by Sarah Bond
Romans looked forward to the free food and games that occurred at annual New Year’s celebrations, but early Christian clerics were not as keen on the revelries. Long before the so-called “war on Christmas,” there was the war on New Year’s Day.
The Romans called January 1st the Kalends of January. It was termed the Kalendae in Latin or Καλάνδαι in Greek, and was placed on public calendars called fasti. The Kalends is what gives us the modern word “calendar.” The Kalendae Ianuariae was a time of particular hope and anticipation for the coming year. It was filled with celebrations and religious rites that focused on the health of individual Romans and of the state.
Romans literally got off on the right foot by leading with their right leg as they entered temples, houses and other doorways on this and many other days. As archaeologist Steven J.R. Ellis has noted, one’s right foot was considered far more auspicious than their sinister foot (left foot), and one always wanted to begin auspiciously in a new year.
New Year’s celebrations normally began with a large parade within the city of Rome on January 1 that is not all that different from the Tournament of Roses parade that precedes the Rose Bowl. Senators, magistrates, clients and many others met at the houses of the two designated consuls for the year and–at least in the Republic and early empire–traditionally sacrificed two bulls at the temple for Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
The temple was on Rome’s Capitoline hill. A vow was then made to invoke safety for the Roman people and the Republic in the coming year. Elsewhere in the city, worshippers at the temple to Aesculapius (the God of medicine) on the Tiber Island, celebrated the temple’s dedication on January 1 of 291 BCE. Romans looked to Janus, the god of new beginnings, but clearly also thought of Jupiter and Aesculapius too.
By the later imperial period, the celebration centered more on the emperor and was extended to five days. The third day was now the one reserved for the vota to the health of the emperor and the empire. It was then followed by a series of chariot races that eventually lasted up to three days.
The various festivals and rituals that formed Greco-Roman religion (and by extension, the festival calendar) did not stay unchanged within the Mediterranean for all of antiquity. Following the victory of Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, Christianity was made licit and then encouraged by the emperor until his death in 337. With the Roman emperor as its visible patron, the relatively small religion grew mightily over the next few decades. In turn, Christian clerics also became more powerful figures within Roman cities as more people converted. And yet New Year’s remained a time for traditional religion.
Under the emperor Julian, a central concern became reviving traditional Roman religion and rejecting Christian customs. Julian celebrated the Kalends of January in the eastern city of Antioch in the year 363 and used the much-anticipated fanfare surrounding the inauguration of consuls, the chariot races and the speeches delivered to the emperor to great effect in his revival program. In other words? Julian needed New Year’s to help him bring back traditional religion, which we might today call paganism.
Sarah E. Bond is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. For more on ancient and medieval history, follow her @SarahEBond.