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Type of Holiday: Ancient
Date of Observation: Early January
Where Celebrated: Rome
Symbols and Customs: Crossroads, Woolen Doll
Related Holidays: Plough Monday


Scholars find the beginnings of ancient Roman religion in the sixth century B . C . E . Roman religion dominated Rome and influenced territories in its empire until Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the third century C . E .

Ancient Roman religion was heavily influenced by the older Greek religion. Roman festivals therefore had much in common with those of the ancient Greeks. Not only were their gods and goddesses mostly the same as those in the Greek pantheon (though the Romans renamed them), but their religious festivals were observed with similar activities: ritual sacrifice, theatrical performances, games, and feasts.

The Compitalia were moveable feasts, held between the SATURNALIA (December 17) and January 5, although in the later Roman Empire, they were traditionally held on January 3-5. The history of their celebration spans 1,000 years, beginning with the primitive agricultural villages of early Rome and ending with the late Empire.

The festivals were held in honor of the Lares or spirits of the household and family. They were instituted by Tarquin the Proud, the seventh and last king of Rome, after an oracle told him to make an offering of human heads to the Lares. After the brutal king and his family were finally expelled from Rome in 244 C . E ., it was decided that the heads of poppies and human figures made out of straw were a sufficient offering. The sacrifices were held at special shrines that had been built at rural or town CROSSROADS , and the men who prepared these sacrifices had to be slaves from whom all signs of servitude had been removed. Slaves, in fact, were allowed to participate fully in the festivities, just as they were at the Saturnalia. They would often join their master in the feasting, dancing, and merrymaking that followed.

The purpose of the Compitalia may have been purification before beginning the year's work, or it might have been to seek the numen or mysterious power of the Lares. In any case, it provided a good excuse for neighbors to get together and celebrate the New Year. In the country, the celebration centered on neighboring farms; in the city, it meant games and dancing that spilled out into the streets. The spirit of this ancient festival survived in the rustic English holiday known as PLOUGH MONDAY , a time for farm workers to celebrate the completion of their plowing.



The compita or crossroads were originally places where the paths of farms crossed each other or where country roads met. Shrines resembling small towers were built there, with small altars facing in all four directions so that the Lares or deities who protected each farm would have access to them. When the agricultural villages of early Rome developed into towns, the compita were the crossing-points of the vici, or residential streets. Sacella or shrines were erected there just as they were in the countryside, and fattened pigs were sacrificed to the Lares. The shrines served as a religious center for the area's inhabitants, including slaves.

The belief that crossroads are holy, sometimes haunted, places is widespread in folklore. They stood as symbols of the place where people crossed from one realm to another and were likely to need guidance. In ancient Rome, the meeting of two or more roads symbolized the "navel" of the world. Statues of the god who protected travelers were often placed there to give direction to those who were in doubt. Sometimes farmers would hang a broken plow on the shrine as a sign that their work had been completed.

Woolen Doll

On the night before the sacrifices were held at the crossroads shrines, woolen dolls or effigies of men and women-one for each member of the family, with a ball of wool for each slave-were hung on the doors of all the houses in Rome. The doll, of course, had a head, symbolic of a legal identity. The woolen balls representing slaves lacked heads, indicating that slaves were not considered full members of society. Some scholars think that these effigies were substitutes for the original human victims sacrificed to the Lares. Given the fact that some Romans regarded the Lares as ghosts of the dead rather than benevolent deities of the house and farm, it might have been their hope that the ghosts would carry off the woolen dolls and spare the living.


Fowler, W. Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. New York: Macmillan Co., 1925. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


Early January
The Compitalia were festivals celebrated in ancient Rome in early January (between the 3rd and the 5th, according to some accounts) in honor of the lares, or deities of the household farm and family. Compita were places where roads or farm paths crossed each other and were considered sacred. Small tower-like shrines were often built there, and people would hold sacrifices at the shrines at the end of the agricultural year. The shrines were left open in four directions so that the lares had access to them. Sometimes farmers would also hang a broken plough there to indicate that a job was done.
The institution of the Compitalia is attributed to either Tarquin the Proud (also known as Tarquinius Superbus because of his proud and insolent nature) or Servius Tullius. There is some indication that the original sacrifices were human, but that Brutus, the first consul of Rome, eventually substituted dolls and the heads of poppies for human figures. Slaves enjoyed a brief period of freedom during the Compitalia, and the spirit of the ancient festival survived in Plough Monday, an occasion for servants to celebrate the completion of their ploughing.
ClassDict-1984, pp. 162, 608
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 604
DictRomRel-1996, p. 51
FestRom-1981, p. 58
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 19
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Once in office, he ordered the magistri vici to celebrate the Compitalia with games,(50) These games had been banned by a Senatus Consultum in 64 B.C.