Lupercalia Story 5: A Talkative Roman Man

It is the 15th of February– and I, Lucius Theodorus, am sitting in the midday sun seven hundred and sixty three years after the foundation of the city of Rome, waiting for the Lupercalia rituals to begin.  

Marble statue-base with Romulus and Remus in the Lupercal

Roman marble statue-base (found near the Forum Boarium): the she-wolf and twins in the Lupercal. Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome. © Ann Raia (1999). VRoma.


From where I sit I have a clear view of the Lupercal, the sacred cave where our founders Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf, which is situated on the south-west side of the Palatine. In my line of vision I can also see the palace of our great pater patriae,[i] Augustus. As I am of the older, married, section of society, I will not be taking part in the rituals we are about to witness, but from my present position I will be able to comment on the details of the festival as they happen.   

First of all, whilst we wait for the festival to begin, I will tell you something about the background of what is, in my opinion, the most enjoyable festival of the year. It is my belief that the origin of the name Lupercalia comes from luere per caprum (‘to expiate through a goat’) because of the sacrifice of the goat we shall witness momentarily and also because of the festival’s connection with purification.[ii] To me this seems to be the most logical interpretation, but there are alternative views to mine.   

Altar of Mars from Ostia

Relief of Romulus and Remus discovered being nursed by the she-wolf from an altar depicting scenes from the foundation of Rome(AD124). Found in Ostia. Museo Massimo, Rome. © Ann Raia (1999). VRoma.


One opinion is that the festival’s name is derived from the Greek word lycaea;[iii] the most common belief though is that it comes from the name of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, who was named Lycania.[iv] This is the view held by most of my friends and the one promoted by the priests in Rome today.   

Anyway, there is no need to discuss etymologies any further as I can see the priests arriving.[v] With them they bring the he-goats and a dog.[vi] The dog is an unusual sacrificial victim, rarely seen at religious festivals. The goats and dog are prepared for sacrifice by having mola salsa sprinkled on their backs, whereupon they bow their heads in obedience as they are struck by the axe.[vii] This is my least favourite part of the festival because I can see the blood pouring out of their throats as the cut is made, which makes me feel squeamish. It is at times like this that I seriously consider following the example of Pythagoras – if only my love of meat were not so strong![viii]   

Now that the animals have been sacrificed, the two youths who step forward are of noble birth. After the bloody knife from the sacrifice has been wiped on their foreheads, the blood will be wiped off again with wool that has been soaked in milk.[ix] Up until this point the youths have maintained a solemn expression but now, as the ritual requires, they will burst into gales of laughter – a detail I have always found strange to watch.[x] The next part of the ritual is somewhat unpleasant: the haruspex examines the entrails of the sacrificial victims. He is obviously satisfied with what he sees because you can see the priests preparing to skin the goats. The goat-skins will then be cut up to be used by the naked Luperci as girdles and thongs for the much-anticipated main event.   

I am afraid I will have to keep you in suspense for the moment regarding the main event as, before the rituals can go any further, a feast must take place. There are two groups of Luperci – the Luperci Fabii and the Luperci Quintilii – but only the Fabii are allowed to partake in the feast.[xi] Whilst they eat I shall tell you an ancient tale about a competition between Rome’s twin founders Romulus (who led the Quintilii) and Remus (who led the Fabii) that came about after their flock was stolen by thieves.[xii] The twins and their men were naked on a hill-top engaging in athletic games when a shepherd ran up to inform them of the theft. With no time to arm, the two groups run off naked and the Fabii, having successfully retrieved the flock, are the first to return. Remus decided that, as the victors, the Fabii should be the only ones to participate in the resulting feast … a tradition that is continued in the festival we are now witnessing.   

There are some who believe that because of this association with flocks, Pan – the god of herds – is the divinity that presides over the Lupercalia. As an Epicurean, I do not believe any particular god should be attached to any festival, although I still continue to celebrate them for self-gratification.[xiii] Regardless of any other opinions on the subject, the feasting is now coming to an end and the Luperci are limbering up for the event we have all been waiting for.   

The Luperci, naked but for their girdles and carrying their thongs,[xiv] now run around the Palatine.[xv] As they are running, I can see them striking the crowd which had assembled while the feast was taking place. Seeing the Luperci run reminds me of a story my father once told me.[xvi] He was a small boy of ten years old – it was 44BC by your reckoning – and the Lupercalia was particularly memorable that year. From his viewpoint my father could see Julius Caesar sitting on the Rostra, upon a golden throne, right in the centre of the Forum, wearing magnificent triumphal dress – a gold-embroidered purple toga! Suddenly, Mark Antony ran into the Forum, having diverted from the route of his fellow Luperci,[xvii] to present Caesar with a diadem.[xviii]   

C19th drawing of the city of Rome in the late Republic

C19th drawing of the city of Rome in the late Republic showing the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.


