If someone were to travel back in time and walk the streets of ancient Rome (especially during the month of March), that time-traveler might come across an odd band of twelve flamboyant men singing and dancing in elaborate outfits and conical caps along the roadway. The dancers did their jig to a catchy triple-beat rhythm they produced by clashing together two objects that they held in their hands—a wooden pole and a large oblong mass that was shaped like an hourglass. The troupe combined the rhythm, dance and singing into a choreographed show that was a fan-favorite in Rome.
Looking closer at the dancers, odd details would emerge. Some of the wooden poles carried by the dancers had spearheads. The oblong masses turned out to be shields. In addition to the fancily-embroidered tunics, the dancers also wore bronze breastplates over their torsos and swords at their hips. The performers, themselves, were not average entertainers, but actually highborn patricians who would likely one day hold lofty positions in the military and government. The chants and songs they sang were not idiotic, simple crowd-pleasing tunes, but verses about war, warriors, and the Roman war god, Mars. These were the Salii of Mars Gradivus, the Leaping Priests of the god of war.
According to the ancient Roman scholars, the Salii were one of the oldest religious orders in Rome. It was so old that the origin of the Leaping Priests was placed within the fog of ancient Roman myth. According to tradition and folklore, the first Salian order was founded by King Numa, the successor of Rome’s mythical founding father, Romulus. As Numa was dated by Roman tradition to the 8th-7th century BCE, the dance of the Salii allegedly long predated written Roman records about their own history.
The prized possessions of the Leaping Priests were their ancilia, the hourglass-shaped shields wielded by the priests during their dance. As the story goes, the original shield, the ancile, miraculously fell from the heavens and was recovered by King Numa. That original divine relic served as a blueprint for eleven more replica ancilia, which were indistinguishable from the original shield—presumably a disincentive against theft. The ancilia were so revered that they were stored with honor on the Palatine Hill (where the Salii of Mars Gradivus were based), and it is possible that the famed Vestal Virgins of Rome had a role in watching over the sacred shields until the Salii requested them for their ceremonial dances. After the Leaping Priests completed their war dance, which occurred at the start and end of campaigning season, the sacred shields were once again stored until the next dance. Although the Salii of Mars Gradivus were reportedly the first order of Leaping Priests, the movement spread to form chapters in other cities and new Salian orders were also created to worship different gods.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of Salii ancilia shields depicted on an ancient ring found in Florence, [Public Domain] via flickr.com and Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.