From the sources, we can piece together the following information about the Lupercalia and how it proceeded.
The festival takes place on February 15th (XV Kal. Mart.). The priests of the festival, called Luperci, start proceedings by sacrificing goats and a dog in the Lupercal cave, located on the south-west corner of Palatine Hill – this was believed to be a sacred place where the she-wolf famously suckled the infants Romulus and Remus. Whilst this is going on, cakes of salted meal (known in Latin as mola salsa), made from the first ears of the harvest, are offered by the Vestal Virgins.
Once the live sacrifice has been conducted, blood from the victims is smeared with a knife onto the foreheads of two young men, and it is then immediately wiped away with wool dipped in milk. The youths are then required to laugh. The Luperci gird their bodies with skins of the sacrificed goats, have a feast which involved much wine, and then proceed to run around the city in companies and strike citizens with goat-skin thongs. This running forms some sort of ‘race’ which ends in the Comitium in the Roman Forum.
Romans celebrating the festival in Augustan times would also be aware of the following. First, there was a memorable occurrence of the festival in 44 B.C., when Marc Antony, as one of the Luperci, tried to offer Julius Caesar a crown while he was watching the end of the festival in the Forum. More pressingly perhaps, Augustus’ concern for preserving sexual morality and promoting human fertility (via his Julian legislation of 18 B.C.) impinged on the Lupercalia. Augustus apparently ‘restored’ the Lupercalia and the Lupercal, probably owing to its connection with human fertility. But he imposed restrictions for the sake of morality: boys before the age of puberty were not permitted to take part, and it is also possible that he insisted on the Luperci wearing more substantial clothing than was customary.
Controversies and Opinions
The narrative above hides a number of uncertainties and differences of opinion as to many aspects of the festival, which may be usefully summarised as follows:
What is the origin of the festival? Did it arrive with Evander? Or was it later set up by Romulus and Remus?
What is the significance of the festival? Was it concerned with burial and the spirit world (note the closeness in date to the Parentalia (13-22 February))? Was it concerned with fertility (the goat being a symbol of sexual strength)? Is it something to do with conferring kingship (note the 44 B.C. occurrence of the festival, mentioned above)? Was it about warding off wolves from sheep (see below)?
Were the laughing youths themselves priests? Were they the leaders of the Luperci or just random young men?
Where did the Luperci run? Around the Palatine Hill (possibly to create a magic circle or purify boundaries)? Up and down the slope of the Sacred Way (Sacra Via)? Or are we wrong to think that there was a specific route?
Did the Luperci run naked? Or were they girded with a goat-skin like a loincloth? Or did their clothing change through time (note the changes under Augustus, mentioned above)?
How many companies of Luperci were there? Two (Quinctiales and Fabiani)? Three (+ Iuliani, added in honour of Julius Caesar in 45 B.C., but disbanded by 43 B.C.)?
Was a specific god honoured during this festival? If so, which one and what gender: Faunus? Innus? Pan? Silvanus? Lupercus (invented in Augustan times)?
Who was whipped? Only women? Or any Romans who presented themselves?
From what does the term ‘Lupercalia’ derive? Does it come from lupus, ‘wolf’, perhaps the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus? Or from lupos arcere, ‘to ward off wolves’ (perhaps this was an ancient festival designed to ward off wolves from the flock?). Or from luere per caprum, ‘to purify by means of a goat’ (a rationalising approach, given that a wolf plays no part in the festival)?
Major Ancient Sources
CICERO, Pro Caelio, 26
VARRO, On the Latin Language, 6.34
OVID, Fasti, 2.267-452
DIONYSIUS OF HALICARNASSUS, 1.32.3-5; 1.80
PLUTARCH, Life of Romulus, 21.3-8
PLUTARCH, Life of Julius Caesar, 61
M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume II: A Sourcebook, Cambridge, 119-24
G. Dumézil (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago, 346-50
M. Gelzer (1968), Caesar, Politician and Statesman, Oxford, 320-2
D.P. Harmon (1978), “The Public Festivals of Rome”, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römische Welt 2.16.2, 1441-6
K. Hopkins (1991), “From Blessing to Violence”, in A. Molho et al. (edd.), City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy, Stuttgart, 479-88
A.K. Michels (1953), “The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 84, 35-59
H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 76-8
T.P. Wiseman (1995), Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge, 77-88
T.P. Wiseman (1995a), “The God of the Lupercal”, Journal of Roman Studies 85, 1-22