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 2: A Concerned Roman Matrona

The third morning after the Ides dawned bright and clear. It was the day I have been waiting for all year.[i] I’ve been married for eight years and there’s still no sign of a child.[ii] My husband and I are worried and I am desperate to please him, so I am attending the Lupercalia in an attempt to rid myself of the evil spirits that are causing my infertility.[iii] Greater numbers of negative spirits are definitely abroad in February, so I am pleased that the Lupercalia is taking place today. Aside from the medical reasons for my attendance, it is a public holiday and so I have excused myself from household duties. I’m sure my slave girls won’t mind if I don’t spin wool with them for one day! My husband Gaius Publius Agrippa is presiding over the sacrifices later, with the consuls Publius Cornelius Dolabella and Gaius Iunius Silanus.[iv] Gaius is a well respected magistrate within the city, and we are both hoping for a happy outcome from this day.                

I’m not entirely sure of the origins of this old festival.[v] Some say it is to do with a god called Lupercus, though of him I know nothing. That rogue poet, who is below contempt, Publius Ovidius Naso,[vi] believes Faunus  [vii] was the god concerned with the Lupercalia, but I am not inclined to believe a word that man says.          

Reconstruction of the Lupercal Panel from the Ara Pacis (9BC).

Reconstruction of the Lupercal Panel from the Ara Pacis (9BC) by a group of researchers from the Superintendenzia de Bienes Culturales del Ayuntamiento de Roma (2009).

The festival takes place, as it always has done, on and around the Palatine Hill. According to legend, the twins Romulus and Remus were washed ashore from the Tiber to a cave on the south-west corner of the hill and were brought up there. Apparently this is how the cave came to be called the Lupercal,[viii] because the babies were suckled there. This is the story that has been passed down from the very ancient times, so who am I to question it?         

 
 
 
Republican denarius issued by L. Pomponius Molo, c. 97BC.

Republican denarius issued by L. Pomponius Molo, c. 97BC: the early Roman king Numa Pompilius, holding a lituus (augur's staff), stands before an altar, preparing to sacrifice a goat held by a youth. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. ©Barbara McManus (2005). VRoma.

And so begins the festival. From my position at the bottom of the hill, I can see the sacrificial victims being led to their deaths. The dog is quite willing, trotting along merrily, man’s faithful friend to the last. The two goats, however, bleat pitifully on their way to the altar. The sight of apparently unwilling animals being led to death and the manner in which they are killed is one I have never got used to. When I attended five years ago – merely to watch rather than now where I am hoping flagellation will bring me the children I so desperately long for – the most memorable event was the sacrificial dog running off and taking the priests half the day to find! A bad omen indeed, I think! Back then I took motherhood for granted, thinking that it would happen within a couple of years of marriage, especially with my husband being an experienced man who fathered three children with his first wife. Death carried them off one by one and then took his wife too. Men can easily discard us women, as I fear my husband will do to me, in favour of a woman with proven fertility.[ix]               

sestertius of Lucilla; reverse; mint of Rome, AD164-166

Reverse of a sestertius of Lucilla (AD164-166): the goddess Vesta stands by an altar with a burning flame, holding a simpulum (a long-handled ladle used by a pontifex – type of priest – for pouring wine at sacrifices) in her right hand and the Palladium (the city-protecting wooden statue of Athena that Aeneas traditionally brought from Troy to Rome and deposited in the Temple of Vesta) in her left. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. ©Barbara McManus (2005). VRoma.

Once the victims are at the altar the priests [x] prepare them by sprinkling salt and wine [xi] over their heads. The Luperci meet them at the altar, priests of the two colleges in Rome.                        

 I look on with bated breath as the Luperci begin the sacrificial ritual. The sharp knife glints in the weak February sun and with sickening swiftness the goats were dead, heads hanging limply on their necks.[xii] Next follows the death of the dog, which is particularly upsetting as it reminds me of our faithful family dog, Sticte. I try to keep in mind that the deaths of these animals will cure me of my barrenness, so their deaths will not be in vain.                         

 Immediately after these three deaths, two youths of noble birth are brought to the Luperci to complete the sacrificial ritual. The youths’ foreheads are smeared with bloodstained knives,[xiii] the blood being wiped off almost immediately with what appears to be, since I am a fair distance away from the action, wool dipped in milk.[xiv] Straight after this, the young men laugh out loud. I have never understood this particular part of the ritual, but it goes ahead nevertheless. My vantage point isn’t ideal for the sacrifice but I am right in the path of the Luperci for the second part of the festival – the flagellation of willing participants.                         

