Roman festival of Cerealia at the Circus Maximus

In ancient Rome, the festival of Cerealia was held on eight days in mid-late April, possibly the 12th-18th, with the actual festival day on the 19th. This was the main festival for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain and the harvest, associated with bread and farming, as well as being the goddess of fertility, motherhood and women. Fields and crops were sacred to her. Ceres was also one of the patron deities of the common people (the plebeians) of Rome and she was worshipped in a temple which was dedicated to the cult of Ceres, Liber and Libera in 490 BC. There was another festival for Ceres in August. The Cerealia in April was held to propitiate Ceres so that she would bring a good harvest. (Read more about Ceres and the Cerealia in The Roman goddess Ceres, by Babette Stanley Spaeth, 1996.)

The festival of Cerealia included the Ludi Ceriales (‘games of Ceres’) which were Ludi Circenses (circus games). The Ludi were held in the great chariot-racing arena of the Circus Maximus in Rome on the 19th April. The Circus Maximus was near the Temple of Ceres which stood on the Aventine Hill and the starting-gates were, apparently, just below the temple. According to Ovid, the Ludi included an element in which women, dressed in white and carrying burning torches, ran about in the arena: this symbolised Ceres’ search for her lost daughter Prosperpina. In Roman mythology, Prosperpina was abducted by the god Pluto and taken to the Underworld, where Ceres found her: however, it was decreed that Prosperpina would live in the Underworld for six months of the year and in the upper world for the other six months, so Ceres imposed autumn and winter on the earth during her daughter’s seasons of absence.

Ceres is sometimes represented as riding in a chariot drawn by two snakes while holding a torch in her right hand or, when leaving the Underworld, in a chariot drawn by four horses (a quadriga, a racing-chariot) – however, the Ludi Circenses of the Cerealia seem to have consisted of horse races, with no chariot races. After around 175 BC, the Cerealia included Ludi Scaenici (theatrical performances), which were held on the 12th-18th April. Horse-racing was a popular Roman sport, although not as popular as chariot-racing, and the Ludi Cereales was a popular festival. Horse-racing would have been presented as a sporting entertainment around the Roman empire. All the Roman circuses around the empire were supposedly based on the Circus Maximus in Rome – and that must have been true of the entertainments as well as the actual structures. Perhaps Ludi Ceriales were held at the Roman circus here in Colchester, far from Rome, with days of horse-racing instead of chariot-racing. Horses were important in pre-Roman Britain, and used for transport and war, either being ridden or drawing chariots: the horse was also of great religious significance. Coins of the major settlement at pre-Roman Colchester – Camulodunum – often show a horse on one side. Apparently, the native tribes also engaged in horse- and chariot-racing even before the Roman conquest. Will we, one day, find evidence of pre-Roman horse- or chariot-racing in Camulodunum?

Ceres was equated with the goddess Fortuna and both were represented holding wheatsheaves. Many Roman intaglios (engraved gemstones for finger-rings) of Ceres/Fortuna have been found in Britain: in Colchester, the Trust excavated a figurine of Fortuna or Abundantia at the Cups Hotel site in the 1970s, and this was illustrated in our Colchester Archaeological Report 2: The Roman small finds from excavations in Colchester, 1971-79. This figurine is just under 4 cm tall and she holds a wheatsheaf and a cornucopia (‘horn of plenty’).




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