This article is about an ancient Roman priestly order. For the Frankish tribe of the fourth century AD, see Salian Franks.

In ancient Roman religion, the Saliī (/ˈsæliˌ/, Latin pronunciation: ['sʌlɪiː]) were the "leaping priests" (from the verb saliō "leap, jump") of Mars supposed to have been introduced by King Numa Pompilius.[1] They were twelve patrician youths, dressed as archaic warriors: an embroidered tunic, a breastplate, a short red cloak (paludamentum), a sword, and a spiked headdress called an apex. They were charged with the twelve bronze shields called ancīlia, which, like the Mycenaean shield, resembled a figure eight. One of the shields was said to have fallen from heaven in the reign of King Numa and eleven copies were made to protect the identity of the sacred shield on the advice of the nymph Egeria, consort of Numa, who prophesied that wherever that shield was preserved, the people would be the dominant people of the earth.

Each year in March the Salii made a procession round the city, dancing and singing the Carmen Saliare. Ovid, who relates the story of Numa and the heavenly ancīle in his Fasti (3.259–392), found the hymn and the Salian rituals outdated and hard to understand. During the Principate, by decree of the Senate, Augustus' name was inserted into the song (Res Gestae 10). They ended the day by banqueting. Saliaris cena became proverbial for a sumptuous feast.[2]

King Tullus Hostilius is said to have established another collegium of Salii in fulfilment of a vow which he made in the second war with Fidenae and Veii.[3] These Salii were also twelve in number, chosen from the patricians, and appeared to have been dedicated to the service of Quirinus. They were called the Saliī collīnī, Agonales, or Agonenses.[4]

It is unclear whether the primary aim of the ritual was to protect Rome's army, although this is the traditional view.


In addition to the myth of the ancile, several other explanations are offered in Greek and Latin sources for the founding of the priesthood. An origin among the Etruscans is attributed to a founding by Morrius, king of Veii. The Salii are also given an origin in connection with Dardanus and the Samothracian Di Penates, or the Salius who came to Italy with Evander and in the Aeneid competed in the funeral games of Anchises.[5]

Interpretations of the rituals

Georges Dumézil interpreted the rituals of the Salii as marking the opening and the closing of the yearly war season. The opening would coincide with the day of the Agonium Martiale on March 19,[6] and the closing with the day of the Armilustrium on October 19. The first date was also referred to as ancilia movere, "to move the ancilia," and the second as ancilia condere, "to store (or hide) the ancilia." Dumezil views the two groups of Salii — one representing Mars and the other Quirinus — as a dialectic relationship showing the interdependency of the military and economic functions in Roman society.[7][8]

Classical philologist Georg Wissowa maintained that the ritual of the Salii is a war dance or a sword dance, with their costumes clearly indicating their military origin.[9]

Because the earliest Roman calendar had begun with the month of March, Hermann Usener thought the ceremonies of the ancilia movere were a ritual expulsion of the old year, represented by the mysterious figure of Mamurius Veturius, to make way for the new god Mars born on March 1.[10] On the Ides of March, a man ritually named as Mamurius Veturius was beaten with long white sticks in the sacrum Mamurii, in Usener's view as a form of scapegoating. Mamurius was the mythic blacksmith who forged eleven replicas of the original divine shield that had dropped from the sky.[11]

According to Usener and Ludwig Preller[12] Mars would be a god of war and fertility while Mamurius Veturius would mean "Old Mars". Mars is himself a dancer,[13] and the head of the Salian dancers, patrician young men whose parents were both living (patrimi and matrimi). Wissowa compares the Salii with the noble youth who dance the Lusus Troiae.[14] The ritual dance of the Salii would thus be a coalescence of a initiation into adulthood and war with a scapegoat ritual (see also pharmakos).

