Classically Inclined

April 4, 2012

Warfare, religion and the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:42 pm
Tags: ,

This post is prompted by a bit of research I’ve been doing for @richmondbridge, on behalf of one of her colleagues, about Roman ways of declaring war. This colleague had come across the idea that the Romans could declare war by throwing a spear through the body of an ambassador of the enemy nation in question. Now, I haven’t been able to uncover the supposed source for this incident, but I’ve been reviewing the material, and the stuff I’ve been going over is quite odd enough to warrant its own blog post.

The Romans would have been very confused by the separation of religion and politics that we have today. For them, religious and political spheres of activity were fundamentally connected, with each having impact upon the other; part of the reason for their success was, they argued, their status as the nation favoured by the gods. Part of the close connection between religion and politics was that one of the priestly colleges of Rome was the fetiales, or fetial, priests; their specific job was to do things connected to warfare.

Wiedemann points out that the fetials had an important role as peacemakers and concluders of treaties as well as beginners of war, but it is the latter duty which started off this conversation. Livy records for us in his first book the creation of the fetial priests, in quite considerable detail; he describes the ritual act of declaring war as follows:

It was customary for the Fetial to carry to the enemies’ frontiers a blood-smeared spear tipped with iron or burnt at the end, and, in the presence of at least three adults, to say, “Inasmuch as the peoples of the Prisci Latini have been guilty of wrong against the People of Rome and the Quirites, and inasmuch as the People of Rome and the Quirites have ordered that there be war with the Prisci Latini, and the Senate of the People of Rome and the Quirites have determined and decreed that there shall be war with the Prisci Latini, therefore I and the People of Rome, declare and make war upon the peoples of the Prisci Latini.” With these words he hurled his spear into their territory. This was the way in which at that time satisfaction was demanded from the Latins and war declared, and posterity adopted the custom.

The important bit here is the throwing of the spear across the boundary, a symbolic act of war (and indeed a symbolic act of penetration and thus conquering of the enemy) under ritualistic conditions that ensured the Romans were waging a bellum iustum or just war. However, our sources suggest that this was not always the case, and that some enterprising Roman came up with a way to avoid shipping fetials all over the place once the borders of the empire expanded:

When thirty-three days had elapsed after they had demanded redress, the fetial priests used to hurrl a spear against the enemy. But later, in the time of Pyrrhus, the Romans were going to wage war against an overseas enemy and could find no place for the fetiales to perform this ritual for declaring war. So they arranged for one of Pyrrhus’ soldiers to be captured, and they made him buy some land in the area of the Circus Flaminius in order to fulfil the proper procedures for declaring war on, as it were, enemy land. Later a column was consecrated on that land, in front of the temple of Bellona. (Servius, On Virgil’s Aeneid IX.52, trans. Beard, North and Price 1998, pg. 132.) 

There’s a problem here. Servius is writing a commentary on Virgil’s epic poem. He’s not writing a manual about archaic religious practice. He is also notoriously tricky to work with – colleagues who need to get to grips with Servius have, in my limited experience, been grumpy about it. He is also the only place (as far as I can tell) that tells this story – and it appears fairly clear that it’s a story about how the Romans explained why a space in front of the temple of Bellona was used for the fetial ritual of throwing a spear instead of the border of the actual kingdom. Weidemann points out that the Romans were quite happy to transport legates about the empire to negotiate treaties and so forth, so why the fetials needed to do this sort of thing in Rome rather than abroad is not entirely clear. If you were feeling curmudgeonly, you might also point out that just because this happened once doesn’t mean that the fetials started doing this as common practice, and that basing an entire religious ritual off a single passing reference in Servius is a bit tenuous – but that gets us into questions of source criticism and just how tricky the evidence for Roman religion is.  

The fetials clearly served an important role in Rome by mediating between war and peace, forming a symbolic connection between the two, and relating the political activity of war to the realm of the gods, thus helping maintain the notorious Roman pax deorum (not the Enya song). But just how these hints at rituals were actually carried out, and what the Romans thought they were doing as they did them, I don’t know – and, unless Oxyrhynchus turns up an amazingly helpful Handbook Of Responsibilities For Your New Priesthood, I doubt we ever will. 


Mary Beard, John North and D. Simon Price. 1998. Religions of Rome. Volume 2: A Sourcebook. Cambridge.

Thomas Wiedemann. 1986. “The Fetiales: A Reconsideration.” Classical Quarterly 36:478-490.


  1. I think I can identify the ‘source’ of the idea that war might be declared by throwing a spear into the actual body of an enemy ambassador. It’ll be the scene in Cleopatra (1963), when Octavian does just that, marching out of the senate to cast the fetial spear in the general direction of Egypt, but then spotting the Egyptian ambassador Sosigenes in the crowd and hurling it at him instead. The exact scene is neatly clipped out and presented here. It is, of course, an invention for the sake of the film, and even there signalled pretty clearly as an ad hoc move rather than a standard part of the ritual. As commentators like Solomon and Cyrino have both pointed out, it was probably done in order to emphasise Octavian’s role as the villain of the piece, in contrast to the tragically romantic Antony and Cleopatra.

    Comment by weavingsandunpickings — April 5, 2012 @ 9:59 am | Reply

    • That sounds like an extremely probable source for the idea! I obviously haven’t watched Cleopatra enough… but thank you very much for clearing up the mystery!

      Comment by lizgloyn — April 5, 2012 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  2. I’m curious just how devoted the Roman were to this declaration of war during the Empire. I noted this seems to be Early Republic. Right?

    Comment by Judy — April 7, 2012 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

    • The evidence I’ve found does refer to practice in the early Republic, yes. The potentially interesting thing is the Livy passage, which was written at around the start of the Augustan period, and seems to imply that the rituals were still in use then. I didn’t come across any evidence in my brief survey about later practices, although there may be something tucked inside Suetonius or Tacitus that I have missed.

      Comment by lizgloyn — April 9, 2012 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

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