Ancient Everyday – The Days and the Weeks in Ancient Rome

Salve readers!

We’re back in the Roman world for the third part in this mini Ancient Everyday blog series about, you guessed it: Time.

In the last two posts, we looked at how Romans tracked the years, as well as the evolution of the calendar in ancient Rome.

Today, we’re going to take a brief look at the Roman days and weeks which, in addition to many things, are one of their legacies to us.

Portion of a Roman Calendar showing the Kalends, Nones, Ides, and some festivals etc.

The Roman days of the month were not numbered serially as they are today. They were numbered in relation to three specifically named days. It was from these three specific days that the other dates were counted retrospectively.

So, what were these special days, you might ask? They were the:

Kalendae

(the Kalends – first day of the month, and origin of our word ‘calendar’)

Nonae

(the Nones – the ninth day before the Ides, or the fifth day of the month; seventh in a 31-day month; originally, the Nonae corresponded with the first quarter moon of the lunar month)

and

Idus

(the Ides – the thirteenth day; or the fifteenth day in a 31-day month; the Ides originally corresponded with the full moon of the lunar month)

The Ides of March – the date of Caesar’s assassination

So, those are the ‘special’ days in the Roman month. But how did they count the rest?

This is where it gets complicated…

The day was numbered or named by its place so many days before (ante diem) the Kalends, the Nones, or the Ides of the month.

But! The day immediately before one of the three named days was called pridie.

If you ever try to read Roman dates, you will also notice that they are always abbreviated.

Fragment of the Fasti Praenestini for the month of Aprilis (Wikimedia Commons)

In ancient Rome, the official Calendar was drawn up by the pontiffs (priests) who ensured the inclusion of the dates for religious festivals – and in ancient Rome, there were many of those! These festivals would be indicated by a letter or abbreviation representing a particular celebration beside the date.

So, those are the days of the Roman calendar, but what of the weeks? Did they have the exact same weekdays that we do? Or rather, do we have the same ones as the Romans?

Not exactly.

A Roman market day

Early on, the Roman week was eight days long. The eighth day was a market day, or nundinae.

The market day was a day of rest from agricultural labour, a time to take the produce or livestock to market.

To confuse things a little more, the period of time between market days was known as a nundinum.

The eight-day week did not last however.

The seven day period that we are familiar with was used at first in the East, especially by Hellenistic astrologers.

In Rome, the earliest reference to a seven day week is supposedly from the time of Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14). This was eventually officially adopted by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 321.

Emperor Augusts

Finally, what were the names of the days of the week in ancient Rome?

Well, they were named after the gods and planets, and to this day the names used in the various Romance Languages preserve the Roman tradition. Beginning with Monday, they are:

Dies Lunae (the day of the Moon)

Dies Martis (the day of Mars)

Dies Mercurii (the day of Mercury)

Dies Jovis (the day of Jupiter)

Dies Veneris (the day of Venus)

Dies Saturni (the day of Saturn)

Dies Solis (the day of the Sun)

There you have it, the Roman days and weeks!

The legacy of the Romans never ceases to amaze me.

Next week is the fourth and final part of this Ancient Everyday blog series in which we will be looking at how the Romans told the time of day.

Until then, thank you for reading!

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Ancient Everyday – The Calendar in Ancient Rome

Salve!

Welcome to the second part in this mini, Ancient Everyday blog series about Time in the Roman world.

Last week we took a brief look at how the Romans tracked and organized the years. If you missed it, you can read it by CLICKING HERE.

This week, we’re going to take a look at what is perhaps one of their greatest legacies – the Calendar.

Now, the Romans did indeed do a lot for us – you can check out this wonderful series hosted by Adam Hart-Davis to learn what the Romans did for us – and it goes without saying that we take a lot of it for granted today.

The calendar ranks right up there, and even though we take time for granted, it is actually something that we are constantly aware of. Quite the conundrum, if you ask me!

Roman mosaic representation of the months from North Africa

The word ‘calendar’, as well as the names of the months we still use today are of Roman origin.

However, the calendar went through some reform before it got to the version we are now familiar with.

The original Roman calendar, known as the ‘Calendar of Romulus’, was an agricultural, 10-month year. There were ten irregular months with a total of 304 days from March to December.

The names of these months originated then, and the gap of missing months accounts for the period of time in which no agricultural work was carried out. This was also a lunar cycle, so there was a degree of ‘seasonal drift’ compared to the solar cycle.

Working the fields

It is believed that the change to a 12-month calendar occurred in the sixth century B.C.

In the year 153 B.C., January was made the first month of the year, named after Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings.

But until Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, the Roman year was 355 days long, divided into 12 months. Four of these had 31 days (March, May, July, and October), seven months had 29 days, and February had 28 days.

Here are the names of the months on the Roman calendar:

Ianuarius (the month of ‘Janus’)

Februarius (the month of ‘Februa’, purgings or purifications)

Martius (the month of ‘Mars’)

Aprilis (uncertain meaning)

Maius (uncertain meaning)

Iunius (the month of ‘Juno’)

Quinctilis (the ‘fifth’ month – renamed ‘Iulius’ in 44 B.C. after Julius Caesar)

Sextilis (the ‘sixth’ month – renamed ‘Augustus’ in 8 B.C. after Emperor Augustus)

September (the ‘seventh’ month)

October (the ‘eighth’ month)

November (the ‘ninth’ month)

December (the ‘tenth’ month)

Notice how some of these names are a legacy of the 10-month agricultural Roman calendar year?

A reproduction of the Fasti Antiates Maiores (c. 60 B.C.) – Wikimedia Commons

There is apparently some evidence for ‘intercalation’, that is, the addition of days to adjust the year. This included the addition of 22-23 days every other year in February.

The act of intercalation was the domain of the pontiffs of Rome, but it was not accurate, and by the time of Julius Caesar, the civic year was about three months ahead of the solar year that was in use.

Caesar extended the year 46 B.C. to 445 days to remove the discrepancy.

So, from January 1st, 45 B.C. he made the year 365 days long with the months at their current numbers. Quite the legacy, no? He also introduced the leap year.

Thus, was the Julian Calendar born.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Today, the most widely used calendar is the Gregorian Calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar is basically the same as the Julian Calendar except for some small changes.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII omitted 10 days from the calendar year to adjust the discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the solar year. He also ordered that 3 days be omitted in leap years every 400 years.

So there you have it! A very brief look at the evolution of the calendar from ancient Rome to the one we use today.

Next week, in Part III of this series, we’ll be looking at the days and weeks in the Roman world.

Thank you for reading!

A Roman Calendar – this one showing the months of Iulius and Augustus

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Ancient Everyday – Tracking the Years in Ancient Rome

Salve!

This week on Writing the Past, we’re going back in time from the Middle Ages to ancient Rome once more.

I thought it might be fun to do a short series of Ancient Everyday blogs about something that concerned our ancient ancestors as well as ourselves. It’s something that, across the ages, we all wish we had more of: Time.

