Megalensia Story 4: A Banqueter Reports

Reclining young man from the lid of a sarcophagus.
A learned young man reclines on a couch, holding a scroll in his left hand with a wax tablet open in front of him. Detail from a Roman sarcophagus. Gallery of the Candelabrum, Vatican Museum. © Barbara MacManus (2003). VRoma.

It is the second day before the Nones of April, the first day of the Ludi Megalenses, the festival of the goddess Magna Mater.[i] I’m in the home of Senator M. Divius Serreptitius, participating in the banquet to honour the goddess. Next to me is the senator’s son – Lucius, I believe – barely yet a man. This is the first time he’s joined us at one of these banquets.

“You are Marcus Ginantonicus, are you not?” he asks. I nod, and Lucius continues, “My father speaks highly of you; he believes you will be a power in Rome one day. This is the first time I have been allowed to participate in the evening festivities; I had hoped to spend the day enjoying the festival in the city, but a recent injury kept me at home. Would you discuss the day’s activities with me?”

I agree to his request, happy to have a lively discussion with an attentive student.

“The festival begins, as is customary, with a sacrifice to the Great Goddess. I watched earlier today, on the Palatine Hill, as the pure white heifer, the designated sacrifice for Magna Mater, was brought to the altar.[ii] The curule aedile performed the sacrifice, being the magistrate in charge of the festival; a position to which I hope to be elected to soon.[iii] The best portion of the sacrifice was burned in the sacrificial brazier, to be taken to the goddess, along with a portion of the moretum , primitive food for a primitive goddess, as the poets say.[iv] Once the sacrifice was completed the shows began, spread out throughout the surrounding area, some reenacting stories of the goddess and her cult, as is appropriate for her festival.[v] However, the shows pale in comparison to the surrounding buildings, especially today the temple of the goddess herself, resplendent in white marble, rebuilt only a few years ago by our esteemed princeps.[vi] His house is next to the goddess’ temple, where he lies with his wife, Livia, the ‘Mother of Rome’, as some call her.[vii]

Marble statuette of Cybele.

Marble statuette of Cybele. C1st-2nd CE. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Ann Raia (2006). Vroma.

“But greater than all of this is the spectacle that began next. The procession of the goddess’ statue through the streets of Rome is distinctly lacking in proper decorum, yet fascinating all the same.[viii] The goddess is carried upon a litter showing her in her lion-drawn chariot; the tale goes that those lions were once two lovers, transformed by the goddess as punishment for their deeds.[ix]

“The galli, the goddess’ Phrygian priests, bore her through the streets, dressed in long yellow robes, with long flowing hair, covered in extravagant jewelry, and some of them with the stains of blood from self-flagellation.” [x]

The boy interrupted, “This defiling of the body – is it true that they make themselves less than men?”[xi]

“It is.” I reply.

“Does that not disqualify them from holding priestly office?” [xii]

“For any proper Roman priesthood that would be true, but we must remember that they are not Roman; that’s why they, and their rites, are confined to the temple.[xiii] Only during the procession do they bring such barbaric methods of worship out of the temple compound.

“Now back to the procession; I’m always impressed by the cacophony of sound that accompanies it. The priests carry drums, cymbals and pipes, blaring music over the noise of the crowd.[xiv] No mean feat, for many people turn out to line the way and throw their offerings of bronze and silver to the goddess and her begging priests.”

“Why do the priests beg alms from the people? No other priest would do such a thing.” The boy asks.

“I’m afraid I don’t know, perhaps because it’s tradition. However, I do know why the people give offerings of money to the goddess. The old temple to Magna Mater, built by Metellus, was paid for by the contributions of the people; so to this day we give money to the goddess in memory of Roman piety.[xv]

“The goddess was followed by a group of men in armour, who danced and howled in time with the music, their armour clanging, while they threw their heads about, making the plumes on their helmets swing from side to side. Those men represent the Curetes and Corybantes, the men who covered the cries of the newborn Jupiter, hiding him from Saturn.[xvi]

“The procession wound its way past where I stood, to continue around the streets of Rome, while I retired home to prepare for this banquet. These sodalitates are where we Romans of noble birth dine in the goddess’ honour.”[xvii]

Our conversation winds to a close, along with the evening’s festivities. I bid my farewells to my host and make my way home to my family.

Interior of the Theatre of Marcellus

Model of the interior of the Theatre of Marcellus, Museum of Roman Civilization. © Barbara McManus (2003). VRoma.

For the middle five days of the Ludi Megalenses the festivities centre on the ludi scaenici - theatrical shows. The traditional plays, by playwrights such as Terence and Plautus, are not to everyone’s taste these days.[xviii] I went to see Terence’s The Eunuch today in the Theatre of Marcellus – a fitting play, I thought, considering the nature of Magna Mater’s priests.[xix] I had a good seat, near the front, just behind the senators, and was just getting into the story when the plebs behind began getting restless.[xx] I turned to see what was happening and noticed people scrabbling to leave; apparently they were reacting to a rumour that there was a gladiatorial fight elsewhere. The plebs always prefer exciting spectacles.[xxi] Still, at least they only cause minor disturbances; apparently many years ago the aedile Clodius actually allowed slaves into the theatre, which naturally ended in chaos and violence.[xxii]

These days the traditional plays are being pushed aside by mime shows, which are more popular due to their crude themes of sex and violence. I tend to avoid these in order to uphold my reputation as a respectable and sincere man, since I’m keen to run for office in the near future.

Today is the fourth day before the Ides of April, the final day of the Ludi Megalenses.[xxiii] This morning my son, Cassius, asked me why today was the climax of the festival. I was pleased that he showed an interest in the original motives of the celebration; the crowds often forget to think of this in their excitement. Still, I can’t blame the aediles for putting on big spectacles; it certainly doesn’t harm their reputations! I explained that today was the anniversary of the dedication of Magna Mater’s original temple, and that the festival began on the anniversary of her arrival in Rome, after it was prophesied in the Sibylline Books that if she was brought here she would expel our enemies.[xxiv]

As paterfamilias I must ensure that my children are respectful of the gods.[xxv] Hence, this morning I took them up to the Palatine to the goddess’ temple in order to leave her a votive offering as thanks for keeping our family healthy and prosperous.[xxvi] Cassius noticed that amongst the gifts that had been left there were a few small, carved figures he did not recognise. He is bright despite his youth, so I thought him mature enough to hear the explanation for these now:

Attis and Cybele

Magna Mater stands to left of Attis while a female worshipper and her daughter approach on the right. Votive relief from Asia Minor, C2nd BCE. Archaeological Museum, Venice. © Ann Raia (2007), VRoma.

“This figure is Attis, a god from Magna Mater’s homeland. He pledged his loyalty to her, so when he foolishly betrayed her with a nymph he was driven by guilt to castrate himself.[xxvii] He’s not part of our religion because his self-mutilation is unacceptable to us Romans, but obviously some people have chosen to honour Magna Mater by dedicating his image despite that.” [xxviii]

We strolled down the Palatine hill to the Forum area. Crowds swarmed in anticipation of the imminent procession of the gods. Some people follow the procession along as it progresses from the Capitol, through the Forums and over to the Circus Maximus.[xxix] We waited further along the course so that we could get into the circus ahead of these crowds – the chariot races are not a spectacle anyone wants to miss! Soon we heard the approaching parade, thanks to the music of lyres and flutes. Although a parade of the gods is common to most of our festivals, it seemed especially fitting today, as Magna Mater is the “Great Mother of the Gods”. I hoisted my daughter onto my shoulders and she delighted in seeing the gods’ gold and silver vessels displayed, then finally the statues of the gods themselves carried upon men’s shoulders. She correctly picked out Winged Victory, followed by Neptune, Mars, Apollo, Minerva, Ceres, Bacchus, Venus, Castor and Pollux. It was noticeable from the cheering that most people favoured specific gods.[xxx]

We then shuffled towards the Circus Maximus; a difficult task since everyone was heading the same way.[xxxi] The chariot races are the biggest event of the festival, and even those who cannot get into the Circus place bets. It’s a great family event as men and women sit together, unlike in the theatre. My children were especially excited to glimpse Caesar himself, an old man now, but no less impressive, and still enjoying the games like everybody else.[xxxii]

So, the Ludi Megalensis came to a close with a spectacular day, successfully honouring Magna Mater. This festival is soon followed by the Cerialia, so the excitement and spectacles shall continue! [xxxiii]


[i] The Roman dating system worked by counting the number of days before the Kalends (1st), the Nones (5th or 7th) and the Ides (13th or 15th) of the month. The Romans also counted inclusively. Hence, the first day of the Ludi Megalensis, which was two days before the Nones of April, the Nones of April falling on the 5th, was the 4th of April because the Nones itself was counted as one of the two days.

