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Ludi Saeculares

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Ludi Saeculares - Secular games, so called because they were celebrated only once in a century or age, or perhaps because it was scarcely given to a man to see them more than once in his life. They constituted one of the most solemn of the Roman festivals. Their actual origin is thus related. In the same year when the kingly government was abolished, Rome became afflicted with a dreadful pestilence; and Publius Valerius Publicola, then one of the two consuls, sought to stay the vengence of the offended deities by causing sacrifices to be offered on the same altars to Pluto and Proserpine; and, as we are told, the plague ceased. Sixty years afterwards, the same rites were repeated by order of the priests of the Sybilline Oracle, and certain ceremonies were added, as pretended to be prescribed in the sacred books of the Sybills; and then it was ordained that these feasts should take place at the end of each century.

The preparation for and arrangement of these games were extremely imposing, especially during the period of the empire, with whose preservation they were, in popular opinion, identified. When the time arrived for holding these secular sports, the quindecemvirs sent heralds throughout all Italy, for the express purpose of inviting people to assist at a festival "which they had never seen, and which they would never see again." When everybody was assembled, the solemnities began with a procession consisting of the priesthood, the senate, and the magistrates, accompanied by a multitutde of citizens clothed in white, crowned with flowers, and each holding a palm branch. For the three days and nights that the festival lasted, three different hymns were sung in the temples, and various shows were exhibited to the people. The scene of action was changed each day. The first was in the Campus Martins; the second at the Capitol; the third on the Palatine Hill. After a prepatory form of devotion, called Pervigilium, when lustral ceremonies were gone through, and black victims offered up to the Infernal Gods, the multitude assembled on the field of Mars, and sacrificed to Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, Diana, Ceres, and other divinities. The first night of the games, the emperor himself, at the head of fifteen pontiffs, proceeded to the banks of the Tiber, and there at three altars erected for the occasion, and sprinkled with the blood of three lambs, they dedicated victims and other burnt offerings. A certain space of ground was afterwards marked out and converted to an illuminated scene. During the first two days appropriate hymns were chanted in chorus; different kinds of games were performed; scenic pieces were exhibited at the theatre; and at the circus there were foot, horse, and chariot races. The third day, which concluded the festival, seventeen young men and as many young women of condition, and having both their parents living, entered the temple of Apollo Palatinus, and sang hymns in Greek and Latin, invoking upon Rome the protection of the gods, who had just been honoured by the most solemn sacrifices. At length the Sibylline priests who had opened the ludi saeculares with prayers to the deities, closed them in the same manner.

In giving account of the various epochas when the secular games were celebrated under the emperors, M. Millin observes that after an interruption which lasted for a long series of years, these festivities took place for the sixth time from their original institution during the reign of Augustus, and in the year of Rome 737. The emperor Claudius, indeed, when he was but a private individual, had borne testimony to the fact that Augustus 's calculation of the year for performing the secular games was carefully and correctly made. But when Claudius became emperor he found fault with this calculation, which he said was early; and he pretended that the celebration ought to have been reserved to the end of the century in which he was living. In conformity with his professed opinion, Claudius repeated these games in the 800th year after the foundation of Rome. It is in reference to that occasion Suetonius remarks that the proclamation of the herald, about "what people had never seen and would not see again," failed in its application in this instance; because many persons who had witnessed the secular games under Augustus were then still living; and because there were even actors that had been employed on the former occasion, who took part in the spectacle of this Claudian celebration. Fourty one years afterwards, Domitian renewed the secular games, not according to the calculation established by Claudius, but agreeably to that of Augustus, by which it had been laid down that the games were to be celebrated every 110 years. Tacitus was then praetor, and actively assisted at this celebration of Domitian, in his office of quindecemvir, or sibylline pontiff, as he calls himself, says in his Annals (Lib. xi c, 11).

Anotninus Pius, as Aurelius Victor informs us, celebrted the 900th year of Rome with great magnificence; it is not said that the secular games were then exhibited, inasmuch as the writer above mentioned does not even use the that expression when speaking of the secular games celebrated in the reign of Philip I. Septimius Severus adopted the computation of Augustus, in giving the secular games at Rome, in the year 9-VC 957. It is well known that Philip I repeated them with inexampled magnificence and splendour, in the year VC 1001. The types of several medals of Gallienus shew us that under his reign there was a performance of these games. And Eckhel, Syllog. i Num. Vet. has published (pl 10, #11) a coin of Maximianus, which goes to prove that under that prince also the same games were celebrated. Nevertheless, according to the two modes of calculating the epochas of the secular games, which we have seen were adopted by preseeding emperors, viz., a period of 110 years, in taking for a base of VC 737, when Augustus reestablisjed them; or else the period of 100 years adopted by Claudius, Antoninus Pius, and Phillip I. In taking for a base the secular games celebrated in VC 957 under Severus, according to the computation of Augustus, they ought to have been celebrated 110 years after, that is to say in  1067; but Maximianus was dead in 1063. The same reasoning may be employed in order to prove that during the reign of Gallienus, which comes in the series between that of Philip I and Maximianus, there should not have been any secular games.

It is this circumstance which induced Eckhel to suppose that, having found the period of a whole century too long, the emperors determined upon celebrating these splendid feats at the end of half a century. This hypothesis acquires great weight, when it is considered, in the first place, that at this epocha, the Roman empire was afflicted with pestilence and ravaged with wars, and it was expressly with the view of removing these scourges that the celebration of the secular games was instituted; in the next place, according to the newer computation, the time for performing them coincides with the reign of Gallienus, and with that of Maimianus, under whom the testimony of medals shows that they took place. Severus celebrated the games in 957 on the computation of Augustus. In adding thereto 55 years, we arrive at the year 1012, which corresponds with the seventh year of the tribunitian power of Gallienus, a period at which his father Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persians, and event which perhaps induced Gallienus to give the secular games as a supposed means of appeasing the anger of the gods. With respect to Maximianus, it must be concluded that he took for the basis of his calculation the games celebrated in 1001 under Philip I, adding thereto 50 years. Constantine the Great did not celebrate them in the year when he was consul, with Licinius I for the third time, in the 1066th year of Rome, or AD 313. But the emperor Honorius, having received intelligence of the victory gained by his general Stilico over Alaric, permitted all the pagans again to celebrate the secular games; and these were the last of which history makes mention.

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