The crowd were shocked to see this, but then burst into applause when Caesar pushed the crown away. Mark Antony tried once again to present it but Caesar refused it and declared instead that the crown should be taken to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline.[xix] I have always found this story interesting because it makes me wonder whether this event eventually led to Caesar’s assassination. It is also unique because the Luperci have never followed that route since.   

But enough! I am digressing from the festival we are currently witnessing. As the whipping continues you can see that the women make no attempt to avoid the lashes – in fact they are willingly holding out their hands, hoping to be struck. I always look forward to this part of the festival as I find it quite amusing to watch. The women believe wholeheartedly that this public whipping will not only increase their fertility but also give them an easy childbirth.[xx] Personally, I am not convinced by the idea, but it still makes for good viewing!   

I do find it a little strange that we celebrate the Lupercalia with its connection with fertility in the middle of the Parentalia, the festival for honouring our dead ancestors.[xxi] The only logical reason I can come up with for this is that the whipping may also represent a purification of the city.[xxii] Either way, as an onlooker I cannot help but wince as the thongs make contact with the women’s hands, even though it is all done in good sport. As the Luperci reach the end of their circuit the festival is finally coming to an end. I have thoroughly enjoyed attending today and hope that I have shed some light on events for you. I am now, for the rest of the day, going off to enjoy a feast! Why not join me?  


[i] In 2BC Augustus was named pater patriae, meaning ‘father of the country’, an honorific title of which he was very proud: ’When I administered my thirteenth consulate (2BC), the Senate and Equestrian order and Roman people all called me ‘father of the country’, and voted that the same title be inscribed in the vestibule of my temple, in the Julian senate-house, and in the forum of Augustus under the chariot which had been placed there for me by a decision of the senate’ (Augustus, Res Gestae 35).   

[ii] T.P. Wiseman ((1995), Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge: 78) suggests two further etymologies in addition to that from luere per caprum. First, because the Latin word lupus is the equivalent of the Greek word lykos, Lupercal could also mean Lykaion – ‘the place of “Lycaean” Pan’. Secondly, the Lupercalia could have a pastoral reference if derived from the phrase lupi arcentur, meaning ‘wolves are kept away [from flocks]’.   

[iii] ‘But the name of the festival has the meaning of the Greek Lycaea or ‘feast of wolves’, which makes it seem of great antiquity and derived from the Arcadians in the following of Evander.’ (Plutarch, Life of Romulus 21.4). Cf. Livy 1.5.1-2 on Evander and the festival’s possible connection to Lycaean Pan.   

[iv] For Lycania as the name of the she-wolf, see M. Beard, J. North and S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome Volume II: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 120.   

[v] It is unclear from the ancient sources whether the priests who carry out the sacrifices are contiguous with the two groups of Luperci who appear later in the festival. Plutarch simply refers to them as ‘priests’ (Life of Romulus 21.4), but scholars such as H. H. Scullard ((1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York: 77) consider that the priests and the Luperci are one and the same.   

[vi] Scullard (n.[v]: 120) considers that male goats are used in the sacrifice because of their sexual strength, as is appropriate at a festival connected with fertility. Plutarch suggests a few reasons why dogs were sacrificed (Life of Romulus 21.8). First, dogs were thought to be the enemy of the wolf. Secondly, sacrificing dogs was an appropriate act of purification because the Greeks used puppies to practise periskulakismoi. Lastly, a dog was sacrificed as a punishment for the dog that once harried the Luperci while they were running about.   

[vii] Mola salsa was a type of flour made from the spelt gathered in May by the Vestal Virgins, who used it to make salt-meal cakes. Wiseman (n.[ii]: 84) states that at this point in the ritual ‘Hot Salt’ was used as an instrument of purification together with the last batch of these cakes.  

[viii] Pythagoras encouraged his followers (Pythagoreans) to abstain from animal sacrifice and meat-eating.   

[ix] Beard, North and Price (n.[iv]: 120) refer to the elegist Butas who states that the blood represents the danger of the time and the milk represents that which nourished Romulus and Remus.   

[x] The detail is provided by Plutarch (Life of Romulus 21.4-5): ’For the priests slaughter goats, and then, after two youths of noble birth have been brought to them, some of them touch their foreheads with a bloody knife, and others wipe the stain off at once with wool dipped in milk. The youths must laugh after their foreheads are wiped’. Plutarch is the only source who mentions this particular part of the ritual.   

[xi] It is important to note here that in 45BC Julius Caesar added a third group of Luperci known as the Iuliani. T.P. Wiseman ((1995), ‘The God of the Lupercal’, Journal of Roman Studies 85: 15) suggests that in 43BC, when the senate withdrew funding for all the Luperci, the Iuliani group was abolished altogether.  

