as they were carried past, pious Romans called upon the names of those whom they regarded as their special protectors.

So too at the Naples festival. In the procession referred to the images of many Saints, each of them with his own place in the affections of the Neapolitan proletariat, are carried from the Cathedral to the Church of Santa Chiara. Saints of all centuries are there, some of whom attained the dignity hundreds of years ago, while others are more recent creations. As the procession moves along, persons in the crowd call out the name of their patron Saint, and when the image of San Biagio, a sort of Christian Aesculapius with special powers in diseases of the throat, passes by, the Neapolitan mothers hold up their croupy bambini and implore a remedy.”

San Gennaro’s blood venerated by the Neapolitans

[Note. Patron saints remind also of the practice of patronage in ancient Rome (see our post on Ancient patronage and clientage,) since beyond a doubt between the believer and the saint – exactly like between patrons and clients – there is like a sort of exchange: prayers and offers in exchange of favour and protection in certain areas of life.]

ψ

Related posts:

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever
Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Household altar in Herculaneum, Italy. Click for attribution and to enlarge

“Everything is Full of Gods”

Sledpress has mentioned Greek Heraclitus who stated that “everything is full of gods.”

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Pandemonism (or animism, see below), common to both Indo-Europeans and non Indo-Europeans, was fundamental also in the original Roman religion.

We have seen in our last writing how the Romans invoked the goddess of Fever, Febris, in order to be saved from malaria. They believed that fever itself (febris in Latin) was (or housed) a power that could therefore be invoked in order to escape death.

Deeply en-rooted in the rural areas such animistic polytheism never faded when the Romans met other folks and cultures and their religion became more complex. It was spread to the lands controlled by Rome (mixing with other forms of animism / polytheism) and it survived both the end of the Empire and the advent of Christianity – in the case of Febris we have seen how the goddess almost seamlessly became Our Lady of the Fever.

Such religious attitude went all throughout the Middle Ages thanks to the cult of saints, relics and miracles, and only from the Renaissance onwards some Christians abandoned it  – Calvinists and the Reformed churches especially, while Lutherans and Anglicans were possibly a bit more tolerant about it as far as I know.

Many Protestants engaged in a ‘war against the idols’ seeing the saints (with some right) as successors of the pagan gods.

The foot reliquary of St James, Namur, Belgium. The spirits of the saints were said to actually remain in the bodily remains.

Roman Pandemonism. A closer Look

Pandemonism – from Greek pan (πάν, all) + demon (δαίμων, spirit) – implies that there is a power or will in any object, action, idea or emotion. By worshipping such power (called numen by the Romans) man strove to bend nature to his purposes.

The religious practices regarding Roman numina were extremely complicated (and in case of an error in the ritual the ceremony had to be restarted,) the exact rites and words were known only to the pater familias, the priest of the family, a sacred entity, and handed down from father to son.

Outside the family – the state, another sacred entity – the rites and the words (regarding public, non domestic numina this time) were known originally to the kings and their priests only and later to the pontifices and other colleges of priests. They also were passed on from generation to generation and became immutable.

Speaking generally of the Roman numina R. H. Barrow [The Romans, Penguin 1949; the preceding paragraph owes something to him] observes that many household gods “have passed into the languages of Europe: Vesta, the spirit of the hearth-fire; the Penates, the preservers of the store-cupboard; the Lares, the guardians of the house. But there were many others.”

‘Many others’ is a bit of an understatement. They were in the hundreds and concerned every aspect of human life: household (there including every part of the house – door, hinges, threshold etc. – with its specific guardian god,) conception, pregnancy, love relationships (very rich this Wikipedia article on Roman birth and childhood deities), all phases of a person’s life; not to mention, on a more public sphere, agriculture (the priest of Ceres for example evoked twelve spirits at the start of the sowing season,) State (with public gods more or less corresponding to domestic gods,) commerce, war and so forth.

