May 13 in Roman History
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 5/13/2019
This month I want to look at May 13, since it falls on a Monday this year, not only because it aligns with the date I typically add a new article to the Rome Reborn® website, but also because it touches upon a couple of events in the history of ancient and late antiquity Rome. We have a festival and a particular event that helps signal the passing away of ancient Rome and ushers in late antiquity or early medieval Rome.
1. Appease Angry Spirits or Suffer: Day 3
May 13 was the third day of the Lemuria, a festival that might remind some of us of the Day of the Dead in Mexico or of Halloween.
According to Ovid (first century CE) and Porphyry of Tyre (third century CE), our principal ancient sources, the festival was first created after the spirit of murdered Remus haunted King Romulus. Ovid claims that the festival was originally called Remuria but that it was later called Lemuria and expanded to include all of the spirits who had died unjustly or who had not received proper burial.
Most modern historians and classicists, however, think Ovid’s etymology is false, created later to tie the holiday to Rome’s traditional founder and his legends. Instead, the festival gets its name from the lemures, spirits of the dead. As we’ll see, given who was appeased during these three days, it seems our current understanding makes more sense.
An unjust death would likely be murder, though it might also include an accident or illness that took someone before it was felt it their time had come. However, an unjust death did not mean that the deceased would not be properly buried. A poor person might simply die from old age or without anyone to remember them and might thus not receive all of the rites that Roman culture felt they should. The spirits of both types of deceased would then be free to roam about the world of the living. That fits with Ovid’s and Porphyry’s stories, but not with other evidence about what happened during these days.
Romans also considered that a relative who died under normal circumstances and was buried properly might still come back to haunt them. Those spirits, too, were appeased during the Lemuria, suggesting that the festival wasn’t so much about how someone died but merely that they were dead. Your ancestors would come back to you because of your relationship, while other spirits were just hanging around looking for anyone to bother.
The Lemuria took place on March 9, 11, and 13; the intervening March 10 and 12 were not considered part of the event. Some have suggested that the three-day festival was spread out this way because even-numbered days may have been considered unlucky in ancient Rome, though I must point out that there are too many ancient Roman holidays that fell on even-numbered days for this to be completely true. Likewise, several sources I consulted claimed that the entire month of May was considered unlucky, and yet at least 11 other holidays or important events were held during that month in Rome.
So, what happened during these three Lemuria days?
On the city level, the Vestal Virgins may have prepared sacred cakes called mola salsa, a salted cake made with wheat from the first harvest of the season. I say “may” because Roman accounts give various dates for this baking: February 15, the three days of Lemuria, May 7-15, or even during the Vestalia from June 7-15. Whenever it was made, mola salsa was used during religious rites throughout the year, so it would make sense for it to be made multiple times during any given year.
On the private level, each family would conduct rites to appease the lemures during these three days. The entire family was involved, though the patriarch would conduct the most sacred parts of the ritual. According to Ovid, the family would get up at midnight, then the patriarch would wash his hands three times. While still barefoot, the patriarch would then throw or spit beans (yes, beans) nine times around the house with the words Haec ego mitto; his redimo meque meosque fabis ("I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine”). After this, the rest of the family would bang pots and pans made of bronze nine times, chanting Manes exite paterni ("Ghosts of my paternal ancestors, begone!").
2. True Religion Reclaims Pagan Temple
It is quite common for conquering religions to take over and reinvent previous figures, rites, locales, and buildings. This syncretism can be purposeful on the part of the new ruling authority, or natural as people try out new beliefs for a variety of reasons. It was probably a thought-out decision for Pope Boniface IV to rededicate the Pantheon into a Catholic church on May 13, 609 CE.
The Pantheon itself has a long history that Rome Reborn® may cover in the future, so I won’t spend much time on it here. After over a century of planning and work, the temple to all the gods was dedicated around 125 CE. If you visit today, as I did back in 1990 and 1991, it can be a challenge to appreciate the original design because of how it has changed over the years to accommodate the various saints, relics, and Italian worthies that are commemorated and honored there. The outside, too, has undergone profound modifications, but you can still see the ancient beauty if you consider descriptions from before the seventh century.
Pope Boniface I’s actions also connect to the ancient Roman festival of Lemuria. Much as traditional Roman religions did, Christian holidays marked new or rededicated religious buildings. The timing of the dedication placed it on the feast of Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres, which is accredited to Saint Ephrem and may date back to the fourth century. This suggests that the Christianization of the Pantheon was both a continuation of the ancient traditions of honoring new temples and rededicating religious structures and a way to claim one of the three days of Lemuria, if it was still practiced by anyone by that time.
The suggestion that traditional Roman beliefs survived in Boniface’s time is not as far-fetched as you might think: we know, for example, that the cult of Janus in the Forum was still practiced by at least one or two Romans in the sixth century, long after Theodosius had decreed an end to pagan worship toward the end of the fourth century. Procopius tells us that during the siege of Rome in 536, someone sneaked into the Forum at night and opened the doors of the shrine of Janus. Learned readers will recall that when the doors of the shrine were open—as they usually were before Theodosius—this meant that the Roman state was at war.
In rural areas, traditional practices continued. In fact, the term “pagan” comes from the Latin paganus meaning “rural” or rustic. By the 4th century, Christian writers started using the term to refer to polytheists as opposed to the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity. There is no evidence that the new religion of Rome completely destroyed the traditional no matter how many laws were passed.
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