1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Secular Games

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SECULAR GAMES (Ludi Saeculares, originally Terentini). These were celebrated at Rome for three days and nights to mark the commencement of a new saeculum or generation. It is important to note that there was a saeculum civile, the length of which was definitely fixed at 100 years, and a saeculum naturale, which, under Greek and Etruscan influence, came to be accepted by the quindecimviri as 110 years. According to tradition, the secular games had their origin in certain sacrificial rites of the gens Valeria, which were performed at the Terentum, a volcanic cleft in the Campus Martius. According to the Roman antiquarians themselves, they were derived from the Etruscans, who, at the end of a mean period of 100 years (as representing the longest human life in a generation), presented to the chthonian deities an expiatory offering on behalf of the coming generation. The first definitely attested celebration of the games took place in 249 B.C., on which occasion a vow was made that they should be repeated every hundredth year (their name being also changed to Saeculares), a regulation which seems to have been immediately disregarded, for they were next held in 146 (not 149, although the authorities are not unanimous); in 49 the civil wars prevented any celebration. They would probably have fallen entirely into oblivion, had not Augustus revived them in 17 B.C., for which occasion the Carmen Saeculare was composed by Horace. In explanation of the selection of this year it is supposed that the quindecimviri invented celebrations for the years 456, 346, 236, 126, the saeculum being taken as lasting 110 years.

In later times various modes of reckoning were adopted. The dates were: A.D. 47 (under Claudius), celebrating the 800th year of the foundation of the city; 88 (under Domitian), an interval of only 105 instead of 110 years; 147 (under Antoninus Pius), the 900th year of the city; 204 (under Septimius Severus), exactly two saecula (220 years) after the Augustan celebration; 248 (under Philip the Arabian), the 1000th year of the city; 262 (under Gallienus), probably a special ceremony in time of calamity; in 304 (which should have been 314) Maximian intended to hold a celebration, but does not appear to have done so. From this time nothing more is heard of the secular games, until they were revived in the year 1500 as the popish jubilees instituted by Boniface VIII.

At the beginning of the harvest, heralds went round and summoned the people to the festival. The quindecimviri distributed to all free citizens on the Capitol and in 316 temple of Apollo on the Palatine various means of expiation—torches, sulphur and bitumen. Here and in the temple of Diana on the Aventine, wheat, barley, and beans were distributed, to serve as an offering of first fruits. The festival then began, at which offerings were made to various deities. On the first night the emperor sacrificed three rams to the Parcae at an underground altar on the banks of the Tiber, while the people lighted torches and sang a special hymn. On the same or following nights a black hog and a black pig were sacrificed to Tellus, and dark victims to Dis (Pluto) and Proserpine. On the first day white bulls and a white cow were offered to Jupiter and Juno on the Capitol, after which scenic games were held in honour of Apollo. On the second day noble matrons sang supplicatory hymns to Juno on the Capitol; on the third, white oxen were sacrificed to Apollo and twenty-seven boys and maidens sang the “secular hymn” in Greek and Latin.

The above particulars are from Zosimus (ii. 5, and 6, which contain the Sibylline oracle), who, with Censorinus (De Die Natali, 17), Valerius Maximus, ii. 4, and Horace (Carmen Saeculare) is the chief ancient authority on the subject; see also Mommsen, Römische Chronologie (1858); 'C. L. Roth, “Über die römischen Säcularspiele” in the Rheinisches Museum, viii. (1853); and Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, iii. (1885), p. 386. The inscription commemorating the ludi of 17 B.C. was discovered in 1890 and is printed in the Ephemeris epigraphica, vol. viii. The best account of the whole subject is in H. Diels, Sibyllinische Blätter (1890), p. 109 foll.