The 7th Ludi Saeculares in the roman coinage.
The Saecular Games (Ludi Saeculares in latin) were a set of ludic-religious celebrations by which the end of a new century of existence of the Roman civilization was celebrated. This century, saeculum in Latin, had a duration of 110 years: the maximum time that was estimated could live a person.
The decision to celebrate the seventh edition of the Saecular Games in the year 204 was taken during the previous year. Once the priests of the "Council of the Fifteen" defined all the ceremonies (religious and playful) to be carried out, Septimius Severus was informed, obtaining his approval for everything proposed. The following was to communicate the good new to the people by means of an imperial edict, exhorting not only the inhabitants of Rome but also the foreign people to go to the capital of the Empire and participate in the festivities.
Figure 1.- General view of the Flavian amphitheater, universally known as the Coliseum, represented by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in his famous series of engravings “Views of Rome”. Circa 1757.
The purification ceremonies previous to the beginning of the Games were carried out during the last week of May. They consisted of sacrifices, prayers, donations, offerings and songs directed to get the favor of the main deities of the Roman pantheon (Jupiter, Juno, Diana and Apollo). On the first of June, just after midnight, a sacrifice was celebrated followed by a prayer to the parcae: responsible for the destiny of men and peoples. That was the beginning of the Saecular Games.
The long-awaited gladiatorial and venatory spectacles began on June 2nd. As expected, its magnificence was up to the circumstances. For three days and two nights, the coliseum and the maximus circus boiled with the roar of the wild beasts, the shouting of the crowds and the clanging of the clashing arms. Between one spectacle and another, Septimius and his sons were in charge of presiding over the numerous religious acts recommended by the priests to open the new century in a way pleasant to the gods. Caracalla was, apparently, in charge of directing the sacred prayers, Geta of pronuncing them correctly; Septimius was limited to observe.
Figure 2.- The great theater of Marcellus represented by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. "Views of Rome", circa 1757.
The religious ceremonies lasted three days with their nights at the end of which there were seven days of spectacles in the main entertainment venues of the city: the theater of Marcellus, the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. The last ludic day began with a solemn chant, successively sung on the Palatine and the Capitol. The hymn in question was called Carmen Saeculare and its content was a praise to the greatness of the Empire, with its golden fields, its cities, its large merchant fleets, its armies, its people and their leaders, for all of whom the protection of the Rome gods was devoutly requested.
The celebration of the seventh Saecular Games left a significant mark on Roman numismatics. The most eloquent and also the most interesting type is RIC 761, a rare sestertius (R3) with reverse legend COS III LVD SAEC FEC S C surrounding a complex scenic composition where Septimius Severus, veiled, making an offering on a lit altar, stands out. In front of him, observing him, are Hercules and Bacchus/Liber Pater, the Di Auspices, carrying their usual attributes. A flutist animates the scene while a servant holds a pig destined for sacrifice. Complete the scene a representation of Tellus, reclining on a basket and holding a bunch of wheat ears. This type was also coined in the name of Caracalla (RIC 418 – figure 3) with a similar rarity grade.
Figure 3.- RIC IV-1 418 (Caracalla). COS III LVD SAEC FEC S C. (Mid 204).
The reverse legend LVD SAEC FEC is a contraction of Ludi Saeculari Fecit, a phrase which clearly indicates the celebration of the Saecular Games. As for the scenic composition, it shows Septimius performing one of the sacrificial rites characteristic of the ceremonies of change of century in the presence of the two protective deities of his native city, Leptis Magna, whose images likely presided over all the religious ceremonies of the ludi saeculares. Tellus, the earth, represents in this composition the Empire whose new century was beginning.
Hercules and Liber Pater were the divinities chosen by Septimius to protect the ludi saeculares. This is indicated by the examination of types 761 and 418 and also that of types RIC 257, 763B, 764A, 765 (Septimius) and RIC 74, 420, 421 (Caracalla), all of them coinciding, with slight variations, in the reverse legend of RIC 761 and in the di auspices looking at each other as iconography of reverse. The denarius RIC 257 is not too scarce, evidence that it was the coin chosen by the mint of Rome to publicize on a massive scale the capital event that was the celebration of the seventh saecular games.
