by Robert Wolfe (November 2009)
One of the most ancient and the most fundamental forms of ideological hegemony is control over the calendar. For example, by dividing all time into Before and After the alleged date of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Christian religion has succeeded in introducing its point of view into the heart of the so-called “civil calendar” now in use in the greater part of the world. But just what is this point of view? The so-called “civil calendar” comes in two versions, one “Julian” and the other “Gregorian”, and the two have one thing in common: they are both Roman.
The Julian calendar is the calendar that was instituted by Julius Caesar a little more than 2000 years ago in conjunction with his efforts to become the undisputed ruler of Rome. It is a solar calendar consisting of 365 days plus a leap year every four years to account for the extra quarter day in the solar year. However, because the extra quarter day is actually slightly less than a quarter day, the Julian calendar very slowly drifted out of line with the seasons, leading the Roman Pope Gregory 13 to institute a slightly modified version of the Julian calendar a little more than 1600 years later. Despite Protestant resistance, this Gregorian calendar was eventually adopted, first by Europe and then by all the countries colonized by Europe, as the “civil calendar” of the entire world.
Conventional accounts of the history of the Julian and Gregorian calendars stress the superiority of the astronomical calculations on which they were based. Earlier solar calendars, such as the one adopted by the Egyptians over 4000 years ago, had taken no account of the extra quarter day in the solar year and therefore drifted out of line with the seasons much faster than the Julian calendar did. Nonetheless the question arises: is there no significance in the fact that both calendars were promulgated by rulers of Rome? And not just any old rulers either, but the original Caesar and the Pope of the Roman Catholic “counter-Reformation” who had a thanksgiving mass held in Rome to celebrate the massacre of French Protestants in Paris on Saint Bartholomew’s Day some 10 years before he instituted the Gregorian calendar. Does not the power of the Julian and Gregorian calendars also say something about the power of Rome?
It’s not as if the power of Rome were an arcane topic. For centuries much of the European continent was dominated by would be Caesars called Kaisers and Czars, testifying to the hold of the Roman empire on the European imagination long after the empire itself had been overthrown. Latin, the Roman language, remained the standard written language of European religion, philosophy and science for over 1000 years after the fall of the Roman empire. Entire libraries could be filled with books on Roman law, Roman architecture and Roman literature. Yet for some strange reason no one ever refers to the so-called “civil calendar” as the Roman calendar. Its Roman origins are not so much concealed as ignored, the better to present it as the natural and inevitable calendar for all peoples due to the accurate astronomical observations on which it is based.
But along with the observations comes an ideology, which is best described as a synthesis of the cult of Caesar and the cult of Christ. The most visible sign of the cult of Caesar in the Roman calendar is the fact that two months, July and August, are named after Julius Caesar and his heir, Augustus Caesar. As for the cult of Christ, it is of course clearly represented in the system of dividing all time into before and after Christ’s birth, which has the effect of making it seem as if this were the most important event in world history. However, these visible signs of Caesar and Christ are only the tip of the iceberg. Like most solar calendars, the Roman calendar is associated with a religion of sun worship, a religion which was evolved under the Caesars and then given a Christian coloration by making December 25 the birthday of Christ and Sunday the day for worshipping him. The purpose of this article is to lay bare the origins, history and significance of the religion of sun worship which permeates the Roman calendar system.
The very first Roman calendar, the one which was in use at the time the city of Rome was founded, was a lunar calendar. Prior to recent centuries, most peoples around the world followed lunar calendars, but the original Roman lunar calendar was unusual in that it had only ten months.
Lunar calendars are much easier to formulate and follow than solar calendars. A solar calendar has to be perfect, or nearly so, in order to remain in line with the changing seasons, but lunar calendars can easily be adjusted so that the month associated with spring will actually arrive in the spring. The lunar cycle from new to crescent to full moon and back again lasts approximately 29 and a half days, so that lunar months are almost always regarded as consisting of either 29 or 30 days. Twelve lunar months therefore add up to approximately 354 days, which is short of a solar year, while thirteen lunar months add up to approximately 384 days, which is too long. However, if an extra month is added to a twelve month lunar calendar every two or three years, it will remain roughly in line with the seasons forever.
For this reason, most lunar calendars around the world consist of twelve months, plus an extra month held in reserve. It does not require precise astronomical observations to develop such a system, just an agreed upon basis for deciding if the time has come to add an extra month. In The Lost Universe, Gene Weltfish brings out how the Pawnee Indians of North America did it. Their traditional lunar calendar of twelve months began in the spring; a thirteenth month was added from time to time based on the overall climate at the time of the appearance of certain constellations of stars which a Pawnee “old man” described as “first one snake, then two ducks and then the real rattlesnakes”. The ancient Romans could easily have developed a similar system, but for some strange reason they chose not to.
