Lupercalia Story 1: A Proud Roman Father

It was the 15th day before the Kalends of March in the year of the consulship of Publius Cornelius Dolabella and Gaius Junius Silanus. I rose to yet another bright, crisp winter dawn in my 50th year and knew that it was a special day, as today was the Lupercalia!

This year’s festivities would be particularly special for me personally as my son, Titus Artorius Gavros, would be participating in the ceremony for the very first time. I’ve heard that in years gone by some pompous and prudish old men have disapproved of their family’s youngsters running with the Luperci – the name Cicero[i] readily springs to mind – but not me; I couldn’t be more proud of my family’s contribution to the welfare of the city. It is, in my opinion, a bad Roman that puts his personal reservations about a festival’s supposed sexual undercurrent[ii] and uncivilised origins[iii] above his sense of duty to the community and obligation to the gods. That sort of attitude comes from spending too much time with one’s nose buried in dusty old books, if you ask me!  

The Lupercalia is so ancient[iv] that we’re never going to agree on the precise reasoning behind the ceremony,[v] so what’s the point of researching it? This particular year, I’m happy to say, events proceeded entirely in accordance with ritual practice, which should have greatly decreased the risk of future hardships for our city.  

Man in equestrian dress being served wine by a male slave

C3rd AD Roman mosaic from Uthina (Oudhna): A equestrian called Fructus (right) is served wine by a male slave. Bardo Museum, Tunis. © Barbara MacManus (1982). VRoma.


And so it was with great pride that I put on my gold ring and my tunica angusticlavia that morning, both symbols of my status as an eques. In spite of my advancing years I was eager to hurry down to the Palatine – or perhaps I should call it Region Ten these days[vi] – so that I could gain a good view of the newly restored Lupercal cave,[vii] which is located right in between the Circus Maximus and Caesar’s house on the south western slopes: this is where the first rituals took place. Unfortunately there was already a big crowd gathered by the time I arrived, no doubt also gripped with that sense of excitement and fun which is associated with the Lupercalia.[viii] So I stood and watched proceedings just across from the Forum Boarium. The flamen dialis[ix] was there (not like back in my day) to oversee the sacrifice of the animals:[x] two goats and a dog, which are very unusual offerings,[xi] especially since priests aren’t usually allowed to touch those animals.[xii]  

I don’t know about the goats but I assume the reason for the dog is because of its resemblance to a wolf. The lupine element of the festival is evidently important, hence the name Lupercalia, [xiii] and the fact that we link it to the wolf-based Romulus and Remus story. Even an unscholarly chap like myself can work that one out!  

As I peered through the crowd I could see my son amongst the other young men of the Luperci; none of them too young though, since Caesar has put a stop to unbearded boys taking part in the festival.[xiv] Titus was helping to restrain one of the goats whilst mola salsa,[xv] prepared by our sacred Vestal Virgins, was being sprinkled on its head until it nodded to signify compliance with its own sacrifice. After the throats of the animals had been slit, two of the Luperci were brought forwards, one from the college of the Fabii and one from that of the Quintilii: both of these represent the groups that were founded by Romulus and Remus,[xvi] although I’m not sure  which one is which. They then had blood from the sacrificial knives smeared on to their foreheads[xvii] and then wiped off with some wool dipped in milk,[xviii] after which they both had to burst out laughing.[xix] This always strikes me as odd, and I can’t help wondering why they always have to laugh, but I shall leave those sorts of questions to men more learned than myself.  

After the initial rituals had concluded I made my way along the seven stades or so to the Forum so that I could get a good view of the running of the Luperci[xx] from under the shade of the Basilica Aemilia. In the meantime, Titus and his colleagues were busy preparing the animals into a feast and cutting their hides into thongs[xxi] which they could wear and strips called februare. It was a long process and marked a sort of hiatus in the festival, during which the Luperci usually do some exercises in preparation for their run. Some people stay and watch but most take the chance to eat something themselves, shelter from the midday sun and re-join the proceedings later.    

Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar showing rostra in the Roman Forum

The rostra before the temple of the Deified Julius Caesar. From Ch. Huelsen (1909), The Roman Forum: Its History and Its Monuments, trans. J.B. Carter (2nd ed.), Rome, fig. 86. VRoma


As I entered the Forum the first thing that caught my eye was our Pater Patriae, Caesar Augustus, sitting upon the rostra in readiness for the crowds and the running. I imagine he resembled his late father Julius Caesar who, 55 years ago today, had taken part in one of the defining episodes of this festival’s history. My own father, Brutus Artorius Gavros, was watching the Lupercalia that same year, and has told me on many occasions that anecdote about Caesar thrice rejecting Marcus Antonius’ offer of a diadem.[xxii] Of course that was in the days when there were three Lupercal colleges, since Antonius was one of the Luperci Iulii.[xxiii]It was a while before I heard the commotion of the crowd further back towards the Palatine and I knew that the Luperci had split into their two groups and had started their run. Their route between the Lupercal and the Comitium[xxiv] takes them past the eastern edge of the giant Horrea Agrippiana,[xxv] across the Nova Via then up and down the Sacra Via before they enter the Forum. They always end up in the Forum because that’s where the Ficus Ruminalis[xxvi] and the old sepulcretum[xxvii] are: not to mention the fact that it’s the heart of our great city and a focal point for community activity. I’ve heard it said that many years ago they would have run all the way round the eastern side of the Palatine.[xxviii] It’s lucky that’s no longer the case since Julius Caesar’s massive redevelopment of the Circus Maximus[xxix] would make that a fairly hazardous and congested affair. Eventually the two groups came into view as they ran about on the slope of the Sacra Via, each of them led by one of the youths who had been wiped with blood a little earlier. I was glad to have a restful and well-shaded position in the ceremony – if somewhat obscured by some modern building work[xxx] – and didn’t envy Titus for what was clearly tiring and sweaty work in the heat of the sun. He didn’t seem to mind though, partly because of all the wine he had drunk at the feast, but mainly (I suspect) because he was fraternizing with many of the respectable, young married women of the city. There was certainly a commotion as the crowd got indiscriminately whipped with the Luperci’s februare, especially those young women who were of child-bearing age, whom I could see deliberately getting in the way of the runners and presenting their hands to be struck.[xxxi] The somewhat magical potency of the Luperci’s actions should hopefully protect the girls against infertility and ensure a healthy and abundant new generation of noble Romans.[xxxii] Indeed, the run signifies that we as a community have all done our duty to the spirits of the dead and have protected and purified ourselves from their potentially evil influence, be it infertility or some other evil.  

Caesar and I had to wait until the runners had properly entered the Forum before we could get a good view of the action, but when they arrived the crowds were in amazingly high spirits. Even Caesar seemed to be smiling in approval and enjoying the festivities, although he always appears so respectable and well-to-do that it’s hard to tell. Titus and his companions arrived at the Comitium, which marks the end of the sacred race, thoroughly exhausted but all very proud of their achievement. I think there was a general sense of relief that the traditions had all been upheld and the rituals had been completed without any unforeseen problems or bad omens. The whole community came out and there was a spirit of togetherness, which re-enforced my belief that Rome is indomitable and favoured by the gods. It was a nice way to spend the middle of the otherwise boring dies parentalis[xxxiii] which for me is a nine day holiday marked as nefastus;[xxxiv] a week from now I’ll need to attend court.    


