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The Taurian Games (Latin Ludi Taurii or Ludi Taurei, rarely Taurilia[1]) were games (ludi) held in ancient Rome in honor of the di inferi, the gods of the underworld. They were not part of a regularly scheduled religious festival on the calendar, but were held as expiatory rites religionis causa, occasioned by religious concerns.[2]

Ludi Taurii are recorded in 186 BC as a two-day event.[3] Varro mentions them as occurring in the late Republic.[4] During the reign of Antoninus Pius, they were held every five years from 140 to 160 AD, within a period beginning on the day after the Ides of May and continuing through the Kalends of June.[5] Some scholars extrapolate that like the lustrum (purification ritual), the Ludi Taurii were regularly quinquennial.[6] Others caution that the five-year schedule under Antoninus Pius, attested by the Fasti Ostienses, is never mentioned in other sources. The limited evidence suggests the Ludi Taurii were important mainly in the context of religious revivalism during the Augustan and Antonine eras.[7]

The Taurian Games were horse races, or less likely chariot races, on a course around turning posts (metae).[8] In the 19th century, they were sometimes confused with the archaic Tarentine Games (ludi tarentini), which were replaced by the Saecular Games.[9] Horse racing along with the propitiation of underworld gods was characteristic of "old and obscure" Roman festivals such as the Consualia, the October Horse, and sites in the Campus Martius such as the Tarentum (where the ludi tarentini originated) and the Trigarium.[10] The Ludi Taurii were the only games held in the Circus Flaminius.[11]

If the games are Etruscan in origin, as Festus and Servius claim, taurii probably comes from the Etruscan word tauru, "tomb."[12] The design of the turning posts (metae) on a Roman race course was derived from Etruscan funerary monuments.[13] Festus, however, offers an etiology based on Latin taurus, "bull."[14]

Origin and significanceEdit

In the tradition recorded by Festus,[15] the games were instituted in the Regal period when Tarquinius Superbus was king. Servius also places their origin during his reign.

Fetus explains that the games were performed in honor of the gods below (di inferi). They were established in response to an epidemic (magna … pestilentia) afflicting pregnant women, caused by the distribution of the flesh of sacrificial bulls (tauri) among the people. Servius implies that the pestilentia was infant mortality: "each delivery of the women came out badly." The remedy of the games was obtained ex libris fatalibus, "from the books of the fates" (either the Sibylline books[16] or Etruscan texts[17]). According to Servius, the ludi took their name from the word taurea, meaning a sterile sacrificial victim (hostia).[18]

Servius gives an alternative version that credits the Sabines with instituting the games in response to the pestilentia, and characterizes the transferral of the lues publica (the plague upon the people) onto sacrificial victims (hostiae) as if it were a scapegoat ritual.[19]

Festus also provided an additional explanation of the name as taurus ("bull") from Varro,[20] preserved only in fragmentary form by the Codex Farnesianus.[21] A reconstruction dating back to J.J. Scaliger[22] has been taken to mean that youths, under the direction of a coach, engaged in ritual gymnastics on a raw bull's hide, perhaps to be compared to exercises on a trampoline.[23] This view has not attracted wide acceptance, but would suggest that the ritual action countervails infant mortality by affirming the fitness of the youth. Ritually, landing on the bull's skin may mimic the "catching" of a safely delivered newborn.[24]

The Augustan historian Livy has a brief reference to the games as occurring in 186 BC per biduum, for a period of two days, religionis causa, "for the sake of religious scruple." On this occasion, the two-day Ludi Taurii preceded ten days of ludi presented by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior as the result of a vow in the Aetolian War. Nobilior's games are notable as the first time a beast hunt (venatio) was staged at Rome. At a corrupt transition between the two events in Livy's text, the word decem ("ten") appears, which Georg Wissowa construed as referring to the ten-member priestly college of decemviri sacris faciundis; he thought these priests were likely charged with organizing the Taurian Games.[25]

Earlier scholars have sometimes taken the adjective taurii to mean that bulls were part of the games, either in a Mediterranean tradition of bull-leaping, or as an early form of bullfighting.[26] Because Livy's chronology places the Ludi Taurii (or in some editions Taurilia) immediately after the news of a victory in Roman Spain, the games have figured in a few efforts to trace the early history of Spanish-style bullfighting.[27]


