boundary stone

The worship of Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries and frontiers, is said to have been instituted by Numa Pompilius. He ordered that everyone should mark his landed property with stones consecrated to Jupiter and that annual sacrifices should be offered at these boundary stones at the Terminalia (February 23). His motivation may have been the prevention of violent disputes over property. Anyone who removed a boundary stone was accursed and might be slain; a fine was later substituted for the death penalty. The terminus of the Roman state originally stood between the 5th and 6th milestone on the road towards Larentium. Another public terminus stood in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline. The public festival may have been established to correspond with farmers' private worship of the spirit (numen) which inhabited their boundary stones.

The property owners and their families met at the boundary stone (terminus), and each decorated his side of it with garlands. They built an altar and offered grain, wine, and honeycombs in the fire. Family members, dressed in white, remained silent while the blood of a lamb or a suckling pig was sprinkled on the stone. Afterward, there was a feast, and songs of praise were sung to honor Terminus. The ceremony was a reflection of the original ritual by which the boundary stone had been set in place. Together with fruits of the earth, wine, and honeycombs, the blood and ashes of a sacrificial victim had been placed in a hole by the land owners and covered with a stone or a stump of wood.

Besides the private observances, at least one public celebration was held. Ovid refers to the annual sacrifice of a sheep at the boundary between the early Romans and the Laurentes. Both Trajan and Hadrian had various decayed wooden stumps replaced with stones, so these ancient spots were still remembered in historical times. On the old Roman calendar, February 23 was also the last day of the year, so the Terminalia makes a fitting end to the winter holidays.

Here are a few additional resources concerning the Terminalia.

  • An entry in Wikipedia provides facts about the Roman god Terminus and details of his worship.
  • Additional information about the Terminalia is found in Smith's A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
  • A translation of Ovid's Fasti, Book II, has an entry for the Terminalia (February 23).

  • photo courtesy of Richard Knights

    Some of the preceding information comes from The Wordsworth Classical Dictionary, edited by William Smith and published in 1996 by Wordsworth Editions Ltd. (IWare, Hertfordshire, Great Britain).

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