Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries

In Roman mythology, Terminus was the god who resided in and protected boundary markers, which were used to delineate the borders of properties and communities. This identification is so explicit that his name is, in fact, the Latin word for such a marker. As the installation of such stones was seen as a religiously significant act, the Romans would perform a sacrifice to memorialize and sanctify their placement. Further, landowners celebrated an annual festival called the Terminalia in the god's honor each year on February 23. In addition to the importance of these markers in public space, a small shrine to Terminus was also found in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, as the temple was thought to have been built over a shrine to lesser god. Perhaps resulting from this, he was occasionally identified as an aspect of Jupiter under the name Jupiter Terminalis.

Ancient writers believed that the worship of Terminus had been introduced to Rome during the reign of the first king Romulus (c. 753–717 B.C.E.) or his successor Numa (717–673 B.C.E.). Modern scholars have variously seen it as the survival of an early animistic reverence for the power inherent in the boundary marker, or as the Roman development of proto-Indo-European belief in a god concerned with the division of property. Parallels can also be seen with the Greek god Hermes, whose name and initial religious relevance were based upon the boundary markers revered in Hellenic society, which were called herms.[1]


Mythic Accounts

Though Terminus was likely too strongly associated with his corporeal manifestation (the boundary stone) to incur a significant body of mythology (much like Hestia in the Greek tradition, who represented the hearth), he is nonetheless referenced in several important mythic accounts.

The most important of these was an etiological myth, explaining the presence of a terminus within the Temple of Jupiter on Capitol Hill. In it, Tarquin, a young king of the early Roman state, decides to ensure his posterity by constructing a massive temple over the remains a holy site consecrated in the time of Romulus. However, doing so required displacing the religious statuary and shrines that existed on the spot. In order to accomplish this without angering any of the divinities represented therein, he began to offer sacrifices to each, seeking a portent of whether the gods accepted his plan.

Tradition records that at the commencement of this work the gods sent a divine intimation of the future vastness of the empire, for whilst the omens were favourable for the deconsecration of all the other shrines, they were unfavourable for that of the fane of Terminus. This was interpreted to mean that as the abode of Terminus was not moved and he alone of all the deities was not called forth from his consecrated borders, so all would be firm and immovable in the future empire. This augury of lasting dominion was followed by a prodigy which portended the greatness of the empire. It is said that whilst they were digging the foundations of the temple, a human head came to light with the face perfect; this appearance unmistakably portended that the spot would be the stronghold of empire and the head of all the world. This was the interpretation given by the soothsayers in the City, as well as by those who had been called into council from Etruria (I.55).[2]

Thus, Terminus, and his continued presence in the center of Rome, was seen to be a portent of the potency of Rome, symbolically represented by the impervious boundaries that the god signified.

Ovid, in his interpretation of the same events, stresses their relevance to the everyday lives of Roman citizens:

The whole throng of gods yielded to Jupiter and made room:
But as the ancients tell, Terminus remained in the shrine
Where he was found, and shares the temple with great Jupiter.
Even now there’s a small hole in the temple roof,
So he can see nothing above him but stars.
Since then, Terminus, you’ve not been free to wander:
Stay there, in the place where you’ve been put,
And yield not an inch to your neighbour’s prayers,
Lest you seem to set men above Jupiter (Book II, Feb. 23rd).[3]

Thus, Ovid uses the same tale to stress the inviolability of the boundaries signified by Terminus. Just as the god refused to be displaced by Jupiter, the king of the gods, so too would he abjure being moved by a mortal who was jealous of his neighbor's land.

