February 23 – The Terminalia: The Feast Day of the Roman Border God

February 23 was the date of the Terminalia, the festival dedicated to the ancient Roman god Terminus, the god of property boundaries. Yep, that was a real thing. Agrarian societies like the Roman peasant class took land ownership extremely seriously. Trespassing on another person’s property was not a minor offense, and muscling in on another person’s property by letting your livestock graze on someone else’s land or plowing ground that didn’t belong to you were very serious offenses indeed. Not only was property sovereignty at issue, but in many cases life and death depended upon your ability to have the land provide for you and your family. If your neighbor’s cattle devoured all of your good pasture leaving no food behind for your own livestock, or if your grapes and olives were stolen before you could pick them, your family was going to be in for hard times. Therefore, property ownership and property disputes were taken very seriously.

The ancient Romans often ascribed gods to things, and would, rather un-imaginatively, name the god simply as the name of whatever it was the god of. For example, the Roman god of the sun was called Sol, which simply meant “sun” in Latin. By extension, Luna was the goddess of the moon, and luna was the word for “moon” in Latin. Terminus was the Latin word for “boundary marker”, so when the time came for the Romans to concoct a god specifically of boundary markers, unsurprisingly, they named him after the thing that he was the god of. In ancient Rome, properties were often demarcated by large stone pillars or obelisks, or else with wooden posts set into the earth. In addition to being the god that looked after the boundaries of individual properties, Terminus was also the god who protected the boundary of the Roman Empire itself. He was, in essence, the ultimate border guard. NONE SHALL PASS!!!

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the Terminalia festival was first conducted during the reign of King Numa Pompilius, one of Rome’s early kings. He passed a law stating that every individual property should be marked out so that there could no longer be disputes over who owned which piece of ground. He ordered that each household must draw a line around their property and then place stones along the property lines. Then, these stones were consecrated to “Jupiter Terminus” – Jupiter of the Boundaries – and he stated that the landowners should assemble at the boundary markers at a certain date and make sacrifices to them. In addition to demarcating private properties from one another, stones were also used to distinguish between private property and public property, and were also laid around the boundary of the Roman kingdom itself to mark the border between the city-state and foreign lands. King Numa furthermore stated that if anyone damaged or removed the stones, that person would be classified as an outlaw, outside of any legal protection, and anybody could kill that person with impunity (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74).

Ovid reports that the place where this festival was first held was located six miles away from the city limits of Rome, along the road towards the town of Laurentum. In archaic times, this milestone marker also marked the end of the city-state of Rome’s lands, and it was at this spot that the first Terminalia sacrifice was performed. There was, apparently, an inscription which either stated or illustrated that a sheep was sacrificed at this marker as a sacrifice to the god who watched over and protected Rome’s border (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

According to Marcus Varro, the Festival of Terminus occurred on February 23 because this was the last day of the Roman year. Before the calendar was reformed, the Roman year began with March, the month of the god of war, since the Romans claimed that Romulus and Remus were the sons of Mars. It wasn’t until later that the calendar was shuffled around so that the year began with January. Months in the Roman calendar previously followed the phases of the moon, which could lead to some problems because the full moon did not always fall on the same days each year. Therefore, the calendar was changed so that it more resembled the calendar that we have today (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 13. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

The poet Ovid gives us details about how the rituals dedicated to Terminus would have proceeded. First, everyone who was involved was required to be dressed all in white clothes. The people involved would be the two families that lived in neighboring properties which the boundary marker separated, and a priest would be presiding over everything. Two men – the two property owners who owned the adjacent lands – would approach the boundary stone that separated their two properties from each other from opposite directions, carrying a flower garland. Then, both men would drape the flower garlands upon the side that faced towards their respective properties (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Nearby, a bonfire in the shape of a sacrificial altar was constructed out of branches and logs carefully stacked atop each other. It would have looked very similar to, if not identical to, a bustum cremation pyre. The matron from each household would bring hot coals from her own house’s hearth within a ceramic pot – these would later be used for igniting the pyre when the time came (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Now was the moment when the various sacrificial offerings were made by the sons and daughters of both families, and it is here that our historical sources conflict with each other. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC – 7 BC) states that the offerings consisted of cakes, grain, and the first-grown produce of the fields, and that no animals were used in this ritual because “it is not lawful to stain these stones with blood” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74). By contrast, Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD) states that piglets and lambs were sacrificed as part of the Terminalia (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23). The historian Plutarch makes some sense of the differing statements made by Dionysius and Ovid. In the fourth part of his book Parallel Lives, Plutarch reports that nowadays Romans conduct animal sacrifices to Terminus, but in centuries past this was not done. In his words, “Terminus signifies boundary, and to this god they make public and private sacrifices where their fields are set off by boundaries; of living victims nowadays, but anciently the sacrifice was a bloodless one, since Numa reasoned that the god of boundaries was a guardian of peace and a witness of just dealing, and should therefore be clear from slaughter” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, book 4 – “The Life of Numa”, chapter 16). Plutarch also speaks of this in his series of short musings entitled Roman Questions: “Why is it that they were wont to sacrifice no living creature to Terminus, in whose honour they held the Terminalia, although they regard him as a god? Is it that Romulus placed no boundary-stones for his country, so that Romans might go forth, seize land, and regard all as theirs, as the Spartan said, which their spears could reach; whereas Numa Pompilius, a just man and a statesman, who had become versed in philosophy, marked out the boundaries between Rome and her neighbours, and, when on the boundary-stones he had formally installed Terminus as overseer and guardian of friendship and peace, he thought that Terminus should be kept pure and undefiled from blood and gore?” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #15). It would therefore appear that it was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, who reigned from 31 BC to 14 AD, that the rules regarding what could and couldn’t be sacrificed during the Terminalia were changed. However, Caesar Augustus makes no mention of this in his Res Gestae, his list of accomplishments, and I do not know of any ancient writer who remarks that Augustus ordered the rule to be changed. It would therefore appear that it was not by imperial command, but rather, changing social attitudes that led to the change of sacrificial offerings.

Using both Dionysius and Ovid as references, each family brought a honey cake, grain (which was cast onto the pyre three times), the first-grown crops that emerged from the soil, sliced honeycomb, wine, a suckling pig, and a lamb. The piglet was killed and laid on the fire intact, but the lamb, which was brought to the altar last, was sacrificed differently. The lamb was slain and its blood was collected, presumably in a basin or pot or something, and laid aside for later. Then the lamb itself was laid upon the pyre along with all of the other sacrificial offerings (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74; Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Now was the time to light the fire. Dried bark and other tinder were shoved into the opening in between the logs. The hot coals that had been brought by both women of their households was carefully prodded inside, and soon, the wooden altar went up in smoke and flames. Nobody spoke at all during the whole course of all of this (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Bonfires, painted by Hugo Simberg (1873–1917).
Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, the lamb’s blood was then splattered onto both sides of the boundary marker (Ovid doesn’t say who specifically did this, but it was probably the priest), blessing it, and the priest presiding over the ritual would give a speech that sounded something like this: “Terminus, protector god of our nation’s boundaries, it is you who lays the lines for estates, cities, and great nations. Without you, every field’s ownership would be disputed. You are not flattered or distracted by others to make you forget your duty. In good faith, you guard the land that you are entrusted to watch over. Unlike other gods, you are not free to wander. Therefore, remain on guard at your post, and do not yield an inch to our enemies. Proclaim where you stand ‘That land there is yours, but this land here is ours’” (based upon Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).


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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