Category Archives: Italy
Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 B.C. came to a sudden end in the late fourth century A.D. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.
The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?
Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years A.D. 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code, which was compiled in the fifth century A.D. by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:
No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.
Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out. Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.
The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period, with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in A.D. 399, after the emperor’s death.
The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century A.D., during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450):
Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.
Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until A.D. 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century A.D. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century A.D. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.
What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century A.D.? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople. The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church. This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.
The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century A.D. meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition.
Let the games continue
The notion that Theodosius I banned the Olympics has quite a history. Back in the 11th century, the Byzantine author Georgius Cedrenus cited the now familiar story of the ban, but it came back into the popular imagination with the advent of the modern Olympic Games under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.
De Coubertin, a French aristocrat, had an inherent belief in the “character-building” capacity of sport. Alongside English educator William Penny Brookes, he formed a committee with a mission to restore the Olympic Games to their former glory, minus tripods, incense, and sacrifices. Athens was the place and 1896 was the year. Following the games, de Coubertin reflected upon his achievement in Century Illustrated Magazine:
It was a thrilling moment. Fifteen hundred and two years before, the Emperor Theodosius had suppressed the Olympic games, thinking, no doubt, that in abolishing this hated survival of paganism he was furthering the cause of progress; and here [opening the games] was a Christian monarch, amid the applause of an assemblage composed almost exclusively of Christians, announcing the formal annulment of the imperial decree; while a few feet away stood the archbishop of Athens, and Père Didon, the celebrated Dominican preacher, who, in his Easter sermon in the Catholic cathedral the day before, had paid an eloquent tribute to pagan Greece.
De Coubertin highlights a problem: for centuries newspapers, periodicals, and literature had propagated the belief that pagan practices, including the Olympics, had rightly been stamped out by the rise and spread of Christianity. Yet the modern Olympic founder was taking pleasure not only in the fact that the games had been revived but also that a Dominican preacher (who was, incidentally, also the inventor of the Olympic motto) had paid tribute to pagan Greece.
The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in de Coubertin’s wider modern Olympic message, which itself was based on an idealised version of Classical Greece. However critically Greek and Roman paganism were viewed, the status of Classical Greece as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had always confirmed its place at the centre of European education. For physical educationalists such as de Coubertin, nothing topped the pinnacle of the Olympic Games, Greece’s oldest and most popular sporting event.
The key was to adapt the games to “the needs and taste of the age”. This meant no more trappings of religious cult. Thus, when Père Didon praised “pagan Greece”, it was as the home of “beauty, grace, and strength all in one” (de Coubertin’s words); the perfect, philosophical place to educate the energetic youth of any era.
Ending with a whimper not a bang
Ultimately, the blame for ending the Olympic Games was laid at the feet of Theodosius I because it was difficult for people to believe that the festival – a defining cultural symbol of antiquity – simply fizzled out after more than a thousand years. The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the later Roman empire became an easy way of explaining the end of this great athletic contest.
By the time de Coubertin came to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, this story was set in stone. In restaging the games in a modern world, he drew inspiration from the athleticism of the Classical Greeks, but left the pagan rituals of the ancient world far behind.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Rarely does L.P. Hartley’s dictum that “the past is a foreign country” hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome.
Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art. Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature.
The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes), were commonly found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling us hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells happiness”).
However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. The depictions of sexuality and sexual activities in classical art seem to have had a wide variety of uses. And our interpretations of these images – often censorious in modern times – reveal much about our own attitudes to sex.
When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called “Secret Cabinet”) of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art – repression and suppression.
The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Access would be restricted to scholars, of “mature age and respected morals”. That was, male scholars only.
In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wallpaintings of the brothel was retained in situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.
Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult. John Murray’s Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain:
Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.
The cabinet was not opened to the general public until 2000 (despite protests by the Catholic Church). Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.
Literature also felt the wrath of the censors, with works such as Aristophanes’ plays mistranslated to obscure their “offensive” sexual and scatalogical references. Lest we try to claim any moral and liberal superiority in the 21st century, the infamous marble sculptural depiction of Pan copulating with a goat from the collection still shocks modern audiences.