The official name of Magna Mater at Rome was Magna Deum Mater Idaea, which translates as ‘the great Idaean mother of the gods’ (T. P. Wiseman (1984), ‘Cybele, Vergil and Augustus’ in T. Woodman and D. West (eds.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge, 117-28: 120).

[ii] The general rule in Roman sacrifice was that heavenly deities received white sarifices, while underworld deities received black sacrifices.

[iii] Four aediles (two curule and two plebii) were superintendents of buildings (including being responsible for the care of the streets, pavements, and sewers), distributors of the corn dole, supervisors of public lands and pasture, superintendents of buying and selling (including markets and weights and measures) and responsible for religious observance (i.e. seeing that no new deities or religious rites were introduced into the city and that ancient feasts and festivals were celebrated). Curule aediles were particularly responsible for the celebration of the Ludi magni (or Romani), scenici, and Megalenses (Livy 31.50 and scholia to the plays of Terence).

Two curule aediles were elected each year from 365BCE; the year in which the plebian aediles refused to extend the celebrations of the ludi maximi to four days from three (Livy 6.42). The curule aediles were originally elected from among patricians over thirty-six years of age, then alternately from among patricians and plebeians, then indifferently from both (Livy 7.1). The office of curule aedlie is a non-essential stage on the cursus honorum, usually held between a quaestorship and a praetorship because of its potential to increase the public profile of its holder through the duties of the office and its distinctive privileges, such as holding games and taking precedence in speaking in the Senate. Examples of curule aediles who invested heavily to gain maximum benefit from the office are Julius Caesar (Plutarch Caesar 5), Publius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther and Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, whose expenditure was not limited to the games, but extended to the repair of walls, dockyards, ports and aqueducts (Cicero On Duties 2..17; Pliny Natural History 33.3, 36.15).

[iv] Moretum was dish made of herbs and cheese that were ground together in a mortar: the mode of preparation gave the dish its name. The poet referred to is Ovid (Fasti 4.367-72).

[v] See, R. J. Littlewood (1981), ‘Poetic Artistry and Dynamic Politics: Ovid at the Ludi Megalenses (Fasti 4.179-372)’, Classical Quarterly 31, 381-395: 387.

[vi] The temple of Magna Mater burned down in 3CE. Augustus had the temple rebuilt, an achievement Augustus records for posterity in Res Gestae 4.19. See, Littlewood (n.[v]: 387.

[vii] For the location of Augustus’ palace in this context, Wiseman (n.[i]): 125-6. Livia Augusta was sometimes associated with Cybele and she even appeared in some artistic representations with a turreted crown, tympanum and ears of corn, which were all used as the traditional identifying attributes of the goddess, see Littlewood (n.[v]): 384.

[viii] The Megalensia was supposed to be a highly respectable public festival (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 24). However, the procession of the goddess’ statue was led by the cult’s Phrygian priests, and had a very un-Roman atmosphere. Roman citizens were banned from participating as anything other than spectators (Dionysius of Halicarnassus II.19.2). These sources and the ‘un-Roman atmosphere’ are discussed by T. P. Wiseman (1985) Catullus and his World: a reappraisal, Cambridge, 201-2.

[ix] The story of the transformation is treated by Ovid (Metamorphoses 10.560-706).

[x] On the appearance of the galli, see M. Beard (1994) ‘The Roman and the Foreign: the cult of the “Great Mother” in Imperial Rome’ in N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (eds), Shamanism, History, and the State, Michigan, 164-90: 164.

[xi] The galli, Magna Mater’s Phrygian priests, were all eunuchs. Self-castration was an integral part of the Phrygian rites of the goddess. Nevertheless, it was frowned upon by the Romans and it was in fact illegal for a Roman to partake in it (Dionysius of Halicarnassus II.19.4-5).

[xii] Roman priests had to be bodily ‘whole’. Physical defects were seen as impure and only those who were pure were suitable to serve the gods. Further, see Beard (n.[x]): 165.

[xiii] See, M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998) Religions of Rome Volume I: a history, Cambridge: 97.

[xiv] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.618-9.

[xv] Ovid, Fasti 4.350-3.

[xvi] In Roman myth Saturn is said to have eaten his newborn children in order to prevent any of them dethroning him. Upon the birth of Jupiter, Rhea, Saturn’s wife, tricked Saturn into eating a rock and hid Jupiter in a cave on Mt. Ida, the home of Magna Mater. The Curetes and Corybantes used their armour and ecstatic shouts to create enough noise to cover baby Jupiter’s cries and hide him from his father (Ovid, Fasti 4.195-214).

[xvii] Sodalitates are ‘associations’ for the purpose of maintaining a cult. With the introduction of the cult of Magna Mater in 204BCE a sodalitas (or a number of sodalitates) was instituted and these ‘associations’  used to feast together during the ludi Megalenses (Cicero, de Senectu 3. 45).

[xviii] Terence was a 2nd century BC Roman playwright who adapted 4th century BCE Greek comedies for a Roman audience. His comedies were popular for centuries and all six of his known plays still survive. Further, see S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth (2004), The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation, Oxford: 706-8.

Plautus was another 2nd century BC Roman playwright. His comedies were performed in Rome until at least the time of Horace. Further, see S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth (2004), The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation, Oxford: 538, 544.

[xix] The Theatre of Marcellus was finished by Augustus by 13BC and dedicated to Augustus’ deceased nephew and son-in-law, Marcellus. It held 14,000 spectators.

[xx] Senators and other important public figures took the front seats in the theatre, the next fourteen rows were reserved for the next rank of social class (the equites, or ‘knights’), with the plebeians behind them. Further, see L. Casson (1998), Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, Baltimore: 100.

[xxi] Terence’s Mother-in-Law features a prologue in which the producer of the play describes interruptions to the performance from rival acts. See discussion by V. M. Warrior (2006), Roman Religion, Cambridge: 72-3.

[xxii] Publius Clodius Pulcher was a curule aedile in 56BCE. He further dishonoured Magna Mater by selling Pessinus, the main shrine and original home of Cybele, and ejecting the priest from the shrine itself (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 22-28).

[xxiii] The Ides of April fell on the 13th. Hence, the fourth day before the Ides would have been the 10th.

[xxiv] The goddess’ symbol, a sacred stone, was transported from Phrygia to Rome in 205-4BCE, see Warrior (n.[xxi]): 83. It was met by Publius Cornelius Scipio and Claudia Quinta (Livy 29.10).

The Sibylline Books were a collection of prophecies, allegedly by the Sibyl of Cumae, that were consulted for advice by the quindecemviri at times of political strife or in order to interpret prodigies (see Warrior (n.[xxi]): 12, 49. In this case the consultation was prompted by the Second Punic War – Rome was under threat from the Carthaginian forces of Hannibal – and the prodigies of ‘frequent showers of stones’ (Livy 29.10).

[xxv] The paterfamilias was the head of a Roman household and as such was responsible for ensuring that the family’s religious observances were carried out correctly.

[xxvi] Votive offering are gifts dedicated to a god as thanks or payment; see Warrior (n.[xxi]): 148).

[xxvii] The story of Attis is recounted, in more adult terms, by Ovid (Fasti 4.223-44).

[xxviii] The offerings are usually of low quality, which suggests that they came from poorer citizens (Warrior (n.[xxi]): 85).

[xxix] The procession went through the Forum Romanum (Rome’s political centre), the Velabrum (an old river route) and the Forum Boarium (the oldest Roman Forum). The Circus Maximus was an arena for chariot racing built by Julius Caesar in 46BC; it seated 150,000 people. Further, see J. Grout (2008) Circus Maximus: 1.

[xxx] Ovid, Amores 3.2.43-59.

[xxxi] Ovid, Fasti 4.391-2.

