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Monograph: The Ludi Saeculares and the Saeculum

Religious rituals provide a key to our interpretation of the events and developments that transformed ancient Roman society. Many of these rites had their origins in a legendary past, and were reshaped in response to socio-political crises and upheavals in the Republic and Empire. The Ludi Saeculares (“Saecular Games”) are a primary example of such a metamorphosis. Ancient traditions held that these Games were performed every saeculum (“age”, “generation”), an interval of roughly 100 or 110 years, from their mythic founding in the sixth century BCE until their final celebration in 248 CE. Succeeding generations altered the character of the Games dramatically: a ritual once performed by the Valerian clan as a private act of propitiation to chthonic deities became a public celebration of Rome’s prosperity under the emperors. My monograph brings to light the religious frameworks and political attitudes that lay beneath this radical change through the first comprehensive analysis of the history of the Ludi Saeculares. The argument contains two major threads: an analysis of the origins and development of the Games themselves, and the use of the term saeculum in imperial rhetoric in literary, epigraphic, and numismatic sources from the early Republic to the fifth century CE.

First, an investigation into Republican sacrifices that constitute part of the lineage of the Ludi Saeculares reveals that these rites were in origin called “Ludi Tarentini”, and were a Valerian gentilician cult that came under civic supervision in 249 BCE. Next, it is shown that in his Saecular Games of 17 BCE, Augustus appropriated the central rites of the Valerian cult, transforming them into “Ludi Saeculares” through a new association with the concept of the saeculum, and thereby asserting his role as restorer of the Republic and founder of a new age.

The argument then turns to the development of saeculum rhetoric throughout the imperial period, intertwined with the history of the Ludi Saeculares. The fragmentary evidence for the Games of Claudius, Domitian, Antonius Pius, Septimius Severus, and Philip is analysed in greater detail and in the context of the wider history of the Ludi Saeculares. At the same time, a close study of saeculum references across various media demonstrates that in years in which the Saecular Games could not be held, an emperor could refer to the saeculum of his reign in official coinage and inscriptions to highlight his role in bringing about an age of peace in connection with the establishment of his dynasty. The study ends with an investigation of the cessation of these Games under Constantine I, likely due to the influence of Christianity, and shows that the Ludi Saeculares ceased to be held after 248 CE: references to the Saecular Games in the reigns of later emperors are shown to be misinterpretations of ancient texts or coin legends. I demonstrate that the association between time and the creation and legitimization of imperial authority was such a potent tool that it was adapted, rather than discarded, with the rise of Christianity in Late Antiquity.