The censorship of ancient sexuality is perhaps best typified by the long tradition of removing genitals from classical sculpture.
The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities. The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.
It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.
It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed.
These types of scenes are especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo (central panel of the cup). Hetairai (courtesans) and pornai (prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.
Painted erotica was replaced by moulded depictions in the later Greek and Roman eras, but the use must have been similar, and the association of sex with drinking is strong in this series.
The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps.
The phallus and fertility
Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the centre of much classical art.
The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing. We have already seen the phallus used in a range of domestic and commercial contexts in Pompeii, a clear reflection of its protective properties.
A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in 415 BC when the hermai of Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.
A famous fresco from the House of the Vetti in Pompeii shows Priapus, a minor deity and guardian of livestock, plants and gardens. He has a massive penis, holds a bag of coins, and has a bowl of fruit at his feet. As researcher Claudia Moser writes, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).
It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small. Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.
All representations of large penises in classical art are associated with lustfulness and foolishness. Priapus was so despised by the other gods he was thrown off Mt Olympus. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans.
Myths and sex
Classical mythology is based upon sex: myths abound with stories of incest, intermarriage, polygamy and adultery, so artistic depictions of mythology were bound to depict these sometimes explicit tales. Zeus’s cavalier attitude towards female consent within these myths (among many examples, he raped Leda in the guise of a swan and Danae while disguised as the rain) reinforced misogynistic ideas of male domination and female subservience.
The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theatre and transformation was highly sexualised, as were his followers – the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.
Satyrs were half-men, half-goats. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Indeed the word satyriasis has survived today, classified in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hypersexuality, alongside the female form, nymphomania.
The intention of the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs is clear in their appearance on vases (even if they rarely caught the maenads they were chasing); at the same time their massive erect penises are indicative of the “beastliness” and grotesque ugliness of a large penis as opposed to the classical ideal of male beauty represented by a smaller one.
Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus.
Early collectors of classical art were shocked to discover that the Greeks and Romans they so admired were earthy humans too with a range of sexual needs and desires. But in emphasising the sexual aspects of this art they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols.
The new TV series Britannia airing now (produced for Sky Atlantic in the UK, screening on Foxtel’s Showcase in Australia) is undoubtedly influenced by the scale and success of Game of Thrones. Created by acclaimed English playwright Jez Butterworth, the nine-part series is an ambitious exploration of a profoundly important era in British history.
It tells the story of the second Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when the Roman fleet under the control of the ruthless general Aulus Plautius (a real historical figure played in the series by David Morrissey) lands on the coast of the near-mythical island. It is the story, too, of Celtic Britain tribalism and the Machiavellian interplay with the new Roman arrivals.
Although reviews to date have been mixed, the series is a bold undertaking exploring the clash of cultures. It is the second significant pop cultural exploration of key historical moments in the relationship between Britain and Europe since the Brexit vote. (Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk was the first). It also comes at a time when the relationship between historical fact and fiction is being hotly debated, particularly in relation to the Netflix series The Crown.
Most of what we think we know about the Briton’s religion was proposed by later writers; no contemporary accounts survive. In Britannia, the role of druids, the Celtic priests, within society is presented in an otherworldly, trance-like way. The main druid character Veran (played by MacKenzie Crook) feels like a hallucination.
This renewed popular cultural interest in the establishment of Roman Britain and the Celtic response to the Roman arrival coincides with an exciting and profound period of archaeological discovery and historical reinterpretation of this historical event.
A nod to Caesar
Plautius’s invasion of Britain on orders of Emperor Claudius established Roman rule in much of Britain for nearly 400 years. But it was not the first time Rome came into contact with the tribes of the island.
Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC are mentioned briefly in an opening title of the TV series, which suggests that fear of the Celts drove the Romans to abandon ideas of permanent occupation of the island. The real reason is far more complex. Caesar’s account provided the Romans with their first description of the island and its inter-tribal fighting.
