Coins of the Ludi Saeculares by Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
 

Saeculum, an Etruscan word, referred to the length of a human lifetime (100 or 110 years), or the time necessary to replace an entire generation. You may recognize it from the phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (“A New Order of the Ages”), which appears on the Great Seal of the United States and on American currency.

In ancient Rome, the Ludi Novae Saeculares (“Games of the New Age”), was a major celebration that was supposed to be held on every 100-year anniversary of the city’s founding on April 21, 753 BCE.

The celebrations are said to have started early during the Roman Republic with a man named Valerius, whose three sons were sick with the plague. The sons were restored to health by drinking water heated in the Campus Martius at a place called Tarentum. Valerius then made sacrifices to the gods Dis Pater and Proserpina; the former was king of the Underworld, and the later was the daughter of Ceres and wife of Dis Pater. Valerius held festive games for three nights, one for each of his children.

Another origin myth has the games starting under Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (died 495 BCE), the last king of Rome, in an effort to stop the ravages of the plague.

Even though the origins may go back as far as the fifth century BCE, the first celebration of the Saeculares games was in 249 BCE during the First Punic War. Due to a series of portents, the Sibylline books (a collection of oracular prophecies) were consulted, and it was decided by a group of priests called the quindecemviri that they should sacrifice to the underworld deities for three consecutive nights and hold games including chariot races. The Romans also had to swear to hold the Games every 100 years. As promised, the games were held again in 149 BCE during the Third Punic War. It was really at this time that the celebration became a regular centennial event.

When 49 BCE came around, the Roman Republic was in its death throes and the members of the first triumvirate were at each other’s throats. Pompey the Great was killed in the civil war and Julius Caesar was assassinated. A second civil war soon followed, with Octavian (Augustus, died 14 CE) coming out on top in 31 BCE.

The Ludi Saeculares of Augustus

It wasn’t until 17 BCE that the now-emperor Augustus’ experts and a review of the Sibylline Books determined that the correct period between celebrations should be 110 years. Augustus sent out heralds to announce the upcoming festivities. The festival and games were meant to put an end to the destruction and bloodshed that had preceded it, to reconnect with the old religions of the Republic, and to mark the start of a new age. Sacrifices were to be made day and night. The festival began after midnight on May 31 with sacrifices to the Moerae (the Three Fates); to Ilithyia, goddesses of childbirth, on the second night; and Terra Mater (Earth Mother) on the third, all at the Campus Martius. During the day, sacrifices were made to Jupiter on day 1 and Juno on day 2, both on the Capitoline Hill, and to Apollo and Diana on day 3 on the Palatine.

Augustus and his esteemed general, advisor, and son-in-law Agrippa played key roles as members of the priesthood. Torches of pitch and sulfur were given to participants as a means of purification. Theatrical performances were performed after the sacrifices, and on the third day, a choir of boys and girls sang the Carmen Saeculare composed by Horace. For the next 10 days, Greek and Latin plays were performed, and chariot races and hunting displays were held.

As might be expected, Augustus minted several coin types to help celebrate the Ludi Saeculares. Figure 1 shows a silver denarius with Augustus on the obverse and on the reverse a cippus (rectangular pedestal) inscribed with IMP/CAES/AVG/LVD/SAEC; the last two parts refer to the Ludi Saeculares. This was marking Rome’s fifth saeculum.

Denarius of Augustus
Figure 1: Denarius of Augustus with a reverse of an inscribed cippus. 3.78 gms, RIC 355, 16 B.C.E. (CNG 428, lot 449, $1200, 7/31/19). Image: Classical Numismatic Group.

The Augustan denarius shown in Figure 2 has the emperor on the obverse and a herald of the Saecular games standing left wearing a long robe and holding a caduceus in his right and shield in his left hand. The inscription says AVGVST DI/VI F LVDOS SAE, which again refers to the Ludi Saeculares.

Denarius of Augustus
Figure 2: Denarius of Augustus with a reverse of a herald of the Saecular games facing left with shield and caduceus, 3.69 gms. RIC 340, 17 B.C.E. (Triton XVI, lot 1016, $2400, 1/7/13).