This isn’t going to be a philosophical series of posts on time, but rather a look at the practicalities of time and how ancient Romans organized it.

Saturn, among other things, the Roman God of Time

In this first post, we’re going to look at how years were counted and tracked in ancient Rome and across the Empire.

Today, dating is something we take rather for granted, but at times during the Roman era, there was a lot of thought put into this and the development of a system around it.

Early in the Roman Republic, the years were usually dated by the names of the Roman Consuls, the highest rank for an elected Roman official, and the pinnacle of the Cursus Honorem, the tried and true path of public offices for anyone seeking political success.

Two consuls served at once and, conveniently, they served for just one year, so that could be readily used as a method of dating. The lists of consuls were called fasti, and they exist from about the year 509 B.C.

Fragment of the list of the Roman consuls known as the “Fasti Colotiani” (Museo della civiltà romana)

This practice of dating using the names of Roman Consuls stopped in about A.D. 537 when Emperor Justinian I (the ‘Great’) switched to the regnal years of the emperors.

Prior to that, there were other ways in which the years were tracked and counted.

Sometimes years were dated from the founding of the city of Rome – ab urbe condita was the wording used. Rome is generally thought to have been founded in the year 753 B.C., so the years would be counted from that point on.

I wonder how widespread this dating was, compared with the use of the fasti. There were even more dating systems across the Empire, systems which had a local flavour; say, for instance, years counted from a particularly big event in the history of a certain place etc.

Emperor Justinian I ‘the Great’

From the late 3rd century A.D., the practice of counting years by indiction, or indictio, was also used. This was the announcement of the delivery of food and other goods to the government. So, basically, indictio referred to the tax assessment which took place, at first, in five-year cycles, but in a fifteen-year cycle from about A.D. 312.

Indictio was also often used to date the fiscal years in the Empire which tended to begin on the first of September.

It’s thought that the general population may have tended to know the indictio years better than the consular years. This isn’t surprising as we’re all aware of the dates when the government slashes at our purse strings!

What is thought to be a relief showing Roman tax collectors

The Christian reckoning of years using B.C. and A.D. (for Anno Domini – ‘Year of the Lord’) in the Julian and Gregorian calendars was introduced in the mid-sixth century by the monk Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor. In this reckoning, there is no year ‘0’, but rather 1 B.C. is immediately followed by A.D. 1. Nowadays, there is a movement toward using B.C.E (Before Common/Current Era) and C.E. (Common/Current Era).

Whichever method of dating you prefer today, it seems that the Romans had a variety of methods to choose from.

Were they as obsessed with time as we are today? I suspect not. But it was something they grappled with on certain levels.

Either way, ancient dates are likely less reliable before Julius Caesar’s calendar reform of 45 B.C.

I suppose we should thank the gods for circa, that is, ‘approximately’!

Thank you for reading!

If you are curious and want to check out a list of the consuls of Rome, you can do so by CLICKING HERE.

Come back next week for the next Ancient Everyday in this series on Time in which we’ll be looking at the Roman calendar and months.

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Nunney Castle: A Somerset Fortress

On my recent journey through Devon and Somerset, I had the chance to revisit two of my favourite places – the Iron Age hill fort of South Cadbury Castle, and Tiverton Castle which we looked at last week.

This week I want to introduce you to a castle that is new to me – Nunney Castle in Somerset.

Unlike South Cadbury and Tiverton Castle, I had never been to Nunney Castle before. In fact, I had never heard of it until I was doing a bit of research for the trip and stumbled across a short listing in an old book of castles I have.

Somerset is not really known for its castles. Manor homes, Iron Age hill forts, and monasteries, yes, but not Medieval castles as most people imagine them to be.

That’s why I was so happy to find out about Nunney, and subsequently insert it on the itinerary after a visit to the small (smallest in England!) city of Wells where I used to work.

However, before I get into the specifics of my visit to Nunney Castle, we should, as is our habit here, look at a bit of the history of the site.

Artist reconstruction of Nunney Castle (English Heritage)

Nunney Castle was first built by the knight Sir John de la Mare (1320-1383) under a royal licence granted to him in 1373 by King Edward III.

You see, Sir John, like other knights of the time, was a veteran of the English forces fighting in France during the 100 Years War, and it was with the small fortune he had amassed there that he was able to pay for the building of Nunney Castle.

The Battle of Crecy – The Hundred Years War

He did rather well for himself, and after his service in the war, he became High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1374, High Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset in 1377, and also attained the title ‘Knight of the Shire’ in both Wiltshire and Somerset. The latter was the formal title for members of parliament representing a county in the medieval Parliament of England.

The castle that Sir John built was an ideal stronghold for serious defence, in addition to being a symbol of his power in the area.

It was built on what is called a ‘four-lobed plan’ and encircled by a moat, with machicolations and battlements running around the top. On each of the four towers, there were conical rooftops. Some believe that the design of Nunney Castle was heavily influenced by French castles which Sir John would have encountered while fighting across the Channel.

It has been pointed out that the design of Nunney is similar to that of the Bastille in Paris, particularly the machicolations.

1790 drawing of the Bastille in Paris – you can certainly spot the similarities with Nunney Castle…

After 1560, Nunney Castle passed into the hands of another family when it was bought by Richard Prater, a rich Londoner and Catholic who allowed Nunney to be used as a refuge for fellow Catholics during the Civil War.

However, as with Tiverton Castle, it was besieged and ruined by the Parliamentarians during the war.

It wasn’t until about 1926 that Nunney Castle came under state guardianship and cleared of plants and rubble.

Gazing up into one of the four massive towers of Nunney Castle

I have to admit I was extremely curious about Nunney when we set out from Wells on a sunny, windswept day in Somerset.

Nunney is about fifteen miles south of Bath, and from Wells it was a fourteen mile drive, by way of Shepton Mallet.

This was a small corner of Somerset that was unfamiliar to me. The drive was lovely, the road weaving over hills, through farm and pasture land, and around clumps of forest. With puffs of white cloud racing across the blue, sunlit sky, there was a kind of odd light as we went. It was almost too bright and colourful!

When the sat nav voice told me to take a hard left and then a hard right, we found ourselves on a narrow country road. As ever, I hoped I wouldn’t meet a tractor head-on!

We continued on through the forest-flanked lane for a mile or two until we came to a tiny village. This was Nunney.

I expected to see the castle looming over the rooftops, but I saw no such thing. I drove farther into the village until we came to Castle Street and parked. Still no sign of the castle until I got out of the car, and took a few steps to the end of the short lane.

There it was, moat and all, jutting out of the village like a stone swamp monster.

The moat at the front of the castle where the drawbridge was located, now a permanent bridge for access to the ruins

Nunney Castle really is a beautiful piece of architecture, said to be ‘the most aesthetically pleasing castle in Somerset’.

