October Horse Story 5: A Devoted Mother and a Less Dutiful Son

Hortensia Tertia

Dawn broke early on the morning of the Ides, my husband was heading out to the fields to tend to the flocks.[i] Thankfully the crop has been brought in early this year but even so Marcus is still unable to attend the chariot race and sacrifice at the Campus Martius with us because there is a problem with the sheep.[ii] The children were excited to see the festival of the October Horse.[iii]

HOrtensia Tertia with her sons, Lucius and Quintus.

Hortensia Tertia with her sons Lucius and Quintus. © CLAS3920 Wiki Group 10, 2011.

I made breakfast and woke the children, even though it was early, as we had a long walk to the Campus Martius.[iv] We set off into the city. The boys were eagerly waiting to see the sights and wanted me to point them out, but I did not enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city. As we passed through I spotted the Regia in the Forum Romanum and explained to my sons what was going to happen in today’s festival.[v] I told them that one of the horses they saw in the race today would be very important and that its tail would be placed here in the Regia above the hearth.[vi] I tried to explain that the horse, which was bred to be brave for war, was willing to be sacrificed with the spear thrown by Mars’ special priest, the flamen Martialis, but although Lucius looked less troubled it was clear that Quintus did not understand.[vii] After a drink from one of Agrippa’s many fountains we marched on to the edge of the Pomerium.[viii]

We arrived early at the Campus Martius so I took Lucius and Quintus to see the Altar of Mars where the sacrifice would take place later.[ix] We wandered around the altar where a few people were walking past and there was a buzz of chattering concerning the day’s activities. We could see Pompey’s theatre in the distance and took the opportunity of arriving early to get a good viewpoint for the race. Lucius, inquisitive about the buildings around the Campus Martius, asked me what they all were. I pointed out the Baths of Agrippa and the Saepta Julia, where elections take place. By the time I had finished describing our surroundings the crowd had grown substantially and a rowdy group of young men had gathered near us. I looked around to see if I could move us to a quieter spot but the crowd was too dense. I could hear the young men discussing the upcoming race and the following tussle for the horse’s head – I do not think they are behaving in a suitable manner.

Before I can say anything to them, however, the teams line up and the crowd begins to cheer as the chariots took their places. My boys wanted the Blue team to win because their father has always supported them and started cheering.[x] The race began and the teams sped off, the Green team pulled ahead and their supporters began to cheer wildly. I was so busy trying to control my excited children that I missed the point when the White team pulled in front and won the race. The crowd went wild! I decided to move the boys out of the crush and towards the altar, so we could get a good place for the sacrifice.

A little while later the crowd followed us down to the Altar of Mars, all talking animatedly about the race. The masses calmed down as the horse was led down from the race ground. The flamen Martialis raised the ceremonial spear as one of the priests began intoning a prayer to the god. Quintus asked what was happening but I shushed him to avoid undue attention. Lucius grabbed my hand as the spear was lanced at the subservient horse.[xi] The crowd cheered as the horse was felled and one of the priests moved in to end the beast’s suffering with an axe.[xii] By this point Quintus was in tears and Lucius was wide eyed – both were clearly unsettled by the horse’s death. The young men behind us started to become rowdy and jeered at the crowd from the Sacra Via. As insults were hurled and returned with increasing aggression, the situation quickly escalated towards violence and I determined to move the boys to a safer spot.

Having hurried to the edge of the crowd, I explained to Lucius and Quintus the ceremony that they had just witnessed. I told them that the horse was used to represent the man-made horse of the Greeks, which deceived our Trojan ancestors.[xiii] Lucius was curious as to why the priest was collecting the blood from the animal and I told him that the blood was special; it was going to be used in the Parilia festival by the Vestal Virgins and that festival is especially kind to men like his father because it allows him to keep his sheep healthy.[xiv] This shows that the horse sacrifice is beneficial for our family and other Roman farmers and not something to be sad about or upset by. As I finished explaining, the runner with the horse’s tail sprinted past us heading for the Regia.

The rival groups of the Subura and the Sacra Via quickly became violent but the men from the Subura swiftly emerged with the horse’s head and made their way cheering into the city. The crowd dispersed, some to follow them and some to make their way home.[xv]

We make our way back home through the city. The boys are very quiet after what they had seen, so as we pass the Regia I point out the horse’s tail and tell the boys to make a wish on the tail to help their father. That lightened their mood. After a long walk we arrived home, exhausted from our experience, and awaited my husband’s arrival from the fields. When he returned he asked the boys about their day and what a story they had to tell!


I woke up groggy on the morning of the Ides – my head pounding from the wine I had consumed the night before – only to suffer one of father’s boring lectures on how it isn’t ‘appropriate’ to behave in such a manner any more because I will soon be entering the army.[xvi] Once I had pretended to listen to his speech, I left the house to make my way to meet Porcius.

