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p138 Arvales Fratres

Article by Robert Whiston, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge
on pp138‑139 of

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

ARVALES FRATRES. The fratres arvales formed a college or company of twelve in number, and were so called, according to Varro (De Ling. Lat. V.85, Müller), from offering public sacrifices for the fertility of the fields. That they were of extreme antiquity is proved by the legend which refers their institution to Romulus, of whom it is said, that when his nurse Acca Laurentia lost one of her twelve sons, he allowed himself to be adopted by her in his place, and called himself and the remaining eleven "Fratres Arvales" (Gell. VI.7). We also find a college called the Sodales Titii, and as the latter were confessedly of Sabine origin, and instituted for the purpose of keeping up the Sabine religious rites (Tac. Ann. I.53), there is some reason for the supposition of Niebuhr (Rom. Hist. vol. I p303), that these colleges corresponded one to the other — the Fratres Arvales being connected with the Latin, and the Sodales Titii with the Sabine, element of the Roman state, just as there were two colleges of the Luperci, namely, the Fabii and the Quinctilii, the former of whom seem to have belonged to the Sabines.

The office of the fratres arvales was for life, and was not taken away even from an exile or captive. They wore, as badge of office, a chaplet of ears of cornº (spicea corona) fastened on their heads with a white band (Plin. H. N. XVIII.2). The number given by inscriptions varies, but it is never more than nine; though, according to the legend and general belief, it amounted to twelve. One of their annual duties was to celebrate a three days' festival in honour of Dea Dia, supposed to be Ceres, sometimes held on the XVI., XIV., and XIII., sometimes on the VI., IV., and III. Kal. Jun., i.e. on the 17th, 19th, and 20th, or the 27th, 29th, and 30th of May. Of this the master of the college, appointed annually, gave public notice (indicebat) from the temple of Concord on the capitol. On the first and last of these days, the college met at the house of their president, to make offerings to the Dea Dia; on the second they assembled in the grove of the same goddess, about five miles north of Rome,a and there offered sacrifices for the fertility of the earth. An account of the different ceremonies of this festival is preserved in an inscription, which was written in the first year of the Emperor Elagabalus (A.D. 218), who was elected a member of the college under the name of M. Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix. The same inscription contains a hymn, which appears to have been sung at the festival from the most ancient times (Marini, Atti e Monumenti degli Arvali, tab. XLI; Orelli, Corp. Inscrip. nr. 2270; Klausen, De Carmine Fratrum Arvalium.)

Besides this festival of the Dea Dia, the fratres arvales were required on various occasions, under the emperors, to make vows and offer up thanksgivings, an enumeration of which is given in Forcellini (Lex, s.v.). Strabo, indeed (V.3), informs us that, in the reign of Tiberius, these priests (ἱερομνήμονες) performed sacrifices called the Ambarvalia at various places on the borders of the ager Romanus, or original territory of Rome; and amongst others, at Festi, a place between five and six miles from the city, in the direction of Alba. There is no boldness in supposing that this was a custom handed down from time immemorial, and, moreover, that it was a duty of this priesthood to invoke a blessing on the whole territory of Rome. It is proved by inscriptions that this college existed till the reign of the Emperor Gordian, or A.D. 325, and it is probable that it was not abolished till A.D. 400, together with the other colleges of the Pagan priesthoods.

The private ambarvalia were certainly of a different nature from those mentioned by Strabo, and were so called from the victim (hostia ambarvalis) that was slain on the occasion being led three times round the cornfields, before the sickle was put to the corn. This victim was accompanied by a crowd of merry-makers (chorus et socii), the reapers and farm-servants dancing and singing, as they marched along, the praises of Ceres, and praying for her favour and presence, while they offered her the libations of milk, honey, and wine. p139(Virg. Georg. I.338). This ceremony was also called a lustratio (Virg. Ecl. V.83), or purification; and for a beautiful description of the holiday, and the prayers and vows made on the occasion, the reader is referred to Tibullus (II.1). It is, perhaps, worth while to remark that Polybius (IV.21 §9) uses language almost applicable to the Roman ambarvalia in speaking of the Mantineans, who, he says (specifying the occasion), made a purification, and carried victims round the city, and all the country.

There is, however, a still greater resemblance to the rites we have been describing, in the ceremonies of the rogation or gang week of the Latin church. These consisted of processions through the fields, accompanied with prayers (rogationes) for a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and were continued during three days in Whitsun-week. The custom was abolished at the Reformation in consequence of its abuse, and the perambulation of the parish boundaries substituted in its place (Hooker, Eccl. POl. V.61, 2; Wheatley, Com. Pray. V.20).


Thayer's Note:

a grove of the Dea Dia: the grove was about five miles not north, but south-west of Rome along the ancient Via Campana, where the modern suburban quarter of La Magliana is located: see John Scheid, Recherches Archéologiques à La Magliana. (Not my note at all, actually: thanks for the heads‑up to Prof. (Emeritus) Allen Ward at the University of Connecticut.)


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