In 2016 and 2017, excavations by the University of Leicester demonstrated that Caesar’s 54 BC fleet was blown off course and landed on the sandy shores of Pegwell Bay in Kent.
Although Caesar left without leaving a military force on Britain, he established a series of client relationships with British royal families in the south-east. These allegiances may have assisted the later Claudian invasion. At the very least, they mean the arrival of Roman forces wasn’t the surprise it is presented as in Britannia.
The Claudian Invasion
The real general Aulus Plautius was regarded highly in Rome, but like his fictional counterpart he did struggle against soldier rumblings. Roman historian Cassius Dio writes that he “had difficulty in inducing his army to advance beyond Gaul. For the soldiers were indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world”.
Why did the emperor Claudius choose to invade Britain? It seems most likely that, like a number of modern political leaders, the invasion allowed Claudius to distract public attention from domestic political issues.
No contemporary account survives of the real invasion. It seems most likely that as depicted in the show, Plautius landed 40,000 men on the coast of Kent, and attempted to negotiate truces and restore Roman friendly monarchs. These ultimately failed. The Romans then undertook a campaign of “shock and awe”, even bringing war elephants to the fight, and established their first provincial capital at Camulodunum (today’s Colchester).
A Roman view
Most of what is known about the Britons, including the dubious druids, was written not by them but by the Romans. The main literary source was written in the late first century AD by Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, served as governor of Roman Britain (after the events of the series).
The traditional Tacitian historical narrative is now being questioned, by both archaeological evidence and new historical interpretation. These point out that in creating a biography of Agricola, Tacitus was presenting a heroic figure, freed from the moral corruption of Rome. In this narrative, he needed worthy adversaries in the form of rebels such as the British chief Calgacus.
It was obviously a complex relationship between native and conqueror, politically and culturally. Mary Beard has famously described Britain as “Rome’s Afghanistan”, an endless struggle to wins hearts and minds in the four centuries that followed Plautius’s forces. Hers is a provocative, but valid description.
The brawling Britons
In the first century AD, Britain was politically fragmented, with a series of constant wars between various tribes, (at least according to Roman sources). In the series tribal warfare is represented by the fictitious Cantii (led by King Pellenor, played by Ian McDiarmid) and Regni tribes (led by Queen Antedia, played by Zoë Wanamaker).
This plotline reflects the Roman literary trope of the brawling Britons; but it appears the reality of the internal political structure was far more complex than Roman writers could ever comprehend. Many of the political groups of the south-east of England had already adopted some Mediterranean cultural traits before the invasion through trade and other contacts with the Roman World. New archaeological excavations at Silchester for example, demonstrate urban planning during the Iron Age, prior to Roman occupation.
British society certainly seems to have been more egalitarian than Roman, with both men and women holding political and military power. The character of the warrior Kerra (played by Kelly Reilly) appears to be presented as some sort of precursor to a figure like Boudica, a Celtic queen who would lead a rebellion within decades.
What about Stonehenge?
Trailers for forthcoming episodes suggest Stonehenge will play a significant role in Britannia’s plot . (It has beenfilmed using a scale replica constructed in the Czech Republic). Meanwhile, the real Stonehenge has undergone a series of recent excavations supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, which have revolutionised the way we think about the site, and destroyed many myths as well.
Again, ultimately, very little is known about the use of Stonehenge at the time of the invasion, nor about Roman conceptions of the structure. (Despite this, modern druids have associated themselves with the structure.)
Irrespective of the quality and historical accuracy of Britannia, the series is a dynamic presentation of an important period of British history. But the real story being slowly teased out by the archaeologist’s trowel is just as dynamic and in many ways, more dramatic and exciting than the fictional one.
Early Roman history is full of stories about the terrible fates that befell citizens who broke the law. When a certain Tarpeia let the enemy Sabines into Rome, she was crushed and thrown headlong from a precipice above the Roman forum.
Such tales not only served as a warning for future generations, they also provided a backstory for some of Rome’s cruellest punishments. Tarpeia is one of many legendary figures who appear in Livy’s History from the Foundation of the City; regardless of whether she was a real person, it became established practice to throw traitors from the “Tarpeian Rock”.
