Summer Flowers, painted by John William Godward (1903).
Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.
Do you remember the days before the coronavirus pandemic when we could all gather together in public spaces for special events: block parties, concerts, street fairs, etc? I do, and I sure miss it. I miss going to street fairs, especially. The ancient Romans liked having street fairs too. In fact, the ancient Romans had four of these throughout the year, one for each season. These public street fairs were known as the Compitaliae. A Compitalia was a street fair celebrated in ancient Rome which was designed, at least in theory, to pray for the well-being of the community, but personally I think its real purpose was to bring people of the neighborhood together and have a good old-fashioned block party.
The Compitaliae were held 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).
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”. The Compitalia was intended to be a lustratio, a protection ritual for the people living within that neighborhood (2).
August 15, the Ides of August, marked the date of the Summer Compitalia Street Fair. Three other compitaliae festivals took place throughout the year: a winter fair in early January, a spring fair at the beginning of May, and an autumn fair in mid October (3).
What sort of activities occurred on this day? Because this date was intended to be a religious ritual intended to bring health and prosperity to the community and to ward off evil and misfortune, all manner of rituals and sacrifices were carried out. A sacrificial pig would be led around the neighborhood before being taken to an altar to meet its fate. Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the inhabitants of each houses offered sacrifices of honey cakes at the shrines located at road intersections, and Macrobius relates that garlic bulbs and poppy heads were burned on sacrificial altars. People hung effigies of Mania, the goddess of the spirits of the dead, outside the doors of their homes as a way to ward off hauntings of evil or malevolent spirits. 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 (presumably representing each of the people who dwelt within that home), with a prayer that Mania and the household lar (plural: lares) would bless these figures and spare the people living within any bad luck. Slaves offered up balls of wool or fleece instead of dolls. The people who carried out the functions of many of these rituals were often slaves, not freemen (4).
The Compitalia was also a day in which social conventions were temporarily suspended and slaves were free to act any way that they wished. 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. (5).
The ancient Roman writer Suetonius says that the emperor 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. So, during the Summer Compitalia of August 15, the roadside shrines would be decorated with garlands of flowers, presumably as a way to please the spirits, but no doubt it also served to put the neighborhood into a festive spirit (6).
Other activities were much more secular in nature. Public games known as the Ludi Compitalicii, stage plays, and street performances were included as part of the festival as a way to create fun and entertainment for the people of the neighborhood. However, in either 68 or 67 BC, the Roman Senate abolished these public fun fairs due to their association with rabble-rousing and the gathering of public mobs. The Compitalia festival was briefly 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 once again 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 (7).
So, this August 15, get out your pork, garlic, honey cakes, and poppies, and pray that your local community sees good fortune during the Summer season.
- Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 25. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 199.
- 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; J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pages 36-37, 44.
- Edward Greswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae: Nundial Calendars of Ancient Italy, in Four Volumes, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Pages 120-121.
- J. Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pages 36-37; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 4, chapter 14; Macobius, Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 7, verses 34-35; Gordon Laing, “The Origin of the Cult of the Lares”. Classical Philology, volume 16, issue 2 (April 1921). Page 127.
- Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, On Agriculture, chapter 5, verse 3.
- Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 2 – “The Life of Caesar Augustus”, chapter 31, verse 4.
- 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.
- Cato the Elder, Marcus Porcius. On Agriculture, chapter 5, verse 3. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cato/De_Agricultura/A*.html.
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 4, chapter 14. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/4A*.html.
- Fine, John V. A. “A Note on the Compitalia”. Classical Philology, volume 27, issue 3 (July 1932). Pages 268-273. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CP/27/3/Compitalia*.html.
- Greswell, Edward. Origines Kalendariae Italicae: Nundial Calendars of Ancient Italy, in Four Volumes, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854.
- Laing, Gordon. “The Origin of the Cult of the Lares”. Classical Philology, volume 16, issue 2 (April 1921). Pages 124-140.
- Lott, J. Bert. The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Macrobius, Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 7, verses 34-35. Edited and translated by Robert A. Kaster. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. https://books.google.com/books?id=dsfIwajjGaQC&dq=macrobius+saturnalia+compitalia&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Siculus, Titus Calpurnius; Nemesianus, Marcus Aurelius Olympius. The Eclogues. Translated by Charles Haines Keene. London: George Bell & Sons, 1887.
- Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. John Murray, London, 1875.
- Stek, Tesse Dieder. “A Roman cult in the Italian countryside? The Compitalia and the shrines of the Lares Compitales”. Babesch, volume 83 (2008). Pages 111-132.
- Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars, book 2 – “The Life of Caesar Augustus”, chapter 31. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Augustus*.html.
- Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 25. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.