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Vocabula Mira: “Tubilustrium” and “Quinquatrus”

Gregory DiPippo

On the Roman calendar of religious observances, March 23rd sees the convergence of two different festivals, although it seems that not very much is known about either of them. One was called the “tubilustrium – the purification of trumpets”, a ritual that was repeated on May 23rd. The trumpets in question were either war-trumpet used by the army, or those used during ritual sacrifices, or both. If it was primarily for war trumpets, this would fit with the fact that it was done in March, the month named for Mars, the god of war; this month was not only originally the beginning of the year for the Romans, but also the start of the military campaign season. Varro says that it was performed in a building called the “atrium sutorium – the shoemakers’ hall”, the location of which is unknown.

Connected with this was a festival held on October 19th called the “armilustrium – the purification of arms”, when the campaign season would be coming to an end, and weapons put away for the winter. This was held on a site on the Aventine Hill called the “armilustrum.”

(Military trumpeters seen on the cast of Trajan’s column in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

The “tubilistrium” coincides with the final day of the “Quinquatrus”, a festival dedicated to the goddess Minerva that also marked the beginning of the military campaign season. Varro states that its name comes from “quinque – five” because it was held on the fifth day (reckoning inclusively) from the Ides of March, which we call the 19th of that month. He also agrees with Festus that it was celebrated for only one day, but Ovid says that it was five days long. A second festival of the same name, known as the Lesser Quinquatrus, was celebrated on the Ides of June, on which trumpet players (tibicines) held a procession to the temple of Minerva, also on the Aventine.

As we have noted previously, the original significance of the three cardinal points around which the Roman month was arranged, and from which the days of each month were named, the Kalends, Nones and Ides, is unknown. However, it is perhaps not just a coincidence that March, May and October, three of the months in which the Nones are on the 7th day rather than the 5th, and the Ides on the 15th rather than the 13th, are months in which these festivities connected with the military take place. Likewise, the Ides of July was the date of the “Transvectio Equitum – the riding-past (for a military review) of the knights.” On this occasion, young members of the military class would ride in a long procession from a temple of Mars on the via Appia, and enter the city at the Porta Capena, one of the gates of the ancient Servian walls of Rome. They then went through the Roman Forum to the temple of Castor and Pollux, the patron divinities of the army, and ended at the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, the place where military triumphs traditionally ended.

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