Tag Archives: history

Origins of April Fools Day

Posted on 01. Apr, 2014 by in Latin Language, Roman culture

April Fool’s Day comes around each year and with it jokes, hoaxes, and elaborate “breaking” news articles. These “jokes”  spam our email, social media outlets, and lives from the moment we wake till the end of our day. At times, they can be humorous or playful (like Google’s Pokémon Challenge; here), they can be misleading (Boudicca’s grave, Robin Hood’s bones; here), or even cruel (death and alarming hoaxes; here).

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April Fool’s Day is the one day of the year where boundaries of societal norms can be transgress; whether it be a ridiculous news article or the elaborate hoaxes. These jokes which would not normally be “accepted” on any other day; however, on April Fool’s Day they are received with open arms and laughing spirits. The first day of April allows all people no matter how popular or unpopular, wealthy or poor, young or old( and so on) a chance to create jokes, pranks, and hoaxes to surprise, scare, or even trick their neighbors and friends.


The history of April Fool’s Day from antiquity to today has changed quite drastically. However, this notion of transgressing boundaries permeates through all the holiday’s transformations and alterations. From the transgressions of male and female, divine and mortal, life and death, low class and high class, religious piety and impiety, and so on are seen within this history’s formation and evolution. How society and people choose to step beyond these boundaries or straddle between them. It is an interesting holiday that is worthy of investigation.

So what boundaries will you cross today?


April Fool’s Day and Feast of Fools

It is thought that April Fool’s Day is the result of the Ancient Roman festival Hilaria and the Medieval festival known as the Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools, also known as festum fatuorum,( feast of fools) festum stultorum (feast of the silly or simple), was celebrated during the months of December or January. The Medieval festival,  Feast of Fools, finds its roots within the Roman festival known as Saturnalia. You can learn more about the Saturnalia here. So like the Saturnalia, the Feast of Fool sought to overturn the societal norms of status and class.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel.

Feast of Fools and the Church

In the festival, young people would chose to play a mock pope, archbishop, bishop, or abbot to reign as Lord of Misrule.  Participants of the festival would then “consecrate” him with many ridiculous ceremonies in the nearest main church, giving names such as Archbishop of Dolts, Abbot of Unreason, or Pope of Fools.  This consecration ceremony often mocked the performance of the highest offices of the church. While other participants dressed a sundry of masks and disguises, engaged in songs and dances and practiced all manner of revelry within the church building. The Feast of Fools was eventually discontinued and forbidden 1431 for its blasphemous manner.

 April Fool’s Day and Hilaria

The ancient festival known as Hilaria (Latin for cheerful, merry, joyful) was celebrated on the vernal (spring) equinox in honor of the goddess Cybele. The goddess Cybele has a long and extended history from Anatolia to Rome.

Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia and Mural crown. Roman marble, c. 50 CE. Getty Museum

Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia and Mural crown. Roman marble, c. 50 CE. Getty Museum

The Romans celebrated Hilaria, as a feria stativa (a set free day [i.e no work]), on March 25 in honor of Cybele, the mother of the gods. The days of the festival were devoted to general rejoicings and public sacrifices (hence its name), and no one was allowed to show any symptoms of grief or sorrow( unless it was the “Day of Mourning”).

According to the historian Herodian, there was a procession and a statue of the goddess was carried. Before this statue, the most costly works of art belonging either to wealthy Romans or to the emperors themselves proceeded. All kinds of games and amusements were allowed on this day; masquerades were the most prominent among them, and everyone might, in his disguise, imitate whomsoever he liked, and even magistrates.

The Myth of Cybele and Attis

The myth of Cybele and Attis is one of tragic love. It is also a story of self-mutilation and regeneration, which is reflected in the Hilaria festival’s schedule and activities.

Cybele and Attis (seated right, with Phrygian cap and shepherd's crook) in a chariot drawn by four lions, surrounded by dancing Corybantes.

Cybele and Attis (seated right, with Phrygian cap and shepherd’s crook) in a chariot drawn by four lions, surrounded by dancing Corybantes.