And it’s true, though there aren’t that many medieval castles in Somerset. Still, I was impressed with the apparent strength of its walls and the sheer, squat size of it. It’s also quaint, though that may be due to the fact that it’s closely bordered by private homes that come almost to the edge of the moat.

Some villages have small parks or gardens in their midst, but Nunney has a castle! What a view out of your window as you have morning coffee!

Nunney Castle’s massive towers with machicolations

My eyes were drawn immediately to the moat, the black and green water a bit of a warning to those who might get too close. You certainly wouldn’t want to fall in there!

Once you cross the bridge, on the spot where the drawbridge would have been, you are even more struck by the high walls, the curve of the four large towers, and the remains of the castle’s various levels.

Ignoring the detritus of chips and candy no doubt left by bored local teens who hang out in there, I stepped into the middle of the ruins and looked up.

Remains of the large kitchen fireplace in Nunney Castle

It was as if the castle came alive then.

The fireplaces on the side walls began to crackle, and the voices of sentries upon the battlements snaked their way down the curving stairs of the towers. Somewhere above, the residents dined where pigeons now flutter back and forth from one tower to the other.

I was glad we had the place to ourselves, and I suspect that if any of you do visit Nunney Castle (did I mentioned there is no charge for entry?), you will find the same.

It’s quite special when you have an historic site to yourself.

I enjoyed exploring it slowly, taking photos and trying to imagine what it was like in its full vigour. This was a little difficult, surrounded as it was by the sleepy village homes, structures that were not there in the castle’s heyday when Sir John was bound to protect the villagers about his keep.

Now it’s as if the villagers’ homes protect the castle, huddled close about it, keeping it secret and safe.

After exploring the interior from the ground level, I went back outside and walked around the perimeter of the walls.

It was hard to imagine the Parliamentarians bombarding the castle in such a sleepy place; it’s easy to breathe calmly at Nunney Castle now.

I suspect it was not the same for Richard Prater, his family, or the Catholics who had taken refuge within when the cannon had been turned on these pale stone walls.

In all, the short visit to Nunney Castle was a real treat and I would recommend it if you are in Somerset and looking for a quiet break away from the busier tourist destinations.

It’s worth the drive to explore this little-known site in the heart of this beautiful county.

Thank you for reading.

Plan of Nunney Castle grounds (English Heritage)

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Tiverton Castle: An Idyllic Escape in Devon

As many of you will know, I recently returned from a weeklong vacation in Devon and Somerset. This was a combined family adventure and research trip for some upcoming books.

Needless to say, I had a wonderful time and have returned to the big city relaxed, inspired, and ready to hunker down and write the next book. I also want to share some of my lovely experiences with you, to introduce you to some of the places that came alive for me.

The first destination was Tiverton Castle in Tiverton, Devon.

This castle holds a special place in my heart, but before two weeks ago I had not been back for 15 years.

For a long time, I’ve been daydreaming about a return visit to this lovely castle tucked away in Devon, between Exmoor and Dartmoor.

When our car pulled up, it was like being welcomed by an old friend after too long an absence.

The gate house of Tiverton Castle

Before I talk about my experience revisiting this castle, we should discuss the history of this place. After all, that’s what this blog is all about!

Tiverton Castle may not be one of the titans of tourism in Britain, but it is no less deserving of a visit, and if you are up for it, a stay within its walls.

The earliest known drawing of Tiverton Castle

There has been human habitation around Tiverton since the Stone Age, but the town itself really peaked financially with its thriving wool trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, I want to focus on the castle itself, for it has a long and varied history that is both fascinating and tragic.

Prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, the land upon which Tiverton castle would later be built formed part of the estates of the Saxon Princess, Gytha, the sister-in-law of King Canute, and the Mother of King Harold. After the Conquest, the lands came into the possession of William the Conqueror (King William I) and his heirs.

The Battle of Hastings (1066) as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

In 1100, when Henry I came to the throne, he began granting land to some of his followers for the purpose of building castles. It was at Tiverton that Henry I commanded Richard de Redvers to build a castle overlooking the important crossing point of the River Exe. This early fortress was probably completed around 1106.

Henry I

Richard de Redvers’ son, Baldwin, became the 1st Earl of Devon and the manor of Tiverton continued to be held by six successive earls until 1262 when the male line died out. The last earl was succeeded by his sister Isabella, a widow, who assumed the title of Countess of Devon and was one of the richest heiresses in the land. When Isabella died, Tiverton went to her cousin, Hugh de Courtenay.

The Courtenays are thought to be largely responsible for the bulk of the building at Tiverton Castle, the medieval remains of what we see today.

Medieval ruins in the castle gardens

It’s believed that the family originally came to England in the entourage of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In 1335, it was King Edward III who made Hugh de Courtenay Earl of Devon at Tiverton Castle, and it is believed that Hugh was responsible for building the curtain walls with towers at the corners, and the living quarters on the west side by the river.

The Courtenays held Tiverton Castle for about 260 years until, during the Wars of the Roses, the castle and title were lost to the family as some of them were staunch Lancastrian supporters.

Arms of William Courtenay on porch of St. Peter’s Church beside Tiverton Castle

With the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, however, it was Henry VII who reinstated Sir Edward Courtenay as Earl of Devon at Tiverton Castle. In about 1485, his son, William Courtenay married Princess Katherine Plantagenet, the daughter of Edward IV, and sister of Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth.

Katherine had something of a sad life – she was also the sister of Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, both of whom are rumoured to have been killed in the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard III. If you’ve read Shakespeare’s play, you’ll know all about this.

The daughters of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville with Princess Catherine Plantagenet second from the right

Princess Katherine was the most famous resident of Tiverton Castle. She lived there for many years, after outliving her own children, and when she died in 1527, she was buried (at her request) in St. Peter’s Church next door.

Princess Catherine’s tomb is believed to lie beneath the tomb of this merchant in St. Peter’s Church. The very  bottom is said to be part of her burial.

During the years of the English Civil War, more building was done at Tiverton Castle, which was held for King Charles I.

It was widely acknowledged that Tiverton held great strategic importance at this time, and so this led to the only occasion in which the castle faced an enemy attack. The Parliamentary army, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, commenced bombarding the castle with cannon and gun.

It was a lucky cannon shot that hit the drawbridge chain, allowing the Parliamentarians to rush into the castle and church to plunder. Few lives were lost in the siege, but for one woman who was hit by a cannon ball in the round tower while holding her child. The child survived.

I’ve glossed over the rich history of Tiverton Castle, opting to give you some of the highlights. There is much more to it, but I feel that a visit to the castle itself is the only way to do it justice.

After the Civil War siege, Tiverton Castle was under the ownership of various families over time. Today, it is owned and lovingly cared for by Angus and Alison Gordon who give a warm welcome to any visitors to the castle.

Over time, the Gordons have become family friends, and Tiverton Castle a place that we will return to when we are in need of an escape.

The Castle Lodge, our wonderful self-catering accommodation at Tiverton Castle. This is just one of many beautiful accommodations!