[i] Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus that his brother Quintus was “a fool to rejoice in his son’s new office [membership of the Luperci]” (Letters to Atticus 12.5.1).
[ii] For the apparent sexual undercurrent to the festival, see T.P. Wiseman (1995b), “The God of the Lupercal”, Journal of Roman Studies 85, 15
[iii] Roman academics contemporaneous with Augustus would no doubt have suspected that the Lupercalia predated urbanization; see e.g. W.W. Fowler (1899), The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, New York, 316-17; C. Bailey (1932), Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome, Oxford, 148.
[iv] Bailey (n.iii) 18 suggests that it was recognised by Romans as being “of immemorial antiquity”.
[v] M. Beard, J. North and S. Price ((1998), Religions of Rome, Volume II: A Sourcebook, Cambridge, 120) adeptly summarise the scholarly consensus that “at any celebration (of this or any other festival) there was no doubt a profusion of individual views, understandings and explanations.” See also K. Hopkins (1991), “From Blessing to Violence”, in A. Molho et al. (eds.), City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy, Stuttgart, 484-5.
[vi] This map of Rome’s new (c. 8-7 BC) administrative regions is taken from J.B. Lott (2004), The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome, Cambridge, 3.
[vii] For Augustus’ pride in the newly-restored Lupercal cave, see Res Gestae 19.
[viii] According to Valerius Maximus (2.2.9), “the Luperci were propelled through the streets by collective solidarity, the jollity induced by the banquet and a lot of wine drunk.” Indeed, Wiseman (n.ii) 14 argues that “all the literary evidence makes it clear that the Lupercalia ritual was an occasion for laughter and enjoyment.”
[ix] The flamen dialis was the high priest of Jupiter. The priesthood was vacant for extended periods of the late republic before being revived by Augustus; see M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume I: A History , Cambridge, 131.
[x] H.H. Scullard ((1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 77) points out that Livy and Varro disagree about which god was intended to receive the sacrifice. Bailey (n.iii) 131 suggests that it is a mysterious rustic deity linked to Pan. The most likely explanation, however, is that the festival predates anthropomorphic gods, which is why the generic priest of Jupiter was chosen to preside.
[xi] Hopkins (n.v) 480 points out that the Romans usually sacrificed more edible animals such as sheep, pigs and bulls. Fowler (n.iii) 314 affirms that a dog was only elsewhere offered to Robigus on April 25th and goats were only elsewhere offered to Bacchus and Aesculapius, both of whom were foreign deities.
[xii] For the strange religious rules governing priests, see Plutarch, Roman Questions 68 (280C).
[xiii] Scullard (n.x) 77 is confident that the etymology of Lupercalia is a reference to wolves. A.K. Michels ((1953), “The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 84, 50-57) covers in detail the theory that the Lupercalia was linked to werewolves as well as wolves in general. As the city grew, wolves got separated from the people and the festival would have changed its meaning.
[xiv] Wiseman (n.ii) 15 expands on the implicit sexual undercurrent apparent in the Lupercalia, citing Suetonius, who suggests that Augustus did not allow beardless boys to take part in the run (Augustus 31.4); the boys were supposed to be objects of sexual desire.
[xv] See Bailey (n.iii) 158 on the preparation of mola salsa. Wiseman (n.ii) 84 states that the importance of the Lupercalia to Rome is indicated through the exclusive nature of the mola salsa ritual. Only three batches of these salt-meal cakes were made each year; the other two batches were destined for the Vestalia festival on June 9th and the ‘feast of Jove’ during the ludi Romani.
[xvi] Scullard (n.x) 76 says that it was believed amongst the ordinary Romans that the Quinctiales and Fabiani colleges were founded by Romulus and Remus.
[xvii] Michels (n.xiii) 52 proposes that the wiping of the blood with the knife was a relatively new addition to the ceremony, but like Fowler (n.iii) 315 she poses her theory tentatively, commenting that there is no straightforward literary evidence that might resolve the dispute.
[xviii] Fowler (n.iii) 316 suggests that the milky wool may have symbolised a revival to new life. Plutarch, in his Life of Romulus (21.3-8), links the cleansing of the wool to the Romulus and Remus story, implying that the cleansing with milk is a reminder of how the twins were nourished; see further Beard, North and Price (n.v) 121.
[xix] Fowler (n.iii) 314 suggests that laughter was an acknowledgement of exoneration and purification after killing sacrosanct animals, whereas Michels (n.xiii) 54 sees the laughter as a sign of the humanity of the participants.
[xx] Bailey (n.iii) 33 sees the running as the central act of the Lupercalia: she suggests that it is the act of running, rather than the runners, that creates the magical quality to the festival. Fowler (n.iii) 314 suggests that the two Luperci who lead the running might actually represent Romulus and Remus.