The atmosphere in the Subura was bubbling with anticipation for today’s race and the outcome of the battle for the horse’s head.[xvii] Last night’s festivities had led to a tussle with the Sacra Via crowd and today would probably be no different. Every year the two groups fight for the head of the October Horse and it is particularly important to me to win the head this year because I will be serving in the Roman army and after the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest we need this festival more than ever.[xviii] Winning the head has always been a matter of great pride for the inhabitants of the Subura, especially as it was once home to Gaius Julius Caesar.

Sextus and Porcius

Sextus and Porcius. © CLAS3920 Wiki Group 10, 2011.

I saw Porcius standing near a drinking fountain, white as a sheet and gulping water down.[xix] “Sextus!”, he exclaimed slightly hoarsely, “I feel awful!” I laughed and joked that he should not try to out drink me and we made our way towards the Campus Martius.[xx] Porcius had buried a defixio in the race grounds last night when he was inebriated and told me that he thought it would help the Whites win the race.[xxi]

Porcius wondered aloud why they didn’t hold the race in the Circus Maximus and the sacrifice in the Forum Romanum, he can be such an ass sometimes, I explained that because it was a dedication to Mars it could not be held inside the Pomerium due to its military connotations, of course all I got in return was a dumb look as he plodded on.[xxii] As we continued we saw some of the Sacra Via boys walking to the Campus Martius and Porcius tried to make a run for them, but I told him to wait until after the sacrifice. As we passed the Regia, Porcius told me a story about Gaius Julius Caesar during the year of his and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus’ consulship, when chose two mutinous soldiers to be sacrificed and had their heads attached to the Regia.[xxiii]

Finally we reached the Campus Martius where a large crowd was gathered. We wanted a good view of our competition – the Sacra Via men (and of course the chariots!) and found a perfect spot next to a mother and her two small children. The chariots came out and someone passed around wine, which added to the already charged atmosphere. We began cheering for the Whites but as soon the race began the Greens pulled ahead, much to our disappointment. Porcius was beside himself until the Whites nudged ahead at the turn in a skilful feat. Everyone was urging them on and the noise was deafening, within seconds the race was over… The Whites had won!

When we saw one of the winning horses being led down to the altar, we followed to watch the sacrifice and Porcius said that he found in odd that a bull that was not the sacrificial animal because it was normally used for sacrifices to Mars.[xxiv] I interjected that many cultures use a horse as a sacrificial animal – especially the warlike Spartans.[xxv] I realised that the disgruntled-looking mother and her two children were in front of us once again.

The priest came down, signalling the start of the sacrifice and the jeering crowd calmed; we watched in reverence as the flamen Martialis raised the spear and plunged it into the horse.[xxvi] The children in front of us seemed disturbed by this, more so than they had been by our taunting of the Sacra Via boys. The head of the October Horse was severed with a heavy blow and insults started to fly as the opposing sides squared up to each other, all eyeing our chance to make our move. The children were moved away at this point, lest they get trampled, which cleared our path forwards. The tail was handed to the runner who would speed it to the Regia and the tension steadily mounted as the priests collected the blood and finally stepped back from the head.[xxvii]

Our moment had come! The fight broke out instantly, as both teams charged to gain possession of the head. I saw Porcius in the fray being tackled by two burly Sacra Via thugs but he was giving as good as he got. I ignored the fighting and seized the opportunity to dash into the middle of the scrum to get the head. I weaved, dodged, ducked and tangling my fingers firmly in its mane I dragged it from beneath the feet of the grappling men. Keeping low I emerged from the mob and shouted to my crowd that we were victorious. Without looking back, I ran as fast as I could but the head was very heavy and slick with blood. As my grip began to falter and I stumbled I felt the strong hands of my comrades seize me and my precious burden. They hoisted me shoulder high and we ran cheering through the streets together towards the turris Mamilia where we would pin the head and later garland it with loaves.[xxviii]

Coated in blood, sweat and grime I felt elated and excited for yet another night of celebrations. My father would be so proud!


[i] The Ides of the month fell on either the 13th or the 15th, depending upon the length of the month (the Ides of October fell on the 15th), and originally coincided with the full moon. The Ides was sacred to Jupiter and a sacrifice was made to him in his temple on the Capitol.

[ii] The main points of the festival appear to be fairly certain: a two-horse chariot race started the festival; the right-hand horse from the winning pair that was sacrificed to Mars with a thrown spear; the horse was decapitated with an axe; the inhabitants of the Subura (see n.[xvi]) and the Sacra Via (see n.[xiii]) fight over possession of the head; the tail was sent by runner to the Regia (see n.[v]) and the head was garlanded with loaves before being displayed.

Sheep farming and agriculture were very important in Rome and seen as very worthwhile. It is likely that Hortensia’s husband would either have worked on a large farm or have been granted a small one by Augustus as payment for service in the army or have bought one with his army pension. For the rural realities underpinning roman pastoral poetry, see M.C. Howatson, (1989), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford: 62.

[iii] Equus October (‘October Horse’) was the name of the horse sacrificed not the festival itself.

