Roman Republic

Copy of a fresco of Romulus on the facade of the house of Fabius Ululitremulus on Via dell’ Abbondanza at Pompeii

From the website Pompeii in Pictures

Nature of Spolia Opima

According to Livy, when Romulus engaged in battle with the people of Caenina at the start of his reign, he:

  1. “... killed their king in battle and despoiled him [of his armour]”, (‘History of Rome’, 1: 10: 3-4). 

After this victory:

  1. “... exercitu victore reducto (the victor led back the army) [to Rome].  Magnificent in action, he was no less eager to publicise his achievements.  So, he hung the spoils of the enemy commander that he had killed on a frame made to fit the purpose, and went up to the Capitol, carrying it himself”, (‘History of Rome, 1: 10: 5).

This is the scene that was represented in the fresco at Pompeii that illustrated above.  When Romulus arrived on the Capito:

  1. “He set [the spoils] down by an oak tree that was sacred to the shepherds and, at the same time as he made his offering, he marked out the boundary of a temple to Jupiter and gave the god an additional title, declaring:

  2. ‘To you, Jupiter Feretrius, I, Romulus, victor and king, bring spoils taken from a king.  On the site that I have just marked out in my mind, I dedicate a precinct to be a place for the spolia opima that men of the future, following my example, will bring to this place when they have killed regibus ducibusque hostium (kings and commanders of our enemies).’

  3. This was the origin of the first templum that was consecrated in Rome”, (‘History of Rome, 1: 10: 5-7).

At his point, Livy then looked forward, noting that:

  1. “... it has been the will of the gods that the words of [Romulus], the temple’s founder, were not in vain when he declared that posterity would bring spoils to this place.  [However], the honour has not been cheapened by many sharing it: only twice since then, over so many years and so many wars, have the spolia opima been won, so rare has been the good fortune of winning this distinction”, (‘History of Rome, 1: 10: 7).

Livy identified the two men who had won spolia opima after Romulus:

  1. A. Cornelius Cossus, in 437, 428 or 426 BC (‘History of Rome, 4: 20); and

  2. M. Claudius Marcellus, in 222 BC (‘Perioche’, 20: 11).

Spoils Stripped from a Commander by a Commander ?

As Myles McDonnell (referenced below, at p. 145) pointed out:

  1. “In the ancient Mediterranean world, it was a practice to hang the arms of the slain opponent on a frame and dedicate them to a deity.  At Rome, however, the ceremonial dedication of such spoils was confined to arms taken from a slain enemy commander, and called the spolia opima. What these were has long been a matter of scholarly controversy, which has been recently revived. The issue is complex.

  2. One tradition had it that the spolia opima could be dedicated only by a Roman leader, fighting under his own command, who had killed and despoiled an enemy leader: ‘quae dux duci detraxit’, as Livy wrote [ see below].  The tradition also stated that the spolia opima had been dedicated only three times in Roman history:

  3. first by Romulus, the city's legendary founder;

  4. a second time in 437, 428 or 426 BC by A. Cornelius Cossus; and

  5. for the last time,  in 222 BC, by M. Claudius Marcellus.

  6. Another tradition, which claimed the authority of the laws of Numa and the pontifical books, held that there were three types of spoils:

  7. the spolia opima or first spoils were dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius;

  8. the spolia secunda to Mars; and

  9. the spolia tertia to Janus Quirinus.

  10. Various explanations for this tripartite classification of the dedicated spoils have been proposed.”

  11. I discuss the second tradition below: for the moment, I will concentrate on the first tradition

  12. Livy then seems to throw doubt on this account:

  13. “[In stating] that A. Cornelius Cossus was a military tribune when he brought the secunda spolia opima to the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, I followed all previous authorities.  However, [there are two problems with this received wisdom] ... :

  14. [spoils of war] are properly deemed to be spolia opima only if dux duci detraxit (they have been stripped from a commander by a commander), and we [Romans] know of no commander other than the one under whose auspices the war is conducted; and

  15. the very words inscribed upon the spoils [that Cossus took from Tolumnius]  ...  show that Cossus captured them as consul.

  16. When I heard that Augustus Caesar, the founder or renewer of all the temples had entered the shrine of Jupiter Feretrius (which he rebuilt when it had crumbled with age) and read the inscription on the linen corselet,  I thought that it would be prope sacrilegium (almost sacrilegious to deprive Cossus of Caesar (the restorer of that very temple) as the witness to his spoils”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 5-7).

Livy’s reference to ‘Caesar Augustus’ indicates that this passage was written after 13 January 27  BC, when the erstwhile triumvir Octavian (who had been posthumously adopted by Julius Caesar in 44 BC) was officially named as Augustus, and it is usually assumed that it was a late addition to the original text. 

As we shall see, Livy then observed that Cossus had fought under his own auspices on two occasions:

  1. as consul in 428 BC; and

  2. as consular tribune and master of horse in 426 BC.

However, he then asserted that:

  1. “... I believe that [any speculation about 437 or 426 BC] is useless.  The fact remains that ... [Cossus]:

  2. placed the newly-won spoils ...  before Jupiter (to whom they were consecrated), with Romulus looking on (and these two witnesses are to be dreaded by any forger); and

  3. he described himself in the inscription as: ‘A. Cornelius Cossus: Consul’”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 11).

Denarius (RRC 439/1) issued in Rome, probably issued by [P] Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus in ca. 50 BC

Obverse: MARCELLINVS; head of M. Claudius Marcellus (with triskele behind, for his capture of Syracuse)

Reverse: MARCELLVS COS·QVINQ (for his five consulships):

Marcellus carries the spolia opima (which he won in 222 BC) into the Temple of Jupiter Feretrius (see below) 

Livy h

Plut. Rom. 16, Marc. 8,

Although, in the Augustan fasti Triumphales:

the record of Romulus’ triumph over the Caeninenses does not mention the spolia opima; and

the records for the period in which Cossus won this honour are lost;

the record for 222 BC reads:

“M. Claudius M.f. M.n. Marcellus, proconsul, over the Insubrian Gauls and the Germans, k.Mart. [1st March): he brought back the spolia opima after killing the enemy dux, Virdomarus, at Clastidium”.

