Double Roman Celebrations: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo

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Faith was an important Roman virtue- so important the Romans established it as a goddess. Depiction of Faith by Raphael. Image by Web gallery of art.

The first or kalends of any Roman month were unlucky days- dies nefastus.

But although the Romans avoided all business transaction on these days for fear of blighting them, the unlucky days did not preclude religious observances.

The first of October was the day of not one but two festivals: the Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo Sororio.

Although minor and obscure, both were old and well established and linked to the importance of faith and purity.

Fidei in Capitolio

Although no business could occur on the kalends, the Romans celebrated the rites of the Fides in Capitolio at the place where they ratified oaths, treaties and contracts in Rome: at the temple of Fides on the Capitoline Hill.


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Fides was the goddess of good faith, verbal contracts and treaties. The Romans linked the goddess to the abstract concept of “I give so that you may give.

King Numa, Rome’s second King, receives credit for establishing the worship of Fides in Rome. According to Plutarch, he “was … the first, …., to build temples to Faith and Terminus; and he taught the Romans their most solemn oath by Faith, which they still continue to use.”

The Fidei in Capitolio commemorated the dedication of this temple on the Capitoline. But the celebrations held an extra significance. ‘There is nothing neither greater nor more scared among men,” stated Dionysius of Halicarnassus, when describing the importance of faith to the Romans. For although Fides was not a major deity, the concept of faith was a central tenet of Roman life.

Like so many of Rome’s abstract deities, the Romans portrayed Fides as a young woman. In depictions, the goddess’s right hand appears bound with a white cloth. This is because, according to historian Warde Fowler, the Romans gave the right hand in oaths. The white binding made it symbolically pure and clean.

Fide’s rites on the Kalends reflected this. Her flamens, or priests, travelled to her shrine in a covered two-horse carriage, Livy notes in The History of Rome, their hands ritually bound in the same white wrappings as their goddess “as far as the fingers, to signify that Faith must be sheltered and that her seat is holy even when it is in men’s right hands.”

The Tigillo Sororio

One explanation for the Tigillo Sororio is the purification of the Roman soldier Horatius who murdered his sister. Painting of Horatius's muser of his sister by Victor-Maximilien Potain. Image by VladoubidoOo

One explanation for the Tigillo Sororio is the purification of the Roman soldier Horatius who murdered his sister. Painting of Horatius’s murder of his sister by Victor-Maximilien Potain. Image by VladoubidoOo.

In contrast to these celebrations was the ritual of the Tigillo Sororio- an archaic festival with much of its true meaning lost within a legend.

Tigillo sororio means “sister beam,” a reference to a horizontal beam placed on two uprights. The beam was located, according to Fowler, on a street leading from the Carinae, an exclusive area on the west side of the Oppian Hill to the Vicus Cyprius, now the Via del Colosseo. Here it remained till at least the fourth century A. D.

Passing under the beam was a form of purification. But purification of what?

Livy offers an explanation in the form of the legend of Horatius. Horatius was a young Roman solider whose sister was betrothed to one of Rome’s enemies. When Horatius returned to home as part of Rome’s victorious forces, his sister recognized her fiancé’s cloak as part of her brother’s spoils and began to grieve.

Horatius was so enraged by this disloyal display that he drew his sword and stabbed her crying: “Go to your betrothed with your ill-timed love, forgetful as you are of your dead brothers, of the one who still lives, and of your country! So perish every Roman woman who mourns for an enemy!”

But his fellow Romans did not share his sense of righteous indignation and they put Horatius on trial, finding him guilty of treason. But his father intervened, claiming his daughter was justly slain. As Horatius was his only surviving child and had fought courageously in the wars, the Romans spared him.

But in expiation of his crime, the authorities required Horatius to make sacrifices on two altars, one to Juno Sororio, a goddess of young girls, and the other to Janus Curiatius, linked to the passage of boys into manhood. Horatius ended his purification by then passing under the beam, which the Romans erected across the street, “as under a yoke” with his head covered.

But it seems that the tigellum actually predated the time of Horatius. It may in fact have been the lintel of an ancient gateway through which tradition required returning soldiers from military campaigns to pass on their return to war. The purification involved was actually the removal of the taint of war, marking the young men’s transition from soldiers to ordinary citizens of Rome.

Two Very Different Festivals

The Tigillo Sororio and Fidei in Capitolio were two very different festivals occupying the same day. But both encapsulate two very ancient and well-established concepts: The importance of truth and faith in all dealings- and the importance of leaving warfare firmly outside the gates of Rome.

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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