The Roman New Year Festival, Anna Perenna

During the late Roman Republic, the festival of Anna Perenna was celebrated on March 15 to honor an ancient Italian divinity. This was a kind of New Year's Day in the calendar used at the time of Rome's foundation. Its name refers to the perennial course of the years.

Marking the First Full Moon Like China's Lantern Festival or the archaic Little New Year of Japan, the mid-month holiday, or ides of March, had initially marked the first full moon of a New Year, when Anna Perenna was offered "public and private sacrifices for prosperity throughout the year and for years to come." This is the translation of a passage in which the fifth-century grammarian Macrobius accounts for her name: "ut annare perennareque commode liceat" (Saturnalia I, 12:6, p. 85). Romans continued to offer these sacrifices, even under the new official calendar starting on the calends, or first day, of January.

Expelling the Old Year On the eve of Anna Perenna, or March 14, the people of Rome would first expel Mamurius Veturius (just as the Hebrews used to drive away a scapegoat on Yom Kippur, ten days after their New Year). This mythical blacksmith was invoked by the Salian priests of Mars at the end of the ancient hymn they sang on March 19 as well as on October 19. But in the first context, he represented the old March of the dying year with its waning vital powers. A man was given animal skins to wear in order to impersonate Mamurius Veturius and thus become a human symbol of the degeneration and vulnerability associated with wintertime. To drive out the perils concentrated in his person, a wild procession would form, and citizens, who lined the streets all the way beyond the city limits, would beat the poor man with long white rods. This ritual was supposed to clear the ground for a new incarnation of Mars as an archaic god of vegetation (as opposed to his later military features), who was reborn every spring.

Merrymaking to Welcome Spring Welcoming spring on the day of Anna Perenna proper meant that couples of all ages would go a mile out of Rome on the Via Flaminia to lie on the grass near the Tiber river and drink all day among makeshift tents. For girls who had reached marriageable age, this was an occasion for romance with boys, regardless of which they would eventually marry. The idea behind this very old custom was that maidens should first pay their dues to the general fertility of springtime in the hope that it would rub off on them as young wives. For married people, the outing was an opportunity for casual, uninhibited merrymaking. It included dancing around the wine supply, loudly counting the cups of wine each person would gulp down in turn and asking the gods for as many happy returns of Anna Perenna as the cups they were able to drink. They would also sing and act out all the tunes and skits they could recall from the ancient Roman equivalents of the music-hall. A famous mime composed for the occasion by Laberius (106-43 B.C.E.) was even entitled Anna Perenna.

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