Performance of the Saecular Games in 204 CE (CIL VI, 32326-32336)

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Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Set up near the Tarentum altar, beside the Tiber in the north-west Campus Martius.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Displayed in the small chiostro of the Certosa di Santa Maria degli Angeli, Epigraphic Museum at the Baths of Diocletian, Rome.
204 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Originally inscribed on a marble pillar, now badly fragmented in 10 known pieces, with much of the text lost.
CIL VI, 32326-32336
Complete text: Pighi, Giovanni Battista, De ludis saecularibus populi Romani Quiritium libri sex, 2nd edition Amsterdam: Schippers, 1965 p. 142
This extract is taken from a much longer, very fragmentary inscription that was set up in Rome by Septimius Severus and Caracalla, to record their celebration of the Saecular Games, the ludi saeculares, in 204 CE. It is an important text for what it reveals about Septimius Severus’s exploitation of Augustan models and ideology to support his own claims of legitimacy and success, but it also reveals much about the plurality of cults within the empire. These lines in particular are interesting because they demonstrate a kind of piety and worship that occurred across the empire in aggregate form.
Although now in a very fragmentary state, with much of the text missing, it is possible to reconstruct the first part of the inscription (not given here) with some confidence, owing to its close following of earlier inscriptions that also recorded the celebration of the ludi saeculares. These inscriptions were set up from 17 BCE onwards in the north-western area of the Campus Martius, alongside the Tiber and next to an altar called the Tarentum, which was believed to be the original location of the foundation of the games. The exact origins of the games are unclear, but from the first century BCE at least, they were explained by a story set in Rome’s mythical past; a certain Valesius, seeking care for his sick children, was ordered by the gods to take them to ‘Tarentum’, which he understood to mean the Greek colony in the south of Italy. Leaving the Sabine territory where he lived, he stopped next to the Tiber in Rome to spend the night, heating water from the river on a fire that he built on the same spot known as ‘Tarentum’ in the Circus Maximus. His children awoke cured, due to an altar dedicated to Dis Pater and Proserpina, which lay buried beneath the sire of his fire, to whom Valesius declared three nights of sacrifices, games and theatrical performances in thanks for their gift to his children (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings II.4.5; Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome I, p. 202). The name ‘Saecular’ implies that the games celebrated the end of one saeculum – 100, or 110 years, believed to be longest span of human life – and the beginning of the next, but the actual instances in which they were thrown in the Republican period is very obscure; Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price consider only two occasions – 249 BCE and 146 BCE – on which the games actually occurred, with the earliest date most likely connected with the First Punic War (Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome I, p. 71). This instance of the games was mentioned by Varro, who describes a sacrifice to the gods of the Underworld (Dis Pater and Proserpina) that was celebrated at this same spot in the Campus Martius (Varro cited in Censorinus, De die Natali 17.8).