Cybele rejected Zeus’ advances; he would not take her answer of “No.” On night as Cybele slept, Zeus spilled his seed on her. Eventually, Cybele gave birth to Agdistis, a hermaphroditic deity so strong and wild that the other gods feared him. In their terror they cut off his male sexual organ and from this blood sprang an almond tree.

The river Sangarius’ daughter named Nana ate the fruit of the almond tree. As a result of this snack, Nana delivered a boy child 9 months later. Nana decided to expose the child; much like Oedipus. But the infant’s death was not fated. Instead, reared by shepherds, the boy soon became healthy and handsome. He, in fact, became so handsome that his grandmother, Cybele, fell in love with him.

The boy, named Attis, was unaware of the love Cybele bore him. But since she was a goddess, Attis dare not refuse her. In time, Attis fell in love with another. It was the daughter of the king of  Pessinus, and he wished to marry her. The goddess Cybele became insanely jealous and drove Attis mad for revenge. Running crazily throughout the mountains, Attis finally stopped at the foot of a pine tree (hence why the tree is used in the festival). There Attis castrated and killed himself; and from Attis’ blood sprang the first violets. The tree took care of Attis’ spirit, but Attis’ flesh was a different story. Cybele unable to save him called out to Zeus for help. Attis’ body would have decayed had not Zeus stepped in to assist Cybele in the resurrection of Attis.

Schedule of the Festival of Hilaria

The activities of Hilaria were ones of both celebration, death, mourning, rebirth and celebration. This is due to the fact that the spring equinox was the first day of the year in which the length of night and day were equal. It was by this marker that a “New Year” was set and in which the winter was official gone and the rebirth of the year occurred. This is why Hilaria is considered a Death and Rebirth festival and coincides with the goddess Cybele and Attis.

The Full Festival’s Schedule (courtesy of Wikipedia)

  • March 15 (Ides): Canna intrat (“The Reed Enters”), marking the birth of Attis and his exposure in the reeds along the Phrygian river Sangarius where he was discovered—depending on the version—by either shepherds or Cybele herself.The reed was gathered and carried by the cannophores (“Reed-bearers”).
  • March 22: Arbor intrat (“The Tree Enters”), commemorating the death of Attis under a pine tree. The dendrophores (“tree bearers”) cut down a tree,suspended from it an image of Attis, and carried it to the temple with lamentations.  A three-day period of mourning followed.
  • March 23: On the Tubilustrium, an archaic holiday to Mars (Greek Ares), the pine tree was laid to rest at the temple of the Magna Mater (or Cybele), with the traditional beating of the shields by Mars’ priests the Salii and the lustration of the trumpets perhaps assimilated to the noisy music of the Corybantes.
  • March 24: Sanguem or Dies Sanguinis (“Day of Blood”), a frenzy of mourning when the devotees whipped themselves to sprinkle the altars and effigy of Attis with their own blood; some performed the self-castrations of the Galli. The “sacred night” followed, with Attis placed in his ritual tomb.
  • March 25 (the spring equinox on the Roman calendar): Hilaria (“Rejoicing”), when Attis was reborn.
  • March 26: Requietio (“Day of Rest”).
  • March 27: Lavatio (“Washing”), noted by the poet Ovid and probably an innovation under Augustus,when Cybele’s sacred stone was taken in procession from the Palatine temple to the Porta Capena and down the Appian Way to the stream called Almo, a tribute to the Tiber River. There the stone and sacred iron implements were bathed “in the Phrygian manner” by a red-robed priest. The return trip was made by torchlight, with much rejoicing.
  • March 28: Initium Caiani, sometimes interpreted as initiations into the mysteries of the Magna Mater and Attis at the Gaianum, near the Phrygianum sanctuary at the Vatican Hill.


Well, thanks for reading! I hope it was worth your time and you learned something new. Now, I am wishing you all a safe and happy April Fool’s Day!

Ovid’s Heroides: The Original Fan Fiction

Posted on 05. Mar, 2014 by in Latin Language, Roman culture

Within antiquity there are several mythological love stories that touch our hearts, souls, and mind. When attempting to provide an example of “true love,” people generally name couples like Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Helen and Paris, and so on. These couples which are often tragic and short lived romances.

