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Lupercalia was a very ancient, possibly pre-Roman pastoral annual festival,[2] observed in the city of Rome on February 15, to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Lupercalia was also called "dies Februatus", purified (literally "februated day") after the instruments of purification called "februa", which give the month of February (Februarius) its name.

Wolf head, 1-100 CE, bronze, Roman, Cleveland Museum of Art.JPG
Lupercalia most likely derives from lupus, "wolf," though both the etymology and its significance are obscure[1] (bronze wolf's head, 1st century AD)
Observed by Roman Kingdom,
Roman Republic,
Roman Empire
Type Classical Roman religion
Celebrations feasting
Observances sacrifices of goats and a dog by the Luperci; offering of cakes by the Vestals; fertility rite in which the goatskin-clad Luperci strike women who wish to conceive
Date February 15



The festival was later known as Februa ("Purifications" or "Purgings") after the februum which was used on the day.[3] It was also known as Februatus and gave its name to Juno Februalis, Februlis, or Februata in her role as its patron deity; to a god called Februus, and to February (mensis Februarius), the month during which it occurred.[3] Ovid connects februare to an Etruscan word for "purging".[4] Some sources connect the Latin word for fever (febris) with the same idea of purification or purging, due to the sweating commonly seen in association with fevers.

The name Lupercalia was believed in antiquity to evince some connection with the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia, a wolf festival (Greek: λύκος, lýkos; Latin: lupus), and the worship of Lycaean Pan, assumed to be a Greek equivalent to Faunus, as instituted by Evander.[5] Justin describes a cult image of "the Lycaean god, whom the Greeks call Pan and the Romans Lupercus," as nude, save for a goatskin girdle.[6] It stood in the Lupercal, the cave where tradition held that Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf (Lupa). The cave lay at the foot of the Palatine Hill, on which Romulus was thought to have founded Rome.[7]



The rites were confined to the Lupercal cave, the Palatine Hill, and the Forum, all of which were central locations in Rome's foundation myth[8] Near the cave stood a sanctuary of Rumina, goddess of breastfeeding; and the wild fig-tree (Ficus Ruminalis) to which Romulus and Remus were brought by the divine intervention of the river-god Tiberinus; some Roman sources name the wild fig tree caprificus, literally "goat fig". Like the cultivated fig, its fruit is pendulous, and the tree exudes a milky sap if cut, which makes it a good candidate for a cult of breastfeeding.[9]


The Lupercalia had its own priesthood, the Luperci ("brothers of the wolf"), whose institution and rites were attributed either to the Arcadian culture-hero Evander, or to Romulus and Remus, erstwhile shepherds who had each established a group of followers. The Luperci were young men (iuvenes), usually between the ages of 20 and 40. They formed two religious collegia (associations) based on ancestry; the Quinctiliani (named after gens Quinctia) and the Fabiani (named after gens Fabia). Each college was headed by a magister. In 44 BC, a third college, the Juliani, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar; its first magister was Mark Antony.[10] The college of Juliiani disbanded or lapsed during Caesar's civil wars, and was not re-established in the reforms of his successor, Augustus. In the Imperial era, membership of the two traditional collegia was opened to iuvenes of equestrian status.


At the Lupercal altar, a male goat (or goats) and a dog were sacrificed by one or another of the Luperci, under the supervision of the Flamen dialis, Jupiter's chief priest.[11] An offering was also made of salted mealcakes, prepared by the Vestal Virgins.[12] After the blood sacrifice, two Luperci approached the altar. Their foreheads were anointed with blood from the sacrificial knife, then wiped clean with wool soaked in milk, after which they were expected to smile and/or laugh.

The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs (known as februa) from the flayed skin of the victim,[2] and ran with these, naked or near-naked, along the old Palatine boundary, in an anticlockwise direction around the hill.[13] In Plutarch's description of the Lupercalia, written during the early Empire,

...many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.[14]

The Luperci completed their circuit of the Palatine, then returned to the Lupercal cave.

