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Ludi Saeculares

My coins of interest today recognize the Ludi Saeculares (Secular Games). This post explores the origins from the time of the Roman republic, to the two cycles during the imperial times after revival by Augustus. Valerius Maximus describes the republican origins of the Ludi Saeculares in this way:

"When Rome and its countryside were being devastated by a tremendous pestilence, a rich man called Valesius, rustic in his style of life, had two sons and a daughter sick to the despair of the doctors. As he was getting hot water for them from the hearth, he fell on his knees and prayed to the household gods that they transfer the children’s peril onto his own head. A voice then was heard, saying that he would have his children safe if he brought them forthwith down the river Tiber to Tarentum and there refreshed them with water from the altar of Dis Pater and Proserpine."
-Valerius Maximus, Book II 4.5

Valesius did as he was told by the voice, and his children recovered and related to their father the commands from the gods that he should sacrifice on the spot and hold a lectisternia (ritual meal banquet for the gods). Digging to build an altar they discover an alter inscribed to Dis and Proserpina. Here he made these sacrifices and provided games and lectisternia for three nights in a row, because he had three children.

Zosimus gives a long description (2.1-2.7) of the Ludi Saeculares, the games celebrating every hundred years the birth of Rome. Zosimus was a Byzantine, pagan author published in the 6th century AD. An important point for Zosimus is that the games were tied to the preservation of the empire with Sibylline prophesy in support this:

"But when a hundred years and ten are past
Which is the longest time man's age doth last,
Romans! be sure (it is fatal to mistake
In any point) due offerings to make
To heaven, and see you bring the sacrifice
Into that field which on the Tiber lies:
And do it, in that season, when the night
Deprives men least of the diurnal light. "
-Zosimus, A New History, 2.6 

St. Augustine references the two games held during the Punic wars (circa 249 and 140s BC):

"It was then that, terrified by a new fear, the city of Rome had recourse to vain and ridiculous remedies. By the authority of the Sibylline books, the secular games, celebrated a century before, and then forgotten in happier times, were renewed. The games consecrated to the nether gods were also renewed by the pontiffs, for they, too, had sunk into disuse in the better years of the past."
-St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, Book III p349, Loeb Library 

These are also referenced earlier by Livy:

"The games of Dis Pater took place at the Tarentum, in accordance with the [Sibylline] Books. Similar festivities had taken place hundred year before, at the beginning of the First Punic War, in the five hundred and second year since the founding of the city."
-Livy, Periochae, 49.6 

Zosimus focuses on Augustus, Claudius, Domitian and then jumps to Septimius - ignoring the festivals on the Claudian timeline that are attested by coins in today's post. The games date back to the birth of Rome. The games were organized by the quindecimviri sacris faciundis (15 men for the making of sacred rites) the XV SF abbreviation can be seen on this coin (not mine) from Augustus circa 16 BC which also decorates a cippus with "IMP CAES AVG LVD SAEC" (Imp Caesar Augustus Ludi Saeculares).

The games over the course of a week included sacrifices and ritual banquets for the gods, theatrical performances in Greek and Latin, chariot races, animal hunts, and circus games. The next games were held by Claudius who celebrated the 800th year of Rome (by tradition founded in 753 BC). Then Domitian returned (very roughly) to the schedule prescribed by Augustus and held games in 88 AD.

"After Augustus was dead, these games were celebrated by Claudius, without any regard to the due time. After him Domitian, who paid no regard to what Claudius had done, computed the years from the time when Augustus kept that festival, and seemed to observe their original institution. And after them Severus in the hundred and tenth year restored the same game, with his two sons Antoninus and Geta, when Chilo and Libo were consuls."
-Zosimus, A New History, 2.4.3

Tacitus wrote during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian of the timing of the games of Augustus and Claudius. Claudius keeps it simple - tied to the founding date. The dates from Augustus and Sibylline prophesy are convoluted and Domitian's continuation in 88 AD is too early to be correctly linked to Augustus' timing.

"Under the same consulate [of Claudius and Vitellius, AD 47], eight hundred years from the foundation of Rome, sixty-four from their presentation by Augustus, came a performance of the Secular Games. The calculations employed by the two princes I omit, as they have been sufficiently explained in the books which I have devoted to the reign of Domitian."
-Tacitus, Annals, XI.11

Censorinus also commented on the uncertainty around the cycles for the Ludi Saeculares.

