Roman festival of Equirria tomorrow, 27th February

Tomorrow (27th February) is the day of the first Equirria, the first of two chariot-racing festivals held in honour of the god Mars in the Roman calendar. The Equirria (or Ecurria, from equicurria or horse races) were two very ancient festivals. The first Equirria was held on the 27th February and the second Equirria on the 14th March; originally, the first ended the old year and the second celebrated the new year in the Roman calendar. The Equirria seem to have originated as horse-racing festivals but became chariot-racing festivals.

The two Equirria were held in a temporary circuit race-track with wooden stands on the Campus Martius (the field of Mars) which was originally outside the boundary of Rome, to the south-west. The Equirria were said to have been founded by Romulus, the son of Mars and one of the founders of Rome. The Equirria were part of the series of festivals of Mars which mostly fell in February and March (the month of Mars). Of the Roman gods, only Jupiter was more powerful and important than Mars; Mars was revered by Romans and, as god of war, he supported Roman imperial expansion… Mars was invoked at the start of every military operation.

Roman culture is very complicated; over time, the calendar was changed and gods, symbolism and festivals evolved. In the earliest Roman calendar, the year began on the 1st March, and the Equirria of the 27th February was the last festival of Mars of the preceding year and, of course, the last day of the year. So the two Equirria originally framed the turn of the Roman year. In a later Roman calendar, the first or February Equirria became the first festival of Mars of the new year. Originally the Equirria may have consisted of sacred horse-races in the Campus Martius to propitiate the gods of the underworld, and Mars himself may originally have been seen as the god of death and the underworld, in the shape of a horse, the animal of the dead. Mars seems to have originated as a demon of fertility and the underworld; he became the god of the year, dying as an old man on the last day of the year and being re-born as a baby on the first day of the new year; he eventually became the god of war. The Equirria became festivals of sacred chariot-racing, and were held during a war festival period for Mars as god of war.

The Roman military campaigning season (and also the agricultural season) opened and closed with festivals of chariot-racing for Mars, with the Equirria on the 14th March and the October Equus on the 15th October. The chariot-races of the Equirria and the Equus involved bigae which were two-horse chariots. The Equirria combined religious and military significance, starting with a ceremony which included the sacrifice of an ox and then a feast with prayers and libations, followed by the chariot-races.  The October Equus, on the 15th October, included sacred chariot-races dedicated to Mars which were also held on the Campus Martius, but were followed by the sacrifice of the lead horse from the winning two-horse team.

The Equirria may have been preserved as a religious tradition, but not been a popular festival. The Roman chariot mostly used in chariot-racing festivals was the four-horse quadriga, not the two-horse biga of the Equirria. Chariots were very symbolic in Roman culture, for example, as the vehicles for gods such as Sol Invicta (the sun) and Luna (the moon), and were only used in war as a triumphal vehicle. Chariot horses have also been interpreted as being symbolic of the human spirit, and which broke away from their chariot at death and galloped away.