The testimony of the Augustan grammarian M. Verrius Flaccus, as transmitted by Festus, is discussed below.

All the surviving sources agree that, when Aulus Cornelius Cossa killed Lars Tolumnius, the king of Veii, in single combat in a battle against the Etruscans of Veii and Fidenae, he became the first man after Romulus to win the spolia opima and to dedicate them to Jupiter Feretrius.  However, as we shall see, they do not agree about whether he did so:

  1. as military tribune under the dictator Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus in 437 BC;

  2. as consul in 428 BC; or

  3. as military tribune with consular power and also master of horse to Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus in his third term as dictator in 426 BC.

Livy recorded that: 

  1. “Following all previous historians, I have stated [in the main part of the account] that Aulus Cornelius Cossus was a military tribune when he brought the secunda spolia opima to the temple of Jupiter Feretrius.  However, [two things militate against this]:

  2. only those spoils that dux duci detraxit (one commander has taken from another) are properly spolia opima, and a [Roman] ‘commander’ is, [by definition], the man under whose auspices the war is waged; and

  3. [in any case, on the testimony of Augustus himself], the words inscribed upon the [spolia opima that survive in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius] show that Cossus took them as consul”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 5-6).

I will discuss the second of these objections below: for the moment, we need to focus on the fact that Livy acknowledged the tradition that spolia opima were spoils that a Roman commander with imperium had taken from the supreme commander of the enemy army whom he himself had killed (in which case, Cossus must have killed killed Lars Tolumnius either as consul in 428 BC, as the surviving inscription apparently indicated, or as military tribune with consular power two years later).

Three slightly later authorities followed the tradition that the spolia opima had to be taken by a commander with imperium and that only two Romans emulated Romulus in winning them:

  1. P

  2. The next surviving direct testimony of this tradition is in an inscription (CIL X 0809) from Pompeii, dated to 63-70 AD, which Alison Cooley (referenced below, 2004, at p. 101) translated as:

  3. “Romulus, son of Mars, founded the city of Rome and reigned for 38 years; he was the first dux (commander) to dedicate the spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius, having killed the enemy dux, King Acro of the Caeninenses, and having been received among the company of the gods, was called Quirinus”

Pliny the Younger followed this tradition in the panegyric that he delivered to the Emperor Trajan in the Senate in 100 AD:

  1. “The spoils of supreme honour would be yours if any king would dare to match himself against you, shuddering with terror though the whole field of battle and army might lie between, when confronted not only by your weapons but by a glance from your threatening eye“, (‘Panegyricus Traiani’, 17: 3), translated by Betty Radice, referenced below, at p. 363)

Finally, Cassius Dio (3rd century AD) assumed it in two passages:

  1. among the plethora of honours awarded to Julius Caesar after his victory in the civil war, the Senate, in 45 BC:

  2. “...  gave him the right to  dedicate spolia opima ... at the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, as if he had killed an enemy commander with his own hand” (‘Roman History’, 44: 4: 4).

  3. Marcus Licinius Crassus, as governor of Macedonia, defeated the Bastarnae in an engagement in 29 BC in which:

  4. “Crassus himself killed their king Deldo and would have dedicated his armour as spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius, had he exercised supreme command”, (‘Roman History’, 51: 24: 3).

Nature of the Spolia Opima

Denarius (RRC 439/1) issued in Rome, probably issued by [P] Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus in ca. 50 BC

Obverse: MARCELLINVS; head of M. Claudius Marcellus (with triskele behind, for his capture of Syracuse)

Reverse: MARCELLVS COS·QVINQ (for his five consulships):

Marcellus carries the spolia opima (which he won in 222 BC) into the Temple of Jupiter Feretrius (see below) 


M. Varro ait opima spolia esse, etiam si manipularis miles detraxerit, dummodo duci hostium …

non sint ad aedem Iovis Feretri poni, testimonio esse libros pontificum; in quibus sit:

pro primis spoliis bove,

pro secundis solitaurilibus,

pro tertiis agno

publice fieri debere;

esse etiam Pompili regis legem opimorum spoliorum talem: ‘cuius auspicio classe procincta opima spolia capiuntur,

Iovi Feretrio darier oporteat, et bovem caedito, qui cepit aeris CC<C> …

secunda spolia, in Martis ara in campo solitaurilia utra voluerit caedito …

tertia spolia, Ianui Quirino agnum marem caedito, C qui ceperit ex aere dato. cuius auspicio capta, dis piaculum dato.

are properly deemed to be spolia opima only if dux duci detraxit (they have been stripped from a commander by a commander), and we [Romans] know of no commander other than the one under whose auspices the war is conducted”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 5-7).

Varro/ Flaccus/ Festus

Festus, a grammarian who seems to have worked in the 2nd century AD, is known only for his condensed version of the lexicon ‘De verborum significatu’ (On the meaning of words) of M. Verrius Flaccus (ca. 55 BC- 20 AD).  Festus’ entry on the ‘Opima spolia’ is at p. 202 (lines 14 25)  and p. 204 (lines 1-19) of the edition of Wallace Lindsay (1913).  This long, lacunose entry is best analysed in four consecutive parts.

Part 1

The entry begins by recording that ‘Opima spolia’ were:

  1. ... quae dux populi Romani duci hostium detraxit; quorum tanta raritas est, ut intra annos paulo  [lacuna of 19 letters] ... trina contigerint nomini Romano:

  2. una, quae Romulus de Acrone;

  3. altera, quae Cossus Cornelius de Tolumnio;

  4. tertia, quae Marcus Marcellus [lacuna] Viridomaro, fixerunt”, (202 L: 1-25 and 204 L: 1-4)

  5. “... those that a Roman commander took from an enemy commander.  These were of such rarity [difficult to translate because of the lacuna, presumably saying that only three sets of such spoils were won in Rome over a long period]:

  6. ... first, those that Romulus [took] from Acron, [king of Caenina];

  7. another, those that ... Cossus Cornelius [took] from Tolumnius; and

  8. third, those that M. Marcellus [took] from Viridomarus [and] set up [in the shrine of] Jupiter Feretrius ?]”, (my translation).

