A review of Crawford on the Bruma and Brumalia

Andrew Eastbourne has sent me an interesting review of what must be an interesting book; a Latin dissertation on the bruma and brumalia.  I think it is worth reproducing in its entirety here.  UPDATE: I have found the dissertation online here.

De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis. By John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation. Printed in Byzantinischer Zeitschrift 23.3-4 (pages 365-396).

Dr. Crawford’s thesis De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis covers thirty pages of subject-matter, in Latin, and a bibliography of two pages. The latter is equally divided between the ancient authorities (the original sources), and modern writers on the two festivals. It is not only the latest, but by far the most careful and searching investigation ever made of two festivals which are little known. Dr. Crawford’s work is both a description of the celebrations and an effort to clear away the mists of obscurity and misunderstanding in which the festivals have long been shrouded. He has presented his subject chronologically, except in the chapter dealing with Lydus’s account of the origins of the Brumalia. This method of presentation was, doubtless, better adapted to a detailed study of sources and secondary authorities, of which the thesis consists. Nevertheless, as it seems to me, a reviewer can secure greater clarity and render fuller justice to the author’s purpose by abandoning the chronological order and turning at once to the Byzantine Brumalia and its problems.

From the beginning of the sixth century A. D. to the middle of the tenth, a festival, known as the Brumalia, flourished at Constantinople. It began on November 24 and continued until December 17; each of the twenty-four days thus included was designated by a letter of the Greek alphabet. During this festival it was customary for one to entertain each of his friends with a banquet on the day marked with that letter with which his name began.

Among other features of the festival, as we learn from Lydus, De Mensibus 4.158, was the slaying of a pig in December, a custom which belonged also to the ancient Roman Saturnalia. Moreover, the Byzantine Brumalia was actually called a festival of Cronos, and December 17, the day on which it closed, was the opening day of the Saturnalia. Forcellini and Cumont (the latter in Revue de Philologie 21, 149, n.2) regarded the Brumalia as identical with the Saturnalia. To this conclusion Forcellini was led by the fact that Martial (12.81) uses the words Bruma and Saturnalia interchangeably.

But Lydus, De Mensibus 4.158, in discussing the origins of the Brumalia, mentions the custom known as ascolia, which was a famous feature of the old Athenian Lesser Dionysia. Furthermore, the testimony of Canon 62 of the Council in Trullo, of the year 692 A. D.1, proves that there were certain Dionysiac rites lingering on in the seventh century of our era, and Balzamon, Tzetzes, and Zonaras, twelfth century Byzantine writers, affirm that the Brumalia was a festival of Dionysus, inasmuch as βροῦμοςwas an epithet of that god. It is a fact that at this festival, in the eighth century, the Emperor Constantine Copronymus revered Dionysus and Broumos as creators of corn and wine.

Hence Du Cange explained the Brumalia as a Roman festival in honor of Bacchus. A different view of the origin of the Brumalia is expressed by Ioannes Malalas, the sixth century Byzantine chronographer, an explanation which, he says, he derived from the Roman annalist Licinius.

According to Malalas, Romulus instituted the Brumalia in order to relieve the opprobrium he had incurred in partaking of the food of his foster-father, Faustulus, for up to that time it had been deemed a disgrace to eat the bread of one not a blood relative. And so a festival was instituted at which every one was entertained by some one outside his family. This, says Malalas, was called, in the Latin tongue, βρουμάλιουμ; the entertainment took place on different days according to the position in the alphabet of the initial letter of one’s name.

In considering this story of the origin of the Brumalia, Dr. Crawford, on page 371, revives and gives prominence to a half-forgotten theory of Tomaschek, first advanced in 1868, in Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften, at Vienna, that the whole account is “Hirngespinst eines Byzantiners”. In the Licinius mentioned by Malalas Dr. Crawford recognizes, I think correctly, the Roman annalist Licinius Macer. He further recognizes in a fragment of the latter, preserved by Macrobius, the very passage on which Malalas drew. In my opinion the character of the passage hardly warrants this last conclusion, but the aetiological nature of Malalas’s story, to which Dr. Crawford next draws attention, is unquestionable. The tale is obviously concocted to explain what Malalas and his imitators fancy to be the etymology of Brumalia, a word which Malalas renders once in this passage by brouma/lioum, in support of his theory that Brumalia is derived from βρῶμα, ‘food’, and alium, in the sense of alienum.

Not only is Malalas’s story of too aetiological a character to be worthy of credence, but Dr. Crawford emphasizes in particular the very different account of the origin of the festival which is given by Lydus, De Mensibus 4.158. This account, which scholars have heretofore neglected, Dr. Crawford makes it a primary aim of his thesis to subject to the most detailed examination, rendering to it the prominence and the weight to which it is entitled. Lydus differs altogether from Malalas, specifically stating that entertainment according to the letter of the alphabet with which a man’s name began was of later growth. There is evidence that the alphabetical fashion of entertainment was in vogue in the reign of Justinian, and a little earlier, under Anastasius (491-518 A. D.), but there is no evidence before the close of the fifth century of entertainment according to the alphabet throughout a period of twenty-four days. It is true that Constantine Porphyrogenitus, writing in the tenth century, states that Constantine I, Theodosius I, Marcianus, and Leo I celebrated the Brumalia, but he does not mention the form or the duration of the festival under those Emperors.