What makes their approach seem all the more mysterious is that they clearly wanted the calendar to begin in the spring. The first month, called March, was named after Mars, the chief god of all the Latin speaking peoples at that time, and the rites of Mars were supposed to be celebrated in the spring. Yet there was no way that a ten month lunar calendar could even approximate the cycle of the solar year, and the Romans must have known this. It would seem that they insisted upon the number ten for ideological reasons, because ten was an important number in their numerical system. Just in case anyone missed the point, the last six months had no names but only numbers, starting with Fifth and Sixth (eventually changed to July and August) and continuing with September, October, November and December, meaning Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth respectively. But in order to celebrate the month of March in the spring, what they would have had to do would be to count off an additional two or three lunar months after December, months that had no formal existence but which were nonetheless a necessary part of their calendar system. This taste for needless complexity in the service of ideological rigidity was to play an even more prominent part in their calendar system in the years to come.
However, at some point in the early history of Rome, two additional months were added to the calendar, transforming it into a normal lunar calendar. Roman tradition attributed this change to Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. His predecessor, Romulus, was said to have been fierce and warlike, while Numa Pompilius was thought to have been devoted to the arts of peace. In any case, the revised lunar calendar began with a month called January, named after the Roman god Janus, which was placed immediately after December, the last month of the old calendar. The effect of this change was to somewhat downgrade the rites of Mars. Although many Romans continued to celebrate March 1 as New Year’s Day even after the institution of January as the first month, the rites of Mars no longer had quite the same official status as before. This change was in keeping with the image of Numa Pompilius as a wise and benevolent ruler.
Janus had a very different image from that of Mars. Mars was perhaps originally a god of virility, but after Jupiter replaced him as the chief god of the Romans during the era of the Roman monarchy, Mars came to be seen as the god of war. In later centuries the rites of Mars were celebrated by Roman aristocrats called “Salii” who gathered every March to dance about in a warlike manner and recite ancient prayers which were only half understood. Janus was a much less important figure. He was considered the god of borders and beginnings, and he was represented in Roman art with two faces, one said to be directed towards the past, the other towards the future. This made him a kind of god of time, but whether these attributes preceded or followed his elevation to the status of the god of the first month is not clear. Originally only a small shrine was dedicated to him; its gates were kept closed in times of peace, but opened in times of war. Since the gates were usually open, Janus was actually associated with warfare no less than Mars, but more in a juridical than a physical sense.
The modified lunar calendar attributed to Numa Pompilius remained in use throughout the history of the Roman monarchy, but at some point around the time of the rise of the Roman republic, this calendar was modified still further, transforming it into one of the strangest calendars ever devised. Historians generally call it “luni-solar” for want of a better term, but actually it was neither lunar nor solar. The months approximated lunar months, but they no longer had any relationship to the actual cycle of the moon. Each month was assigned a specific number of days as in a solar calendar, but instead of adding up to a solar year, they added up to a lunar year, and an inexact one at that. Strangest of all, whoever devised this calendar had what amounts to a phobia against the use of even numbers.
This phobia manifested itself in a number of ways. Except for February, the months were either 29 or 31 days in length, but there were no months of 30 days. The months added up to a total of 355 days in a normal year, even though the correct figure of 365 days was widely known and used in their lunar calendars by all of Rome’s neighbors, especially the Greeks. Days of the month were reckoned by an elaborate system of counting the number of days either before or after three fixed points, the calends, the nones and the ides. The calends (from which the word “calendar” is derived) came on the first of the month, the nones on either the 5th or the 7th and the ides on either the 13th or the 15th. It follows that none of the three fixed points in the month could fall on an even numbered day. It is evident that these three fixed points originated as the new moon, crescent moon and full moon of the Roman lunar calendar, but in the system in use under the republic they had no relationship to the actual lunar cycle and therefore could be arbitrarily assigned to always fall on odd numbered days.
There is no doubt where this phobia against the use of even numbers came from. It came from the teachings of Pythagoras. In Roman eyes Pythagoras was the quintessential Greek philosopher, far more prestigious than either Plato or Aristotle. After traveling widely, he settled in Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, around the age of 50. His teachings soon gained a mass following in southern Italy right around the same time (about 450 years before the advent of Julius Caesar) that the Roman republic was founded. And in his book, Pythagoras, Peter Gorman reproduces, on page 141, a list of 10 pairs of “opposites” said to be drawn up by Pythagoras. One column is the “good” column; it includes “right,” “male” and “odd.” The other column is the “bad” column; it includes “left,” “female” and “even.” On page 139, Gorman explains that Pythagoras considered odd numbers “good” because they were derived from “the One,” while “the dyad or two is the unevenness and inequality in the cosmos. Thus the dyad is the evil principle.”
There was, however, one area of the calendar system of the Roman republic to which the ban on the use of even numbers did not apply. This was the method of keeping the calendar in line with the progression of the seasons. Even though it was not a true lunar calendar, it was still based on a 12 month lunar year, and therefore it could have been kept in line with the seasons by the normal method of adding an extra month of 29 or 30 days every two or three years. Instead, a method was devised to always add an extra month every two years. February was assigned 28 days in normal years, but every other year either 4 or 5 days were subtracted from February and added to a thirteenth month called Mercedonius which consisted of either 22 or 23 days. This meant that every other year February consisted of either 23 or 24 days, while Mercedonius, which followed February on the calendar, would always end up consisting of 27 days. It would seem that in this one area, the Roman taste for needless complexity won out over the Pythagorean aversion to even numbers.