Obey thy father
Roman society was fundamentally hierarchical and patriarchal. A Roman paterfamilias (the family’s oldest living male) had, in theory, the power to kill someone within his household with impunity. This included not only those physically living under his roof, but the wider family of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews as well.
However, historians have debated whether the power may have been largely symbolic and little used in practice. Filippo Carlà-Uhink has argued that the power did exist, but didn’t give heads of the household carte blanche to act as they pleased. For example, the senator Quintus Fabius Maximus Eburnus is said to have killed his son for his “dubious chastity”. But punishing a crime of a sexual nature was not seen as the proper use of a father’s power, so Quintus himself was tried and exiled.
In order for the use of such power to be justified, the son had to have committed a crime against the state. When Aulus Fulvius was killed by his father for his involvement in the conspiracy of Catiline (63 BC), the head of the household was not prosecuted. This was because Catiline and his followers had committed treason by plotting to murder the consul Cicero and seize power for themselves.
A watery and crowded grave
One of the most pervasive misconceptions about Roman criminal justice concerns the penalty for parricide. Anyone who killed his father, mother, or another relative was subjected to the “punishment of the sack” (poena cullei in Latin). This allegedly involved the criminal being sewn into a leather sack together with four animals – a snake, a monkey, a rooster, and a dog – then being thrown into a river. But was such a punishment ever actually carried out?
The epitome of Livy’s History from the Foundation of the City records that in 101 B.C.:
Publicius Malleolus, who had killed his mother, was the first to be sewn into a sack and thrown into the sea.
There is no mention here of any animals in the sack, nor do they appear in contemporary evidence for legal procedure in the late Roman Republic. In 80 B.C., Cicero defended a young man called Sextus Roscius on a charge of parricide, but the murderous menagerie is conspicuously absent from his defence speech.
The animals are attested in a passage from the writings of the jurist Modestinus, who lived in the mid-third century A.D. This excerpt survives because it was later quoted in the Digest compiled at the behest of the emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D.:
The penalty of parricide, as prescribed by our ancestors, is that the culprit shall be beaten with rods stained with his blood, and then shall be sewed up in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a snake, and a monkey, and the bag cast into the depth of the sea, that is to say, if the sea is near at hand; otherwise, he shall be thrown to wild beasts, according to the constitution of the Deified Hadrian.
The snake and the monkey feature in the satirical poems of Juvenal (writing during the age of Hadrian), who suggested that the emperor Nero deserved to be “sacked” with multiple animals for murdering his mother Agrippina. But the dog and the rooster do not appear until the third century A.D., when Modestinus was writing.
The punishment fits the (Roman) crime
So was anyone ever actually punished with all these creatures? The emperor Constantine’s penalty for parricide only specified that snakes should be added to the sack. Parricides were commonly punished in other ways such as being condemned to the beasts, which was very popular in the Roman world.
Many historians have thought that the practicalities of sewing up a dog, a monkey, a rooster, a snake, and a human in a sack together indicates that the penalty was never actually enforced – for one thing, it would be as much a punishment for the executioners as it would for the condemned.
The Romans themselves believed the poena cullei was an ancestral custom – but as with many customs, it was based on preconceptions about the nature of ancient punishments. The best-known version of the penalty for parricide, with all the ferocious fauna included, was a product of the later Roman empire. It was designed to terrify, rather than to be enforced.
The poena cullei entered the standard accounts of Roman criminal law because it fascinated medieval scholars who tried to identify the symbolism of the animals. Florike Egmond has shown that this inspired the introduction of the sack filled with creatures as a punishment in Germanic law, reflecting the belief that a civilized society should follow Roman judicial practices.
To the relief of Germans in the medieval and early modern period, such punishments were rarely carried out. On one occasion, images of the animals were sewn into the sack, as they were considered sufficient substitutes for the real thing.
Thinking of dodging the census?
