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Salii: the jumping priests of Rome

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Originally written on March 9, 2020 – updated 2023

In ancient Roman religion, the Salii were the “leaping priests” (from the verb saliō “leap, jump”) of Mars supposed to have been introduced by King Numa Pompilius. They were twelve young patrician, dressed as archaic warriors: an embroidered tunic, a breastplate, a short red cloak called paludamentum, a sword, and a spiked headdress called apex.
They were charged with the twelve oblong bronze shields with two recesses on the sides, called Ancilia.
Among them, there was the authentic shield that Mars dropped from the sky as a gift to king Numa Pompilius.
The nymph Egeria, Numa’s lover and advisor, revealed that whoever possessed the Mars shield would become extremely powerful.
To prevent the shield from falling into the wrong hands, Numa called the skilled blacksmith Mamurio Veturio and asked him to make eleven copies, to hide the original among them.
The blacksmith was so good that his reproductions became indistinguishable from the original, so the authentic Ancilia was no longer recognizable.
Each year in March, the Salii made a procession round the city, dancing and singing. It is unclear whether the primary aim of the ritual was to protect Rome’s army, although this is the traditional view.
The Salii are sometimes credited with the opening and closing of the war cycle which would last from March to October.
Their warfare dances, accompanied by clangors of arms, jumps, and battle cries, led the sacred Ancilia through the streets. Apparently, those who left for military ventures before this date suffered humbling defeats.

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