Classical pathway activation is often assessed by measuring circulating levels of activated C4. However, this parameter does not discriminate between activation through the classical or the lectin pathway. We hypothesized that during classical pathway activation, complexes are formed between C1q and activated C4 or C3. Using ELISA, we investigated whether such complexes constitute specific markers for classical pathway activation. In vitro, C1q-C3d/C4d complexes were generated upon incubation of normal recalcified plasma with aggregated IgG or an anti-C1q mAb that activates C1 (mAb anti-C1q-130). In contrast, during incubation with C1s or trypsin, C1q-C3d/C4d complexes were not generated, which excludes an innocent bystander effect. Additionally, C1q-C3d/C4d complexes were not generated during activation of the alternative or the lectin pathway. Repeated freezing and thawing did not influence levels of C1q-C3d/C4d complexes in recalcified plasma. To measure C1q-complement complexes in plasma samples, we separated unbound complement proteins from C1q-C3d/C4d complexes in the samples prior to testing with ELISA. In samples from patients undergoing cardiopulmonary bypass surgery or suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, we found higher levels of C1q-C4 complexes than in samples from healthy individuals. We conclude that complexes between C1q and C4 or C3 are specific markers of classical complement pathway activation.