On “bruma” and “brumalia” in ancient Rome, as found in the OLD

There is a certain amount of wild talk around online about a festival of bruma, or the brumalia, connected with Christmas.  It would be interesting to find out what is truly known and discoverable from ancient sources about the nature and date of this event.  So I reached for the OLD!

According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary (p.243), the word bruma is the superlative of brevis (=short), i.e. breui-ma which became breu-ma.  Three meanings are listed.

1.  The shortest day, the winter solstice or the period during which this occurs, mid-winter; also (astronomical) the position of the sun at the winter solstice.

References are given for this:

ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam Cato, Agr. 17.1; Varro L. 6.8.  eas (litteras) mihi post brumam reddiderunt Cicero ad fam. 3.7.3; dies continuos xxx sub bruma esse noctem Caesar, Gallic war 5.13.3; Vitruvius 9.3.3; Livy 43.18.1; Ovid fasti 1.163; Manilius 2.404; Columella Arb. 24; Pliny the Elder, NH 18.231; Terence Ph. 709; Cicero Div. 2.52; solis accessus discessusque solstitiis brumisque cognosci N.D. (?) 2.19.  (A couple more references to the latter meaning are also given)

2. Winter.

References are given for this, and also for a third meaning expressing “a winter” as a period of time.

The adjective brumalis is also listed, meaning “connected with the winter solstice”, the tropic of capricorn, or merely “wintry”.  For the first meaning it gives

Cicero Arat. 295 (61), de orat. 3.178, Div. 2.33; Lucretius 5.616; Ovid Pont. 2.4.25.

I need to look these up and tabulate them here.

A google search revealed remarkably little of substance, but apparently there is something in John Lydus, De mensibus (which we have met before!).  However doing the same search via an anonymising proxy reveals more.

John Malalas in his Chronicle 7.7 gives an account of the origins of the festival.  This tells us it was in the winter, and instituted by Romulus (or “Romus” as Malalas calls him).

Because of this Romus devised what is known as the Brumalia, declaring, it is said, that the emperor of the time must entertain his entire senate and officials and all who serve in the palace, since they are persons of consequence, during the winter when there is a respite from righting. He began by inviting and entertaining first those whose names began with alpha, and so on, right to the last letter; he ordered his senate to entertain in the same way. They too entertained the whole army, and those they wanted. . . . This custom of the Brumalia has persisted in the Roman state to the present day. — [The Chronicle of John Malalas, trans. E. Jeffreys et al. (Byzantina Australiensia 4, Melbourne, 1986), p. 95]

John the Lydian in his de Mensibus book IV discusses the Brumalia.  According to that secondary source it was celebrated between November 24 and December 17.  Apparently John says that the people all call it the festival of Cronos (i.e. Saturn).  Unfortunately I can’t see the references in that text.

Lydus’ description of the Brumalia, however, hints that the situation was not in fact quite so simple. This popular holiday, celebrated between November 24 and December 17, was a time of dinner parties and wishing one’s friends “vives annos.” It had an extremely long history connected with the celebration of the winter solstice, and Lydus gives many details of the pagan rites associated with it in antiquity. The holiday continued to be celebrated in Lydus’ time, for he notes that “to greet someone by name during the Brumalia is a rather recent development,” and more pointedly, “the truth of the matter is that people call this the festival of Cronos; consequently the Church shrinks away from this affair.” He goes on to tell about Cronos and the association of chthonic demons with the festival. If it were not for the mention of ecclesiastical disapproval, we would not know that the festival had any contemporary dimension at all. This is all the stranger because Agathias reported without censure of any sort that the Brumalia was being celebrated by the citizens of Constantinople at the time of a great earthquake in 577. Malalas also described the contemporary imperial celebration without flinching. We know that Justinian celebrated the Brumalia on a lavish scale with banquets and spectacles throughout the empire, as Choricius of Gaza’s Oration attests. In 521 Justinian had inaugurated his first consulship with magnificent entertainments during the Brumalia (on the day that began with the first letter of his name). As spelled out in Novel 105 some years later, this was in accordance with his attitude about the ceremonial responsibilities of the consulship to provide parades, games, and theatrical productions for the populace. The pious emperor felt no impropriety in celebrating the Brumalia together with the consulship. In another law concerning pagan worship, Justinian reiterated the idea that ancient festivals might be celebrated by his subjects – as long as no pagan sacrifices were performed. We see here the grounds on which he was prepared to celebrate time-honored festivals. He was no more concerned about the “paganism” of the Brumalia than he was about that of the consulship. Both were simply part of the secular ceremonial of everyday late-antique life, as far as the palace and the public were concerned. On one level de Mensibus can be seen as a simple expression of this interest and of the acceptance of certain civic celebrations.

