Vestalia: An Introduction


7-15 June: Vesta’s temple is open to women

9 June (V. Id. Iun) is the Vestalia, centred around the circular aedes (house) of Vesta. On this day, the Vestals make the cakes (mola salsa), which involves cooking grain with salt. Hence it is a holy day for millers/ bakers, for which millstones and asses were garlanded with flowers and loaves. Food on clean plates is offered to Vesta.

15 June: the temple is closed and the storehouse is wept clean: Q.ST.D.F = quando stercum delatum fas (‘when it is lawful for the dirt/filth to be carried away’). This filth was carried to the Tiber and thrown into the river.

1st century B.C. Historical Impact

Augustus brings Vesta close to or into his own house on the Palatine.

Controversies and Opinions 

What was the origin of the festival? Did it go back to the time of Numa?

What is its purpose? Was it to promote the fertility of crops? Or was it a celebration of the power of the hearth/oven to manufacture/provide food?

What was in inner sanctum of the temple of Vesta? Did it serve as a store for sacred items for other festivals (e.g. the ashes used for the Parilia)? Did it house the statue of Pallas Athene (Palladium) that Aeneas brought to Italy from Troy? Did it contain statuettes of the Penates (the protectors of store cupboards)?

Who or what did the Vestals represent? Were they symbolic of wives or daughters from Rome’s regal period? Or do they occupy a special liminal position between daughter and mother, man and woman, mortal and divine?

What duties did the Vestals specifically perform during this period? How much can we safely assume?

Did the women approach the shrine barefooted?

Major Ancient Testimony

OVID, Fasti, 6.249-468

LIVY, 1.20

PLUTARCH, Life of Romulus 22; Life of Numa 9-11

Secondary Reading

M. Beard (1980), “The Sexual Status of the Vestal Virgins”, Journal of Roman Studies 70, 12-27

M. Beard (1995), “Re-reading (Vestal) Virginity”, in R. Hawley and B. Levick (edd.), Women in Antiquity: New Assessments, London, 166-77

M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome,Cambridge, I.51-4

R.J. Littlewood (2006), A Commentary on Ovid’s Fasti, Book 6,Oxford, 79ff.

H.N. Parker (2004), “Why were the Vestals Virgins? The Chastity of Women and the Safety of the RomanState”, American Journal of Philology 125, 563-601

S. Pomeroy (1976), Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves,London, 210-14

J. Scheid (1992), “The Religious Roles of Roman Women”, in P. Schmitt Pantel (ed.), A History of Women in the West. Vol.1, From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints,Cambridge, 381-84

H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 149-50, 153

A. Staples (1998), From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion,London

R.L. Wildfang (1999), “The Vestal Virgin’s Ritual Function in Roman Religion”, Classica et Mediaevalia 50, 227-34

R.L. Wildfang (2001), “The Vestals and Annual Public Rites”, Classica et Mediaevalia 52, 223-55

October Horse: An Introduction


The festival takes place on 15th October (the Ides of October: Id. Oct). The day is known as Feriae Iovi, with the name Equus October only given in the late Calendar of Philocas.

Proceedings in order

  • A two-horse chariot-race takes place
  • The right-hand horse of the victorious pair is felled with a spear and sacrificed on the altar to Mars in the Campus Martius (“Plain of Mars”)
  • The horse’s head is cut off and decorated with loaves
  • The inhabitants of the Via Sacra contend with those of the Suburra to claim this trophy. If those from the Via Sacra win the horse’s head, they nail it to the Regia; if those from the Suburra, it is fixed to the Turris Mamilia.
  • The horse’s tail, dripping with blood, is brought quickly to the Regia and is allowed to fall on the sacred hearth.

1st century B.C. Historical Impact

In 44 BC, Caesar handed over two mutinous soldiers to the flamen Martialis who killed them in the Campus Martius and had their heads fixed on the Regia – was this a grim civil-war version of the October Horse? (Dio 43.24.4)

Controversies and Opinions 

What was the origin of the festival? 

  • Was it agricultural, the last in series of harvest festivals?
  • Was it military, owing to the sacrifice to Mars, its proximity to the end of summer campaigning season and the Armilustrium (19 October) and th echo of the horse race (Equirria, 14 March), which marked the beginning of the campaign season?
  • Or did an agricultural festival develop into a military festival over time, in the same way that Mars, god of war, is thought to have started life as an agrarian deity?
  • Was the festival influenced by a royal Vedic (Indian) ritual? Is this a royal battle between two groups of pretenders, the king (those who take the trophy to the Regia) and the Mamilii (historical claim to an emblem of kingship?)

Why a horse? Does it symbolise the Trojan Horse, making the festival a revenge ritual in which the Romans (descended from the Trojans) take revenge on the Greeks who destroyed their mother city? Or is the horse a warlike and spirited animal that is sacrificed for a like-minded (military) deity?

What sort of horse is sacrificed? Is it an agricultural animal? Or a military one?

Is the flamen Martialis involved in the ritual at all?

Does the spear actually kill the horse, and who wields it?

Is the blood of the October horse used at the Parilia the following April? No ancient source states this, but we are only told that the Parilia uses the blood of a horse (origin unspecified). But isn’t it too much of a coincidence, given that no other horse is sacrificed in Roman religion?

Did the blood really drip, or put another way, is the tail really a tail? There are physical problems to consider here, as by the time a horse’s tail would have arrived at the Regia, the blood would have coagulated (clotted). This means it would have been very difficult to arrive at the Regia with a ‘dripping tail’. If ‘tail’ in our sources is really a euphemism for the horse’s penis/genitals, which contain a lot of blood, these could still feasibly be dripping blood on arrival at the Regia.