Part 2

The next part of this entries cited a passage by M. Terentius Varro:

  1. Varro ait opima spolia esse, etiam si manipularis miles detraxerit, dummodo duci hostium ... [long lacuna in the rest of line 6 and all of line 7].”, (204L; 4-6)

  2. “M. Varro says that spolia opima can be named as such, even if [a Roman who is only] a miles manipularis (common soldier) takes them, provided [they have been taken from] an enemy commander: ...”, (my translation).

Part 3

In the next passage, Festus cited the ‘libri pontificum’ (Pontifical Books): after the long lacuna, the passage reads:

  1. “ ... non sint, ad aedem Jovis Feretrii poni  testimonio esse libros pontificum, in quibus sit:

  2. pro primis spoliis bove;

  3. pro secundis solitaurilibus;

  4. pro tertiis agno;

  5. publice fieri debere”, (204L; 8-11)

  6. “... [some kinds of spolia ??] are not put in the shrine of Jupiter Feretrius, as evidenced in the ‘libri pontificum’, in which [it is also prescribed that] the following should be sacrificed:

  7. for the prima spolia, a bull:

  8. for the secunda spolia, a suovetaurilia (a pig, a ram, and a bull); [and]

  9. for the tertia spolia, a lamb”, (my translation).

The lacuna before this passage probably contained an explanation of the differences between three levels of opima spolia, the second and third of which were not dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius. 

Part 4

In the final passage, Festus cited a lex Pompili regis (Law of Numa):

  1. “... esse etiam Pompili regis legem opimorum spoliorum talem:

  2. ‘cuius auspicio classe procincta opima spolia capiuntur, Iovi Feretrio darier oporteat et bovem caedito, qui cepit aeris CC<C> …

  3. ... secunda spolia, in Martis ara in campo solitaurilia utra voluerit caedito …

  4. ... tertia spolia, Ianui Quirino agnum marem caedito. C qui ceperit ex aere dato

  5. Cuius auspicio capta, dis piaculum dato’, (204L; 11-18)

  6. “... there is a law of spolia opima of King Numa [that prescribes the following]:

  7. Opima spolia are those that are captured by a general ... under whose auspices a war is waged: he shall sacrifice an bull to Jupiter Feretrius.  To the captor, 300 [bronze coins ?]  shall properly be given.

  8. Secunda spolia [are those that are captured by an officer ??]: the captor shall sacrifice a suovetaurilia at the altar of Mars in the Campus Martius.  The captor shall receive 200 [bronze coins ?].

  9. Terita spolia [are those that are captured by a manipularis miles ??]: he shall sacrifice a lamb to Janus Quirinus.  The captor shall receive 100 [bronze coins ?].

  10. The commanding general shall sacrifice to the gods”.

I have based this translation and completion primarily on the work of Frederic Allen (referenced below, at pp. 82-3, entry 170) and Allan Chester Johnson (referenced below, at II: 2).  In making the necessary completions, they presumably made use of passages by Servius and Plutarch (both discussed below).


Part 1

Since this text is not attributed to any particular source, it is reasonable to assume that it was drawn directly from Flaccus’ lexicon.  It seems to derive from the same tradition as that followed by Livy:

  1. spolia opima were taken by a Roman commander from an enemy commander; and

  2. only Cossus and Marcellus had emulated Romulus by winning them bu his time of writing.

Part 2

This text is attributed to Varro, although it is unclear whether:

  1. Festus drew on Varro’s work directly; or

  2. Flaccus had recorded two apparently contradictory traditions.

Varro apparently recorded here that spolia opima were those taken by any Roman soldier (regardless of rank) who killed an enemy commander in single combat.  On this basis, it would have been possible for Cossus (for example) to have claimed Tolumnius’ armour as spolia opima, even if he had won it as military tribune in 437 BC, although the material in this passage does not address whether or not, in these circumstances, he would have been able to dedicate these spoils to Jupiter Feretrius.  Stephen Harrison (referenced below, at p. 410 and note 13) suggested that the source for this passage was probably Varro’s now-lost:

  1. “... ‘Antiquitates Rerum Humanarum et Divinarum’ of 47 BC: in this work of religious antiquarianism, Varro is surely very likely to have discussed the cult of Jupiter Feretrius and the rules for dedicating the spolia opima, especially perhaps in Books 30-2, which gave an account of the sacred buildings of Rome.” 

If so, then this passage would reflect the earliest known description of the spolia opima

Parts 3 and 4

Part 3 contains material attributed to the ‘libri pontificum’.  John Rich (in Timothy Cornell (Ed.), referenced below, Volume I, at pp. 145-6) observed that:

  1. “Like other priestly colleges, the pontifices maintained an archive, known as their libri or commentarii, in which they recorded their proceedings and other rituals.”

He also commented (at p. 147, note 25) that references to these books such as this one by Festus:

  1. “.. suggest that at least part of the archives of the pontifical college were preserved on papyrus, ...”

William Warde Fowler (referenced below, Lecture VII, search on ‘certi’) believed that Varro had drawn heavily on the ‘libri pontificum’.  For example, he asserted that:

  1. “St Augustine [‘City of God’, 7: 17)] tells us that it was in the last three books of his work [probably the ‘Antiquates’] that Varro treated of the Roman deities, and that he divided them under the headings of di certi, di incerti and di selecti.  In the first of these [categories], he dealt [with deities of the first category, which he designated as] certi because their names expressed their supposed activity quite clearly. We know for certain [see his note 34] that Varro found these names in the books of the pontifices, and that they were there called ‘indigitamenta’

Michael Lipka (referenced below, at pp. 69-70) observed that the so-called ‘indigitamenta’ were:

  1. “... manuals of some sort for priestly use, specifying the nature of various gods to be invoked on cultic occasions, as well as the sequence in which this had to be done.  The one (almost) certain fact about such lists or handbooks is that Varro, in the 14th book of his ‘Antiquates ...’, made extensive use of them.  He thus becomes the principal, if not the only, mediator of their contents.”

