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SACRA (the plural of sacrum==anything dedicated to the gods) is the general Roman term for worship, including the ritual observed in it, the utensils used in it (Ov. Am. 3.13, 28), and even the documents which preserved the memory of the ritualistic usages prescribed for it (cf. e.g. Cic. de Legibus, 2.8, 19 and 20; Varro, L. L. 5.50, “in sacris Argeorum scriptum est sic” ).

Roman writers distinguish two kinds of sacra within their own state, viz. sacra publica and sacra privata. As the limits of the state became extended, many foreign worships were introduced into Rome, while the inhabitants of municipia retained their own sacra under Roman protection (Festus, s. vv. peregrina sacra and municipalia sacra); but as all these were included in the sacra publica, the rapid growth of the Empire and the social changes accompanying it did not affect the validity of the main distinction, which may be recognised as holding good for all periods of Roman religious history. It may be succinctly explained in the words of Festus (p. 245 a), which were probably themselves drawn by Verrius Flaccus from the books of the pontifices: “Publica sacra quae publico sumptu pro populo fiunt, quaeque pro montibus, pagis, curiis, sacellis. At privata quae pro singulis hominibus, familiis, gentibus fiunt.” From this definition it seems probable that under the head of public worship were reckoned all rites undertaken by the state as a collective whole, or by such divisions of the state as worshipped collectively (Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, iii.2 120, note 1 and reff.); while private worship was understood as including all other rites, whether on behalf of individuals, households, or even gentes. The sacra gentilicia have indeed by some been considered to belong to the public worship (Savigny, Vermischte Schriften, i. p. 173 foll.; but cf. p. 203, where this view is retracted); but the worship of the gens must undoubtedly be taken as analogous to that of the familia (Liv. 5.52, 4), as in neither case was there any rite in which the whole number of familiae or gentes took part at one and the same time. It will be sufficient to give some illustrations of the nature of the rites included under the two main divisions, following the indications afforded by the passage of Festua quoted above. We begin with the sacra privata, as first in time, though not in importance.


Festus distinguishes three kinds: pro singulis hominibus, pro familiis, and pro gentibus.

1. Pro singulis hominiabus.

It is by no means clear what rites are to be reckoned under this category. All sacra solennia would naturally in early times have as their object the welfare, not of the individual, but of some organic group of individuals. Of prayers and sacrifices however, performed by an individual for his own benefit, we have examples (e. g. in Verg. A. 6.51, 8.71; Plin. Nat. 28.10; cf. Arnobius, adv, Nat. 3.43); but these as a rule refer to worship in the field or under peculiar circumstances, in which the individual was temporarily separated from his family, gens, or state, and the remarkable prayer of Scipio in Liv. 29.26 is of this kind; yet it is to be noticed that he is here representing not only himself, but his army and the whole Roman people. With prayers are constantly associated vota, as in Aen. 6.56-75: these are more natural to the individual, and may be illustrated abundantly by the votive tablets of the later Roman age (see Wilmanns, Exempla Inscr. Lat. vol. ii. p. 498 foll.).

2. Pro familiis.

Each family was a religious unit of which the paterfamilias was the priest, and the special gods were the Lares (or more properly the singular Lar) and the Penates; the former probably representing the primeval ancestor of the family, and the latter being the protecting deities of the penus or store-room of the household. To these daily invocations were offered and also libations at meals; and on all feriae privatae, such as the anniversaries of births, the kalends, nones, and ides, and on the Saturnalia, their images were adorned with garlands. The family also had its festivals of mourning, such as the Caristia and the Parentalia in February, [p. 2.578]when the tombs of deceased members were visited and certain rites performed there. Lastly, for the benefit of the family and its property, the greater gods were invoked, as may be seen in the form of domestic field lustration preserved in Cato (de Re Rustica, 141), where Janus, Jupiter, and Mars, especially the latter, are besought to protect the crops and herds.

All sacra pro familiis were imperishable except by the extinction of the family: hence in Roman law the inheritance of a dead man's property involved the acceptance of his sacra, and the phrase hereditas sine sacris became a proverb for extraordinary good luck. Accurate rules were supplied in the jus pontificium for the devolution of the sacra to heirs of various degrees under various circumstances (see Cic. de Legibas, 2.1. 9-21; Savigny, op. cit. p. 153 foll.). The general principle of their succession is thus stated by Cicero (Legg. 2.19): “De sacris autem . . . . haec sit una sententia, ut conserventur semper et deinceps familiis prodantur, et, ut in lege posui, perpetua sint sacra.”

