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Salvete Omnes! We’re now officially into Fall! So let’s take a closer look at the Latin and Classical History behind the Autumnal Equinox.
You may have heard that the first day of Fall is marked by the “equinox” at some point in your life, you may have learned what it was, but then forgot the specifics. The times we live in do not encourage an education system or society at large to teach or remember what an equinox is, or what a solstice is, and how they are different.
If you have trouble telling a solstice and an equinox apart it is useful to take a look at the words.
“Equinox” is from late Middle English and was derived from a combination the two Latin words: “aequi”, which means equal, and “noctum”, meaning night. Together it denotes “equal night”
“Solstice” evolved from Middle English and Old French from the Latin words “sol”, for sun, and “stit-“, related to “sistere”, which meant stopped or stationary. This is the same kind of “-stice” in “armistice”. Together it denotes “stationary sun”.
The Autumnal Equinox that came and went, marking the beginning of Fall for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, marks the halfway point of the Sun as it travels, inching daily, back and forth through our sky. Or from a broader perspective, it is one of the two days of the year when the Northern and Southern hemispheres receive the same amount of illumination.
Now before we feel too guilty for forgetting, as a society, what an equinox really is or its significance we should take a look at the Romans.
When it comes to researching Roman Astronomy there is very little to be found. Although the Romans did celebrate We will often hear about the amazing celestial discoveries and pattern-recognizing of Ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, and Chinese astronomers, but we hear, comparatively, very little in the ways of Roman astronomers.
Ovid, in the Fasti, remarked on an older Rome, in the time of Romulus and Numa:
“libera currebant et inobservata per annum/ sidera”
“Free ran the stars and unobserved, in their revolutions.”
Very Ancient Romans, as other cultures were timing and counting and predicting, weren’t participating in the boom of the science of astronomy.
This is perhaps because the Ancient Romans were more transfixed not by defining the movement of the stars, but by what the movement of stars and celestial wanderers could tell them about their own lives here on Earth. They were preoccupied the Astrology; star signs and fortune telling.
Ovid studied astronomy to write in the Fasti and the Metamorphoses. However, astronomy and astrology grew up together. The Roman, Manilius, composed Astronomica, being the first in the West to write about the heavenly motions and their relationship with the lives of men. He claimed his writings recalled:
“hospita sacra ferens nulli memorata priorum”
“Strange lore untold by any before me.”
Ovid recalled that the Chaldean astronomers and astrologers, indeed anyone who has studied Classical history might remember that the title “Chaldean” was often synonymous with “astrologers”, brought their science to Rome, never mentioning other Romans.
The Roman calendar wasn’t that accurate either and was out of sync with the solar calendar. The Spring equinox, over the course of hundreds of years, shifted backwards 10 days.
However, the equinoxes seem to have been at least partially significant to the Romans in conventional ways. The Romans celebrated on the vernal (from the Latin “vernalis”, from “vernus” meaning “of the spring”) equinox with festivities and met the autumn equinox with plowing and preparing for Fall.
Interestingly, the position of the Sun during the equinoxes might have also influenced architecture. Columella (4 BCE – ca. 70 CE) wrote a manual on how to position a manor house in preparation for both summer and winter. The winter dining room should face the sunset at the equinox, summer bedrooms and promenade should face the midday sun at equinox.
So, despite the absence of astronomy as a science, the equinoxes seem to have played a practical and sometimes festive role in the lives of Ancient Romans.
Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Leonardo Magini. L’ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER, Jan 1, 2001.
The World of Ancient Rome: A Daily Life Encyclopedia [2 volumes]: A Daily Life Encyclopedia. James W. Ermatinger. ABC-CLIO, Aug 11, 2015