Note: This article appeared in the March issue of the Dragon’s Tongue.
Last August, I was escaping the summer heat by walking in an air-conditioned mall one day and realized I was surrounded by Roman memes (in the original sense of the word).
There were logos with big Roman numerals, and stores with red and gold bunting. The shoe places were offering “gladiator sandals,” while Macy’s was selling a shirt that looked like the top half of a gathered-neckline stola. And these were just the obvious ones… Let’s take a peek at some of the ways Roman traditions have survived into the modern era.
First of all – It was August… Renamed for Augustus Caesar in 8 BCE.
Check out the rest of our year:
Januaris – named for the god Janus
Februaris – after the februum, a goatskin used in the Lupercalia rituals of Feb 15th
Note: In 45 BCE, Julius Caesar reconfigured the calendar from a lunar base to a solar one. This required lengthening most of the months. He left the last month of the year, February, as 28 days so as not to interfere with its festivals to honor the dead: Their dates were based on the number of days before the New Year, which used to be March 1st.
Martius – the god Mars. This was the start of “war season,” back when farmers left to fight for a few months and then went back home, during the Monarchy and early Republic.
Aprilis – from aperio, aperire, apertus, a verb meaning “to open,” relating to blooming plants. Lots of agricultural festivals!
Maius – the goddess Maia
Junius – the goddess Juno. Most auspicious month to be married in.
July was Quintilis (5th), renamed Julian to honor Julius Caesar after his death.
August was Sextilis (6th)
September (7th), October (8th), November (9th), and December (10th)
Speaking of December, many secular traditions surrounding Christmas arose from Saturnalia:
- Bringing evergreen boughs inside and hanging them on the walls. Fir and holly branches were popular.
- Baked goods (and lots of food in general): Saturn was an agricultural deity, and associated with grain. The bakeries went all out producing bread and sweet treats during Saturnalia.
- Lighting of candles. For most of the year, Romans burned olive oil in lamps. Wax candles were an expensive treat for the holiday.
- Gift giving, to children and adults
- Closing of businesses and schools
- Bonuses to employees and servants
- Groups of singers traveling in the streets: They were called Mummers, and it evolved into caroling, although the Romans did it drunk.
- Funny hats are still a British tradition. Now they do paper crowns in their Christmas crackers.
- Special gaudy clothing The toga was specially set aside. Instead, gentlemen wore a pilleus (that funny hat) and synthesis. The synthesis was an outfit of color-matching tunic and mantle (cloak). Most of the year it was reserved for informal dining at home, but during Saturnalia it was worn outside as well. Now we have Ugly Sweaters!
- General revelry and relaxed rules. This translated into “a time of enjoyment, cheerfulness, and goodwill” – i.e. the Christmas Spirit.
That’s not the only celebration we do in a Roman fashion!
Romans used white to symbolize purity, which is where the bride wearing white came from. A Roman bride also wore a veil to shield her face, and a circlet of woven herbs and flowers to represent her fertility. She wore her hair in a special updo, as many modern women still do. The Roman ceremonial focus on dextratrum iunctio, literally joining of hands, is still seen in the Handfasting tradition. The “fede” ring, picturing clasped hands, was a popular choice. The name derives from the Italian phrase mani in fede: “hands [joined] in faith or loyalty.” It evolved into the Irish “Claddagh” ring. Plain bands and Hercules knot rings were also popular – both are still seen today.
Wedding rings themselves started with the Roman monarchy period as iron bands (marriages were more of a property contract back then, and the ring was a warning to other men that she was taken). Eventually women gained more rights, and the band turned gold. Romans wore the wedding ring on the 4th finger of the left hand because they believed there was a vein that ran straight from it to the heart. Modern medical note: Uh…. No.
After the ceremony, attendees would throw confetto, a mix of nuts and dried fruit. I’m guessing this evolved into “confetti” when someone realized bits of paper or rice would cause fewer eye injuries! The bride passed very carefully over the threshold of her new home. Sometimes the groom would carry her, to prevent her from tripping, which would be a bad omen. The bride then took her husband’s family name, to indicate she was now property of his lineage rather than her father’s. Two thousand years later, we’re still following suit.
These are just a few examples of Roman memes that have survived. Keep your eyes out, and you’ll see the foundations of European civilization have influenced our modern world in surprising ways. Ask me about political candidates and Kaisers / Czars sometime.