 The dead goats are skinned and the skin is cut up into strips right in front of my eyes. The tension is palpable – the onlookers including myself are waiting in excited anticipation for the imminent flurry of activity. I am right in the path of the noble young men who will very soon be whipping those who choose to be whipped, hoping for a cure.                         

 Before the whipping begins however, I have to contain myself for a while longer as the priests indulge in a lavish meal.[xv] That is of no interest to me, however, for I am anxious for the next part of the festival. As the priests gorge themselves on the meat from the sacrificial animals I glance around from my vantage point to admire the glorious city I inhabit. There always seems to be building work going on and the clatter of the wagons travelling through the city at night often keeps me awake, but to be quite honest I think it’ll all be worth it one day as our wonderful city will last forever.                         

 The Circus Maximus is silent for now, but soon races will be taking place. Its quietness is eerie to me now as I think of how loud it is usually. Although I prefer the quietness of my house and rarely frequent the races, I can still hear the clamouring of the crowds and their shouts of glee from my house on the Palatine. I do occasionally go with my husband but hate the separation as I am relegated to the upper tiers [xvi] and in all honesty I find it a degrading experience. Why I have to sit in the back rows with the plebs and freedwomen is quite beyond me, as they smell as if they only get one decent wash a year – quite frankly I find this inexcusable, especially as the great general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa restored the decaying aqueduct and extended its pipe system at his own cost all those years ago.                     

The Luperci take part in a purifying race around the Palatine – at least, they did this year.[xvii] Their bodies, glistening with olive oil, naked except for a goatskin loincloth around their hips, transfix me.[xviii] The leader of the priests cracks his whip as a rallying call to the rest of the nubile young men. With a yell, they set off in my direction, coming ever closer. Howling fills the air as each man strikes his willing victims. The whip sings through the air behind me and almost instantaneously a searing pain shoots up my spine. The deep red welt the whip has left is a physical reminder of the reason for my visit. I hope this ritual will rid me of the evil within causing my infertility, and give me the child I so desperately need in order to fulfil my role as a wife.                         

Happy Lupercalia!                         

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[i] Although the months of March and April had many festivals associated with goddesses of fertility, such as Ceres and Bona Dea, Claudia believes the Lupercalia is the festival which is capable of curing her barrenness.                    

[ii] Although we have sources telling us that the ancients knew some ways of inducing a miscarriage, such as lifting heavy loads and ingesting certain plants and herbs, the ancient sources do not reveal much knowledge about boosting fertility. Books such as J. Riddle (1992), Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA, and London), deal only with ancients’ knowledge of how to prevent conception and full-term pregnancy, not on how to acheive either.For the importance of fertility, see n.ix.    

[iii] A. K. Michels (1953), ‘The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Association 84: 47.    

[iv] Dolabella and Silanus were the consuls for the first half of AD10.    

[v] The whole festival was an enigma to the Romans. There are seven known etymologies, which are explored by T. P. Wiseman (1995), Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge, 77-88. One of these is that the name of the Lupercalia derived from the phrase lupi arcentur, which means ‘wolves are kept away’ – presumably from the flocks (Ibid., 78).    

[vi] Claudia is not impressed with Ovid due to the publication of his Ars Amatoria some time after AD1. The poem, the title of which translates as ‘The Art of Love’, purported to be a didactic work and condoned adultery, brazenly suggesting seduction techniques that, as a married woman, albeit a young one at 23, she would find distasteful. Ovid was banished from Rome in AD8, and the Ars Amatoria is cited as a major contributory factor.

[vii] cornipedi Fauno caesa de more capella (Ovid, Fasti 2.361). It was thought that Faunus was the god connected with the festival, because he was a rustic god and the whole festival had a rustic feel to it. This commonly held view has since been discredited, but in AD10 it was still considered a plausible explanation.   

[viii] Romulus and Remus were supposedly suckled by a she-wolf in a cave on the south-west slopes of the Palatine. lupa is the Latin for wolf, so this is a possible explanation as to how the cave became known as the Lupercal. In 2007 Professor Giorgio Croci and an archaeological team excavated a cave on the Palatine which they identified as the Lupercal (read the BBC news report).    