What all this meant in practice was that under the calendar system of the Roman republic, years of 355 days alternated with years of either 377 or 378 days. This system implied an average year of a little over 366 days, a figure which was clearly intended to represent a solar year and therefore keep the calendar in line with the seasons without any need to figure out when to add the thirteenth month. The only fly in the ointment was that solar years do not in fact consist of a little over 366 days. Over time, the progression of the months inevitably drifted out of line with the progression of the seasons, until finally the Romans were forced to abandon the system of always adding an extra month every two years. Instead responsibility for deciding when to add the extra month was placed in the hands of the Pontifex Maximus, the High Priest of the Roman religion. But this system gave rise to constant quarrels and charges that certain parties bribed the Pontifex Maximus to lengthen the year when they were in power. In this way, the spirit of arbitrariness that had been inherent in the calendar system all along became manifest for all to see.
The question is: why did the transition from monarchy to republic give rise to such a complicated, wrong headed calendar when the Romans already had a perfectly good lunar calendar under the monarchy? The answer is far from obvious, but it must have had something to do with Pythagoras and the Greeks.
Ancient Rome was a Latin city situated between two powerful groups, the Etruscans to the north and the Greek colonists to the south. Etruscan influence was paramount under the monarchy. Several of the kings of Rome were of Etruscan descent, and many of the symbols of the Roman state that were adopted during this period were of Etruscan origin. These included the cult of Jupiter and the use of the “fasces,” a double bladed axe bound with rods (from which the word “fascism” is derived) as an emblem of Roman military authority. But Etruscan influence was largely confined to the patrician class, and when the Roman plebeians overthrew the monarchy and established a republic, it was to the Greek colonists in the south that they looked for cultural inspiration. Adoption of the so-called “luni-solar” calendar of the republic, with its unmistakable Pythagorean bent, was only one aspect of a broader surge of Greek influence at this time which affected all classes of Roman society and the plebeians in particular.
The clearest expression of this trend was the construction by the plebeians of a temple dedicated to the goddess Ceres on the Aventine hill immediately following the establishment of the republic. The temple was built in the Greek style and the cult of Ceres was patterned after the cult of the Greek goddess Demeter. And just as Demeter was associated in Greek mythology with the figures of Dionysos and Persephone, so Ceres came to be associated with the Roman versions of these two figures, Liber and Libera. A new holiday was instituted in their honor, the Liberalia, which was celebrated beginning on March 17 on the new calendar. It featured orgiastic rites similar to those associated with the cult of Dionysos in Greece. All these innovations had the character of a response to the construction of a temple in the Etruscan style dedicated to Jupiter by the patricians shortly before the overthrow of the monarchy. The plebeian trinity of Ceres, Liber and Libera was intended as an alternative to and mockery of the patrician trinity of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
The adoption of a Pythagorean calendar fit in with the spread of Greek influence in Rome, but Pythagoreanism did not have the same plebeian character as the Liberalia. To the contrary, it was an elitist philosophy which taught that numbers were the basis of all things. In particular, the movement of the heavenly bodies was said to be governed by the same mathematical ratios as governed the intervals of the octave in music. There was a musical “harmony of the spheres” which Pythagoras claimed to be able to hear, and it is very likely that the complex numerical system of the new Roman calendar was intended to reflect an alleged harmony between the movement of the sun and the movement of the moon. Unfortunately no such harmony exists: there is no convenient mathematical ratio between the solar year of approximately 365 and a quarter days and the lunar month of approximately 29 and a half days. But it would have taken some time for the inaccuracy of the new calendar to become apparent, and in the meanwhile the Romans had evidently come to pride themselves on their commitment to the very last word in philosophic calendar design. So they continued to use their strange “luni-solar” calendar for some 450 years, but by the time of Julius Caesar, it was said to be about three months out of line with the actual solar year.
The thing about the calendar of the Roman republic is that it was lunar in form but solar in spirit. Its months approximated lunar months, they had the same names as the months of the Roman lunar calendar and they added up to a lunar year, but the entire structure was arbitrary and dogmatic. True lunar calendars are all pretty much the same because their months have to conform to the actual lunar cycle. But so long as the subdivisions of solar calendars add up to a solar year, there can be any number of them, of any length, and start on any day of the year. Some solar calendars around the world did have months, usually of 30 days, intended to approximate lunar months, but there is no inherent reason why this has to be so. The structure of a solar calendar has to be decreed, and hence there is greater scope for dogmatism in solar calendar design than there is in lunar calendar design. It was not for nothing that Pythagoras equated “the One”, from whom odd numbers were said to be derived, with Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. For the “luni-solar” calendar of the Roman republic to be transformed into a true solar calendar, only one additional element was needed: knowledge of the extra quarter day in the solar year.