Now, Tertullian and Cassianus Bassus (a Byzantine writer of the sixth or of the beginning of the seventh century) refer to an old Roman festival known as the Bruma, which occurred on November 24. This day, it must be remembered, was the day on which the Byzantine Brumalia began. Mommsen, however, in C. I. L. I2, page 287, and Häbler, in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie, under bruma, make no distinction between this Bruma of Tertullian’s time and the Byzantine twenty-four day festival, but ascribe to the Bruma the duration and the alphabetical plan of entertainment found in the Byzantine Brumalia. Yet Cassianus Bassus quotes Florentinus, a Roman author of the reign of Alexander Severus, and Didymus, a Greek of the fourth or the fifth century A. D., to the effect that the festival of the Bruma occurred on November 24.

Moreover, the calendars of Silvius and Philocalus, which date from the fourth and the fifth centuries respectively, both enter, under November 24, the name Bruma. Mommsen maintains that this entry does not refer to a festival day, but merely heralds the coming of the winter solstice, or true bruma, one month later. He understands the word as designating a period of time beginning November 24 and ending December 25, the day of the true bruma. He believes that Philocalus merely transferred from the end of this period of time to its beginning an epithet usually applied only to the end, and he quotes Pliny to the effect that the best writers designate the summer solstice by the word solstitium, the winter solstice by the word bruma. Bruma, then, under November 24 in Philocalus’s calendar he understands as the first day of a period of that name, ending in the true bruma, or winter solstice, on December 25; and so the entry Bruma, he maintains, is balanced in this calendar against the entry Solstitium for June 24.

To this Dr. Crawford objects that, if Philocalus had intended to use the word Bruma as a parallel to Solstitium under June 24, he would have entered it under the day of the true bruma, not under November 24. He urges, moreover, that, had Philocalus been treating of a period of time, he would have noted not merely the beginning but the end as well, the day of the winter solstice, which, however, he omits altogether from his calendar. Silvius, on the other hand, has recorded both days in the words solstitium et initium hiberni, under December 25, and Bruma, under November 24. Had Silvius, says Dr. Crawford, intended by this entry to indicate not a festival but only an introductory day to the true bruma, he would not have designated the latter as solstitium, but would have employed the term bruma of both days.

In my opinion, it would be difficult to decide against Mommsen, were it not (1) for the passages cited above from Florentinus and Didymus; (2) for the testimony of Lydus, that the alphabetical mode of entertainment at the Brumalia was of later origin—evidence which Mommsen wholly ignores; and (3) for the aetiological nature of Malalas’s account of the origin of the festival, which Mommsen fails to consider. In his first paragraph, Dr. Crawford states that two of his primary aims have been (1) to redirect the attention of scholars to the unreliability of Malalas, first pointed out by Tomaschek, in 1868, and (2) adequately to present and examine the passage in Lydus, which has hitherto been overlooked, except in the incomplete and inaccurate treatment accorded to it by Cumont, Revue De Philologie 21, 149, note 2, and Trew, ibidem.

The result of Dr. Crawford’s labors is convincing. He is the first to collect and weigh properly all the evidence concerning the festivals of the Bruma and the Brumalia. His conclusion is that there was an old Roman festival known as the Bruma2, which preceded the true bruma, the winter solstice, by one month, and constituted a prelude or introduction to it; that this festival was held on November 24; that in the time of Constantine the Great and his earlier successors both this festival and the Saturnalia were probably celebrated independently at Constantinople, and that in the intervening period (between November 24 and December 17) certain of the rites of Dionysus and Demeter belonging to this season continued to be celebrated; that out of these three elements was evolved the Byzantine Brumalia, which derived its name from the initial one of the several ancient festivals of which it was composed, not from βροῦμος or βρῶμα, which are false etymologies invented by the Byzantine writers after the true origin of the Brumalia had been forgotten; that it was the coincidence of this festival’s extent over twenty-four days, a number identical with that of the letters of the Greek alphabet, which led to the custom of entertaining at dinner in alphabetical order, and that the evidence at our disposal indicates that this custom did not arise before the close of the fifth century A. D., during the reign of Anastasius.

Finally, Dr. Crawford shows the error of Polites, and of Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, 226, in confusing the Brumalia with the New Year festival, which lasted down into the fifteenth century. There is no evidence, he says, to prove the existence of the Brumalia after the time of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, that is, the tenth century.

In addition to settling the principal problems which his subject presented, Dr. Crawford has disposed, in passing, of a number of minor problems, and has given a history of the celebration of the Brumalia in the various centuries of its existence.

HORACE WETHERILL WRIGHT
Lehigh University 
The Classical Weekly, Vol. 15, No. 7 (Nov. 28, 1921), pp. 52-54

1 A misprint on page 385 dates this council in 632.
2 This apparently did not antedate Martial, as that poet is ignorant of a festival of that name separate from the Saturnalia,

3 Responses to “A review of Crawford on the Bruma and Brumalia”


  1. Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and the birth of the Sun | Chronicon Blog

    […] is another name for the winter solstice, Roger Pearse has an excellent blog post here and here about this and its relationship to […]

  2. Joe Abrahamson

    BZ is available at this site:

    http://byzantinorossica.org.ru/BZ.html

    The particular issue with Crawford’s dissertation is at this link:

    http://byzantinorossica.org.ru/sources/vizant/BZ/BZ_23(1919).pdf

  3. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much!



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