Lydus’ comment on ecclesiastical disapproval, however, suggests a more complicated situation and requires that we look to a later period. Such ceremonial did not forever remain immune from charges of religious impropriety. By the end of the next century, attitudes would change considerably. The Quinisextum Council (“in Trullo” ) held in Constantinople in 692 proscribed in its sixty-second canon celebrations of the kalends, Vota, Brumalia, and Panegyris, festivals going on in Lydus’ Constantinople and all described in de Mensibus as they existed in Roman antiquity. Pagan associations that the church found merely objectionable in Lydus’ day assumed greater significance in the seventh century. Why did Lydus make a point of the church’s censure when the Brumalia was being celebrated without comment by the emperor and devout Christians? He evidently recognized its pagan (as opposed to merely antique) history, but did not wish to elaborate further. Perhaps the antiquarian material had not been completely neutralized after all. [Michael Maas, John Lydus and the Roman past, 1992, p.64-6]

Just as an aside, every time I read a passage of Maas’ excellent book, it makes my fingers itch to commission someone to translate the 111 pages of book 4 of de Mensibus!  Or even just the 8 pages on December!  It looks as if the passage is on p.174 (PDF p.276)  of the 1903 edition which is online. But back to the brumalia.

The festival was proscribed by the Quinsext synod (“in Trullo”) in 692.

Tertullian apparently also mentions the festival (De idololatria 14).

Suggestions are welcome as to where else we might look!

UPDATE:  Cato, Agricultura 17.1:

Robus materies, item ridica, ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam semper tempestiva est. Cetera materies quae semen habet, cum semen maturum habet, tum tempestiva est.

Oak wood and also wood for vine props, is always ripe for cutting at the time of the winter solstice. Other species which bear seed are ripe when the seeds are mature, while those which are seedless are ripe when they shed bark.

Here brumam is used to mean “winter”, as an adjective for solstitium.  Or possibly “shortest solstice”?

Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.8:

Alter motus solis est, aliter ac caeli, quod movetur a bruma ad solstitium. Dicta bruma, quod brevissimus tunc dies est; solstitium, quod sol eo die sistere videbatur, quo ad nos versum proximus est. Sol cum venit in medium spatium inter brumam et solstitium, quod dies aequus fit ac nox, aequinoctium dictum. Tempus a bruma ad brumam dum sol redit, vocatur annus, quod ut parvi circuli anuli, sic magni dicebantur circites ani, unde annus.

8. There is a second motion of the sun, differing from that of the sky, in that the motion is from bruma ‘winter’s day’ to solstitium ‘solstice.’ Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissimus ‘shortest’: the solstitium, because on that day the sol ‘sun’ seems sistere ‘to halt,’ on which it is nearest to us. When the sun has arrived midway between the bruma and the solstitium, it is called the aequinoctium ‘equinox,’ because the day becomes aequus ‘equal’ to the nox ‘night.’ The time from the bruma until the sun returns to the bruma, is called an annus ‘year,’ because just as little circles are anuli ‘rings,’ so big circuits were called ani, whence comes annus ‘year.’

This tells us that the bruma and the solstice are not the same.

Note: thanks to Bill Thayer for spotting the mistyping of De mensibus as De mensuribus! Oops!


20 thoughts on “On “bruma” and “brumalia” in ancient Rome, as found in the OLD

  1. This tells us that the bruma and the solstice are not the same.

    Right. Solstitium was used for the summer solstice, bruma for the one in winter.

  2. (For the rest of you out there:) Roger is being kind. I spotted *Mensuribus, a barbarism; but never having read Lydus, didn’t realize he was writing about Months, not Measures… my “correction” was Mensuris….

  3. Yes, it’s about months. Book 4 goes through the Roman calendar, explaining what happens when. It’s long. I wish I could get it translated.

  4. On Varro LL 6.8: “This tells us that the bruma and the solstice are not the same.” Varro has followed the usage of common speech, in which “solstitium” meant just the summer solstice; “bruma” was the winter solstice. And sho’ nuff, like he says, the equinoxes fall halfway between them. The passage is essentially not useful: it merely tells us that “bruma” was the common term for the winter solstice.

