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Ad futuram memoriam: The Augustan Ludi Saeculares

Eric Orlin

University of Puget Sound

The Ludi Saeculares have long been viewed as a key symbolic moment in the reign of Augustus. Following the significant experimentation in many areas of political, social and cultural life in Rome, in particular the passage of the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus in 18 BCE, the Games have often been considered to mark a transition to a period of consolidation. Scholarship on the Games is particularly rich because scholars have access both to Horace’s hymn composed for the occasion and a huge inscription (ILS 5050) found in the Campus Martius that records both provisions for the festival as well as elements of the ritual itself. While the inscription has been plumbed for insights both into Roman religious practice and the relationship of the imperial family to the Senate and the state (Galinsky, 1998; Putnam, 2000; Thomas, 2011), the nature of the inscription itself has seldom been directly explored. This paper explores the inscription from the perspective of prospective memory, arguing that the inscription served to shape future celebrations of the ludi saeculares, rather than merely commemorating the Augustan games.

To some extent, the inscription itself announces this purpose: it records that when Gaius Silanus raised the question of a permanent record of the festival ad conservandam memoriam, the Senate responded by decreeing a bronze and a marble column ad futuram memoriam tantae religionis. The prospective nature of the Augustan decree may be best revealed by comparision with the acta (ILS 5050a) for the Severan celebration of the Ludi Saeculares, held ‘on schedule’ 220 years after the Augustan, in 203 CE. Unlike the Augustan inscription, these acta seem determined to be commemorative; they give lists of names of people present in meetings and ceremonies and a host of minor details such as the purple fringes on the emperor’s toga that aim to preserve a record of what happened; it also includes a copy of the carmen saeculare composed for the occasion. By contrast, the surviving portion of the Augustan inscription mentions far fewer individuals and focuses attention on dates and time of sacrifices, the honorand of each ceremony and the items sacrificed, and the exact words of the prayer for each sacrifice of the ludi saeculares. Regarding the Secular Hymn, the inscription says only “carmen composuit Q. Hor[at]ius Flaccus”; we possess the text only through the corpus of Horace’s poetry. The sparse detail of the inscription suggests that it was not intended to create a visual image of the ceremony for those who did not live in Rome or whose lifespans did not coincide with the performance of the games. Rather, it projected an image of the ceremony into the future for subsequent generations, and the success of this enterprise can be read in the details of the Severan ceremony.

Indeed, the Augustan inscription may have played an especially critical role in shaping memory for the future. It is well-known that Augustus made significant innovations to the previously existing Ludi Tarentini.  For example, the earlier celebrations had been held in honor of the underworld deities Dis and Proserpina, while Apollo and Diana are the most prominent divinities in the Augustan celebration. While the Augustan celebration purports to inaugurate a new saeculum of 100 or 110 years, the dates of the earlier celebration do not line up with this cycle, suggesting that the Augustan celebration was either held out of cycle or, more likely, may have marked the first time that this celebration was used to mark a refounding. The inscription, by offering an authoritative version of how the ceremony should proceed on future occasions, reshaped the memory of the past by consigning the rituals of the previous celebrations to oblivion. This case study of the Augustan reshaping of Roman rituals thus suggests that prospective memory may involve both the erasure of old memories as well as the creation of new ones to guide future behavior.

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Prospective Memory in Ancient Rome: Constructing the Future Through Text and Material Culture

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