[xii] Ovid, Fasti 2.365-80, recounts this story in more detail.   

[xiii] Epicureanism is based on the philosophical teachings of Epicurus. Epicureans believe that the senses are extremely important in life and that they apprehend the truth. Most importantly, even though Epicureans accept that the gods exist, they do not think the gods have any practical involvement in human life. Nevertheless, Epicureans partake in traditional forms of worship – just for self-fulfilment rather than to appease the gods or to gain any personal benefit from them. See D.J. Furley (1996), ‘Epicurus’, in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (eds), Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford and New York, 3rd edition: 532.   

[xiv] Ovid’s Fasti advances three suggestions as to why the Luperci are naked. First, Ovid suggests that the gods run naked because they do not believe clothes are suitable for running and that the gods order their servants to follow their example (Fasti 2.285-8). Secondly, Ovid recalls a tale about the god Faunus, who was humiliated by his clothes and as a result summoned people to come naked to his rites (Fasti 2.303-58). Although Ovid connects Faunus with the Lupercalia, Wiseman (n.[ix]: 2) states that it is unlikely Faunus was honoured at this festival because he was honoured at another festival just two days before, on the 13th February. Ovid’s final reason for the nakedness of the Luperci is the aforementioned story of Romulus and Remus looking for their stolen flocks (Fasti 2.365-80).   

[xv] There is an ongoing debate among scholars as to the exact route taken by the Luperci. Many ancient writers agree that the Luperci ran around the Palatine Hill, which represented the ancient Palatine settlement (e.g. Plutarch, Life of Romulus 21.4; Varro, On the Latin Language 6.34; Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1.80). However, Beard, North & Price (n.[iv]: 123) also gather sources (including the later writer, Augustine) that allude to a route involving the Luperci running up and down the Via Sacra.   

[xvi] For the content of this story, cf. Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar 61 and Cassius Dio, Roman History 44.11.   

[xvii] Wiseman (n.[xi]: 7) comments that on this occasion the Luperci began their route at the Lupercal and ended it in the Comitium, noting that these two areas were the site of the famous fig-tree, the ficus Ruminalis. Wiseman (n.[ii]: 77) explains that this fig-tree corresponds with the Romulus and Remus myth because its name is derived from the Latin rumis or ruma meaning ‘teat’, thereby emphasising the importance of the connection between the Lupercalia and Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf.   

[xviii] A diadem was a type of crown – in this case entwined with a wreath of laurel – associated with Hellenistic Kings: absolute monarchs, who were the equivalent of gods on earth and recognised as divine. This symbol of foreign monarchy went against the Roman ideal of a Republic. On Roman coinage Cleopatra, the Hellenistic ruler of Egypt contemporary with Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, is always depicted wearing a diadem.  

[xix] Caesar’s alleged statement was: ‘Jupiter alone is King of the Romans’ (Cassius Dio, Roman History 44.11.3).   

[xx] Plutarch reinforces the point concerning fertility in the Life of Julius Caesar (61). Ovid provides another ancient myth to explain the origin of this ritual (Fasti, 2.429-52). Romulus complains to the gods that, following the rape of the Sabine women, the desired effect of creating a larger Roman population remains unfulfilled because the women appear to be infertile. Juno’s voice is heard from her grove announcing to brides and husbands alike that ‘the sacred goat must penetrate Italy’s mothers’. The crowd is confused by her words until an Etruscan augur sacrifices a goat and interprets Juno’s words to mean that the women should be whipped with the goat’s skin to encourage fertility. The augur was presumably correct, as the population of Rome rose significantly ten months later.   

[xxi] The Parentalia started on 13th February, two days before the Lupercalia, and lasted until 21st February. The Parentalia festival honoured dead ancestors and for its duration temples were closed, marriages were forbidden and all public business was put on hold. In general the Romans appear to have considered February to be the month of the dead (cf. Varro, On the Latin Language 6.34).   

[xxii] There is debate among scholars as to whether the whipping ritual represents a fertility ritual or a purification ritual. G. Dumézil ((1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago: 348) states that it is not always possible to separate these two possible alternatives. A.K. Michels ((1953), ‘The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 84: 48) advances the suggestion that, because the ritual takes place during the month of the dead, the purification provided by the beating frees the whipped from the influence of the dead. Alternatively, D.P. Harmon ((1978), ‘The Public Festivals of Rome’, ANRW 2.16.2: 1442) focuses on the whipping as a ‘beating of the bounds’ and suggests that by running around the Palatine, the Luperci created a ‘magic circle’. Harmon’s thesis has an implied connection with purification but makes no link with the dead.