Part 4 contains material attributed to a lex Pompili regis.  Livy recorded the tradition relating to the origin of these laws: Numa had chosen the senator:

  1. ... Numa Marcius, son of Marcus, ... as pontifex and gave him sacra omnia exscripta exsignataque (full and accurate written directions for performing the religious rites):

  2. with what victims, on what days, in what temple, sacrifices should be offered; and

  3. from what sources money was to be disbursed to pay their costs. 

  4. All other public and private sacrifices he likewise made subject to the decrees of the pontifex,  ... lest any confusion should arise in the religious law through the neglect of ancestral rites and the adoption of strange ones”, (‘History of Rome’, 1: 20 5-6).

Varro was certainly aware of the so-called ‘Books of Numa’: according to St Augustine:

  1. “... we read in  ... Varro's book on the worship of the gods: 

  2. ‘A certain  Terentius had a field at the Janiculum, and [in 181 BC], when his ploughman was passing the plough near to the tomb of Numa Pompilius, he turned up from the ground the books of Numa, in which were written the causes of the sacred institution.  He  took them to the praetor, who ... referred to the Senate what seemed to be a matter of so much importance.  And, when the chief senators had read the reasons why this or that rite was instituted, the Senate assented to the dead Numa, and the conscript fathers, as though concerned for the interests of religion, ordered the praetor to burn the books’”, (‘City of God’, 7: 34).

The real origin of these apparently archaic documents and the reason for their prompt incineration need not detain us: what is relevant here is that versions of a number of putative leges Pompili regis found their way into our surviving sources.  Christopher Smith (referenced below, para. 36) observed that:

  1. “None of the ‘laws’ [that have survived] are complete.  Almost all come from [the lexicon of Flaccus] via [the abridgements by] Festus and Paulus Diaconus ... , and the references are often truncated and obscure as well as being at second or third hand.”

André Magdelain (referenced below, at p. 208) observed that most scholars assume that the citations of the ‘libri pontificum’ and the lex Pompili regis in parts 3 and 4 respectively are taken from the cited work by Varro: although the existence of the lacuna at lines 6-7 makes it impossible to be certain.  It seems to me that, since:

  1. the body of circumstantial evidence set out above suggests that each of part 3 and part 4 might well have been derived from Varro; and

  2. there is no obvious manuscript defect in line 11, which links them;

the probability that they both derived from Varro is very high indeed.

Overall Conclusion

It seems likely that Festus recorded two distinct traditions at 202-4L:

  1. the tradition at part 1 followed by Livy, which Festus probably took directly from Flaccus; and

  2. a tradition at parts 2-4 that was:

  3. recorded in both the libri pontifiicalum and a putative lex Pompili regis;

  4. articulated by Varro; and 

  5. taken by Festus:

  6. -either directly from Varro; or

  7. -(in my view, more probably) via Flaccus.

In this second tradition, spolia opima were taken in single combat from an enemy commander:

  1. spolia opima prima were taken by a Roman commander and dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius;

  2. spolia opima secunda were probably taken by a Roman officer and dedicated to Mars; and

  3. spolia opima tertia were probably taken by a common Roman soldier and dedicated to Janus Quirinus.

Two later sources reflect this second tradition:

  1. Valerius Maximus, who was writing shortly after Augustus’ death in 14 AD, recorded that, in 426 BC:

  2. “[Cossus] consecrated spoils to [Jupiter Feretrius] when, as [military tribune with consular power and] master of horse, he met in battle and killed the leader of the Fidenates .. Nor should we [neglect] ... the memory of M. [Claudius] Marcellus, who ... attacked the king of the Gauls [on the banks of the Po in 22 BC] ...and straightway killed him, stripped him of his arms and dedicated them to Jupiter Feretrius.  [Three other Romans]:

  3. Titus Manlius Torquatus, [as military tribune in 361 BC];

  4. Valerius Corvinus, [as military tribune in 349 BC]; and

  5. Aemilianus Scipio, [as military tribune in 151 BC];

  6. ... [also] killed enemy leaders whom they had challenged.  However, since they acted under the auspices of other men, they did not place spoils to be consecrated to Jupiter Feretrius”, (‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings’, 3: 2: 3-6, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, at p. 239).

  7. Florus (probably later in the 1st century AD) also recorded the case of ‘Aemilianus Scipio’: in 151 BC, the consul L. Licinius Lucullus:

  8. “... conquered the [Celtiberian tribes of the] Turduli and Vaccaei, from whom the younger Scipio [Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, who was  serving as a military tribune] had won the spolia opima in a single combat to which their king had challenged him.  These were regarded as the most honourable of all war trophies”, (‘Epitome of Roman History’’, 1: 33: 11).

Virgil and Servius

A passage in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (ca. 19 BC) conjures up an image of M. Claudius Marcellus, the consul of 222 BC, who:

  1. “... advances, graced with the spolia opima: [see] how he towers in victory over all men!  When the Roman State is reeling under a brutal shock, he will steady it: he will ride down [both] Carthaginians and the insurgent Gauls, and tertiaque arma patri suspendet capta Quirino (will hang up the third set of captured arms to Quirinus)”, (‘Aeneid’, 6: 854-9, translated by Henry Rushton Fairclough, referenced below, at pp. 593-5).

