Tuesday, 30 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: roman holiday or once in a life time

The Roman work week was not defined by the weekend or a Sabbath but by the late Empire, it was rarity for any professional, labourer or even slave to have to endure any significant stretch of time without a break, with, by then, there being almost parity between days worked and days off due to holy days—and these observations, supplemented by Imperial mandate were not something that one would quietly forgo. More than just pious libations spilt for the departed and one’s particular theophany of household gods, holidays were also public celebrations, featuring games, parades and other spectacles. Festivities were also augmented by spontaneous victory celebrations and by anniversaries and jubilees of much longer intervals.  Keeping the tradition of one Sabine man’s absolutions alive, the Romans celebrated what became known as the Secular Games—there being of course nothing secular about them, as we understand the domains of Church and State, but the word rather is the adjectival form of saecularis—something temporal and belonging to an age—whereas God and heavenly matters were considered to be outside of time, at least by medieval theologians.

Though it is not at a transparent matter why the oracles prescribed a darkly ritual to the god and goddess who ruled the Underworld in order to cure the illness of his children, nor why this particular man’s hardships are remembered—but the figure strikes me a little like the biblical Job though we have to take a lot of license with this biography and mystery cult, once his children recovered, also under the advisement of the oracles, the man pledged that this rite would be performed in perpetuity, once a secular age had passed. This once in a life time iteration was not merely a generational matter, as no one living, from the youngest infant to the oldest crone could, have been around to have witnessed the last performance—and this span of time was reckoned, even during ancient times when we think life-expectancy was not very long, as one hundred to one hundred-ten years—and in the Romance languages, the word century did derive from saecularis, defined as a round hundred. Octavian held the first Secular Games and the indeed the party was epic and unforgettable, later emperors were a bit envious—being bereft of a chance to win the peoples’ hearts and minds with spectacle. Though a good public festival requires no justification and libations do not need to be sourced, there is little in the way of explanation as to how a private ritual was performed by the person of the emperor, no less, and evolved to be attended with lavish and riotous merriment. Fairly soon there was holiday creep, with one emperor announcing the games of the century decades prematurely, and the older generation who still vividly recalled the previous revelries found the proclamation of the bash of a life time more than a bit incredulous. Rather embarrassed by this faux pas, the offending emperor quickly rebranded the celebration of the anniversary of Rome’s semi-legendary founding, allowing the parallel festivities to continue—on at least a twice-in-a-lifetime basis. The divergent schedules were brought together again under the reign of Phillip the Arab on the occasion of Rome’s Millennial celebration with a party whose legend still echoes through the ages. This turned out to be the last Secular Games, as Rome was Christianised by the time the next allotted saecularis came around and Rome, though still the Eternal City, was no longer the imperial capital.