The third illustrated Augustan coin is another denarius made to reference the religious aspects of the Saecular games. A priest’s cap is shown on the reverse between two sacred, studded shields that were kept in the temple of Mars. The reverse legend refers to the moneyer, P. Licinius Stolo.

Denarius of Augustus
Figure 3: Denarius of Augustus with a reverse of an apex flaminis (priest’s cap) between two studded ancilia (sacred shields). 3.80 gms, RIC 343, 17 B.C.E. (CNG 76, lot 1336, $1200, 9/12/07).

Domitian

Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE) went back to the 100-year Saeculum from the foundation of Rome and held the festival in 47 CE, the 800th anniversary. There is not much information on the nature of Claudius’ celebration and, if he did issue any coins for the occasion, none have survived.

Ignoring what Claudius had done, Domitian (81-96 C.E.) went ahead and celebrated the Ludi Saeculares in 88 CE, computing the saeculum as about 110 years from when Augustus had celebrated his. The festivities and games were one of the highlights of Domitian’s reign, and the coins he issued for it among the most interesting of his coins. He issued gold and silver coins that showed the herald of the games and/or a cippus with an inscription about the games. An example is shown in Figure 4. The reverse has a herald of the festival with shield and wand to the right and to the left a cippus with the legends COS XIIII, which refers to 14 consulships, and LVD[i] SAEC[ulares] FEC[it], which is saying the emperor brought this celebration to Rome.

Denarius of Domitian
Figure 4: Denarius of Domitian with a reverse of a herald wearing a feathered cap and holding a shield and wand. A cippus with an inscription is to the left with a candelabrum in between. 3.54 gms, RIC 116, 88 C.E. (CNG 75, lot 1027, $1150, 5/23/07).

In contrast to the precious metal issues, the bronze (or brass) coins combined architectural and ritual motifs to commemorate most of the ceremonial events that occurred during the festival. These included the distribution of purifying elements, the sacrifice to the Fates, the emperor’s prayer to Juno, and the procession of unmarried young people in honor of Apollo and Diana. Some of the locations of the ceremonies can be determined by the temple(s) in the background on the coins. Figure 5 shows a dupondius of Domitian that has the emperor sacrificing over an altar and a personified Tiber reclining to the right. In the background are lyre and flute players that may have moved through the city announcing the festivities and games. The reverse legend of this coin is the same legend as the previous two coins except for the addition of SC.

Dupondius of Domitian
Figure 5: Dupondius of Domitian with a reverse of the emperor with a patera sacrificing over an altar and Tiber reclining to the left with a cornucopia. Lyre and flute players are behind Tiber and a hexastyle temple in the background. 12.70 gms, RIC 621, 88 C.E. (G&M 151, lot 422, $4000, 10/9/06).

The next Domitian coin (Figure 6) is a sestertius with an elaborate reverse showing the emperor seated on a low dais on which two urns stand, reaching his hand out to a citizen. The reverse legend is the same as the previous coin except that FEC is not included.

Antoninus Pius

Sestertius of Domitian
Figure 6: Sestertius of Domitian with a reverse of the emperor seated on a low dais joining hand with a citizen left. A child stands between them reaching upward, and the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus (or Diana Palatina) is in the background. 22.81 gms, RIC 376, 88 C.E. (CNG 67, lot 1387, $1200, 9/22/04).

The next time the Ludi Saeculares was held was in 146 CE by the emperor Antoninus Pius. Antoninus went back to the 100-year anniversary celebration and staged magnificent games and festivals for Rome’s 900th birthday. This emperor honored the Ludi Saeculares by issuing coins with reverses like the she-wolf nursing the twins Romulus and Remus (Figure 7), the personified Tiber River (Figure 8), and the affair of Mars and Rhea Silvia; all rich in Roman mythology.

Denarius of Antoninus Pius
Figure 7: Denarius of Antoninus Pius with a reverse of a she wolf nursing the twins Romulus and Remus. 2.81 gms, RIC 95, 140 C.E. (CNG 84, lot 1025, $150, 5/5/10).
Sestertius of Antoninus Pius
Figure 8: Sestertius of Antoninus Pius with a reverse of the personified Tiber River reclining. 27.34 gms, RIC 642a, 141/3 C.E. (G&M 129, lot 323, $4100, 3/3/04).