Far more is known of the version of the Saecular Games that were celebrated by Augustus, who included them in his general reorganisation and reinvention of early Roman religion (Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome I, p. 72). Under Augustus, the games shifted in focus away from the underworld gods, and towards the emperor himself, and also his heir Agrippa. Through “imaginative calculation,” Augustus fixed the end of a saeculum in 17 BCE, which is attested by the earliest known inscription from the site on the Campus Martius (Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome I, p. 139; for the inscription, see CIL VI, 32323). The inscription recorded the words of Augustus informing the priesthood of the quindecemviri, the ‘board of fifteen’ who were to be in charge of proceedings, what the date and arrangements of the games were to be, and a series of edicts from the quindecemviri to the people explaining the celebration and how it was to be celebrated with ritual offerings, prayers, banquets, and of course the games. These were followed by two decrees of the Senate. The details of the rituals described in the inscription put Augustus and Agrippa at centre stage, leading the prayers, each of which ended with the statement “for me, my house and my household” (mihi domo familiae); this was a traditional formula for prayers, but when stated by Augustus and his heir, they “acquired a new resonance” that emphasised the central importance of the dynasty he was in the process of establishing (Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome I, p. 202-203; for other uses of this formula, see e.g. Cato, On Agriculture, 13; 139; 141). Celebrated at intervals believed to represent the fullest length of human life, the Saecular Games were necessarily then connected with the ‘lifecycle’ of Rome, with the games held in 17 BCE therefore in honour of her ‘rebirth’ and the ‘new life’ that was initiated under Augustus (for what the games and performances entailed, see Rowan, Under divine auspices, p. 50-. 59)
The first reason for the games celebrated by Septimius Severus in 204 CE was that the date was exactly 220 years after the Augustan cycle, and so conformed to the 110-year schedule implemented by the first emperor; Domitian had held games after 104 years in 88 CE, and Claudius had ordered them too in 47 CE, in this case to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the city (Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome, I, p. 206). Septimius Severus, however, stuck to the precise dates planned by Augustus, presumably in order to capitalise on the legitimacy of first princeps; there were obvious parallels between the two emperors, both of whom had come to power following civil war, and both of whom stressed the importance of family as a central tenet of their political ideology (Rantala, The Ludi Saeculares, p. 42). Just as Augustus promoted Livia and his adopted sons in his renewal of traditional Roman morals and social reforms, Septimius Severus highlighted his wife Julia Domna, and son and heir Caracalla, intimating that the concordia of the imperial household would again lead to the concordia and harmony of the empire as a whole. Although the games celebrated under Septimius Severus followed Augustan procedure closely, with the basic arrangement of sacrifices, prayers, and performances unaltered from their description in the 17 BCE inscription, a new prayer was introduced that highlighted the imperial family and their essential role as the moral and religious example to which all inhabitants of the empire should aim. Just as Augustus ordered a special issue of coins to be struck in honour of the Saecular Games of 17 BCE, Septimius Severus also minted a series, which recalled the image of the reverse of Augustus’s earlier issue, the ritual of suffimenta, in which the materials necessary for Roman citizens to purify their homes were given out (see e.g. Roman Imperial Coinage, no. 350; Zanker, Power of Images, p. 169-172). The coins bore the legend LVD S for ludi saeculares, indicating that they served not only as currency, but perhaps also acted as an official and visual ‘record’ of the event, which celebrated the emperor’s performance of his religious duty (Rowan, “Augustus, the Ludi Saeculares, and Roman Numismatic Memory”).
The extract of the inscription cited above demonstrates a new development in the emperor’s capacity as the religious leader of the empire. The lines were spoken by a senator, Manilius Fuscus, who was the head of the Roman priestly college of the quindecemviri, and should be noted for the “undetermined language” that was used to express how the rituals should be performed (Ando, Imperial Rome, p. 125). No specific god is mentioned in the text, only the collective “immortal gods” (dii immortales), and the rites themselves simply referred to? as “worship and veneration” (omniaque cultu adque veneratione). Rather than specifying the precise gods to whom such worship and veneration are due, the inscription presents a picture of universal piety that was no longer specific, and which recognised the plurality and variety of religious belief across the empire. By 204 CE, the empire – although united in its recognition of the major Roman pantheon and the imperial cult –contained a multitude of more ‘localised’ practices and traditions. The use of indeterminate language on the part of the state in response to ritual activity both ensured that religious offerings and prayers were aimed at a common objective – the continuity of Roman power – whilst also permitting a certain freedom in the specificities of how those offerings and prayers were made. As Clifford Ando has stated, it was the “attitude of piety…not the absolute sameness of the acts performed everywhere, nor the identity of those ‘immortal gods’ from whom favour is requested” that was now most important (Ando, Imperial Rome, p. 126).
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Performance of the Saecular Games in 204 CE (CIL VI, 32326-32336)
Author(s) of this publication: Caroline Barron
Publishing date: Sat, 08/18/2018 - 19:17
Visited: Tue, 06/06/2023 - 15:55

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