[iv] The Campus Martius (‘Field of Mars’), named for the Altar of Mars erected on it, was located outside the Pomerium (the sacred boundary of Rome) on the flood plain of the river Tiber, which meant that it had few buildings and was used for recreation by the Romans, both for games and festivals. For further information see the map of landmarks provided by D. Favro, (1996), The Urban Image of Augustan Rome, Cambridge: 257. For a detailed but brief history and description, see S.B. Platner, (1929), completed, revised edition by T. Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London: 91-94.

Model of the Augustan Campus Martius from the Mausoleum of Augustus looking towards the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon.

The Augustan Campus Martius from the Mausoleum of Augustus looking towards the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon. Model in the Ara Pacis Museum, Rome. © saholc, 2012. http://viaggidiunapecorainitalia.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/fourth-of-july-in-rome-augustan-buildings/

[v] The Regia was originally the royal palace, which was said to have been built by King Numa, at the foot of the Palatine on the edge of the Forum Romanum. In Republican times it was the official headquarters of the Pontifex Maximus, see further Howatson, n.[ii]: 480.

[vi] The tail of the October Horse was removed and raced to the Regia, where it was pinned so that the blood dripped onto the hearth. It has been suggested that in surviving accounts ‘tail’ is a euphemism for the horse’s penis and scrotum because a horse’s tail does not have the blood supply necessary to still be dripping blood by the time it reached the Regia, see G. Devereux, 1970, ‘The Equus October Ritual Reconsidered’, Mnemosyne 23: 297-301: 299.

The Forum Romanum was the centre Rome and the focus of the city’s political, social and commercial life. It contained temples, judicial and administrative buildings and even market stalls, see further R. Seindall, (2003), Forum Romanum. For a 3D tour of a digital reconstruction of the Forum Romanum, see altair4, (2010), The Roman Forum.

An Augustan denarius minted by the flamen Martialis.

Silver denarius of Augustus minted in Rome by Lucius Cornelius Lentulus, the Flamen Martialis, in 12BC. The reverse has Augustus (right) placing a star on the figure (probably Divus Julius Caesar) holding a spear with his left hand and Victory on his outstretched right hand.

[vii] A spear was used in this sacrifice because it was a military weapon and also because it was believed to be imbued with magical powers, if not before the ritual then after it, see C. Bennett Pascal, (1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91: 266-8.

The Flamen Martialis was the Priest of Mars and would officiate at the festival.

[viii] Agrippa, while aedile, added a new aqueduct that resulted in fresh water being brought to an additional 700 basins and 500 fountains in the city of Rome, see Pliny the Elder Natural History 36.121.

The Pomerium was the sacred boundary of the city laid out by Romulus and separated military from domestic affairs. The Roman army was not allowed within it and sacrifices to Mars had to take place outside it, which is why the Altar of Mars was built on the Campus Martius (see further n.[iv] and n.[xxi]), which is outside the Pomerium.

[ix] The Altar of Mars was built on the Campus Martius (see further n.[iv]), outside the Pomerium, on which, see n.[viii]. The Altar of Mars is off the Via Flaminis, see Favro, n.[iv]: 257.

[x] Precise details of the number of competing chariots are not preserved, but it seems reasonable that the sources’ silence on this aspect reflects the fact that the race was not unusual: i.e. had four competing teams and used professional drivers (if not horses) from the established racing stables, between whom there was strong traditional rivalry. Tertullian (de Spectaculis 9) explains that the Red and White teams, dedicated to Mars and the West Winds respectively, were the oldest teams, with the Greens being dedicated to Mother Earth/spring and the Blues to sky and sea/autumn.

[xi] ‘Certain people say that the victim is sacrificed in that place to Mars the god of war, not as the vulgar think that it is taken up as a penalty because the Romans were sprung from Ilium and the Trojans were thus captured by a horse in effigy.’ (Festus de verborum significatu 190).

Festus used the word supplicium (‘penalty’) to indicate that the common people thought the horse was used as a penalty/expiation for the Trojan Horse. Hortensia, as a farmer’s wife, would probably have believed this was the reason for the sacrifice.

[xii] An axe was used after the spear rather than the usual mallet because the mallet was seen to lessen the dignity of the sacrifice of such a high-status animal as the horse. Bennett Pascal, n.[vii]: 266.

[xiii] The Sacra Via was the street connecting the Forum Romanum with the Velia. The name comes from the sacred buildings along the street, including the Temple of Vesta and the Regia. The inhabitants of Sacra Via region would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Regia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 593-4.

[xiv] The link between the October Horse and the Trojan Horse is made by Festus 190 (see, n.[xii]) and Plutarch Roman Questions 97.8-12. Festus used the word supplicium (‘penalty’) to indicate that the common people thought the horse was a penalty/expiation for the Trojan Horse. Hortensia, as a farmer’s wife, would probably have believed this was the reason for the sacrifice.