  5. And a further check of Book 4 of the De mensibus: under the months of November and December, Lydus never mentions the Brumalia.

    Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, s.v. Idolatry, mentions the council in Trullo’s excommunication of those who keep the Brumalia; not noteworthy except that it’s in a pretty long passage on similar festivities, and includes a few citations; and on p358 in its long article on Christmas, the Dictionary mentions a canon of a council of Rome of the year 743, “Ut nullus Kalendas Januarias et broma (= brumalia) colere praesumpserit (can. 9, Labbé vi.1548), and quotes the Council in Trullo, “τὰς οὕτω λεγομένας Καλάνδας καὶ τὰ καλούμενα Βρουμάλια” (can. 66, Labbé vi.1170).

  6. The Byzantine history of the “broumalia” looks rather like something distinct from whatever is going on in Latin. Maybe the stuff about Chronos should mean that we are looking at Saturnalia, given a new name to reflect Christianised sensibilities. What we need is a table of all the material, in English, and then the answer will simply pop out. It’s interesting to go over this stuff.

    Someone has volunteered to do December of “De mensibus” IV into English (for money), although probably not for a couple of months. It’s such an interesting text, isn’t it?

  7. My question would be, when did the solstice actually occur. Was it November 24th, December 17th, or December 25th, or December 21st as it is today. I have a program called Celestia which indicates the solstice occurred around November 24th during the first century CE. The answer is important to bible research that I am conducting.

  8. What time period are you talking about? After Caesar’s calendar reform, the solstice was as it is today, Dec. 21 or 22 (actually, until Augustus’s minor fix, it was progressively one day off every twelve years, at which point it became quite in sync with the calendar, as today).

    Before Caesar, of course, there is endless controversy and the odds are no one really knows; certainly it can’t be fixed on any of the dates you mention.

  9. Hi John,

    Thanks for your query. I went into this to some extent, and found myself bemused and baffled. But then I found a way around it!

    Firstly, the astronomical solstice — i.e. the shortest day. I don’t believe that when this occurred can be determined at all easily by us now. The problem is that the earth wobbles, and that there is no real or intrinsic connection between the length of the day (how long the earth takes to rotate 360 degrees) and the length of the year (how long the earth takes to go around the sun). There is no cosmic reason why these should even be exactly the same, because of the movement of other cosmic bodies. In consequence all the calendars are frigged. They have to be. If you don’t — as the Romans found out, and as we found out with the Julian calendar — you eventually get to having “summer” by the calendar when the weather tells you it is winter. Unless we have an accurate record of all the tweaks and twiddles, and some objective evidence of what was physically happening, I don’t see how we can proceed. I suspect perhaps this exercise has been done — but it was beyond my area of interest.

    However … it doesn’t matter for my particular query. Because the question I wanted to know is whether the Romans considered that 25 Dec. was the winter solstice. The answer to that, from the literary sources I explored in these posts on bruma and brumalia, is a definite “yes”. The sources also indicate some awareness that the astronomical solstice might be a little earlier, but that this is the first time it can be detected (Julian more or less says this). Whether they were actually correct — whether in any particular year the solstice really was on that date — is another issue. Remember… these people are not astronomers either. Most of them won’t know for sure anyway.

    But … Bill, your comments suggest that you have some knowledge on this about the physical solstice which I don’t! Groovy! How do we know when the solstice was (after Caesar’s reform)? (By all means do that as a blog post at your blog and just link, if you prefer!)

  10. (John replied but accidentally did it by email, rather than to the blog. Here it is:)


    Thanks for your prompt response. You state that it certainly can’t be fixed on any of the dates I mention. But, is there really any prima facia evidence to suggest that the equinoxes and solstices occurred near where they currently do? I really do need to find a way to contact the writers of the Celestia program and find out why their equinoxes and solstices occur one month earlier 2,000 years ago on their program.

    The years in question are 30 AD and 79 AD. This may be more of a historical question than an astronomical one – I’m beginning to sense that now. I looked up the Roman holidays, and no major holidays really fall on the equinoxes and solstices, unless you back up the calendar one month. Feb, May, Aug, and Nov 24th seem to contain more appropriate holidays than Mar, Jun, Sep and Dec. That is an indication that the true equinoxes and solstices may have occurred nearly a month earlier back then, but it would be impossible to know for sure without consulting a competant historian. Brumalia was a thirty day holiday, beginning on November 24th. The question to me is, was Nov 24 the first day or the last day the date of the actual winter solstice. Couldn’t Dec 25th have been the celebration of the coldest day?