"As to the Ages of Rome, some authors think they are (also) measured by the Cyclical Games or Ludi Sæculares. If this opinion is held to be true, the duration of the Roman cycles is vague, because both the interval of time at which the Games were formerly celebrated and even the epoch at which they should be held, is uncertain. Their return was fixed after each hundredth year."
-Censorinus, On Birthdays (De Die Natali), XVII

Zosimus concludes that Rome's fatal mistake resulted in the decline of the empire:

"But when Constantine and Licinius were in their third consulship, the 110 years were completed, and the festival ought to have been kept according to custom; but it was neglected, and affairs consequently declined to their present unfortunate condition."
-Zosimus, A New History, 2.72 

This coin was issued for the celebration of Rome's 900's Anniversary (Ab Urbe Condita 900), following the Claudian cycle. Antoninus Pius was thrifty and left his reign with a surplus in the roman treasury of 675 million denarii. He splurged for Rome's anniversary and based on this coin, some interesting creatures were imported into Rome for the games in the circus (circus to the Romans meaning stadium and translating ring or circle - although the connection to our modern use as spectacle or band of traveling performers seems obvious from this coin).

Antoninus Pius (138-161), AE As(11.66g, 28mm) Rome struck AD 148-149 Obv: ANTONINVS AVG PIVS TR P XII, laureate head right. Rev: MVNIFICENTIA AVG / COS IIII S C, elephant advancing right Ref: RIC 862a.

This coin was issued in Rome in AD 204, commemorating an imperial donation by Septimius Severus to Carthage at the time of the Ludi Saeculares. Although RIC Online places this coin in a broader date range (RIC 266). A forum note from Curtis Clay links these coins with a dated obverse die (Septimius dated TR P XII) to a coin of the Saecular Games from Septimius Severus. Septimius dated his celebration 220 years after the games held by Augustus in 17 BC.

Septimius Severus, AR denarius, struck AD 202 - AD 210

Obv: SEVERVS PIVS AVG, head of Septimius Severus, laureate, right

Rev: INDVLGENTIA AVGG IN CARTH, Dea Caelestis, draped, riding right on lion, holding thunderbolt in right hand and sceptre in left hand; below, water gushing from rock

The reverse inscription indicates that a favor (Indulgence of the Augusti) was granted to the city of Carthage by the Augusti. The exact nature of the favor is the subject of multiple other theories:

- the removal of tax on the aqueduct in Carthage

- the emperor’s generous distribution of olive oil

- a decision to grant Carthage Pythian games

- a grant of ius Italicum (Italian law) to the city of Carthage

The next celebration, for the 1000 year anniversary of the birth of Rome, came during the reign of Philip I. Here are four coins from this event:

Philip I (AD 244-249). AR antoninianus, Rome, AD 247-248

Obv: IMP PHILIPPVS AVG, radiate, draped, and cuirassed bust of Philip I right

Rev: SAECVLARES AVGG, Column inscribed COS / III in two lines

Ref: RIC IV.III 24

Notes: struck for the Secular Games marking Rome's 1000th anniversary

Philip I (AD 244-249), AE As, Rome, AD 249

Obv: IMP M IVL PHILIPPVS AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Philip I right, seen from behind

Rev: SAECVLARES AVGG, cippus inscribed COS / III; S-C across fields

Ref: RIC IV.III 162b.

Philip I (AD 244-249), AE sestertius, Rome, AD 249

Obv: IMP M IVL PHILIPPVS AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Philip I right, seen from behind

Rev: MILIARIVM SAECVLVM, cippus inscribed COS/III; S-C across fields

Ref: RIC IV.III 157a.

Notes: Ludi Saeculares (Secular Games) issue, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Rome.

Otacilia Severa (AD 244-249), AR antoninianus, Rome, 4th officina, AD 247-248

Obv: OTACIL SEVERA AVG, draped bust of Otacilia Severa right on crescent, seen from front, wearing stephane, hair weaved in straight lines and rows with long plait carried up the back of head

Rev: SAECVLARES AVGG, hippopotamus walking right, head raised, IIII in exergue

Ref: RIC IV.III (Philip I) 116b

References (in addition to those linked inline)

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Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
Dec 28, 2022

Sulla, interesting article & excellent coins for illustrations. I didn't know the origin of the Secular Games, so I learned something by reading this 😊. One sentence in the 2nd paragraph looks mis-constructed; "Here he these sacrifices and" 😦.

Dec 28, 2022
Replying to

Hi Al, glad you found it interesting & thanks for the edit. Happy New Year, S

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