[xxxii] Augustus Caesar (63BCE-14CE), would have been seated in the pulvinar, which was a shrine and imperial box that he had had built into the side of the Palatine Hill. This is also where the statues of the gods would have been taken at the end of the procession, see Grout (n.[xxix]): 1.

[xxxiii] The Cerialia was a festival honouring the goddess Ceres, who was particularly associated with agriculture and the corn harvest. It started on 11th or 12th April and finished on 19th (Ovid, Fasti 4.395ff).

Megalensia Story 5: A Visitor from Greece

Triclinium (Roman dining room) museum reconstruction

Reconstruction of a triclinium (dining room of a Roman villa) in the Munich Bavarian State Archaeological Collection. The wood and bronze dining couches are based on finds from Pompeii, and Herculaneum ( C1st CE), as is the colour of the simply decorated walls. The mosaic floor is from a Roman villa (C3rd CE) from Kraiburg am Inn.

Principle Characters

Optimus Primus – an upper class Roman  

Megatronius – a guest of Optimus, an educated Greek from Halicarnassus  

Ferrus Hidus – an upper class Roman, the host 


A slave led me   and my friend, Optimus Primus, into a large and lavishly decorated triclinium. “Ah, Optimus! So glad you and your Greek friend could join us!” exclaimed a rather portly man introduced to me as our host, Ferrus Hidus. “Please, sit! Eat!”

As I moved to recline on a large, and apparently empty couch, Optimus grasped me by the shoulder and smiled, “Not there friend: that seat is reserved for the goddess, Magna Mater.[i] I must apologise, you have travelled all the way from Halicarnassus and I should be entertaining you in my own house, but you must understand that it is a tradition of the Megalensia for the aristocracy, like myself, to dine at each other’s homes and offer hospitality to each other.”[ii] Ferrus smiled over his goblet of wine, “I too must apologise, I would have much preferred to lay on a more extravagant affair but, alas, the authorities only allow me to spend a limited amount. Far less than I can afford of course!” he chuckled.[iii]

I turned and joined Optimus on a separate couch by the window. I noticed a slave bringing in a platter loaded with a green paste. I asked Optimus about this unusual dish. “That is moretum my friend. It is a mixture of cheese, herbs and spices offered to the goddess as thanks for her gift of herbs and the like back in our ancestors’ primitive past.”[iv]

“Ah, I see. So it is similar to the offering we saw the priests make in the temple this morning – after the procession when the statue of the goddess was placed there?”[v]

Cybele's procession from a fresco in Pompeii

Cybele's procession from the front wall of the House of Venus and the Four Gods, Pompeii. © Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble (2009).

Optimus nodded, and asked me what I thought of the events of the past few days. I thought back to my arrival in Rome the previous day and the difference between the atmosphere on the day before and on today, the opening day of the festival. The procession itself was a colourful affair.[vi] The statue of the goddess, the Magna Mater riding her chariot pulled by two lions, was carried on a litter by her priests and the way before her was strewn with gold, silver and rose blossoms.[vii] The priests themselves seemed to be in a passionate frenzy, singing Greek hymns, banging drums and tambourines, playing flutes and trumpets.[viii] As well as this they seemed to be beating themselves, and their clothes were stained with their blood. It was quite a frightening sight.

“The streets certainly came alive today, Optimus, I have never seen the like before! However I did notice a distinct lack of Roman participants in the procession itself.”  

Optimus laughed, ‘Yes, have you ever seen anything as decidedly un -Roman? We do not take part in the procession itself, we do not lower ourselves to that level of debauchery; instead we hold these pleasant banquets, these sodalitates where we can worship as Romans should.”  

“I don’t think I entirely understand the situation here Optimus. What is the purpose of this festival? When did it arrive in Rome, and what on earth has happened to those foreign priests?!” I asked.  

‘Well, it all goes back to the wars with Hannibal; you must be familiar with this period of our history? During the war, I think it was about two-hundred years ago when Hannibal had crossed into Italy, an interesting section was discovered in the Sibylline Books by the Quimdecimviri which stated that our mother was missing.[ix] The Delphic Oracle was consulted and she declared that the only way to drive out a foreign enemy from our land was to bring the Idaean Mother, the ‘Mother of the gods’, to Rome.[x] It was decided to send for Cybele, from the ridges of Ida in Phrygia, where she was originally worshipped. Obviously, the Senate followed the oracle’s instructions to the letter, not wanting to inadvertently affect the outcome of the war, and so the black stone, which represents the Great Mother,[xi] came by ship and was met by the Vestal Virgins and the ‘best of men’ as stipulated by the Sibylline prophecy and the Delphic Oracle. The Senate chose Publius Scipio, the son of the famous general, although if I was around at the time I would have liked to have seen what it was exactly that made him ‘the most worthy’.” [xii]  

“The story seems familiar,” I mused, “does that not relate to the story of that priestess? I forget her name.”  

Claudia Syntyche's altar to Cybele

A 1st century AD marble altar dedicated by Claudia Syntyche to Cybele with a relief depicting Claudia Quinta Rome, Museo Montemartini (Capitoline Museums). ©Ann Raia (2004). VRoma.

“Ah yes, the story of Claudia Quinta, the Vestal Virgin! She was accused of… being, well, less than virginal, shall we say?” We both chuckled and he continued, “As I said the oracle decreed that Magna Mater must be received by chaste hands and many Roman citizens, as well as the Vestal Virgins and the Senate, had gathered to watch her arrive. Now, apparently there was some trouble getting the ship into the harbour and no matter how hard or how many men pulled on the rope, it was to no avail. Claudia Quinta, in an attempt to clear her name, called upon the goddess to prove her innocence, because you know how harsh the punishment is if a Virgin is found to have broken her vow of chastity.[xiii] Then the woman pulled lightly on the rope of the ship and the ship followed her up the river! Well, that’s how the story goes anyway.[xiv] Until we could build her a proper temple she was placed in the Temple of Victory for thirteen years. Now she has her own place on the Palatine, as you saw.” 

I wondered out loud as to whether there were any women allowed to take part in this cult nowadays. “Indeed there are, you may have seen some – Phyrgian women, not Roman women – taking part in the sacrificial ceremonies and in the procession itself.” Optimus explained, “They are known as the sacerdotes, both they and the galli have to be sanctified by the Quindecimviri sacris Faciundis.”[xv]

 “The galli?” I queried, “Oh, you mean those crazy priests – I assume she brought them with her?”

Optimus grimaced, “Unfortunately so. As we Romans are forbidden to participate in the cult, as priests or in the procession, we must accept such vulgar and foreign behaviour.[xvi] Although I assume the Senate had no idea initially that we would have to put up with such things, I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with it if I’d had a say!”

“Hear hear!” burbled Ferrus as he leered at a passing slave girl.  

“Anyway… their odd behaviour is only the start of it. Apparently when the galli enter into the priesthood they castrate themselves,” he shuddered “never mind performing self-flagellation!”[xvii]  

I shivered inwardly, horrified at the thought. “How positively repulsive, why would they do such a thing!?”  

Attis, consort of Cybele

The Phrygian cap and elaborately curled hair of this marble bust suggest Attis, the consort of the goddess Cybele. Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2003). VRoma.

“It stems back to the story of Attis who was Cybele’s consort. There are numerous stories about them but the most common version seems to involve Attis having an affair with a nymph: in her anger Cybele beat the nymph and drove Attis into a frenzy in which he thrashed his body and castrated himself with a sharp rock!” [xviii] Optimus finished with a look of disgust, “Thank the gods no noble Romans will ever take part!”

“I think we had better change the subject, as you are starting to put me off my food!” I exclaimed.  

“Oh well, in that case I had better not mention the Day of Blood, which occurs on the ninth day before the Kalends of Aprilis, when the galli beat themselves excessively as part of their worship.”[xix] Optimus said innocently, tucking into his Lucanian boar.[xx]  

Feeling slightly ill, I again attempted to change the subject, this time with more success. “Indeed not, I am certainly glad I missed that! Now, how about our itinerary for the next few days?”  