The atmosphere at Tiverton Castle is peaceful and welcoming. There is no sense of ‘preciousness’ there, but rather of admiration and appreciation of the history of the place.

Among the colourful, richly-scented gardens, the ruins of the castle built by the Courtenays rise like silent sentries from the past, each with a story to tell. As I wandered about, it was as if I could hear fires crackling in hearths, laughter in the great hall, the tears of a princess, or the pounding of cannon balls against thick walls.

The lush gardens of Tiverton Castle are the perfect place to relax and take photos

This little castle has a rich story to tell.

Solo visitors, historical societies, school groups and anyone else with an interest in history will be well-rewarded with a visit to Tiverton Castle which also has a brilliant collection of Civil War era arms and armour, as well as a well-preserved tower complete with medieval garderobe (toilet). You can even try on a replica of a Civil War helmet. I found it to be quite comfortable!

Catching up with an old friend in the hall of Tiverton Castle

If you do get to Tiverton, also be sure to step inside the Church of St. Peter’s next door which has a dazzling array of ‘kneelers’, a 500 or so year old organ, and a wonderful set of bells that chime throughout the day. If you get to the church, be sure to ask the warden, Bill, where the tomb of Princess Katherine Plantagenet is thought to be. Tell him I sent you.

St. Peter’s Church, just beside Tiverton Castle.

We spent three nights in the self-catering accommodation at Tiverton Castle, and I have to say that it was probably the best part of our vacation. Not only are the accommodations well-appointed and clean, they are beautiful and add to the magic of actually staying in a castle.

I can’t say how wondrous it felt waking up to the sound of bells and birdsong at Tiverton Castle, rather than the usual rumbling of an underground and the sirens of the city.

For two days we roamed the castle gardens, sat beneath the ruins, and admired the collections of artifacts within (which also include one of Napoleon’s deaths masks!). We also used Tiverton as a base to strike out and explore Exmoor a few miles to the North. There is also Dartmoor to the South.

Visitors can climb up the restored tower at Tiverton Castle. Inside is a medieval garderobe!

The time at Tiverton Castle went all too quickly for my liking, and now that I’m back in my office cubicle far away, I find myself daydreaming about those lovely ruins and the way the evening sunlight warmed them and set the garden colours ablaze. When I look out my dirty window now, I remember the clear, open leaded glass of the Castle Lodge window, the heady scent of wisteria, and the sound of birdsong flowing into my senses as I sipped on a glass of Chianti.

If only we could remain on vacation indefinitely…

So many castles and manor homes tend to be cold in their welcome, sometimes institutional in their display and the way visitors are ushered through their ancient halls.

But Tiverton Castle is in a class all its own, as far as I’m concerned. The gates are open here, and once you pass beneath the grand arch and into the grounds, you can leave the outside world behind and lose yourself in the past with ease.

I know I look forward to doing so again…very soon.

As the Summer holidays are upon us, this is the perfect time to arrange a visit or stay at Tiverton Castle. I can’t recommend it enough!

Go to the website here: http://www.tivertoncastle.com/

If you’re looking for a nice getaway, or a base from which to explore the southwest, be sure to look at the list of self-catering properties on the website too. They are all lovely and, well, you get to stay in a castle!

Be sure to tell Mr. and Mrs. Gordon that Adam Haviaras sent you. I swear, you won’t regret it.

If you’re looking for something to read while there, you might also be interested to know that historical fiction author, Michael Jecks, has set his Templar series novel The Traitor of St. Giles at Tiverton Castle. You can check out Michael’s books here: http://www.michaeljecks.co.uk/

Cheers, and thank you for reading!

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Pwyll Prince of Dyfed – Celtic Archetypes in the Mabinogi

Every so often I like to take a break from reading fiction to enjoy some primary sources. This isn’t just for research. I like the primary sources, especially those in the Celtic and Arthurian realm.

Some of my favourite sources are the medieval Welsh tales assembled in what is known as the Mabinogi (or, Mabinogion), translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid-19th century.

Lady Charlotte Guest

Some of the stories in the Mabinogi are retellings of the later medieval romances. However, some of the earlier tales, those known as the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’, are believed to be more ancient tales from the days of the Celtic heroic age.

These ‘Four Branches’ are the most interesting to me and are a true escape into a world of magical beasts and enchanted realms. They are also believed to have been teaching texts for young Welsh princes of the day, intended to show them the characteristics of good, kingly rule and behaviour.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which are tied together by the character of Pryderi, include the following tales:

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

Branwen, Daughter of Llyr

Manawydan, Son of Llyr

Math, Son of Mathonwy

Pwyll – by Alan Lee

Of the four branches, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed is my absolute favourite. I have never tired of reading it since I first studied it in university. Not only is it full of magic, love, battles, monsters, and tales of honour and betrayal, but it’s also a perfect illustration of Celtic archetypes. We’ll go over a few of these, but first, here is the story in brief:

Pwyll, a mortal man, is a Prince of Dyfed who comes into contact with Arawn, King of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld. The two become friends and switch places for a year so that Pwyll can help Arawn defeat a foe in his own world. Pwyll succeeds and becomes ‘Head of Annwn’. While he was away, Arawn ruled justly and fairly in his place, and Pwyll’s subjects ask him to continue the good rule, which he does.

Then, one day while Pwyll is out with his men, he is sitting on a magical hill when he sees a woman on a magical horse that cannot be caught up to. This is Rhiannon, a maiden from the Otherworld. On a third attempt to catch up to her, she stops for Pwyll whom she has been seeking. They are to marry, but their marriage is delayed by another suitor to Rhiannon, Gwawl, who tricks Pwyll into giving Rhiannon to him. But Rhiannon saves Pwyll from himself by giving him a magic bag which he uses to capture Gwawl.

Arawn’s Hounds

Pwyll and Rhiannon are married, and after a while, they finally have a son. But on the night of his birth, the boy is taken from them. The frightened servants conspire to blame Rhiannon, and accuse her of eating her child. Pwyll, as a ruler, must assign a punishment to his wife for this, and orders her to carry visitors to the castle upon her back while telling them what she did. The land suffers after this.

Luckily, Teirnon, a man loyal to Pwyll, finds the child when the monstrous hand that is taking his horses also leaves a baby. Teirnon slays the hand and saves the baby whom he and his wife foster. After some years, Teirnon realizes that the child resembles his lord, Pwyll, and so he and his wife take the child back to his parents, thus redeeming Rhiannon, giving Pwyll back his heir, and restoring the land once more.

This is a highly abbreviated version of the story, and if it does spark some interest, you should definitely read it. Pwyll makes a good read while curled up next to your hearth fire.

Of all the tales in the Mabinogi, this one feels like the neatest, if that makes sense. It has three sections – Pwyll in Annwn; Pwyll and Rhiannon; and the disappearance of Pwyll and Rhiannon’s son, Pryderi.