Septimius Severus

It was only another 58 years until the Ludi Saeculares was held again, this time by Septimius Severus (193-211) in 204 CE. This time, Severus based the festival’s dating on two 110-year periods from when the Augustan one was held. It was an opportunity for Severus to not only celebrate his recent ascension to power after defeating Didius Julianus in 193 and Pescinnius Niger in 194 but also a chance to tap into Rome’s storied past. The Roman religious liturgies from Augustus’ and Severus’ celebrations are the best known due to extensive epigraphic records.

In terms of coinage, apparently he did very little to advertise the festivities in the coins he minted. One coin, shown in Figure 9, has Bacchus holding a drinking cup (kantharus) and a thyrsus (a staff topped with a pine cone) and Hercules on the reverse with the legend COS III LVDOS SAECVL FEC. As mentioned before, the last part of the legend says that the emperor brought about the Ludi Saeculares festival.

Denarius of Septimius Severus
Figure 9: Denarius of Septimius Severus with a reverse of Bacchus standing left holding kantharus and thyrsus with panther at his feet. On the right is Hercules holding a club. 2.88 gms, RIC 257, 204 C.E. (CNG 84, lot 1072, $260, 5/5/10).

Philip I

The last time the Ludi Saeculares was held was in 248 CE by the emperor Philip I (“The Arab”, 244-249) to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of Rome. He welcomed the festivities because it distracted the public from the troubles plaguing the Roman Empire. Barbarians were constantly attacking the borders, and usurpers were popping up all over the Empire.

The best evidence for these celebrations is shown on his coins. The coins showed traditional motifs like the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (Figure 10), a variety of animals, including elephants, lions (Figure 11), elk, gazelles, and hippopotami (Figure 13), cippi with inscriptions to immortalize the proceedings, Philip and his son on horseback or in curule chairs distributing largesses to the public, and religious temples (Figure 12). Most of these coins had the legend SAECVLARES AVGG to denote them as pertaining to the Saecular games. The legend AVGG indicated that there were two emperors (Philip and his son, Philip II). Philip also put his son and his wife, Otacilia Severus (Figure 13), on the obverse of some of these millennial coins.

The three-day festivities included processions, public sacrifices, gladiatorial games, choirs singing sacred songs, and many other events. This must have been impressive to the Roman public because the preceding years had been very austere due to constant warfare. Unfortunately, things were to get much worse in the following years.

Antoninianus of Philip I
Figure 10: Antoninianus of Philip I with a reverse of a she wolf nursing the twins Romulus and Remus. 4.60 gms, RIC 15, 248 C.E. (CNG 468, lot 523, $250, 5/20/20).
Antoninianus of Philip I
Figure 11: Antoninianus of Philip I with a reverse of a lion advancing right. 4.31 gms, RIC 12, 248 C.E. (CNG 468, lot 522, $225, 5/20/20).
Sestertius of Philip I
Figure 12: Sestertius of Philip I with a reverse of an octastyle temple with Roma seated inside facing forward. 16.72 gms, RIC 164 corr., 249 C.E. (CNG 448, lot 502, $280, 7/17/19).
Sestertius of Otacilia Severus
Figure 12: Sestertius of Otacilia Severus with a reverse of a hippopotamus advancing right. 18.18 gms, RIC 200a, 248 C.E. (CNG 430, lot 393, $1600, 10//10/18).

By the time another 100 years had pasted, Christian emperors were in charge of the Roman Empire, and they saw no need to celebrate a pagan festival like the Ludi Saeculares. The pagan historian Zosimus blamed the decline of the Roman Empire on the discontinuation of this traditional ritual.

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References

Beard, Mary, John North and Simon Price. Religions of Rome. Cambridge University Press (1998).

Bullfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology. Canterbury Classics (2014).

Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)

Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth (ed.). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford (1996).

Madden, F., C. R. Smith and S. W. Stevenson. A Dictionary of Roman coins. London (1889).

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values I/II/III. Spink (2002).

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (2 volumes). Coin World (1999).

Various authors and years. Roman Imperial Coinage. Spink and Son.
 

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