Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Quinquatria and Tubilustrium Festivals!

Happy end of Quinquatria and Happy Tubilustrium greetings to you!

I did say that March was a busy month for festivals in Ancient Rome! What you’ll find below are not the only versions available to read in books and across the internet about the festivals of the Quinquatria and Tubilustrium. Like the other festivals I’ve mentioned on this blog, over time religious festival habits changed and the classical sources differ, according to when they were written and what might have currently been more common.


Minerva, Simon Vouet  1590-1649
The Hermitage Museum 

Between the 19th and 23rd March was the time of the Quinquatria (sometimes named Quinquatrus), a festival sacred to the goddess Minerva. Originally, it was likely to have also celebrated the Spring Equinox, a time of rebirth, and may have celebrated the fertility of women. The Quinquatria began on the fifth day after the ides of March (middle of the month).

There is some doubt in ancient sources about the duration of Quinquatria – Only one day? Or as many as five?

Varro, Festus, and Ovid quote different celebration durations. However, Ancient Roman calendars only mark one day for the festival.

Ovid wrote that it got the name Quinquatria because it continued for five days. According to him no blood was shed on the first day, but contests of gladiators took place on the following four days. Ovid’s version is also that the festival commemorated the birthday of Minerva.

Festus wrote it was because the Minerva temple on the Aventine was consecrated on that day.

Since the Quinquatria was sacred to Minerva, women may have consulted fortune-tellers and diviners, in the belief that Minerva was guiding their futures.

The Emperor Domitian (reign AD 81-96) celebrated the Quinquatria quite spectacularly at his Alban villa, where a newly set-up collegium (priest group) oversaw the celebrations. Domitian ordered shows of wild beasts. Plays were performed, and there were contests of orators and poets.

The last day, the 23rd March, seems to have been one of those ‘use it since it’s there already’ festival days.

The Tubilustrium Festival

Tubilustrium - Trajan's Column

From the earliest times of Roman military strength, the 23rd March was a day when the trumpets used for giving military commands, during practice regimes and in battle, were symbolically cleansed and purified. This ancient festival was named the Tubilustrium. Once the trumpets had undergone the official ritual cleansing and purification process, it was a signal that all was ready to begin the new military campaign season. It was a signal that once the spring planting was over, the farmer/soldier would leave the land-tending to others, and they would converge at a nominated place e.g.  Rome. They were ready to resume an ongoing battle with some other tribe, or country. Or, they were prepared to begin a new invasion with their weapons all spick and span, and polished to the sharpest edges!

The October Armilustrium festival was the opposite to the Tubilustrium. In mid-October, the earliest Ancient Roman armies symbolically wiped-off their weapons and packed them away till the next Tubilustrium festival, in the following month of March. In October, the men went back to their homes and helped with any crop gathering that still needed to be done. They then stayed home till the spring call to arms, the Tubilustrium. During that winter down-time they ensured that their weapons/ kit (shields, knives etc) were renewed and ready.

Since I write of the Roman Army invasions of northern Britannia during the late 1st Century AD,  the idea of how the legions celebrated any of the military-oriented festivals is one which has preoccupied me, at times. There were so many Roman festivals held annually, but any in honour of the god Mars, or to do with military prowess and armaments must still have been very highly regarded by the armies of Rome.

Minerva - Frans Dekker

Some of the Britannic troops might well have had some free time on military festival days, possibly drawn according to some form of roster system. I’m sure that marking a day differently from another one was possible. Perhaps there was a small ceremony officiated by the Camp Commander or the Primus Pilus (first spear and highest ranking non-commissioned officer). Or maybe a Legionary Legate conducted the ceremony to bolster troop morale. The actual ceremony and duration of any festivities may well have depended on what size the fort or fortress was and the stability of the area with regard to avenging local tribespeople (barbarians or semi-subdued). 

There is spectacular evidence from Trimontium Roman Fort (Melrose, Scotland) of military parade helmets. It’s thought that the helmets and masks would have only been worn by the equestrian forces during ceremonies or special ‘shows’. I like to think that the superb craftmanship of the masks and helmets were shown off during a symbolic Tubilustrium, and other Mars festivals.

1st C AD Parade Helmet- National Museum of Scotland
Found at Trimontium Fort, Melrose

Since the Ancient Romans, and the army in general, were very guided on a day-to-day basis by religious beliefs then the Tubilustrium and other Mars festivals might have been extremely important for mental morale in Britannia.

I don’t think many of the auxiliary army units who occupied Britain in the 1st Century AD ever had the luxury of completely abandoning warfare in October, for a winter ‘down-time’. Tacitus, however, mentions that the legions tended to retreat from an occupied front line, to overwinter in a legionary base. That practice, to me, would have been very dependent on whether or not the local Iron Age tribes took ‘time-off’ from making any fort attacks during the winter season. There may only have been the possibility of removing the legionary soldiers to a fortress base if auxiliary troops were substituted to outposts if they were still manned.

Copy display at Trimontium Museum, Melrose.
(Look behind the helmet peak and you'll see a photo of a
terracotta statuette of Minerva that was found at Trimontium) 

While on active campaign in Britannia, and sleeping under leather tents, I feel that celebrating any festivals would have been a solitary occupation. A quick prayer to the nominated god a few more times on that special day might have been the only recourse to the rank and file soldiers. 

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my Fascinating Festivals! 

SlĂ inte! 




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