This knowledge eventually came to Rome from Egypt. After thousands of years of watching their 365 day solar calendar drift out of line with the seasons, the Egyptians were well aware of the fact that the solar year was not exactly 365 days in length. And Pythagoras, who had studied in Egypt before coming to southern Italy, was undoubtedly well aware of it too. But it was not until about 250 years after the time of Pythagoras that someone in Egypt came up with a figure of 365 and a quarter days for the solar year. That someone was probably Eratosthenes, the head of the library of Alexandria, who had not only figured out that the earth was round but calculated its circumference within a few hundred miles of the correct figure. In any case, the then ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Euergetes 1, issued a decree, known as the “Decree of Canopus,” declaring that henceforth an extra day should be added to the Egyptian solar calendar every four years in order to keep it in line with the progression of the seasons. The day was to be celebrated as the “Festival of the Benefactor Gods,” a reference to Ptolemy himself and his family.
The Ptolemies were a Greek dynasty who became the rulers of Egypt in the wake of the conquests of Alexander of Macedon. Alexandria under their rule became the main center of mathematical and scientific knowledge in the entire Mediterranean area. However the Greeks were thin on the ground in Egypt, and the Decree of Canopus remained a dead letter so far as most Egyptians were concerned. The Ptolemies were also unsuccessful in their efforts to get the Egyptians to worship them as earthly incarnations of the god Sarapis, a god whom they had invented as a vaguely Egyptianized version of the Greek god Pluto. But in the Greek and Roman world, Alexandrian science and the religious ideas of the Ptolemies enjoyed immense prestige. The last of the Ptolemies was Cleopatra, and it was from her scientific adviser, Sosigenes, that Julius Caesar first learned that you could devise a pretty accurate 365 day solar calendar by adding an extra day every four years.
In conventional accounts of the career of Julius Caesar, he is credited with “reforming” the Roman calendar, but this achievement is not assigned all that much importance. Caesar was, among other things, Pontifex Maximus of the Roman religion, and therefore he was entitled, indeed expected, to fiddle with the calendar to keep it in line with the seasons. His new solar calendar did just that, and in some ways it was not very different from the calendar of the Roman republic. The months, at least initially, had the same names, and they were of approximately the same length, with only a day added here and there to make them add up to 365 days in the year. But although the calendar of the Roman republic may have been solar in spirit, it was not solar in form, and inasmuch as the idea for the leap year had come from Sosigenes and the Decree of Canopus, it was impossible to avoid noticing the link to the Egyptian solar calendar. What made this link significant was that the Egyptian solar calendar had always been associated with the idea of the ruler as a god. This had been true under the Pharaohs, and it was also true under the Ptolemies. For Caesar to institute a new solar calendar therefore had the inescapable implication that he aspired to the same status as the rulers of Egypt.
This brings us to the Ides of March. On the original 10 month lunar calendar of the Romans, the Ides of March would have coincided with the full moon of the first month, the month dedicated to the rites of Mars, which the aristocratic Salii were still celebrating in Caesar’s day. No better day could have been picked by Caesar’s assassins to emphasize their devotion to Roman tradition in the face of Caesar’s innovations and dictatorial ambitions. Had Brutus and Cassius won the ensuing civil war, it is very likely that they would have abrogated Caesar’s solar calendar. And conversely, Caesar’s heir, Octavian, the future Augustus Caesar, demanded not only loyalty to the new calendar but acceptance of the notion that Caesar had in fact been a god. On the eve of the outbreak of the civil war with the forces of Brutus and Cassius, he convoked the Roman Senate, which was filled with his own appointees. Ronald Syme, on page 202 of The Roman Revolution, describes what happened next:
On the first day of the new year Senate and magistrates took a solemn oath to maintain the acts of Caesar the Dictator. More than this, Caesar was enrolled among the gods of the Roman State. In the Forum a temple was to be built to the new deity, Divus Julius
“Divi filius” means “son of god.” Octavian was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who was now to be called “Divus Julius,” “Julius the god.” Needless to say, all this took place on the first day of the new year according to Caesar’s calendar.
Over the course of the next 50 years or so there followed a concerted effort to portray the reign of Augustus Caesar, the “son of god,” as the advent of a “New Age,” the “Golden Age” which everyone had been waiting for. The promulgation of the Julian calendar throughout the Roman empire was an integral part of this policy. And like the Pharaohs of old, Augustus sought to identify himself with the sun as a way of emphasizing his connection with the new solar calendar. He proclaimed the Greek god of the sun, Apollo, as his own personal god, and also sought to promote a cult of the Roman sun god, Sol, who had previously played only a very minor role in Roman religion. Gaston Halsberghe, on page 27 of The Cult Of Sol Invictus, notes that sun worship was first popularized in Rome by Augustus, “who made it the very basis of his religious policy.” But in the eyes of a majority of Romans, sun worship remained a foreign import, associated with the Greeks or the Egyptians, and therefore many of the Caesars who came after Augustus tried to find other gods with whom to identify themselves. What they needed was a popular religion of sun worship, but it took several hundred years for this to develop.
From the start, the popular celebration of Roman religion had always been centered in two months: March, the original first month, and December, which remained the last month throughout all the changes in the Roman calendar. Under the republic, the Liberalia became the big March festival, and it was followed by the Saturnalia in December. The Saturnalia began on December 17, precisely 9 months after the start of the Liberalia on March 17, and it had a similar plebeian tone. It was dedicated to the god Saturn, who was considered the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Cronos. Cronos in Greek mythology was the father of Zeus, whom Zeus overthrew in order to become king of the gods. The Roman plebeians seized upon this legend as the basis for an image of Saturn as the “Lord of the Golden Age,” the ruler of mankind in the era before the advent of Jupiter. During the Saturnalia, the spirit of the “Golden Age” was supposed to be briefly revived. People wore special costumes in place of togas; slaves were allowed to talk back; everyone wore a “pileus,” a woolen cap which was normally worn by emancipated slaves. Like the Liberalia, the Saturnalia had a riotous quality, but it was considered more serious and even aristocrats were expected to participate.