Since every other surviving authority insists that Marcellus dedicated the spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius, and since it is, in any case, inconceivable that Virgil (or anyone else) thought that Marcellus was a common soldier in 222 BC, this passage is difficult to explain: Augustus, Virgil’s patron, had restored the temple of Jupiter Feretrius only a decade or so earlier, and since  (as we shall see) he claimed to have seen the spolia opima dedicated by Cossus there, he must surely also have seen some evidence of those dedicated there by Marcelllus.  For these reasons, Roland Austin (referenced below, at p. 266) argued cogently that:

  1. “... Virgil must have used the name [Quirinus] in an allusive way that his contemporaries would have understood.  It was a name traditionally given to Romulus after his apotheosis.  Virgil himself uses it for Romulus [in the passage at] 1: 292:

  2. Remo cum fratre Quirinus’.

  3. Surely, this is the allusion here: Marcellus [dedicated] his spolia in Romulus’ honour: that is, honouring the traditional founder] of the temple, ... who had laid down that future winners of the spolia opima should follow his example and dedicate them there.”

Stephen Harrison (referenced below, at p. 413, who cited Austin at note 25) referred Livy’s account of Cossus’ dedication of the spolia opima.  Two parts of this passage are relevant here:

  1. “[Cossus] ... solemnly dedicated the [arms of King Tolumnius] to Jupiter Feretrius, and hung them in his temple near those of Romulus, which were the only ones that, at that time, were called spolia opima prima.  ... In stating. that Cossus placed the spolia opima secunda in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius when he was a military tribune, I have followed all the existing authorities ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 3-5).

  2. [However], the fact remains that [Cossus] placed the newly-won spoils in the sacred shrine near Jupiter himself, to whom they were consecrated, and with Romulus in full view ..., and that he described himself in the inscription as ‘A. Cornelius Cossus, Consul”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 11).

Two things emerge from this comparison of these passages from Livy and Virgil:

  1. there was a second tradition  related to three levels of spolia opima, which differentiated them chronologically rather than by the rank of the Roman who captured them:

  2. Romulus had won the spolia opima prima (Livy);

  3. Cossus had dedicated the spolia opima secunda in the early 5th century, in the temple that Romulus had founded for the purpose (Livy); and

  4. Marcellus had dedicated the spolia opima tertia to Romulus/ Quirinus in 222 BC (Virgil); and

  5. since Cossus had dedicated the spolia opima secunda in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius ‘with Romulus in full view’ (Livy), then Marcellus could have ‘hung up’ the spolia opima tertia to this cult image of Romulus/ Quirinus in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius.

In other words, as Stephen Harrison (following Roland Austin) suggested (again at p. 413) that the explanation of the apparent problem with Virgil’s passage may be that he chose :

  1. “... to stress the heroic founder of Rome, who has already (appeared prominently ... at 6.777-80), rather than Jupiter Feretrius, while still intending to indicate that the temple of the latter god is the place of dedication.  Whatever we make of this detail, the strong suggestion in Vergil's account of [this] Marcellus is ... that canon of three dedications is now completed ...”

If so, then this was lost on Servius: in his commentary (4th century AD) on this passage, he asserted that the Law of Numa prescribed that:

  1. “ ... prima opima spolia Iovi Feretrio debere suspendi, quod iam Romulus fecerat; secunda Marti, quod Cossus fecit; tertia Quirino, quod fecit Marcellus. Quirinus autem est Mars qui praeest paci et intra ciuitatem colitur : nam belli Mars extra ciuitatem templum habuit” (ad Aen., 6: 860, see Harold Butler, referenced below, at p. 61)

  2. ... the spolia opima prima should be dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius, as Romulus did; the spolia opima secunda should be dedicated to Mars, as Cossus did; and the spolia opima tertia should be dedicated to Quirinus, as Marcellus did.  However, Quirinus is Mars who presides over peace and is honoured inside the city, while Mars, the god of war has his temple outside the city, (my translation). 

The final line reads:

  1. “... uarie de hoc loco tractant commentatores, Numae legis immemores, cuius facit mentionem et Livius”

  2. “Commentators advance various views on this line, forgetting the law of Numa, of which Livy also makes mention”, (translated by, translated by Alfred Schlesinger, referenced below, at p. 183).

Schlesinger observed that:

  1. “Servius quotes this law as decreeing that the first spolia opima  ... were to be dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius (as done by Romulus,, according to Livy: 10: 4–7), the second to Mars (as done by Cossus; see 4: 20: 5-11), and the third to Quirinus (as done by Marcellus).  Since this law is not mentioned in the earlier passages, it must have appeared in the account of Marcellus’ feat.”

He therefore considered this Servian fragment to be from Livy’s now-lost Book 20: the surviving summary of this book includes:

  1. “Consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus killed the leader of the Gallic Insubres, Vertomarus, and returned with the spolia opima” (‘Perioche’, 20:11).

However, pace Schlesinger , I doubt that Livy actually mentioned the putative Law of Numa.  In his account of Cossus’ winning of the spolia opima,he recorded that:

  1. “[Cossus] solemnly dedicated the spoils [of King Tolumnius] to Jupiter Feretrius, and hung them in his temple near those of Romulus, which were the prima opima appellata (first spoils to be called opima] and were, at that time, the only ones”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 3); and

  2. “In stating that Aulus Cornelius Cossus was a military tribune when he brought the secunda spolia opima to the temple of Jupiter Feretrius”, ..., (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 5).

It seems likely therefore that, in Book 20, Livy labelled the spoils dedicated by Marcellus as the tertia spolia opima (i.e., the third to be dedicated), although he would certainly have recorded that they were dedicated at the temple of Jupiter Feretrius: Servius must have relied on Varro or another source for the information that, according to a law of Numa, tertia spolia opima were dedicated to Quirinus.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus

According to Dionysius, Romulus celebrated a triumph after his victory over the king of Caenina:

  1. “After the [triumphal] procession and the sacrifice, Romulus built a small temple to Jupiter, whom the Romans call Feretrius, on the summit of the Capitol; indeed, the ancient traces of it still remain, of which the longest sides are less than 15 feet.  In this temple, he consecrated the [armour] of the king of Caenina, whom he had killed with his own hands”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 2: 34: 4).