Tutelary Spirits of Child’s Development

As for child’s developement (Gordon J. Laing), without appropriate rites to Lucina, there was no good birth. No rites to Vagitanus? No first cry of the baby. Were Cunina or Rumina neglected? No security in the cradle or no breastfeeding respectively. No rites to Cuba? No sleep for the child in bed. Or, was Fabulinus disregarded? The child didn’t talk. And, if Statanus wasn’t correctly propitiated the child didn’t stand.

Moreover:

Abeona and Adeona attended him in his first ventures from the house; as he grew to maturity Catius sharpened his wits, Sentia deepened his feeling, while Volumna stiffened his will. And so he was passed from god to god and the long line of divine relays only ended when Viduus [at the end of his life, MoR] parted body and soul.”

[Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion, Longmans, Green and Co., New York 1931, where I took the list of the above tutelary spirits and other information]

Roman Fortuna holding in her arms Plutus, god of wealth. Istanbul

Also Bigger Gods were Specialized

Not only such small deities were part of the Roman pandemonism but the Pantheon of medium and bigger gods as well, such as Fortuna, Diana, Juno and the like, whose cult titles and epithets are evidence of a high level of specialization.

Fortuna for example – see a Roman statue above -, a medium goddess not as big as Juno but considered very powerful by the Romans, ramified into Fortuna Virginalis (fortune of the virgins), Fortuna Privata (fortune of the private individual), Fortuna Publica (fortune of the people), Fortuna Huiusce Diei (fortune of the present day or luck right now), Fortuna Primigenia (fortune of the first-born: a huge temple in Praeneste, today’s Palestrina, still surviving – just a few km from Rome – saw parents in the thousands bringing their first-borns to Fortuna Primigenia), Fortuna Bona (or good fortune), Fortuna Mala (bad luck), Fortuna Belli (fortune in war), Fortuna Muliebris (fortune of the married women), Fortuna Virilis (luck of women with men) etc.

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Next time we will try to better understand how this “departmental idea of divinity” (to quote Gordon J. Laing) survived in the veneration of saints.

Italian translation

Related posts:

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Read also:

Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

Malaria in Ancient Rome. From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Malaria Plagued Rome and Greece

It seems clear today that malaria heavily plagued classical Rome and Greece (read this article out of many.)

Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929,) a key figure in the archaeology and topography of ancient Rome, tells us about malaria in the city in his Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries, Houghton, Mifflin and C., Boston and New York, 1888 (chap. III., available on-line at LacusCurtius.)

“With regard to the site of Rome itself – Lanciani observes -, we can hardly believe the words of Cicero (De Represent., 2, 6,) in which he describes it as in regione pestilenti salubris, salubrious in a pestilential region, although the same observation is made by Livy, who considers it almost a prodigious fact that the town should prove healthy in spite of the pestilent and desert region by which it was surrounded (5, 54 – 7, 38.) They evidently refer to the state of things prevailing in their own age.”

The Goddess of the Fever

Many centuries before Cicero’s and Livy’s time, when Rome was at its beginnings, the virulence of malaria was much more severe, as it is attested according to Lanciani “by the large number of altars and shrines dedicated by its early inhabitants to the goddess of the Fever [called Febris, MoR] and other kindred divinities.” It seems that men were “imploring from heaven the help which they failed to secure with their own resources.”

At the time of Varro instead (116 BCE – 27 BCE) “there were not less than three temples of the Fever left standing – Lanciani continues – : one on the Palatine, one in the square of Marius on the Esquiline, one on the upper end of the Vicus Longus, a street which corresponds, within certain limits, to the modern Via Nazionale.”

The reason seems clear to me. From the last Etruscan kings onwards the local marshes had been drained and advances in the sewerage system together with a better hygiene had favoured a healthier sanitary condition.

Nonetheless scholars today think that the months from July to October were unsafe in Rome at whatever epoch; which is confirmed by Roman authors advising the population to leave the city during the hot season – which incidentally only the rich could do, with their wonderful country villas awaiting them during such unhealthy months. The populace instead, stuck in the city, died in the thousands each year because of malaria.