[xv] The agricultural festival of the Parilia on the 21st April was designed to purify and protect flocks (as well as being credited with being ‘Rome’s birthday’). The blood of a horse, often assumed to be that of the October Horse, was used to purify the festival’s fires, see H.H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 104. The Vestal Virgins, six women selected to protect the sacred hearth of Rome in the Temple of Vesta, officiated at the Parilia and provided the horse’s blood and other ingredients for the purificatory smoke, which included the ashes of calves killed at another festival in April; (dried) horse’s blood could have been kept from October to April by the Vestals.

[xvi] The Subura was a densely populated lower-class area in the middle of Rome made up of insulae (blocks of flats). Gaius Julius Caesar, whose mother inherited an insula to which she moved after his father’s death, was one of its more famous inhabitants. The inhabitants of the Subura had an ongoing rivalry with those of the Sacra Via and during this festival the two groups fought for the head of the October Horse. The inhabitants of the Subura would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the turris Mamilia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 542 and n.[xix] on the turris Mamilia.

The Sacra Via was the street connecting the Forum Romanum with the Velia. The name comes from the sacred buildings along the street, including the Temple of Vesta and the Regia. The inhabitants of Sacra Via region would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Regia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 593-4.

[xvii] The Ides of the month fell on either the 13th or the 15th, depending upon the length of the month (the Ides of October fell on the 15th), and originally coincided with the full moon. The Ides was sacred to Jupiter and a sacrifice was made to him in his temple on the Capitol.

[xviii] The main points of the festival appear to be fairly certain: a two-horse chariot race started the festival; the right-hand horse from the winning pair that was sacrificed to Mars with a thrown spear; the horse was decapitated with an axe; the inhabitants of the Subura and the Sacra Via fight over possession of the head; the tail was sent by runner to the Regia (seee n.[v]) and the head was garlanded with loaves before being displayed.

The Subura was a densely populated lower-class area in the middle of Rome made up of insulae (blocks of flats). Gaius Julius Caesar, whose mother inherited an insula to which she moved after his father’s death, was one of its more famous inhabitants. The inhabitants of the Subura had an ongoing rivalry with those of the Sacra Via and during this festival the two groups fought for the head of the October Horse. The inhabitants of the Subura would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Mamilian Tower. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 542.

The Sacra Via was the street connecting the Forum Romanum with the Velia. The name comes from the sacred buildings along the street, including the Temple of Vesta and the Regia. The inhabitants of Sacra Via region would, if victorious, attach the sacrificed horse’s head to the Regia. See, Howatson, n.[ii]: 593-4.

[xix] Equus October (‘October Horse’) was the name given to the horse sacrificed not the festival itself.

The Roman army suffered a great defeat in the forest of Teutoburg in AD 9. The commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, and most of his men were slaughtered by Germanic tribes (Velleius Paterculus Roman History 2: 117).

[xx] Agrippa, while aedile, added a new aqueduct that resulted in fresh water being brought to an additional 700 basins and 500 fountains in the city of Rome, see Pliny the Elder Natural History 36.121.


Model of the Augustan Campus Martius from the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon looking towards the Mausoleum of Augustus.

The Augustan Campus Martius from the Baths of Agrippa and the Pantheon looking towards the Mausoleum of Augustus. Model in the Ara Pacis Museum, Rome. © saholc, 2012. http://viaggidiunapecorainitalia.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/fourth-of-july-in-rome-augustan-buildings/

A folded curse pierced with a nail from Rome.

[xxii] A defixio (‘curse tablet’, plural defixiones) was part of a magical ritual which was widely in use from the 5th century BC to the 7th century AD. Defixiones have been found in connection with chariot races, specific examples coming from North Africa (e.g. ILS 8783). 

[xxiii] The Circus Maximus was Rome’s oldest and premier chariot-racing venue.

The Forum Romanum was the centre Rome and the focus of the city’s political, social and commercial life. It contained temples, judicial and administrative buildings and even market stalls, see further R. Seindall, (2003), Forum Romanum. For a 3D tour of a digital reconstruction of the Forum Romanum, see altair4, (2010), The Roman Forum.

The TEmple of Mars Ultor on an Augustan denarius.

Reverse of a denarius of Augustus minted in Spain in 19-18BC showing the proposed Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) on the Capitoline with a statue of Mars holding the legionary eagle standard. Augustus did build a temple to Mars Ultor but did so in the Augustan Forum. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. © Barbara McManus, 2005. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

The Pomerium was the sacred boundary of the city laid out by Romulus and separated military from domestic affairs. The Roman army was not allowed within it and sacrifices to Mars had to take place outside it, which is why the Altar of Mars was built on the Campus Martius (see further n.[iv] and n.[xxi]), which is outside the Pomerium. The sacrifice of the October Horse was dedicated to the god Mars and because of this it could not happen inside the Pomerium, see Plutach Roman Questions 97, Festus 190 and Bennet Pascal n.[vii]: 261.

