Today, the Ides of May, was the Mercuralia (Festival of Mercury) in ancient Rome. Before talking about Mercury let’s talk a little about the Roman calendar first, since it formed the basis of the calendar commonly in use throughout the West. The calendar purported to have been created by the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, had 10 months of either 31 days (full months) or 30 days (hollow months). The year began in March and ended in December, with roughly 51 days added in winter before March to keep the calendar in line with the sun. Those of you who know your Latin roots know that /septe/ /octo/ /noven/ and /decem/ are seven, eight, nine, and ten respectively. What day of the month it was, was expressed by counting forward to key points in the month: kalends, nones, and ides. The kalends was the first of the month (and gives us the word “calendar”), the ides were the 15th in full months and the 13th in hollow months, and the nones were one week before the ides. The Roman week was 8 days long, but a week was counted as nine days (nones) inclusively. May was a full month so the Ides were the 15th. In case you are wondering, January, February were added in when reforms were made by Julius Caesar and Augustus who gave their names to what were formerly simply called fifth and sixth months.
Mercury was the Roman messenger god whose attributes were mainly borrowed from the Greek god Hermes, but there are some legendary tales extant regarding Mercury that are clearly distinct from Greek ones and in line with ancient Roman beliefs. He was the god in charge of (variously) trade, thieves, eloquence, messages, luck, and travel. His name, by folk etymology, was related to “merx” (merchandise), “mercari” (trade), and “merces” (wages). The Ides of May was designated as his birthday from pre-Republican times, the Mercuralia, and on this day the merchants of Rome used laurel boughs to sprinkle their merchandise, their ships, and their heads with water from a fountain at Porta Capena known as aqua Mercurii. They also offered prayers to Mercury for forgiveness of past and future perjuries, for profit, and the continued ability to cheat customers!
Mercury was not one of the most ancient of the Roman gods but he did have a temple in Rome situated in the Circus Maximus, between the Aventine and Palatine hills. It was built in 495 BCE and dedicated on the Ides of May. That year saw conflicts in Rome between the patrician senators and the plebeians, which led to a secession of the plebs in the following year. At the completion of the temple’s construction, a dispute emerged between the consuls Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis and Publius Servilius Priscus Structus as to which of them should have the honor of dedicating the temple. The senate referred the decision to the popular assembly, and also decreed that whichever was chosen should also exercise additional duties, including presiding over the markets, establishing a merchants’ guild, and exercising the functions of the pontifex maximus. The people, because of the ongoing public discord, and in order to spite the senate and the consuls, instead awarded the honor of dedicating the temple to the senior military officer of one of the legions, Marcus Laetorius. The senate and the consuls, in particular the conservative Appius, were outraged at this decision, and it inflamed the ongoing situation leading to the famous secession of the plebeians the following year.
The temple was regarded as a fitting place to worship a swift god of trade and travel, since it was a major center of commerce as well as a racetrack. Because it stood between the plebeian stronghold on the Aventine and the patrician center on the Palatine, it also emphasized the role of Mercury as a mediator. Following Greek legends of Hermes, Mercury was associated with leading newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Additionally, Ovid wrote that Mercury carried Morpheus’ dreams from the valley of Somnus to sleeping humans. So, Mercury’s roles as mediator, messenger, and merchant are all intertwined.
Because of Mercury’s common roles he was easily syncretized with various indigenous gods throughout the Western Roman empire, taking on their local attributes and worship in different parts of Gaul and Britain. He also gave his name to a wandering star (planet), and hence one of the names of a weekday in Romance languages (Wednesday), which are mostly named for bodies in the solar system (as opposed to English which uses Norse gods primarily). To this day Mercury is a symbol of speed, especially in delivering messages.
Romans offered a great many things to Mercury to procure favors especially in trade and business, including cinnamon, honey, lambs, and goats. I make braised lamb shanks quite often, sometimes with a resultant honey glaze/sauce. Cinnamon and honey are a natural pairing, so here’s my recipe for honey and cinnamon braised lamb shanks in honor of Mercury. You could use goat pieces instead if you like. This should be an Old World only recipe – no potatoes, for example. You could serve the shanks with noodles if you believe, as I do, that the Romans made pasta long before Marco Polo visited China.
©Honey and Cinnamon Braised Lamb Shanks
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 lamb shanks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
4 tbsp honey
1 pint beef stock
1 pint chicken stock
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the lamb shanks and brown thoroughly on all sides. Add the garlic towards the end, but do not let it brown.
Cover the shanks with beef and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and add the honey and cinnamon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook, uncovered, on a very slow simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is falling from the bones and the braising sauce is thick and syrupy. You can do this step in the oven if you like at 325˚F. If the sauce is not reduced enough, remove the shanks, turn up the heat to high and cook quickly until it is sufficiently reduced. Roll the shanks in the sauce to cover thoroughly and serve with Old World root vegetables.