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  Acta of the Augustan Ludi Saeculares (Image credit Susan Dunning)

Dr. Susan Dunning, of the University of Toronto, has been at the Institute of Classical Studies as a Visiting Fellow from July to December 2017. In this post she shares some insights into her research and reflects on her time in London.

During my stay at the ICS this year, I have been completing my book on the history of a Roman religious festival called the Ludi Saeculares, or ‘Saecular Games’. This festival has a complex history: its precursor was originally celebrated by members of an elite clan during the Republic, but in 249 BCE, the rite came under civic supervision, to be performed during a crisis in the First Punic War. These Games were repeated during the Third Punic War, but only received the name ‘Ludi Saeculares’ when Augustus connected his performance of 17 BCE with the arrival of a new saeculum, an ‘age’ or ‘generation’, which he determined to be a period of 110 years. Claudius reformed the saeculum in 47 CE as a period of 100 years, and so the Saecular Games came to be held every Augustan or Claudian saeculum until 248 CE. These Games gave the emperor and his family the opportunity to preside over the arrival of a new age at Rome. The association between time and imperial dynasties became such a powerful tool for the creation and legitimization of emperors’ authority that it was adapted, rather than discarded, when Christianity became the dominant religion.

Festus manuscript facsimile (image credit Susan Dunning)

The ICS was an ideal base for finishing my project, which has involved the study of inscriptions, coins, and literary material from the Republic to Late Antiquity. The Institute’s library is supplied with excellent resources for all subjects in classical studies, ancient history, and archaeology. It was a privilege to be able to raid the open shelves for everything from commentaries on Statius’s poetry to editions of the inscriptions set up by Augustus and Septimius Severus to commemorate the events (Acta) of their Saecular Game. For more obscure items, I was able to benefit from the ICS’s central location: for example, the British Library, a fifteen-minute walk away, gave me access to a rare facsimile of a medieval manuscript by Festus, which summarized the encyclopedia of the scholar Verrius Flaccus, who was tutor to Augustus’s grandsons. The entry for the Ludi Saeculares is partially missing, as my photo shows: the book’s edges were burnt long ago. By measuring the lacunae for this entry and comparing them with the surviving text, I found that Verrius struggled to reconcile Augustus’s innovations with the Republican traditions behind the Saecular Games, contrary to what some editors have concluded in their conjectures.

Silver denarius from 17 BCE (Image credit British Museum)

Finally, the ICS’s holdings of numismatic material are invaluable, and are complemented by the vast coin collections at the British Museum across the street. Emperors often advertised their Saecular Games through their coinage, but many were not lucky enough to have their reigns coincide with the celebration of a new age on the Augustan or Claudian schedule. In such cases, emperors might decide to issue coins with legends such as FELICITAS SAECVLI, ‘felicity of the age’, to connect their dynasties with new eras of prosperity and security, even apart from performances of the Saecular Games. This ‘saeculum rhetoric’ became increasingly popular from the second century CE onward, and was adopted into formulas used in official inscriptions. Emperors also used their coinage to lend authority to their celebrations of the Games: in this denarius of 17 BCE (RIC 1.340), Augustus links the new saeculum of his reign with his predecessor, Julius Caesar. The coin’s obverse portrays the deified Caesar with a comet above his brow, a reference to the star that appeared at his funeral games in 44 BCE, and in imitation of an aureus issued in 38 BCE (RRC 534/1). The reverse depicts the herald who announced the performance of the Games, a once-in-a-lifetime event. The herald bears the image of the Julian star/comet on his shield, and to make perfectly clear the link between Caesar’s divinity and Augustus’s authority to usher in the new saeculum, the legend proclaims that ‘Augustus, son of a god, [performed] the Saecular Games’.

I was also grateful for constant buzz of the ICS’s multi-disciplinary lectures, which provided an important source of inspiration through dialogue with other fellows and visitors. For example, this autumn’s Ancient History seminar has greatly expanded my understanding of finance in the ancient world. My students will also reap the benefits of my time in London: the British Epigraphy Society’s autumn colloquium, as well as a recent conference on ‘The Language of Greek Religion’, gave me a number of ideas to integrate into courses I will be teaching at the University of Toronto this winter.

by Susan Dunning

Editor’s note: The ICS offers a number of non-stipendiary Visiting Fellowships to classical scholars from the UK and abroad. Further details can be found here. Scholars from outside the UK who wish to apply for funding to visit the ICS are currently being encouraged to apply via the British Academy’s Visiting Fellowships scheme. The deadline for sending expressions of interest to the Director for the current funding round is 9th January 2018.