August 12 in Roman History

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 8/12/2019


The 12th of August was a religious date on the Roman calendar that honored Hercules, Venus, and Isis. In 30 BCE, it also marked an important choice of one of Rome’s enemies that impacted Augustus’ legacy and reputation through the ages.


1) Honoring Hercules Invictus

Various cults of Hercules (Greek Herakles) are attested throughout Italy from Rome’s earliest days. The Romans likely got this demigod via the Etruscans, who had been trading with the Greeks for generations. There were several temples to Hercules in Rome, but the most important was the one to Hercules Invictus (Hercules Unconquerable) located in the Forum Boarium at the Ara Maxima. It was also the oldest site of the cult of Hercules in Rome. Roman stories said that the cult was established after Hercules killed the monster Cacus, who had been terrorizing the Aventine Hill.

Participants performed the rites as the Greeks had, with their heads uncovered. Romans performed all their other religious rites with their heads covered, so this exception is noteworthy and attests the cult’s foreign origin. There were two parts to the rites: a libation and a sacrifice. The libation was poured using the skyphos of Hercules, which indicates it was likely wine, since a skyphos is a drinking vessel for wine. Priests would also sacrifice oxen, perhaps heifers, which were then served as part of a public feast. Propertius, a Roman poet from the first century BCE, claimed that only men were allowed to witness the rites and participate in the feast.


2) Venus Victrix Honored

This is the first of two annual festivals to Venus Victrix. We aren’t certain what happened at these festivals, but they likely involved sacrifices and a communal meal serving the sacrificed animals, since that was common to Roman temple anniversaries.

Because this festival is mentioned in Ovid, it must relate to the temple for Venus Victrix which was part of the theatre complex Pompey Magnus (the Great), who dedicated it in 55 BCE. This Venus was a warrior goddess, and Pompey was likely honoring her for his rise in power.


3) Lychnapsia

This was a festival of lamps (of all things). It is reported in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated text authored by Furius Dionysius Filocalus (usually known as Filocalus for short) for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus. I’m including it because the Rome Reborn® apps focus on the early part of the fourth century, and this festival is mentioned as part of Roman religious traditions by that time. The festival has been connected to Isis by leading scholars such as Nilsson and Degrassi. Worship of her was by then centuries old in Rome. So, despite the late date of the source mentioning it, this festival may well have long pre-dated the fourth century. The Egyptian background is possible. As early as Herodotus, foreign observers noted that Egyptian religion had festivals that featuring the lighting of lamps.


4) Queen Denies Octavian Full Triumph

When Octavian defeated Anthony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE, he knew that he would be celebrating with a triumphal parade through the city of Rome. Triumphal parades were part civic and part religious recognitions of military success. As the most powerful man in Rome, Octavian may not have needed such a spectacle to trumpet his authority, but having one would play into his political messaging that he was supporting the Republican traditions by “accepting” the honor from the Senate.

The triumphal parade featured the troops as well as their general. It also included valuable spoils of war taken from the conquered people. Among the spoils were enemy soldiers captured in battle and forced to march in chains in the parade. In the case of Octavian’s triumph, the pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, who was Anthony’s partner in all ways, would have been a major prize to display before the assembled people of Rome. Even more humiliating for Cleopatra was the likelihood that near the climax of the parade, she would have been put to death in the state prison (Carcer).

The Egyptian ruler instead went into her prepared tomb and committed suicide. It is likely that she used poison to kill herself. Upon hearing of her death, Anthony, too, killed himself.

Octavian was thus denied his two enemies, but he claimed their treasures. Octavian may have also spread the notion that Cleopatra killed herself using a poisonous snake bite by including in his triumph a statue of her with a snake, according to Plutarch.

To learn more about the Roman triumph, follow this link: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Triumphus.html

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