Roman Republic

Rome in the Early Republic (509 - 241 BC)

Clavus Annalis (Annual Nail)

Roman Rite of the ‘Clavus Annalis’

Livy began his account of the appointment of a dictator clavi figendi causa (dictator for fixing the nail - see below) in 363 BC with a description of the ancient rite of the clavi fixatio:

  1. There is an ancient law, written in archaic letters, which stipulates that the praetor maximus should fix a nail on the Ides [13th] of September.  It was fixed on the right side of the aedes of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, where the templum of Minerva is.  This nail is said to have marked the number of the year (written records being scarce in those days) and was, for that reason, placed under the protection of Minerva, because she was the inventor of numbers”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 3: 5-6). 

This is consistent with the definition of the Augustan grammarian Verrius Flaccus, epitomised by Festus:

  1. “The ‘clavus annalis’ was so called because it was fixed on the walls of the [Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus] every year, so that the number of years could be reckoned ...” (‘De verborum significatu’, 49 Lindsay, my translation).

Livy suggested an Etruscan precedent in his following line:

  1. Cincius, a careful student of monuments of this kind, asserts that, at Volsinii [Etruscan Velzna, modern Orvieto], nails were fixed in the temple of Nortia, an Etruscan goddess, to indicate the number of the years”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 3: 7).

Finally, Livy explained how the Romans of his day imagined that the rite prescribed by the ancient law had evolved over the period 509 - 363 BC:

  1. “The consul [M. Horatius Pulvillus] established the law and dedicated the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the year following the expulsion of the kings [conventionally 509 BC].  The ceremony of fixing the nails passed [subsequently] from the consuls to the dictators because they possessed greater authority.   As the custom had been subsequently dropped, it was felt to be of sufficient importance to require the appointment of a dictator”, (‘History of Rome, 7: 3: 8).

(See Stephen Oakley, referenced below, at p. 82 for the translation of the obelised passage above.)  Oakley argued that:

  1. the whole of the passage 7: 3: 5-8 constituted a discrete insertion into Livy’s account of the events of 363 BC, and that most of it was derived from ‘Cincius’, who was cited in line 7 (see p. 73):

  2. although Festus did not cite ‘Cincius’ ‘in the passage reproduced above, both he and Paulus (who epitomised Festus’ epitome) did so on several other occasions, the likelihood is the he is the original source of all of the information above (see p. 75); and

  3. ‘Cincius’ is almost certainly the antiquarian L. Cincius, and the material here was probably contained in his‘Mystagogicon’, which he probably wrote prior to the destruction of the original temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in 83 BC (see p. 81).

The authenticity of much the information contained in this passage remains a matter of scholarly debate about the following questions:

Annual Rite at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus

The passages discussed above constitute our only surviving evidence for the annual fixing of the nail at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the early Republic.  However, there is some surviving evidence of a long-remembered tradition of this kind:

in a letter that Cicero sent to Atticus to announce his arrival in his province of Cilicia in 51 BC:

  1. I reached Laodicea on 31st July.  From this day, clavum anni movebis (you must start your reckoning of the year)”, (‘Letters to Atticus’, 108, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, at p. 65).

It seems from this light-hearted greeting that that the fixing of a nail to mark the start of a new year had become proverbial (at least among scholars)  by Cicero’s time.

Etruscan Precedent for the Ritual

Image from Wayne L. Rupp Jr (referenced below), Figure 4, at p. 213)

Livy noted that:

  1. “”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 3: 7-8).

This passage by Cincius, as transmitted by Livy, is our only surviving source for the information that a nail was fixed at the temple of Nortia in order to mark the start of the year, presumably as a dating mechanism.

The mirror above

The subject matter of

the mirror concerns the

ill-fated love of two

mythological couples,

Turan and Atune, and

Atlenta and Meliacr. In

both cases, the death of

the male, which is alluded

to by the boar’s head

and Athrpa holding the

nail of fate, occurred after

a boar hunt.17  This mirror

demonstrates a great

deal of thematic unity,

which is continued even

into the exergue. The five

figures present in the

mirror appear to stand

on top of this goddess as if she indicates a ground line and the earth. Here she functions as

the setting of the myth and as a chthonic earth goddess, a reminder of the cycle of life, death,

and rebirth.

