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Ambarvalia

A rural festival among the Romans for the purification (lustratio) of the country, and for invoking the blessing of Ceres upon the fruits of the earth. The name is explained by Servius (ad Verg. Ecl. iii. 77) as given because the victim ambit arva.

There were two kinds of Ambarvalia, private and public. The private Ambarvalia are those described by Vergil in detail, and with singular beauty, Georg. i. 338 foll. The victims (Cato , R. R. 141) were led three times round the cornfields, before the sickle was put in, accompanied by a crowd of merry-makers (chorus et socii), the reapers and servants dancing and singing the praises of Ceres, while they offered her libations of milk, honey, and wine. The public Ambarvalia are certainly to be distinguished from the Amburbium (q.v.), but have been identified by several writers (Mommsen, Henzen, Jordan) with the sacrifice of the Fratres Arvales to the Dea Dia. (See Fratres Arvales.) Marquardt, who on the whole decides against the identity of the two festivals, observes that the correspondence of time and place is in favour of it, as well as the fact that the suovetaurilia were offered at both; but, as he also points out, there is no mention of the Fratres Arvales beating the bounds (circumire or lustrare). The Ambarvalia at Rome were fixed for May 29; in other parts of Italy the day varied in different districts, but was an immovable feast (feriae stativae) in each district. The feast of the Dea Dia, on the other hand, was proclaimed every year; and May 29 might, or might not, coincide with one of the days on which it was held. As regards the locality, the Roman Ambarvalia were performed, according to Strabo, at a spot called Festi, between five and six miles from the city on the way to Alba (Strab. v. p. 230). This spot is identified beyond doubt with the Fossa Cluilia of Livy (i. 23), Dionysius, and Plutarch; the Campus Sacer Horatiorum, where the legendary encounter took place; and the ruins now called Roma Vecchia, on the left-hand side of the Appian Way at the fifth mile-stone (Burn, Rome and the Campagna, p. 416). The Lucus Deae Diae was at about the same distance from Rome, but on a different road, the Via Portuensis, in a southerly, not an easterly, direction. Both were doubtless on the boundary of the Ager Romanus, or original Roman territory; and in this last circumstance we may trace a connection between the festival of the Arvales and the Ambarvalia without assuming that they were identical.

The Ambarvalia furnish one of several instances —the Saturnalia at Christmas being another—of heathen festivals taken up by the Church and adapted to Christian uses. There is a close resemblance to these rites in the ceremonies of the three Rogation Days which precede Ascension Day, occurring nearly at the same time of year. “They were anciently in England called ‘Gangdays,’ because processions went out on those days; hymns and canticles being sung, and prayers offered at various halting-spots or stations for a blessing on the fruits of the earth.” The English custom of “beating the bounds” at Whitsuntide is a relic of a similar rite. See Henzen, Acta Fratr. Arval.

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