The number three and the occurrence of things in threes is a strong archetype in Celtic tradition.

Patterns of the number three occur in the number of Arawn’s dogs, and the number of times Rhiannon appears to Pwyll before she stops, for instance.

Magical animals are also common in Celtic tales; Arawn has three white hounds with red-tipped ears, and Rhiannon rides a magical white horse that cannot be caught. She is also followed by magical birds wherever she goes.

Rhiannon – by Alan Lee

The character of Rhiannon is one of my favourite things in Pwyll – her magic, her beauty, her strength. I also love her portrayal as the goddess Epona, who also rode a white horse, was accompanied by birds, or foals, and carried a magical bag that symbolized her role as a fertility goddess.

The theme of contact between the natural world and the Celtic Otherworld is also strong.

Pwyll meets Arawn in the forest, meets with Rhiannon who is from the Otherworld, and then there is the otherworldly monster that steals their child. There is a constant fluidity between the two worlds in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

The archetype of the magical hill is one that is strong in Celtic myth. Pwyll is sitting on a magical hill when Rhiannon appears to him. Hills were said to be gateways to the Otherworld. This reminds me of Glastonbury Tor which was believed to be a gateway to Annwn.

Glastonbury Tor

In the second part of Pwyll, we see the themes of the feast and the rival suitor where Pwyll’s judgement is tested. With the help of Rhiannon and her magical bag, another archetype, the marriage of the mortal and otherworldly being comes to fruition. This too is a common theme.

But there are more trials in the form of the demonization of Rhiannon which symbolizes the loss of the goddess’ power and the subsequent weakening of the land as Pwyll remains powerless to do anything but punish his wife in the face of the loss of their son.

Teirnon slaying the Monster – by Alan Lee

The finding and fostering of the lost child is also common to Celtic literature, and when Teirnon returns the child to Pwyll, Rhiannon is released from her bondage and the land blossoms once again.

Those of you with an Arthurian bent like me will spot the similarities right away in the fostering of Arthur with Sir Ector, and his teaching by Merlin. And when Guinevere is demonized in Arthurian tradition, Arthur falls into despair and the land suffers.

What is interesting in this tale is that Pwyll’s deficiencies are repaired by his contact with, and subsequent learning from, stronger figures than himself, namely Arawn, Rhiannon, and his loyal subject Teirnon. As the story progresses, we are witness to Pwyll’s growth in wisdom, courtesy and generosity – the things that make a king truly great.

Arthur

The Celtic archetypes in this tale and others help to bridge the gap between the natural world and Otherworld, to educate the hero, and light the hero’s way to effective sovereignty.

If you have never done so, I recommend that you read the tales contained in the Mabinogi, especially Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. Let them envelop and transport you to that time long ago when goddesses emerged from the woods and Fairy lords befriended their mortal counterparts.

I hope you find these tales as entertaining and educational as I have.

Thank you for reading.

You can download a FREE electronic version (all formats) of the Mabinogi at the Project Gutenberg website by clicking HERE.

You can also read a bit more about the Mabinogi on the Camelot Project web pages.

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Ancient Orphanage – The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron

“Muse, sing of Artemis, sister of the Far-Shooter, the virgin who delights in arrows…”

(Homeric Hymn IX)

Artemis – Goddess of the Hunt and Protector of Children

It was early January in Attica, Greece, a few years ago. I remember it clearly.

I drove out of Athens on a grey day that could dampen anyone’s post-holiday spirits.

The New Year had come and gone, copious amounts of food and wine having been consumed. A new adventure was needed.

My destination on that rainy day? – The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron.

I drove the forty two kilometres from Athens to Brauron, passing dark, rocky mountains and hills covered in deep green foliage. Greece is a very different place in the winter. This was another one of those journeys in which I didn’t know what to expect.

I had never heard of Brauron, or of an Attic sanctuary of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, protector of young girls and women in childbirth.

The car splashed its way over tiny roads and through villages lost to the outside world. As I drove past, a few heads poked out of windows to follow my progress as if in some eerie back-woods movie setting.

Finally, I came to my destination. I parked the car on the side of the road and stopped for a moment to listen to the pattering of the rain on the roof. I wiped my foggy window and could just make out a set of grey columns standing sentry in the rain. I put on my rain gear and jumped out.

The gate to the site was open and no one was at the booth. So I walked into the sanctuary.

Brauron – view from stoa, across the courtyard to the temple of Artemis

My initial reaction was one of sadness. I don’t know why, but the rain seemed fitting then, as though the gods wept for something.

This is a place of great antiquity.

Supposedly, Brauron has been inhabited since the early Mycenaean age. Legend has it that the sanctuary of Artemis was established by none other than Iphegeneia, the daughter of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae.

Iphegeneia is brought to Aulis in this painting:

‘The Anger of Achilles’ by Jacques-Louis David (1819)

Here is a brief summary for those of you who do not know her story. The Greek army, led by Agamemnon, was stuck at Aulis because of bad weather which prevented them from setting out for Troy.

This was said to be due to an offense done to Artemis. Calchas, the high king’s seer, told Agamemnon that the only way for the goddess to be appeased and for the winds to abate was for him to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to the goddess.

The young girl was brought to Aulis under the pretence that she was to marry the hero Achilles, and when she arrived, Agamemnon did the unthinkable.

Euripides opens his play Ipheigeneia in Tauris. Iphegeneia speaks:

“Child of the man of torment and of pride

Tantalid Pelops bore a royal bride

On flying steeds from Pisa. Thence did spring

Atreus: from Atreus, linked king with king,

Menelaus, Agamemnon. His am I

And Clytemnestra’s child: whom cruelly

At Aulis, where the strait of the shifting blue

Frets with quick winds, for Helen’s sake he slew,

Or thinks to have slain; such sacrifice he swore

To Artemis on that deep-bosomed shore.

For there Lord Agamemnon, hot with joy

To win for Greece the crown of conquered Troy,

For Menelaus’ sake through all distress

Pursuing Helen’s vanished loveliness,

Gathered his thousand ships from every coast

Of Hellas: when there fell on that great host

Storms and despair of sailing. Then the King

Sought signs of fire, and Calchas answering

Spake thus: “O Lord of Hellas, from this shore

No ship of thine may move for evermore,

Till Artemis receive in gift of blood

Thy child, Iphegeneia. Long hath stood

Thy vow, to pay to Her that bringeth light

Whatever birth most fair by day or night

The year should bring. That year thy queen did

Bear

A child – whom here I name of all most fair.

See that she die.”

So from my mother’s side

By lies Odysseus won me, to be bride

In Aulis to Achilles. When I came,

They took me and above the altar flame

Held, and the sword was swinging to the gash,

When, lo, out of their vision in a flash

Artemis rapt me, leaving in my place

A deer to bleed; and on through a great space

Of shining sky upbore and in this town

Of Tauris the Unfriended set me down;

Where o’er a savage people savagely

King Thoas rules. This is her sanctuary

And I her priestess. Therefore, by the rite

Of worship here, wherein she hath delight –

Though fair in naught but name. …But Artemis

Is near; I speak no further…”

(Iphegeneia in Tauris; Euripides; c.413 B.C)

Even in translation, the words Euripides gives to this tragic girl are powerful and moving.