Since (as noted above, Dionysius had probably seen the temple during its restoration, it is surprising that:

  1. he attached no particular significance to the fact that, in Roman tradition, Romulus had dedicated the arms of the king of Caenina here (albeit that this is his second reference to the fact that Romulus had killed this king with his own hands); and

  2. he did not designate these spoils as the spolia opima.

Furthermore, it seems that Dionysius made the same omission in his account of Cossus’ killing of the king of Veii in the late 5th century BC.  His only records of Cossus in the surviving manuscripts are as follows:

  1. “When the Etruscans, Fidenates and Veientes were making war upon the Romans and Lars Tolumnius, the king of the Etruscans, was doing them terrible damage, a Roman military tribune, Aulus Cornelius ... Cossus, spurred his horse against Tolumnius; and when he was close to him, they levelled their spears against each other.  ... [They both ended up on the ground and, while Tolumnius] was still attempting to raise himself, [Cossus] ran his sword through his groin. After slaying him and stripping off his spoils, he not only repulsed those who came to close quarters with him, both horse and foot, but also reduced to discouragement and fear those who still held out on the two wings”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 12: 5: 1-3).

  2. “When Aulus Cornelius Cossus (for the second time) and Titus Quintius were consuls, the land suffered from a severe drought  ...”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 12: 6: 1).

Dionysius would certainly have known (from Livy, if from no other source) that Augustus claimed to have seen an inscription in the temple that confirmed that Cossus had dedicated the spolia opima here as consul.  It is, of course, possible that he referred in a now-lost part of this account to:

  1. the arms of King Tolumnius as spolia opima; and

  2. their dedication in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius.

However, there is nothing to suggest this, and he certainly continued to follow the sources that insisted that Cossus killed Tolumnius when he was military tribune. (His work ended at the start of the First Punic War, so we have no account for the spolia opima won by Marcellus).

In short, the likelihood is that Dionysius took a conscious decision against engaging with the Roman tradition of the spolia opima.

Jupiter Tropaiouchos

Coin of the Boiotian koinon depicting the bronze tropaion that once topped the victory monument at Leuctra,

which celebrated the Theban and Boeotian victory over the Spartans in 371 BC

The side shown here depicts the arms of a fallen enemy soldier, hanging from a spear and mounted on a tree trunk

Adapted from images from Scott Manning’s web page on the Leuctra Victory Monument:

Copyright © 2020 Scott Manning

Dionysius did however touch tangentially of the tradition of the spolia opima when he ended his description of Romulus triumph and his dedication of the arms of the king of Caenina to Jupiter Feretrius: in what is almost an after-thought, he mused on the meaning of the epithet ‘Feretrius’ to his Greek-speaking audience:

  1. “As for Jupiter Feretrius, to whom Romulus dedicated these arms, one will not be far from the truth if one calls him either:

  2. Tropaiouchos (or Skylophoros, as some will have it); or

  3. Hyperpheretês, since [Jupiter] excels all things and comprehends universal nature and motion”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 2: 34: 4).

These suggested Greek epithets would have been based onthose that the Greeks gave to Zeus.  The website HelleniicGods.Org lists the most important of them, which include:

  1. Hyperpheretês (or Ypærphærǽtis), ‘the supreme one’;

  2. Tropaiouchos (or Tropaioukhos), literally ‘trophy-having’, probably in the sense given in the website: ‘to whom trophies are dedicated’; and

  3. Tropaios, ‘he who turns, changes events, bestowing victory’.

The last two of these epithets are the most important for this discussion, and both of them derive from ‘tropaia’ (trophies of war). 

Jutta Stroszeck (referenced below, at p. 303) pointed out that Greek military trophies could be either:

  1. degradable trophies, which the victors:

  2. made immediately after the battle by attaching the weapons of fallen enemy soldiers to a tree trunk or to a wooden stake; and

  3. erected on the battlefield; or

  4. monumental bronze and stone trophies, which were built some time after the victory.

Stroszeck observed that:

  1. “Naturally, few, if any, [degradable] tropaia ... have survived, but there is frequent reference to them in ancient sources.  Towards the end of the 5th century BC, we see an increasing tendency to make these trophies more durable by putting up reliefs with sculpted depictions of [them] in sanctuaries.  From the 4th century BC onwards, they also occur in other contexts, mainly on coins struck in order to commemorate the glory of victory”, (quote from p. 303 - see also the Greek coin illustrated above, a sketch of which was given as Stroszeck’s figure 8).

  2. “The erection of a tropaion ... [on the battlefield established that that the victors were] in full command of the ... site.  ... The defeated [army had] to accept that its casualties were being despoiled of their weapons ... The victorious soldiers [would use] a set of these weapons to erect the tropaion ...  The weapons, if possible splendid ones taken from outstanding men, were hung on or nailed onto either a wooden pole erected for this purpose or to a tree trunk”, (quote from p. 310, with the tense changed).

  3. “Inscriptions formed an integral part of trophies of either kind. ... From [surviving references to them], ... we can deduce [that] ... a standard trophy inscription ... [included] a dedication to a god, in many cases, to Zeus Tropaios”, (quote from p. 318).

Given these traditions, we might expect a Greek observer such as Dionysius to characterise the spoils of the king of Caenina as a portable tropaion that was taken from the battlefield to a temple, where it was dedicated to its god.  Dionysius did not suggest ‘Tropaios‘ to be the Greek equivalent of ‘Feretrius’, presumably because his sources did not claim that Jupiter Feretrius had been responsible for Romulus’ victory: instead he suggested ‘Tropaiouchos’ for Jupiter, to whom trophies are dedicated.  (According to Kendrick Pritchett, referenced below, at p. 143, Dionysius’ alternative, ‘Skylophoros’, would have implied Zeus, ‘to whom the spoils of the [enemy] dead are dedicated’.)  This would have been a reflection of an existing Roman tradition: for example, in the image of Marcellus on the reverse of the denarius of 50 BC (illustrated at the top of the page), Marcellus carries what a Greek would recognise as a tropaion into the temple of Jupiter Feretrius.

