By Paul Blake - Volunteer Guide

The festival of Quinquatrus commenced, using the Roman inclusive calendar, on March 19th the 5th day after the Ides of March. However, the Festival due to a misunderstanding of the name believing it to mean 5 days not the fifth day resulted in a 5-day festival. It was the chief festival of Minerva the goddess of craftsmen, professions and the arts, but later, she is associated as a goddess of war. In Rome the first day celebrated her birthday and according to Ovid, no bloodletting or fighting occurred on that day and the following four further days were for circus and games. (Scullard, 1981. 92-94)

As the most important Roman goddess, Minerva was a highly revered, honoured, and respected figure and her image can be found on the coinage of different Roman emperors usually on the reverse side carrying an owl and a spear. Her image would have featured in jewellery and with her association with the crafts images could be found surmounted in artisans’ tools.

March is also the month of the celebration of Mars the god of war and academics have long associated the festival of Quinquatrus with Mars. In his paper “Mars the Lustral God” (1983), Vincent J Rosivach quantifies the evidence for this. The first day of Quinquatrus is a day of lustration or the right of purification. The priests of Mars, the Salii, would purify the arms and equipment of the military. Here the purification would be requested as a prayer for protection, presumably for the individual as much as his equipment. It is not unreasonable to consider Quinquatrus as being a military feast in imperial Rome.

One of the more notorious connections with Quinquatrus can be found in AD 59 when the infamous Emperor Nero conspired to assassinate his mother Agrippina. He invited her to celebrate Quinquatrus at Baiae; a resort town on the North West shore of the Gulf of Naples, where it was popular to build villas between 100BC to AD500. There are conflicting accounts as to how the assassination was undertaken, but it is believed that he tried to make it look like an accident as she wanted to avoid prosecution for plotting against her son. First, she survived the sinking of her own ship, which was captained by Nero’s friend and tutor. After swimming ashore Agrippa succumbed to Nero. He made her death look like a suicide.

At Vindolanda with its military garrison, the Feast of Quinquatrus would certainly have been an occasion when all the arms and shields were lustrated or purified. In the wider field army it is a reasonable conjecture that this purification of arms and equipment in March coincided with the commencement of the seasonal campaigns and the Mars and Minerva would have been called upon to purify the weaponry and equipment. It is hard to say whether or not here in Britannia Inferior would the required compliance to worship and feast be observed. From the Temple to Jupiter Dolichenus, a temple unusually within the fort walls, we have evidence of feasting and it is probable as they did this for this feast being a military garrison. Similarly, what might have occupied the garrison at Vindolanda for the four days of circus games? The Vindolanda archaeologists have yet to unearth an arena or physical evidence of games, but this does not rule out games and sport as there is evidence of arena at both Chesters and Caerleon and more than probably exercised at a parochial level too.

Aside from gladiatorial sports in imperial Rome numerous games were popular including wrestling, boxing, running, jumping and swimming. Here at Vindolanda, we have uniquely a pair of Roman boxing gloves. Were these the prize possession of a renowned pugilist? Certainly, the practice of boxing bouts in competition has been a regular feature in sporting entertainment. Would local games actually have incorporated the display of gladiatorial skills at a non-lethal level? The gladiator glass found in the tavern at the sire may have been a presentation piece to a local champion. The exercise of arms in display and competition has encompassed the centuries and can be seen in bridge building races or gunnery races.

We know the Romans also had ball games, using filled pigs’ bladders. Could the parade ground or adjacent fields be used as a sporting site for early century AD games similar to football or rugby? In the 21st century jumpers are piled to form goal mouths for an impromptu match and you might expect few suits of auxiliary mail cuirass or cloaks may have similarly piled 2000 years ago to the same effect. Auxiliary cohorts would have trained diligently with daily drilling, arms training, hand to hand fighting a part of a daily routine. In such circumstances an area of the site may have been used as an impromptu arena where following the lustration of their arms and shields, the centuries of the cohort contested their strengths against each other in the tournament. Such a facility has yet to be located at Vindolanda but may discoveries at the site are yet to be made.

So many questions and ideas to ponder.  We hope that the answers will eventually be found to these and more with future archaeology investigation.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

Further reading:

Mars, the Lustral God - Vincent J Rosivach (JSTOR)

Wikipedia - Quinquatria/Quinquatrus

Sculard 1981