August 15th is celebrated in the Catholic world as the day Jesus’s mother Mary ascended into heaven – the Feast of the Assumption. It’s a holy day of obligation for Catholics, a tribute to the Virgin Mary, not to the man for whom the month was named – Caesar Augustus. In Italy, the day marks the beginning of ferragosto when the nation virtually shuts down until September.
The date of the Assumption and the location are not precisely known, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Nevertheless, the early Church fathers arranged for many of their feast dates to “coincide” with Roman pagan holidays. It made celebrating a whole lot easier for converted pagans accustomed to their annual holiday schedule. So, Christmas coincided with the pagan feast of Saturnalia, and the Assumption happened to fall on the “Festivals of Emperor Augustus,” known in Latin as Feriae Augusti, which in later Italian became “ferragosto.”
How the early Judeo-Christians absorbed our ancestral pagan culture is quite an amazing story. St. Paul must be given major credit for transforming a foreign Jewish sect into a force to be reckoned with in the Roman Empire. By eliminating the requirement for circumcision and allowing ancient Italians and Greeks to continue eating pork and shellfish, Paul and his missionaries removed some tough Jewish requirements. When they accepted graven images and swapped out holidays, our pagan ways were doomed.
For the Italic people this replacement of our classical heritage with Christian nomenclature was not without a price. Unlike the various orthodox Christian religions – Greek, Armenian, Russian, etc, – Roman Catholicism did not remain a proprietary ethnic faith in Italy. There was no Italian Orthodox Church. The popes struggled to keep their flock on the peninsula identified as Christians rather than Italians. They went so far as to forge a document alleging that Roman Emperor Constantine actually donated Italy to the Church. Luckily, Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla proved the donation was a fake in 1440.
The Church wanted us to forget our classical roots. Our ancient heroes were replaced with saints and Christian scholars. Essentially, especially in central and southern Italy, we underwent a classical-ectomy. Although monks copied pagan manuscripts, the Church sought to stifle any rediscovery of our ancient history, science, or literature among the masses. Even into the 1800s, the popes were virulently against Italian reunification. The popes had seen what happened when nationalism reared its head – the Reformation in Germany was an ethnic rebellion of sorts, and so was the founding of the Church of England under Henry VIII. Essentially, the Church wanted Italians to forget their ancient past and their classical heroes. Better to exult St. Augustine than Caesar Augustus.
The month of August reminds us of what we lost. Named for Divine Augustus, as he was hailed by the ancient Italic people, the month is now fully enshrined in Church lore, nary an Italian American aware of its true roots. -JLM