As we continue through the harvest festival season, and the time of year when the ancestors are remembered, we come on this date to the opening day of the Ludi Romani, also called the Ludi Magni which were held to honor the God, Jupiter.
The Latin word ludus means “game” or “play” (as opposed to work), or “sport.” These ludi (the plural of ludus) celebrations were given in the name of the Gods, but rather than religious rites, they emphasized formal competitions and performances. This was in contrast to the feriae, which were the primarily religious holidays like the Saturnalia and the Lupercalia. Generally, ludi were more popular than feriae, thanks to their great variety of state-funded entertainments and spectacles that were open to all citizens.
Events were held throughout the city, including the Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held, and which could seat more that 250,000 spectators. The Colosseum held more than 60,0000, and smaller venues seated another 50- to 60,000.
The ludi devoted certain days to particular games, like chariot races, gladiatorial contests and animal hunts in the amphitheater. There were also dramatic performances, military parades, and street entertainments. In fact, the festival was the first introduction of drama to Rome (thanks to the Greeks).
The Ludi Romani was the ultimate and most popular of the ludi in ancient Rome. Originally begun in 366 BCE commemorating the day of dedication of Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline, by Augustan times, the games had extended from Sept. 4 to the 19th. The Sept. 4 opening was chosen in memory of the slain Julius Caesar.
Don’t confuse Roman ludi with the Greek Olympic games. The Romans cared little for purely athletic competitions. They preferred the bloodshed and nearly incomprehensible gore which inevitably accompanied the chariot races, boxing, gladiatorial contests and all-out animal slaughters.
However, today’s comparatively sedate opening ceremonies would have begun with a solemn procession from Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline to the Circus Maximus. Sacrifices were made to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter the Best [and] Greatest”), and circus performances were given. Prayers, sacrifices and honor were also given to Juno and Minerva.
Today, let us understand that our current Western civilization has deep roots in a time and a place when lives, both human and animal, were unbelievably cheap; when pleasure came from a huge industry of cruel spectacle, and when brutality was considered strength. By understanding that legacy, we see our own shadow-selves — the parts of us that are sometimes eager for bloodshed, for violence, ugliness, and, worst, the glorification of war.
It seems to me that real peace can only come by understanding and acknowledging this part of our history and perhaps our human nature. I hope we will be vigilant to ensure that such values never again become a dominant part of our culture, or how we worship our God(s).