Here’s to More Life, Love and Adventures to Come: The Ancient History of Birthday Celebrations

One of the most famous Roman antiquity inscriptions comes from Vindolanda, a fort along Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain. This is Claudia Severa’s so-called “birthday letter,” which she wrote to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina around 100 CE. Severa dictated to a scribe on a small wooden tablet the invitation to her friend for a birthday celebration on September 11th, as well as well wishes in her own handwriting.  

Roman writing tablet from the Vindolanda Roman fort of Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland (1st-2nd century AD). Tablet 291: Letter inviting Sulpicia Lepidina, the commander’s wife, to a birthday party, about AD 97-103. British Museum (London) By Michel wal

The Bible contains the first reliable account of a birthday being recognised. The Pharaoh was celebrating his birthday, according to the ancient text in Genesis. “Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.” (Genesis 40:20–22)

Here we can see not only a clear mention of a birthday, but also a typical birthday celebration. The pharaoh has summoned all his officials for a feast in his honour. On important days, he also participates in the ancient tradition of restoration by restoring the chief cupbearer to his position, which he presumably lost. This story takes place during Joseph’s narrative in the Hebrew texts, which has been dated to around 1400 BC, implying that the first mention of a birthday dates back 3400 years. However, this might not have indicated so much the Pharaoh’s birth into the world, but rather their “birth” into the world, but rather their “birth” as a god. When Egyptian pharaohs were crowned, they were thought to have transformed into gods. This was a turning point in their lives that was more significant than their physical birth.

We can perhaps assume that the Greeks adopted the Egyptian custom of celebrating a god’s “birth.” They, like many other pagan cultures, believed that major transitional days, such as these “birth” days, welcomed evil spirits. In response to these spirits, they lit candles, almost as if they represented a light in the darkness. This implies that birthday parties began as a form of protection. Pagans, such as the ancient Greeks, also believed that each person was born with a spirit that accompanied him or her. This spirit kept watch and had a mystical relationship with the god whose birthday falls on the day of birth of that particular person. However, this rite was limited primarily to monarchs who were considered to be close to the gods. Celebrations would not become commonplace for many, many generations.

Porcelain figure of Diana being bathed by her attendants (c. 1790) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art; possibly originally modeled by Louis-Simon Boizot; made by the Sèvres Porcelain Factory in France

Gods and goddesses played an important role in Greek culture. To appease these gods, the Greeks offered numerous tributes and sacrifices. Artemis, the lunar goddess, was no exception. They would offer moon-shaped cakes adorned with lit candles as a tribute to Artemis in order to recreate the moon’s glowing radiance and Artemis’ perceived beauty. The candles also represented the transmission of a signal or prayer. Another way to send that message to the gods is to blow out the candles with a wish.

The Greeks might have adopted the Egyptian custom of celebrating a god’s “birth.” They, like many other pagan cultures, believed that major transitional days, such as these “birth” days, welcomed evil spirits. In response to these spirits, they lit candles, almost as if they represented a light in the darkness. This implies that birthday parties began as a form of protection. In addition to the candles, friends and family would gather around the birthday person and protect them from harm with good cheers, thoughts, and wishes. They would give gifts to spread even more good cheer and ward off evil spirits.  

In Rome, there are dozens of festivals to choose from. According to the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, all good Romans should observe the feriae. The feriae were defined as “days set aside for the sake of the gods.” During this time, the majority of common people, including slaves, began to celebrate specific days that were deemed important to their class, region, or family with rituals similar to a modern birthday.

It might be helpful to look at the early Roman calendar’s structure and the power that comes with controlling the organisation of time in Roman society. Book III of Ovid’s Fasti tells us that this calendar began in Martius (March) and progressed through April, May, June, Quinctilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. Although the reform of this calendar was attributed to an early Roman king, Numa Pompilius, it was actually sometime in the mid-Republic (prior to around 450 BC) that this calendar shifted to what we now call the pre-Julian calendar. January became the first month of the year, and all the number months (such as October, the eighth month) lost their original meaning.  

Because time management was considered sacred and the domain of priests, the Roman calendar was not always publicly displayed. A public calendar was not established in the Roman Forum until around 304 BC, at the request of a magistrate, an aedile (Roman magistrates responsible for public buildings and originally also for the public games and the supply of corn to the city) named Gnaeus Flavius. While the Romans did not have a “weekend,” they did divide an 8-day week into nundinae marked A-H, with a day set aside for the market when farmers did not work. The month was organised around the Kalends (the first day of the month), the Ides (the 13th or 15th), and the Nones (9 days back from the Ides, when inclusively counting, and thus on the 5th or 7th).

Because this pre-Julian calendar had 355 days, it needed to be adjusted on a regular basis using a technique known as intercalation (a bit like those extra minutes added to the end of a soccer match). Sometime between the mid and late Republic, 21 April 753 BC was designated as Rome’s birthday and was celebrated alongside the Parilia, a festival to ensure the health of livestock and flocks. This Parilia was officially renamed the Natalis Urbis (birthday of the city) by Emperor Hadrian in 121 CE.

The Romans, like many other civilizations, enjoyed commemorating the beginning of things, known as a dies natalis (birth day). Temples, cities and people were frequently remembered for the dates of their birth. Like the Ancient Greeks, the birthday in the Roman mindset was much closer to a cultic religious celebration than it is today, owing to the fact that each person had a genius (a tutelary spirit) to whom they sacrificed on their birthday. This deity protected an individual for a year, and the protection was renewed annually through the performance of a sacrifice.

Birthday parties were an important mix of religion and friendship, with sacrifices, incense burning, ritual cakes made and eaten, and white robes worn. It was also more of a Roman tradition rather than a Greek one, and the person with the birthday was far more generous than those attending the celebration. Such birthday celebrations, whether of family members, personal friends, or patrons, take place in that critical sphere where Roman social relations and Roman religious practise intersect, and demonstrate how difficult it is to understand either in isolation from the other. Birthdays had a similar dynamic because Rome was an agricultural society that used festivals to celebrate life—of animals, crops, and children. Any Roman celebrating his or her 50th birthday would be given a special cake made with wheat flour, olive oil, grated cheese, and honey. Of course, this birthday celebration would only be experienced by men. Female birthdays were not observed until the 12th century.

Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 BC. However, the official celebration of Julius Caesar’s birthday on 12 July did not begin until 42 BC. This was two years after he was assassinated on the Ides of March. The name of a deceased human then appeared on the calendar’s rolls, the fasti, and the divus Iulius, the divine Julius, was suddenly linked to a living, adopted son: Octavian. It was not until the Augustalia of 19 BC that the still-living Emperor Augustus (previously Octavian) became the first living man to have a sacred calendar festival.

Augustus as pontifex maximus, c. 20 BC

This was an honour that would coincide with the rise of emperor worship, known as the imperial cult, which was in fact very Greek in nature. During the Roman imperial period, the senate deified Julius Caesar and 55 emperors, 11 male imperial family members and 16 female imperial family members. Birthdays remained a crucial religious touchstone for remembering imperial predecessors, connecting with the Roman people, and cementing one’s place in public memory.

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