Roman religious festivals weren’t all about priests and sacrifices. Ludi were formalized competitions and displays, which counted as part of the religious observances – and provided people with a good time.
People could enjoy athletics shows, chariots races (Ludi circenses) and from 204 BC, theatrical performances in the form of Ludi Scaenici.
September’s Ludi Romani provided all these elements as part of a program that spanned from the 5th to the 19th September. But when the festival started in 366 BC, the games only lasted for four days, from the 12th to 16th September.
So what was the purpose of the games? And why did they take over the month of September?
The Programme of the Ludi Romani
Initially, the Ludi began with a procession, followed by games featuring boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing. By the time the Ludi had expanded in 51 AD, so had the program. Now, gladiators had joined the program, as well as Greek style drama; this marked its introduction to Rome.
Dionysus of Halicarnassus gives a very evocative description of the procession that marked the beginning of the games in his Roman Antiquities. Events began on the Capitoline Hill, before the procession headed for its final destination at the Circus Maximus via the Forum.
The chief magistrate led the procession, and the flower of Roman youth followed, carefully divided by social standing. According to Dionysus, the young men appeared ‘on horseback if their fathers had financial qualifications as knights, on foot if they desired to serve in the infantry. The former were in troops and squadrons, the latter divisions and companies as if they were going to training school…’
Next came the competitors. Firstly, there were the charioteers, with their teams of two or four horses. ‘After them,’ explained Dionysus, ‘came the competitors in the light and heavy events,’ followed in their turn by dancers and musicians ‘playing old fashioned short flutes… and plucking their seven stringed lyres of ivory.’
More dancers dressed in goatskins as satyrs and as Sileni in shaggy tunics and ‘swathes of all sorts of flowers’ followed these two groups. This group formed more of a comic turn, as they ‘mocked and mimicked the serious dancing that went before.’
Finally, there came the ritual element of the procession, men carrying censors in which ‘perfumes and frankincense were burned’ as well as the sacred gold and silver vessels belonging to the gods. Finally, came the images of the gods themselves, carried on the shoulders of bearers.
Once at the Circus, priests made sacrifices, and the games began with the Ludi Circenses or chariot races. As an unusual twist, the rules required the driver and a warrior from each chariot to leap out of their vehicle at the end of the race and finish on foot. Displays of boxing, wrestling and further displays of horsemanship followed the chariot races.
The Evolution of the Ludi Romani
Initially, the games only lasted for one day- the 13th September and were not celebrated every year. But in 366 BC the games became standardized and annual. In 364 BC, the Romans added plays to the program.
By 214 BC, according to Livy, these Ludi Scaenici took up four days of the festival, and by the reign of Augustus, the Romans added 9 days of theatrical games, bringing the start date of the Ludi Romani to the 5th September.
With such a packed schedule, it is no wonder the games expanded. But why did they exist in the first place?
The Origins of the Ludi
According to Festus, Tarquinius Priscus, the 5th King of Rome and the founder of the Circus Maximus and the Capitoline Temple, founded the games. The festival was then known as Ludi Magni. Generals usually vowed Ludi Magni as part of the festivities after their triumph. In the History of Rome, I.35.9, Livy suggests that the Romans established the games to mark Tarquinius’s conquest of the Apiolae:
‘The first war he engaged in was with the Latins. He took the town of Apiolae by storm and carried off a greater amount of plunder than could have been expected from the slight interest shown in the war. After this had been brought in wagons to Rome, he celebrated the Games with greater splendor and on a larger scale than his predecessors.
Then for the first time, a space was marked for what is now the “Circus Maximus.” Spots were allotted to the patricians and knights where they could each build for themselves stands – called “Ford” – from which to view the Games. These stands were raised on wooden props, branching out at the top, twelve feet high. The contests were horse-racing and boxing, the horses, and boxers mostly brought from Etruria. They were at first celebrated on occasions of especial solemnity; subsequently, they became an annual fixture, and were indifferently called the “Roman” or the “Great Games.”‘
The structure of the procession seems to preserve this origin, which was very similar to that of a triumphant general, with the magistrate in charge of the games dressed exactly as a triumphator would have been.
The Ludi Romani and the Epulum Jovis
So it seems that the Romans instigated the Ludi Romani as an annual gesture of gratitude and remembrance of an early Roman victory.
But the games had another significance – and the clue to that is the day on which they were formerly held. For this day follows the dies natalis of the temple founded by Tarquinius Priscus-the Capitoline, dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maxiumus.
And that day marked the second important September celebration: the Epulum Jovis.