Other 19th-century scholars have compared the rituals of the Salii with the Vedic myths of Indra and the Maruts.[15]

Ancient authors quoted by Maurus Servius Honoratus and Macrobius recorded that Salii had existed at Tibur, Tusculum and Veii even before their creation in Rome.[16]


Ceremonial headgear of the Salii and flamens

Salian virgins

Sextus Pompeius Festus makes a perplexing reference to "Salian virgins" (saliae virgines).[18] Wearing the paludamentum and pointed apex of the Salii, these maidens were employed to assist the College of Pontiffs in carrying out sacrifices in the Regia. It has been suggested[19] that the passage in Festus describes a transvestite initiation.[20] An earlier explanation held that the maidens played the role of absent warriors in some form of propitiation.[21] The meaning of their being "hired" is unclear.[22]


  1. Livy, Ab urbe condita libri, 1:20
  2. There is no single standing description of the Salii's rituals throughout the month of March from one of the ancient authors, and facts have to be reconstructed from multiple mentions in diverse works; however there are strong indications that the procession may actually have lasted a full 24 days, from March 1st which opened the festival till March 24th which closed it, with the procession moving from one station to another each day, and some revelling being held each evening; a complete assessment can be found in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. William Smith, LLD. William Wayte. G. E. Marindin. Albemarle Street, London. John Murray. 1890 online
  3. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:27
  4. William Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, "Salii". John Murray, London, 1875.
  5. Joseph Rykwert, The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World (MIT Press, 1988), p. 96.
  6. Varro Lingua Latina VI 14: "Liberalia...In libris Saliorum quorum cognomen Agonensium, forsitan hic dies ideo appellatur Agonia": "Liberalia...In the books of the Salii they are named of the Agonenses,perhaps this day is thence rather named Agonia".
  7. Servius Aen. VIII 663; Statius Silvae V 128 ff.; Dionysius of Hal. II 70, 2
  8. G. Dumezil La religion romaine archaique Paris 1974 2nd part 1 chapt. 6; It. tr. Milano 1974 p. 248-249
  9. Wissowa 1912, pp. 480ff.
  10. Old calendars name the day Caesus Ancili or Natalis Martis: Calend. Philocali et Constantini Feriae Martis, Calend. Praen. CIL I p. 387; Ovid Fasti III 1 ff.; L. Preller Roemische Mythologie 1858 p.319 n. 5
  11. H. Usener Kleine Schriften IV Bonn, 1913 p. 122 and 135 citing Iohannes Lydus de Mensibus IV 36, 71; Properce V 2, 61; Minucius Felix Octav. 243; Varro Lingua Latina VI 45: "Itaque Salii quod cantant: "Mamuri Veturi" significant memoriam veterem". "Thus the Salii when they sing "Mamuri Veturi" mean memories of the past"
  12. H. Usener Kleine Schriften IV Bonn, 1913, p. 193; L. Preller Roemische Mythologie 1858 p. 297
  13. Catullus 17, 6 Salisubsulus
  14. Wissowa 1912, p. 382.
  15. L. von Schoeder Mysterium und Mimus im RigVeda 1908, pp. 126 and 329-330; A. Hillebrandt Vedische Mythologie 1902 III p. 323; killer of his own father at the same time of his birth II p. 517, III p. 162; father of Indra is Tvastar the divine blacksmith (cf. Mamurius Veturius): Oldenburg Die Religion d. Veda 1894 p. 233
  16. Servius Aen. VIII 285; Macrobius Saturnalia III 12, 1-9
  17. "God Mars", contributed by "Antonia Traiana Severa",
  18. Festus (439 L) cites Aelius Stilo and Cincius as his sources.
  19. H.S. Versnel, Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion: Transition and Reversal in Myth and Ritual (Brill, 1994, 2nd ed.), vol. 2, p. 158, especially note 104 online, citing the prior but independent conclusions of M. Torelli, Lavinio e Roma. Riti iniziatici e matrimonio tra acheologia e storia (Rome 1984), 76 ff and 106 ff.
  20. On the aspect of initiation, see also Habinek, Thomas (2005). The World of Roman Song: From Ritualized Speech to Social Order. JHU Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8105-3., p. 17
  21. L. Deubner, "Zur römischen Religionsgeschichte," Rheinisches Museum 36–37 (1921–22) 14ff., as cited by Versnel.
  22. Mary Beard, "Priesthood in the Roman Republic", in Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World (Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 19 and 22.
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