Thankfully, the goddess Artemis is said to have substituted another sacrifice for Iphegeneia, and taken her far away to be a priestess in her temple at Tauris, in the Crimea. She spent years there away from her mother, Clytemnestra, and her brother, Orestes. She also lived knowing her own father had been ready to end her life.

Orestes and Electra at father’s tomb

The Trojan War played itself out, and Agamemnon made his way home to be murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. About seven years later, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, returns from Athens and with encouragement from his sister, Electra, kills his mother and her lover.

Orestes is pursued by the Furies for his deeds, but then Apollo orders him to go to Tauris in order to take the wooden cult statue of Artemis and bring it back to Athens. Euripides tells how Orestes goes to Tauris and eventually sees his sister Iphegeneia there. They are reunited and she helps him to take the statue and together they return to Attica where she establishes the Sanctuary of Artemis.

Here, the Goddess Athena speaks to Iphegeneia before she leaves Tauris:

“…Iphegeneia, by the stair

Of Brauron in the rocks, the Key shalt bear

Of Artemis. There shalt thou live and die,

And there have burial. And a gift shall lie

Above thy shrine, fair raiment undefiled

Left upon earth by mothers dead with child.”

(Iphegeneia in Tauris; Euripides)

Iphegeheia is said to have spent the remainder of her days at Brauron.

Apollo blesses Orestes and tells him to go to Tauris Clytemnestra’s shade and a Fury look on

The cult of Artemis at Brauron died out after the Mycenaean age but was re-established from the 9th century B.C. on. Eventually, the cult of Artemis was brought to Athens. After that, there was a procession every four years from the Temple of Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian Acropolis to Brauron, in honour of the goddess and her priestess, Iphegeneia.

Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian Acropolis (Perseus Digital Library)

But what was the purpose of the sanctuary at Brauron besides being a place to honour of the goddess?

It seems that the sanctuary also functioned as a sort of orphanage or fostering place for young girls who served the goddess from about five to ten years of age. They performed rituals which included sacred dances in which they acted like bears. In fact, the girls were called arktoi, or ‘the bears’. This odd tradition of the bears is said to commemorate the slaying of one of Artemis’ sacred bears by one of the girls’ brothers. The Arkteia was a service to the goddess in which young girls would transition from childhood to puberty and marriageable age.

Votive statues of children from Brauron (Brauron Museum)

At Brauron, Artemis was worshipped as a protector of girls and women in childbirth. Women who survived childbirth dedicated a set of clothes to the goddess. The clothes of women who died in childbirth were, in turn, dedicated to Iphegeneia.

I imagine a lot of hope springing up in this place, but also much sadness.

Aerial view of the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron

Once you cross the 5th century bridge into the sanctuary, you come to the unusual p-shaped stoa which has what are thought to be dining rooms or, more likely, rooms for the girls living within the sanctuary. Inside, you can still see places where their sleeping pallets might have been and holes carved into the marble where the door posts rested.

The stoa is known as the ‘Stoa of Bears’.

Remains of the Temple of Artemis beside sacred spring

I walked along the paving slabs on that rainy day, peeking into the small rooms and wondering at the children who would have been there. Were they peasants or nobility? Were their parents killed by war or plague? Were they sent there in fulfillment of a vow? Who did they have left in the world?

It must have been a frightening prospect to leave the safety of the sanctuary as well. What must a young girl have thought when she turned ten and knew that her time had come to perform the sacred dance one last time before going out into the world. Ancient Greece was not so kind a place for girls or women. They were seen as vessels to be kept indoors.

A good thing they had Artemis to look over them, and to see them through childbirth.

The stoa courtyard was overgrown with sodden grass when I was there, and the ruins of the small Temple of Artemis were minimal.

The ‘Stoa of Bears’

As I made my way through the site, I eventually came to a small cave-like recess that was supposed to be a shrine to Iphegeneia, that sad daughter of Agamemnon.

The rain stopped here, and the skin prickled on the back of my neck.

For how long had this first priestess of Brauron been honoured here? Ages, it seemed.

I let my imagination go in the sanctuary and could hear the laughter of little girls playing, or their lonely cries upon their straw pallets. I could see them mimicking the bears for which they were named, and hear the sound of their voices raised in song to Artemis, their protectress.

From Brauron’s beginnings as a sacred site, each of those little girls likely stood where I was standing and remembered Iphegeneia and her plight. I thought of how they must have wept at her sad story and perhaps felt better about their own lives that led them to that place in the green hills of Attica.

The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron is a very special place.

Votive Statue of a young girl from Brauron

When I crossed back over that classical bridge and made my way back to the car, I turned at the gate and looked back through the driving rain one last time.

Usually, when I leave an ancient site or sanctuary, I feel uplifted and at peace.

Not so with Brauron.

Upon leaving Brauron, my heart was in turmoil, and it still is when I think back on that place.

It’s place of conflicting emotions wrapped in myth and legend.

It’s a great comfort in some ways to know that this was a place where young girls were protected, watched over by their patron goddess who saved the first priestess – this, in an ancient, male-dominated world of war and superstition.

On the other hand, as I turned my back on the dark columns and sodden earth of the sanctuary, my sole, sad thought was for Iphegeneia whose father was so determined to sail for Troy that he was willing to perform such a heinous and tragic act.

Thus do myth, legend, and history combine to shape our view of the places of the past.

Thank you for reading.

Site map of the Brauron sanctuary by J.M. Harrington (Wikimedia Commons)

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Caligula – From Little Boots to Maniacal Monster

Caligula…

The name conjures images, doesn’t it? Oh yes – more so than Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the full name of the Roman emperor we know as Caligula.

Caligula definitely has more power, largely due to the stories behind the name, stories of extreme debauchery, sadism, insanity and horror.

John Hurt as Caligula in I Claudius

You might envisage John Hurt in the television drama of Robert Graves’ I Claudius, his mouth bloody after eating the baby which he had put in his sister’s belly, believing himself to be the god, Jove.

Or, perhaps more disturbingly, the image of Malcolm McDowell cavorts into your thoughts amid flashes of naked bodies and the bloody bits and pieces of Caligula’s victims in the infamous, star-clad film originally scripted by Gore Vidal, Caligula.

These are the images that we have of Caligula today. They’re built on ancient sources and popular culture that described the reign of this most disturbing of Roman emperors.

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula

But is the portrayal of Caligula as an insane, perverted, and brutal emperor accurate? Is it fair?

Caligula had an interesting life as a boy. He was with his father, the Roman hero Germanicus, and the army along the northern frontier camps. Among the men of the Legions, it’s said, he got his nickname. ‘Caligula’ is a diminutive version of the word for military, hobnailed boots called caligae. He became ‘Little Boots’ because of the smaller pair of caligae he wore around the camp.

