So after my last entry where I made fun of my local weather-casting whistle pig (if you’re not from Appalachia, look it up), it feels appropriate to return (two days late), to talk about one of the weirder (and that’s a statement) Roman festivals, the Lupercalia, celebrated on February 15th. Which does mean we’re going to have to summon our resident ancient holiday expert…
But don’t worry — the Lupercalia’s tenuous connections to the Christian feast days that replaced it, like Valentine’s Day, will give us a segue into love and we’ll talk about Roman marriage.
And because he’s such a fan, we’ll use Ovid as a model.
He’s not any better, but we’ll talk about him, too.
Anyway, the Lupercalia was a very old festival, and one of the most enduring and popular. But like many things that a society does for a very long time, nobody by the 1st century BC/ 1st century AD understood half of what any of it meant. Its essential purpose was as a purification ceremony, but like when an archeologist digs up an unaccountable object, the old standby of “fertility ritual” also usually gets tacked on to it. Its proximity to Valentine’s Day doesn’t help.
But this speculation could also be due to the Lupercalia’s association with Faunus, the Roman pastoral satyr god, who ensured the fertility of the fields, forests, and cattle. While often considered the Roman equivalent of the Greek shepherd satyr god, Pan, because Faunus was such an old deity in the sparse pre-Greek Roman pantheon, their conflation is less complete than other gods, like, say, Mars/Ares, or Venus/Aphrodite. This is especially true prior to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, when Christianity lumped most pagan traditions together fairly indiscriminately. For example, Virgil claims Faunus was an ancient Roman king raised to godhood, and in the Aeneid, he mentions both Faunus and Pan as separate entities.
But in truth, one of many things even the Romans weren’t sure of about this festival is which deity exactly they were offering their Lupercalia sacrifices to. It’s Ovid who thinks the shadowy Lupercalia god is Faunus, but the historian Livy names the pre-Italic god Inuus. But to make things even more confusing, Inuus is sometimes considered an aspect of Faunus (the cattle fertility aspect in particular). Eventually Octavius ends the whole discussion and declares “Lupercus” is the god of the festival and everyone just goes along with it, satisfied as long as they still get to have the party.
The rites of the Lupercalia were presided over two priestly colleges, the Quinctiales and the Fabiani, thought to be founded by Rome’s founding twins Romulus and Remus, respectively. The age of the festival is attested to by the fact that two of the oldest patrician families, the Quintilii and the Fabii, likely derived their names from these orders, or vis versa. Keep the gens Fabia in mind — we’ll come back to them.
On February 15th, these two priesthoods would meet at a cave, the Lupercal, at the southwest corner of the Palatine Hill, believed to be the den of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. The Luperci ( the priests collectively) would then sacrifice a male goat and a dog, and offer the mola salsa, cakes made from the first fruits of the previous harvest years by the Vestal Virgins. This done, they would wipe the sacrificial knife on the brows of two young men “of good family” of their number, and wipe the blood away with wool and milk. Incidentally, the part about the men needing to be of high-ranking families is fairly redundant, in that, like we saw with the College of Pontiffs last entry, Roman priesthoods were honorific appointments, not vocations. Generally, priests were various patricians and political leaders, much like how Egyptian priests were also doctors. But the most important part of these young swains’ performance was that they must laugh as all of this miasma is spread over their faces, probably to call good fortune to the sacrifice by demonstrating joy to the gods.
Having cleaned (??) up, the Luperci would take strips of goat hide and gird themselves with nothing but the skins and conduct a feast.
But it’s what happens after the feast that the Lupercalia has built its enduring reputation on. Still clad only in goatskin loincloths, the Luperci would proceed to run a circuit around the Lupercal and some uncertain amount of the Palatine Hill and the Via Sacra, thwacking the eager waiting crowds — especially the ladies — with what Plutarch calls “shaggy thongs.”
Some sources point to Lupercalia lady-thwacking as the source of the fertility rumors, claiming women believed that the thwacking would help them get pregnant.
Lastly, the 44 BC Lupercalia is (in)famous because during all of this half-naked, mild BDSM revelry, Mark Antony ran up to Julius with a crown or diadem, and offered it to him. Now, it’s likely this was planned in advance between the two of them as some public theater where Caesar could ostentatiously refuse the symbol of kingship, in order to put to rest growing fears surrounding his lifetime dictatorship. If this was the case, it didn’t work. Like most things Julius did, the crowds loved it, but probably stiffened the resolve of the nascent Liberatores, considering the Lupercalia is exactly a month before the Ides of March.