Figure. 4.- Left: RIC IV-1 257a. Liber Pater (holding cup and thyrsos) and Hercules (holding club and lion skin) standing, looking at each other. Small panther at the feet of Liber Pater – COS III LVDOS SAECVL FEC. Right: RIC IV-1 74b. idem than 257a - COS LVDOS SAECVL FEC (Mid 204).
There are some additional types whose relationship with the celebration of the saecular games or at least with the ceremonies of reception of the new century is also feasible (although not so explicit as in the types we have just met).
The first of these types is RIC 263 (Septimius, 815 and 823 as As and Sestertius respectively) with reverse legend SAECVLI FELICITAS around Caracallus, Septimio and Geta sitting on curule chairs arranged on an ornate platform. Next to them, standing, there is a togated citizen, in front, at the foot of the platform, a second citizen receives a coin from Caracalla. The legend Felicitas Saeculi, the happiness of the century, can be interpreted as a reference to the new century. As for the reverse scene, it must be related to the donations made during the reception ceremonies of the new century.
Figure 5.- RIC IV-1 263. FELICITAS SAECVLI (First half of 205).
Another interesting type is RIC 75 (Caracalla), a rather rare denarius (R3). Its reverse shows the legend IMP ET CAESAR AVG FILI COS around Caracalla and Geta sitting in two curule chairs arranged on a platform adorned with rosettes, facing the observer as well as looking at each other. Between them is a third human figure, visible only from the waist up. RIC IV-1 identifies it, not without reservations, with an allegory of the Concord, other sources, for example the British Museum, believe that it is Septimius Severus. Be that as it may, the presence of Caracalla and Geta sitting side by side and looking at each other strongly recalls the description of the sacred rites described in a previous paragraph, according to which Caracalla directed the sacred prayers and her brother pronounced them. In the meantime, let us remember, Septimius Severus observed without intervening in the ceremony: again this fits perfectly with the presence in the background of the third figure, potentially identifiable with the North African emperor.
Figure 6.- RIC IV-1 75. IMP ET CAESAR AVG FILI COS (Mid 204).
Another commemorative emission of the ludi saeculares was that constituted by the types RIC 293, 293A, 816 (Septimius) and RIC 462 (Caracalla). His reverse legend is quite eloquent: SACRA SAECVLARIA. As for the iconography, an interesting scene is observed: inside a briefly sketched temple the emperors Septimius and Caracalla, veiled (priestly attire), make an offering on an altar. Between them, a step back, a female figure (Concord according to RIC IV-1) observes them attentively. A harpist and a flutist, located at the ends of the set, animate the scene, all in the presence of a Tiber River allegory reclining on the ground. This reverse motif, focused from the perspective of the legend SACRA SAECVLARIA, tells us about a religious ceremony held during the Saecular Games or as preparation for them.
Figure 7.- RIC IV-1 462. SACRA SAECVLARIA (Year 206).
We have left for the end the most spectacular numismatic type among those dedicated to the celebration of the commemorative games of the centenary of Rome. We are referring to the spectacular LAETITIA TEMPORVM (RIC 274 -Septimius-, 133 -Caracalla-) surrounding a magnificent composition that we are going to describe for fascination of the reader: in the center a large ship with central mast and sail to the wind, adorned with profusion of altars, statues and pedestals. Occupying the upper part of the field we see four chariots at gallop; the lower one is populated by animals of different species (bison, lions, panthers and ostriches). The composition is as beautiful as harmonic. Undoubtedly, it recalls the story of the great venatory spectacle witnessed by Dion Cassius in the year 202: "a great ship was mounted on the arena of the coliseum, whose slats fell at once, exposing to the public a large group of animals consisting of bears, lionesses, panthers, lions, ostriches, wild donkeys and bison that began to attack driven by fear and despair." The memory of that fantastic spectacle, still fresh after a scarce couple of years, should advise its repetition during the saecular games of 204. Or simply the Rome mint resorted to that memory to design a reverse motive capable of effectively transmitting the magnificence of the seventh ludi saeculares.
Figure 8.- RIC IV-1 274. LAETITIA TEMPORVM (Years 204-206).