Thursday, January 7, 2010


In the two thousand seven hundred and sixth-third year of the City, the citizens
Publius Memmius Albucius and Caeso Fabius Quintilianus have entered office as consuls. Caeso Fabius Quintilianus for the second time.

For Romans it is important at the start of the year to carry out a careful
observance to ensure success in public and private affairs. The first words spoken on awakening in the morning, and the first actions accomplished within the house must be cheerful and uncomplaining. To bring luck, laurel and saffron, is placed around the door or burned on the little household altar.

But unlike today's holiday, New Years Day in Rome then was no holiday. As the year started, so would it continue. The citizens must carry out a typical day. This means one could visit and receive your friends & clients; reciprocate good wishes to one other, give out little gifts of dates, figs and honey to sweeten the approaching year; but then the citizens would be off to work. If you were in Rome in the 200s BCE the first thing you would notice is along the Sacred Way that led to Capitoline are the temples, normally kept shut, are open to worship, and fire burns on all the altars that stands before them.

You would next notice a solemn procession of Romans along the Way, ready to make its way up to the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest to seek a blessing on the city and outside communities for the coming year. So early in the day (hour after sunrise) the crowds have gathered in the Forum Romanum near the Senate house. Each senator is wearing his heavy, woolen toga over the broad purple stripe of his tunic, the patricians wearing scarlet shoes, the plebeian’s regular sandals.

Of the 300 likely 250 would be present on such a special occasion-all those not hindered by illness or extreme age or absent on the public service in or outside Italy.

Those who follows them are the 'knights' or Equities: wearing their togas over the narrow purple stripe of their tunics, men rich enough to afford the expense of a horse, so that they can provide the cavalry of the army.

Next, the people of the city themselves. The shopkeepers, artisans, servants, laborers, farmers in for the day from the nearby country; and almost as numerous and not very detectable from their dress, freedmen and the slaves, immigrants or the domestics climbing towards citizenship.

The procession would form up as the Consuls, dressed in the purple and
embroidered togas of consuls, appeared from the Senate house.

At the front moved the senators and knights; then, immediately preceding the consular pair, their lictors, each with the fasces that traditional bundle of rods but no ax supported in left hand and on left shoulder showing the imperium of a Roman magistrate, having the power to punish the citizens if it was warranted. Behind the Consuls were carried the ceremonial Etruscan folding
stools of metal inlaid with carved ivory, their curule chairs (sellae curules).

Following the procession at its end would be implements of the sacrifice, the priests, a herald, flute player, the victimarius, (the slayer) and his assistant and young boy. (To follow the ancient tradition both his parents must be still living), together with the sacrifices: white oxen from the Alaskan heights or the plains of Clitunno, their horns covered in gilt.

At the foot of the Capitoline slope the congregation would turn left, and
move northwestwards towards the Capitol, past the high dais of the Temple of Saturn, up the steep slope of the paved, slightly curving Sacred Way that led along the South part of Capitoline Hill. Once through the gate and into the sacred area, they squeezed into position among the columns fronting the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Within the doorway of the central shrine, that of Jupiter, the consuls would take their places for the first time upon their sellae curules, facing outwards towards the altar, the body and Rome.

It would be now necessary to take the auspices and make sure, that the God would accept the coming sacrifice. A special official, the pullarius, administered the cage containing the sacred chickens. If the birds scurried away instead of pecking at the pieces of pulse thrown to them, no sacrifice could be carried out. Instead the ceremony will be resumed on the morrow.

But today the pullarius reports in due course that the birds have fed. The altar fire crackles with saffron, casting a glow on the gilded coffers of the shaded pronaos. In the presence of the togate consuls, and of the Senate and People of Rome, keeping holy silence, the purple-veiled priest offered prayers for the state, formulae repeated from a written page and checked for correctness by a listener appointed for the purpose.

Any slip of the tongue, any stumble or mispronunciation tainted the proceedings, the spoken ritual would have to start from the beginning.
To muffle unlucky noises the piper played while the ritual was carried out.

Then the head of the ox was sprinkled with meal by the priest, and turned
sideways; the animal's throat was slit; the victim was disemboweled and the
entrails laid upon the altar. Only if the ritual could be duplicated undeviatingly like those of the past years could another year of success be
expected to come to Rome.

Afterwards would come a second offering, this time made by the twelve
Brethren of the Fields, an ancient and exclusive body. Its descent lay in the
faraway and obscure past, when Rome and her community was a little town dependent on the yield of the land, so this yield must be assured by reverence.

Now only a few nobles would carry on the ancient traditions. Once this
ceremony was concluded, the procession would re-form and descend the way it came. The consuls, magistrates and senators would make their way to the Senate house in the northeast corner of the Forum for the first meeting of the year.

The citizens would head for their place of employment. As it was then so it is now.

A most Happy New Year, Romans! May you all be lucky and successful in the upcoming year.

* Edited to reflect this years events and dates

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