Roman Holiday: Festivals of the Augustan Empire

Nil adsuetudine maius (Nothing is more powerful than custom) – Ovid, Ars Amatoria, Book II, line 345

As we enter the Labor Day weekend, I thought that the holiday presents an excellent excuse to discuss Roman festivals (fasti), ancient and (relatively) new-fangled. Caught between a modern gaze that sees them either as strait-laced orators in togas or orgy-leading emperors out of their togas, the Romans did like to have a good time and their calendar stuffed full of public holidays reflects that. At least one of their poets tried to write a book about it. 

Salvete, internet. Where are my ladies at???

Ladies and gentlemen, Publius Ovidius Naso, who you probably know as Ovid. He was a (much younger) contemporary of Virgil and most famously the author of The Metamorphoses. But between writing that masterpiece of world literature and getting exiled by Octavius to an outpost of the Empire for filling Rome with naughty behavior and even naughtier verses, Ovid started to write a series of poems about the Roman calendar and its festivals. So we’ll get him to help us out a little here.

Don’t worry folks, I’m more fun than Virgil or the Aeneid.

That said, I should point out that while his unfinished de Fasti is a major source of knowledge to us about Roman customs and religious practices, Ovid is also known for his irreverence and rather impish sense of humor. So his accuracy is a matter of scholarly debate. But it is probably safe to assume he had some awareness of the practices in observance at his time, if perhaps he embroidered some of his mythological explanations for their existence.

Sure, Virgil creates mythology and he gets venerated. I make up mythology and I get sent to the frontier.

Can it, Ovidius.

They love each other. Anyway, there are far too many festivals to possibly hit them all in one long-ish blog post, so instead I’m going to give you a sampling from around the year to get a sense of the breadth of Roman customs.  When not referring to Ovid, I’m generally sourcing H.H. Scullard’s Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, which is really excellent and which I’d recommend if you’re interested in a more complete look at Roman holidays.

Near the start of the year in January (Ianuarius) is the Compitalia, a very old cult holiday that celebrated the lares (minor household deities) of the crossroads, either between neighboring farms or country highways. At these intersection points, there would be small altars on which votives could be left. In the specific case of this festival, that would entail woolen dolls for each member of a household and wool balls for any slaves. The religious side of the rite was likely blessing and purification for one’s land and family, and the festival side was probably an excuse to visit neighbors and pass greetings for the new year. This holiday actually fell out of use in the final years of the Roman Republic, but Octavius revived the practice as part of his efforts to restore native Roman religion from the influences of the many foreign cults that had begun to be practiced in Italy, and as part of his larger plan to tie himself and his government to the old gods.

Can’t become a Roman god if there aren’t any.

As we move on into the spring, several major festivals focus on family and kinship bonds, remembrance and renewal. The first of these is the Parentalia at the end of February (Februarius), a sort of Roman All Souls Day, where families would visit the graves of family members, especially parents, and leave offerings in memory of the dead. These gifts were usually very simple – food, beverages, flowers. The Parentalia was also more of a private holiday than a public one; the public face of the festival was the Feralia, celebrated at the end of the Parentalia period of several days, where sheep were slaughtered to the dead by priests. After the Feralia, dead family members were appeased and the Romans turn to their living relatives during the Caristia, a time to renew kinship bonds and patch up old quarrels amongst the family. A large meal was given and everyone brought a contribution, much as people would today. Though Ovid also points out that unkind or guilty members could be ostracized if their deeds infamous enough.

Speaking from experience, Naso?
Can it, Octavius

But now is where I confess that I wanted to talk about all these lovey-dovey family holidays because I also wanted to talk about Rome’s other Day of the Dead, the Lemuria

Not quite, think scarier. 
That’s a lot closer to it. 

The Lemuria was held in late May (Maius), which is generally considered an unlucky month in general by the Romans. It is marked as a public festival on the Roman calendar, but nearly all we know about any of its rituals is from Ovid’s description of them and they are weird and private. 

Ok, kiddos, listen up! It’s times for some ghost stories!