Although the literary proponents of the rule of Augustus sought to appropriate the concept of a revived “Golden Age” for their own use, the spirit of the Saturnalia was incompatible with the veiled dictatorship, military conquests and massive increase in the use of slave labor associated with the Augustan “New Age.” On page 2 of the anthology, Saturn from Antiquity to the Renaissance, edited by Massimo Ciavolella and Amilcare Iannucci, appear the following lines from a poem by the Roman writer Tibullus, which sum up the image of Saturn in Roman tradition:
How well man used to live with Saturn as king,
Before the earth was laid open for faraway campaigns.
And the poem concludes:
No armies, no rage to kill, no war existed;
Nor had the cruel smith with brutal skill yet forged a sword.
But now in the reign of Jove, slaughter and wounds are ever-present,
Untimely Death comes now by sea, by a thousand other ways.
But already under the Roman republic, there was also another religious current developing, one which was to prove far more compatible with the rule of the Caesars than either the Liberalia or the Saturnalia. This was the current associated with the “mysteries.”
The original mysteries were the mysteries of Eleusis, a small town situated not from Athens. They were based on the legend of the abduction of Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, by Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld. In order to get her daughter back, Demeter, who was the goddess of grain and vegetation, blighted the earth, leading to a compromise whereby she had Persephone for six months, during which time plants grew, and Pluto for six, during which time they did not. After Athens got control of Eleusis, a new wrinkle was added to the traditional story, according to which following her abduction Persephone had a baby, the infant Dionysos, who was born to bring peace and joy into the world. Adulation of the baby Dionysos became the central ritual at Eleusis, and this rite was supposed to be kept a secret, hence the notion that what happened at Eleusis was a “mystery.”
Some 500 years before the founding of the Roman empire, the legend of Eleusis underwent yet another permutation. The author of the new version was an Athenian named Onomacritos, the founder of what became known as the Orphic mysteries. According to this version, the father of the baby Dionysos was Zeus, not Pluto, and while still an infant, Dionysos had been killed and eaten by the evil Titans, whom Zeus then destroyed by fire, giving rise to the race of mortal men from their ashes. In order to atone for the sins of the Titans, it was necessary to partake in a ritual meal of bread and wine, symbolic of the flesh and blood of the baby Dionysos but expressing the transmutation of the primitive cannibal urge into civilized vegetarianism. Those who partook in this ritual would enjoy eternal life. These ideas formed the basis for a religious organization composed exclusively of men and claiming to live a pure, celibate life. The Orphic mysteries gradually spread from Greece to southern Italy, where they enjoyed considerable popularity. But although the central figures in the Roman Liberalia resembled Demeter, Persephone and Dionysos, there is no indication that the Liberalia had an Orphic component. Orphism was more of a middle class religion, and there was a persistent rumor that many of its initiates had a homosexual orientation.
Taken together, the mysteries of Eleusis and the Orphic mysteries came to constitute a kind of template for the mystery religions which swept the Roman world under the late republic and the empire. In Italy the themes of the Orphic mysteries were further popularized in a less elitist form by the Bacchic mysteries, Bacchus being the Roman name for Dionysos. In Egypt the Ptolemaic cult of Sarapis was associated with the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, which then spread from Egypt to Italy and Rome itself. And starting under the reign of the Roman Caesar Claudius about 50 years after the time of Augustus, the public celebration of the Phrygian mysteries was introduced into Rome with the intent of supplanting the Liberalia as the big March festival. It entailed the commemoration, on March 24 and 25, of the death and resurrection of Attis.
According to legend, Attis was a young man, the lover of the goddess Cybele, who was unfaithful to her. By way of punishment, she drove him insane, causing him to castrate himself and die. On March 24, the “Day of Blood”, the priests of the Phrygian mysteries marched in procession in Rome, flagellating themselves for the sins of Attis. They carried a pine tree, symbol of the dead Attis. But the next day, Attis was resurrected in a ceremony enacted in the “Phrygianum”, a temple devoted to the worship of Cybele. The main feature of the ceremony, notes Maarten Vermaseren on page 118 of Cybele and Attis, was a ritual meal, probably of bread and wine, which was said to confer immortality on the initiates. Vermaseren also points out, on page 46, that the Vatican was later built on the site of the Phrygianum.