[xxiv] The Regia was originally the royal palace, which was said to have been built by King Numa, at the foot of the Palatine on the edge of the Forum Romanum. In Republican times it was the official headquarters of the Pontifex Maximus, see further Howatson, n.[ii]: 480.

The execution of mutinous soldiers and the display of their heads by Julius Caesar took place in 46BC. Cassius Dio (Roman History 43.24.3-4) reports the ritual execution of two soldiers who had participated in rioting during Caesar’s triumph by the pontifices and the flamen Martialis on the Campus Martius and their heads being set up near the Regia. The location of the execution and the heads’ public display prompts observers to make a link between them and the October Horse. The precise significance of his action and public response to it is not reported.

[xxv] The sacrificial animal usually dedicated to Mars was a bull; possibly because Mars often takes on the shape of a bull, see F. Altheim, (1938), A History of Roman Religion, London: 69. In this instance the horse seems to embody martial spirit (as a warhorse) and agricultural labour (as a workhorse), evoking Mars as a war god with an apparent early agricultural dimension as a defender of the fields.

[xxvi] Festus (190) records the Spartan sacrifice of a horse on Mount Taygetus and also refers other cultures using horses in sacrifices as an attempt to explain Roman practice and the substitution of a horse for the usual bull at this festival to Mars, se also n.[xxv].

An Augustan denarius minted by the flamen Martialis.

Silver denarius of Augustus minted in Rome by Lucius Cornelius Lentulus, the Flamen Martialis, in 12BC. The reverse has Augustus (right) placing a star on the figure (probably Divus Julius Caesar) holding a spear with his left hand and Victory on his outstretched right hand.

[xxvii] The flamen Martialis (Priest of Mars), who ritually brandished Mars’ sacred spears when the Roman army was preparing for war and was one of the three major flamines, would have officiated at all festivals dedicated Mars, this one included.

A spear was used in this sacrifice because it was a military weapon and also because it was believed to be imbued with magical powers, if not before the ritual then after it, see Bennett Pascal n.[vii]: 266-8.

[xxviii] The tail of the October Horse was removed and raced to the Regia, where it was pinned so that the blood dripped onto the hearth. It has been suggested that in surviving accounts ‘tail’ is a euphemism for the horse’s penis and scrotum because a horse’s tail does not have the blood supply necessary to still be dripping blood by the time it reached the Regia, see Devereux, n.[vi]: 299.

[xix] The turris Mamilia is thought to have been a peel tower or keep belonging to the Mamilian family and located somewhere in the Subura. It was the place where the Subura inhabitants chose to fix the head of the October Horse if they won it. See, J.G. Frazer, (1922), The Golden Bough, London: 489.

The head was presumably garlanded with loaves because some Romans believed that the festival took place to ensure good crops and fertility. Scholars like Georges Dumézil argue that if it was a fertility festival corn would have been used not loaves indicating that the head is clearly dedicated to Mars, see discussion by Bennett Pascal n.[vii]: 266.

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.

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.  

[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).

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]   

[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).

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

Lupercalia Story 1: A Proud Roman Father

It was the 15th day before the Kalends of March in the year of the consulship of Publius Cornelius Dolabella and Gaius Junius Silanus. I rose to yet another bright, crisp winter dawn in my 50th year and knew that it was a special day, as today was the Lupercalia!

This year’s festivities would be particularly special for me personally as my son, Titus Artorius Gavros, would be participating in the ceremony for the very first time. I’ve heard that in years gone by some pompous and prudish old men have disapproved of their family’s youngsters running with the Luperci – the name Cicero[i] readily springs to mind – but not me; I couldn’t be more proud of my family’s contribution to the welfare of the city. It is, in my opinion, a bad Roman that puts his personal reservations about a festival’s supposed sexual undercurrent[ii] and uncivilised origins[iii] above his sense of duty to the community and obligation to the gods. That sort of attitude comes from spending too much time with one’s nose buried in dusty old books, if you ask me!  

The Lupercalia is so ancient[iv] that we’re never going to agree on the precise reasoning behind the ceremony,[v] so what’s the point of researching it? This particular year, I’m happy to say, events proceeded entirely in accordance with ritual practice, which should have greatly decreased the risk of future hardships for our city.  

Man in equestrian dress being served wine by a male slave

C3rd AD Roman mosaic from Uthina (Oudhna): A equestrian called Fructus (right) is served wine by a male slave. Bardo Museum, Tunis. © Barbara MacManus (1982). VRoma.


