Lupercalia Story 4: An Elderly Roman Farmer

I noticed the weather take a turn for the better and was reminded that spring – and the time to till the fields – was nearly upon us. The time is also ripe for purification: to expiate any unintentional offences that we Romans may have committed towards the gods. The arrival of the time of awakening fertility and purification means my favourite of all the festivals, the Lupercalia, has come around once again.    

Mark James Miller's colour pencil portrait of Julius Caesar

Mark James Miller's colour pencil portrait of Julius Caesar based on busts. (18 April 2008)

I remember, many, many years ago, the proceedings of a Lupercalia that has most certainly stuck in my mind – and, I am sure, in the minds of many of my fellow countrymen too. From the start it had struck me as a rather unusual ceremony. That cad Mark Antony had participated in the festival as leader of the then newly established – but now defunct – third college of Luperci.[i] Not only did he run, naked and drunk, around the Palatine hill,[ii] but he offered to the great Caesar – who was clothed in his triumphal attire and seated upon the Rostra – a crown: not once, not twice, but three times![iii] Three times the magnificent Caesar declined his offer to great applause and cheers from the crowd, among which my voice was one of the loudest – so much so that the great Caesar even looked at me and winked!    

Yet, it is not for this monumental moment that I remember that particular festival so vividly all these years later. My newly-wed wife and I had been trying for a child unsuccessfully and were beginning to suspect that she was barren and that the gods did not in fact look favourably upon our union. And so, in an effort to remedy this, I had taken my wife along with me that day, in the hope that through our participation we might expiate any inadvertent offence we had caused the gods and be blessed with some of the fertility magic that the Lupercalia offers. I remember having to give my wary wife a little nudge in the direction of the oncoming Luperci before she offered her hand to be whipped by one of the young noblemen in the procession.[iv] And sure enough towards the end of the very same year I was blessed with a son, Lucius! That’s why I still go to the festival, even in my old age: to thank the gods for my blessing. My capri bona is a merchant now, operating out of Ostia and doing very well for himself… 

Anyway, every third day after the Ides of February I make sure I arrive for the very beginning of the festival, despite my advancing years and the increasing time it takes to get into the city.[v] This year I arrived to find a mist rising from the bubbling stream that leads down to the Lupercal cave.[vi] At first it was so dense it hid from view the trees that I know surround the cave, but it quickly cleared to reveal a throng of my fellow Romans around the base of the south-west foot of the Palatine Hill at the Lupercal, the sacred grove where our founding fathers, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by their surrogate mother, a she-wolf.     

Flamen Dialis

Detail from the frieze on the west side of the Ara Pacis (consecrated 9BC): flamen dialis. Museo dell'Ara Pacis, Rome.

Before us stood the flamen dialis, overseeing the rite in full attire, with his head covered.[vii] The priests of the Luperci brought forth a goat and a dog for sacrifice,[viii] sprinkling the animals with an offering of mola salsa.[ix] The poor goat, because of all its struggling, was forced to stand as if supplicating but the sacrifice was quick and it died with no bleating or clamour nor any inauspicious actions,[x] which we all know to be of paramount importance. 

The next sacrifice was harder for me to witness; perhaps I am getting more sentimental in my old age, or maybe it is that my only companion, now that my wife is dead and my son has flown the nest, is my loyal dog Rufus. I only managed to hold my tongue because of my strong sense of civic duty, but it made me wonder for the first time why we Romans do this, and what it achieves? Perhaps it is the realisation that I do not have long left that makes me question actions that I have previously taken for granted. I suppose the sacrifice may hark back to the foundation of our great city, when our ancestors lost livestock and guard dogs to the wolves in the surrounding countryside … Whatever the reason, the successful sacrifices brought applause from the crowd, although my voice was quiet.    

