Nov. 27, 2023

Holidays as divine property: Moving symbols of ownership from the countryside into the city

Author: Jörg Rüpke

In many of the more than fifty copies of the Roman calendar known from antiquity, the dates marked NP carried the explanation feriae. The Romans regarded each of these days as intensively related to a single deity. Almost always, therefore, the qualification as a holiday, feriae (the German word Ferien derives from this), was combined with a genitive typically used to declare a possessive relationship. These were the feriae of the gods Jupiter (13 January), Mars (1, 14, 17, 19 and 23 March), Ceres (21 April), and others. Just as deities—the specific focus of our project within the framework of the SFB Structural Change of Property—could be intensively—and in a way that excluded other humans’ (or divinities’) ownership—related to a piece of land, just as they could become occupants of land, typically being materialized by altars without or temples with statues, they could also become subjects with a prerogative over time. How can we describe this relationship?

The analogy of ownership leads far. If a bad omen (prodigium) appeared on the property of a deity, for example when lightning struck the temple, this very deity was to be appeased by a sacrifice. If a temple building was dedicated to several deities, the Roman priesthood of the pontiffs made sure in their advice to the Senate that each deity had at least one room for its cult image. This was the only way to ensure clarity. The same applied to the feriae. If the prohibition on certain activities was exceeded, atonement was to be offered to this deity. Clarity was also provided in both dimensions in other respects. The areas of two deities never came into direct contact with one another; a narrow, but not only theoretical, borderline was needed.

The same applied to the holidays. In the Republican calendar before the reform of C. Iulius Caesar in 46 BCE, two holidays of different deities never directly followed each other; some principle of an intermediate day that was not in any explicit relation to the divine always applied. The Roman day ran, at least in sacral calculation, from midnight to midnight, the older Pliny reports in his Natural History (Plin. nat. 2.188). On the basis of contemporary clock technology, it was not possible to achieve unambiguousness at the change of day. This indicates a further parallel of spatial and temporal boundaries. The whole and marked area of a temple was seen in identical relationship to the divinity. (In fact, the Latin templum referred to such an area, the building, ‘temple’ itself, was simply called house, aedes.) Likewise, it was not just the hour or hours of some ritual, but the whole period from midnight to midnight (at this point of the day a minimum of movement and activities was to be expected anyway) that was regarded as sacred.

Compensating for space by time

If temple areas could be understood as being owned by divinities as holidays were, both also entered into an exchange relationship between segments of time and segments of space. Deities could own temples or days: We know of no feriae of central deities such as Juno and Minerva, except for Diana (CIL IX, 2319). Jupiter, on the other hand, not only possessed all the Ides, but at least three more days, the Poplifugia (‘flight of the people’) at the beginning of July, the wine festival of the Meditrinalia on October 11, and the obscure Larentalia on December 23. Conversely, some deities had their specific days for which we do not know of any major temple buildings: the Carmentae, Quirinus, Terminus, Ops, Robigus, Volturnus, Diva Angerona were rich in time but less in space.

The analogy of spatial and temporal gifts helps once again. Territories related to a divinity had a focal point and a boundary. Such plots of land were dominated by an altar with or without a temple. This is where the cult was concentrated, where sacrifices were offered, where festivities were celebrated. The property as a whole—the temple area, was marked out by a wall, poles, tin signs in the shape of stars. Offerings were placed and consecrated within this area. Under certain circumstances, the rules of asylum applied here and changed the status of people owned by others, that is, unfree, or owning something to others, that is, debtors. Holidays—that is, time—had a similar focus, a ritual, usually celebrated centrally, occasionally—additionally—decentrally, in individual households, among friends. But what did the border look like?

Marking out property of time

The existing watch technology did not allow for clear limit markings. The solution was, therefore, to mark the surface. The period of the holiday was marked pars pro toto by the renunciation of exerting rights on human agents’ ground and, above all, by the renunciation of interventions in the ground, beyond the normal human sphere of life on the surface, during the normal period of working—that is, daylight. This could become concrete in many ways. For free citizens, the lack of coercion in court was in the foreground. For enslaved people, the break from work was central. Even cattle were not allowed to come to work; they were living ‘tools,’ like slaves. Preparations for digging in the field and the actual draining of water were forbidden. However, much more attention was paid to the question of what was allowed. Life could not stop for such days. Here the lists of activities that might be pursued as necessary even on holidays are much longer.

Shortly before the middle of the 2nd century BCE, Cato the Elder clarified at the beginning of his book On Agriculture “that on holidays (feriae) old ditches can be cleared, a public road fortified, thorny bushes cut back, the garden dug up, the meadow cleaned, branches bundled up, thorns dug up, flour purified, and clean-up work carried out” (2.4). In the same manner as the urban juridical norms of the urban praetor looked at intentions rather than accidental infringements of religiously-motivated holidays, only premeditation was inexpiable for the farmer. But there was a struggle for more general formulations. And so, a guarantor quoted by Macrobius (Macrob. Sat. 1.16.10-11) stated: “Everything that is done for the gods and that is essential for life is also permitted. The great jurist Scaevola added: ‘Whatever harms by omission is allowed!’”

It is clear, however, that all these provisions are not a general ban on work. The 1st century BCE philosopher and politician M. Tullius Cicero states in his book On Laws: “The regulation of holidays and feast days includes, in the case of the free, the tranquillity of court disputes and deals, and, in the case of the slaves, work and toil.” But he continues with the economic reservation: “These holidays must adjust the composition of the year to the completion of peasant work” (Cic. leg. 2.29). Only in a few places is there a ban on work, but these are regulations that are selective radicalizations that only concerned certain priests. The highest priests with special obligations, the three great Flamines, the individual priests of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, as well as the Rex sacrorum, the sacrificial king, were not to see any work at all on holidays. Accordingly, heralds ran before them, calling for temporary stoppage of work by the wayside. Here they moved as in a bubble, which applied in the same way to the pontiffs heading to some sacrifice; in like manner these priests were shielded from seeing manual labor The religious specialists who were concentrated on the service of the deities were not to be distracted in any way by people working in their presence during holidays (attested by Macrob. Sat. 1.16.19 and Festus p. 292.3-7 Lindsay; pontiffs are mentioned in Serv. auct. Georg. 1.268). After all, this is clearly a matter of manual work. It was the urban situation that prepared the way for the transfer of peasants’ rules to a more general concept of work.

Indicating ownership linguistically

Roman authors did not employ the juridical metaphors of possession or ownership in their attempts to describe the relationship. The sacred was always a special area, beyond the dichotomy of public and private that helped systematize exclusive relationships and a bundle of rights. Instead, the systematization of aspects of the relationship (sometimes addressed as ius, a “juridical field” of its own) first of all helped work out the ontology of the divinities, perform their presence, and make their existence and relevance more visible and permanent. Exclusive relations made gods. And yet, at the same time, these reflections are part of a larger property regime, where reflections on the character of the relationship of possessor and possessed are expressed by connecting an object addressed in the grammatical nominative with an agent in the grammatical case called ‘genitive.’ Clearly, such ‘property’ in space needed to be accessible, otherwise people could not worship on that spot. Clearly, such space made the conferral of other objects, like any gift, irreversible, and anything else would constitute ‘sacrilege’—theft. Lastly, unlike humans, divinities must be able to have a specific, owning, relationship to something immaterial like time. And clearly, such property could not exclude humans from doing what is absolutely necessary. And not much more. 


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Jörg Rüpke, “Roman Gods and Private Property: The Invention of the State Religion in Cicero’s Speech ‘On His House’”, Religion in the Roman Empire 5.2 (2019). 292-315.