The Goddess Returns as Our Lady of the Fever

A stamp with Our Lady of the Fever, issued by the Vatican on March 12, 2002

When centuries later the Western Roman empire collapsed «Rome, almost annihilated by the inroads of barbarians, found itself in a condition almost worse than that of its early age, powerless to accomplish any work of improvement, and exposed again to the full influence of malaria.»

So «the inhabitants – Lanciani concludes – raised again their eyes towards God, built a chapel near the Vatican in honour of the Madonna della Febbre — our Lady of the Fever — which became one of the most frequented and honoured chapels of mediaeval Rome.»

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From the goddess of the Fever to the Madonna of the Fever.

Another indication of how the transition from Paganism to Christianity occurred in Italy and elsewhere.

Tabernacle by Donatello with at the centre a medieval fresco of the Madonna della Febbre

Over at the Hannibal’s. Can We Really ‘Know’ the Greco-Romans? 1

Riots in Athens. Click for credits and larger picture

Here’s the promised conversation between Douglas and myself about the Greeks, the ‘dark side’ of the ancients and much much more.

Read the original conversation at the Hannibal blog where Andreas Kluth, a wonderful host, is btw the first German I stumbled upon – important to me – although Andreas is very Anglo-Saxon too.

He’s innocently unaware he’s like a perfect-to-me specimen from the German Roman Limes area … 😉 A great point of observation, kidding apart, for a blog like mine (read Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds.)

Now our vague-logic conversation, but let me say I’ve got another great tool for brain re-juicing outside blog dialectic: my Haman, or thermae, or simply my ‘thermal’ bath(room.)

No big deal, just a small place of comfort to test the effects of cold and hot water (& steam showers plus gymnastics,) and where many of the things I ponder get unexpected solutions (see Relax & Creativity.)

Roman Bath sign found in Sabratha, Libya. Click for credits and to zoom in. ‘Salvum lavisse’ was a greeting after a bath: ‘Well washed in health’.

The Ancients, Do We Idealize Them?

Andreas: Cheri speaks as though from my own heart in lamenting the Greeks. How, oh how, to reconcile their ancient grandeur with their Euro-busting, book-cooking financial profligacy of today?”

[Cheri, another great blogger and about to go to Athens, had expressed preoccupation for the riots etc. See the picture at the top, MoR]

Thomas Stazyk: “One of the Greek protesters was interviewed on BBC and said: “They [gov’t officials] stole all the money. Then they borrowed more money and stole that!”

MoR: “Allow me to disagree a bit here. I won’t discuss here the Greek failure – linked to Greek sins surely, but also to problems created elsewhere.

As I said over at Cheri’s, the beauty of going to Greece, to parts of Southern Italy (even to Rome), Turkey, Northern Africa etc. is the time machine thing. We don’t go there to see things working – if we want just that we should keep going to Sweden, North Germany or the US. When we go to the Med – or even more to India etc. – we go to see places and especially people – not only monuments – caught in the past, living remnants of an ancient world we are not always satisfied to admire from a library. This is the beauty of such trips. Of course there is a price to be paid. My daughter, 26, is now working in Mumbai for a month. She has started to love Mumbai immensely, but she is also paying a price for it.

This for today’s survivals of the past. As for the ancients themselves, Cheri suspects she is idealizing them a bit. I do it often too. But if we read attentively the ancient Greek texts (the Roman ones are no different) we don’t have only Pericles or Aristotle, but horrible poverty, thousands of slaves abused or, even worse, dying slowly in the Athenian silver mines, child prostitution widespread in ways not easily imaginable, the Macedonians (Alexander and his father included) ending up their dinners in wild and drunken orgies most of the time.

Greek adult with a slave boy. Click for credits

In the oration against Neaira, [pseudo] Demosthenes reconstructs with horrifying details 50 years of the life of a prostitute. It is a depiction of what could have been the life of an outcast in 4th century BCE Greece.”