Was Caligula a cute little boy? Odd to think after all the rumours. The troops seemed to have adopted him.

His life took a turn for the worst though, leaving him one of the sole survivors of his family.

The Death of Germanicus (Nicholas Poussin, 1627)

There were rumours that Tiberius or Livia, Augustus’ empress, may have been responsible, more or less, for killing Caligula’s family, including his hero father, Germanicus. However, most now seem to agree that this was unlikely, that it was due to natural causes in the East. Another rumour was that Germanicus was poisoned by Gnaeus Piso, who was put on trial for it.

Either way, ‘Little Boots’ ended up spending a lot of time with his great uncle, Tiberius, on the island of Capri. This island is where the Emperor retreated in his advanced years, and it’s rumoured that much depravity took place there, and that Caligula learned that behaviour.

Roman Caligae

Oddly enough, the first six months of Caligula’s reign as emperor were said to be good and moderate. He fell seriously ill around that time, however, and afterward the chroniclers speak of a young man who believed himself divine, and who became the most cruel, extravagant and perverse of tyrants. Did the illness alter his mind in some way? We may never know.

I’m not an expert on the reign of Caligula and, in fact, it seems that few people are.

Caligula

Caligula’s reign as Roman emperor is one of the most poorly documented in Roman history.

Since that is the case, it seems understandable that countless generations would cling to the tales told by Suetonius so many years after Caligula’s death: that he had sex with his sister on a regular basis, that he made his horse a consul, and that he forced senators’ wives to have sex.

If you can make it up, it probably fits the historical and pop-culture bill when it comes to Caligula.

The other side of the argument says that all of the salacious tales were invented, pure fabrications created by Caligula’s, and the Julio-Claudian’s, enemies.

Villa Jovis on the Island of Capri, where Caligula spent time with his uncle, Tiberius

Perhaps. But must not there be some basis in fact?

Certainly, the senatorial and Praetorian conspirators behind the assassination of Caligula (he was the first emperor to be assassinated) needed to justify their actions.

Some believe that Caligula had tried very hard to increase the power of the Emperor and further minimize the Senate. This would make him a lot of enemies – enemies who would write the history of his reign long after his death.

There is real power in writing after the fact – which is why we must approach any source, modern or historical, with a degree of caution.

Even our views of the most famous and popular (even well-documented) figures of history can be flawed. History is written by the victors, or at the least by the survivors. Everyone, especially emperors, had enemies, even if they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rulers.

Reconstruction of Tiberius’ Villa Jovis on Island of Capri (Weichardt, 1900)

Popular media, such as film and fiction, can reveal to us certain aspects of historical people, but we must take everything with a grain of salt. We have to accept that what we are reading or seeing might be based on subjective sources that had a particular goal in mind.

However, learning how a generation of people viewed a particular person (even though the stories may not be true) can also be useful. Their hatred, love or fear etc. must have come from somewhere!

Was Caligula as mad as they say or as we believe? Perhaps.

His depravity has made some good storytelling over the centuries. I suspect that some of it is true. But, like all good stories, things have been elaborated on for sheer entertainment value, especially when the man himself was safely dead.

I highly recommend Robert Graves’ I Claudius if you have not already read it. It’s a modern classic, as is its television dramatization starring John Hurt and Derek Jacobi. It’s a wonderful piece of fiction, if not entirely accurate.

On the other hand, if you have the stomach and libido for it, the film version of Caligula is a terror-filled, pornographic representation of Caligula that brings all of the most salacious tales of him to life. A warning: this film is not for the faint of heart.

Caligula’s Palace and Bridge, by Turner

But let’s get back to an original source…

We should end with a quote from Suetonius who seems to be one of the main sources of all the tall tales that have been passed down the ages:

…he (Caligula) could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, revelling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man, that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.” (Caius Suetonius Tranquillus; Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

As I said, history is written by the survivors, and as it is, history remembers Caligula as a sadistic, incestuous maniac who thought he was a god, who made his horse a senator, cared nothing for the power of the senate, and went to war against the god Neptune. The damning list goes on and on…

On the other hand, he undertook several public building projects and expanded the Empire’s borders in North Africa.

But, in the end, Caligula was murdered by the Praetorians who immediately made Claudius the next emperor.

Will we ever know the true nature of Caligula?

Probably not, but this certainly is an instance in which the history, true or not, is highly entertaining and shocking.

Thank you for reading.

Emperor Claudius – (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871) – with the murdered Emperor Caligula on the floor at Claudius’ feet

What are your thoughts on Emperor Caligula? Was he as vile as portrayed? Or was he the victim of malicious gossip?

For those of you who want to read a bit more, check out this interesting article on the BBC website by CLICKING HERE.

 

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Peloponnesian Eyrie – The Temple of Apollo Epikourios

Once it a while, I come across a site that strikes me as so magnificent and mysterious that I wonder why I didn’t know about it before, why it’s not spoken of by everyone with an inclination to ancient history.

If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know that I love to travel and have done so quite a bit in Greece. A few years ago, I was touring some of the major sites with friends and family – Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia etc. The biggies.

After Olympia, we drove back into the mountains of the Peloponnese. It was hot and bright, and the cicadas were whirring louder than I had ever heard before. As I was navigating a particularly treacherous series of mountain switchbacks, my father-in-law said that we should go south to Bassae.

Temple of Bassae in 1966 (McGill University archive)

“Bassae?” I said. “What’s there?”

“Some ruins,” he answered. “There is a temple of Apollo Epikourios.”

“Apollo Epi-what?” I half-answered, too focussed on the road to pronounce this new, strange word.

Admittedly my first thought was of Apicius and food – no matter that the Roman gourmet was about a six hundred or so years off. I was also starving at that moment!

So we turned south, into the teeth of even larger mountains.

Apollo Epikourios means ‘Apollo the Succourer’ or ‘Apollo the Helper’.

Plan of Bassae temple (Wikimedia Commons)

The epithet refers to Apollo’s role as a god of healing.

In the mid-seventh century B.C., Spartan warriors and plague came to the people of Phigaleia who were living in these high mountains. Many offerings in the form of weapons were found on site indicating that originally, in this place, Apollo was worshipped as a martial god. However, after escaping Spartan aggression and the plague of later years, Apollo became a ‘succourer’ or helper to the Phigalians.

In gratitude, the Phigalians commissioned the architect Ictinus to build the temple at Bassae.

This was no small thing. In Classical Greece, Ictinus was an A-list architect – he was one of the architects of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Mysteries at Eleusis.