Next the two young noblemen [xi] were brought before the priest who had conducted the sacrifices and had the blood from the goat smeared onto their foreheads with the blood-stained sacrificial knife. I have always seen this strange act as a symbol of the vitality of the sacrificed goats passing into those participating in the ritual. The blood is always quickly wiped off with some wool that has been soaked in milk and then the youths laugh.[xii] The laughing has always puzzled me, though perhaps this kind of exhilaration is a symbol of the vitality of the milk passing into the youths, thus giving them energy for their coming run. As a farmer, I realise the importance of using milk to wipe the blood away because I have seen from my animals how milk comes into being with a new life, making this a significant link to the fertility rites of the Lupercalia. This connection is especially apparent to me because my son was conceived through these rites all those years ago …    

The priest then cut the goats’ hides into strips to be used for the whipping [xiii] – the part of the rite with which I am more than familiar – and as loincloths.[xiv] When the Luperci have received their goat-hide strips they join the throng of waiting brethren and feast on the meat from the sacrifices.[xv] What has always confused me is that only one group of the Luperci feast on the meat – why? [xvi] I suppose it is probably some ancient ritual inherited from our ancestors, the reasons for which are long forgotten. 

Once the feasting is over, then comes the fun part: I have seen my fair share of youths running around half-naked and it brings out the animal in them! The Luperci, led by the young noblemen, split into two groups – the Luperci Quinctiales or the Luperci Fabiani as they are known.[xvii] These two groups then run the course of the Luperci, playfully and licentiously.[xviii] Although I am far too old to join in this time, I remember running alongside them when I was a boy – up and down the Via Sacra. Now I couldn’t keep up and I am told they run around the Palatine (the old boundary of Rome), beating men and women with the sacrificial goat-hide strips.[xix] A great swarm of masculine nakedness. Well, a swarm of adult, male, half-nakedness, at least – since Augustus’ leadership began l have noticed that the more erotic nature of the fertility rites has been toned down.[xx] 

Model of the Temple of Apollo

Model of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). VRoma.

Our great leader Augustus has renovated the Lupercal cave,[xxi] just 50 feet from his palace on the Palatine Hill, along with a great many other temples and religious sites.[xxii] Of these my favourite is the magnificent temple of Apollo which I can see from my vantage point near the cave. The cave itself is surrounded by a dense wood and has been beautifully restored – it is most impressive to see that the roof’s dome is now wonderfully painted in extremely vivid colours.   

Augustus has brought new life and grandeur into this place of old beginnings, and not only are the crowds here in greater numbers for the Lupercalia but they have been inspired to greater religious fervour than I have ever witnessed. I am glad of this, because the festival has always had great personal importance for me.   

Most worshippers come for the purification rites – everyone dishonours the gods at some point, whether deliberately or not.[xxiii] I remember only last Kalends of January that I took Jupiter’s name in vain as I stubbed my toe on my hearth! However, many come for other reasons, including the fertility promise the festival brings, as I do.[xxiv] Many farmers, like myself, require a good harvest to survive, but the fertility promise applies to all things: crops, flocks, husbands, wives … The fertility of my wife, may she rest in peace, was assured by the rites, so I’m sure that those who pray for the fertility of the Roman Empire will have their prayers granted.   

As I leave the city walls, I contemplate whom the festival honours. I know that some worshippers come to pay respect to Faunus, but he has his own festival: celebrated just two ago, so I do not worship him here.[xxv] Others come to pay respects to the founders of our great city, Romulus and Remus.[xxvi] The Lupercalia, however, will always make me think of my wife and I honour her every day in my own way, making sure the Penates are well tended, as was her wish. 

And now I take my weary legs homewards, looking forward to resting after this long day with my trusted friend, Rufus.  

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[i] The third college of Luperci (the Luperci Iuliana) had been established in 45BC in honour of Julius Caesar with Mark Antony as its head. It did not survive long after Julius Caesar’s death in 44BC. See Dion. Hal. 44.6.2, 45.30.2; Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 76.1; on which H. H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York: 76. Varro claims the Luperci are so called because they sacrifice at the Lupercal (a cave on the Palatine Hill) at the festival of the Lupercalia (Varro On the Latin Language, 5.85, 6.13).   

[ii] Cicero was indignant about Mark Antony serving as one of the Luperci (Cicero, Philippics 2.34, 2.43, 3.5, 13.15).  