[oration’s text at Perseus Digital Library]

Life of the Common Citizen

Douglas: “MoR, it is always the elites we are told of in the histories. Those who ruled, who were influential, who owned property, who were the ‘movers and shakers’ of whatever society (or culture) we delve into. The life of the common citizen is seldom mentioned.”

MoR: “Douglas, there’s not only the histories (and often even the histories are non conventional, like Herodotus and Suetonius, or even Plutarch) but all sorts of comedies, and novels, Greek and Roman, that depict everyday life (upper and lower classes and slaves too), plus, as I said, the speeches of the lawyers full of realistic details, & satires mocking follies (Juvenal etc.) or epigrams like Martial’s, so colourful but also shocking for their details on brutality in Rome. I mean, there’s plenty of records of the ancients’ everyday life, which may sounds often disgusting to us (they had different ethical codes) and totally non puritanical. I am not that expert in any case, I am just a dilettante having fun connecting the modern and ancient – a very ‘edgy’ place antiquity. My problem is this language. I write in English with all sort of dictionaries. Fascinating, but painful.”

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 –1904). Public domain, click to zoom in

Douglas: “Please do not misunderstand me but who wrote those histories? All writing, all observations, reflects the perspective of the writer. In that, they are written as they are seen, not as they perhaps are.

Take any given incident, collect the witnesses, ask them what happened. Only by a collection of perspectives can one gain a knowledge of what actually occurred. Even in that there is an element of bias on the part of the one piecing it together.

So, yes, I am sure the life of an average Roman was not all orgies, high living, and wine-soaked afternoons at the Colosseum. Life was cruel for those who had no family connections, money, or position of power. It does not take a genius to figure this out.

But histories do not reflect the average person’s life. They reflect the life of those in power, those with influence, and those who achieved.

Or, put another way, you do not learn how the scribe lived but how his patron did.

I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective. You might not understand how life is for the people who deliver the goods to the market or keep the phones working or whose family must all work in order to pay the bills.

In the end, it comes down to what is the ‘average person’ and how that status is determined.”

Augustine and Monica, (1846), by Ary Scheffer. Click to enlarge

MoR:

“But histories do not reflect the average person’s life.

Of course they don’t, although I don’t get what you mean by histories. Surely life of the ancients was not all orgies or wine soaked days spent at the Colosseum, but it seems likely it did not know the sexual repression of Christianity [see above Augustine, too an ‘open-minded’ Pagan first, too a strict Christian later], at least at certain periods, conditions, places. And, frankly, I don’t see what’s the big deal about it.

I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective.

The ancients we will probably never know who they really were but what is certain is, they were VERY different. Take a god like Dionysus Bacchus, worshipped by the poor and the rich alike, almost all around ritual madness, ecstasy and, basically, eroticism: it is painted sculpted carved EVERYWHERE in both Rome and Greece.

The term ’the ancients’ is of course too vague. There are plenty of scholars’ books depicting everyday life – for different classes – in 5th century Athens or Augustus’ Rome or Alexandria at the times of this or that monarch. They are just guesses based on the sources we have which is not much but it is growing because research is progressing (for example we see the reasons of the Fall of Rome quite differently now from what we thought, say, 50 years ago, but I am shifting).

We will never know what was the real life of a Roman at Caesar’s time, for example, like, even for today, you are right, my testimony of contemporary Rome is certainly subjective and partial, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

Douglas: “Let me put it another way, my friend… What do you suppose the literacy rate was in, say, ancient Rome?
Of current times and high (comparatively to ancient times) literacy rates, what percentage of people visit our vast array of museums, operas, ballets, and such?I say we can only know what we are told and what we are told is dictated by the mindsets, biases, and consciences of those that can pass the knowledge on. We cannot know what is true.”

[to be continued; read part 2]

Basilica di San Clemente, Nero’s Domus Aurea and the Mithraic Mysteries

San Clemente, named after Pope Clement I, 3rd successor of St Peter, is located in via San Giovanni in Laterano, called 'Stradone S. Giovanni' by today's Romans (see 2 pictures below.) Click for credits and to zoom in.