And so it was with great pride that I put on my gold ring and my tunica angusticlavia that morning, both symbols of my status as an eques. In spite of my advancing years I was eager to hurry down to the Palatine – or perhaps I should call it Region Ten these days[vi] – so that I could gain a good view of the newly restored Lupercal cave,[vii] which is located right in between the Circus Maximus and Caesar’s house on the south western slopes: this is where the first rituals took place. Unfortunately there was already a big crowd gathered by the time I arrived, no doubt also gripped with that sense of excitement and fun which is associated with the Lupercalia.[viii] So I stood and watched proceedings just across from the Forum Boarium. The flamen dialis[ix] was there (not like back in my day) to oversee the sacrifice of the animals:[x] two goats and a dog, which are very unusual offerings,[xi] especially since priests aren’t usually allowed to touch those animals.[xii]  

I don’t know about the goats but I assume the reason for the dog is because of its resemblance to a wolf. The lupine element of the festival is evidently important, hence the name Lupercalia, [xiii] and the fact that we link it to the wolf-based Romulus and Remus story. Even an unscholarly chap like myself can work that one out!  

As I peered through the crowd I could see my son amongst the other young men of the Luperci; none of them too young though, since Caesar has put a stop to unbearded boys taking part in the festival.[xiv] Titus was helping to restrain one of the goats whilst mola salsa,[xv] prepared by our sacred Vestal Virgins, was being sprinkled on its head until it nodded to signify compliance with its own sacrifice. After the throats of the animals had been slit, two of the Luperci were brought forwards, one from the college of the Fabii and one from that of the Quintilii: both of these represent the groups that were founded by Romulus and Remus,[xvi] although I’m not sure  which one is which. They then had blood from the sacrificial knives smeared on to their foreheads[xvii] and then wiped off with some wool dipped in milk,[xviii] after which they both had to burst out laughing.[xix] This always strikes me as odd, and I can’t help wondering why they always have to laugh, but I shall leave those sorts of questions to men more learned than myself.  

After the initial rituals had concluded I made my way along the seven stades or so to the Forum so that I could get a good view of the running of the Luperci[xx] from under the shade of the Basilica Aemilia. In the meantime, Titus and his colleagues were busy preparing the animals into a feast and cutting their hides into thongs[xxi] which they could wear and strips called februare. It was a long process and marked a sort of hiatus in the festival, during which the Luperci usually do some exercises in preparation for their run. Some people stay and watch but most take the chance to eat something themselves, shelter from the midday sun and re-join the proceedings later.    

Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar showing rostra in the Roman Forum

The rostra before the temple of the Deified Julius Caesar. From Ch. Huelsen (1909), The Roman Forum: Its History and Its Monuments, trans. J.B. Carter (2nd ed.), Rome, fig. 86. VRoma


As I entered the Forum the first thing that caught my eye was our Pater Patriae, Caesar Augustus, sitting upon the rostra in readiness for the crowds and the running. I imagine he resembled his late father Julius Caesar who, 55 years ago today, had taken part in one of the defining episodes of this festival’s history. My own father, Brutus Artorius Gavros, was watching the Lupercalia that same year, and has told me on many occasions that anecdote about Caesar thrice rejecting Marcus Antonius’ offer of a diadem.[xxii] Of course that was in the days when there were three Lupercal colleges, since Antonius was one of the Luperci Iulii.[xxiii]It was a while before I heard the commotion of the crowd further back towards the Palatine and I knew that the Luperci had split into their two groups and had started their run. Their route between the Lupercal and the Comitium[xxiv] takes them past the eastern edge of the giant Horrea Agrippiana,[xxv] across the Nova Via then up and down the Sacra Via before they enter the Forum. They always end up in the Forum because that’s where the Ficus Ruminalis[xxvi] and the old sepulcretum[xxvii] are: not to mention the fact that it’s the heart of our great city and a focal point for community activity. I’ve heard it said that many years ago they would have run all the way round the eastern side of the Palatine.[xxviii] It’s lucky that’s no longer the case since Julius Caesar’s massive redevelopment of the Circus Maximus[xxix] would make that a fairly hazardous and congested affair. Eventually the two groups came into view as they ran about on the slope of the Sacra Via, each of them led by one of the youths who had been wiped with blood a little earlier. I was glad to have a restful and well-shaded position in the ceremony – if somewhat obscured by some modern building work[xxx] – and didn’t envy Titus for what was clearly tiring and sweaty work in the heat of the sun. He didn’t seem to mind though, partly because of all the wine he had drunk at the feast, but mainly (I suspect) because he was fraternizing with many of the respectable, young married women of the city. There was certainly a commotion as the crowd got indiscriminately whipped with the Luperci’s februare, especially those young women who were of child-bearing age, whom I could see deliberately getting in the way of the runners and presenting their hands to be struck.[xxxi] The somewhat magical potency of the Luperci’s actions should hopefully protect the girls against infertility and ensure a healthy and abundant new generation of noble Romans.[xxxii] Indeed, the run signifies that we as a community have all done our duty to the spirits of the dead and have protected and purified ourselves from their potentially evil influence, be it infertility or some other evil.  

