Originally written on April 19, 2019 – updated 2023
The Cerealia was one of the most important festivals in Rome. It was held for seven days from mid- to late April, but the dates are uncertain, possibly the 12th-18th, with the actual festival day on the 19th.
This was the main festival for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain and the harvest, associated with bread and farming, as well as being the goddess of fertility, motherhood and women.
Fields and crops were sacred to her.
Ceres was also one of the patron deities of the common people (the plebeians) of Rome and she was worshipped in a temple which was dedicated to her cult of Ceres, already in 490 BC.
Everything during the Cerealia was centered on the mystical transformation from wheat, to flour and finally to bread, and the moment in which Ceres had taught humanity bread-making was ritualized.
Its archaic nature is indicated by a nighttime ritual described by Ovid. Blazing torches were tied to the tails of live foxes, who were released into the Circus Maximus.
The origin and purpose of this ritual is unknown, but it may have been intended to cleanse the growing crops and protect them from disease and vermin, or to add warmth and vitality to their growth.
According to Ovid, long ago, at ancient Carleoli, a farm-boy caught a fox stealing chickens and tried to burn it alive. The fox escaped, ablaze and, in its flight, it set the fields and their crops, which were sacred to Ceres, on fire. Ever since, foxes are punished at her festival.
TThe festival of Cerealia included the Ludi Ceriales (‘games of Ceres’) which were Ludi Circenses (circus games). The Ludi were held in the great chariot-racing arena of the Circus Maximus in Rome on the 19th April. The Circus Maximus was near the Temple of Ceres which stood on the Aventine Hill and the starting-gates were, apparently, just below the temple.
According to Ovid, the Ludi included an element in which women, dressed in white and carrying burning torches, ran about in the arena, symbolizing Ceres’ search for her lost daughter Prosperpina.
In Roman mythology, Prosperpina was abducted by the god Pluto and taken to the Underworld, where Ceres found her: however, it was decreed that Prosperpina would live in the Underworld for six months of the year and in the upper world for the other six months, so Ceres imposed autumn and winter on the earth during her daughter’s seasons of absence.
Ceres is sometimes represented as riding in a chariot drawn by two snakes while holding a torch in her right hand or, when leaving the Underworld, in a chariot drawn by four horses (a quadriga, a racing-chariot) – however, the Ludi Circenses of the Cerealia seem to have consisted of horse races, with no chariot races. After around 175 BC, the Cerealia included Ludi Scaenici (theatrical performances), which were held on the 12th-18th April.
The Cerealia festival, albeit in a profoundly different form, is still held today, in a sort of modern re-enactment with a very important festival in the heart of Rome.
The theme is food and society that, thanks to the organizers of the event, becomes a moment of encounter and comparison between locals and international guests.
Images from web – Google Research