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February 1 – The Month of Februus, the Ancient Roman God of Purification

In the ancient Roman calendar, several of the months are named after gods in the Roman pantheon. January is named after Janus, the god of new beginnings. March is named after Mars, the god of war. But what about February? February is the month of Februus, the god of purification. The name Februus comes from the Latin verb februa (which may have either Etruscan or Sabine roots), which means “to purge, purify, or cleanse”. The word “fever” is based on the same origin as the name “February”, because the Romans believed that you could purge sickness from your body by sweating it out of your system (1).

In addition to having the entire month dedicated in Februus’ honor, the ancient Romans also had a specific day dedicated to him in their calendar. This was called the Februalia, the Feast of Februus. In one source, it says that the Februalia purification ritual spanned from February 13 to 15 (2), but in all other sources that I have seen, it states that it only took place on the 15th. Later, the purification rituals of the Februalia were absorbed into the fertility ritual of the Lupercalia, which you can read about in more detail here.

In the past, the Roman calendar began with the month of March and ended with the month of February. Mars was seen as the divine father of the Romans, for he was the father of their first king Romulus; the year began with the month that bore his name. February, the final month of the calendar, was regarded as the death of the year, and consequently February was known for reverence to the dead (3). Traditionally, Roman government officials began their term-of-office on the first day of the year (March 1st) and exited on the last day of the year (February 28th or 29th). However, during the 150s to 130s BC, several important changes occurred within the Roman Republic, and many of these changes had to do with the Roman military campaigns in Spain. Military campaigns almost always began in March or April, when the temperature warmed, the snows melted, and the Roman Army could move. However, the immensities of the fighting in Spain meant that Roman military commanders were given precious little time to organize their campaigns. As a result of the wars in Spain, the rules and conventions of government needed to be changed due to the necessities of waging military operations in that theater, including extending the term-of-office for certain officials in order for them to more effectively carry out their duties, and even changing the Roman calendar. It was decided to shift the months of the calendar around. January and February, which had previously been the eleventh and twelfth months, were now moved to the beginning of the year to serve as the first and second months. Roman politicians and military commanders now assumed their powers on January 1 instead of March 1, which gave them at least sixty more days to prepare their troops for the upcoming military campaigns. This is also the reason why the months of September (literally translated to “Month Number 7”), October, November, and December now serve as the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year (4).

The Roman poet Ovid writes about the purification rituals of February in his Fasti:

“The fathers of Rome called purification ‘februa’. Many things still indicate that meaning for the word. The high priests ask the King and the Flamen for woolen cloths, called ‘februa’ in the ancient tongue. When houses are cleansed, the roasted grain and salt, the lictor receives, are called by the same name. The same name too is given to the branch, cut from a pure tree, whose leaves wreathe the priests’ holy brows. I’ve seen the priest’s wife (the Flaminica) ask for ‘februa’, and at her request she was given a branch of pine. In short anything used to purify our bodies, had that title in the days of our hairy ancestors. The month is so called, because the Luperci cleanse the earth with strips of purifying hide, or because the time is pure, having placated the dead, when the days devoted to the departed are over. Our ancestors believed every sin and cause of evil could be erased by rites of purification. Greece set the example: she considered the guilty could rid themselves of sins by being purified” (5)

Ovid also states that a gathering was held every February 1 at the Forest of Alernus, located where the Tiber River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, he does not provide any reason for this assembly of people at this wood, nor does he go into any description as to what activities occurred there. Elsewhere, at the tomb of Numa Pompilius and at Jupiter’s temple of the Capitoline Hill, a sheep was sacrificed. (6)

Ovid also states that February 1 marked the date that at least two temples were built dedicated to the goddess Juno, the queen of the Roman gods. However, Ovid remarks that these temples had long fallen into ruins by the time that he was writing (7).

Source citations

  1. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  2. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  4. Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 8 – “The Roman Conquest of Spain”.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.
  7. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.


January 9 – The Feast of Janus

January is the month of Janus, the ancient Roman god of new beginnings and the patron god of windows and doors – yes, I’m serious. He is depicted as a man with a double face, able to look forwards and backwards at the same time. This symbolizes reflecting on the past and looking towards the future. Janus is invoked by those who are starting a new chapter in their lives, like moving, getting a new job, getting married, having kids, etc.

Although the entire month of January was dedicated to the god Janus, he also had a specific feast day on January 9th, known as the Agonalia of Janus. An “agonalia” is a holy feast day that has live animal sacrifices. These sacrifices originally took place upon the top of the Quirinal Hill, one of the fabled Seven Hills of Rome; in archaic times, the Quirinal Hill used to be called the Agonal Hill, the Hill of Sacrifices. There were several agonalia festivals throughout the year dedicated to various gods. In addition to the Agonalia of Janus on January 9th, there was also the Agonalia of Mars on March 17th, the Agonalia of Vediovis (a Roman god who was sort of a mixture between the Greek gods Apollo and Asclepius) on May 21st and the Agonalia of Sol, the god of the sun, held on December 11th (1).

Ovid says regarding January 9th, “Janus must be propitiated on the Agonal day…Some believe that the day is called Agonal because the sheep do not come to the altar but are driven (agantur). Others think the ancients called this festival Agnalia, ‘of the lambs’, dropping a letter from its usual place. Or because the victim fears the knife mirrored in the water, the day might be so called from the creature’s agony? It may also be that the day has a Greek name from the games (agones) that were held in former times. And in ancient speech agonia meant a sheep, and this last reason in my judgement is the truth. Though the meaning is uncertain, the king of the rites, must appease the gods with the mate of a woolly ewe” (2).

The central event of the Agonalia was the sacrifice of a ram to the god Janus. The ancient Roman poet Ovid states that the sacrificial altar was decorated with garlands of purple violet flowers, and that the top of the altar was adorned with bowls that burned juniper incense and laurel leaves. “The altar was happy to fume with Sabine juniper, and the laurel burned with a loud crackling. He was rich, whoever could add violets to garlands woven from meadow flowers” (3).

The presiding priest was called the rex sacrificulus, “the king of sacrifices”, and the sacrifice took place at a location called the Regia, where the former kings of Rome used to reside. When the ram was brought to the altar, the priest would invoke the name of the god and ask whether or not the sacrifice ritual should continue. “Always, before he stains the naked blade with hot blood, he asks if he should, and won’t unless commanded” (4). When the god reveals to him that the sacrifice should continue (how this happens is never mentioned), then the ram is killed and offered to the god. Offerings of dates, figs, and honey within sealed white jars were also made to Janus as part of the ceremony (5).

Source citations:

  1. William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32; “Agonalia”.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. “Roman Festivals & Holidays”; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32.


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

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 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 spirits. 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 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 (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.