The Lupercalian Festival in Rome (ca. 1578–1610), drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer, showing the Luperci dressed as dogs and goats, with Cupid and personifications of fertility


The Februa was ancient and possibly Sabine. After the month of February was added to the Roman calendar, Februa occurred on its fifteenth day (a.d. XV Kal. Mart.). Of its various rituals, the most important came to be those of the Lupercalia.[15] The Romans themselves attributed the instigation of the Lupercalia to Evander, a culture hero from Arcadia who was credited with bringing the Olympic pantheon, Greek laws and alphabet to Italy, where he founded the city of Pallantium on the future site of Rome, 60 years before the Trojan War.

Lupercalia was celebrated in parts of Italy and Gaul; Luperci are attested by inscriptions at Velitrae, Praeneste, Nemausus (modern Nîmes) and elsewhere. The ancient cult of the Hirpi Sorani ("wolves of Soranus", from Sabine hirpus "wolf"), who practiced at Mt. Soracte, 45 km (28 mi) north of Rome, had elements in common with the Roman Lupercalia.[16]

Descriptions of the Lupercalia festival of 44 BC attest to its continuity; Julius Caesar used it as the backdrop for his feigned public refusal of a golden crown (i.e. a diadem), offered to him by Mark Antony.[17][18] The Lupercal cave was restored or rebuilt by Augustus, and has been speculated as identical with a grotto discovered in 2007, 50 feet (15 m) below the remains of Augustus' residence; according to scholarly consensus, the grotto is a nymphaeum, not the Lupercal.[19] The Lupercalia festival is marked on a calendar of 354 alongside traditional and Christian festivals.[20] Despite the banning in 391 of all non-Christian cults and festivals, Lupercalia was celebrated by the nominally Christian populace on a regular basis, into the reign of the emperor Anastasius. Pope Gelasius I (494–96), claiming that only the "vile rabble" were involved in the festival,[21] sought its forceful abolition; the senate protested that the Lupercalia was essential to Rome's safety and well-being. This prompted Gelasius' scornful suggestion that "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."[22] The remark was addressed to the senator Andromachus by Gelasius in an extended literary epistle that was virtually a diatribe against the Lupercalia. The claim that Gelasius abolished the Lupercalia is frequently made but there is no evidence to support it.

Some authors claim that Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with the "Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,"[23] but researcher Oruch says that there is no written record of Gelasius ever intending a replacement of Lupercalia.[23] Some researchers, such as Kellog and Cox, have made a separate claim that the modern customs of Saint Valentine's Day originate from Lupercalia customs.[23][24][25] Other researchers have rejected this claim: they say there is no proof that the modern customs of Saint Valentine's Day originate from Lupercalia customs, and the claim seems to originate from misconceptions about festivities.[23][24][25]


Caesar Refuses the Diadem (1894), when it was offered by Mark Antony during the Lupercalia

Horace's Ode III, 18 alludes to the Lupercalia. The festival or its associated rituals gave its name to the Roman month of February (mensis Februarius) and thence to the modern month. The Roman god Februus personified both the month and purification, but seems to postdate both.

William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar begins during the Lupercalia. Mark Antony is instructed by Caesar to strike his wife Calpurnia, in the hope that she will be able to conceive.