Caesar and I had to wait until the runners had properly entered the Forum before we could get a good view of the action, but when they arrived the crowds were in amazingly high spirits. Even Caesar seemed to be smiling in approval and enjoying the festivities, although he always appears so respectable and well-to-do that it’s hard to tell. Titus and his companions arrived at the Comitium, which marks the end of the sacred race, thoroughly exhausted but all very proud of their achievement. I think there was a general sense of relief that the traditions had all been upheld and the rituals had been completed without any unforeseen problems or bad omens. The whole community came out and there was a spirit of togetherness, which re-enforced my belief that Rome is indomitable and favoured by the gods. It was a nice way to spend the middle of the otherwise boring dies parentalis[xxxiii] which for me is a nine day holiday marked as nefastus;[xxxiv] a week from now I’ll need to attend court.    


[i] Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus that his brother Quintus was “a fool to rejoice in his son’s new office [membership of the Luperci]” (Letters to Atticus 12.5.1).
[ii] For the apparent sexual undercurrent to the festival, see T.P. Wiseman (1995b), “The God of the Lupercal”, Journal of Roman Studies 85, 15
[iii] Roman academics contemporaneous with Augustus would no doubt have suspected that the Lupercalia predated urbanization; see e.g. W.W. Fowler (1899), The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, New York, 316-17; C. Bailey (1932), Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome, Oxford, 148.
[iv] Bailey (n.iii) 18 suggests that it was recognised by Romans as being “of immemorial antiquity”.
[v] M. Beard, J. North and S. Price ((1998), Religions of Rome, Volume II: A Sourcebook, Cambridge, 120) adeptly summarise the scholarly consensus that “at any celebration (of this or any other festival) there was no doubt a profusion of individual views, understandings and explanations.” See also K. Hopkins (1991), “From Blessing to Violence”, in A. Molho et al. (eds.), City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy, Stuttgart, 484-5.
[vi] This map of Rome’s new (c. 8-7 BC) administrative regions is taken from J.B. Lott (2004), The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome, Cambridge, 3.
[vii] For Augustus’ pride in the newly-restored Lupercal cave, see Res Gestae 19.
[viii] According to Valerius Maximus (2.2.9), “the Luperci were propelled through the streets by collective solidarity, the jollity induced by the banquet and a lot of wine drunk.” Indeed, Wiseman (n.ii) 14 argues that “all the literary evidence makes it clear that the Lupercalia ritual was an occasion for laughter and enjoyment.”
[ix] The flamen dialis was the high priest of Jupiter. The priesthood was vacant for extended periods of the late republic before being revived by Augustus; see M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume I: A History , Cambridge, 131.
[x] H.H. Scullard ((1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 77) points out that Livy and Varro disagree about which god was intended to receive the sacrifice. Bailey (n.iii) 131 suggests that it is a mysterious rustic deity linked to Pan. The most likely explanation, however, is that the festival predates anthropomorphic gods, which is why the generic priest of Jupiter was chosen to preside.
[xi] Hopkins (n.v) 480 points out that the Romans usually sacrificed more edible animals such as sheep, pigs and bulls. Fowler (n.iii) 314 affirms that a dog was only elsewhere offered to Robigus on April 25th and goats were only elsewhere offered to Bacchus and Aesculapius, both of whom were foreign deities.
[xii] For the strange religious rules governing priests, see Plutarch, Roman Questions 68 (280C).
[xiii] Scullard (n.x) 77 is confident that the etymology of Lupercalia is a reference to wolves. A.K. Michels ((1953), “The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 84, 50-57) covers in detail the theory that the Lupercalia was linked to werewolves as well as wolves in general. As the city grew, wolves got separated from the people and the festival would have changed its meaning.
[xiv] Wiseman (n.ii) 15 expands on the implicit sexual undercurrent apparent in the Lupercalia, citing Suetonius, who suggests that Augustus did not allow beardless boys to take part in the run (Augustus 31.4); the boys were supposed to be objects of sexual desire.
[xv] See Bailey (n.iii) 158 on the preparation of mola salsa. Wiseman (n.ii) 84 states that the importance of the Lupercalia to Rome is indicated through the exclusive nature of the mola salsa ritual. Only three batches of these salt-meal cakes were made each year; the other two batches were destined for the Vestalia festival on June 9th and the ‘feast of Jove’ during the ludi Romani.
[xvi] Scullard (n.x) 76 says that it was believed amongst the ordinary Romans that the Quinctiales and Fabiani colleges were founded by Romulus and Remus.
[xvii] Michels (n.xiii) 52 proposes that the wiping of the blood with the knife was a relatively new addition to the ceremony, but like Fowler (n.iii) 315 she poses her theory tentatively, commenting that there is no straightforward literary evidence that might resolve the dispute.
[xviii] Fowler (n.iii) 316 suggests that the milky wool may have symbolised a revival to new life. Plutarch, in his Life of Romulus (21.3-8), links the cleansing of the wool to the Romulus and Remus story, implying that the cleansing with milk is a reminder of how the twins were nourished; see further Beard, North and Price (n.v) 121.