This particular mythic episode was evidently of sufficient cultural currency that Lactantius, an early Christian writer (c. 300 C.E.), called upon it to caricature the "backward" religious practices of the Roman people:

[Terminus] was the stone which Saturn swallowed thinking it was Jupiter. When Tarquin wished to build the Capitol and found these shrines of many ancient gods, he consulted them by augury whether they would yield to Jupiter. All agree to go save Terminus, who was suffered to remain. Hence the poet calls him the immovable rock of the Capitol. And what can I say of people who worship such stocks and stones (lapides et stipites) save that they are stocks and stones themselves? (Adversus Gentes, book i., chap. xx.)[4]

In addition, the potency of the god of boundaries was understood to reside within the rocky substrate that symbolized him. Indeed, the majority of these markers were inscribed with fervent curses that were understood to befall anyone foolish enough to tamper with them. As Leland summarizes, "fearful penalties were attached to the removal of such landmarks. The inscription of a terminus reads: Quisquis hoc sustulerit aut læserit, ultimus suorum moriatur ("Should any one remove or injure this stone, may he die the last of his race!")."[5]


As mentioned above, the name of the god Terminus was the Latin word for a boundary stone,[6] such that his worship, as recorded in the late Republic and Empire, was centered around these liminal markers.[7] Siculus Flaccus, a writer on land surveying, records the ritual by which the stones were to be sanctified:

They would put the stones themselves upright on the unbroken earth near the spots in which they were going to dig pits and fix them. They then decorated them with ointment, coverings, and garlands. In the holes in which they were to fix them they made sacrifice and slaughtered a victim, which they burned with lighted torches. With covered heads they let the blood drip into the hole, and also cast therein incense, corn, likewise honeycombs and wine; and other things with which it is customary to make sacrifice to Terminus they put into the holes also. When all the sacrificial foods were burned with fire they set the stones on top of the hot ashes, and so proceeded to fix them with care and attention, even adding some broken pieces of stone stamped down all around them, to make them stand firmer.[8]

In fact, the ubiquity of these practices provided an important clue to surveyors when uncertain which stones were terminai: the practice of offering burnt sacrifice "was so common an accompaniment of the fixing in place of a terminus that surveyors were bidden to look for the layer of ashes under a stone if they were in doubt whether it was a boundary mark or not."[9]

In addition to these dedicatory practices, an annual festival called the Terminalia was celebrated in the god's honor, which involving practices that can best be regarded as a reflection or "yearly renewal" of this foundational ritual.[10] Neighboring families would garland their respective sides of the marker and make offerings to Terminus at an altar; Ovid identifies these, again, as crops—honeycombs and wine. The marker itself would be drenched in the blood of a sacrificed lamb or pig. There followed a communal feast, where hymns were sung in praise of Terminus.[7][11] These proceedings are celebrated in Ovid's Fasti:

Neighbours gather sincerely, and hold a feast,
And sing your praises, sacred Terminus:
"You set bounds to peoples, cities, great kingdoms:
Without you every field would be disputed.
You curry no favour: you aren’t bribed with gold,
Guarding the land entrusted to you in good faith."[7]

While the rites described above were performed by private landowners, there were also related public ceremonies. Specifically, Ovid refers to the sacrifice of a sheep on the day of the Terminalia (February 23) at the sixth milestone from Rome along the Via Laurentina;[7] it is likely this was thought to have marked the boundary between the early Romans and their neighbors in Laurentum.[11] Also, a stone or altar of Terminus was located in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on Rome's Capitoline Hill. Because of a belief that this stone had to be exposed to the sky, there was a small hole in the ceiling directly above it.[7][12] The mythic explanation for the boundary god's presence within so lofty a temple is outlined above. On occasion, Terminus' association with Jupiter extended to the assumption that Terminus was an aspect of that god; Dionysius of Halicarnassus refers to "Jupiter Terminalis",[13] and one inscription names a god "Juppiter Ter."[14]

Finally, there is some evidence that Terminus' associations could extend from property boundaries to the general concept of limits (even temporal ones). Under the Republican calendar, when the intercalary month Mercedonius was added to a year, it was placed after February 23 or February 24,[15] and some ancient writers believed that the Terminalia on February 23 had once been the end of the year.[16] Likewise, Diocletian's decision in 303 C.E. to initiate his persecution of Christians on February 23 has been seen as an attempt to enlist Terminus "to put a limit to the progress of Christianity."[17]