Taking part in the Roman census was compulsory as the state needed a complete record of citizens’ property for tax purposes. According to the first-century B.C. historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the sixth king of Rome Servius Tullius decreed that anyone who did not participate in the census would lose their property and be sold into slavery.
But questions remain over whether this punishment actually happened – Dionysius was writing centuries after the sixth king’s reign, and Servius Tullius was probably fictional anyway. Dionysius’ contemporary, Livy, records a different penalty – citizens who failed to register were threatened with death and imprisonment.
There is no recorded example of either penalty being enforced. Ancient historian Peter Brunt has proposed that this may have been because Romans always turned up to be registered in order to ensure that their rights as citizens would be guaranteed. It’s worth noting, however, that neither Dionysius nor Livy suggested that the law was still in use in their own time – the harsh punishments may have reflected a later conception of cruelty in early Rome, rather than any historical reality.
Writing in the late Republic, the famous lawyer and politician Cicero states that one man, Publius Annius Asellus, decided not to present himself at the census in order to circumvent an inheritance law – and he only lost the right to vote. The Roman authorities had bigger problems as they were rarely able to carry out the census effectively in the first century B.C. (the first #censusfail). Besides, if you were fighting abroad, living outside of Italy, or unable to travel owing to extreme poverty, the Romans in charge could be quite lenient.
The penalties of census slavery, the power of the father, and the punishment of the sack reflect the Romans’ own conception of their ancestors and the idea that authorities must impose harsh penalties in order to deter offenders. But we need to be careful in reconstructing the histories of such punishments. As the case of parricide shows, the versions we are familiar with today are often a collage of sources from different periods assembled to create one specific punishment that seems authentically “Roman”.
The origins of our days of the week lie with the Romans. The Romans named their days of the week after the planets, which in turn were named after the Roman gods:
- dies Solis “the day of the sun (then considered a planet)”
- dies Lunae “the day of the moon”
- dies Martis, “the day of Mars”
- dies Mercurii, “the day of Mercury”
- dies Iovis, “the day of Jupiter”
- dies Veneris, “the day of Venus”
- dies Saturni, “the day of Saturn”
When the Germanic-speaking peoples of western Europe adopted the seven-day week, which was probably in the early centuries of the Christian era, they named their days after those of their own gods who were closest in attributes and character to the Roman deities.
It was one of those peoples, the Anglo-Saxons, that brought their gods and language (what would become English) to the British Isles during the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
In English, Saturday, Sunday and Monday are named for Saturn, the sun and moon respectively, following the Latin.
The remaining four days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) are named for gods that the Anglo-Saxons probably worshipped before they migrated to England and during the short time before they converted to Christianity after that.
Tuesday is named for the god Tiw, about whom relatively little is known. Tiw was probably associated with warfare, just like the Roman god Mars.
Wednesday is named for the god Woden, who is paralleled with the Roman god Mercury, probably because both gods shared attributes of eloquence, the ability to travel, and the guardianship of the dead.
Thursday is Thunor’s day, or, to give the word its Old English form, Thunresdæg “the day of Thunder”. This sits beside the Latin dies Iovis, the day of Jove or Jupiter. Both of these gods are associated with thunder in their respective mythologies.
You may recognise a similarity here with the name of the famous Norse god Thor. This may be more than coincidence. Vikings arrived in England in the ninth century, bringing their own very similar gods with them. Anglo-Saxons were already Christian by this time, but may have recognised the similarity between the name of their ancestors’ deity Thunor and the Norse god. We don’t know, but the word Thor does appear in written texts from the period.
Friday is the only weekday named for a female deity, Frig, who is hardly mentioned anywhere else in early English. The name does appear, however, as a common noun meaning “love, affection” in poetry. That is why Frig was chosen to pair with the Roman deity Venus, who was likewise associated with love and sex, and was commemorated in the Latin name for Friday.
Of gods and weekdays
The concept of the week, that is, a cycle of seven numbered or named days with one of them (usually Sunday or Monday) fixed as the first, was originally probably associated with the Jewish calendar. This was complicated by the fact that early medieval Europe inherited its idea of the week from imperial Rome, via the Christian church.