Mostly Otium (little Negotium)

As I said in the previous post (1) we are having some rest although (2) we are obliged to take care of our company a bit plus (3) I’m having fun musing upon ancient texts I try to read in the original.

Moreover (4) my walk paths about Rome will also follow a tentative list of archaeological places I want to visit much more attentively than I ever did before.

As a Celtic unspoilt-heart poet once wrote:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

[Btw, 1, 3, 4 are called otium in Latin (leisure, sort of), while 2 is called negotium (business, sort of.) The on-line magazine Otium from Uchicago may be worth glancing through]

 

Caelian hill with San Clemente on the right, the Coliseum on the left, via di San Giovanni with 'Gay Street' at its left end right on top of Gladiators' Ludus Magnus. Above, the Domus Aurea villa area on the beginning Esquiline slope where I take my walks (Google Maps)

A Jewish Freedman: Pope Clement I

Now, as an appetizer I have just been to a place nearby, the Basilica di San Clemente as I told Paul Costopoulos.

One of the greatest places in Rome for archaeology history and religion, this basilica was named after Pope St Clement, the third successor of St Peter.

According to recent research Clemens was a Jewish freedman who belonged to the household of the martyr Titus Flavius Clemens, great-nephew of the Roman Emperor Vespasian.

[It is known freedmen or liberti – also called libertini, nothing to do with libertinestook the family name or their own master’s name though we’ll see Roman naming conventions another day]

 

San Clemente on the Stradone or Via San Giovanni in Laterano. This is where we buy bread and eat the true Neapolitan Pizza. Direction is towards the bigger Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. Photo by MoR, public domain.

The Pilgrimage Road where Gay Street is now

 

Today’s basilica was built during the High Middle Ages (12th cent. AD) and despite some baroque maquillage it is still romanesque in its main structure. It is located on the ‘via di San Giovanni in Laterano’ pilgrimage road that led (and still leads) to San Giovanni in Laterano, the Roman Popes’ former residence until they moved to St. Peter at the Vatican.

The last 325-yard area of this road just in front of the Colosseum is today called Gay street. I think gays & lesbians feel protected right in the heart of pagan Rome, with (see the Google map above) the Oppian hill and Nero’s Domus to the right, the Coliseum in front, and just under their feet the Ludus Magnus, the greatest school of gladiators of the Empire (see a model of it.)

Popes or Pontiffs – can’t stop digressing – come from the Pontifices, singular Pontifex, a member of ancient Rome’s highest-ranking state priests’ Collegium (college), whose chief was the pontifex maximus.  Well, the Pope’s title is Pontifex Maximus too, therefore implying not only the actual Bishop of Rome but the survival (possibly) of such ancient magistratus. Majestic Julius Caesar was a Pontifex Maximus as well. I like the idea so much allow me.

Four Strata of History

High time now to tell the story of San Clemente, a tale made of 4 strata.

1) In the first century AD the area was occupied by insulaeapartment buildings for the indigent plebs – some plebeians were tho rich and belonged to the upper class -and for the Equites, middle class of knights (equestrians.)

Nero's Domus Aurea octagonal building (see below)

These houses were burnt in the famous Nero’s fire of Rome in 64 AD. Nero was only too happy to embody the area into his Domus Aurea (infos here too,) a marvellous portico villa with rooms sumptuously decorated and of various geometrical shapes, whose gardens covered parts of the Palatine, Esquiline and Caelian hills (so it possibly included the location of my house too: possibly the whole Google map above was Domus Aurea.)

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, equestrian and historian, called it a rus in urbe or ‘countryside in the city’ for its imaginative (and eccentric) man-made landscapes such as a luxurious (luxuriosus) pond where the future Colosseum will be built.

Axonometric Drawing of the DA, built by Severus and Celer in 64 AD, Rome. The central octagon with dome.

 

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

2) After Nero’s damnatio memoriae the gutted buildings were again utilized as foundation for further houses (1rst-2nd cent. AD,) at a level roughly corresponding to the Coliseum’s floor.