The later mystery religions had certain themes in common which were ultimately derived from Eleusinian and Orphic tradition. Their central figures were goddesses, such as Isis or Cybele, whose worship was associated with the death and rebirth of an unfortunate young man, such as Osiris (who was torn apart in the Ptolemaic version of Egyptian mythology) or Attis. Initiates into the mysteries could attain eternal life by partaking in a ritual meal of bread and wine, symbolic of the flesh and blood of the resurrected young man. These religions presented themselves as an alternative to the worship of Jupiter or Caesar, but not a hostile alternative like the Liberalia or Saturnalia. The Golden Age was not to be had on earth but only in heaven in the form of individual immortality. These beliefs were entirely compatible with the rule of the Caesars and were actively promoted by many of them. It was therefore only natural that the Caesars should eventually come up with a mystery religion of their own, a mystery religion which was centered around the birth of the sun on December 25, exactly nine months after the resurrection of Attis on March 25.
The mystery religion of the Caesars was called Mithraism. Mithraism was a mystery religion in the same sense as the others in that it entailed a ritual meal of bread and wine which was said to confer immortality on the initiates. But the spirit of Mithraism was quite different from that of the other mystery religions. Mithra originated as the Persian god of the sun. Starting perhaps about 200 years after the time of Augustus, he was then taken over by the Romans, identified with the figure of Sol Invictus, “the invincible sun,” and depicted as a mighty warrior. He was said to be born on December 25, the alleged date of the winter solstice, with only one purpose in mind, to kill a huge bull, the first animal ever created, from whose body all good things would flow. Franz Cumont, on page 136 of The Mysteries of Mithra, puts it this way:
Then came an extraordinary prodigy to pass. From the body of the moribund victim sprang all the useful herbs and plants that cover the earth with their verdure. From the spinal cord of the animal sprang the wheat that gives us our bread, and from its blood the vine that produces the sacred drink of the Mysteries.
This legend in turn provided the rationale for the Mithraic ritual meal of bread and wine. Maarten Vermaseren, on page 47 of Mithriaca I, brings out the connection as follows:
Many Mithraic monuments spread over the Roman Empire are worked on two sides, the obverse representing the bull-slaying and the reverse showing the sacred meal. These two scenes are intimately connected – the meal is only possible after the miraculous slaughter of the bull.
Killing the bull – an animal who was traditionally associated with Dionysos – also had the implication of a repudiation of sexual desire, and Mithraic initiates were expected to remain celibate.
Mithraism found its main base of support in the Roman army, and in conjunction with the cult of Sol Invictus, it became something like the official religion of the Roman empire during the period leading up to the conversion of the Roman Caesar Constantine to Christianity. Under Diocletian, Constantine’s predecessor as Caesar, huge torchlit processions were held every December 25 in honor of Mithra. In Roman iconography, Mithra was invariably represented wearing a “Phrygian cap”, a red cap which closely resembled the “pileus”, the cap which Romans had been expected to wear during the Saturnalia and which was originally worn by liberated slaves. The Mithraic message was clear: freedom and immortality were to be attained through mastery of war. This was the direct opposite of the message of the other mystery religions, but Mithraism nonetheless closely resembled them in its negative attitude towards male sexuality and obsession with the flesh and blood of Dionysos, the divine figure lurking behind the Mithraic bull and all the dying and reborn gods of the mystery religions.
Just where did this obsession come from? Prior to the introduction of the baby Dionysos at Eleusis, the rites of Dionysos were often associated with women called “maenads”, who were said to go off into the hills, kill a goat or bull, symbolic of Dionysos, and eat its raw flesh. And since Dionysos was originally viewed as a god of sex, it is apparent that a negative attitude towards male sexuality was a key factor in motivating the activities of the maenads. Perhaps fear of pregnancy played a role here, and also resentment of male sexual aggression as symbolized by Pluto’s rape of Persephone in the original legend of Eleusis. But there is no indication that eating Dionysos in the form of a goat or bull was associated in the minds of the maenads with achieving immortality. The promise of immortality was a kind of cover story introduced into the Eleusinian tradition by the Orphics in order to soften and rationalize the hostility to male sexuality that was at the heart of it. By the same token, eating Dionysos in the form of bread and wine had a much less aggresive image than eating raw flesh, and so it was that the Orphic ritual meal of bread and wine went on to become the characteristic rite of mystery religions that appealed to a broad spectrum of Greco-Roman society.
However, although there exists an extensive scholarly literature on the subject of the mystery religions, there is one feature of all of them that is hardly ever mentioned, and that is that nobody ate a god of their own nationality. Although Dionysos is generally pictured as a Greek god, the Greeks themselves viewed him as either Thracian or Phrygian, the confusion probably being due to the fact that the Phrygians were of Thracian origin. Likewise, the Romans never ate Liber, their own sex god, in effigy, but only Bacchus, their name for Dionysos and a name which was derived from Greek. In the Egyptian mysteries patronized by the Ptolemies, Osiris was eaten in effigy, but not by the Egyptians themselves, only by the Greeks and Romans. Attis too was eaten in effigy by the Romans but not by the Phrygians, from whose culture the legend of Cybele and Attis was derived. The obvious explanation for the reluctance of the Greeks and Romans to eat a god of their own nationality is that eating someone’s flesh and blood, in however sedate, symbolic and spiritual a form, is nonetheless an aggressive act, one which they evidently felt more comfortable visiting on others rather than on themselves.