[iii] The composite account of this incident is based on Plutarch (Life of Julius Caesar 21.4-6), Cicero (Philippics 2.84-7, 3.12, 13.17) and Dion. Hal. 45.30.1-5. In 44BC it is possible that the procession of the Luperci ended in the Comitium rather than at the Rostra (c.f. Cicero Philippics 2.85 and Dion. Hal. 44.11.2, 45.30.1), but this is not certain, as is noted by T.P. Wiseman (1995), Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge: 81.

[iv] Plutarch states that women presented their hand (Life of Julius Caesar 21.3), although he goes on to be less specific (cf. Life of Julius Caesar 61.2 and his reference to women offering themselves for flagellation in Life of Romulus 21.5). Other sources are less clear: Gelasius complains about the ‘respectable women flogged in public’ (Letter 16), while Ovid describes women presenting both their hand (Fasti 2.427) and their back (Fasti 2.445). Perhaps it was both? For flagellation as a metaphor for sexual union, see T. P. Wiseman (1995), ‘The God of the Lupercal’, Journal of Roman Studies 85: 14-15. It was believed that if women were struck then they would have increased chances of becoming pregnant and an easier childbirth.  

[v] Ovid is our fullest source for the festival and the only one specifying a date of 15th February; he is unlikely to be incorrect on such a major detail (Ovid Fasti 2.267). Dion. Hal. 1.32.4 and Varro On the Latin Language 6.34 both confirm that the festival was in February.  

[vi] For the stream, see Ovid Fasti 2.316 and Dion. Hal. 1.32.4.

[vii] Ovid (Fasti 2.282) is the only source that mentions the involvement of the Flamen Dialis (priest of Jupiter). This involvement may have been a revival of his traditional role or a new addition to the festival following Augustus’ appointment of a Flamen Dialis in 11BC to fill an office that had been vacant since 87/86BC (Tacitus Annals 3.58); for his involvement in a religious revival, see M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1988), Religions of Rome Volume I: A History, Cambridge: 130ff. The involvement of the flamen dialis in the Lupercalia was probably supervisory because he was not allowed to touch goats or dogs. His presence at the Lupercalia, however, counts against suggestions that the Flamen Dialis was not even allowed to look at dogs.  

[viii] Varro and Servius both use the word sacerdos (‘priest’: Varro On the Latin Language 5.83, 5.85; Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.663), but whether we are to think of them as priests in a strict sense is contentious; see Wiseman (n.[iii]: 80). The number of sacrificial animals varies from source to source: Ovid mentions one goat (Fasti 2.445); Plutarch mentions ‘goats’ in the plural (Life of Romulus 21.4). Sources are unclear as to whether the goat(s) are male or female (cf. Ovid, Fasti 2.361 and Plutarch, Life of Romulus 21.4). The sacrifice of dogs is discussed by Plutarch in Roman Questions 68 and Life of Romulus 21.5 and 21.8. In Life of Romulus 21.8, Plutarch suggests that the peculiar dog sacrifice may have come about because a dog worried the runners, before opining that the festival may have originally been a festival of safety: unprotected early settlements would have feared the attacks of wolves, prompting the sacrifice of a dog, which, as the natural enemy of the wolf, would then have kept the wolves at bay. It is also possible to understand the sacrifice in terms of the suckling myth: the she-wolf that nurtured Romulus and Remus would be pleased by the sacrifice of its enemy (the dog). Additional meanings may have been added as the cult gained status or in order to incorporate other requirements into the sacrifices and festival itself. The word Lupercus itself, meaning ‘he who wards off wolves’ from the word lupus (‘wolf’) and verb arcere (‘to keep away’), suggests a pastoral origin (Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.343). For a more detailed account of such derivations, see Scullard (n.[i]: 77-8).  

[ix] Mola salsa were sacred cakes prepared by the Vestal Virgins. They were made from flour ground from the first ears of corn from the previous harvest and were also used in the Vestalia in June and on the Ides of September (Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.235).  