Francesco Roncalli (referenced below, p 225-7) observed that:

  1. “Each of the Etruscan cities must have had its own place where the passing years (and thus the beginning and end of the civic and religious calendar year) was officially registered and ritually sanctioned.  It seems significant that only the tradition at Volsinii and the custodian of the rite there, Nortia (whom Livy promoted to the rank of  ‘Tuscan goddess’) achieved fame in this context in the Roman world.

  2. Perhaps this was because the recording of time at Velzna had pan-Etruscan relevance, possibly because it recorded, among other things, the annual pan-Etruscan councils [at the nearby fanum Voltumna]? 

  3. Perhaps the role of the priest who was elected by the ‘twelve people’ to preside over these annual councils was analogous to that of the “praetor maximus”at Rome, who (probably following the Etruscan tradition) drove the nail in the cella of Minerva, thereby entrusting ‘his’ year, its collegiate discussions and his own authority, to the inscrutable immutability of destiny ?” (my translation).

The first problem with Cincius’ passage is that, as far as we can tell, Nortia was not a pan-Etruscan goddess: as Henk Versnel (referenced below, at p. 274) pointed out, it seems that Nortia was only worshipped at Volsinii.  He cited:

  1. the Christian writer Tertulian (ca. 200 AD):

  2. “... [the gods of the Roman provinces] are not Roman, since they are not worshipped at Rome.  [Neither are those that] are ranked as deities in Italy by municipal consecration, such as: ... Nortia of Volsinii …” (“Apologeticus pro Christianis”,  24:8); and

  3. the satirical poet Juvenal (ca. 120 AD):

  4. “But what of the Roman mob?  They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she condemns. [For example]: 

  5. if Nortia (as the Etruscans called her) had favoured Etruscan Sejanus; [and]

  6. if the old Emperor [Tiberius] had [therefore] been surreptitiously smothered;

  7. that same crowd in a moment would have hailed their new Augustus”, (Satire 10: ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’).

  8. In this second passage, Nortia is an Etruscan form of the Roman goddess Fortuna, and she was associated with Sejanus (who might have expected to succeed Tiberius, had the mob not killed him) because he came from Volsinii.

Remains of the so-called Tempio del Belvedere (ca. 500 BC) at Orvieto

Cincius’ temple of Nortia  ??

There is evidence for two ancient temples at Volsinii at which a goddess akin to the Greek Athena (whom the Romans had absorbed as Minerva) was venerated:

  1. Temple in Vigna Grande:

  2. Francesco Roncalli (referenced below, at p. 225) and Simonetta Stopponi (referenced below, 2003, at p. 247) noted that the presence of a temple in località Vigna Grande, is indicated by the discovery there of fragments of a frieze (late 6th century BC) that depicted a scene from the the Gigantomachia (Battle of the Giants) in which (in the Greek prototype) Athena defeated Enceladus.  (Se also Simonetta Stopponi’s paper of 2104, referenced below, for deatils of the surviving fragments). The site is at the eastern end of the cliff-top plateau on which Volsimii was buit, and was peobably immediately outside the walls of the Etruscan city.

  3. The so-called Tempio del Belvedere (illustrated above):

  4. Simonetta Stopponi (referenced below, 2003, at p. 248) described this temple as the most monumental of those that have been excavated at Orvieto.  It was situated to the east of that at Vigna Grande, towards the edge of the cylindrical cliff on which Volsinii had been built (numbers 7 and 8 respectively on the map reproduced by Simonetta Stopponi (referenced below, 2003, figure 1, pp. 236-7): I believe that a processional route that passed the temple and necropolis of Cannicella (number 9) continued to to the sanctuary at Campo Fiera (number 10), the probable site of the fanum Voltumnae.  Excavations of the site in 1828 and 1923 unearthed  tri-partite floor plan of the temple, together with a number of decorative elements of exceptional quality.  Their dating on stylistic grounds pointed to the rebuilding or extensive redecoration of the temple in the early 5th century BC, and older objects that seem to have been been preserved in a votive ‘stipe’ suggest that the original temple dated to the late 6th century BC.  Francesco Roncalli (referenced below) recorded three graffiti on pottery found at the site might relate to the dedication of the temple:
  5. Two inscriptions (CIE 10525 and CIE 10535; 5th century BC; at p. 223) on bucchero cups recorded the epithet ‘apas’ (of the father) might indicate an original dedication to Sur/ Suri.

