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Secular Games


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Theatrical games (see ludi) and sacrifices (see sacrifice, roman) performed by the Roman state to commemorate the end of one saeculum and the beginning of a new one. The saeculum, defined as the longest span of human life, was fixed in the republic as an era of 100 years. The ceremony took place in the Campus Martius, near the Tiber, at a spot known as Tarentum.

Augustus' plans to celebrate the saeculum were known in the 20s bc, and were referred to by Virgil in the Aeneid. At Augustus' request, the quindecimviri consulted the Sibylline Books and discovered a prophecy sanctioning Secular Games with many novel features. The ludi of 17 bc are fully recorded in an inscription, set up at the Tarentum. The saeculum was now fixed at 110 years. The ludi retained three nights of sacrifices and games, but Dis pater and Persephone were replaced by the Fates, the Goddesses of Childbirth, and Mother Earth, and three daytime celebrations were added, to Jupiter, Juno, and Apollo and Diana. The Augustan games marked not the passing of an era, but the birth of a new age. Other novelties include the addition of seven supplementary days of more modern entertainment in theatre and circus. After the offerings on the third day, 27 boys and 27 girls sang Horace's Secular Hymn, first at the temple of Apollo and then on the Capitol. In the hymn Horace brings into great prominence Augustus' patron god Apollo in his new Palatine temple.

The antiquarian Claudius next celebrated games, in ad 47, on a new cycle, the eight‐hundredth birthday of Rome. Taking their lead from Claudius, games were also held the following two centuries, in 148 and 248, but these were not counted in the official numbered sequence of games. The next games on (or nearly on) the Augustan cycle were celebrated by Domitian in 88 (six years early) and Septimius Severus in 204 (back on the Augustan cycle). Another inscription from the Tarentum records this celebration (which included a new secular hymn). It was to be the last celebration, as games were not held in ad 314 by Constantine I, newly converted to Christianity.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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