[ix] For a Roman, the primary purpose of marriage was the procreation of children. If a couple failed to procreate together they could be penalised by not being able to inherit large amounts of money from anyone other than close family. The Lex Julia, which dated from around 18BC, and the Lex Papia Poppaea of AD9 both penalised couples who didn’t have children, and rewarded those who did. A free citizen mother of three or more children was given freedom from having to have a guardian and freedom of control over her finances; free citizen husbands could advance their political careers earlier if they had more children, so it was advantageous for both men and women to start reproducing as soon as possible. This meant that children became status symbols.    

In this story the husband (Gaius Publius Agrippa) knew he was fertile because he had children from his previous marriage. This means the blame for the childlessness of his and Claudia’s union could safely be attributed to Claudia herself. While childlessness is a valid reason for divorce in Roman society, Augustus himself provides an example of a husband remaining married to a wife who could not bear his children. Augustus was married to Livia for over fifty years, which suggests a strong bond of affection, but Augustus’ unique position of power and his wealth meant that he could afford to stay married to Livia. Additionally, neither Augustus’ nor Livia’s fertility was in doubt because they both had children from other marriages and had a still-born child between them. For Claudia, being proven barren could easily result in divorce because her husband’s children from his previous marriage are dead and he is without heirs. If Gaius Publius Agrippa divorced Claudia for barrenness other Romans would know on what grounds their marriage had been dissolved and her re-marriage would be extremely unlikely. What value could she have to a man if she could not bear his children?    

[x] They were not priests in the traditional sense, men of dignity and seniority like the augurs and pontifices; what characterised these ‘priests’ was youth, nudity and ‘vigorous activity’ (H. J. Rose (1948), Ancient Roman Religion, London: 58), so they should perhaps be considered a ‘brotherhood of celebrants’, as suggested by G. Dumézil (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chigago: 347.    

[xi] Most sacrifices that were made during a festival had a ritual prior to the sacrifice itself involving the sprinkling of certain foodstuffs on the victim’s head (see M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volune 1: A History, Cambridge: 36. In this Lupercalia reconstruction, the ritualistic sprinkling takes place in the form of salt and wine. There is no definite evidence to suggest whether this mixture was used or not, but it was used in other contexts and, for the sake of creativity, it is included in this story.    

[xii]  Ovid (Fasti .:435-450) relates that after Romulus and his companions abducted the Sabine women, they were unable to father children by them. A portent revealed that the women must be penetrated by a goat in order to conceive and bear children. Romulus and his companions eventually decided not to take this literally but instead effected the required penetration by sacrificing a goat and cutting thongs from its hide and whipping the women – the blows being forceful enough to draw blood, showing their skin had been penetrated.    

[xiii] The wiping of the blood on to and from the forehead symbolises the transfer of vitality from the sacrificed goats to the participants. Michels n.iii: 47.    

[xiv] This is adapted from Plutarch (Romulus 21.4) to fit the tone of this story.    

[xv] This meal was attended by the Luperci and took place in the Lupercal. All others were excluded from the meal. Amongst other foodstuffs, mola salsa were consumed. Mola salsa were sacred cakes made from flour ground from the first ears of the previous year’s harvest. Some were handed out at the Vestalia festival in June and some on the Ides of September, with the last of the batch of flour making the mola salsa consumed at the Lupercalia in February. By all accounts, the meal was a lavish and drunken affair – indeed, the Lupercalia had a reputation for being a debauched festival in general. Augustus went so far as to introduce legislation banning adolescents from attending the Lupercalia because of the inappropriate nature of its proceedings: R. M. Ogilvie (1969), The Romans and their Gods in the Age of Augustus, London: 77.    

[xvi] We learn from Suetonius (Augustus 44) that Augustus created a system of segregation in the theatres as a way of making people aware of where they belonged in society. Special seats would be reserved at the front for men of importance such as senators, and the further back men sat the lower class they were. Women were generally seated even further back, with the excuse that they should not view gladiator contests from front seats. The only exceptions were Vestal Virgins and women of the Imperial family. Claudia is clearly not impressed by the prospect of having to mingle with women of different classes as a result of the new system of segregation.    

[xvii] The route the Luperci ran is much debated. Out of more than twenty ancient authors who comment on the Lupercalia, not one states that there was a race around the hill. It appears that the idea of a race around the Palatine itself is a recent one, but because the ancient authors do not state that such a race didn’t happen, in this story that is the race Claudia sees. Scholarly debate also focuses on the possibility of a race down the Via Sacra (‘Sacred Way’), for which there is some evidence in Varro LL 5.2.    

[xviii] Dumézil believes the priests were clothed in a goatskin which went ‘around their hips’ only (Dumezil, n.x: 347). Clearly this was a skimpy item of clothing!              

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]   

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[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).