  1. ^ Taurilia is an alternate reading of the relevant passage in Livy, 39.22; it is included as an entry in Forcellini's Totius Latinitatis Lexicon (1828), p. 708, and appears in some older editions of Livy and in scholarship from the 19th century. See notes in the 1825 edition of Livy by Arnold Drakenborch and Johann Freinsheim, p. 402.
  2. ^ John H. Humphrey, Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing (University of California Press, 1986), p. 543; Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 82.
  3. ^ Livy, 39.22.
  4. ^ Varro, De lingua latina 5.154.
  5. ^ CIL xiv supp. 4541 (the Fasti Ostienses); John Briscoe, A Commentary on Livy, Books 38–40 (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 19, 294; Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 544.
  6. ^ Eckart Köhne, "Bread and Circuses: The Politics of Entertainment," in Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome (University of California Press, 2000), p. 9; Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 543.
  7. ^ Briscoe, A Commentary on Livy, p. 294; Humphrey, Roman Circuses, pp. 543–544.
  8. ^ Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 544; Varro, De lingua latina 5.154: "the horses run around the turning posts" (equi circum metas currunt).
  9. ^ In 1875 and subsequent editions, Leonhard Schmitz's entry on the Ludi Saeculares in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (SMIGRA) identified the Taurian Games with the ludi tarentini. The identification gained currency in English classicizing literary circles, as indicated in the notes to Edward Lytton's translation of Horace's Saecular Ode, published in Schiller and Horace (Routledge, 1875), pp. 423–424, citing a then-current edition of Smith's Dictionary. By the 1890 edition of SMIGRA, a separate entry for Ludi Taurii Archived 2012-07-09 at had been added, with a few points of dubious factuality (see Bill Thayer's note to the entry Ludi Saeculares in the LacusCurtius edition of the 1875 SMIGRA, as well as his translation of and note to the entry Taurii Ludi in Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines). The erroneous identification was nevertheless perpetuated in the Century Dictionary of 1891 (pp. 6189, 6199) and later editions. As early as 1701, however, Thomas Dempster had pointed out in his notes to the Antiquitatum Romanorum Corpus Absolutissimum of Johannes Rosinus that "many confuse the Taurian with the Saecular games, but they are in error: [the two] are entirely different" (p. 340). Ludwig Preller recognized the similarities, but suggested that the ludi taurii were performed irregularly when the Saecular Games would have been untimely; Römische Mythologie (1881), vol. 1, p. 92.
  10. ^ Humphrey, Roman Circuses, pp. 544, 558; Auguste Bouché-Leclercq, Manuel des Institutions Romaines (Hachette, 1886), p. 549; "Purificazione," in Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum (LIMC, 2004), p. 83. See also the Lusus Troiae.
  11. ^ Varro, De lingua latina 5.154; Lawrence Richardson, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 83; Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 543. Valerius Maximus (1.7.4) is the only ancient source, likely erroneous, to say that the Plebeian Games were held in the Circus Flaminius, which had no track for the chariot races known to be part of these ludi; see T.P. Wiseman, Remus: A Roman Myth (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 211.
  12. ^ Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 544.
  13. ^ Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 15.
  14. ^ Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 544.
  15. ^ Festus, excerpts of Paulus, p. 479 in the edition of Lindsay.
  16. ^ Briscoe, A Commentary on Livy, p. 294; Auguste Bouché-Leclercq, Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquité (Jérôme Millon, 2003 reprint, originally published 1883), p. 1024.
  17. ^ Bouché-Leclercq, Histoire de la divination, p. 1024.
  18. ^ Servius Danielis, note to Aeneid 2.140.
  19. ^ William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic (London, 1908), p. 176; Servius, note to Aeneid 2.140 (alii ludos Taureos a Sabinis propter pestilentiam institutos dicunt, ut lues publica in has hostias verteretur).
  20. ^ Festus, p. 478 (Lindsay).
  21. ^ Briscoe, A Commentary on Livy, p. 294.
  22. ^ Sed Taurios ludos Varro ait vocari, quod eis ludis discipulus pendens a doctore in crudo corio tauri solitus sit inpelli, atque usque eo inibi cogi docere, quoad consisteret atque virtute talorum constaret pedum firmitas (italicized text is reconstructed); in English, "Varro, however, says that the Taurian Games are so called because it was customary at the games for a student, with a boost from his instructor, to be propelled on the raw hide of a bull (taurus), and to show by the extent of his action how sound he was and how the sureness of his feet 'stuck' by virtue of his heels." ("Stick" here is used in the sense of landing a gymnastics position correctly.) See André Dacier (1826), pp. 960–961.
  23. ^ J.D. Guigniaut on Frédéric Cruezer, Religions de l'antiquité (Paris, 1851) vol. 3, p. 1122.
  24. ^ For more on birthing in the Roman world, see Midwifery#History_of_midwifery and the birth deities the Nixae, whose altar was located within a complex of sites associated with horse races and underworld gods in the Campus Martius.
  25. ^ Georg Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer (Munich, 1902), p. 388; noted also by Briscoe, A Commentary on Livy, pp. 294–295.
  26. ^ Arnold Drakenborch in his 1825 edition of Livy took the Taurilia as involving actual bull fights (p. 400). See also Guigniaut on Cruezer, Religions de l'antiquité, p. 1122ff.
  27. ^ For instance, Edward Clarke, Letters concerning the Spanish Nation (London, 1763), pp. 113–115. The effort was derided by Charles Sumner, "Spanish Bull-Feasts and Bull-Fights," Quarterly Review (1839), p. 385ff., published anonymously and attributed to Sumner by Edward L. Pierce, Memoirs and Letters of Charles Sumner (Boston, 1893), vol. 2, p. 64.