Ancient views

Ancient authors agreed that the worship of Terminus was of Sabine origin, ascribing its introduction to Rome either to Titus Tatius, the Sabine colleague of Rome's founding king Romulus (traditional reign 753–717 B.C.E.),[18] or to Romulus' successor Numa Pompilius (717–673 B.C.E.).[13][19] Those authors who gave the credit to Numa explained his motivation as the prevention of violent disputes over property.[13][19] Plutarch further states that, in keeping with Terminus's character as a guarantor of peace, his earliest worship did not involve blood sacrifices.[19]

Modern views

According to the dominant scholarly view of the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, Roman religion was originally animistic, meaning that it was directed towards spirits associated with specific objects or activities which were only later perceived as gods with independent personal existence. Terminus, with his lack of mythology and his close association with a physical object, seemed a clear example of a deity who had developed little from such a stage.[10] However, it should be noted that the propriety of the term "animism" has been contested for use in this context. As Rose opines concerning the rites of the Terminalia, "nothing in all the ritual suggests conjuring the littlest godling or ghost into it."[20] Further, he notes that "in these crucial instances, we find that to have numen in no way implies having any kind of life or spirit, we may reasonably begin to doubt whether 'spirit' is the proper word, not only to translate numen, but to describe the many minor godlings of Rome."[21]

This view of Terminus retains some recent adherents,[11] but other scholars have argued from Indo-European parallels that the personalised gods of Roman religion must have preceded the city's foundation. Georges Dumézil regarded Jupiter, Juventas and Terminus as the Roman form of a proto-Indo-European triad, comparing the Roman deities respectively to the Vedic Mitra, Aryaman and Bhaga. In this view the sovereign god (Jupiter/Mitra) was associated with two minor deities, one concerned with the entry of men into society (Juventas/Aryaman) and the other with the fair division of their goods (Terminus/Bhaga).[14]

From a more economically-functionalist perspective, other scholars have noted that the rise of Terminus parallels the increasing size of the land-owner class in classical Rome. Evaluating the religious reforms of King Numa, Hooker notes that two cults were added to the official roster: "one was the cult of Terminus, in which the new boundary-stones were to be worshiped as gods, and to disturb a boundary-stone was to commit sacrilege. This was obviously intended to safeguard the new system of land-tenure."[22] This perspective is echoed in Godwin's The Pantheon, which suggests that "it was the progress of civilization that gave sacredness and importance to the worship of [Terminus]; in proportion as the limits between different states and the lands of different proprietors became matters of consequence, the policy of nations and legislators taught them to inculcate that a violation of boundaries was a crime against Heaven."[23]


