Lupercalia Story 3: A Down-to-Earth Epicurean

Once again havoc has broken loose on the streets of Rome! Why do the plebs call for such inane and barbaric worship of the gods? Do they seriously believe the gods care for such raucous behaviour in the cause of their worship? If the gods do exist, surely they would live the Epicurean ideal and not waste their time on human banalities?[i] Yet, it is good to respect the gods, and I suppose one stands to lose nothing by hedging one’s bets, but this is surely a little excessive! Our society encourages dutiful religious observance for the good of the State and all its residents, so anything that unites us must be beneficial.[ii] Rome is now so diverse that religion is a unifying aspect of city life, and if Epicurus himself thought it worthwhile I too shall participate, although my thoughts are my own.[iii]   

I have returned home at last, having had to fight through crowds made up of practically the whole citizen body of Rome! Everyone had taken to the streets to participate in one of the oldest and most arcane festivals in our calendar – the Lupercalia, so called because it is a festival in honour of the she-wolf that reared Romulus and Remus: the name comes from the Greek lycaea which means ‘feast of wolves’.[iv] For this reason, and because the Latin word lupus means ‘wolf’, it is easy to see why the festival is celebrated at the Lupercal cave on the Palatine, and why the Luperci start their run at that point.[v]   

The Lupercalia falls on the third day of the dies parentales, at a time of year when there is an increased fear of the dead and their supposed unrest.[vi] To me this is utterly ridiculous because the soul dissolves back into tiny atoms upon death and so we should have no fear of the dead returning.[vii] Some say that their souls come back as wolves, which is even more nonsensical and blatantly untrue. Most of these stories come from the plebs, who fear anything they do not understand and I often wonder if the Lupercalia’s strange ritual sprang from such primitive thinking. It is such a strange ritual – completely unlike anything else we celebrate…   

Trajanic relief depicting the Forum

The right relief from a carved stone balustrade built by Trajan (c.AD118) depicting the Forum. The Ficus Rominalis is on the extreme right and the rostra on the extreme left. Curia, Rome. Photo by Radomil Binek (2005).

As I was fighting my way through the crowds, the two colleges of Luperci [viii] had already arrived at the ficus Rominalis.[x] Fortunately, there is no longer a third controversial college [ix] to add to the vast numbers enjoying the day off. Space is limited and the view is obscured but I know that the ritual will unfold just as it always has.[xi]   

The ritual begins with the sacrifice of goats and a dog.[xii] The dog seems such an odd choice for sacrifice because the dog is normally only offered to Robigus, the Lares Praestites and to Mana Genita, none of whom are associated with this festival.[xiv] Some people think the dog is sacrificed because dogs are the natural enemy of wolves, and it was a wolf that reared the twins Romulus and Remus, the former our city’s great founder. The goat belongs to the foreign cults of Bacchus and Aesculapius,[xiii] and there is no other ritual where the two animals are sacrificed together. The pairing seems such an odd demand from any god that I wonder whether there even is a god responsible for this festival.[xv]   

Detail of a Vestal Virgin, showing her distinctive draped wool headdress, from the Canceleria Relief (AD93-95). Vatican Museum, Rome. © Barbara MacManus (2007). VRoma

In the course of the sacrifice the Luperci make use of the mola salsa[xvi] as prepared by the Vestal Virgins.[xvii]   

Following the sacrifice, two youths of noble birth are brought forward and have their foreheads smeared with blood from the sacrifice of the goats, the blood is then removed using wool soaked in milk.[xviii] Following the application, and subsequent removal, of the blood, the youths are obliged to laugh.[xix] The reason for the bloody sword and the milk may come from the story that after Romulus and Remus had their victory over Amulius they ran to the spot where the she-wolf had suckled them.[xx] The bloody sword represents the perils and slaughter of that day, whereas the milk is indicative of the nourishment they had received as babies. Alas, I never had the honour of being called to participate in this mystic experience because of my lame leg – caused by an accident with a chariot in my early childhood.   

After a banquet with the meat from the sacrifice,[xxi] the young men take to the streets at a run, waving strips of goat hide and whipping those within reach. These runners, known to us as creppi, whip both men and women, but for the women this ritual takes on a whole new level of meaning. I overheard a neighbour of mine discussing this practice with her friend, talking about her plans to stand with her palm outstretched in the hope that she might be lashed.[xxii] It seems her husband is desperate for an heir and being struck thus by the amicula Junonis induces fertility. This myth seems to stem from the story of the sterility of the Sabine women and the ludicrous solution apparently proposed by the goddess Juno.[xxiii] It’s bordering on obscene that all that is worn for this ‘religious activity’ is a goatskin loincloth.   