“All in good time! The festival isn’t over yet!” Optimus explained. “So far you’ve just seen the opening day, the day which represents the official anniversary of the arrival of the Magna Mater stone into Rome. We have numerous events to attend over the next six days before we celebrate the anniversary of the day her temple on the Palatine was dedicated.”[xxi]  

Comic masks mosaic

C2nd CE mosaic of comic masks of a young girl and a slave. National Archaeological Museum, Naples. © Barbara MacManus (2003). VRoma.

“There are numerous plays, shows and games to entertain us,” he continued, “Including a number of up and coming comic playwrights in whom I am most interested. Did you know that a number of Terence’s plays were first staged at the Megalensia? [xxii] There are some less cultured entertainments for the common people, such as rope dancers, as well as the shows. Yes, well, not to worry; these games are more scenic than circus, so they should appeal to even your delicate sensibilities.”[xxiii]  

I smiled sheepishly, “You know I have never been one for blood and guts. Where are these shows held?”  

“There are some held on the Palatine itself, in view of the goddess.[xxiv] There is limited space there but as my esteemed guest you will have the privilege of seating. The rest are held in various theatres, but on the last day of the festival there are no shows but the Ludi Megalenses are held in the Circus Maximus. Now, they are a sight to behold.” enthused Optimus.  

“Who is allowed to take part in those games? Are they open to slaves or foreigners?” I asked, trying to get a more in-depth picture of what the events involved.  

“No, certainly not!” exclaimed Optimus, “The games are for free Romans only, especially the aristocracy and senators, who hold privileged seats.[xxv] We like to retain our important role throughout the festival month of Aprilis, like with these banquets we hold for each other. I must warn you, both plays and games are a rather solemn, religious affair, although they haven’t always been free of scandal… After all it was at the Ludi Megalenses that Clodius and his slaves committed sacrilege and caused the ruckus that offended Cicero so much.”[xxvi]

“Aye!” Ferrus interjected drunkenly, “Taking away from the sheer solemnity and importance of the occasion. How dare he burst in like that, and with slaves too!” At that very moment the tapestry hanging from the ceiling fell down with a crash, covering the table and its spread with black dust. Ferrus cried out in anguish, “My banquet is ruined! Alas, cruel fate, how you play with the lives of us mere mortals!”[xxvii]  

Optimus and I glanced at each other and agreed it was time to leave. Heading through the atrium to the street outside, Ferrus’ cries of anguish echoing in our ears, I thought about the morrow and the performances we were to see.  

“Come along, Megatronius - we’ll go by a metroon on the way back to my home and you can pay your respects privately to Magna Mater if you wish.”[xxviii] said Optimus, and I followed him down the alley onto the main road.


[i] The pulvinar is a special couch reserved for the goddess as though she were physically present. The word pulvinar is also applied to the emperor’s box at the games, where the statues of the gods were placed after they were brought into the Circus in a procession.

[ii] For details on this cf. Ovid Fasti IV.353-356.  

[iii] In 161BCE the Senate had placed a limit on the spending at these functions in an attempt to cut back on over-indulgence and extravagance. For the restrictions and their presumed purpose, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Vol.2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 49.  

[iv] Ovid (Fasti IV.367-373) states that moretum represents the primitive food of early civilisation given in homage to Cybele for being amongst the first of the gods.

[v] The ceremony opened with an offering of moretum at the temple of Magna Mater; this was made by a praetor in the time of Augustus. See H. H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 98.

[vi] Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities II.19) mentions coloured robes.

[vii] Ovid (Fasti IV.215-219) explains that as wild beasts would submit to her power, owing to her position as goddess of nature, the strength of her power is shown by her domination of lions in particular. Both gold and silver appear in Lucretius’ account ( De Rerum Natura II.600ff.), as discussed by W. W. Fowler (1899) The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: an introduction to the study of the religion of the Romans, London: 99.  

[viii] Ovid, Fasti IV.183-184.

[ix] The exact date was 204BCE, during the Hannibalic Wars between Carthage and Rome. The Sibylline Books, which held prophecies given by the Sibyl and which were very valuable, had been introduced to Rome during the reign of Tarquinius (Dionysius of Halicarnassus II.62). The Quindecemviri were a board of fifteen men who had oversight of ritual observances, ‘as when the Magna Mater was brought to Rome’ (M. T. Boatwright, R. J. A. Talbert & D. J. Gargola (2004), The Romans From Village to Empire, Oxford: 249).  

[x] The Idaean Mother, Cybele, Magna Mater (the Great Mother) and Mater Matuta were all names for the same goddess, who is credited with being the ‘Mother of the gods’ (Ovid Fasti IV.259ff).  

[xi] The Black Stone was a holy stone that represented Cybele, and Rome had negotiate its release and relocation. See M. Rostovtzeff (1927) A History of the Ancient World: Rome, New York: 104.  

[xii] Optimus’ sentiment is the same as that expressed by Livy in his History, where Livy states that he does not know specifically why Publius Scipio was chosen (Livy 39.14).

[xiii] For breaching her vow of chastity a Vestal Virgin was buried alive.  

[xiv] This version of the story is taken from Ovid, Fasti IV.305-330.

[xv] Romans were not allowed to take part in any of the processional activities, nor were they allowed to be priests of Magna Mater until the reign of Claudius, at which time the restrictions were lifted and her worship, including the mystery cult aspects, became fully part of the state religion: L. & R. Adkins (1996) Dictionary of Roman Religion, Oxford: 138.  

[xvi] Ovid (Fasti IV.363-365) claims that the galli were named after the River Gallus (in Turkey) whose waters reputedly drove the drinker mad. Adkins (n.[xv]) suggests the name could also come from the Latin for cockerel, which was their symbol.

[xvii] In Catullus’ poem on Attis (Catullus 63) Attis is female (possibly because the poem represents the relationship between Catullus and his lover Lesbia, see R. R. Nauta and A. Harder (2005) Catullus 63, Leiden). Other versions of the Attis myth incorporate the myth of Agdistis, a hermaphrodite demon from which the Olympian gods – in an attempt to stop its destructive behaviour – cut the male reproductive organs. The castrated Agdistis became Cybele and the severed male organs became Attis. It is this story that is most likely to have inspired the actions of the galli, their self-castrations and self-flagellation.

[xviii] On the Quindecemviri, see Adkins (n.[xv]): 188.  

[xix] The ‘Day of Blood’ (Dies Sanguinis) fell on 24th March. Part of the ceremony involved the followers of Magna Mater emulating Attis and castrating themselves with instruments such as flint blades, Adkins (n.[xv]): 188.  

[xx] Lucania is a district in the south of Italy.  

[xxi] The opening day of the festival, 4th April, was the anniversary of Magna Mater’s arrival in Rome in 204BCE. The celebrations continued until the 10th of April, which was the anniversary of the dedication of Magna Mater’s temple on the Palatine Hill in 191BCE. Further details, see Adkins (n.[xv]): 139.  

[xxii] At least four plays by Terence and one play by Plautus were performed at the Megalensia. See, Scullard (n.[v]): 98.  

[xxiii] Ludi scaenici (‘scenic games’) were theatrical events rather than gladiatorial games (ludi).

[xxiv] The steps of the goddess’ temple on the Palatine, which housed her black stone, were used as seating for theatrical performances during the Ludi Megalenses.  

[xxv] The games in the Circus Maximus were only open to free Romans, and the senatorial and non-senatorial classes were segregated (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 12.24, as discussed by M. J. Vermaseren (1977) Cybele and Attis: the myth and the cult, London 1977: 124).  

[xxvi] Publius Clodius Pulcher and a group of slaves burst into the Circus Maximus during the Ludi Megalenses in 55BCE and caused a riot (Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices 12.24). His actions were made worse by the fact that not only did this insult the gods but he was also at that time the curule aedile, a position which involved taking charge of the festival.  

[xxvii] Ferrus’ comment pays homage to Horace (Satire 2.8) and reflects an ancient tendency to resort to quotation in extremis.  

[xxviii] A metroon is one of the shrines dedicated to the worship of Magna Mater which were to be found throughout the streets of Rome according to Adkins (n.[xv]): 139.

Megalensia Story 3: An Upwardly Mobile Roman Matrona

April 4th in the consulship of Dolabella and Silanus (763 ab urbe condita)
Dear Diary,  
A gallus from a tomb relief

Tomb portrait of a gallus with equipment including cymbals, tympanum, double flute and a whip of knuckle bones. C2nd CE, Rome. Capitoline Museum, Rome.

