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Consualia

The Consualia was a harvest festival, held on August 21 (or 18). Consus, the name of the god, is from condere, “to store up.” The festival is tied to Rome's origin story (753-717 BC) as an invention of Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, raised by a she-wolf, who killed his twin brother. The story of Rome's origins is a story of a successful and violent gang of thugs and consistent with this summary from the Cambridge World History of Violence:

"Romans had an ideology of dominance inherent in empire. They accepted the brutalities of mass slavery, a hierarchical social system that ranked people according to group membership and assigned personal worth (or lack of it) based on that membership. Violence reflected and enforced these systems. What emerges is a picture of a world where violence was, in no small measure, the language of rank and status."

When the Romans were short on eligible brides, and went around looking for the right to intermarry, their neighbors were not too eager to embrace them. Maybe this should not have been a surprise, given how Livy describes Romulus' expansion of the male population of Rome.


Romulus had opened a sanctuary for men to attract "from the surrounding peoples, a miscellaneous rabble, without distinction of bond or free, eager for new conditions" (Livy, I.9). This could perhaps explain the need for brides and the reluctance of the neighbors.

"The Intervention of the Sabine Women", Jacques-Louis David, neoclassical oil on canvas, 1795-1799, at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Public Domain with thanks the the Art History Project.


This coin from the Roman Republic depicts on its reverse the story of the first Consualia, and Romulus' plan.

L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, 89 BC. AR Denarius, Rome.

Obv: SABIN, Bare-headed and bearded head of King Titus Tatius to right; in field to right, TA (in ligature).

Rev. L•TITVRI The abduction of the Sabine women: two Roman soldiers, facing each other, each carrying off a Sabine woman in his arm.

Ref: Crawford 344/1a


The Consualia was a harvest festival, held on August 21 (or 18 according to Plutarch). Consus, the name of the god, is from condere, “to store up.”


Cicero (writing ~51-54 BC) tells the story of Romulus using the Consualia as a ruse to steal the women of neighboring towns.

"For when Sabine maidens of honorable lineage had come to Rome on the occasion of the Consualia, to witness the games whose annual celebration in the circus he had just instituted, he ordered their seizure and married them to young men of the most prominent families. When the Sabines, thus provoked, made war on the Romans, and the fortunes of the conflict were various and its issue doubtful, Romulus made a treaty with Titus Tatius, the Sabine king, the stolen women themselves petitioning that this be done. By this treaty he not only added the Sabines to the body of Roman citizens, giving them participation in the religious rites of the State, but also made their king a partner in his royal power."
-Cicero, The Republic, II.7 

Livy (writing ~30 BC) adds an anachronistic references to the equestrian Neptune, which only came later from the association of the festival with horses.

"Romulus, concealing his resentment [that Roman offers for rights to intermingle were spurned], made ready solemn games in honour of the equestrian Neptune, which he called Consualia. He then bade proclaim the spectacle to the surrounding peoples, and his subjects prepared to celebrate it with all the resources within their knowledge and power, that they might cause the occasion to be noised abroad and eagerly expected. Many people —for they were also eager to see the new city - gathered for the festival, especially those who lived nearest, the inhabitants of Caenina, Crustumium, and Antemnae. The Sabines, too, came with all their people, including their children and wives."
-Livy, History of Rome, 1.9

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing near the end of the 1st century BC, describes some of the practices from the festival as it continued to be celebrated in Rome:

"Consualia, during which it is customary among the latter for the horses and mules to rest from work and to have their heads crowned with flowers."
-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, I.XXXIII 
"a subterranean altar, erected near the Circus Maximus, is uncovered by the removal of the soil round about it and honoured with sacrifices and burnt-offerings of first-fruits and a course is run both by horses yoked to chariots and by single horses. The god to whom these honours are paid is called Consus by the Romans, being the same, according to some who render the name into our tongue, as Poseidon Seisichthon or the “Earth-shaker”; and they say that this god was honoured with a subterranean altar because he holds the earth."
-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, II.XXXI 

Plutarch (writing at the beginning of the 2nd century AD) links it to a practice that is perhaps unfamiliar to modern readers - as was still a custom more than 2000 years later.

"And it continues to be a custom down to the present time that the bride shall not of herself cross the threshold into her new home, but be lifted up and carried in, because the Sabine women were carried in by force, and did not go in of their own accord. And some say also that the custom of parting the bride’s hair with the head of a spear is a reminder that the first marriage was attended with war and fighting; on which topic I have spoken more fully in my “Roman Questions.” Leaving such matters aside, the rape was committed on the eighteenth day of the month once called Sextilis, but now, August, on which day the festival of the Consualia is celebrated."
-Plutarch, Life of Romulus, XV 

Tertullian (writing ~197-202 AD) seems to offer some reproach for Roman behavior and invents another derivation for the name Consus, named for the god's counsel.

"Then came the games originally held in honour of Neptune and called Consualia. For he is also styled Consus. After that Romulus named the Ecurria, from horses, in honour of Mars—though they claim the Consualia as well for Romulus, arguing that he instituted them for Consus, the god (they say) of counsel—meaning the particular counsel which he thought out of capturing the Sabine girls to be wives for his soldiers. An honourable counsel, indeed, to this very day just and lawful among the Romans, not to say in God’s eyes! It also contributes to the taint of their origin—lest you think that good which began with evil—that the games began with shamelessness, violence and hate, and a founder who slew his brother and was the son of Mars. There is still (I might add) an underground altar, dedicated to that Consus,a in the Circus, at the first turning-point, with this inscription : “Consus in counsel, Mars in war, Lares Coillob mighty.” Sacrifice is offered on it on the seventh day of July by the state priests, on the twentieth of August by the Flamen of Quirinus and the Vestal Virgins."
-Tertullian, De Spectaculis, V

Although the stories vary, in the version illustrated by the opening oil painting, the women are credited with intervening in the battle that came from Romulus' plan.

"Then the Sabine women, whose wrong had given rise to the war, with loosened hair and torn garments, their woman’s timidity lost in a sense of their misfortune, dared to go amongst the flying missiles, and rushing in from the side, to part the hostile forces and disarm them of their anger, beseeching their fathers on this side, on that their husbands, that fathers-in-law and sons-in-law should not stain themselves with impious bloodshed, nor pollute with parricide the suppliants’ children, grandsons to one party and sons to the other. “If you regret,” they continued, “the relationship that unites you, if you regret the marriage-tie, turn your anger against us; we are the cause of war, the cause of wounds, and even death to both our husbands and our parents. It will be better for us to perish than to live, lacking either of you, as widows or as orphans.” It was a touching plea, not only to the rank and file, but to their leaders as well."
-Livy, History of Rome, 1.13

What is striking in most of the descriptions and the many artworks that depict the stories are the awkward attempts to make something honorable from the violent & dishonest foundation of Rome.


It was not the last time that Rome would violently clash with it's neighbors. There is also a contrast between Rome's attempts to join up with neighbors and the reverse situation hundreds of years later as the Italians sought rights as Roman citizens. The destructive violence of the Social War 91-87 BC perhaps could have been avoided if the Romans had considered their own past.

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