The Luperci could not run a specific route if they tried,[xxvi] the crowds are so vast. Instead it has become something of a melee, with the Luperci running amok in all directions. The only specific form their route takes is that they start at the Lupercal,[xxv] the cave of our founder and his brother, which has recently been restored by our most esteemed princeps, Caesar Augustus.[xxvi]   

My father used to tell a story of when he attended the festival of the Lupercalia many years ago when he was a young man and Marcus Antoninus, one of the consuls, presented the now deified Julius Caesar, his co-consul, with a diadem, implying his kingly status.[xxvii] My father used to say that a few people cheered but that he suspected they had been planted there, because on the whole the people were not pleased with this idea. Surely this was deeply inappropriate in a religious setting? I cannot imagine that these gods we are supposed to be worshipping were pleased with their festival being turned into the platform for a political stunt. That would seem to me to represent pure indecency at a festival. It was so farcical it could have been one of those plays they put on for the plebs! Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it end up on stage one of these days…   

However, Augustus has restored some level of decency to the festival in several ways. In order that the procedure of the festival is congruous with his leges Iuliae, the laws he introduced in order to improve the moral fabric of Rome,[xxviii] he banned beardless youths from running in the Lupercalia on the basis that the Luperci ran near-naked and this was indecent for beardless youths.[xxix] Augustus also introduced attendants at this uncontrolled run around the city in order to minimize any danger to the populace.[xxx] – a measure which doesn’t seem to be much use in my opinion, as such mayhem can never be controlled!   

Sadly, the festival is so enjoyed by everyone that I can imagine it continuing for many more years to come.[xxxi]   

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[i] Epicurus (341BC- 270BC) founded the ancient Greek philosophical school of Epicureanism. The school taught that the purpose of studying philosophy was to attain a happy, tranquil life, one which did not feature pain or fear (aponia). They were early atomists, perceiving the world as being based on the motion and interaction of atoms. Epicurus differed from Democritus on the point of varying direction of motion, thus Epicureanism allows for the concept of free will. For Epicurus the contemplation of the good life was the ideal, this meant that if there were gods they would not care for or about mortals but would only be concerned with this type of contemplation. (For an introduction to Epicurean views, see J. Annas (2000), Ancient Philosophy: A very short introduction, Oxford).  

[ii] According to Ovid (Fasti II) the Roman State was represented at the Lupercalia by the flamen dialis, who was the priest of Jupiter. However, Wiseman states that the Luperci were the officiators at this festival, a festival characterised by ‘youth, nudity and vigourous activity’ (T. P. Wiseman (1995), Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge: 80). His description does not tie in well with the attendance of the flamen dialis, who was a respected and dignified figure. Also the flamen dialis was forbidden to come into contact with either dogs or goats (Plutarch Q.R. 111), which begs the question of what role he could have played in the Lupercalia (for a discussion, see W. W. Fowler (1899), The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, New York: 313). It is possible, threfore, that Ovid is mistaken here.  

[iii] Roman religion was centred on ritual and sacrifice and it was fulfilling these that was the most important aspect. Hence, Roman religion was not a matter of belief but attendance; we can only speculate about the real beliefs of individual people.  

[iv] This etymology appears in Plutarch Life Of Romulus 21.3-8. However, it is not the only one as there are various etymologies and aetiologies for the festival, e.g.: a simplified version of the name of Pan Lykaios, whose home was on Mount Lykaion in Arkadia; a name derived from the phrase ‘luere per caprum‘ (‘to expatiate through a goat’), referring to the sacrifice of a goat at the Lupercalia; a name derived from the Lupercal itself – the cave on the Palatine hill that was said to be where Romulus and Remus were suckled. (Further, see Wiseman n. 2: 80).  

[v] Varro (LL VI.13) makes a circular point: ‘…the Luperci [are so called] because at the Lupercalia they sacrifice at the Lupercal …. the Lupercalia [is] so called because [that is when] the Luperci sacrifice at the Lupercal.’  