A cool breeze from the east carries with it the faint sounds of the procession.[i] Even at a distance, the clamour of beating drums and tambourines was enough to wake me from my afternoon nap. All this excitement on the other side of the Palatine is certainly due to the opening day of the Megalensia.[ii] Every April, from 4th to 10th , Rome witnesses this bizarre but important festival. Personally, I have never been given the chance to attend the opening procession, for not only am I forbidden to partake in such events but I would certainly be fearful of what I might see. Acts of flamboyant dedication, self-flagellation and mutilated priests are exotic elements to which we Romans are not accustomed. No decent Roman would ever join in such a procession for it would contradict his very essence. Oh, but how I would love to take a peek at the Galli – the priests – in their full glory and also to gaze upon the grand statue of the Great Mother during the celebrations.[iii] The Phrygian element of this festival would be a treat to witness; it would truly be a glimpse into the Idaean Goddess’ origins.[iv]   

I am looking forward to hearing a detailed description later because, as it was a festival day, I allowed a few of my slave-girls to take the day off and they were keen to attend the procession – and no doubt squander their meager earnings by tossing their coins into it [v]– and also to witness the offering of moretum to the goddess.[vi] The tasks of the day have then been left to me, such as readying my outfits for the day and – more  importantly – for the banquet later on this evening.[vii] A few months ago I acquired a beautiful red silken tunic from North Africa and I was very keen to show my peers what a delightful gift had been bestowed on me. To my annoyance my husband, Honoratus, has suggested I opt for a plainer style. Frugality, it seems, is the theme of the evening, and although I knew this to be the case, tonight is the first banquet I will ever have attended in honour of the Mother Goddess. I honestly doubt that a banquet can be modest!   

Augustan silver relief skyphos (cup). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Augustan silver skyphos (cup) with relief decoration of cupids. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Especially as a banquet is but an elaborate collection of the city’s finest… However, with such a humble budget for the meal it does seem that the emphasis of the evening is indeed to promote the archaic Roman virtues that we all know so well but so rarely abide by. I mean to say: to have neither foreign wine nor a large selection of meats is unusual, but when that is combined with an incomplete set of silverware – it is shaping up to be quite a quaint evening!   

Really it is Honoratus and his side of the family that are involved in the sodales associated with the cult of Cybele.[viii] While I am not of patrician birth and am still learning the inner workings of elite inner circles, I am fortunate that I was well educated and my parents sought to provide me with knowledge fit for a man. As a child, I learnt about the Roman pantheon, the Olympians and other strange, exotic gods from foreign lands. I honour Jupiter and Apollo to the best of my ability, but I have always been fascinated with the idea of the foreign god, the unknown god, the god from beyond the boundaries… I have read enough poetry to appreciate that I am not alone in this! At least my fascination means that I know much of the history of the cult [ix] and the famous heroes of its past, like Claudia Quinta.[x] Not to mention the many afternoons I have spent reading Virgil and contemplating Rome’s colourful history.[xi] The poet of the Aeneid was not afraid to suggest that Cybele, a foreign deity, played a crucial part in establishing Rome’s future – and nor am I! Indeed, that handsome Augustus seems to wholeheartedly commend the role of cults from afar. One hopes that by building that splendid temple to Cybele so close to his palace complex, he has not made his patron god Apollo jealous…[xii] I wonder, might that be a topic of conversation this evening?   

My husband talks a lot about the ludicrous habits of foreigners and their elaborate manner of celebrating and worshipping their gods. No doubt that will be a hot topic at the banquet! My good friend Atia was telling me how, after last year’s banquet, there was quite a scandal involving some of the host’s slaves being involved in acts of self-mutilation! I do hope that my slave-girls will not fall victim to any such hysteria from seeing the procession. We would certainly lose face amongst our friends and my husband would not appreciate the shame it would bring on the household. Oh, dear, I wonder: was I foolish to let them go? No, no, I am sure it will all be fine; rather I must look forward to the next few days.   

How I love to watch the plays! [xiii] In past years the citizens of Rome enjoyed the delightful works of Terence and Plautus, which I have read myself and appreciated.[xiv] However, as far as I can remember, the plays of the Megalensia have seemed to be primarily focused on political satire. What a bore! Well, even that should prove to be more interesting than the games.[xv]   

Chariot accident. Circus Maximus. Mid. 1st century CE.

A chariot collides with the turning post (meta) in the Circus Maximus. Terracotta relief plaque mid. 1st century CE. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. © Barbara McManus (2006) VRoma.

 I am not a fan of all those equestrian competitions, which I partially blame for my husband’s over-enthusiastic attendance at the games. He can spend hours discussing the finer details of every single event! I have no idea how he knows so much about the condition of an individual team’s horses, well, so long as they’re Blues or Greens – ‘the oldest and best teams, don’t you know!’. I think that the exclusion of slaves from the games might also play a role in Honoratus’s over-enthusiasm for them – he’d be mortified to be betting on the same team as a slave! He can be such a typical elitist snob sometimes… But he’s my elitist snob – and I can hear his footsteps as he creeps along the colonnade to wake me from my nap…   

Till later!   


[i] The procession of Cybele was clearly a very prominent part of Cybele’s festival, and it displays to us how she was worshipped using Roman and foreign rites simultaneously. Ovid and Lucretius give us full accounts of the procession during the late 1st century BC era, although we can see (especially in Lucretius) a latent racism towards the Easterners’ practice. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (II.19.4) also makes a distinction between the two sides of the festival:   

…the praetors perform sacrifices and celebrate games in her honour every year according to Roman customs, but the priest and priestess of the goddess are Phrygians, and it is they who carry her image in procession through the city, begging alms in her honour.   

Ovid (Fasti 4.183-187) places the procession on the first day of the festival, and describes the noisy and very foreign parade in some detail:   

Eunuchs will march and thump their hollow drums, and cymbals clashed on cymbals will give out their tinkling notes: seated on the unmanly necks of her attendants, the goddess herself will be borne with howls through the streets in the City’s midst. 

Parker points out that Ovid is suggesting in his description that although the Romans should have been watching the procession, they should hurry afterwards to partake in their own, Roman festivities (H. Parker (1997), Greek Gods in Italy in Ovid’s Fasti, Lampeter: 130). Lucretius’ description (On the Nature of the Universe 2.640ff) is very similar, and again there is a great emphasis on the noise made by the procession.   

[ii] The Megalensia was a Roman festival of the Goddess Cybele that took place from April 4th until April 10th. The games were set up as an annual commemoration of her arrival into Rome on April 4th 204 B.C. The festivities of this important celebration included a procession of the Goddess by her Phrygian priesthood, the hosting of banquets by noble Romans, plays, games in the Circus Maximus, and processions. It was one of three festivals celebrated for Cybele throughout the year (M. Beard (1994) ‘The Roman and the Foreign: the Cult of the “Great Mother” in Imperial Rome’, in N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (eds), Shamanism, History, and the State, Michigan, 164-90: 170).   

[iii] The name Galli is derived from the Gallus River in Phrygia. (Ovid Fasti 4.364) and was the name given to Cybele’s castrated priests, a tradition that was most probably related to the myth of Attis, the lover of Cybele who was driven mad by her and castrated himself after he was unfaithful (Ovid, Fasti 220ff). Catullus also provides this poetic version of the story of Attis (Catullus 63) but Lucretius explains the tradition behind Attis’ castration differently, as being a symbol of disgraced children (Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe 2.640). Material remains lead us to believe that a cult of Attis also existed in Rome (M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume 1: a History, Cambridge: 98).   

[iv] Cybele, or Magna Mater deorum Idaea, was the goddess of the personified earth. Worshipped throughout Asia Minor and Greece in a number of forms, Cybele was incorporated into the Roman pantheon with a resulting duality of identity which is manifested in her cult. Although she was a foreign import, Cybele was very much a part of Rome’s history because of the Romans’ Trojan origins and this is emphasized by Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ comment that despite the ‘necessity of worshipping their ancestral gods according to the customs of their respective countries, yet the city has never officially adopted any of these foreign practices’ (2.19.3).   

