One Way Ancient Romans Attempted To “Nail Down” The Origin Date Of Their Republic


According to ancient historians such as Polybius (c. 200-118 BCE) and Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), the grand Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was dedicated within one year after the monarchy was abandoned in Rome in favor of a republic. As can be guessed from the title of the temple, Jupiter was the main focus of the structure, but there were also shrines to Juno and Minerva on the compound. According to Livy, there was a practice of driving a ceremonial nail or spike into the temple wall near the shrine of Minerva that dated back to the inaugural year of the religious complex. In a convoluted and confusing passage, Livy wrote that this apparently annual practice was passed down from generation to generation and from government to government. He stated, “the consul Horatius dedicated the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the year following the expulsion of the kings; from the consuls the ceremony of fastening the nails passed to the Dictators, because they possessed greater authority” (History of Rome, 7.3).

Although the ceremonial practice of placing nails into the wall of the temple had not been created specifically as a way to tally years, Livy and others recognized the possibility of using the temple as a way to determine the age of the Roman Republic. For Livy, it was poetic that the nails were watched over by Minerva. He wrote, “The nail is said to have marked the number of the year—written records being scarce in those days—and was for that reason placed under the protection of Minerva because she was the inventor of numbers” (History of Rome, 7.3).  Minerva apparently did her part and kept the temple wall intact until an unknown curious Roman calculated the number of nails, a task which was hopefully done before the Gallic sack of Rome around 386 BCE and the destruction of the temple around 83 BCE, during the civil war of Sulla. The calculation of the nails in the temple wall was reportedly one of the ways that the traditional date of 509 BCE (give or take a few years) was set as the year the Roman Republic was born.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (a scene from Virgil (Book I), c. 400, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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