  1. After noting that the Greek and Roman milestones were both referred to using the same terminology, Farnell suggests that "in the aniconic age the pillar (herm or terminus) was full of the divinity; and therefore they could be regarded as objects of worship" (Vol. V, 18).
  2. Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, Vol. I, translated by Rev. Canon Roberts, (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1905). (I.55). Accessed online at the University of Virgina - eText Center. Retrieved June 19, 2007. See also: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 3.69.3–6.
  3. Ovid, Fasti 2.639–684. Retrieved July 5, 2007.
  4. Lactantius, quoted in Leland (63).
  5. Leland, 63.
  6. Herbert Jennings Rose.; and John Scheid (2003). "Terminus". The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edition, revised): 1485–1486. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198606419.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Ovid, Fasti 2.639–684. Retrieved July 5, 2007.
  8. Siculus Flaccus, De Condicionibus Agrorum 11. Also, translated in Herbert Jennings Rose's "Nvmen inest: 'Animism' in Greek and Roman Religion," The Harvard Theological Review 28(4) (October 1935): 237-257. p. 252.
  9. H. J. Rose, "Patricians and Plebeians at Rome," The Journal of Roman Studies 12 (1922): 106-133. p. 117.
  10. 10.0 10.1 W. Warde Fowler (1899). The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., pp. 324–327. Retrieved July 5, 2007. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 H. H. Scullard (1981). Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. London: Thames and Hudson, pp. 79–80. ISBN 0500400415. 
  12. Samuel Ball Platner.; and Thomas Ashby (1929). "Terminus, Fanum". A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome: 512. London: Oxford University Press. Retrieved on July 5, 2007.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.74.2–5.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Georges Dumézil [1966] (1996). Archaic Roman Religion: Volume One, Philip Krapp (trans.), Baltimore, M.D.: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 200–203. ISBN 0801854806. 
  15. Herbert Jennings Rose.; and Simon R. F. Price (2003). "Calendar, Roman". The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edition, revised): 274. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198606419.
  16. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.3; Ovid, Fasti 2.47–54. Retrieved July 5, 2007.
  17. J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz (1979). Continuity and Change in Roman Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 247. ISBN 0198148224. 
  18. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Lingua Latina 5.10.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Plutarch, Roman Questions 15; "Numa" in Parallel Lives 16.
  20. Rose (1935), 252.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Edna M. Hooker, "The Significance of Numa's Religious Reforms," Numen 10 (Fasc. 2) (August 1963): 87-132. p. 129.
  23. William Godwin, The Pantheon: Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome, (New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1984, ISBN 0824035607).


Primary Sources

  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities. Translated by Earnest Cary. Loeb Classical Library edition, 1937. Available online from uchicago.edu. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  • Flaccus, Siculus. De Condicionibus Agrorum. Latin version available online from intratext.com. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  • Livius, Titus (Livy). The History of Rome. Translated by Rev. Canon Roberts. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1905. Available online from the University of Virgina - eText Center. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  • Ovid. Fasti. Translated by A. S. Kline. Available online from tonykline.co.uk. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  • Plutarchus, Mestrius (Plutarch). Roman Questions. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936. Available online from uchicago.edu. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  • Plutarchus, Mestrius (Plutarch). "The Life of Numa" in The Parallel Lives (Various Works by Plutarch). Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917. Aavailable online from uchicago.edu. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. De Lingua Latina. Italian text available online from thelatinlibrary.com. Retrieved June 19, 2007.

Secondary Sources

  • Buriss, Eli Edward. Taboo, Magic, Spirits: A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion. New York: Macmillan Company, 1931. Available online from sacred-texts.com. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  • Dumézil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion: Volume One. Translated by Philip Krapp. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 (original 1966). ISBN 0801854806
  • Fowler, W. Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., 1899.
  • Godwin, William. The Pantheon: Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1984. ISBN 0824035607
  • Liebeschuetz, J. H. W. G. Continuity and Change in Roman Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 0198148224
  • Piccaluga, Giulia (1974). Terminus: I segni di confine nella religione romana (in Italian). Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo. OCLC 1989261. 
  • Platner, Samuel Ball and Thomas Ashby. "Terminus, Fanum" in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
  • Rose, Herbert Jennings and Simon R. F. Price. "Calendar, Roman" in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd Edition, Revised). Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0198606419
  • Rose, Herbert Jennings. "Nvmen inest: 'Animism' in Greek and Roman Religion." The Harvard Theological Review 28(4) (October 1935): 237-257.
  • Rose, Herbert Jennings. "Patricians and Plebeians at Rome." The Journal of Roman Studies 12 (1922): 106-133.
  • Rose, Herbert Jennings and John Scheid. "Terminus" in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edition, revised). Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0198606419
  • Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981. ISBN 0500400415
  • Woodard, Roger D. Indo-European Sacred Space. Vedic and Roman Cult. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006. ISBN 025202988. 2007.02.36 Reviewed by Marco V. García-Quintela (2007) Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Retrieved June 13, 2007.


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