[v] They strew her path all along the route with a lavish largesse of copper and silver.’ (Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe 2.655). The custom of throwing coins to the procession was, according to Ovid, started after the temple had burned down in 111BC and was being restored by Metellus; apparently coins were thrown as donations towards the cost, making the restoration a community project, and the tradition stuck from then on (Ovid, Fasti, 4.350).   

[vi] Moretum was a dish of herbs offered to Cybele outside her temple. This unusual tradition is explained in Ovid: “white cheese is mixed with pounded herbs, that the ancient goddess may know the ancient foods.” (Ovid, Fasti 4.371). Ovid was not the only poet to immortalise this traditional Roman foodstuff in verse and others, e.g. Virgil, go into its preparation in considerable detail.   

[vii] Part of the festivities included Roman nobles holding banquets. It is suggested that these were symbolic of the ‘changing homes’ of Cybele: as Cybele moved from Asia to Rome, so a ‘changing homes’ was undergone by the Romans through visiting other people’s houses (Ovid, Fasti 4.360). It has been suggested that the tradition was the invention of the dining clubs (sodales) which are talked about by Cicero, and that such clubs were possibly not just confined to the Roman elite (E. Fantham (1998), Ovid Fasti VI, Cambridge: 162). There was also a clear element of frugality in the banquet, with laws being passed to restrict the money spent during the meal (H. H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 99). This very much fits in with the idea of traditional Romans being frugal and frugality being a virtue.   

[viii] Although Cybele was accepted as a very important goddess in Rome, there appears to have been a very prominent distrust of the foreign aspects of her cult. Imported from Asia Minor, Cybele’s entourage included such spectacles as eunuch priests which were previously unknown and abhorrent to some Romans. Hence, regulations were passed that limited the cult and provided different forms of worship. The Romans celebrated Cybele in traditional Roman ways whereas her foreign priests and followers were allowed their lavish and ecstatic procession once a year. No Roman citizen was allowed to participate in that procession or become a priest of Cybele (K. Summers (1999), ‘Lucretius’ Roman Cybele’ in E. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis, and Related Cults, New York, 337-365: 355). Our sources make it possible to conclude that although the cult was very important in Rome, it needed to be kept at a ‘safe distance’ due to the foreign nature of much of the practices (P. Borgeaud (2004), Mother of the Gods: from Cybele to the Virgin Mary, Baltimore: 27).   

[ix] Cybele was brought to Rome in 204BC during the Second Punic War, after a consultation of the Sibylline Books (E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, New York: 5). Apparently Rome had been suffering from showers of stones at the time (Borgeaud, n.[viii]: 58), and the city was also facing the threat of Hannibal’s imminent arrival. The Sibylline Books prophesied that Rome would only be able to purge a foreign foe from her soil (in this case, Hannibal) by bringing Cybele over from Phrygia. The Delphic Oracle confirmed this prophecy. Cybele’s advent is well-documented in ancient sources (e.g. Ovid Fasti 4.247-349), although most are from at least one hundred years after the event. The consistency between the sources suggests the existence of a common story surrounding her arrival. The Eastern origins of her cult were apparent from the outset, with her foreign entourage and Greek rites and hymns used (see Beard, North, & Price, n.[iii]: 27, on the normal introduction or foundation of cults with the application of Greek rites following consultation of the Sibylline Books). Cybele was brought to Rome in the form of a black rock, of which pieces were allegedly incorporated into her cult statue (R. J. Littlewood (1981), ‘Poetic Artistry and Dynamic Politics: Ovid at the Ludi Megalenses (Fasti 4.179-372)’, Classical Quarterly 31, 381-395: 383).   

[x] Upon her arrival in Italy, it was stipulated that Cybele be met by the vir optimus, P. Scipio Nasica. (Gruen, n.[ix]: 6). Both P. Scipio Nasica and Claudia Quinta played a major part in the arrival procession of Cybele and appear in (Ovid’s Fasti 4.340ff).   

Claudia Quinta, a woman of noble birth but a notorious reputation, is one of the main figures in the story of Cybele’s journey to Rome. According to sources, the goddess’ boat became stuck in the Tiber mud. Claudia Quinta swore an oath on her chastity that she would be able to save Cybele. She managed to set the boat free and Cybele continued her journey to Rome, whilst proving Claudia’s innocence. Claudia Quinta became an important part of the initial procession of Cybele, and was subsequently honoured with statues within Cybele’s sanctuary. Such iconography was still very apparent during the Augustan period, largely due to the fact that Augustus’ wife, Livia, could trace her ancestry back to Claudia Quinta and much was made of this connection (Littlewood, n.[ix]: 384).   

[xi] The theme of Rome’s Trojan origins, especially with regards to Cybele, is particularly prominent in Virgil’s Aeneid. Her first appearance is in Book 2, when Creusa (the wife of Rome’s ‘founding father’, Aeneas) becomes her priestess: ‘the Great Mother of the Gods keeps me here in this land of Troy’ (Aeneid 2.788), highlighting her prominence from the outset. Ovid undertakes to explain why Cybele did not come along with Aeneas but came later when needed, which shows a degree of continuity between the texts of the time (Fasti 4.250ff).   

[xii] Upon Cybele’s arrival in Rome in 204BC she was temporarily housed in the Temple of Victory. Her temple on the Palatine was completed in 191BC (J. Scheid (2003), An Introduction to Roman Religion, Edinburgh: 198). It was rebuilt by Augustus in AD3, after an alleged prodigy and a fire (Littlewood, n.[ix]: 383), as part of his extensive religious revival (Res Gestae 19). Augustus’ own house was on the Palatine, next door to the temple of Apollo and very close to Cybele’s temple, a position which highlighted his piety and close connection with the gods. Augustus’ connection with Rome’s Trojan origins and the gods themselves, due to his identity as one of the patrician Julii (descended from Aeneas’ son, Iulus, and through him the goddess Venus), was explicitly used by Augustus throughout his reign to highlight his divine favour. Rebuilding Cybele’s temple was one way of strengthening this connection.   

[xiii] The putting on of plays as part of the festivities was started in 191BC (Littlewood, n.[ix]: 387). There was a strict segregation of the social classes for this part of the festivity, also for the games in the Circus Maximus, with Senators being kept separate from the rest of the audience (Beard, North, & Price, n.[iii]: 97). Ovid claims that the plays took place on April 6th (Fasti 4.377-387), but other sources suggest that plays took place on the last day of the festivities (April 10th). The theatre was probably outside the temple of Cybele (Scullard, n. [vii]:98).   

[xiv] Terence and Plautus, the most well-known Roman playwrights, had plays performed at the Megalensia. We know of at least four plays by Terence that were performed between 166BC and 161BC and one play by Plautus. Of other specific plays little is known, although it is thought that over time the entertainment became less high-brow as mime took hold (Scullard, n. [vii]: 98).   

[xv] According to Ovid (Fasti 4.389-393), the last day of the festivities included another procession (this time not by the Phrygian Priests) and concluded with games (ludi). Scullard suggests that the games took place in the Circus Maximus and included a number of sports and chariot races (Scullard, n. [vii]: 98-101).

Megalensia Story 1: A Father-and-Son Commentary

Part I: 4th April        


Greetings and Salutations! I’m Nonius and I’m here to tell you about the Megalensia – a festival in honour of the Phyrgian goddess Cybele celebrated in April every year – from my point of view. Although my son Philodemus may have conflicting opinions…[i]       


The Roman dish 'moretum'. Photo by Bullenwächter (2006).


He’s quite right there! Unlike my father, I look forward to this exciting time of year. As a poet and philosopher, I believe I have a deeper understanding of the necessity of this celebration.       


After receiving the honour of being chosen as aedile this year, I have undertaken many responsibilities vital to the running of the Roman state.[ii] One of my many duties consists of commencing this foreign festival by offering the Great Mother moretum and a traditional Roman sacrifice outside her temple on the Palatine Hill.[iii] Whether or not this strange offering is sufficient enough is not for me to decide. This is tradition and tradition is important to the state.

The sacrificial bull approaches the Temple of Magna Mater

The sacrificial bull approaches the Temple of Magna Mater. E. Petersen (1902), Ara Pacis Augustae, (Vienna) plates 3 and 7 as modified by M. Grunow (2000). VRoma.