In early Christianity the reckoning of time was crucial to the proper celebration of the church’s feast days and holidays, especially the variable feast of Easter.
We find day names similar to English in related European languages, like Dutch, German, and all the Scandinavian or Norse languages. Gods with comparable names, like Tyr, Othinn, Thor and Frigg, were certainly known to the Scandinavians and gave their names to weekdays in Scandinavian languages (compare Modern Danish tisdag, onsdag, torsdag, fredag).
The Latin names for the days of the week, and the Roman gods for which they were named, still live on in all the European Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Italian. Think of French lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi and vendredi, for example, and you will find the Latin Luna, Mars, Mercurius, Iovis and Venus hidden behind them.
January 1 can be a day of regret and reflection – did I really need that fifth glass of bubbly last night? – mixed with hope and optimism for the future, as we make plans to renew gym memberships or finally sort out our tax files. This January ritual of looking forward and backward is fitting for the first day of a month named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings.
Doorkeeper of the heavens
In Roman mythology, Janus was a king of Latium (a region of central Italy), who had his palace on the Janiculum hill, on the western bank of the River Tiber. According to the Roman intellectual Macrobius, Janus was given divine honours on account of his own religious devotion, as he set a pious example for all his people.
Janus was proudly venerated as a uniquely Roman god, rather than one adopted from the Greek pantheon. All forms of transition came within his purview – beginnings and endings, entrances, exits, and passageways. The name Janus (Ianus in Latin, as the alphabet had no j) is etymologically related to ianua, the Latin word for door. Janus himself was the ianitor, or doorkeeper, of the heavens.
The cult statue of Janus depicted the god bearded with two heads. This meant that he could see forwards and backwards and inside and outside simultaneously without turning around. Janus held a staff in his right hand, in order to guide travellers along the correct route, and a key in his left to open gates.
War and Peace
Janus is famously associated with the transition between peace and war. Numa, the legendary second king of Rome, who was famed for his religious piety, is said to have founded a shrine to Janus Geminus (“two-fold”) in the Roman Forum, close to the Senate House. It was located in the place where Janus had bubbled up a spring of hot boiling water in order to thwart an attack on Rome by the Sabines.
The shrine was an enclosure formed by two arched gates at each end, joined together by walls to form a passageway. A bronze statue of Janus stood in the middle, with one head facing towards each gate. According to the historian Livy, Numa intended the shrine:
as an index of peace and war, that when open it might signify that the nation was in arms, when closed that all the peoples round about were pacified.
The gates of Janus are said to have stayed closed for 43 years under Numa, but rarely remained so thereafter, although the first emperor Augustus boasted that he closed the shrine three times. Nero later celebrated his conclusion of peace with Parthia by minting coins showing the gates of Janus firmly shut.
Happy New Year
Romans believed that the month of January was added to the calendar by Numa. The association between Janus and the calendar was cemented by the construction of 12 altars, one for each month of the year, in Janus’s temple in the Forum Holitorium (the vegetable market). The poet Martial thus described Janus as “the progenitor and father of the years”.
From 153 BC onwards, the consuls (the chief magistrates of the Republic) took office on the first day of January (which the Romans called the Kalends). The new consuls offered prayers to Janus, and priests dedicated spelt mixed with salt and a traditional barley cake, known as the ianual, to the god. Romans distributed New Year’s gifts of dates, figs, and honey to their friends, in the hope that the year ahead would turn out to be sweet, as well as coins – a sign of hoped-for prosperity.
Janus assumed a key role in all Roman public sacrifices, receiving incense and wine first before other deities. This was because, as the doorkeeper of the heavens, Janus was the route through which one reached the other gods, even Jupiter himself. The text On Agriculture, written by Cato the Elder, describes how offerings would be made to Janus, Jupiter, and Juno as part of the pre-harvest sacrifice to ensure a good crop.
So if you’re feeling caught between two worlds this January 1, why not head outside and celebrate Roman-style? Pack up some sweets to share, grab your keys, and shut the door on 2017.
Tomorrow: Explainer: the gods behind the days of the week.