Contrary to my pictures above, the Lemuria was the festival of the lemures, the wandering dead. These were dead kinsfolk who had been slain or died in another untimely fashion, and it was feared that these spirits had the power to visit their living relations and potentially cause harm.  

You’re going to need some beans…

To prevent this, the male head of the household had to rise at midnight and proceed barefoot (because knots and ties are unlucky and to be avoided) to wash his hands to cleanse them. He then had to walk through the house spitting out black beans all over the place reciting: “With these beans, I redeem me and mine.” He had to do this nine times without looking behind himself, so the ghosts could pick up the beans unseen. He then washes his hands again, and bangs some bronze vessels together to chase off the spirits, supposedly with the words: “Ghosts of my fathers, begone.” After this, any malevolent spooks would be dealt with and the family would be secure for another year. And no, no one seems to know why beans were the ammo of choice here. 

Ok, now that we’ve dealt with Roman Halloween, we move into the summer and back into some more lighthearted fare. The end of June (Iunius) is host to a rather charming little festival the Romans imported from the Greeks, the fasti of Hercules and the Muses. Strange combination, you say? Well, apparently the Greeks thought Hercules was also the leader of the nine Muses, and a Roman censor liked the idea so much he had a small temple built to them around 179 BC. Ovid doesn’t tell us about any specific rituals attached to this holiday, but my other sources suggest this might be the sort of day Rome’s literati might gather and pay their respects to the mythological ladies who ruled their arts.  


Ovid, put your shirt back on. But folks, the festival of Hercules and the Muses means we’ve left June and hit—


Sigh… So yeah, we’ve reached July and while Apollo has a major festival at the beginning of the month, by the time period we’re concerned with, a lot of the month is given over to festivals and games (ludi) in honor of Rome’s newest deity, the Divus Julius. The Ludi Victoriae Caesaris was an eleven day extravaganza originally thrown by Julius in 45 BC to commemorate his four triumphs celebrated the previous September (those being the triumphs Arsinoë had participated in), but they became an annual tradition under Octavius as a festival for his deified great-uncle/adopted father. Games in the Roman world consisted of a variety of sporting and theatrical events such as boxing, chariot races, gladiatorial matches, plays, and pantomimes. They were paid for by a donor (like Caesar) during the republic, or generally by Octavius during the Empire, and open to the public. Although certain events were later prohibited to women (like boxing or wrestling) for modesty.

More ludi continue into the fall and September (same name to the Romans — some of you are learning how Roman our calendar remains☺️), the largest being September’s Ludi Romani, dedicated to Jupiter, and what would become the Augustalia, games given in October, for Octavius, with the same kinds of entertainments. Though not always present, sometimes games would include a naumachia, which was a scaled-down re-enactment of a naval battle executed in a stadium using full-scale ships. For a festival such as the Augustalia, it might be an re-enactment of the Battle of Actium, for example.

Naumachia were another Caesarian innovation. The first Ludi Victoriae Caesaris had the first documented instance of one, likely a re-enactment of the Battle of the Nile.

A minor agricultural festival, Fauno, marked the end of the harvest season in November (same). Primarily a rural holiday, the BFF of Virgil, the poet Horace, explains in one of his odes that offerings of wine and goats were made to the god Faunus (Pan) to give thanks for a good harvest and as a request for further protection of the land. Roman Thanksgiving, if you will. But with more satyrs.

We’ve nearly reached the end of the year, which is generally marked by the Saturnalia in December (same), the end of the year festive season Christmas ultimately replaced. And minus the tree, the manger, and the rotund saint in red breaking into your house, many of the basic trappings are the same. Tons of parties, visiting, gift exchanges, and everyone looking forward to January and the reopening of the Senate, which marked the start of a new year in the Roman world.

And there you have it — a snapshot of what kinds of things the Romans looked to celebrate in their holidays. Family, the land, the past, and each other. Things certainly not so different than what we throw parties for. So happy Labor Day, happy Ludi Romani, and stay safe out there, dear readers. And don’t forget your masks!

Ovid’s poetry is generally one man’s triumph over most women’s attempts at social distancing…

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