It would seem that the mystery religions represented a convergence and synthesis of two distinct trends in Greco-Roman culture. On the one hand they were clearly a form of veiled protest against Greco-Roman militarism. The more militarist Greco-Roman society became, the greater the popularity of the mystery religions, which reached their peak under the rule of the Caesars. Yet at the same time, the mystery religions also represented a way of cannibalizing, in a somewhat literal sense, prestigious foreign cultures and assimilating them to the Greco-Roman way of life. The Egyptians and the Phrygians in particular were both viewed by the Greeks and Romans as bearers of ancient cultural traditions who were nonetheless no match for the Greco-Romans in the military arena and therefore treated with a mixture of respect and contempt perfectly symbolized in the rite of eating them in effigy. On the other hand, the Greco-Romans were never able to achieve a lasting conquest of the Persians, and therefore Mithra got to kill rather than be killed in Roman mythology. Only victim peoples were assigned victim gods, which brings us to the Jewish mysteries, also known as Christianity.
The historiography of the ancient world is seriously distorted by an all pervasive need to ignore, deny or minimize the fact that the Romans and their Greek allies murdered some 2 million Jews during the period of roughly 150 years following the establishment of the Roman empire. According to the figures given by Josephus in his account of the First Jewish War, the Romans killed a total of 1,356,460 Jews during the course of the war. The Roman historian Dio Cassius stated that the Romans killed 580,000 Jews during the Second Jewish War. Many hundreds of thousands of Jews were also killed by the Romans during the “Diaspora Revolt” of the Jewish communities in the eastern Mediterranean area who rose in protest against the massacre of Jews in Iraq carried out by the forces of the Roman Caesar Trajan. Egypt is thought to have been the home of some 1 million Jews at the start of this period, yet hardly any remained by the end of it. The large Jewish community in Syria was also totally wiped out, and that in Anatolia greatly reduced. The Jewish population of the land of Israel declined from perhaps 2 or 3 million to approximately 750,000. So even if the figures given by Josephus and Dio Cassius were somewhat exaggerated as many historians maintain, a figure of at least 2 million Jews killed by the Romans during the era of the Jewish Wars is still indicated by the evidence.
There are two main reasons why the Holocaust visited on the Jewish people by the Romans some 2000 years ago is so invisible in the historical literature. In the first place it puts the origins of Christianity in a whole new light. Christianity arose at the same time and in the same area where the massacres took place. It took one Jew out of the millions who had been massacred and made him the dying and reborn god of a mystery religion just like all the others, a mystery religion which promised eternal life to all who would eat of the symbolic flesh and drink of the symbolic blood of the dead Jew. Viewed in this light, Christianity appears less as a reflection of the wonderful message of Jesus and more as a result of the efforts of the survivors of the massacres to assimilate to Greco-Roman society. And in the second place, noticing the mass murders also has the effect of raising the question, just why did the Romans try to eradicate the Jewish people in such a brutal fashion? This question leads in turn to an examination of Jewish influence on the Greco-Roman world, which turns out to be far more extensive than is generally recognized.
According to the census of the population of the Roman empire conducted during the reign of the Caesar Claudius several decades before the outbreak of the First Jewish War, there were 6,944,000 Jews then living under Roman rule, which meant that Jews formed approximately 10% of the population of the Roman empire. And since there were very few Jews living in the western portion of the empire at that time, the Jewish population in the eastern Mediterranean region was probably closer to 20% of the total population of that area. Moreover, outside of the land of Israel, most Jews in the eastern Mediterranean region then lived in large Greek speaking cities like Alexandria, Antioch and Sardis, where they formed a minority which may have been even larger than 20% of the total. This minority had its own laws, which conflicted with Roman law on a number of key points. Jewish law frowned on slavery and mandated hospitality to runaway slaves (Deuteronomy, Chapter 23, Verse 16), whereas Roman law provided the death penalty for flight from slavery. Jewish law banned the worship of idols, whereas the Romans expected their subjects to worship statues of the Caesars as gods. Jewish law required Jews everywhere to contribute to the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem, making the Jews appear to the Romans as a state within a state, one which stood in blatant contradiction to the ideology of the Caesars. Moreover, Jewish beliefs and customs inevitably began to spread from this state within a state to the non-Jewish population, and of these beliefs and customs, none proved more popular than the legally mandated custom of abstaining from work every seventh day.
Historians have found it impossible to deny that the idea of resting on the seventh day originated with the Jews, but they have been extremely reluctant to accept the obvious corollary, namely that the Jews also popularized the concept of the week. To the contrary, insofar as they even raise the question of the origins of the week in Greco-Roman culture, their normal tendency is to present it as Babylonian in origin. According to the standard account, the ancient Babylonian astronomers believed that there were seven “planets”, namely Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, plus the sun and moon. This belief became the basis for an astrological cult according to which human destiny was ruled by the movements of the seven planets, which were actually divine entities. The practitioners of this cult, who became known as “Chaldeans”, eventually introduced it to the Greco-Roman world, where it became the basis for the concept of the week. Proof that the Greco-Romans got their concept of the week from the Chaldeans and not the Jews is seen in the fact that they identified the days of the week with various divinities rather than simply numbering them as the Jews did.
