ancilae salii and archaic roman religion
- In this post I will identify similarities in characteristic and
apparent function betweem the Roman Salii, and the Curetes of
Greece/Anatolia. One of the most striking of these is the use of the
ancilae, a figure-eight shaped shield used primarily in bronze age
The similarities are strong enough to warrant a question: In what
manner are the Salii and Curetes related? By what means did the
Romans develop a ceremonial group with such an overlap with the
The Curetes were known mythologically as the atttendants of Rhea and
protectors of the infant Zeus. They protected Zeus by drowning out
his cries so that he would not be found by Kronos. They accomplished
this by ritual dancing, singing hymns, playing flutes and clashing
their spears or staves against their sacred shields, or ancilae. They
were also a historical priesthood with associated with both Rhea and
the infant Zeus.
The Salii also carried the ancilae,or figure eight-shaped shield, and
similarly beat their swords or spears against them while dancing,
playing flutes and singing the hymn "Carmen Saliare". This song was
in Latin that was considered archaic in Republican times. The Salii
were especially associated with Mars and the time of his birth on
March 1, also the date of the old Roman new year. The Salii were
considered a priesthood, and only patricians could participate.
There was an obscure myth about the ancilae invoving King Numa
and a shadowy figure called Mamurius, who is thought to be a form of
Mars or a blacksmith involved in the production of the shields. The
myth is unclear, but Mamurius apparently constructed 11 ancilae
imitating an original shield that fell from heaven, and the real and
fake shields became confused. There was some ceremony involving the
flagellation of Mamurius with hide-strips
Ceremonial/decorative ancilae were discovered on Minoan Crete in
Final Palatical times, associated with the Mycenaean-style warrior
graves, as well as being found on mainland Myceneaen Greece. It may
be worth noting that in Final Palatial Crete there is the first
definite evidence for trade with Italy.
Both the Salii and Curetes were thus forms of priesthoods/religious
functionaries that carried the ancilae, and beat them with staves or
spears while singing and dancing. Both were also associated with the
birth of an important god. Going along with theories put forth by
Jane Ellen Harrison, the baby-god figure is to be associated with
the "year baby" associated with spring. Dumezil thought that the use
of ancilae bt the Romans was quite ancient, but that the myths
connecting them to King Numa were probably later additions.
Unless we discard these similarities as some fantastic coincidence,
that leaves a few possibilities.
1.The ancilae and associated ceremony were diffused via Magna Graecia
or Etruria in archaic/classical times.
2. They were transmitted earlier in late bronze age times due to
3. They were part of a widespread religious phenomenon practiced by
both Mycenaean Greeks and Italic tribes whose origin must be sought
in deep pre-historical times.
Happy New Year