For some kind of obvious reasons, early Christian authorities weren’t fond of the Lupercalia, but had great difficulty getting even Christian Romans to stop celebrating it. Pope Gelasius (papacy 492-96 AD) famously scoffed, “If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.” The Church would try to replace it with the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (also known as Candlemas), the festival celebrating infant Jesus’ presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem. Some point to Candlemas’ tradition of eating crepes or pancakes to Gelasius distributing a pancake-like cake to pilgrims and the poor in Rome for the feast, which in turn is possibly a vestige of the mola salsa cakes the Vestals made for the Lupercalia.
Because of the Lupercalia’s closeness to Valentine’s Day, some make a connection between the rowdy switching of the former with the more sedate romantic connotations of the latter, but the Valentine’s Day we know didn’t even begin to really take root until the Middle Ages, when Geoffrey Chaucer would write the courtly love poem Parlement of Foules, which is the earliest literary reference we have as the holiday being a special day for lovers. But as we saw, the inferred fertility connotations of the Lupercalia could have influenced that development.
Now, just as the Lupercalia doesn’t have much to do with flowers and chocolates, Roman marriages usually didn’t have much to do with love, either. Like many marriages in the ancient world, a Roman marriage was typically more about property consolidation and clan alliances than romance. This traces back to Romulus and Remus, too— when the Romans would kidnap the native Sabine women for their wives during the founding of the city. This story would be re-enacted in the loose collection of Roman wedding traditions, where the groom would pretend to abduct the bride from her home, and she was supposed to make a bit of a fuss on the way to his house.
Marriages were arranged by the groom (and his family), and the bride’s paterfamilias, her family’s male head of household. This might be her father, but also her grandfather if he was still living, or another male guardian. Because marriages were largely transactional, there wasn’t a required public component of it. Cohabitation of the couple was really the main requirement, along with whatever contractual necessities might be needed for the bride’s dowry. Upper class couples often had elaborate engagement parties and wedding day feasts, much as couples today might. Besides the fake abduction mentioned above, the bride and groom would both wear a white, single-piece garment called the tunica recta, which was supposed to be woven by the bride herself, to presage her coming role to theoretically weave her new family’s clothes. The uncut style of the tunic was for luck, as cutting anything on a bride continues to often be avoided even today, to chase away separation and divorce.
That said, divorce was fairly common and acceptable in the Roman world. Women, as one could say today, might have a little more trouble attracting a new husband but it wasn’t as scandalous as it would be in the Western world in later centuries, and Roman men suffered little stigma from it. Both Octavius and Ovid would marry three times, their first two marriages ending in divorce, and both of them would burn through their first two marriages before they were thirty.
We’re not completely sure who Ovid’s first two wives were, but his third wife was a member of the Fabii gens, one of the Luperci families. She and her family were influential enough that he would lean heavily on her support in Rome when Octavius sends him into exile in 8 AD. He would praise her for this in his poems of the period, but because we’re still talking about Ovid, he was also sure to whine that she wasn’t trying hard enough to advocate on his behalf three lines later. While she would be ultimately unsuccessful, she probably kept him out of worse trouble when his catty poems addressed directly to Octavius made it back to Rome.
As for Octavius, he divorced Mark Antony’s stepdaughter, Claudia Pulchra, about four seconds after marrying her (the marriage we discussed in my entry about the Second Triumvirate). He then marries Scribonia, in is a last-ditch effort to cement an alliance with Pompey’s son Sextus (who was married to Scribonia’s sister or niece— we’re not sure), rather than fight the self-proclaimed son of Neptune all over the Mediterranean. The marriage goes about as well as that plan, and Scribonia is pregnant when Octavius’ eye falls on the equally married and equally pregnant Livia Drusilla. Livia is at the time was married to a pardoned Liberatore, Tiberius Claudius Nero, but for someone as notoriously cautious as Octavius, he doesn’t let the potential for scandal stop him. Because while divorce was accepted, the fallout from these unions that would eventually produce the fifty-year marriage of Octavius and Livia was shocking even to the Romans.
Octavius would talk Claudius Nero into divorcing Liv, by allowing him to retain paternity of his son, Tiberius, and the soon-to-be born child. Octavius waits like a champ and divorces Scribonia on the day she gives birth to their daughter, Julia Augusti (worst push present of all time). They wait until Livia gives birth to her second son, Drusus, then they waive the traditional waiting period and marry three days later. One begins to understand some of the underlying tensions between Octavius, Julia, and Tiberius as they move forward into adulthood and maturity when you examine how they ended up together in the same family. But when you consider that Livia’s family is part of the Claudii, like her first husband, a gens that descended from ancient Sabine nobility, and Octavius descended from Romulus through the Julii, maybe it was simply a matter of history repeating itself.
Leave a Reply