  1. ^ H.H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 77–78.
  2. ^ a b   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Lupercalia". Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 126. 
  3. ^ a b Lewis, Charlton T.; et al. (1879), "februum", A Latin Dictionary Founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press .
  4. ^ Richard Jackson King (2006). Desiring Rome: Male Subjectivity and Reading Ovid's Fasti. Ohio State University Press. pp. 195 ff. ISBN 978-0-8142-1020-8. 
  5. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1.32.3–5, 1.80; Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 43.6ff; Livy, Ab urbe condita 1.5; Ovid, Fasti 2.423–42; Plutarch, Life of Romulus 21.3, Life of Julius Caesar, Roman Questions 68; Virgil, Aeneid 8.342–344; Lydus, De mensibus 4.25. See Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, s.v. "Lupercus"
  6. ^ Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 43.1.7.
  7. ^ Ovid, Fasti: Lupercalia
  8. ^ Livy, Ab urbe condita 1.5
  9. ^ Vuković, Krešimir (10 November 2017). "The Topography of the Lupercalia". Papers of the British School at Rome. 86: 4. doi:10.1017/S0068246217000381. 
  10. ^ Vuković, Krešimir. ""Roman Myth and Ritual: the Groups of Luperci and Epigraphic Evidence"" (PDF). Epigraphica. 78: 43–52. 
  11. ^ One of Plutarch's Roman Questions was "68. Why do the Luperci sacrifice a dog?"... [Because] "nearly all the Greeks used a dog as the sacrificial victim for ceremonies of purification; and some, at least, make use of it even to this day. They bring forth for Hecate puppies along with the other materials for purification." (on-line text in English).
  12. ^ T. P. Wiseman, "The God of the Lupercal", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85 (1995), p. 1
  13. ^ Vuković, Krešimir. "The Topography of the Lupercalia". Papers of the British School at Rome. 86: 9–21. doi:10.1017/S0068246217000381. 
  14. ^ Plutarch • Life of Caesar
  15. ^ Alberta Mildred Franklin (1921). The Lupercalia. pp. 79–. 
  16. ^ Mika Rissanen. "The Hirpi Sorani and the Wolf Cults of Central Italy". Arctos. Acta Philologica Fennica. Klassillis-filologinen yhdistys. Retrieved 2016-08-18. 
  17. ^ Roller, Duane W. (2010). Cleopatra: a biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195365535, p. 72.
  18. ^ Christian Meier (trans. David McLintock), Caesar, Basic Books, New York, 1995, p.477.
  19. ^ Vuković, Krešimir. "The Topography of the Lupercalia". Papers of the British School at Rome. 86: 7–9. doi:10.1017/S0068246217000381. 
  20. ^ Calendar of Philocalus, (accessed 15 February 2017)
  21. ^ ad viles trivialesque personas, abiectos et infimos. (Gelasius)
  22. ^ Gelasius, Epistle to Andromachus, quoted in Green 1931:65.
  23. ^ a b c d Henry Ansgar Kelly, in "Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine" (Leiden: Brill) 1986, pp. 58-63
  24. ^ a b Michael Matthew Kaylor (2006), Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde (electronic ed.), Masaryk University (re-published in electronic format), p. footnote 2 in page 235, ISBN 978-80-210-4126-4 
  25. ^ a b Jack B. Oruch, "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February" Speculum 56.3 (July 1981:534–565)


Further readingEdit

  • Beard, Mary; North, John; Price, Simon. Religions of Rome: A History. Cambridge University Press, 1998, vol. 1, limited preview online; search "Lupercalia."
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Authority: Construction and Corrosion. University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 43–44 online on Julius Caesar and the politicizing of the Lupercalia; valuable list of sources pp. 182–183.
  • North, John. Roman Religion. The Classical Association, 2000, pp. 47 online and 50 on the problems of interpreting evidence for the Lupercalia.
  • Markus, R.A. The End of Ancient Christianity. Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 131–134 online, on the continued celebration of the Lupercalia among "uninhibited Christians" into the 5th century, and the reasons for the "brutal intervention" by Pope Gelasius.
  • Rissanen, Mika. The Hirpi Sorani and the Wolf Cults of Central Italy. Arctos 46 (2012), pp. 115–135, on the common elements between the Lupercalia and other wolf cults of Central Italy.
  • Vuković, Krešimir "Roman Myth and Ritual: the Groups of Luperci and Epigraphic Evidence" 78 (2016): 43-52.
  • Vuković, Krešimir "The Topography of the Lupercalia", in The Papers of the British School at Rome 86 (2018): 1-24.
  • Wiseman, T.P. "The Lupercalia." In Remus: A Roman Myth. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 77–88, limited preview online, discussion of the Lupercalia in the context of myth and ritual.
  • Wiseman, T.P. "The God of the Lupercal," in Idem, Unwritten Rome. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 2008.

External linksEdit