As enthusiasts for Latin, we most often share an appreciation for the world of the Romans and their mythology. Within Roman (and indirectly Greek) mythology, there are couples that perhaps we wished would have had more time or that things would have turned out differently if fate had permitted. Here are a few of my favorites:

Dido and Aeneas

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Phaedra and Hippolytus

Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel

Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel

Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)

Sappho and Phaon (one of the only historic references)

Sappho and Phaon. 1809 Jacques-Louis David

Sappho and Phaon. 1809
Jacques-Louis David

While most of us know the sadness behindthese couple, we often wish we could rewrite the mythology and find a more suitable ending. Perhaps Dido does not kill herself after Aeneas leaves? Perhaps Medea could have played hard to get so Jason would appreciate her more? Or Phaon could never leave Sappho? Better yet, Helen and Paris should have run away and lived in exile? Or how about Penelope moving on immediately since Odysseus obvious had several affairs (Circe and Calypso)?

Ovid, Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari  commemorating Ovid's exile in Tomis

Ovid, Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari
commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis

Ovid, in my opinion, is first author to truly take the time to write his version of a “fan fiction.” A fan fiction is when a “fan” of a show, book, or series takes the time to write an alternative ending or even a sequel to the already established lore. (For other authors who wrote fan fiction; check out this article.) Ovid composes the works known as the Heroides in order to breathe new life into these Heroines and give the much needed character work to these mythical women who have been frozen in time. [ This character work is lacking for the modern woman, but for its cotemporary audience it would have been for these heroines to have the last word with their lovers.]


The Heroides are essentially letters addressed from the heroine to her lover, who has often mistreated, neglected, or even abandoned her. Ovid chooses the genre of the epistles for these women to express themselves. While this choice has been questioned by various scholars (one such argument is presented: here), it is difficult to see how else Ovid could have approached this work in order to give his heroines a voice, but not over-step bounds and write an entire fictitious mythology.   The following is a summation of the Heroides by Penguin Classics:

In the twenty-one poems of the Heroides, Ovid gave voice to the heroines and heroes of epic and myth. These deeply moving literary epistles reveal the happiness and torment of love, as the writers tell of their pain at separation, forgiveness of infidelity or anger at betrayal. The faithful Penelope wonders at the suspiciously long absence of Ulysses, while Dido bitterly reproaches Aeneas for too eagerly leaving her bed to follow his destiny, and Sappho – the only historical figure portrayed here – describes her passion for the cruelly rejecting Phaon. In the poetic letters between Paris and Helen the lovers seem oblivious to the tragedy prophesied for them, while in another exchange the youthful Leander asserts his foolhardy eagerness to risk his life to be with his beloved Hero.

While, Ovid is a male author assuming the female voice of mythological characters and attempting to transgress the boundaries of gender language, diction, and characteristics (all through meter). He is still capable of invoking such emotion that anyone who has experience heartbreak knows:

Death of Dido, by Guercino, AD 1631.

Death of Dido, by Guercino, AD 1631.

alter habendus amor tibi restat et altera Dido                  Another love awaits for you and Another Dido
 quamque iterum fallas, altera danda fides.    and who once more you shall deceive, having given another promise

(Excerpt from Dido’s Letter to Aeneas. Letter VII)

In my mind, well put Dido! Bitterness envelopes her entire speech; once a liar-always liar. Right? Well, what’s the saying?

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

While, not all of Ovid’s heroines come off so…bitter; each one accurately reflects her place, position, and circumstance. He does over dramatize her feelings or reactions, but they appear natural and eloquently put in order to touch the reader. For information on the work, its meter and where to read it- refer below!


The Heroides consist of 15 poems that have mythological females address their heroic lovers.  These epistolary poems are written in Latin elegiac couplets (demonstrated here and in depth here), which is a type of meter used in poetry. You may see a small sample of the Heroides here, which provides part of the letter, the heroine writing, and to whom she is addressing the letter too. Or you may see the entirety of his work here. Ovid also composed the Double Heroides which include another 6 poems; which start here. These, unlike the Heroides, include three separate exchanges between the heroic and mythical lovers.



Ancient Roman Nanotechnology improving the Future.