However, the parallels with Jupiter Feretrius are not exact: neither Tropaiouchos nor Skylophoros implies a form of Zeus ‘to whom only the spoils of enemy commanders are dedicated’. 


The Greek Plutarch enjoyed a successful career in the Roman Empire, which the Emperor Hadrian recognised with what was probably the honorary position of procurator of Greece in 119/20 BC, shortly before Plutarch’s  death.  Thus, while Dionysius engaged primarily with Roman intellectuals, Plutarch seems to have been able to integrate himself into Roman society.  His extensive writing, which seems to have belonged to the last two decades of his life, included biographies of both Romulus and Marcellus, both of which contained important passages relevant to the spolia opima.

Life of Romulus

Sketch of a fresco of Romulus on the facade of the house of Fabius Ululitremulus at Pompeii

From Josepine Shaya (referenced below, at p. 98, Figure 12)

In Plutarch’s account of Romulus’ engagement with the king of Caenina (whom he named as Acron, following Propertius), Romulus made:

  1. “... a vow that, if he should conquer and overthrow his adversary, he would carry home the man's armour and dedicate it himself to Jupiter ...”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 4).

The two men then:

  1. “... challenged each other to single combat before battle, ... [and] Romulus made a vow that, if he should conquer and overthrow his adversary, he would personally carry home his armour and dedicate it to Jupiter.  He then not only conquered and [killed king Acron] but also routed his army in the battle that followed and then took his city.  ... After considering how he might perform his vow in a manner most acceptable to Jupiter, ... he cut down a huge oak that grew in the camp.  He then hewed it into the shape of a trophy and fastened Acron’s armour to it, each piece in its due order.  Then, girding his raiment about him and wreathing his flowing locks with laurel, he set the trophy on his right shoulder, where it was held erect, and began a triumphal march ... [during which] his army sang as it followed under arms.  [This procession, which] the citizens received with joyful amazement, was the origin and model of all subsequent triumphs.  The trophy [i.e. the armour of king Acron that Romulus carried on his right shoulder] was designated as a dedication to Jupiter Feretrius ...”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 5-6).

After a short digression on the etymologies of ‘Feretrius’ and’ spolia opima’ (see below), he recorded that:

  1. “Only three Roman leaders have attained [the] honour [of dedicating spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius]:

  2. Romulus first, for slaying Acron the Caeninensian;

  3. next, Cornelius Cossus, for killing Tolumnius the Etruscan; and

  4. lastly, Claudius Marcellus, for overpowering Britomartus, king of the Gauls, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 7). 

He concluded with a ‘dig’ at his fellow-countryman, Dionysius:

  1. “Cossus and Marcellus did indeed use a four-horse chariot for their entrance into the city, carrying the trophies themselves.  However, Dionysius is incorrect in saying that Romulus used a chariot: for, it is matter of history that Tarquin, the son of Demaratus, was first of the kings to lift triumphs up to such pomp and ceremony (and indeed, others say that Publicola was first to celebrate a triumph riding on a chariot) and all the statues of Romulus bearing the trophies that may be seen in Rome [portray him] on foot”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 8).

Gavin Weaire (referenced below, at pp. 109-10) suggested that:

  1. “Plutarch’s account may, in fact, have been his own creation, inspired by artistic images of the tropaiophoric (trophy-bearing) Romulus.”

Weaire also noted (at p, 116, with references at note 34) that the most famous image of this kind stood in the Forum Augustum from at least 2 BC: this statue is lost, but it is known from later copies (which include the one from Pompeii illustrated above).  It is certainly striking that, unlike Dionysius, Plutarch gave great narrative weight to the spolia opima.  Perhaps of even more interest is the fact that he made no mention of the tradition that Romulus founded the shrine of Jupiter Feretrius: indeed, at least in this work on Romulus, he did not mention the temple of Jupiter Feretrius at all.  However, in his account of the triumph of Marcellus, he recorded that:

  1. “... advancing and entering the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, he set up and consecrated his offering, being the third and last to do so, down to our time. T he first was Romulus, who despoiled Acron the Caeninensian; the second was Cornelius Cossus, who despoiled Tolumnius the Tuscan; and after them Marcellus, who despoiled Britomartus, king of the Gauls; but after Marcellus, no man”, (‘Life of Marcellus’, 8: 3).

Spolia Opima

In sharp contrast to Dionysius,  Plutarch carefully explained to his Greek readers that the spoils that Romulus took from the king of Caenina:

  1. “...  were called ‘πίμια’ [a transliteration of ‘opima’] because, as Varro says, ‘opes’ is the Roman word for richness; but it would be more plausible to say that they were so-called from the deed of valour involved, since ‘opus’ is the Roman word for deed or exploit.  And, the privilege of dedicating the ‘spolia opima’ has [subsequently] been granted only to a general who has killed an enemy general with his own hands”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 5-7).

Unlike Dionysius, Plutarch did not suggest a Greek epithet for Jupiter as the god to whom these spolia opima are dedicated:

  1. “... the trophy [made from the arms of the king of Caenina] was styled a dedication to Jupiter Φερετρίου [a transliteration of Feretrius], so named from the Roman word ‘ferire’ (to strike); for Romulus vowed to Strike his foe and overthrow him”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 5-7).

Although Plutarch did not refer explicitly to the shrine or temple of Jupiter Feretrius in his ‘Life of Romulus’, he did do so in his ‘Life of Marcellus’:

  1. “... entering the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, [Marcellus] set up and consecrated his offering [of enemy arms], being the third and last to do so, down to our time:

  2. the first was Romulus, who despoiled Acron of Caenina;

  3. the second was Cornelius Cossus, who despoiled Tolumnius the Etruscan; and

  4. ... Marcellus, who despoiled Britomartus, king of the Gauls; ...