[vi] The dies parentales, or Parentalia festival (‘the festival of dead parents’), is the first of three related festivals in February that aim to appease the dead. The dies parentales began on the Ides (13th) of February with ceremonies performed in honour of dead parents by a Vestal Virgin and families visiting tombs and performing private simple sacrifices – of wine, bread, corn or votive garlands - in honour of dead family members. After the dies parentales, on 21st February, comes the Feralia (‘the festival of infernal powers’), when sheep are sacrificed to the spirits of the dead. The Carista (‘festival of the dear kindred’) is celebrated on 22nd February, with all living members of a family – even those who have fallen out -coming together for dinner and to make sacrifices to the Lares. From 13th-21st February all temples are closed, marriages are forbidden and public officials lay down their insignia of office.  

[vii] Philodemus (De Morte VIII.20-24 and VIII.30-34) believed that dying was very swift and painless. The atoms that constituted a soul, he believed, were very minute and swift-moving and so they dissipated rapidly at the moment of death. This meant for Epicureans that there was no life after this one, an aspect of belief in which they broke from the traditional Greek belief in Hades (J. Warren (2004), Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics, Oxford: 13). If the soul did not survive death, it certainly could not come back and/or haunt the living.  

[viii] Romulus and Remus were believed to have founded the two colleges that formed the priesthood, the Luperci Quinctiales (or Quintilii) and the Luperci Fabiani (or Fabii); see H. H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York: 76.  

[ix] The ficus Ruminalis (‘Fig-tree of [the goddess] Rumina’) has been roughly located at the south-west foot of the Palatine.  The Ruminan fig-tree stood above the cave in which the twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf (Scullard, n.8: 77).  

[x] The third college, that of the Julii, was established in 45BC to honour the recently deceased Julius Caesar. Marc Antony was the head priest, but the college did not outlast his death in 30BC (Scullard, n.8: 76).  

[xi] One of the elements of Roman religion was the emphasis on correct procedure (‘orthopraxy’). Ceremonies had to be performed entirely free from fault, for example, a priest had to resign because his hat fell off (Valerius Maximus I.4-5); on which, see R. Gordon (2003), ‘From Republic to Principate: Priesthood, Religion and Ideology’ in C. Ando (ed.), Roman Religion, Edinburgh: 77.   

[xii] Plutarch (Life of Romulus 21) states that the Luperci performed the sacrifice themselves, which would fit with other examples where priests dress themselves in the skins of their victims (Fowler, n.2: 313). Both Ovid and Plutarch link the Lupercalia with the Kalends of May, which also features the sacrifice of dogs (Fowler, n.2: 100).   

Reverse of a denarius of Lucius Caesius (112BC)

Reverse of a denarius of Lucius Caesius (112BC): two Lares flank a dog. Private collection. Forum Ancient Coins.

[xiii] Robigus was worshipped as the god who protected crops from mildew at the festival of the Robigalia, celebrated on the 25th April. The Lares Praestites were guardians’ of the State and had a temple in their honour at the head of the Via Sacra - their connection with dogs came from the figure of a dog that stood between their images, symbolic of their faithful guardianship. Mana Genita was a Roman goddess who was the mother of the Manes (chthonic deities honoured during the Panentalia and Feralia, see n.6, and sometimes thought to represent the spirits of dead loved ones): she presided over burials and black puppies were sacrificed to her in an attempt to keep her from stealing the souls of children.   

[xiv] Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Dionysus, was associated with wine and fertility. In mythology, his origins were neither Roman nor Greek, making him truly a foreign deity. Aesculapius was a Greek god of healing introduced to Rome in the 3rd century BC. Mortal in origin, a son of the god Apollo and Coronis, he was killed by Zeus (king of the gods) for successfully raising the dead, but was then made immortal.   

[xv] Ovid names the god responsible for the festival as Faunus, Livy as Inuus – both deities were identified with the god Pan. A god ‘Lupercus’ was only attested to in Augustan times, but the ritual itself did not imply any particular deity (Scullard, n.8: 77).   

[xvi] The mola salsa (sacred cakes made with salted flour) were made by the Vestal Virgins with flour ground from the first ears of corn from the previous harvest. The only two other festivals in which these were used were the Vestalia in June and the Ides of September, which highlights the importance of the Lupercalia in the Roman religious calendar (Scullard, n.8: 77).   