[x] The attitude/position of the sacrificial animal was key to the aesthetic of the sacrifice and its success and efficacy. The animal must be deemed to be a willing sacrifice in order to ensure a good omen; if it was not deemed willing it was permissible to repeat the procedure with a different animal, but only if later events proved that judgement sound: e.g. Julius Caesar is seen to be reckless for not postponing an expedition against Scipio and Juba after the sacrificial animal escapes (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 59). To ensure the appearance of the animal’s compliance, attendants manipulated the animal with ropes to the extent of making it perform a supplication before the altar. For more detail about live sacrifices, see Pliny Natural History 8.183; Beard, North and Price (n.[vii]: 36).  

[xi] Plutarch emphasises that the youths came from noble families (Life of Romulus 21.4, Life of Julius Caesar 21.2). The young noblemen were probably meant to represent the houses of Romulus and Remus (Ovid Fasti 2.360-80). See also n.[xii], n.[xvi] on the Fabiani and n.[xvii] on the Quinctiales.  

[xii] The account is taken from Plutarch, Life of Romulus 21.5. It is likely that the milk represented the substance of new life (and thus was part of the fertility rite) as well as perhaps recalling the nourishment Romulus and Remus received from the wolf (Plutarch, Life of Romulus 21.6). While the laughing may be an expression of exuberance symbolic of the transfer of energy, Ovid connects laughter with the origins of the two colleges of Luperci (the Luperci Quinctiales belonging to Romulus and the Luperci Fabiani belonging to Remus, Fasti 2.360-80) describing how Romulus lost to his brother by failing to recover the cattle and, on returning to see ‘bare tables and bones’, gave out a laugh (Fasti 2.376-7).  

[xiii] Whipping was believed to ensure fertility because striking the women with the goat-skin thong represented an act of penetration: Ovid Fasti 2.441 on which Wiseman (n.[iv]: 15) emphasises that the act of symbolic penetration is made by an object of fertility (the goatskin thong). See also the discussion of Inuus as a possible god of the Lupercalia, n.[xxv] and Livy, 1.5.1-2.  

[xvi] Loincloths were worn according to Dion. Hal. 1.80.1 and Plutarch (Roman Questions 68, Life of Romulus 21.4f.), but Ovid (Fasti 2.283-4), Varro (On the Latin Language 6.34), Plutarch elsewhere (Life of Julius Caesar 61.2) and Gelasius Letter 16, all claim that the Luperci were naked. Ovid (Fasti 2.357-8) and Plutarch (Life of Romulus 21.7) even provide reasons for their nakedness.  

[xv] Ovid (Fasti 2.372-5) is the only source to mention the feast, but it is highly likely that a feast would have been part of the proceedings, not only because feasts followed most sacrifices but also because a feast would fit in with the fun and rowdiness of the Lupercalia, as suggested by Scullard (n.[i]: 77).

[xvi] Only the college of the Luperci Fabiani feasted on the sacrificial meat, supposedly because of a tradition dating back to the days of Romulus and Remus. Ovid (Fasti 2.369-76) recounts the tale in which Remus hears thieves trying to steal their cattle and the two brothers, along with their tribes, compete to find and recover the cattle. Remus and the Fabiani or Fabii succeed and Remus states: ‘only the victors shall eat these’ (Ovid Fasti 2.374).  

[xvii] The college of the Luperci Quinctiales was associated with Romulus and the college of the Luperci Fabiani was associated with Remus. On the origins of the two colleges, see Ovid Fasti 2.361-80. Further, n.[xi], n.[xiii] and n.[xvi].  

[xviii] The verb most often used to describe the route the Luperci ran is discurrere, which translates as ‘to run this way and that’, but some sources imply that they run around the early settlement (e.g. Dion. Hal. 1.80.1, Plutarch Life of Romulus 21.4 and 21.8; cf. also Ovid Fasti 2). Varro records the route as both encirclement (On the Latin Language 5.34 and 6.34) and running up and down the Via Sacra (Varro On the Origin of the Roman People fr.21). By the time of Augustine (The City of God 18.12) the route is up and down the Via Sacra. Such contradictory accounts of the route may imply changes over time, but there are also differences in and difficulties of interpretation: for example, Wiseman (n.[iv]: 8) suggests that this kind of confusion could arise if there were one fig tree rather than two, one at the start and one at the end of the route; A.K. Michels ((1953), ‘The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 84: 35-59) demonstrates the problems arising from scholars having tried to make the Lupercalia run a ‘beating of the bounds’ (35-46) and interprets greges humani (‘human flocks’) to mean ‘a horde of the dead’ rather than ‘the crowd’ (48-9) to link the Lupercalia with its place in the calendar in a month otherwise dedicated to the dead.

