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 p347  Compitalia

Unsigned article on pp347‑348 of

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

COMPITA′LIA, also called LUDI COMPITALI′CII, a festival celebrated once a year in honour of the lares compitales, to whom sacrifices were offered at the places where two or more ways meet (compita, Varro, De Ling. Lat. VI.25, ed. Müller; Festus, s.v.). This festival is said by some writers to have been instituted by Tarquinius Priscus in consequence of the miracle attending the birth of Servius Tullius, who was supposed to be the son of a lar familiaris (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.70). Dionysius (IV.14) ascribes its origin to Servius Tullius, and describes the festival as it was celebrated in his time. He relates that the sacrifices consisted of honey-cakes (πέλανοι), which were presented by the inhabitants of each house, and that the persons, who assisted as ministering servants at the festival, were not free-men, but slaves, because the lares took pleasure in the service  p348 of slaves: he further adds that the compitalia were celebrated a few days after the Saturnalia with great splendour, and that the slaves on this occasion had full liberty given them to do what they pleased. We further learn from Macrobius (Saturn. I.7) that the celebration of the compitalia was restored by Tarquinius Superbus, who sacrificed boys to Mania, the mother of the lares; but this practice was changed after the expulsion of the Tarquins, and garlic and poppies offered in their stead.

The persons, who presided over the festival were the Magistri vici, who were on that occasion allowed to wear the praetexta (Ascon. ad Cic. in Pis. p7, ed. Orelli). Public games were added at some time during the republican period to this festival, but they were suppressed by command of the senate​a in B.C. 68; and it was one of the charges brought forward by Cicero against L. Piso that he allowed them to be celebrated in his consul­ship, B.C. 58 (Cic. in Pis. 4; Ascon. l.c.). But that the festival itself still continued to be observed, though the games were abolished, is evident from Cicero (ad Att. II.3).º During the civil wars the festival fell into disuse, and was accordingly restored by the emperor Augustus (Suet. Aug. 31; comp. Ov. Fast. V.128‑148). As Augustus was now the pater patriae, the worship of the old lares was discontinued, and the lares of the emperor consequently became the lares of the state. Hence, the Scholiast on Horace (ad Sat. II.3.261), tells us that Augustus set up lares or penates at places where two or more ways met, and instituted for the purpose of attending to their worship an order of priests, who were taken from the Libertini, and were called Augustales. These Augustales are entirely different from the Augustales, who were appointed to attend to the worship of Augustus after his decease, as has been well shown by A.W. Zumpt in his essay on the subject (De Augustalibus, &c., Berol. 1846). [Augustales]

The compitalia belonged to the feriae conceptivae, that, festivals which were celebrated on days appointed annually by the magistrates or priests. The exact day on which this festival was celebrated, appears to have varied, though it was always in the winter. Dionysius relates (IV.14), as we have already said, that it was celebrated a few days after the Saturnalia, and Cicero (in Pison. 4) that it fell on the Kalends of January; but in one of his letters to Atticus (VII.7) he speaks of it as falling on the fourth before the nones of January. The exact words, with which the festival was announced, are preserved by Macrobius (Saturn. I.4) and Aulus Gellius (X.24).

Thayer's Note:

a It seems odd that our dictionary just delivers us this unexplained statement and keeps on going. Why should the senate suppress a religious festival? The explanation (and a bit more depth on the subject) can be found in A Note on the Compitalia.

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Page updated: 11 May 08