[xvii] The Vestal Virgins, or Vestals, were a group of women who gave thirty years of their lives over to the worship of the goddess Vesta. Their chief role was to ensure that the flame of Vesta on the hearth of her temple in the Forum was kept lit - so that anyone could light their fire from it – but they did have other functions in society (mainly religious, but also the keeping of wills).   

[xviii] Plutarch, Life of Romulus 21.3-8.   

[xix] A. K. Michels ((1953), ‘The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 84: 53-4) suggests that this laughter was to show that the youths were human, as a foil to the festival’s links with werewolves, as suggested by Varro.   

[xx] Amulius was the King of Alba Longa, the town from which Romulus’ and Remus’ parents came. They overthrew him before founding Rome (Livy I.3 – 5). For their victory over him and return to the spot where the she-wolf had suckled them, see Plutarch, Life Of Romulus 21.3.   

[xxi] Wiseman, n.2: 80.   

[xxii] Fowler (n.2: 318) suggests that the word creppi is derived from the Latin capri which means ‘goats’.   

[xxiii] For the lashing ensuring fertility among women, see Plutarch, Life Of Romulus 21.3ff.   

[xxiv] Juno was the wife of Jupiter, and thus queen of the Gods. She was associated with fertility amongst other things. In cult, Juno Lucina was associated with childbirth but the strips of goat skin indicate a connection with Juno Sospita (Michels, n.19: 47). Following the abduction of the Sabine Women – abducted to assist with increasing the population of the new city of Rome - Romulus and his followers were punished by the gods, who made the Sabine women infertile and compelled the Romans to consult the oracle of Juno Lucina for a cure (Michels, n.19: 47). Ovid (Fasti 2.445-52) relates that the rite of lashing was initiated by Romulus as a metaphorical interpretation of the literal instruction that to become fertile the Sabine women must be penetrated by a goat.   

[xxv] There are various suggestions as to the route of the run, which arise from the fact that no one author specifically states that the Luperci ran around the Palatine Hill (Michels, n.19: 36). This is probably because the ancient authors took their audience’s knowledge of the route for granted.   

[xxvi] The Lupercal was the cave on the Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, in which the she-wolf is supposed to have suckled the twins Romulus and Remus.   

[xxvii] Caesar Augustus was the Emperor of Rome from 27BC to AD14. He was the first emperor (although he would not have called himself this) and became such following several years of civil unrest and war for Rome. He set about implementing changes in society on many levels, one of which was to address the state of religion in Rome, for there had been a notable religious decline in Rome over the preceding century and it was possible to blame the recent dire circumstances partly upon this. The restoration of the Lupercal is sufficiently important to merit an entry in Augustus’ record of his lifetime achievements, as it appears at Res Gestae 19.    

[xxviii] His father’s story dates to 44BC, about a month before Caesar was assassinated. Marcus Antonius (83BC-30BC), more commonly referred to as Mark Antony, was a friend of Julius Caesar’s and his co-consul at this time. Gaius Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC) had been declared dictator perpetuus (‘Dictator for Life’) in 49BC, making him king in all but name. This move was not at all popular with the Senate, who suspected that Caesar was becoming increasingly monarchistic. In 44BC Caesar was assassinated by a gang of senators who were disgruntled with the way he was acting. Two years later he was officially recognised as a Roman deity (as Divus Iulius - ‘the divine Julius’) by the Senate: he was the first Roman leader to be deified.   

[xxix] Augustus introduced a spate of moral legislation to Rome from 18BC in an effort to improve the moral backbone of the city’s inhabitants. His laws were known as the Leges Iuliae (Julian Laws), named after the family of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar, who had also tried to introduce moral legislation to Rome. Augustus was very keen to present himself as continuing Caesar’s work, for Gaius Julius Caesar had been highly popular with the common people of Rome.   

[xxx] For a discussion of Augustus and the indecency of beardless youths running naked, see T. P. Wiseman, 1995, ‘The God of the Lupercal’, Journal of Roman Studies 85: 18.   

[xxxi] For the introduction of attendants, see Suetonius, Life of Augustus 31.   

[xxxii] The Lupercalia continued until AD495, when Pope Gelasius I banned Christian participation and it was transformed into the feast of Purification of the Virgin (K. Hopkins (1991), ‘From Blessing to Violence’, in A. Molho et al. (edd.), City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy, Stuttgart: 479).