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.
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.
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:
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:
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!")."
As mentioned above, the name of the god Terminus was the Latin word for a boundary stone, such that his worship, as recorded in the late Republic and Empire, was centered around these liminal markers. Siculus Flaccus, a writer on land surveying, records the ritual by which the stones were to be sanctified:
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."
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. 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. These proceedings are celebrated in Ovid's Fasti:
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; it is likely this was thought to have marked the boundary between the early Romans and their neighbors in Laurentum. 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. 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", and one inscription names a god "Juppiter Ter."
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, and some ancient writers believed that the Terminalia on February 23 had once been the end of the year. 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."
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.), or to Romulus' successor Numa Pompilius (717–673 B.C.E.). Those authors who gave the credit to Numa explained his motivation as the prevention of violent disputes over property. Plutarch further states that, in keeping with Terminus's character as a guarantor of peace, his earliest worship did not involve blood sacrifices.
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. 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." 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."
This view of Terminus retains some recent adherents, 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).
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." 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."
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