Apollo

In the second century A.D. Pausanias visited Bassae and the temple there:

Phigalia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by Mount Cotilius, while on the right it is sheltered by Mount Elaius. Mount Cotilius is distant about forty furlongs from the city: on it is a place called Bassae, and the temple of Apollo the Succourer, built of stone, roof and all. Of all the temples in the Peloponnese, next to the one at Tegea, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions. Apollo got the name of Succourer for the succour he gave in time of plague, just as at Athens he received the surname of Averter of Evil for delivering Athens also from the plague. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he delivered the Phigalians also, and at no other time: This is proved by his two surnames, which mean much the same thing, as well by the fact that Ictinus, the architect of the temple at Phigalia, was a contemporary of Pericles, and built for the Athenians the Parthenon, as it is called.” (Pausanias)

When most tourists visit the Peloponnese today, they focus on sites like Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Corinth, and of course, Olympia. Why wouldn’t folks head for these places? They are magnificent sites that are all worth visiting – more than once.

However, if you are more adventurous and enjoy heading off the beaten path, the Peloponnese holds some hidden treasures that are not always prominently featured in guidebooks or on tour itineraries.

Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those special, unsung places. Academics know about it but few tourists make it there. In fact, due to its remote location, it lay mostly forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Our car whined up the steep mountain, higher and higher, the sunlight blinding. I felt like Icarus for a moment, driving up and up.

We finally levelled out and our eyes were met by a giant, white…tent.

The ‘tent’ covering the temple at Bassae

“This is weird,” I remembered saying. I had no idea what lay beneath the white, sail barge structure.

We paid our minimal entry fee to the lady in the wooden site booth; she sat smoking and sipping an hours-old café frappé.

The mountain top was rocky and desolate, patched with hardy olive trees and shrubs. We made our way up the rocky path to the tent and stepped beneath the awning.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Doric columns in front of temple wall

Up there, at what felt like the top of the world, was a magnificent stone temple, one of the most complete temples I had ever seen. The stone was cracked in many places, pounded by the elements for centuries in its eyrie.

But it was intact, columns and walls, foundations. A few stray rays of sunlight made their way into the shaded sanctum to illuminate the cella. We were the only visitors on site, and the main sense that invaded my person was pure awe.

Steps leading up to temple platform

Bassae’s Temple of Apollo is a particularly important specimen, and not just because of the architect. It contained the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital which was displayed in the middle of the naos which was lined with Ionic columns. However, on the outside of the temple, the strength and support of the structure is provided by strong Doric columns, fifteen on each long side and six on the ends.

One of the things that make this temple unique is the incorporation of all three of the classical orders of columns. Also, the interior of the cella was ornamented with a series of beautifully detailed friezes of the Amazonomachy (Battle of the Amazons) and the Battle Centaurs and Lapiths.

Fanciful reconstruction of Bassae interior by Charles Cockerell (Wikimedia Commons)

You can see the Bassae Friezes at the British Museum where they are on display, far from their home at the top of that lonely mountain.

I think I was in such awed shock the first time that I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at.

Some places do that to you. The power of the place and setting can quite overwhelm the academic eye.

Amazonomachy – Bassae Frieze

After wandering around the temple for a time, we went back outside into the sun to look at the surrounding countryside. These were some of the highest mountains in the Peloponnese and they stretched out in all directions. It is a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.

Sunlight filtering into the cella of the temple

Outside the cicadas were louder than ever, but it is a sound I have come to associate with peace. The air was hot but dry and tinged with wild thyme that must once have been laid upon Apollo’s altar by the Phigalians.

We stood in the sun and looked to Mount Kotilon where the map indicated that there was a Temple to Aphrodite and another to Artemis Orthasia, the ‘Protector of Small Children’.

These mountains are a place for gods.

I hope, one day, to return to Bassae. I want to circle the Temple of Apollo Epikourios and to remember the Phigalians who thanked him for his aid by building him this magnificent sanctuary in the sky.

* A useful source on the temple of Apollo Epikourios is:

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space published by the Greek Ministry of Culture Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai

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Mars – God of War and…Agriculture?

One of the things that fascinates me the most about studying the ancient world is the vast array of gods and goddesses. They all played an important role in the day-to-day lives of ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and others.

There were many deities associated with agriculture in ancient Rome, Ceres and Saturn, for example. Many gods and goddesses, major and minor, could affect crops, agricultural endeavours and the subsequent harvests.

When you hear the name of Mars, agriculture is not the first thing that comes to mind. When I think of the Roman god, Mars, I think of one thing.

WAR.

The Roman God of War was second to none other than Jupiter himself in the Roman Pantheon.

The Romans were a warlike people after all, and so Mars always figured prominently.

Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) vowed to build a temple to Mars in 42 B.C. during the battle of Philippi in which he, Mark Antony and Lepidus finally defeated the murderers of Julius Caesar. When Augustus built his forum in 20 B.C. the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) was the centrepiece.

“On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war.” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)

Artist impression of temple of Mars Ultor (the ‘Avenger’)

People often think that Mars was the Roman name given to Ares, the Greek God of War, as was the case with many other gods in Roman religion. This is not exactly true.

In the Greek Pantheon, Ares was simply God of War, brutal, dangerous and unforgiving. To give oneself over to Ares was to give in to savagery and the animalistic side of war. Fear and Terror were his companions. Most Greeks preferred Athena as Goddess of War, Strategy and Wisdom.

Mars was a very different god from Ares. He was a uniquely Roman god. He was the father of the Roman people.

Mars was the God of War, true, but he was also a god of agriculture.

Just as he protected the Roman people in battle, so too did Mars guard their crops, their flocks, and their lands.

War and agriculture were closely linked in the Roman Republic. Most Romans who fought in the early legions were farmers who had set aside their plows and scythes to pick up their gladii and scuta when called upon to defend their lands. One of the most cited examples of this is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC), one of the early Patrician heroes of Rome.

In his work De Agri Cultura, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC– 149 BC) speaks at length about the tradition of the suovetaurilia, a sacrifice that was made roughly every five years and occasionally at other times. This ceremony was a form of purification, a lustratio.

Relief of a Suovetaurilia ceremony

The highly sacred suovetaurilia was dedicated to Mars with the intent of blessing and purifying lands.

It involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull – all to Mars.

The sacrifice was done after the animals were led around the land while asking the god to purify the farm and land.

Cato describes the prayer that is uttered to Mars once the sacrifices have been made:

Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars…

(Cato the Elder; De Agri Cultura)

Cato the Elder

This is not a prayer to the bloodthirsty god of war that Ares was.

The words and actions above evoke a wish from a child to a supreme father and protector. We see the fears that would have occupied the minds of the Roman people. No matter how mighty in war they may have been, if crops failed and disease spread, they would have been lost.

Romans prayed to Ceres and Saturn for the success of their crops, for abundance.

But the prayer above was to Mars, he who held Rome’s enemies, the enemies of its lands, at bay.

In war and in peace, Mars was always the guardian of his people.

Thank you for reading

If you want a clearer understanding of the suovetaurilia ceremony, and the meaning of this interesting Latin compound word, here is a very short presentation: https://youtu.be/pz1KiILdW2s

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