  5. The god to whom the spoils were dedicated was called Jupiter Feretrius

  6. because the trophy was carried on a ‘pheretron’ or car; this is a Greek word, and many such were still mingled at that time with the Latin

  7. ... as the wielder of the thunder-bolt, since the Latin ‘ferire’ meaning to Strike; or

  8. ... [from] the blow that one gives an enemy, since, even now, when [the Romans] are pursuing their enemies in battle, they exhort one another with the word "feri," which means Strike!

  9. Spoils in general they call ‘spolia’.

  10. These [three] in particular are [called ‘spolia] ‘opima’. 

  11. And yet, they [also] say that Numa Pompilius, in his commentaries, makes mention of three kinds of ‘opima’, prescribing that:

  12. when the first kind are taken, they should be consecrated to Jupiter Feretrius, [and the reward for the first should be 300 asses (bronze coins)];

  13. the second to Mars, [and the reward should be 200 bronze coins]; and

  14. the third to Quirinus, [and the reward should be 100 bronze coins].

  15. However, the general and prevailing account is that only spoils that are taken in a pitched battle, when a commander slays a commander, are called spolia opima”, (‘Life of Marcellus’, 8: 3-5).

I have changed Plutarch’s word order here so that the description of the three levels of spolia and the related rewards apparently prescribed by Numa are given together for each level.  John Rich (referenced below, at pp. 88-9) argued that:

  1. “Although Plutarch does not mention him by name, it seems evident [from the context] that [Plutarch]  had Varro’s view in mind when he [described the putative provisions of the law on Numa].”

This account by Plutarch has thus been used by scholars when completing the lacunose passage at Festus 204L discussed above.

Indeed, it seems that the Greeks had no an exact synonym for ‘Feretrius’, as the Romans understood it.

Thus, for example:

  1. the unknown pseudo-Plutarch (‘Moralia: Greek and Roman Parallel Stories’, 3) had a Greek and a Roman commander each strip a number of fallen enemy soldiers of their shields in order to build a tropaion, on which he wrote with his own blood: ‘Διὶ Tροπαιούχῳ.’ (to Zeus Tropaiouchos); and

  2. the Greek version of ‘Res Gestae’, 19: 5 rendered Jupiter Feretrius, somewhat surprisingly, as ‘Διὸς Τροπαιοφόρου’ (Zeus Tropaiophoros or trophy-bearer); and

The ‘real’ Plutarch did not offer a Greek approximation, but instead transliterated ‘Feretrius’ for his Greek readers and then explained that this epithet was derived from the Latin ‘ferire’ (to strike):

  1. “... since Romulus vowed to strike his foe and overthrow him”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 5-7).

D. Macrae, “The Laws of the Rites and of the Priests': Varro and Late Republican Roman Sacral Jurisprudence”, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 60:2 (2017) 34-48

Read more:

Katz V. (translator, “The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius”, (2004) Princeton

C. J.  Smith, “Leges Regiae and the Nomothetic World of Early Rome”, Cahiers des Études Anciennes, 57 (2020) 91-103

D. Macrae, “The Laws of the Rites and of the Priests': Varro and Late Republican Roman Sacral Jurisprudence”, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 60:2 (2017) 34-48

T. J. Cornell (ed.), “The Fragments of the Roman Historians”, (2013) Oxford

J. Shaya, “The Public Life of Monuments: The Summi Viri of the Forum of Augustus”, American Journal of Archaeology, 117:1 (2013)  83-110

K Kopij, “Propaganda War over Sicily?: Sicily in the Roman Coinage During the Civil War (49-45 BC)”, Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization, 16 (2012) 167-82

G. Weaire, “Plutarch versus Dionysius on the First Triumph”, Ploutarchos, 7 (2010) 107-24

A. Cooley, “Res Gestae Divi Augusti: Text, Translation and Commentary”, (2009) Cambridge

M. Lipka, “Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach”, (2009) Leiden and Boston

J. Stroszeck, “Greek Trophy Monuments”, in:

  1. S. des Bouvrie (Ed), “Myth and Symbol II: Symbolic Phenomena in Ancient Greek Culture”, (2004) at pp. 303-32

D. R. Shackleton Bailey (translator, “Valerius Maximus. Memorable Doings and Sayings, Volume I: Books 1-5”, (2000) Cambridge MA

S. Oakley, “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume I: Book VI”, (1997) Oxford

J. Rich, “Augustus and the Spolia Opima”, Chiron, 26 (1996) 85-128

W. K. Pritchett, “The Greek State at War: Part V”, (1991) London

S. J. Harrison, “Augustus, the Poets, and the Spolia Opima”, Classical Quarterly, 39: 2 (1989) 408-14

A. Magdelain, “Quirinus et le Droit (Spolia Opima, Ius Fetiale, Ius Quiritium)”, Mélanges de l'École Française de Rome, Antiquité, 96:1 (1984) 195-237

R. G. Austin, “Aeneidos, Liber Sextus”, (1977) Oxford

M. Crawford, “Roman Republican Coinage, Volume 1”, (1974) Cambridge

B. Radice, “Pliny the Younger: Letters, Volume II: Books 8-10: Panegyricus”, (1969) Cambridge MA

R. M. Ogilvie, “Commentary on Livy: Books.1-5”, (1965) Oxford

A. Chester Johnson et al.,, “Ancient Roman Statutes: A Translation with Introduction, Commentary, Glossary and Index”, (1961) Austin TX

A. C. Schlesinger,(translator), “Livy, Julius Obsequens. History of Rome, Volume XIV: Summaries. Fragments. Julius Obsequens. General Index”, (1959) Cambridge MA

E. Butler, “Virgil, Aeneid 6:859”, Classical Review, 33:3/4 (1919), 61-3

H. Rushton Fairclough (translator), “Virgil: Eclogues: Georgics: Aeneid: Books 1-6”, (1916) Cambridge MA

W. Warde Fowler, “The Religious Experience of the Roman People from the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus”, (1911)  London

F. D. Allen, “Remnants Of Early Latin: Selected And Explained For The Use Of Students”, (1880) Boston (still in print !)

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