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p31 Agonalia

Unsigned article on pp31‑32 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

AGONALIA, or AGONIA (Ov., Fast. V.721), one of the most ancient festivals at Rome, celebrated several times in the year. Its institution, like that of other religious rites and ceremonies, was attributed to Numa Pompilius (Macrob. Saturn. I.4). We learn from the ancient calendars that it was celebrated on the three following days, the 9th of January, the 21st of May, and the 11th of December (a.d. V. Id. Jan.; XII. Kal. Jun.; III. Id. Dec.); to which we should probably add the 17th of March (a.d. XVI. Kal. Apr.), the day on which the Liberalia was celebrated, since this festival is also called Agonia or Agonium Martiale (Varr. L. L. VI.14, ed. Müller; Macrob. l.c.; Kalendarium Vaticanum). The object of this festival was a disputed point among the ancients themselves; but as Hartung has observed (Die Religion der Römer, vol. II p33), when it is recollected that the victim which was offered was a ram, that the person who offered it was the rex sacrificulus, and that the place where it was offered was the regia (Var. L. L. VI.12; Ov. Fast. I.333; Festus, s.v. Agonium), we shall not have much difficulty in understanding the significance of this festival. The ram was the usual victim presented to the guardian gods of the state, and the rex sacrificulus and the regia could be employed only for such ceremonies as were connected with the highest gods and affected the weal of the whole state. Regarding the sacrifice in this light, we see a reason for its being offered several times in the year.

p32 The etymology of the name was also a subject of much dispute among the ancients; and the various etymologies that were proposed are given at length by Ovid (Fast. I.319‑332). None of these, however, are at all satisfactory; and we would therefore suggest another. It is well known that the Quirinal hill was originally called Agonus, and the Colline gate Agonensis (Festus, s.vv. Agonium, Quirinalis; comp. Dionys. II.37). What is then more likely than that this sacrifice should have been originally offered on this hill, and should thence have received the name of Agonalia? It is expressly stated that the sacrifice was offered in the regia, or the domus regis, which in the historical times was situated at the top of the sacra via, near the arch of Titus (Becker, Handbuch d. Röm. Alterth. vol. I pp237, 238); but in the earliest times the regia is stated by an ancient writer to have been upon the Quirinal (Solin. I.21), and this statement seems to render our supposition almost certain (Classical Museum, vol. IV pp154‑157).

The Circus Agonensis, as it is called, is supposed by many modern writers to have occupied the place of the present Piazza Navona, and to have been built by the emperor Alexander Severus on the spot where the victims were sacrificed at the Agonalia. Becker (Ibid. pp668‑670) has however brought forward good reasons for questioning whether this was a circus at all, and has shown that there is no authority for giving it the name of circus Agonensis.a


Thayer's Note:

a good reasons for questioning whether this was a circus at all: Yes. The other stuff is just peculiar. The "Circus Agonensis" is a curious name for the Stadium of Domitian, which is not a circus, although it has roughly the shape of one; the adjective agonensis here means "of the place where athletic contests are held", and the first derivation, rightly demolished by Becker, has the flavor of mediaeval folk etymology. For a clear explanation with sources, see Platner's article on the Stadium.


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