3) The third level – 4rth century, see image below – displays 2 buildings, communicating via a a narrow passage: one (on the right in the picture) is an apartment in whose courtyard we admire a Mithraeum (see the other picture under the first one); the other (on the left) is a magnificent rectangular area built on large tufa blocks supporting brick walls clad with light yellow travertine,  the house possibly of Titus Flavius Clemens, even larger than the nave of the actual Basilica.

4) The fourth level is the 12th cent. AD basilica which later had the baroque maquillage. We mentioned the pilgrimage road. Those were the times of the crusades and of the conflict with the Muslims, much more advanced than Europeans.

3rd levelFourth Century Church and Mithraeum (from E. Junient, Titolo di San Clemente)
The Mithraeum of San Clemente. See triclinii for ritual meal and the altar

Mithra, Šamaš, Μίθρας.
The Indo-European Bullshit

First of all let’s get rid of the Indo-European bullshit.

Mithra was the main god of polytheistic Iranians who were mainly Indo-Europeans, true, but the god stemmed from a complex process which includes at least 2 fusions (syncretisms.)

A. One started in Babylon, Mesopotamia [Μεσοποταμία, ie (land) ‘between the rivers’, today’s Iraq,] which was and is Semitic. Out there the Babylonian sun god Šamaš was the common Akkadian name of the sun god in both Babylonia and Assyria.

[the everlasting relationship between Persia and Mesopotamia, ie Iran and Iraq, continues today with both exchanges and wars we all know …]

B. Such process reached a second larger syncretism in Asia Minor [Μικρά Ασία or Aνατολή: today’s Turkey] when the Persian empire collapsed under the conquest by Alexander the Great – Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος – in 330 BC. From that moment Mithraism became hellenized and especially romanized in terms of Platonic philosophy (the Greeks had suffered too much because of the Persian wars to fully embrace Mithraism.)

Mithra – see picture below – who slays the cosmic bull to generate life: from its blood sprang grain and grape, from its sperm the animals etc. With Hellenism he became the Platonic rational creator (demiurge) of the universe as we can read in Plato’s Timaeus – something to peruse to better grasp.

We’ll see all this in the next post. I’ll try to find inspiring passages, we need inspiration to understand.

Mithra about to slay the cosmic bull and to create the universe ... (click for credits and to enlarge)

Any Survivals of the Sun God?

While walking back home, while seeing roads in this city, statues, churches, inscriptions I’m starting to decipher a little bit better, I am asking myself:

Has this god of light & sun [θεός του φωτός και του Ήλιου] left traces or is he totally disappeared?

Well, you’ll be amazed by the list of survivals concerning the Western and Eastern mind I’ve prepared for you.

Just wait to delve a bit into the fascinating mythology, cosmology and worship of Mithraism!

The Day Paganism Yielded To Christianity. Has India Anything To Do With It?

I’m preparing 2 posts I hope will help readers to easily learn some ancient Greek and Latin but I need a few more days.

The whole thing is in fact tough and I’m a bit breathless.

Not because of the poems – they are ready (and will be in progress in any case.) It is the cultural context around them that has exhausted – and troubled me – a bit.

I’ll try to explain.

Ψ

Andreas Kluth’s Hannibal blog – a place extraordinaire I stumbled upon months ago – had once presented a fascinating metaphor possibly created by a certain Professor Phillip Cary.

“You can think – Andreas wrote – of “Western culture” as a human body:

[nums by MoR instead of stars].

1. The left leg is ancient Athens and Rome, Socrates and Aristotle;
2. the right leg is Jerusalem and the Bible, Moses and Jesus;
3. the crotch is the end of the Roman empire when the two “legs” met ;
4. the torso is the Middle Ages, when the two traditions became one [Dante, MoR];

[etc etc up to the rest of the body that can be pondered over at the Hannibal blog, *here* and *there*; MoR]

Ψ

Ok. The left leg (1) – the Classical – has been THE main topic of this blog so far.

The research around my Greek and Latin classes though caused the other leg (2) – the Judeo-Christian – to more or less pound on my head.