From here I can see the humble home of Augustus, rightfully next door to his favourite god Apollo. I can also see down to the Circus Maximus: Cybele is surely one of the most fortunate goddesses in being able to witness at all times the spectacle at the Circus.  


Now these seven days have begun,[iv] we can get on with my favourite part of the festival, the procession.[v]       

I am going to watch the procession from outside my house because we are lucky enough to live on its route, but I suspect my father will disapprove and decide to keep safe, behind the closed doors of his study.       

In the midday heat, I try to find the perfect spot – one with shade and a good view. As I look around, I sense a mixture of apprehension and excitement in the air, as the crowd does not know quite what to expect. By Jove, here comes the statue now![vi] Crowned Cybele is sitting so majestically on her throne, with her faithful lions leading her chariot. Her beauty is clear, despite her lack of facial features (in contrast to other traditional cult statues): the face of Cybele is the embodiment of Cybele herself, the precious black stone.[vii] Even in the noisy din our hearts are silenced by her mute expression. This sacred object, resting on the shoulders of her strange, emasculated Galli,[viii] leads the crazed procession. Although the Galli look effeminate, they have more courage than I have – I can’t even imagine the pain of deliberately and voluntarily castrating yourself. To see such piety and devotion is surely an admirable thing, is it not? My ears are met by the thundering drums and clashing cymbals.[ix] Amongst this frenzied music I can pick out the familiar tones of the raucous horns.[x]       


Even within the sturdy walls of my study, I cannot escape the din of the frenzied pandemonium! [xi]       


My father may disapprove but even the revered poet Horace in his Odes appreciates this hysteria and tries to recreate it for his dinner guests in his poetry.[xii] I think that the exuberant noise is complimented by the Greek hymns, sung by the galli.[xiii] I am lucky to be able to understand them, but I am better educated than most present, so in the main they fall on deaf ears.       


Not only can I not shut out the noise of these barbaric instruments but now I have to endure their alien hymns! If I had it my way, they would all be singing Catullus’ Attis which gives a true description of this nauseating cult.[xiv]       


A gallus is coming over to me now brandishing his bloody knife,[xv] causing the children nearby to run away in terror. However as for us philhellenes, these ritualistic symbols do not phase us. On the opposing side of the street I catch sight of another two galli with arms outstretched, imploring the spectators for alms.[xvi] I looked down to retrieve some money, and as I returned my gaze to the procession I found my vision was obscured by thousands of delicate and colourful rose petals. I could still make out the statue, now even more fantastic, curtained in a cloud of vibrant shades.       

As the procession comes to an end, the look of relief on the faces of some of my countrymen is undeniable.       


Come inside my rebellious son, it is time to prepare for the real celebrations!       


The real celebrations have already happened, and you missed them! But yes, I will come in to help you prepare for the evening’s banquet.[xvii]       


After such a long day, it is a relief to be finally sitting down at this civilised meal. I am honoured to be hosting it this year for my fellow patricians. If only we did not have these silly restrictions on food, then I could be more extravagant.[xviii] Back in the day of my ancestors this was an opportunity to show off our luxurious tastes…       

Dearest friends, join with me now in offering this libation on the first day of this festival to the god of doorways and beginnings, Janus…       


Excuse me, noble father, you seem to be forgetting the significance of Cybele on this important day: should we not be toasting to her?       


Hasn’t Cybele been worshipped enough already? Janus is a god within the ius divinium. [xix]    


But our princeps, who resides next door to Cybele, clearly wants us to recognise her importance in the founding of Rome. The late Vergil in his greatest work ensures Cybele’s significance by having her aid Aeneas in his formidable feat of establishing the Roman people in Italy.       


I am not one to contradict our wonderful princeps… So, prove to me then, my son, why is this foreign goddess of so much importance?”       


I call upon the Muses to help me explain to a man who will never understand, an impossible task… as impossible as changing the currents of the sea! Grant me divine supervision whilst I recall the highly polished words of Vergil:[xx]       

At the time when, on Phrygian Ida, Aeneas was beginning       

To build a fleet and preparing to venture forth on the deep sea,       

Cybele herself, mother of the gods, is said to have made       

This appeal to mighty Jupiter:-       

“Grant me, my son, what I ask.       

What your dear mother asks, who helped you into power in Olympus.       

I had a forest of pine trees, cherished for many a year…       

…This did I gladly give to the Dardanan prince, when he needed       

A fleet…     

…may they find it a blessing they came from my mountain.”        


Who am I to disagree with Vergil, let alone the princeps? I can already feel a change in my attitude to this goddess… Let’s drink to Cybele… Great Mother, I hope the games and plays entertain you over the next six days.[xxi]       

Roman terracotta figurines of mime actors

C1st CE Roman terracotta figurines of mime actors. British Museum, London. © Barabara MacManus (1999). VRoma.


In my opinion she would have preferred the higher literary standards of the original plays, but now standards have dropped, the licentious mimes put on currently are almost insulting… [xxii]      


Part II: 10th April      


Here, Philodemus, stand next to me – I have a great position, right next to the entrance of the Circus Maximus. From here we will be able to see the full procession,[xxiii] in its golden glory, as the festival comes to its end.      


I don’t see why this is so special. It doesn’t matter where we stand, since this procession is like all the rest — not a touch on the excitement of the other day.      


Don’t be so dismissive of your heritage! You’re just tired from the last six days of festivities… Oh, look! Here they come! Led by a winged Victory, who looks like she is ready to fly! Look! There’s my old friend Quintus, carrying the golden statue of Neptune and just behind, Mars in all his fierce glory, and here is Augustus’ personal patron deity, Apollo.      


Fatherrrrr, be quiet! I know how to recognise the gods!      


Oh look, and here’s Minerva along with Ceres and Bacchus….      


Hmm… yeah, Bacchus, your personal patron deity for sure …      


Now comes Pollux and Castor and, finally, beautiful Venus, the divine ancestor of our princeps; that means that the procession is over son, let’s go and take our seats at the chariot races.[xxiv]      

The Greens victorious!

A victorious charioteer for the Greens holding a palm branch. 3rd century AD mosaic, Madrid Archaeological Museum. © Susan Bonvallet, 2001. VRoma

I have spent much time organising these, so I don’t want to miss any! Especially as I’ve put 100 denarii down on green this year, so let’s see if Fortune is on my side. I hope the crowd does not get too boisterous; it would not reflect well on our family.      


Look, there’s Sextus, the praetor, about to signal the start of the races. Hurry!      



Although these games and plays put on by our people are fantastic fun, I am still intrigued by the origins and practices of this eastern cult. I’m not too sure about castrating myself, but I would give my right arm to witness the orgiastic frenzy of this mysterious cult: those Phrygians don’t know how lucky they are!      


I understand why this foreign deity is over here, after helping us defeat Hannibal, but I’m glad that she is the only foreign goddess that we formally worship as a city.    


[i] Nonius and Philodemus are entirely fictitious. Nonius is named after the consul of AD8, but his character has been adapted to make him a conservative and the aedile of AD10. Philodemus’ name is taken from the author of a surviving epitaph that shows tolerant affection for the cult of Cybele: the epitaph is reproduced and discussed in T. P. Wiseman (1985), Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, Cambridge: 204. Philodemus has been made into a poet and philosopher, making him much more open-minded and well-read in contemporary poetry than his father. These two characters show the two most extreme opinions that the Romans would have had held about this festival.   

[ii] An aedile is a magistrate in charge of games, buildings and roads in Rome.   

[iii] Moretum is a type of herb/cheese spread that the Romans ate with bread. It was typically made by crushing herbs, fresh cheese, salt, oil and vinegar together in a mortar (hence the name), but different kinds of nuts were sometimes added.   

The sacrifice is recounted in detail by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.19).   

[iv] It is thought that the introduction of the cult of Cybele was a response to the dire circumstances of the invasion of Italy during the Hannibalic War, which stimulated the search for divine assistance against the Carthaginians (see, E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, Leiden: 5). According to Livy a prophecy in the Sybilline Books read that ‘if ever a foreign foe should invade the land of Italy, he should be driven out and defeated if the Idaean Mother should be brought from Pessinus to Rome’ (Livy 29.20.4-6). The festival lasted from 4th April, marking the goddess’ arrival in the city of Rome in 204BC, to 10th April, which marked the dedication of her temple. This means the festival lasts seven days, by the Roman principle of inclusive counting.   