[xxi] Hopkins (n.v) 481 points out that Ovid, Varro, Plutarch, Gelasius and Justin cannot agree about the extent to which the Luperci were clothed. T.P. Wiseman ((1995a), Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge, 82) reminds us, however, that “[Augustus] was certainly concerned about the moral dangers of the Lupercalia.” It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that by AD 10 the Luperci had acquired substantial bodily covering.
[xxii] The famous episode described by Cicero in his Philippics (2.84) would have been well known by the Roman public in AD 10.
[xxiii] A third Lupercal college was created in 45 BC in honour of Julius Caesar, but was then probably disbanded soon after his death; see Scullard (n.x) 76. In Philippics (8.31), Cicero states that the senate withdrew funding for the Lupercalia in 43 BC, which leads Wiseman (n.ii) 15 to suggest the Julii were probably scrapped, and then possibly reinstated by the triumvirs.
[xxiv] The route of the Luperci has perhaps been the cause of the most controversy concerning the festival among modern scholars. Fowler (n.iii) 318 and Bailey (n.iii) 33 take the (traditional) view that the runners did a lap of the Palatine. Michels, dismissing this idea as a misinterpretation of Varro (n.xiii: 36), is more circumspect as to the route: “it took place in the Forum area between the Lupercal and the summa Sacra Via” (n.xiii: 46). Scullard (n.x) 77 provides possibly the most balanced and reasonable argument: “their route is uncertain: originally they ran around the Palatine, later in Caesar’s time perhaps only round part of it and up and down the Sacra Via”. This map, taken from E.A. Dumser, L. Haselberger and D.G. Romano (2002) (eds.), Mapping Augustan Rome, Rhode Island, has been edited to show what is, on balance, the most likely route of the Luperci in AD10. This map is taken from Wiseman (n.ii) 7.
[xxv] A massive warehouse built by Agrippa on the north-west slope of the Palatine; see Dumser, Haselberger and Romano (n.xxiv) 140.
[xxvi] The Ficus Ruminalis was the fig tree which featured in the myth of Romulus and Remus. It was originally situated on the Lupercal but had moved (magically) to the Comitium in the Forum by the time of the Republican period; see Scullard (n.x) 77. Running to it would replicate the actions of Romulus and Remus.
[xxvii] The ancient burial ground lay in the forum valley, along which the Luperci ran. Michels (n.xiii) 48 hypothesises that this marked a division between the living and the dead for the ancient hilltop communities. This would strongly link the area of the Lupercalia with its calendrical position in the middle of the dies parentales, lending support to the theory that its rituals were concerned with placating the spirits of the dead; see Wiseman (n.xxi) 88.
[xxviii] It has been argued that forming a magical circle around the Palatine provided a protective barrier for what was once an isolated settlement; see e.g. Bailey (n.iii) 33. On the other hand, Michels (n.xiii) 43-4 points out that a barrier could also be formed in front of it by the Luperci running to and fro.
[xxix] Dumser, Haselberger and Romano (n.xxiv) 87-8 estimate that it was 3.5 stades long and 4 plethra wide, so it is highly unlikely that in AD 10 there was a great deal of room between the Circus Maximus and the cliffs of the southern face of the Palatine.
[xxx] This image (taken from Archivo fotografico Lozzi Roma s.a.s.) has been edited to show that Augustus’ view of the running from the rostra in AD 10 would have far more obstructed than Julius Caesar’s in 44 BC due to the erection of new buildings on the East of the Forum in the intervening period. This shows that the Luperci must have run quite far from the Lupercal for Augustus to have seen anything.
[xxxi] Plutarch (Julius Caesar 61) confirms that the women taking part in the festivities simply had to stretch out their hands to get whipped “like school children” (Hopkins (n.v) 481). Wiseman (n.ii) 16 suggests that this act marks a deliberate neutralisation of the sexual element that had started the festival.
[xxxii] Plutarch (Julius Caesar 61) tells us that the rituals were performed so that “the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy”. R.M. Ogilvie ((1969), The Romans and their Gods in the Age of Augustus, London, 51), Wiseman (n.xxi) 84 and Fowler (n.iii) 320 agree that, regardless of the uncertainty of its origins, the Lupercalia certainly came to be seen as a human fertility rite.
[xxxiii] The 15th day of February was the third day of the dies parentales, the festival which offered worship and offerings to the spirits of the dead. During this time marriages were forbidden, temples were closed and no fire was allowed to be burned on altars; see Michels (n.xiii) 48.
[xxxiv] The dies nefasti were days on which the courts could not sit for religious reasons; see e.g. Ovid, Fasti 3.8.