    I am researching a groundbreaking bible theory that involves the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. According to my theory, the volcano should have erupted either at the very end of summer, or the first day of autumn. There is a Roman holiday that fell the day before the volcano erupted named Volcaniti (or something like that). Some coincidence, eh? The holiday was to appease the gods as this was the height of the fire season, so sacrifices were made to the gods to insure that the crops could be harvested. There is no doubt among myself or historians that the eruption occurred on Aug 24th, 79 AD, but the real question is, when did the spring equinox occur that year. If it occurred sometime in late February, it makes my case ironclad, as that would make Aug 24th the beginning of autumn or harvest season. I’m still not sure whether this is a historical or an astronomical question, but it seems as if the only way to know for sure is to find information on any eclipses which may have occurred around that time. I’d need to have the exact day recorded by a historian who witnessed when an eclipse happened; the year alone would not be precise enough. It would probably have to be a solar eclipse as well, but not for certain. A lunar eclipse might work. That’s the only way I can think of to know for sure, but I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on the matter.


  11. Roger, we need only the most basic astronomical knowledge, plus the knowledge that the calendar was adjusted to its present state (except for the little Gregorian change) in the time of Caesar, plus simple logic, to know quite certainly that the solstices in the 1c AD occurred within a day or so of the dates of the Roman calendar on which they fall now. No need for any fancy rummaging thru obscure texts, or anything like that.

    We know that our calendar — the one put in place by Caesar — is very accurate in tracking the sun, at most half a day or so off, then readjusted every four years. The winter solstice doesn’t suddenly jump to Nov. 24 or Apr. 11: it oscillates within a day around Dec. 21. No discontinuity has been recorded in the calendar since Roman times, so the solstice must have been on the same date back then. (And just in case anyone is wondering, the Gregorian fix corrects a slow shift of 3/4 of a day per century — that’s less than 20 minutes a year: and therefore it doesn’t enter into anything in the 1c AD: at very most, the solstice was “off” by a single day.). The spring equinox in 79 AD occurred roughly Mar. 19 to 21.

  12. Oh, after tweaks twiddles, yes of course, there are always some, even now, due to all kinds of factors; they are tiny. It’s true we have no record of them until modern measurement (probably the 19c), but think how utterly implausible it would be that any tweaks and twiddles between the time Sosigenes set the calendar and the time Pope Gregory’s astronomers did the same — would, by sheer happenstance, “zero out” in 1583! The Pope’s astronomers reset the solstices, and found that the difference was exactly what one would expect by calculation of the 3 days per 400 years that they solved for; Imagining that wide variations would occur during the period of time between Sosigenes and the late 1c AD, which then disappeared perfectly by 1583 is an incredible statistical leap….

  13. Just ran across this item, from around 200 AD: “in the month of February, as the Romans call it . . . in this month winter is at its height,” (“Φεβρουαρίῷ μηνί, ὡς ῾Ρωμαῖοι λέγουσι . . . ἐν ᾧ τοῦ χειμῶνός ἐστι τὸ ἀκμαιότατον”); Athen. Deipn. 98b). So mid-February was at the time, just as with us, the middle of winter — and the solstice was about a month and a half before; and, according to the speaker in Athenaeus at any rate, the midwinter day was not Dec. 25, but in February.

  14. Thank you so much for this snippet! It’s all grist to the mill.

    So you’re working on Athenaeus? Well done! I actually have a volume of the Loeb, and it’s clearly a fascinating work (albeit with long boring bits). And I have a suggestion for the title; for modern English has reinvented the deipnosophist as … the “foodie”! So Athenaeus, “The foodies”?

  15. Foodies no, because we’d miss the -sophistae component. In fact the deipno- part is the subsidiary one in that compound. Foodies, sadly, are no scholars, and would be quite incapable — as would I, not to sound superior! — of discussing what Wordsworth might have said about the edibility of jonquils or Shakespeare on the different pound-weights used in Italy for the sale of flesh….

    Yeah, I’m slogging thru Athenaeus; 3 Books up and clean as of yesterday, (homepage). It’s gonna be a long haul.

  16. I always thought of the foodies as those studying food, and therefore the “sophist” part — particularly the bogus sophist idea — would work. But you’re the professional, not me!

    I saw book 3. How wonderful to have this online!

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