Yesterday we marked the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s birth in 100 B.C. Following the Roman calendar then in use (which he would later significantly reform), Caesar himself would have said that he was born on the “fourth day before the Ides of Quintilis.” In the ancient Roman year that began with March, the first four months were named (or thought to be named) for various gods, while the names of the rest were simply derived from the ordinal numbers. After Caesar’s death and divinization, Quintilis was renamed “Julius” in his honor, as later, Sextilis was renamed for his successor, the Emperor Augustus. (It’s a good thing the Romans stopped doing this, or the birth of Christ would be celebrated on “the 25th of Nero.”)
One of the most important of the ancient Roman religious celebrations in July was the ludi apollinares – the games of Apollo. During the Second Punic War and Hannibal’s invasion of Italy, after the Romans suffered a crushing defeat in Lucania in 212 BC, they consulted a collection of prophecies known as the Carmina Marciana, and found in them a prescription to hold public games in honor of the Greek god Apollo to ask for his help. The tide of the war did not turn in the Romans’ favor quite suddenly. Nevertheless, they were evidently inspired to turn again to the same god four year later in the midst of a plague, since they had long honored him as a healer. The games were repeated, and then became a permanent fixture in the Roman religious calendar.
They were originally celebrated only on the 13th of July, but later became so popular that they were extended backwards to start on the 6th and run for 8 solid days. They also became more elaborate, involving various solemn sacrifices, chariot races in the Circus Maximus, and plays in the theaters. In one of his letters to Atticus (2.19), Cicero recounts a famous and telling episode in the career of Pompey, connected with the games in the year 59 B.C. When a Greek actor named Diphilus delivered the line “nostra miseria tu es magnus – to our misfortune thou art great”, this was taken to refer to Pompey’s epithet “the Great”, and met with thunderous applause and calls for encores.
Although the cult of the god Apollo was well established in Rome within a century of the founding of the republic, he was always perceived as a foreign god. This is witnessed by the fact that unlike the rest of the twelve Olympians, he was always called by his Greek name, and not identified with the name of an older Roman god, as Zeus was with Jupiter, Hera with Juno, etc. As a foreigner, his first temple in Rome (said to have been his only one until the time of Augustus,) was placed outside the pomerium, the boundary which defined Rome for religious purposes. It was known as the temple of Apollo Medicus, since he was thought of principally as a healer. In 32 B.C., the consul Sosius rebuilt it completely, and it thus came to be also known as “Apollo Sosianus”; the ruins of it seen today are from this rebuilding. Right next door to it stands the theater of Marcellus, which Caesar had planned, but not begun by the time of his assassination. It was built by Augustus, the largest and most important of Rome’s major theaters, and would therefore have certainly been one of the focuses of the ludi Apollinares. Augustus also built a temple of Apollo on the Palatine hill right next to the site of Romulus’ house, firmly establishing his place among the Roman gods.
(The remains of the theater of Marcellus and the temple of Apollo Sosianus; image from Wikimedia Commons by Dan Kamminga, CC BY 2.0)