Ouch what a blow my dear readers!  – and later I might tell you why.

Constantine's dream of a sign from the Christian God

Mario: A blow? Why TH do you care? Just go ahead with the left leg, you always were a leftist ah ah ah!

MoR: You moron, MY problem is the ancient languages classes Mario! Now it turns that, while the classical texts are hard (leg 1), the Judeo-Christian ones (leg 2) are often that easy – Old and New Testament alike – that even a baby can read them, for reasons fascinating not the place here to discuss.

[I know there are comics, that there are web sites plus the Latin and Greek Wikipedia- which I adore. But I always prefer the best literature for language learning: ie starting with what is matchless]

Extropian: MoR is right. Wanna get into mountain climbing? Forget the Everest and start with simple (tho captivating) hills.

MoR: Ok ok Extropian, but you 2 didn’t get the MAIN point.
I’m not only facing here the daunting task of presenting the context of the greatest spiritual revolution the West ever hadthe switch from Paganism to Christianity. And btw I’m a guy who, revering the Classical as much as I do, is not exactly excited to see the DEATH of it  …

Extropian: “Num 3, the crotch?

MoR:
The crotch, yes. Problem being: there’s a lot more, and a lot earlier.

Extropian: Urghhh!
A LOT earlier??

Serapis, an Hellenistic-Egyptian god in Antiquity (since the III century BC)

MoR: Yyyeees! While trying to figure out the spiritual context of the poems, much to my horror (and fascination) did I realise that the (Judeo)-Christian leg was part of bigger – much more ancient  – streams originating from Egypt and from the East (both Middle and Far East.)

To be more precise – and in a reversed order: from Egypt, Thrace, Anatolia, Palestine (the Jews, naturally, crucial,) Mesopotamia, Persia AND India.

Mario: India??? Oh oh oh oh ….India AGAIN???

Extropian
[*getting more attentive*]

MoR: I’ll repeat it! The Greco-Romans had already encountered A LOT EARLIER that much wider oriental humus – of which the Judeo-Christian leg was just a part – much earlier I mean than when we finally get to the darn crotch – ie the switching to Christianity and soon after that cataclysm, ie the horrible end of the Roman empire.

Extropian: [*lost in reflection, eyes gleaming*] Mmmm, how MUCH earlier

MoR: 800-850 years earlier, more or less. I’ll check better but I’d bet on it.

Ψ

Long pause. Pauses are important. The sun begins to shine through the clouds folds over the eternal city  … We drink strong coffee.

Ψ

MoR: Which led me to reconsider the Judeo-Christian tradition as being NOT TOTALLY EXTRANEOUS to the Classical World (!) as I first had thought.

A kind of a BLOW, plus a troubling one because I got fascinated by it.

I told Lichanos over at his blog – his posts inspired me as for the Jewish heritage: “I feel the need of coming to terms with both traditions or legs – I said – AND, should I get back to Christianity, I will SUE you …”  🙂

Ψ

The silence in my study-room is now disturbed only by Mario che smadonna piano piano … My friends love me and they are worried. I am just excited.

This was happening yesterday in an apartment in Rome.

On another area of the planet 70 million Hindus plus 40,000 Indian politicians were /are about to gather near the banks of the Ganges. The water is cold. It is flowing to the plains directly from the Himalayas. The water is also dirty.

Indian crowds over the Ganges to purify themselves. Click for credits and to enlarge

Not that the Indians will care – about the cold or the dirtiness. All they care about – the poor and the low caste, the rich and the high caste – is this sacred water purifying them from their sins and helping them with better reincarnations.

The Kumbh Mela hindu festival might though be special this year. The convergence of the 12-yearly Kumbh Mela with the longest solar eclipse of the millennium – it is believed – could guarantee an end to the reincarnation cycle.

Note. Sin. Purified by sacred water. ‘Souls’ and ‘bodies’ separated but incessantly reuniting in a reincarnation cycle of life and death.

Ah what a marvellous introduction to what we are about to narrate!