[v] Evidence for a procession in which Romans were not allowed to participate: Lucretius On the Nature of Things 2.625, Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.19.3-5, Ovid Fasti 4.185-6. In contrast to Lucretius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ovid records the procession as the opening event of the festival, but this is probably a deliberate misrepresentation of the festival in order to juxtapose Roman traditions and Phrygian rituals, thereby emphasising the differences between the two: as concluded by J. F. Miller (1991), Ovid’s Elegiac Festivals: Studies in the Fasti, Frankfurt: 83. For the contrasting historical accuracy of Lucretius, see K. Summers (1996), ‘Lucretius’ Roman Cybele’, in E. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 337-66: 342-3.   

[vi] The various kinds of tangible evidence for the statue (including literary evidence from Lucretius On the Nature of things 2.601-28, depictions on coins and the remains of the decapitated statue itself are discussed in Summers (n.[v]: 342-5). In 78BC M. Volteius minted five denarii, one of which depicts Cybele – looking very much like a statue – wearing a turreted crown, seated on a throne on a chariot pulled by two lions. The reverse of a gold aureus of about 43BC also shows Cybele seated on a throne in a chariot drawn by lions. Miller (n.[v]: 84) refers to the statue in relation to Ovid’s portrayal of Cybele.   

[vii] The black stone that was believed to be the goddess herself was placed into the head of the statue, which had been hollowed out for the purpose: see, Summers (n.[v]: 363-4).   

[viii] The Galli are eunuch priests; the singular of Galli is Gallus. Cybele was associated in myth and cult with a young male, Attis, who – in a mad frenzy, caused by Magna Mater as a result of her angry jealousy over his love for another woman – castrated himself: for the story, see J. March (2001, rev.), ‘Cybele’ in Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology, London and New York: 230-231. This myth is acknowledged by Ovid in his Fasti in the explanation of the origins and customs of the Megalensia (4.223-46). The Galli, with their flowing hair, extravagant jewellery and long yellow silken robes, portray Attis’ frenzy, even mimicking his self-castration: Ovid Fasti 4.221, Juvenal Satires 6.511-16, M. Beard (1994), ‘The Roman and the Foreign: The Cult of the “Great Mother” in Imperial Rome’, in N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (eds), Shamanism, History, and the State, Michigan, 164-90: 164. A possible 4th century AD Romano-British Gallus was found buried at Catterick in 2002, see the BBC News story.   

[ix] The instruments used appear to have been stretched tympana, hollow symbala, raucous horns and hollow tibia: Lucretius On the Nature of things 2.600ff., Ovid Fasti 4.183-6, Summers (n..[v]: 358). According to Diogenes Tragicus (TrGF 45 F 1.3), the Greeks and Phrygians used the rhombus (often translated as ‘bull-roarer’) in their practice of the cult. Both the Greeks and Romans considered the sound of the rhombus to be an efficacious love charm (e.g. Ovid Amores 1.8.6-7) and Greek authors often attest its use in various mystery religions including the Dionysian rites and the Eleusinian Mysteries. For the exclusion of the rhombus from the instruments used by the Romans during Cybele’s festival, despite the evidence of Diogenes Tragicus, see Summers (n.[v]: 359).   

[x] There is no evidence for the raucous horn in the Greek or Phrygian practice of the cult and the instrument itself was adopted by the Romans from the Etruscans. The Romans used it for military and athletic functions as well as at assemblies, funerals and weddings. Literary evidence from Lucretius supports its use in the Roman practice of the cult and Summers (n.[v]: 361) concludes that the Romans found it natural to add the raucous horn they used in other private and public religious ceremonies to the already existing collection of instruments.   

[xi] Lucretius (On the Nature of things 2.600ff.) observes that a frenzied state was reached through the hubbub of the procession and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.19.3-5) states that Roman citizens had no part in this, cf. n.[v].   

[xii] Horace Odes 3.19.18, Summers (n.[v]: 362-3).   

[xiii] Beard (n.[viii]: 168) points out that the cult of Magna Mater was characterized by frenetic singing and dancing, so these should definitely have occurred during her annual festival. Ovid describes the procession of the Galli, recounting how they ‘howled along the city’s major streets’ (Fasti 4.186); the word ‘howled’ indicates a loud and wild kind of song, very different to the Romans’ elegant hymns; which would emphasise the foreign origins of both the cult and the festival.   

[xiv] Wiseman (n.[i]: 200) points out that Catullus’ Attis may provide evidence for a hymn sung by the Galli not only because the poem is in Galliambic meter – the meter used for hymns to Cybele by her eunuch priests – but also because it reproduces the form of a hymn with a lengthy narrative preceding a short prayer at the end. However, Wiseman (n.[i]: 201) argues that the poem cannot actually be a hymn, because the Goddess’ power is acknowledged as being merciless and Catullus presents the castration of Attis as an act denying freedom, civilisation and even humanity. We believe that Catullus uses the hymn format to present an exaggerated version of the gruesome rights of the myth that may have been representative of a common attitude towards this aspect of the cult among Romans.   

[xv] Galli carried knives with them in the procession (Lucretius On the Nature of Things 2.625), which may have been symbols of their castration and thus their devotion to the cult, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Vol.2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 49.   

[xvi] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.19.3-5, Ovid Fasti 4.350, Lucretius On the Nature of Things 2.626.   

[xvii] A banquet hosted by the patrician families for other members of the patrician class was held on the night of 4th April. M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Vol. I: A History, Cambridge: 97, suggests that these banquets originated from the sodalites (aristocratic clubs) that were established in 204BC when the cult was first brought to Rome and that it is likely that these clubs were responsible for controlling the cult in Rome.   

[xviii] By a decree of the Senate in 161BC the patrician hosts had to swear before the current consuls that they would not spend over 120 asses per head on the dinner (not counting the flour, wine and vegetables). Further, the hosts were forbidden from serving foreign wine and were not to exhibit more than 120lbs of silverware. For the restrictions, see also Beard, North & Price (n.[xv]: 49). Dumézil (n.[iv]: 488-9) suggests that the restrictions of 161BC arose from the mutationes (banquets) having become events at which Roman patricians were competing to show off their wealth and success by serving refined Eastern dishes and the rarest wines from Greece. Dumézil considers, therefore, that the restrictions would have resulted in these celebrations of Magna Mater losing all sense of their original Greek orgia. On Greek orgia, see Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 2.24.   

[xix] The ius divinium (“divine law”) was a part of the ius civile, the law of the Roman city-state.   

‘[J]ust as the ius civile, exclusive of the ius divinum, regulated the relations of citizen to citizen, so did the ius divinum regulate the relations of the citizen to the deities of the community. The priesthoods administering this law consisted not of sacrificing priests, attached to the cult of a particular god and temple, but of lay officials in charge of that part of the law of the State.’   

(W. W. Fowler (1908) Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero, London: 114).   

[xx] There are many important and indicative passages in Virgil’s Aeneid that stress the significance Cybele had over the founding of Rome, an idea examined extensively by T. P. Wiseman (1977), ‘Cybele, Virgil, and Augustus’ in T. Woodman D. West (eds.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge: 117-128. He points out that only three passages of the Aeneid reflect the superstitious Roman attitude towards Cybele (depicting a sinister foreign goddess served by contemptible half-men attendants: 4.215-17, 9.614-20, 12.97-100) and concludes that the rest depict Cybele as a saviour and miracle-worker who was indispensable in Aeneas’ mission (Wiseman, n.xix: 119-120). In addition, Miller (n.[v]: 85) notes the importance of a passage in the Underworld scene (Virgil, Aeneid 6.781-87), where Cybele is depicted as a metaphor for Rome itself; her dominion over the gods reflects Rome’s power over the world.   

[xxi] Virgil Aeneid 9.77-92.   

[xxii] Evidence for the games comes from Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.19.3-5. Cicero tells us where the games took place, saying: ‘our ancestors had decreed that the games be held on the Palatine in front of the temple in the very sight of Mater Magna herself’ (Cicero On the Response of Haruspices 2.25).    

[xxiii] Ovid, Fasti 4.391; Ars Amatoria 3.2.43ff..   

[xxiv] Ovid Fasti 4.392.

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 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!                         

[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: 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.