May 14 – The Sacrifice of the Argei

This is a follow-up post to another article that I had posted on March 16. I suggest that you read that one before you read this article. To read the article dated to March 16, click here.

Ancient writers such as Ovid, Plutarch, and Varro mentioned that on March 16, life-sized human mannequins made of straw or wicker, crafted to look like sacrificial victims with their arms and legs tied together, were ceremonially housed within special shrines that were located in the city of Rome. Both these figures and the shrines that they were located in were known as the Argei (pronounced Ar-GAY-ee). The number of shrines and associated dummies is variously recorded by ancient writers as somewhere between twenty-four to thirty. For the next two months, these wickerwork dummies remained cloistered within their vaults until May 14 came around. On that day, to paraphrase a famous British cult classic, it was time to keep their appointment with the Wicker Men (Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21; Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 16, March 17; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86)

May 14 was allotted in the ancient Roman religion as the day to carry out human sacrifices to the god Saturn. However, human sacrifices had been outlawed by the time of Caesar Augustus, and certainly earlier than that, although exactly when is pretty impossible to determine. On May 14, a group of people consisting of the Vestal Virgins, representatives from the College of the Pontiffs, and notable members of the city government including Rome’s mayor visited each of these shrines one-by one. All of them were dressed in black, as if they were going to a funeral, and they also behaved like they were going to one as well; this was supposed to be a very somber and melancholy ritual. Each of the wicker argei mannequins would be removed from the shrine that housed it, and would be carried along the route to the next shrine. At the end of this group’s ambulation, they would be carting around twenty-something life-sized wickerwork mannequins. Tradition recorded that the method of execution used in human sacrifice was death by drowning. Therefore, they would journey to the Pons Sublicius, which was the old bridge made of oak timbers that had been erected centuries earlier during the reign of King Numa Pompilius; granted, this wooden bridge was regularly repaired and renovated to keep it in good condition. No reference is made in the ancient sources of any prayers that were made by the participants, but I’m sure that there were invocations to Saturn. As they stood upon the bridge, with the slow waters of the Tiber flowing below them, these wicker men were cast one after another over the side into the river below. Thus, in a metaphorical way, these mannequins were drowned in the river, preserving the tradition without having to actually kill anybody (“Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition (1911), by William Warde Fowler; “Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929); A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38; Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 14; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86).


Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!

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