previous next


VER SACRUM (ἔτος ἱερόν). It was a custom among the early Italian nations especially of the Umbro-Sabellian stock, in times great danger and distress, to vow to the deity the sacrifice of everything born in next spring; that is, between the 1st of March and the last day of April, if the calamity under [p. 2.940]which they were labouring should be removed. (Fest. Ep. p. 379; Liv. 22.9, 10, 34.44; Strab. v. p.250; Sisenna, ap. Non. 12.18; Serv. ad Aen. 7.796.) This sacrifice in the early times comprehended both men and domestic animals, and there is little doubt that in many cases the vow was really carried into effect. But in later times the actual sacrifice was thought cruel, and accordingly the following expedient was adopted. The children were allowed to grow up, and in the spring of their twentieth or twenty-first year they were with covered faces driven across the frontier of their native country, whereupon they went whither-soever fortune or the deity might lead them. Dionysius (1.16) describes it as happening (a) as a thanksgiving for εὐανδρία or νίκη, (b) for propitiation: if the former, they offer sacrifices, and send out the colony with good omens; if the latter, in grief, demanding pardon of those sent out. The real occasion, at least in most cases, was doubtless pressure of over-population in the Apennine valleys: the emigration, which was a more merciful course than sacrifice by infanticide, was so like the swarming from a hive that Varro chooses it as an illustration, “cum examen exiturum est . . . ut olim Sabini factitaverunt propter multitudinem liberorum” (R. R.. 3.16). Several Italian nations traced their origin to a Ver Sacrum: Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttii, Picentini, Hirpini; the Umbri and Sabini being regarded as autochthons. According to the legendary account, Mars, the national god of Italy, sends guides for the homeless warriors, in the case of the Hirpini a wolf (hirpus), of the Picentini (Plin. H. N.. 3.110) a woodpecker (picus), of the Samnites an ox (cf. Bovianum). It is probably a truer view to recognise in these legends the ancient animal totems of these tribes than to suppose that the legend arose from the tribal name. That this swarming still went on as late as the time of the First Punic War, is shown by the case of the Mamertini, or “sons of Mars” in Sicily, whose origin is traced to a Ver Sacrum (Fest. p. 158).

In the two historical instances in which the Romans vowed a ver sacrum, that is, after the battle of lake Trasimenus and at the close of the Second Punic War, the vow was confined to domestic animals, as was expressly stated in the vow. (Liv. 22.10: for a critical discussion of the words, see Häsenmuller, in Rhein. Mus. 19.1864.) It must be observed that in these two cases it had only a religious significance as a vow, and had nothing to do with emigration. (Liv. l.c. and 33.44; Plut. Fab. Max. 4.) For further discussion see Mommsen, Hist. of Rome, 1.122; Marquardt, Staatsverw. 3.281; Nissen, Das Templum, p. 154 ff.

[L.S] [G.E.M]

hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 34, 44
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 10
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 9
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: