Urbs Oritur: The Elegists, Augustus, and April 21st

Ryan McCarthy

University of Arizona

The earliest extant Roman calendar, the Fasti Antiates Maiores (inscribed between 84-55 BCE), names April 21st as the festival of the Parilia, dedicated to Pales, the protectress of the flocks.  This and all subsequent calendars also acknowledge that the day is known as the dies natalis urbis, on which Romulus traced the pomerium.  It is unclear how this dual tradition developed, but by the time of Augustus the urban, patriotic meaning began to overshadow the rural, agrarian meaning of the festival.  Augustus, as novus Romulus and initiator of the ludi saeculares of 17 BCE, exploited the Parilia and encouraged the shift in its religious meaning from agrarian to patriotic.  Augustus was open to criticism because of his conflicting roles as restorer of the republic, religious innovator and re-founder of the city.  This vulnerability was exploited by Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, whose poems criticize, both directly and indirectly, the first princeps and his perversion and politicization of the overlapping festivals of April 21st

In his programmatic poem 1.1, Tibullus locates Pales and the Parilia in the simple, apolitical, yet unattainable life of the rural Golden Age.  In poem 2.5, composed ca.18 BCE, the poet again mentions Pales, and she first appears as the embodiment of an idyllic, pre-Roman landscape (23-38), just as she does in 1.1.  Tibullus then introduces to the scene Aeneas, who bears the symbols of Augustus and brings with him destruction and abomination (39-78).  Finally, through the machinations of Apollo, Pales and the Parilia seemingly return.  What is supposed to be a new Golden Age, however, is nothing but a farce in which Iron Age figures pollute the true Golden Age elements and disaster and destruction loom (79-104).  Likewise, in 4.1 (16 BCE), Propertius places the proper worship of Pales in the romanticized past.  In addition, if we follow Scholz's highly likely reading of celebrare at 4.1a.19, the poet specifically criticizes the method of celebrating the Parilia in his own time.  In 4.4, Propertius again describes the Parilia as decadent, urban, and therefore improper, and he chooses it as the setting for Tarpeia's greedy betrayal of the Capitoline.  By contrast, Ovid's entry for April 21st (Fasti 4.721-862; written about twenty-five years after Tibullus 2.5 and Propertius 4), does not lament the degradation of the old Parilia to the new Parilia, but instead acknowledges that Augustus is displacing the supposedly traditional Parilia (721-786) with the celebration of the natalis urbis (787-862).  Thus, Augustus' new celebration of the imperial city over Rome's romanticized agrarian past is portrayed as undercutting any sense of historical continuity both in traditional religious practices and in the moral imperative of the mos maiorum. 

            When Hadrian dedicated the temple of Venus and Roma near the Forum Romanum on April 21, CE 121, he cemented the predominance of the celebration of the natalis urbis.  Thereafter, April 21st was celebrated as the Romaea, commemorating the city's foundation.  Thus, Augustus set off a dramatic chain of events when he renovated the festivals of April 21st.  Augustus' intervention led directly to the eventual extinction of the agrarian Parilia in the urban environment.

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