Everyone loves a party open to all comers, and the emperors of Rome were history’s most magnanimous hosts. But while their citizens were accustomed to lavish freebies, living as they did on grain handouts and endless public entertainments, one particular day — April 21, 248 A.D. — must have stood out as the ultimate bash. That was when the ancient megalopolis hosted the world’s first and most opulent millennial celebrations, marking 1,000 years since the city’s foundation by the shepherd Romulus.
It was the mother of all anniversaries, and everything was laid on.
At the time, the empire had been weathering some hard knocks — the early third century had seen repeated barbarian incursions and civil strife — but Rome was still the undisputed master of the Mediterranean, far and away the most splendid city the world had ever seen. Roman soothsayers had anticipated the millennium for years, and the presiding emperor, a recently-enthroned military officer named Marcus Julius Philippus — known to posterity as “Philip the Arab,” because he was born in the province of Syria — devised a city-wide extravaganza that would win his people’s undying loyalty, guarantee his position, and ensure that his name would be remembered for all time. In fact, in its grand ambition and universal reach — news of the excess was reported in the furthest borders of civilization — it would be the one party in Western history that can be compared to our own New Year’s Eve millennium party of 1999 A.D.
Scoring an Invitation: Every free Roman citizen was welcome. As a result, the capital’s million-plus population was swelled by hordes of wide-eyed provincials arriving from as far as Britain and the Nile, most of whom were forced to sleep in the street, since inns were sold out. The crowds couldn’t even fit in the key venues like the Circus Maximus (with seating for 250,0000) and the Colosseum (50,000); for the big scheduled events, plebeian partygoers would line up the night before, clutching the wooden chits that showed their seating section. (The top-ranking senators and equestrians were spared this indignity). Rome’s over-taxed police force, the vigiles, struggled to enforce crowd control, often cudgeling unruly queues into order.
Pre-party Planning: The emperor spared no expense: The imperial capital — whose golden-roofed temples, marble monuments, and triumphal arches already made it the Eighth Wonder of the World — was decorated “with infinite pomp and magnificence,” as Edward Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Avenues were repaired. Bouquets of spring flowers were hung on every corner. Silver-tasseled banners were hung from the processional ways, which naturally avoided the seedy slums such as the Subura, where the majority of poor Romans lived in tenement houses called insulae, or islands.
What to Wear: As the New York of Antiquity, Rome was always the place to see fantastic fashion statements, and during the festival anything went. The crowds attracted patricians in dyed togas, Ethiopians in multi-colored robes, Asians in silks woven with gold thread — even Britons wearing outlandish trousers.
Party Progress: The official core of the event was a seamless blend of religious and patriotic ceremonies, the likes of which is only seen today in Islamic militant states. At dusk on the first evening, crowds converged on the spacious Campus Martius, the Field of Mars, which was lit by thousands of torches and lanterns carried by an army of slaves. The setting was an open-air theme park of propaganda monuments — a string of triumphal arches, covered walkways, and Egyptian obelisks celebrating the divine inevitability of Rome’s world conquest. As the awe-struck crowd watched, priests solemnly sacrificed hundreds of steer and heifers to guarantee the empire’s strength, with a portion of each thrown onto pyres for the gods themselves, until the night air was filled with the bleating of animals and the scent of roasting flesh. The evening’s climax was a spectacular procession of robed youths and virgins, who emerged from the surrounding temples singing hymns for “the virtue, the felicity and the empire of the Roman people.”
But the fun really began with the exuberant “Millennial Games” — a roster of athletic competitions, theatrical shows, and chariot races held all over the city. According to the chronicler Saint Jerome, nobody slept in the city for three days and three nights.
Low Point: The Romans were a neurotic bunch and the 1,000-year anniversary had a dark side for many. As the party unfolded, there were dire predictions from prophets, oracles, soothsayers, numerologists, and astrologers that the end of the Empire was at hand. This has particular parallels to our 1999 millennium party: While our computer geeks scanned cyberspace for mythical Y2K bugs, the ancients had Egyptian priests searching the heavens for the Phoenix, a giant bird whose arrival every 1,461 years portended disaster. And just as modern doomsayers mined the ambiguous Nostradamus, Roman oracles recycled cryptic Sybilline prophecies to prove their more dire predictions.
In fact, just as it did for us, the 1,000-year anniversary passed without incident for Rome. It was actually the next year, 1001, when the problems began. It appears the millennium party had raised expectations that a bright new era was about to begin; when it did not, the people of Alexandria began to riot and kill Christians, and the legions of the Danube went into revolt and made claims to the throne. In 249, Philip was defeated in the field and fell on his sword, and the Empire was plunged into “twenty years of shame and misfortune,” as Gibbon puts it — the most damaging series of civil wars, economic disasters, and barbarian invasions in its history. As it happens, the empire would survive this so-called “third century crisis.” (It would lurch on for another 200 years). But when the next chance to celebrate a big anniversary – the saeculum – came, the Emperor Diocletian decided to let it pass quietly. • 6 April 2009
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York, 2003); Potter, D.S., The Roman Empire at Bay, 180-395, (London, 2004).