  6. A third (CIE 10560; ca. 350 BC; at p. 222) on a black-figure cup recorded ‘Tinia Calusna’: the epithet Calusna (of Calus) suggests a form of Tinia associated with the uhderworld.

  7. Simonetta Stopponi (referenced below, 2003, at p. 257) discussed these inscriptions, together with a small bronze votive offering from the temple (illustrated to the right) that represents Athena wearing the aegis that had been given to her by Zeus and holding a spear.

However, as Enrico Zuddas (referenced below, 2017, at p. 219. note 37) pointed out, we have no hard evidence that this goddess was identified as Nortia at either temple.

Another potential difficulty arises beca

If the analogy is pursued to its logical conclusion, this would suggest that the annual driving of the nail at Velzna had taken place in the right-hand cella of the Tempio del Belvedere (which, as noted above, was analogous to the cella of Minerva in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus at Rome).

This putative tradition would have come to an end at Velzna in 264 BC, when Velzna and its temples were destroyed.  However, a number of bronze nails that were discovered along the southern wall of Temple A at the sanctuary at Campo della Fiera might point to the transfer of the tradition to this location.  Simonetta Stopponi (referenced below, 2011) has concluded that:

  1. “The most likely interpretation of [these] nails is for architectural terracottas, but the presence of such a large number of specimens raises the appeal to the Volsinian tradition of the clavus annalis, which was [originally] affixed to the temple of the goddess Nortia, recognised by some in the Orvietan Belvedere temple”.

However, it seems to me that there is circumstantial evidence for the identification of the latter temple with Cincius’ ‘temple of Nortia’:

  1. Cincius was clearly speaking about a temple in the original city of Volsinii, which the Romans destroyed in 264 BC (albeit that the goddess retained her Etruscan name when her cult transferred to the replacement city at modern Bolsena).

  2. As Annalisa Calapà (referenced below, at p. 43) pointed out, Cincius’ record of the similarities between  the ritual of the clavus annalis at Rome and at Volsinii:

  3. “ ... suggests that the Etruscan goddess [Nortia] was somehow assimilated to Minerva: this seems to be confirmed by a dedication (AE 1962 0152) to Minerva Nortina found in Visentium, a Roman municipium on the west side of the lake of Bolsena.”

Dictatorship Clavi Figendi Causa

Livy presumably started this description of the ancient ritual of fixing the nail to record the passing years because he believed that it had evolved over time into an occasional propitiatory ritual of the kind that the Senate mandated in 363 BC. 

He then gave a short (an not particularly helpful) summary of how this putative evolution had occurred:

“The ceremony ... had subsequently passed from the consuls to dictators, because they possessed greater authority.  Then, after the custom had lapsed, the matter was viewed as worthy in itself to warrant the appointment of a dictator clavi figendi causa (for the purpose of fixing the nail)”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 3: 8)

The occasion prior to 363 BC on which a pestilence had been assuaged by a dictator fixing a nail  (which, it was said, the older men of 363 BC remembered) had presumably occurred (or was imagined to have occurred) in ca. 400 BC, by which time the annual rite of a dictator fixing the nail had presumably lapsed.

Francisco Pina Polo (referenced below, at p. 39) observed that:

“Livy understood [the appointment of the dictator clavi figendi causa of 363 BC to be] an attempt at recovering a lost rite:

Perhaps this was indeed the case and, maybe, the clavus annalis had ceased to exist, at least from the beginning of the 4th century BC. 

However, this could [alternatively] be a case of incorrect interpretation on the part of Livy, who may have [believed incorrectly] that the [occasional] appointment of a dictator specifically for fixing the nail [for propitiatory purposes] meant that the annual ritual [for chronological and/or propitiatory purposes] had ceased to exist [by 363 BC].”

