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LUSTRATIO . Lustrations, or purifications by sacrifice, played a primordial role in Roman religion, both public and private, inasmuch as they were celebrated every time there was a transition or the likelihood of a transition in the life of an individual or a city, and every time there was need to repel aggressions or at least threats from outside. Lustration rites were celebrated either in a complex liturgy that repeated the act of lustration at length or in a single ritual that effected the desired separation. Whatever the degree of ritual complexity, however, a lustration was always an act of definition. It was a definition, first, in that it distinguished and delimited in time and space two realities that are opposed, such as, for example, living and dead, civilized and savage, good and bad, peaceful and hostile, pure and defiled. A lustration was a definition, second, because this act of disjunction was usually accompanied by a reflection on the reality in question, an inspection, a clear and definite ordering, a verification. This twofold defining that a lustration accomplished may explain why the (still disputed) etymology of lustrum/lustrare points in the direction of "inspection, gaze, light shed on" as well as that of "purification."

Lustrations therefore had a central place in the rites of birth and death, whereby the family firmly asserted the separation between what was not yet (or no longer) living and the world of the living, using rituals that enabled it to accompany the deceased or newly born person in his crucial passage without itself being adversely affected. At the community level certain festivals, and even the entire month of February, were given over to the lustration of families; in this way the city established a clear and definite break between its past and its future.

The most typical lustrations were those practiced in regard to fields, territory, city, or citizens. In these cases the lustration took a precise form, that of a procession, a circumambulation by the sacrificial victims around the object to be purified, the integrity of which was verified (i.e., emphasized), as were the threatshuman, natural, or supernaturalthat impended. The victims were sacrificed at the end of the procession. There were a variety of victims for a variety of divinities, as for instance a sow for Ceres. But in a lustration proper the victims were a boar, a ram, and a bull (or what was called suovetaurilia ) and they were offered solely to Mars, who was invoked as defender of the city and territory or of an individual's fields (an interpretation denied by some scholars). The most spectacular lustrations, however, were those whose object was a group of citizens either under arms or in civilian dress but ready to form an army. Every five years (but under the empire, only sporadically) one of the censors, after inspecting and setting to rights the affairs of the Roman people, celebrated a solemn lustrum in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) by walking the suovetaurilia around the citizens, who were organized in voting units (centuriae ). The effect of this lustration was not only to ascertain and assert the perfection of the civic body but also to draw around it a strict boundary that Mars was to defend. The danger threatening the citizens was above all the danger of war; it is not surprising, therefore, that in a critical situation the generals led the sacrificial suovetaurilia around their legions or vessels.

See Also



Volume 13 of the Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertums-wissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa (Stuttgart, 1927), includes two articles of particular interest: "Lustrum," by Helmut Berve, and "Lustratio," by Fritz Boehme. Also recommended are W. Warde Fowler's The Religious Experience of the Roman People from the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus (London, 1911), pp. 209218; Carl Koch's Gestirnverehrung im alten Italien: Sol Indiges und der Kreis der Di Indigetes (Frankfurt, 1933); and Georges Dumézil's Archaic Roman Religion (Chicago, 1970).

New Sources

Gagé, Jean. "Les rites anciens de lustration du populus et les attributs triomphaux des censeurs." Mélanges Ecole Française de Rome 82 (1970): 4371.

Munier, Frédérique. "La lustration du peuple d'Iguvium." In Hommage à René Braun, vol. 1: De la préhistoire à Virgile: philologie, littératures et histoires anciennes, edited by Jean Granarolo and Michèle Biraud, pp. 117135. Paris, 1990.

Versnel, Henk S. "Sacrificium lustrale. The Death of Mettius Fufetius (Livy I, 28). Studies in Roman Lustration-Ritual I." Mededelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome 37 (1975): 97115.

John Scheid (1987)

Translated from French by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography