Sacrificing on Time: The Early Years of the Roman Religious Calendar

Elizabeth Colantoni

Oberlin College

The Roman festival calendar is known to modern scholars primarily through written evidence from the late Roman Republican period and after, including both epigraphic records of various versions of the calendar and literary discussions of Rome’s system of religious festivals, most notably by the poet Ovid in his Fasti.  Modern studies of the origins and earliest versions of the Roman calendar focus primarily on isolating which of the later holidays were celebrated in the archaic period and on establishing the antiquity and meaning of abbreviations found on extant calendars.  Such studies invariably rely on much later written evidence to discuss the state of the Roman festival calendar in the archaic period.  In this paper, I consider the genesis of the Roman religious calendar from a different perspective, that offered by the archaeological evidence for early Roman religious activities and festivals.  In particular, I focus on the physical remains of rituals carried out at the temple thought to be that of Mater Matuta, at the site in Rome now known as the Sant’Omobono sacred area.  I review the evidence for animal sacrifice at the site, and I argue that these remains offer a clear indication that at least one annual Roman festival, celebrated in March or April, was in place by the early sixth century BC, if not before.  Thus, in addition to giving us insight into the rituals performed in conjunction with an early Roman festival, the archaeological evidence provides an important chronological anchor in the debate about the origins of the Roman religious calendar.

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