“Come Mars, God of War" - the Armilustrium

19 October - in Ancient Rome, the Armilustrium, the ritual purification of the arms, traditionally ended the campaigning season with a festival dedicated to Mars.

“Come Mars, God of War, lay aside your shield and spear: A moment, from your helmet, free your shining hair.” (Ovid, “Fasti”)

An artist’s impression of the Salii, the dancing and leaping priests of Mars, doing their war dance, beating their lances against sacred shields and sing an ancient song, the Carmen Saliare.

Many Roman rituals emerged in the days when the city that would one day rule the known world was just a village on a hill in the middle of Italy. Mars, god of war and agriculture, was one of the patron deities of the small community and part of the original triad of gods with a lot of more attributes than the sheer destructive force of his Greek counterpart Ares. He was a guardian of husbandry, protector from wild animals, and responsible for peace as well as for war, but his sanctuary remained outside of the pomerium, the mythical boundaries of the city Romulus staked out during its foundation, until Augustus dedicated a temple of Mars Ultor, the avenger, on his new forum. But war remained Mars primary focus and the time to wage war began on March 19th and ended on October 19th in days when winter campaigns and barbarian incursions were a thing that lay in the distant future.

The remains of Mars Ultor's temple in Rome on the Forum

The Armilustrium traditionally began with a military parade on Aventine Hill, the citizens fit for military service and, in later days, the professional soldiers would march to the Circus Maximus, garlanded with flowers, to be mustered and their arms ritually purified and stored for the winter. The parade was accompanied of old by the salii, the dancing and leaping priests of Mars, twelve patrician youths dressed in the fantastic outfit of ancient warriors with a breastplate, a lance, a short sword and archaic shields resembling the large Mycenaean eight-shaped ones and on their heads the apex, a kind of a spiked helmet. One of the shields was said to have fallen from heaven and whoever possessed it would rule the world. The salii would dance a kind of a war dance, beating their lance against the sacred shields and sing an ancient song, the Carmen Saliare. Most of the lyrics of the carmen were no longer intelligible in historical times, but obviously enough could be grasped to insert the name of Augustus and later emperors by the turn of the eras.

A Roman coin with the head of Mars wearing an ancient Corinthian helmet and the head of bridled horse (ca 250 BCE)

Being traditionally rather pedestrians, the Romans had not much use for revering horses, but chariot races were the great exemption. The beginning of the war season, the Quinquatria, was celebrated with three chariot races and the right-hand horse of the winning team would become the Equus October, the October Horse, that would be sacrificed as initial to the Armilustrium. Horse sacrifices were quite common in most Indo-European cultures, but the October Horse is the only occurrence of such a ritual in Rome and was perceived as quite odd even among the contemporaries – and as early as the 3rd century BCE, antique authors came up with the idea that slaughtering the horse would refer to the Trojan Horse that played such a pivotal role in the destruction of Rome’s mythical cradle Troy and the flight of Aeneas to Italy. The meat of the animal would be eaten afterwards, common during all horse sacrifices, even though horse meat was regarded as distasteful by the Romans. Since horses represent fertility as an embodiment of the “corn spirit”, along with foxes, geese, hares, pigs and oxen, the role of Mars, who was depicted on early coins together with horse heads, as agricultural as well as war god would be fully honoured.

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