[xix] Fowler (n.iii) 314 suggests that laughter was an acknowledgement of exoneration and purification after killing sacrosanct animals, whereas Michels (n.xiii) 54 sees the laughter as a sign of the humanity of the participants.
[xx] Bailey (n.iii) 33 sees the running as the central act of the Lupercalia: she suggests that it is the act of running, rather than the runners, that creates the magical quality to the festival. Fowler (n.iii) 314 suggests that the two Luperci who lead the running might actually represent Romulus and Remus.
[xxi] Hopkins (n.v) 481 points out that Ovid, Varro, Plutarch, Gelasius and Justin cannot agree about the extent to which the Luperci were clothed. T.P. Wiseman ((1995a), Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge, 82) reminds us, however, that “[Augustus] was certainly concerned about the moral dangers of the Lupercalia.” It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that by AD 10 the Luperci had acquired substantial bodily covering.
[xxii] The famous episode described by Cicero in his Philippics (2.84) would have been well known by the Roman public in AD 10.
[xxiii] A third Lupercal college was created in 45 BC in honour of Julius Caesar, but was then probably disbanded soon after his death; see Scullard (n.x) 76. In Philippics (8.31), Cicero states that the senate withdrew funding for the Lupercalia in 43 BC, which leads Wiseman (n.ii) 15 to suggest the Julii were probably scrapped, and then possibly reinstated by the triumvirs.
[xxiv] The route of the Luperci has perhaps been the cause of the most controversy concerning the festival among modern scholars. Fowler (n.iii) 318 and Bailey (n.iii) 33 take the (traditional) view that the runners did a lap of the Palatine. Michels, dismissing this idea as a misinterpretation of Varro (n.xiii: 36), is more circumspect as to the route: “it took place in the Forum area between the Lupercal and the summa Sacra Via” (n.xiii: 46). Scullard (n.x) 77 provides possibly the most balanced and reasonable argument: “their route is uncertain: originally they ran around the Palatine, later in Caesar’s time perhaps only round part of it and up and down the Sacra Via”. This map, taken from E.A. Dumser, L. Haselberger and D.G. Romano (2002) (eds.), Mapping Augustan Rome, Rhode Island, has been edited to show what is, on balance, the most likely route of the Luperci in AD10. This map is taken from Wiseman (n.ii) 7.
[xxv] A massive warehouse built by Agrippa on the north-west slope of the Palatine; see Dumser, Haselberger and Romano (n.xxiv) 140.
[xxvi] The Ficus Ruminalis was the fig tree which featured in the myth of Romulus and Remus. It was originally situated on the Lupercal but had moved (magically) to the Comitium in the Forum by the time of the Republican period; see Scullard (n.x) 77. Running to it would replicate the actions of Romulus and Remus.
[xxvii] The ancient burial ground lay in the forum valley, along which the Luperci ran. Michels (n.xiii) 48 hypothesises that this marked a division between the living and the dead for the ancient hilltop communities. This would strongly link the area of the Lupercalia with its calendrical position in the middle of the dies parentales, lending support to the theory that its rituals were concerned with placating the spirits of the dead; see Wiseman (n.xxi) 88.
[xxviii] It has been argued that forming a magical circle around the Palatine provided a protective barrier for what was once an isolated settlement; see e.g. Bailey (n.iii) 33. On the other hand, Michels (n.xiii) 43-4 points out that a barrier could also be formed in front of it by the Luperci running to and fro.
[xxix] Dumser, Haselberger and Romano (n.xxiv) 87-8 estimate that it was 3.5 stades long and 4 plethra wide, so it is highly unlikely that in AD 10 there was a great deal of room between the Circus Maximus and the cliffs of the southern face of the Palatine.
[xxx] This image (taken from Archivo fotografico Lozzi Roma s.a.s.) has been edited to show that Augustus’ view of the running from the rostra in AD 10 would have far more obstructed than Julius Caesar’s in 44 BC due to the erection of new buildings on the East of the Forum in the intervening period. This shows that the Luperci must have run quite far from the Lupercal for Augustus to have seen anything.
[xxxi] Plutarch (Julius Caesar 61) confirms that the women taking part in the festivities simply had to stretch out their hands to get whipped “like school children” (Hopkins (n.v) 481). Wiseman (n.ii) 16 suggests that this act marks a deliberate neutralisation of the sexual element that had started the festival.
[xxxii] Plutarch (Julius Caesar 61) tells us that the rituals were performed so that “the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy”. R.M. Ogilvie ((1969), The Romans and their Gods in the Age of Augustus, London, 51), Wiseman (n.xxi) 84 and Fowler (n.iii) 320 agree that, regardless of the uncertainty of its origins, the Lupercalia certainly came to be seen as a human fertility rite.
[xxxiii] The 15th day of February was the third day of the dies parentales, the festival which offered worship and offerings to the spirits of the dead. During this time marriages were forbidden, temples were closed and no fire was allowed to be burned on altars; see Michels (n.xiii) 48.
[xxxiv] The dies nefasti were days on which the courts could not sit for religious reasons; see e.g. Ovid, Fasti 3.8.