What was the Turris Mamilia? The identity of this building is unknown. The Mamilii are said to have given their name to it; they were originally Tusculans but might claim links with Roman royalty through a connection to the Tarquins.

Are elements of the festival vested with magical properties (such as the spear and the decapitation)?

Major Ancient Testimony

CASSIUS DIO, 43.24.4

PAULUS, p. 197, 326 Lindsay


PLUTARCH, Roman Questions, 97

FESTUS, pp. 190, 246, 295-6 Lindsay

[The obscure primary sources are conveniently located and translated in Dumézil (1970) 215-16 and Bennett Pascal (1981) 261]

Secondary Reading

C. Bennett Pascal (1981), “October horse”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85, 261-91

G. Devereux (1970), “The equus October ritual reconsidered”, Mnemosyne 23, 297-301

G. Dumézil (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago, 213-28

H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic,New York, 193-4


Megalensia: An Introduction

Cybele and her Festival: Origins, Practice and Ambivalent Status

From the sources, we can piece together the following information about the origins and practices of the festival of Cybele and about the ambivalent approach adopted by the Romans towards her cult.

Cybele/ the Magna Mater was a Phrygian deity who entered Rome in the latter part of the 3rd century B.C. In 205 B.C., during the second Punic War, the Sibylline Books prophesied a victory for the Romans against Hannibal if they transferred from Asia Minor to Rome ‘the Idaean mother’. Understanding this to be Cybele, the Romans duly brought to Rome the sacred stone that was the symbol of the goddess, and they established it on the Palatine hill in 204 B.C. A temple to Cybele was then completed in 191 B.C. and an annual festival took place in Rome from that point.

The festival took place on six consecutive days, from 4th – 10th (II Non. – IV Id. Apr), and we are aware of several activities that took place during this time. There are displays in the Circus and plays performed on the Palatine in front of temple of Magna Mater (especially on the third day, 6th April). The doors of the temple of Magna Mater are open to the public, who bring a gift of moretum (a type of herb cheese spread) to the goddess. The goddess’ eunuch priests, the galli, range the streets in bright regalia asking for alms. And the Roman elite hold banquets for each other.

As a foreign deity introduced to Rome to solve a major Roman military problem, the Roman attitude towards Cybele and her cult would have been mixed. On the positive side, as well as the aid she brought Rome, Cybele could boast Phrygian, and hence Trojan, ancestry; she had apparently saved a vestal virgin, Claudia Quinta, from a false charge of violating her chastity; and she was publicly endorsed by the Emperor Augustus, who brought her temple close to his own residence on the Palatine (her temple was restored in A.D. 3). But there was also a negative side which pertained to the goddess’ priests and their activities during the festival. Romans would have shown contempt for eunuch (‘half-man’) priests, as this would have be seen as a perversion of gender and sex. Their antics during the festival, which included self-flagellation/ castration, frenzied dance and music, all in brightly-coloured costume, would have sat uneasily with the traditional Roman sense of restraint and austerity. Hence the Roman requirement was to respect, but not participate directly in, the procession that occurred during the festival.

The Megalensia follows shortly after the Festival of Attis (22-25 March), during which a procession displays the statue of Cybele, accompanied by music; the statue of Cybele was later washed and brought back in procession.

Some Controversies and Opinions

Why exactly was Cybele brought to Rome? Assistance against Hannibal? Part of a climate of adopting Greek rituals/ oracles? A desire to ‘bring home’ a deity of Trojan ancestry?

How ‘foreign’ was the ritual in Augustus’ time? Were there two different and distinct rituals, a ‘Roman’ one and a ‘foreign’ one (with Romans unable to take part in the ‘foreign’ procession)? Did one ritual give way to the other through time?

What relation is Attis to Cybele’s cult? Was he introduced into Rome with/ at the same time as Cybele? Did he act as a model for the self-castration of Cybele’s priests?

Major Ancient Sources

CICERO, On the Response of the Haruspices, 22-28

LUCRETIUS, On the Nature of the Things, 2.600-43


LIVY, 29.10, 29.14


OVID, Fasti, 4.179-372

Modern Scholarship

M. Beard (1994), “The Roman and the Foreign: The Cult of the ‘Great Mother’ in Imperial Rome”, in N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (eds), Shamanism, History, and the State, Michigan, 164-90

M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume I: A History, Cambridge, 96-8, 164-6

G. Dumézil (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago, 484-9

E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek and Roman Culture and Policy, Leiden, 5-33

R.J. Littlewood (1981), “Poetic Artistry and Dynastic Politics: Ovid and the Ludi Megalenses (Ovid Fasti 4.179-372), Classical Quarterly 31, 381-95

J.F. Miller (1991), Ovid’s Elegiac Festivals: Studies in the Fasti, Frankfurt, 82-90

H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 97-101

K. Summers (1996), “Lucretius’ Roman Cybele”, in E. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 337-66

M.J. Vermaseren (1977), Cybele and Attis: the Myth and the Cult, London

T.P. Wiseman (1984), “Cybele, Vergil and Augustus”, in T. Woodman and D. West (eds.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge, 117-28

T.P. Wiseman (1985), Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, Cambridge, 198-206

Lupercalia: An Introduction


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
LIVY, 1.5.1-2
OVID, Fasti, 2.267-452
PLUTARCH, Life of Romulus, 21.3-8
PLUTARCH, Life of Julius Caesar, 61

Modern Scholarship

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