Autumn – or fall – this year officially begins on 23 September which by coincidence is also the birthday of the Roman Empire’s first emperor, Augustus (23 September 63 BC – 19 August 14 AD), who succeeded Julius Caesar after his assassination, governing as emperor from 27 BC.
In Ancient Rome, it was actually more likely citizens would be interested in what Augustus’ horoscope had to say than the science behind the autumn equinox, because Romans were mad about astrology and less so about astronomy. It was thought that a child born on the day of the autumn equinox – usually taken to be 26 September – would be destined for greatness, as baby Octavian turned out to be when named as Caesar’s successor.
The changing of the seasons, of course, spelt change in daily Roman lives – Rome had begun as a rural settlement, with people living off the land. But the Roman calendar did not quite coincide with the solar calendar, as in other ancient civilisations – the spring equinox was around 10 days out. But the start of autumn marked a period of thanksgiving in Rome and gratitude for the harvest.
An equinox occurs when the length of day and night are equal. The autumn equinox was the next to follow the summer equinox – the summer solstice.
Many ancient civilisations marked the change of seasons with rituals giving thanks for the abundance of the previous season. The Ancient Greeks, for example, believed the autumn equinox marked the return of Persephone, goddess of the Underworld who was kidnapped by Pluto (Hades). During spring and summer, Persephone was with her mother, Demeter – who presided over fertility and abundant harvests. Demeter had demanded that Hades return her kidnapped daughter to her, but he married her and fed her pomegranate seeds to ensure she returned to him – the Ancient Greeks believed that captives who accepted food from their captors became bound to them. So every autumn and winter, Persephone returned to Hades, leaving her mother distraught and neglectful of her duties keeping the land fertile and crops abundant, hence autumn and winter.
In Roman mythology, Demeter is Ceres, goddess of abundance and the harvest, but she is celebrated in the spring in Roman history.
The Ancient Romans marked the autumn equinox through the Roman goddess Autumnus – after whom autumn is named. Autumnus was goddess of the harvest and also symbolised the fertility of summer when crops grew. She especially represented fruit and nuts and was represented by falling leaves. Some also believe that Autumnus could be depicted as either male or female.
Getting ready for winter in Ancient Rome
Autumn for the Ancient Romans was a time of planning for winter – the harvest would be gathered in and stored and Romans would prepare for the winter months when agricultural life in Rome more or less ground to a halt. The weather became cooler and there was rain. Woollen winter togas would be taken out and the nights were generally cold. In the years 398 BC, 396 BC, 271 BC and 177 BC, the River Tiber actually froze over during winter.
In September, there was a whole range of public events to occupy Romans, however – including ceremonies to Jupiter and Juno to kick off the month, followed by the Ludi Romani from 5-19 September, the oldest of the ludi, a set of public events and games. From 20-23 September, there would be street markets and fairs. On 23 September, there would also be a ceremony marking the rededication of the Temple of Apollo situated in the Campus Martius and a celebration called Latona to pay tribute to Leto, the mother of Apollo, god of music.
On 26 September, there was a celebration to mark the dedication of a temple to Venus Genetrix by Julius Caesar in the Forum. Julius Caesar claimed to trace his ancestry back to Venus through the Trojan prince Aeneas, the mythological founder of Rome in Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid. It was Caesar’s attempt to try and align his heritage with a goddess – and infer that he was a demi-god himself – that eventually led to his murder. However, the temple he established to Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother) was marked by the Romans on or near the autumn equinox.
October also saw a full calendar of events and games – the Ancient Romans enjoyed social and community events, although – unlike modern westerners – being seen drunk in the street was frowned upon in Roman society! There would generally be feasting and games, including chariot racing. The Romans also celebrated with theatrical performances, often in the streets. The changing seasons in Ancient Rome were also a marker of family life – most festivals were family- and community-based – and even slaves participated.
Yay! Rome here we come!
Autumn is an excellent time to visit Rome today – the days can still be 25C in late October and if you avoid school holidays, the main sites are much quieter. It will be cold at night however – and even rainy. The cafes and restaurants are usually quiet and the shops often have pre-Christmas bargains – and lots of lovely winter boots! It is my favourite time to visit, as well as the spring – and if you want to welcome in autumn and bid farewell to summer, there is still time to book a weekend and get the autumn equinox rolling!
You can find out about the astrological coordinates for the city of Rome itself at www.astrologicalworldmap.com, which really would have got Ancient Romans excited!