In the early 5th century BCE, as the Volscians were beginning to threaten the fledgling republic of Rome, the Romans held an event that, according to the historian Livy, was called the Great Games. This was not one of Rome’s famous gladiatorial games, as the heyday of the gladiators would come much later in Roman history, yet the Great Games did take place in an arena, and the proceedings not only entertained, but also served a religious purpose. Jupiter, the arch-god of the Roman pantheon, was said to have taken special interest in the Great Games, and he could be a stickler for propriety when it came to how the games were conducted. One such point of proper conduct that Jupiter supposedly was keen to enforce was the rule that the arena for the Great Games must, in no way, be desecrated before the inaugural ceremony for the event.
In the early morning of the day in which the Great Games were scheduled to begin, an ignorant Roman made a costly mistake. Unheeding the religious etiquette of the games, the Roman in question dragged a slave across the arena grounds, beating the poor soul with a stick whenever he or she was too slow. According to tradition, this sad display was witnessed by Jupiter and, he was so infuriated by the scene that he would not give his blessing to the Great Games unless it was completely redone.
The ways gods express their wishes to mankind have always been strange, and Jupiter’s actions in this situation were no exception. Instead of appearing in front of the Roman Republic’s magistrates, oligarchs, or even the slaveowner who caused the problem, Jupiter was said to have chosen as his messenger an overly-cautious and easily-intimidated commoner by the name of Titus Latinius. The god visited this poor fellow in a dream and cryptically told him “he was displeased with the ‘leading dancer’ at the Games” (Livy, History of Rome, 2.36). Jupiter went on to demand that the games be restarted with greater grandiosity, dignity and respect for the gods.
After waking up from his dream, Titus Latinius dreaded the idea of telling the Roman Republic’s magistrates that their Great Games were a failure. Instead of fulfilling his divinely-mandated mission of telling Rome that the games must be restarted, Titus Latinius simply shrugged off the dream and hoped that Jupiter would find another messenger. Yet, the pitiable Roman commoner would soon find that Jupiter wanted no other agent, and the god would go to great lengths to make Titus Latinius deliver the message.
Ignorant of Jupiter’s anger, Rome launched its tainted Great Games. As the games progressed, the angry god did not lash out at the slaveowner who had caused the desecration of the arena, nor did he smite the consuls or magistrates who were overseeing the celebration. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s wrath was solely focused on his sluggish messenger, and as each day passed, the god came closer and closer to unleashing a bolt of lightning at Titus Latinius and his family. Latinius knew nothing of this boiling rage until his son was suddenly and fatally smote by Jupiter. Only after killing the messenger’s son did Jupiter reappear in Titus Latinius’ dreams, again demanding that the Great Games be restarted, or more death would soon occur.
Caution and hesitation, however, were Latinius’ great flaw, and he continued to test Jupiter’s low patience. The god ultimately tired of his chosen messenger’s delays and struck the man with a great illness that left Titus Latinius on his deathbed. It was then, surrounded by friends and family who had come to see him in his final moment, that Latinius finally divulged Jupiter’s message. Although Titus Latinius could never manage to complete his mission alone, things changed when he brought those friends and family at his bedside into his confidence. These trusty companions pulled Titus Latinius out of his deathbed, threw him in a litter, and carried him to the Roman Republic’s consuls or magistrates. These leaders then convened a meeting of the early Republic’s oligarchs or senators, in front of which Titus Latinius was allowed to speak. After the message was delivered, Titus Latinius was said to have been suddenly healed, and was able to walk home without any aid from his friends or family.
The leaders of the Republic were said to have been convinced of Jupiter’s anger upon listening to the sickly man’s message and subsequently seeing the miraculous healing of the messenger. They agreed to restart the Great Games, and made sure that the second showing had greater attendance and more splendor than the first.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Battle of Olympians painted by Francisco Bayeu y Subías (1734–1795), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.