Ancient Sources on the October Horse
Calendar reference to the event starts late, coming from the calendar of Furius Dionysius Philocalus in A.D. 354; however, literary reference comes earlier. The fourth century B.C. Sicilian Greek historian Timaeus, as quoted by the second century B.C. Greek historian Polybius, refers to the event. Timaeus says the horse was killed, by spear, in the field of Mars (Campus Martius). In Caesar's Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History, Denis Feeney mentions that it is noteworthy that the Greek Timaeus mentions the Latin name for the field (campus) explicitly, but doesn't manage to specify the date.
The grammarian Verrius Flaccus (c. 55 B.C. - A.D. 20) tutored two of the Emperor Augustus' grandchildren and held a school on the Palatine. Besides teaching, he engaged in antiquarian research that he wrote down in his no longer extant De verborum significatu. Sextus Pompeius Festus (late second century A.D.) and the eighth century A.D. Benedictine monk and historian Paulus Diaconus wrote epitomes of Flaccus that contain information about the rite.
Description of the RiteThe epitomes say there was a two-horse chariot race in honor of the god Mars. The horse on the right side in the winning pair was sacrificed; killed by spear, probably, and during the period of the Republic, probably at the altar of Mars, although during the period of the Empire, the sacrifice was made at the ciconiae nixae. This may have been a square along the banks of the Tiber in Rome where there was probably a relief sculpture of three wooden stork bills crossed. The tail of the October Horse was cut off and raced to the regia so its blood could drip on the hearth. The Augustan era poet and mythographer Ovid says this blood, having been preserved by Vestal Virgins, was used in a festival honoring ancestors held in April, the Palilia. The head was also severed and then decorated with ribbons and cakes of bread, because, according to Festus, the sacrifice was related to a successful grain crop. Then rivals from the via sacra and subura fought over possession of the head. The winner posted the Honor conferring head in his area on wall or tower.
Plutarch on the October Horse
97. Why is it that after the chariot-race on the Ides of December [which was the tenth month of the old Roman year] the right-hand trace-horse of the winning team is sacrificed to Mars, and then someone cuts off its tail, and carries it to the place called Regia and sprinkles its blood on the altar, while some come down from the street called the Via Sacra, and some from the Subura, and fight for its head?
Timaeus traces the origin of the Roman rite to the story of the Trojan Horse.In the succeeding passage of his Roman and Greek Questions, Plutarch says the following about the Trojan connection:
Is it, as some say, that they believe Troy to have been taken by means of a horse; and therefore they punish it, since, forsooth, they are
Noble scions of Trojans commingled with children of Latins.
Or is it because the horse is a spirited, warlike, and martial beast, and they sacrifice to the gods creatures that are particularly pleasing and appropriate for them; and the winner is sacrificed because Mars is the specific divinity of victory and prowess?
Or is it rather because the work of the god demands standing firm, and men that hold their ground defeat those that do not hold it, but flee? And is swiftness punished as being the coward's resource, and do they learn symbolically that there is no safety for those who flee?
Colleen McCullough, the rightfully acclaimed author of historical fiction about the final decades of the Roman Republic, named the sixth of her Masters of Rome series The October Horse. Julius Caesar is the symbolic October Horse who will be sacrificed.
- "October Horse," by C. Bennett Pascal; Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 85, (1981), pp. 261-291.
- The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, by William Warde Fowler (1899).
- Caesar's Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History, by Denis Feeney (2007).
- J.W. Mackail's Latin Literature Part II. Chapter VI. The Lesser Augustans