Posted on 21. Jan, 2014 by in Roman culture

Lycurgus Cup

Lycurgus Cup Courtesy of The British Museum


When asked about the above cup is made from, responders have answered “Ruby!” “Emerald!” “Gold!” Viewers of the Lycurgus Cup are often led astray as to the properties of this unique one-of-a-kind cup. Some even believe that the images represent two different cups or the same cup with red or green light shown upon it. WRONG!

A: The Lycurgus Cup is a Roman glass cage cup (or diatretum,). “A cage cup is made by blowing a thick glass blank. This was then cut and ground away until the figures were left in high relief. Sections of the figures are almost standing free and connected only by ‘bridges’ to the surface of the vessel.” It is also the only known complete example of dichroic glass. This means that the properties of the glass allow it to change color depending from which angle light is shown through. If lit from behind the glass turns red and green if lit from the front.  You can watch it for yourself as the light changes in its case!

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Well-from the images provide, there appears to be some man quite distraught at being held up or imprisoned by vines. But what does is mysterious moment mean?

A: The cup is known as the Lycurgus Cup due to the fact that the myth depicted on the vessel is one of Lycurgus’ fate. The entire story is retold  at this page or in is this wonderful Art History video:

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Safe to say, the cup depicts the horrible fate that beholds a mortal if they cross a god.  “It has been speculated that the theme of this myth – the triumph of Dionysos over Lycurgus – might have been chosen to refer to a contemporary political event, the defeat of the emperor Licinius (reigned AD 308-24) by Constantine in AD 324.  (A basic history may be found here.) Furthermore, it has also be suggested that the cup was used in the rite of Bacchus (Dionysus in Roman religion). In addition, Historia Augusta records the gift of two dichroic cups from Emperor Hadrian to his brother-in-law Servianus via a letter. Perhaps, this may have been one of them.

Well, I personally do not know how to blow glass or the temperatures at which these sort of things are made, but most people would assume it was made “the traditional” way that all glass cups were made…right?
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A:The British Museum acquired the cup in 1950′s, but it wasn’t until the 1990′s that they understood its properties. Researchers analyzed broken fragments of the cup and discovered that the Romans were nanotechnology pioneers!

(NANOTECHNOLOGY [as defined by Nano.gov] is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering.)

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The glass effect of the Lycurgus Cups was achieved by making the glass with minutely ground gold and silver dust. The size of these particles of silver and gold are only about 50 nanometers across (less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt) and required a transmission electron microscope to be seen.


It is highly impossible that Roman artists made these minute silver-gold alloy dust particles for this size of cup alone; therefore, these particles must have been added in large quantities to even large amounts of glass-melts. Therefore, there may have been other dichroic glass items made from the same glass-melt as the Lycurgus Cup. AND, this means that the Romans were the first to attempt and use nanotechnology in history! See the Nano Timeline here.


The color changing ability of the glass is due the size of metal flecks and how their electrons vibrate that alters their color. Gang Logan Liu, an engineer at the University of Illinois, conjectured that when various liquids filled the cup it would change the vibration of the electron and thus the color. Thus, he argued that the Lycurgus Cup’s phenomenon was very similar to a home pregnancy test, which uses a nano-based technology to turn a white line pink at the presence of HCG in urine. So, researchers began to formulate an experiment to test this hypothesis.


Due to the fact that the Lycurgus Cup is a prized and unique artifact, researcher were unable to fill the cup itself. However, they created billions of wells (about the size of postage stamp) and sprayed them with a gold and silver nanoparticles. Thus, they created essential tiny version of the Lycurgus Cup. Then, they continued with the experiment by filling these wells with different types of liquids. The result was as predicted and the colors ranged from light green for water to red for oil. This “well” prototype was 100 times more sensitive to the differing salt levels of tested liquids than current sensor used for similar testing.


Liu is hopefully to see if the Roman’s nanotechnology of gold-silver alloy particles could have current science applications. This experiment proves that one day this technology may make its way to handheld devices for detecting pathogens in salvia or urine. This will allow for speedier drug testing, alcoholic testing, pregnancy tests, and even early detection with contagious and/or deadly diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and so on. However, it should be interesting to see what the costs for this new technology will be as it uses gold-silver alloy particles.