[xix] The majority of the ancient sources state that both sexes were whipped, despite focusing in more detail upon the whipping of women. Those sources which state that only women were whipped (Festus 75-6 L. and Servius Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.343) are convincingly dismissed by Wiseman (n.[iii]: 84).   

[xx] Augustus prohibited boys before the age of puberty from taking part in the run (Res Gestae 19.1 and Suetonius Life of Augustus 31.4). For a more detailed discussion of Augustan changes to the Lupercalia, see Wiseman (n.[iv]: 14-16), where he argues that Augustus introduced attendants for the young nobles and no longer required them to wear only goat-skin thongs. It is possible that the introduction of attendants had some relation to what appears to be a commonly held view of the moral laxity of the Luperci (Cicero Pro Caelio 26) and that the attendants were meant to keep the youths from indulging in – or being coerced into – immoral behaviour under the cover of the festival.  

[xxi] Augustus Res Gestae 19.1.  

[xxii] For Augustus’ revival of religious buildings, see Augustus Res Gestae 20.4 with discussion by Beard, North and Price (n.[vii]:118).

[xxiii] Purification was a commonly accepted reason for the Lupercalia festival: Varro Divine Antiquities fr.80 Cardauns, On the Latin Language 6.13 and 6.34 (where the entire month of February is associated with the verb februare meaning ‘to purify’); Plutarch Roman Questions 68. Elsewhere, Plutarch writes that the reason for the Lupercalia festival is actually unknown (Life of Romulus 21.4). However, because the Lupercalia fell in the period of the Parentalia (13th-22nd February) it may be interpreted as a purification of the dead, with the ‘human flocks’ (Varro On the Latin Language 6.34) seen as the ‘flocks of the dead’.  Beard, North and Price ((1998), Religions of Rome II: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 122) consider these  to besiege the city during the Parentalia.  

[xxiv] Plutarch (Life of Julius Caesar 21.3, Life of Romulus 21.5) and Ovid (Fasti 2.427) both refer to the fertility promise of the Lupercalia. The goat itself is a Roman symbol of fertility, which means that the whipping of women with the goatskin thongs can be interpreted as the means through which the transferral of the goats’ fertility to human beings takes place.

[xxv] The god Faunus, linked with fertility and traditionally represented in goat form, is specifically associated with the Lupercalia by Ovid (Fasti 2.267 ff., 303 ff., 423 ff.). Ovid describes Faunus raping nymphs in caves, which takes Faunus’ pre-existing connection with fertility and makes a further connection between him and the Lupercal cave, thereby linking the Lupercalia festival with fertility and with him. There is little agreement about the actual god of the Lupercalia: Ovid favours Faunus, Livy suggests Inuus (whose name may mean ‘the Goer-in’, thus implying a connection with fertility and the penetrative aspect of the Lupercalia, 1.5.1-2), while Varro does not associate any one god with the Lupercalia. For a discussion of the variety of gods that might have been involved, see Wiseman (n.[iv]:3ff.) on Faunus, Pan, Inuus, Silvanus, Luperca, Mars and Juno. It appears that the god was less important than the festival’s proceedings: indeed, Sir J.G. Frazer ((1929), Publii Ovidii Nasonis Fastorum libri sex, London: 335) suggests that ‘the Lupercalia was more a magical, rather than religious, festival and therefore not involving any particular deity’.  

[xx] Romulus and Remus were synonymous with the Lupercal cave (Ovid Fasti 2.381-422; Plutarch Life of Romulus 21.4) and, hence, the Lupercalia itself. Their association with the cult is a key part of its formation (Ovid Fasti 2.359-80).