Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Jul 5th - Jul 11th,  2002

"Come, warlike Mars..."

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Mars, God of War

Mars, God of War

   This week we're once again taking a look at Ovid's Fasti, a correlation of the calendar and traditions associated with each of the Roman holidays through the year. This is part of an ongoing series, and our hypothesis is the original calendar of the Roman Republic was choreographed by the positions of the Sun and Moon, with each month beginning on the New Moon and reaching a crescendo with the Ides, correlating to the Full Moon.

   This week we take a look at Book III, wherein the spirit of the month of March is acknowledged. While most of the holidays we've been examining are marked by the Moon, this one refers back to the Sun, and the sign or constellation it was passing through at that time. In Ovid's day the sign and constellation were one, although precession has today dragged the sign position, marked by the vernal equinox, back into the constellation we view as Pisces.

   During the month of March at the beginning of the Roman Empire, the Sun moveed into the constellation Aries, ruled by the God of War. The name is reflective of the month following winter, when the troops would have initiated their military campaigns.

Ares, Mars's Greek predecessor

Ares, Mars's Greek predecessor

   "Come, warlike Mars; lay down thy shield and spear for a brief space, and from thy helmet loose thy glistering locks. Haply thou mayest ask, What has a poet to do with Mars? From thee the month which now I sing doth take its name. Thyself dost see that fierce wars are waged by Minerva's (Athena's) hands. Is she for that the less at leisure for the liberal arts? After the pattern of Pallas (Athena) take a time to put aside the lance. Thou shalt find something to do unarmed."

   As we have seen in so many holidays before, Ovid takes the time to sing the praises of Rome, it's history, and the glories of Empire and conquest. The God of War is the God of Rome, and Ovid sits at the very pinnacle of its success, at a time when the tumultuous years of civil war have come to an end, and Augustus Caesar sits on the throne, having vanquished all his opponent. So once again we hear of the legendary story of the birth of Romulus and Remus, of how Mars saw the vestal virgin Silvia lying down to take a break while fetching water,

   "Mars saw her; the sight inspired him with desire, and his desire was followed by possession, but by his power divine he hid his stolen joys."

Ares

Ares

   In other words he was able to seduce her without her knowledge.

   There are few surprises in these passages, as the association between the month and its divine author have long been understood. We are told that the woodpecker is the bird of Mars, which is new, but makes sense as Mars rules the head, and a woodpecker makes more use of its head than most animals do, pecking away at trees and bark in search of insects. Here Romulus, the father of Rome, speaks of his Dad:

   "...thus the father of the eternal city spake: "Umpire of war, from whose blood I am believed to have sprung (and to confirm that belief I will give many proofs), we name the beginning of the Roman year after thee; the first month shall be called by my father's name." The promise was kept; he did call the month by his father's name: this pious deed is said to have been well pleasing to the god. And yet the earlier ages had worshipped Mars above all the gods; therein a warlike folk followed their bent."


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