June 3rd in Roman History

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 6/3/2019


Over the course of Roman history, two events happened on June 3rd. One of these was a recurring religious festival to honor a goddess about whom you may know very little, while the other event happened just once: the start of a short reign of a nephew of Constantine.


1. Festival of Bellona Observed

The Romans had a lot of gods and a lot of holidays to honor them. Many of the festivals we talk about in ancient Rome marked the date of the opening of a temple to a particular deity. The Romans called this the “dies natalis,” or “birthday” of the temple. June 3 was the festival of the Temple of Bellona, which was dedicated in Rome in 296 bce. As was common for these temple anniversaries, it was a feast day for worshippers to enjoy.

Romans often adopted non-Latin deities into their own divine pantheon. The goddess Bellona, possibly called Duellona in some Italic languages, may be the Sabine goddess of war. If you remember your Roman foundation legends, the Romans and Sabines intermingled at one point under less than honorable conditions. Over time, Bellona was associated with several other Roman and foreign deities including Cybele, Enyo, Minerva, Mars, Nerio, and Virtus.

Bellona was not simply absorbed into the ancient Roman religion because the Sabines joined with the Latins. In 296 bce, the Romans were once more battling the Samnites, an Italic people against whom they fought with many times until finally conquering them. Appius Claudius Caecus, one of the Roman consuls of that year, vowed to build a temple to Bellona if the Romans were victorious. When the Romans won the Third Samnite War, Caecus followed through on that vow. As a family, the Claudii continued to support the temple generation after generation. I’ll write about Caecus later because he was an important figure both for Roman political history and architecture.

While there was at least one other religious holiday in Bellona’s honor, June 3rd was focused on her temple located in the Campus Martius area of the city of Rome. Right outside this temple was the columna bellica, or war column, that was a symbolic boundary marker between the Roman territory and the rest of the world. It was over this column that one of the fetiales, the priests of Jupiter specializing in diplomatic matters, threw a javelin signaling the official start of a war.

The Temple of Bellona also was a place to receive foreign visitors who were not allowed into the city proper for various reasons. The Senate met with foreign ambassadors in the temple as well as with Roman generals who had been awarded the right to a triumphal procession into the city. Until a returning general was awarded a triumph by the Senate, he could not enter the city without forfeiting his right to this highly-coveted parade.

Outside Rome, the worship of Bellona traveled with the army. Her persona as Virtus, or the personification of valor, was important to the army and its soldiers. Temples to Bellona have been found in other parts of the Roman empire.

Sadly, only the ruins of the temple of Bellona have been found in Rome, no ancient artworks of her survive. Starting in the Renaissance, artists recreated images of her in the media of sculpture and painting. In more recent times, as a Google image search will quickly confirm, the goddess has been a great source of inspiration to digital artists.


2. Gladiators March in Short Term Reign for Emperor

There were a several ways a man could become emperor of Rome. The most common included distinction in commanding the army, high birth, or savvy alliances with other powerful men in times when succession to the imperial throne was contested. Flavius Julius Popilius Nepotianus Constantinus, Julius Nepotianus or simply Nepotianus, followed the military path but with a twist when he was declared emperor on June 3, 350 ce.

Nepotianus was the son of the Emperor Constantine’s half-sister, Eutropia. We know little about him before June 350, so some of this is speculation based on surrounding events. It is unlikely that the Emperor Constantine named his nephew as an heir because Constantine had three sons who could and would inherit the empire. Nepotianus may have been raised in the court, but whether that was in Rome or Constantinople we have no way of knowing. We do know, based on his actions, that he was in or near the city of Rome in 350.

Nepotianus marched into Rome after learning of the assassination of his cousin, the Emperor Constans, and Magnentius’ declaration that he was the new emperor. Constans was killed in February of 350, but Nepotianus waited until June before making his bid for power. Nepotianus does not seem to have access to an army because he entered Rome backed by gladiators. Gladiators, of course, were big business in Rome, and while they were trained to fight, they were slaves and hence an unusual group to use in this context. Usually, their presence in an army is a sign of desperation. Nonetheless, this makeshift force was able to defeat the citizens, and the praefectus urbanus was able to flee the city and report back to Magnentius.

Nepotianus may have had senatorial supporters before he made his move, given that after his assassination several senators were also killed because they had allegedly been his allies. Turning to the Senate for support could still be symbolically a good move for a would-be emperor, and in places such as Rome that were distant from the center of the Empire’s government, it was at least a great way to claim control over the old and still prestigious capital. Picking Rome as the place to stake his claim suggests that Nepotianus was familiar with the city and that the people living there were familiar with him.

Nepotianus held sway in Rome for only 28 days before he, too, was assassinated, as were his senatorial allies and his mother. Magnentius sent one of his most trusted officials to claim the city in his name. According to the Roman historian Eutropius, Nepotianus’ head was placed on a pike and paraded around the city. This sounds gruesome, and it was, but it was by no means unprecedented. All throughout Roman history, the heads of defeated Romans who competed unsuccessfully for power against a fellow citizen were cut off and put on public display. Probably the most notable example is Cicero, but dozens of similar cases recorded.

We conclude with an interesting new theory, supported by the evidence of inscriptions, that is making its way among members of the archaeological community in Rome. According to the theory, the so-called Arch of Janus in the Forum Boarium was erected to celebrate the defeat of Magnentius by his rival, Constantius II. The arch is one of ancient Rome’s best preserved and, at the same time, most enigmatic monuments. If the new theory is correct, it is ironic that this stolid structure has remained virtually intact for over 1,500 years to commemorate the defeat of an ineffectual usurper whose name is all but forgotten today!


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Photo: the Arch of Janus in the Forum Boarium. Copyright 2019 by Flyover Zone Productions. All rights reserved.



P. Mateos, A. Pizzo and Á. Ventura, “Arcus Divi Constantini: An Architectural Analysis and Chronological Proposal for the Arch of Janus in the Forum Boarium in Rome,” Journal of Roman Studies 107, 2017, 237-274.


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