3. Pro gentibus.

Though familia and gens are words loosely used and often interchanged in Roman literature (cf. Marquardt, Staatsverw. vol. iii. ed. 2, p. 130), it is not difficult to distinguish the sacra gentilicia from those of the family. They belonged, however, only to patrician gentes (Liv. 10.8, 9), which were the only groups properly so called; and as these gradually died out, their sacra disappeared with them. Thus Gaius (3.17) writes of the whole jus gentilicium as obsolete in his day. But there is little doubt that in early times each gens had its own particular place and day for the performance of its sacra: e. g. the gens Fabia had a fixed day for a sacrifice on the Quirinal, which was performed by a leading member of the gens (possibly called flamen) in cinctu gabino (Liv. 5.46, 22.18; Dionys. A. R. 9, 19; Cic. Harusp. Resp. 15, 32). Each gens originally no doubt had also a common burial-place (Cic. de Legibus, 2.22, 55; Offic. 1.17, 55; de Domo, 13, 35). It should be added that certain gentes had special worships in their charge ( “sacra certis familiis attributa” ; Festus, p. 253, where familiis is used for gentibus): thus the gens Nautia had the care of the sacrae Minervae, the Potitii and Pinarii of those of Hercules, the gens Julia of that of Apollo; but these worships were rather of a public than a private character, i. e. they were state worships entrusted to a particular gens (Mommsen, Staatsrecht, 3.19). All sacra privata, it should be noticed, were under the supervision of the pontifices, who were the sole referees in all questions arising out of the jus familiare and the jus gentilicium (Cic. de Legibus, 2.12, 30). See GENS


In the passage of Festus already quoted these are defined as “quae publico sumptu pro populo fiunt, quaeque pro montibus, pagis, curiis, sacellis.” In this definition we see a twofold division: i. e. into 1. The public festivals of the calendar, conducted on behalf of the state by its priestly colleges; and 2. Those in which the local communities which had at one time formed divisions of the city took part as a collective whole, though worshipping independently of each other. In each case it should be noted that the rites thus called sacra publica are distinguished from sacra privata, in that they do not belong to independent groups united by real or supposed kinship, but to political divisions of the state or to the state as a whole.

1. Sacra pro populo.

Of these, which comprise the whole cycle of the religious festivals of the year, with the exception of one or two to be mentioned under the next head, nothing need be said here, and the student is referred to the various articles which treat of them more particularly. Their distinctive features as compared with the other division of sacra publica are--1. That they were maintained at the expense of the state (publico sumptu). 2. That they were conducted in the earliest times by the rex or by the ministers of religion who acted for him, and in later times by the rex sacrificulus, the flamines, or by one or other of the four principal religious colleges.

2. Sacra popularia (Festus, 2.5, 3).

These, as we have seen, are described by Festus as being “pro montibus, pagis, curiis, sacellis.” A brief account may be here given of the sacra belonging to each of these divisions, so far as their nature can be ascertained.

a. Pro montibus.

One of the ancient and obscure local divisions of the early state was that into Montes and Pagi, i. e. the dwellers in the original seven hill settlements on the Palatine and Esquiline, and the dwellers in the open country belonging to the state (Cic. de Domo, 28, 74; Mommsen, Staatsr. 3.112 f.). The common festival of the former was called Septimontium, or Septimontiale sacrum (Suet. Domit. 4), and appears in the ancient calendars as Agonalia; it took place on Dec. 11 (C. I. L. vol. 1.407). Of the sacrum itself we only know that the flamen Palatualis made an offering on this day, doubtless to Pales, on the Palatine hill; and according to Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 69. that no vehicles were allowed to be used in the old city during the festival,--a survival which is doubtless explained by reference to the crowded and narrow alleys of the town as compared with the open character of the pagi. As festivals of the Montani may perhaps be reckoned also the Laralia or feast of the Lares compitales (cf. LARES) and the Parilia of April 21, the festival of the foundation of the Palatine city: cf. Festus, p. 253.

b. Pro pagis.

These, as might be expected, are of an agricultural character; but it should be noted that what we know of sacra paganalia is derived not from the accounts of the ancient Roman pagi, but from information as to the Italian pagi of later times. To the sacra of these belong the Sementivae, varying in date according to the season (Ovid, Fasti, 1.657 f.); the Ambarvalia, at the end of May, otherwise called Lustratio pagi (cf. AMBARVALIA and LUSTRATIO); and the Terminalia or feast of boundaries, at the end of the year (Feb. 23). There can be little doubt that these festivals or their equivalents were among the sacra of the ancient Roman pagi, and were presided over as in Italy generally by a magister pagi, together with his wife the magistra pagi (cf. Marquardt, Staatsverw. 3.198).

3. Pro curiis.

For the two festivals which specially belong to the Curiae, see articles FORIDICIDIA and FORNACALIA [p. 2.579]

4. Pro sacellis [see ARGEI].

These sacella can hardly be other than the sacella or sacraria argeorum, which were probably twenty-four or twenty-seven chapels or shrines situated at various points in the four Servian regions of the city.

That these sacella were the centres of ancient divisions of the city, possibly for religious purposes, is highly probable; all we know of them is in the form of citations by Varro (L. L. bk. 5.45 foll.) from the “Sacra Argeorum,” which was apparently a processional itinerary, and probably also a rule of ritual performance. What was done at the sacella we do not know. a procession seems to have gone round them on March 16 and 17; but it had become so obscure by Ovid's time that he could dispose of it in his Fasti in two lines, leaving it somewhat uncertain whether it took place on one day or two. Nor can we be at all sure as to the relation of these rites to the better known Argean procession of May 15. (See ARGEI; and Mommsen, Staatsrecht, 3.122 foll.; Jordan, Topographie der Stadt Rom, 2.237 foll.)


hide References (13 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (13):
    • Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices, 15
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 6.51
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 8.71
    • Ovid, Amores, 3.13
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 28.10
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 46
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 52
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 18
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 29, 26
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 10, 8
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 10, 9
    • Cicero, De Legibus, 2.1
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