Unfortunately, we have no basis upon which to decide between these alternatives and, if Livy had made a mistake, we have no way of knowing when the annual rite was actually abandoned in Rome.  All we can say is that it had certainly been abandoned by the time that Livy was writing, since:

his account of it relied on Cincius’ record of the archaic inscription in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; and

he seems to have written it for an audience that had never come across it. 

However, a few years earlier, Cicero had begun a letter to Atticus as follows:

“I arrived at Laodicea on the 31st of July [51 BC].  From this day, ex hoc die clavum anni movebis (you should move the nail of the year”, (my translation of  ‘Letter to Atticus’, 5:15)”. 

Here, Cicero suggested that Atticus should measure the year of his (i.e. Cicero’s) stay in Laodicea in the ancient manner.  The casual nature of this suggestion indicates that the rite of the clavus annalis was still recalled, at least in some quarters, in the 1st century BC.

Origins of the Dictatorship Clavi Figendi Causa

According to Livy, in the consulship of Lucius Genucius Aventinensis and Quintus Servilius Ahala (365 BC):

“Matters were quiet as regarded domestic troubles or foreign wars, but (lest there should be too great a feeling of security) a pestilence broke out ... The most illustrious victim was Marcus Furius Camillus, whose death, though occurring in ripe old age, was bitterly lamented ... [He] was counted worthy to be named next to Romulus, as the second founder of Rome”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 1: 7-10).

Camillus’ victory at Vell in 396 BC had marked the start of the Roman conquest of Italy, and his death some three decades later must have felt like the end of an era. The epidemic continued into the following year.  Attempts were made to placate the gods, but they proved ineffective: in 363 BC, the Tiber broke its banks and flooded the Circus, an event that was taken as a sign of the gods’ continuing displeasure.  According to Livy, at this point:

“Older men are said to have remembered that a pestilence had once been assuaged by the dictator [ritually] fixing a nail.  The Senate believed this to be a religious obligation, and ordered the appointment of a dictator clavi figendi causa (for the purpose of fixing the nail) ... ”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 3: 4-6).  

As Mark Wilson (referenced below, at p. 36) observed, it is not possible to identify the occasion on which this earlier unidentified dictator had been appointed.   All we can say is that Livy’s record of the appointment of such a dictator in 363 BC (which, was we shall see, is confirmed by the fasti Capitolini) is the earliest securely-dated record of its kind in our surviving sources.

Read more:

Zuddas E., “La Praetura Etruriae Tardoantica”, in:

  1. Cecconi G. A. et al. (editors), “Epigrafia e Società dell’Etruria Romana: Atti del Convegno di Firenze, 23-24 Ottobre 2015”, (2017) Rome

Stopponi S. , “Orvieto, Campo della Fiera: Fanum Voltumnae”, in:

  1. Macintosh Turfa J. (editor.), “The Etruscan World”, (2013 ) Oxford, pp. 632-54

Calapà A., “Sacra Volsiniensia. Civic Religion in Volsinii after the Roman Conquest”, Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Frankfurt, (2012) 

Rupp W. L., “The Vegetal Goddess in the Tomb of the Typhon”, Etruscan Studies, 10:17 (2007) 211-9

Stopponi S., “Volsiniensia Disiecta Membra”, in:

  1. Edlund-Berry I. et al. (editors), “Deliciae Fictiles II: Proceedings of the International Conference held at American Academy in Rome (7th-8th November 2002)”, (2006) Oxford, at pp. 210-221

Roncalli F., “I Culti’, in:

  1. Della Fina G. and Pellegrini E. (editors), “Storia di Orvieto: Antichità”, (20o3) Perugia, at  pp 217-35

Stopponi S., “Templi e l' Architettura Templari’, in:

  1. Della Fina G. and Pellegrini E. (editors), “Storia di Orvieto: Antichità”, (20o3) Perugia, at pp 235-73

Shackleton Bailey D. R. (translator), “Cicero: Letters to Atticus, Volume II”, (1999) Cambridge MA

Oakley S., “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume II: Books VII and VIII”, (1998) Oxford

Versnel H. S., “Triumphus: An Inquiry Into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph”, (1970) Leiden

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