The Ludi Apollinares: Assimilating Greek Rites into Roman Religion

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The Ludi Apollinare was a Roman festival dedicated to the Greek god Apollo. Picture shows statue of Apollo in the Libyan National Museum. Copyright Natasha Sheldon.

The Ludi Apollinare was a Roman festival dedicated to the Greek god Apollo. This statue of Apollo resides in the Libyan National Museum. Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

From 208 BC, the Ludi Apollinares were held annually in Rome between the 6th and 13th July. The ludi were not merely games, but rather a festival of chariot races, plays and sacrifices in honour of the Greek god Apollo.

Roman legend states that the Romans instigated the ludi following oracular advice to secure victory against the forces of Hannibal. But they are also a perfect example of how the Roman establishment controlled and integrated foreign religious practices.

The Second Punic War

Roman religion was relatively inclusive, welcoming foreign gods and cults- but only if they fit in with traditional Roman religion and did not threaten it. By 213 BC, the forces of Hannibal had massively destabilized the Italy of Rome and her allies.

The battles of Trasimene and Cannae resulted in 15,000 and 75,000 Italian casualties, respectively, and refugees from the countryside and other Italian towns flooded into Rome.

Desperate times led to desperate measures. As it seems that their ancestral gods had failed them, the fearful people began to look elsewhere for supernatural help.

The longer the war dragged on,” said Livy in his History of Rome, “and success and failure altered the situation and quite so much so the attitude of men, superstitious fear, in large part foreign…invaded the state to such a degree that either men or else gods suddenly changed.”

The Roman state now faced conflict both inside and outside its walls.

The Carmina Marciana

The Senate answered this threat to its sacred institutions from its own people by calling for the voluntary surrender of all oracular books and prophetic writings as of the first of April. In the meantime, they banned all foreign rites.

But then something “peculiar” happened. The praetor in charge of collecting the writings, Marcus Aemilius, happened across a book of oracles by a seer called Marcius. He read two of the oracles it contained. One foretold the calamitous events that had occurred at Cannae, but the other offered the Romans hope.

As Livy described the oracle: “Romans, if you wish to drive out the enemy from your land, the plague that came from faraway lands, I bid you vow to Apollo annual games ….If you perform all this rightly, you shall ever rejoice and your power shall be dominant.”

Aemilius delivered the oracles to the Senate. After a day’s deliberation, Marcius’s prophecies were cross-checked against the Sibylline books, the ancient Oracular texts of the Roman state, which King Tarquinius Priscus purchased from the Sibyl of Cumae.

Unsurprisingly, the Sibyl’s prophecies affirmed the instigation of the new ceremonials. She was, after all, an oracle of Apollo.

Greece: Sacred Games

Plays as well as chariot races featured as part of the religious celebrations of the Ludi Apollinare. Picture shows ruins of Roman theatre at Sabratha, Libya. Copyright Natasha Sheldon.

The Ludi Apollinaire featured plays as well as chariot races as part of the religious celebrations of the Ludi Apollinare. These are the ruins of Roman theatre at Sabratha, Libya. Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

So, the Senate called for the institution of sacred games held in honour of a Greek god. They paid for these games, celebrated the following year in 212 BC, at public expense. “The people took part in them,” states Livy,” wearing wreaths of flowers. The married women offered prayers. The doors to the houses were opened, meals eaten in the open and the day marked with every observance.

Games or ludi dedicated to Apollo took up most of the festival. This was a quite standard part of the religious observances of any festival; an offering of human effort and endeavor to the gods as much as entertainment laid on for the crowds. The Ludi Apollinares consisted of Ludi Circenses: chariot races in the Circus Maximus and Ludi Scaenici: mimes, dances and plays.

Sacrifices: Greek-Style

On the final day the formal sacrifice to Apollo rounded off the festival-performed “by Greek rite” rather than Roman. This meant that the officiating priest performed the sacrifice bare-headed, rather than with his head covered by his toga according to Roman tradition.

At this sacrifice, the Romans offered Apollo a gilded ox and two gilded white goats. They also offered a gilded heifer to Latona, the Latin name for Apollo’s mother, Leto.

The Ludi join the Roman Calendar

The Ludi Apollinares were never meant to become an established part of the Roman religious calendar. But four years later in 208 BC, the Romans passed a lex, or law, making this so.

Reasons for this vary. The most favored explanation is a plague prompted the Senate to establish the games as a permanent fixture as Apollo was a god of healing. But Livy states this was not the reason at all, and also suggests they were, in fact, made permanent in 211 BC:

“The Games of Apollo had been exhibited the previous year, and when the question of their repetition the next year was moved by the praetor Calpurnius, the senate passed a decree that they should be observed for all time…. Such is the origin of the Apollinarian Games, which were instituted for the cause of victory and not, as is generally thought, in the interests of the public health.”

Greek Games into Roman Religion: A Clever Political Move?

Roman relief of priestess and man sacrificing. From Glyptothek Museum, Munich. Photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol

Roman relief of priestess and man making a sacrifice; housed in the Glyptothek Museum in Munich. Image by Bibi Saint-Pol.

But perhaps of greater interest is the reasoning behind the inception of the ludi Apollinaire. For the tales of oracular coincidence are surely no more than that.

The Roman state faced a crisis within as well as a war outside. Rather than creating more discord by forcefully suppressing the people’s interest in foreign cults at a time of national crisis, the state instead used that same crisis as an excuse for integrating some of those rites into official Roman religion.

Apollo’s games may have added a Greek flavor to part of the Roman religious character. But they were still molded and manipulated to fit within the context of Roman state religion.



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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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