However, there are several problems with this view. In the first place there is no evidence that either the Babylonians or the Chaldeans linked the idea of the seven planets to the concept of the week or themselves followed a seven day weekly cycle. And in the second place, there is conclusive evidence that the Greco-Roman concept of the week did not originate with the Chaldeans. In the Chaldean system, the planets were listed in order of decrease in the length of time it took for them to complete one full orbit in the sky: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon. But the Greco-Roman days of the week follow a different order, and this point was commented on by the Greco-Romans themselves. As Eviatar Zerubavel brings out on page 15 of The Seven Day Circle, the Greek writer Plutarch wrote a treatise, now lost, entitled: “Why Are The Days Named After The Planets Reckoned in a Different Order from the Actual Order?” By “Actual Order,” Plutarch meant the Chaldean order. Plutarch wrote his treatise about 100 years after the time of Augustus; its title shows that the concept of the seven day week had taken hold in Greco-Roman society by that time and that it was linked in Plutarch’s mind to the Chaldean planetary system but was seen as different from it.
Credit for figuring out the answer to Plutarch’s question should go to the great classical scholar Franz Cumont, author of Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans, first published in 1912. Working with original, unpublished manuscripts known as “Hermetic” literature, Cumont linked the origins of the planetary week to a specific astrological doctrine. This was the notion that every single hour of every single day was “ruled” in turn by one of the seven planets, which were listed for this purpose in the conventional Chaldean order. Starting with Saturn as the “ruler” of the first hour of the first day, this means that the “ruler” of the first hour of the second day will be the Sun. If the sequence is extended for seven days, the “rulers” of the first hour of each day will appear in the same sequence as the order of the days in the Greco-Roman planetary week: Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus.
Who wrote these “Hermetic” manuscripts? They were the work of Greek philosophers and mystics living in Alexandria during the period of Greek and Roman rule in Egypt. These writers proclaimed themselves the followers of “Hermes Trismegistus,” “Thrice-greatest Hermes,” a mythical figure combining features of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. They surrounded their activities with an aura of secrecy, an aura reflected in the connotations of the word “hermetic,” meaning tightly sealed and therefore closed or hidden. And in fact, although these secretive mystics are known to have invented a version of the week which has now swept almost the entire world, their motives for doing so have remained a sealed book unto this day.
One thing is for sure: they were familiar with the Jewish concept of the week. Alexandria was the home of the largest Jewish community in the ancient world outside the land of Israel. That community produced an extensive Greek language literature directed in part towards familiarizing a non-Jewish Greek language audience with basic Jewish beliefs and concepts. As if in response to this literature, the Hermetic astrologers created an alternative to the Jewish concept of the week, one which was at odds with the Jewish concept in a number of ways. Their planetary week did not have a day of rest, and it asserted that human destiny was ruled by pagan divinities rather than the Jewish God. Moreover it contained an inherent tendency to exalt one day of the week over all the others, but this day was not the Jewish Sabbath but rather Sunday. Of all the seven planets, the sun is the only one which really does have a clear, obvious and significant effect upon human life. Originating in a country which had practiced sun worship for thousands of years, and created in a milieu not far removed from that which had supplied Julius Caesar with the basis for his solar calendar in the form of the concept of a leap year, the Hermetic concept of the week was a natural fit for the growing tendency of the Caesars to identify themselves with the sun and promote sun worship as the official religion of their empire.
A key question in this context is: just how did it happen that the Jewish Sabbath came to be equated with the Hermetic Saturday? In the Hermetic system, Saturday was the first day, whereas the Sabbath was of course the last day in the Jewish system. It would seem that the main reason for identifying the two was the perception of a certain similarity between Judaism and the Saturnalia. In particular, both Judaism and the Saturnalia were associated with a negative attitude towards the institution of slavery, which was the foundation on which the empire of the Caesars was built. But just as the Caesars sought to replace the Saturnalia with the celebration of the “birthday of the sun” on December 25 as the big December festival, so too did the Hermetic astrologers lay the basis for the replacement of the Jewish Sabbath with Sunday as the high point of the week. This change took place in conjunction with the elimination of the Jews themselves, whose community in Alexandria was devastated during the same period that the Hermetic concept of a planetary week took hold.
By the time of the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, the basic elements of the modern “civil calendar” were already in place. These included:
(1) The notion that the reign of Augustus marked the start of a new era, a “Golden Age” fundamentally different from everything that had gone before. This notion provided the basis for the subsequent Christian practice of dividing all time into Before and After the birth of Christ, which had taken place during the reign of Augustus.
(2) The notion that the birth of the new era took place on December 25, the birthday of the sun god with whom the Caesars identified themselves, which provided the basis for the subsequent Christian claim that Christ was born on this day.
(3) The notion that Sunday was a special day, more important than any of the other days of the week, which provided the basis for the subsequent Christian claim that Christ rose from the dead on a Sunday, which should therefore be the day on which Christians should gather to pretend to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Through force and violence, first the Greco-Romans and then the Europeans have imposed this calendar system upon the greater part of the modern world. I leave it to the reader to decide whether the so-called “civil calendar” is really an appropriate basis for measuring time in a peaceful, united world.
To comment on this article, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish interesting and informative articles such as this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Robert Wolfe, please click here.