Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ludi Romani and Actium.

This period of September was party time for the ancient Romans. From September 4th until the 19th (this seems to be the final length, as it was much shorter prior to the last century of the Republic and prior to Caesar's death started on the 5th - it was moved earlier in honour of him) they celebrated the Ludi Romani (Roman Games) - a religious festival honouring JVPITER OPTIMVS MAXIMVS (Jupiter best and greatest).

Following a procession from the Capitoline Hill to the Circus Maximus, the Romans engaged in chariot racing and some theatrical productions. Given Jupiter's status at the zenith of the Roman Pantheon, these games were the more important on the religious calendar. I've always found the Ludi Romani quite fascinating, yet the get comparatively little attention compared to the events that took place in the Colosseum (once it was built in the 1st Century .C.E), despite being the principal festival of the religious year. A testament to this is that one of the central works on the games remains Mommsen's chapter in his "Römische Forschungen", which was published in the 1860s.

September 2nd marked the anniversary of the Battle of Actium in 31 .B.C.E, when the forces of Octavian Caesar routed the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Ionian Sea near Actium. Given the amount of space afforded Augustus and the Augustan Age here, I thought it'd only be fitting to mark the official start date of the whole period, for it was from Actium onwards that Octavian, although with some significant hurdles still to leap, was essentially in sole control of Rome, paving the way for all that comes after (including my lengthy rambling posts on the period of his rule!).

Depictions of Actium, naturally, come from a period when the victor was essentially in control of the whole Roman Empire and Augustus was particularly interested in making the arts part of his social overhaul. One of the most famous is from Vergil's Aeneid (Book VIII), which itself is perhaps coloured by the fact that Vergil's patron was non other than the Senate-avoiding Equestrian for life friend of Augustus - Maecenas. In Vergil the battle is almost mythic and certainly far removed from it's status as a Civil War.

Robert Gurval in his book "Actium and Augustus", makes the astute comment that Vergil's Actium is all about securing Actium's legacy to the "beginning of a more glorious future" rather than to the "distant horrors of a tainted past" (both pg.13). Regardless of how it's depicted, the magnitude of the battle and it's outcome can never be understated, not least by the fact that over 2000 years later, we're still remembering the anniversary.

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