January 3-5 – The Compitalia: Ancient Rome’s Winter Street Fair

Pompeii Street, painted by Eduardo Ettore Forti (1897). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pompeii_Street_by_Ettore_Forti.jpg.

The Compitalia was an ancient Roman festival celebrated from January 3-5 in honor of the Lares Compitales, the guardian spirits of crossroads; the name Compitalia comes from the Latin word compitum, meaning “crossroad”. Marcus Terentius Varro gives a brief explanation behind the meaning of the festival: “The Compitalia is a day assigned to the Lares of the highways; therefore, where the highways competunt ‘meet’, sacrifice is then made at the compita ‘crossroads’. This day is appointed every year” (1).

Thankfully the poet Ovid, verbose as always, provides a much more thorough examination of this festival’s origins…

“Hear of what I’ve learned from the old men. Jupiter, overcome with intense love for Juturna, suffered many things a god ought not to bear. Now she would hide in the woods among the hazels, now she would dive into her sister waters. The god called the nymphs who lived in Latium, and spoke these words in the midst of their throng: ‘Your sister is an enemy to herself, and shuns a union with the supreme god that would benefit her. Take counsel for both: for what would delight me greatly would be a great advantage to your sister. When she flees, stop her by the riverbank, lest she plunges her body into the waters’. He spoke: all the nymphs of the Tiber agreed, those too who haunt your spaces, divine Ilia. There was a naiad, named Lara: but her old name was the first syllable twice-repeated, given her to mark her failing. Almo, the river-god often said: ‘Daughter, hold your tongue’, but she still did not. As soon as she reached the pools of her sister Juturna, she said: ‘Flee these banks’, and spoke Jupiter’s words. She even went to Juno, and showing pity for married women said: ‘Your husband loves the naiad Juturna’. Jupiter was angered, and tearing that tongue from her mouth that she had used so immoderately, called Mercury to him: ‘Lead her to the shadows: that place is fitting for the silent. She shall be a nymph, but of the infernal marshes’. Jove’s order was obeyed. On the way they reached a grove: Then it was they say that she pleased the god who led her. He prepared to force her, with a glance instead of words she pleaded, trying to speak from her mute lips. Heavy with child, she bore twins who guard the crossroads, the Lares, who keep watch forever over the City” (2).

It appears that the Compitalia was originally a countryside festival, where offerings were made at the places where major roads intersected. However, by the late 500s BC, when Rome was still rules by kings, these festivals were occurring within the city of Rome itself. During Caesar Augustus’ reign, the city of Rome was divided into fourteen neighborhoods, and each one had a shrine dedicated to the protective spirit of that neighborhood. Since these shrines were erected at road intersections, these spirits were referred to as lares compitales, “the guardian spirits of the crossroads” (3).

Most Roman holidays took place upon important astrological dates. For example, the Compitalia occurred when the constellation Cancer is no longer visible in the night sky. As the poet Ovid said, “When the third night before the Nones has come, and the earth is drenched, sprinkled with heavenly dew, you’ll search for the claws of the eight-footed Crab in vain: it will plunge headlong beneath the western waves” (4). However, things have changed in the past 2,000 years, and the constellations have shifted in the sky.

Although the Compitalia commonly took place in early January, there was no fixed date in which it always took place. It was therefore classified as a feriae conceptivae, a “moveable feast”, whose date shifted around on the calendar each year. During the late Republican period of Roman history, the date for the upcoming Compitalia festival was publicly announced by the city of Rome’s praetor (the chief administrative official of the city) eight days beforehand. It wasn’t until later in the Roman Empire’s history that the date for the Compitalia was permanently established at January 3 to 5 (5).

According to the writings of Aulus Cornelius Gellius, “It will be sufficient to show the undeviating usage of the men of old, if I quote the regular formula of the praetor, in which, according to the usage of our forefathers, he is accustomed to proclaim the festival known as the Compitalia. His words are as follows: ‘On the ninth day the Roman people, the Quirites, will celebrate the Compitalia; when they shall have begun, legal business ceases’. (6)

Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the inhabitants of each houses offered sacrifices of honey cakes at the junction of where roads intersect. The people who carried out the functions of the rituals were slaves, not freemen. However, this was a day in which social conventions were suspended and slaves were free to act any way that they wished.

“He [King Servius Tullius] ordered that the citizens inhabiting each of the four regions should, like persons living in villages, neither take up another abode nor be enrolled elsewhere; and the levies of troops, the collection of taxes for military purposes, and the other services which every citizen was bound to offer to the commonwealth, he no longer based upon the three national tribes, as aforetime, but upon the four local tribes established by himself. And over each region he appointed commanders, like heads of tribes or villages, whom he ordered to know what house each man lived in. After this he commanded that there should be erected in every street by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood chapels to heroes whose statues stood in front of the houses, and he made a law that sacrifices should be performed to them every year, each family contributing a honey-cake. He directed also that the persons attending and assisting those who performed the sacrifices at these shrines on behalf of the neighbourhood should not be free men, but slaves, the ministry of servants being looked upon as pleasing to the heroes. This festival the Romans still continued to celebrate even in my day in the most solemn and sumptuous manner a few days after the Saturnalia, calling it the Compitalia, after the streets; for compiti is their name for streets. And they still observe the ancient custom in connexion (sic) with those sacrifices, propitiating the heroes by the ministry of their servants, and during these days removing every badge of their servitude, in order that the slaves, being softened by this instance of humanity, which has something great and solemn about it, may make themselves more agreeable to their masters and be less sensible of the severity of their condition” (7).

Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, in his work on agriculture, states that it was common practice during the Compitalia for the farm’s master and his overseer to switch duties, so that the overseer was in charge and the master had to follow his orders (8)

The Roman writer Macrobius states that the ancient Roman king Tarquinius Superbus had established the Compitalia in honor of Mania and of the lares. Mania was the goddess of the spirits of the dead, and the lares (singular: lar) were protective guardian spirits of the household. Macrobius says that King Tarquinius did this after receiving an oracle from the god Apollo commanding him to do so, saying that the god’s favor should be gained “with heads”. He took this very literally, and ordered human sacrifices to be carried out in order to propitiate Apollo, Mania, and the lares. However, after the expulsion of the Tarquin Dynasty, the new consul Brutus decided to re-interpret the god’s words. After all, Apollo said that heads were to be sacrificed, but heads of what? It didn’t explicitly state that they had to be the heads of people. Therefore, he decreed that instead of decapitating sacrificial victims and offering them up on a pyre, the Romans should instead make offerings of heads of garlic and heads of poppy. Consequently, it became the common custom in Rome for people to hang up an effigy of Mania outside their household’s door, and to make sacrifices to her of garlic and poppies (9).

The Roman writer Festus sates that, in addition to hanging up effigies of Mania, each family also hung dolls made of wool representing men and women, with a prayer that Mania and the household lar would bless these figures and spare the people living within any bad luck. Slaves offered up balls of wool or fleece instead of dolls (10).

The festival was intended to be a lustratio, a protection ritual for the people living within that neighborhood. A sacrificial pig would be led around the neighborhood before being taken to the altar. At other times, the lares were offered garlands of flowers. Public games known as the Ludi Compitalicii, stage plays, and street performances were included as part of the festival, but they were abolished by a Senatorial decree in either 68 or 67 BC. The reason for the Senate outlawing the Compitalia was due to its associations with rabble-rousing and the gathering of public mobs. The Compitalia festival was brought back in 56 BC with the passage of the Lex Clodia de Collegiis, but by the dictatorship of Julius Caesar a decade later, the Compitalia had gradually fallen out of practice. However, they were brought back by Caesar Augustus, possibly between the years 14 to 7 BC when Augustus began a serious reform and revitalization of the cults associated with the lares (11).

Suetonius says that Caesar Augustus issued an edict stating that the city of Rome’s Compitalia shrines needed to be adorned with flowers twice per year with the flowers of Spring and Summer (12), Indeed, Ovid, the Venusine Calendar, and the Antiatine Calendar hint that there were numerous venerations of the spirits of the crossroads, the lares compitales, during those times, specifically on the Kalends of May, the Ides of August, and the Ides of October (13). It would therefore appear that in ancient Rome there was a Winter Compitalia (January 3rd to 5th), a Spring Compitalia (May 1st), a Summer Compitalia (August 15th), and an Autumn Compitalia (October 15th).

So, this coming January 3, get out your pork, garlic, honey cakes, and poppies, and pray that your local community sees good fortune during the Winter season.

Source citations:

  1. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 25. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 199.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21.
  3. Tesse Dieder Stek, “A Roman cult in the Italian countryside? The Compitalia and the shrines of the Lares Compitales”. Babesch, volume 83 (2008). Pages 112-113.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 3.
  5. Harriet I. Flower, The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. Page 162; Tesse Dieder Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Changes in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society after the Roman Conquest. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009. Page 188; J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Page 36.
  6. Aulus Cornelius Gellius, Attic Nights, book 10, chapter 24.
  7. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 4, chapter 14.
  8. Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, On Agriculture, chapter 5, verse 3.
  9. Macobius, Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 7, verses 34-35.
  10. Gordon Laing, “The Origin of the Cult of the Lares”. Classical Philology, volume 16, issue 2 (April 1921). Page 127.
  11. Titus Calpurnius Siculus and Marcus Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus, The Eclogues. Translated by Charles Haines Keene. London: George Bell & Sons, 1887. Page 109, footnote #125; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. John Murray, London, 1875. Pages 347-348; John V. A. Fine, “A Note on the Compitalia”. Classical Philology, volume 27, issue Number 3 (July 1932). Page 268; J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pages 36-37, 44.
  12. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 2 – “The Life of Caesar Augustus”, chapter 31, verse 4.
  13. Edward Greswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae: Nundial Calendars of Ancient Italy, in Four Volumes, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Pages 120-121.


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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