Ancient Rome’s Fertility Festival
By Brook Allen
Inside a cavern-like grotto overlooking the Circus Maximus, Marcus knelt on the stone floor with the handful of other naked men chosen to run for Lupercalia. Legend held this to be the very cave where a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus.
Indeed, the Roman festival of Lupercalia was grounded in the legend of Romulus and Remus—the twin brothers who were destined to become synonymous with the founding of Rome. And most of Rome’s attested history from the 7th and 8th centuries BC does point to the Palatine Hill as being the original “acropolis” of the city. Whether Romulus and Remus actually lived there—who knows? Back in 2007, an archaeological dig, beneath the Houses of Livia and Augustus, revealed a grotto that some historians argue is the original Lupercal cave. However, recent studies suggest it’s simply a nymphaeum.
Wherever the location of the Lupercal cave was, each February 15th, young noblemen between the ages of 20-40 were selected as “luperci” who would participate in purifying and fertility-bestowing rites as they “ran the Lupercal”. Truly, the very name of the month “February” is derived from two terms associated with Lupercalia. First, there was a minor deity based on a god from Etruscan times, named Februus. He was often likened to mythological fauns and since they had a tendency for being randy, the Romans probably selected him to be honored in this festival. Secondly, the strips of bloody skin from the sacrifices, used to smack women in the hopes that they’d conceive, were known as “februa”.
One priest handed him a narrow slice of goatskin to cover his loins. Marcus tied it about his waist and between his legs. Bowing his head obediently, he opened his hands. Within moments, slick warm strips of newly shredded dog and goat hide februa were placed atop his palms. Clumsily, he braided them into a whip to be used on women passing his way. Another priest offered him another silver basin of blood, and he dunked the braided februa into it, letting it soak. After removing it, his hands were red and dripping, as was the februa.
Typically, goat and dog sacrifices were made as expiations against evil. They were then skinned and used like whips to hit women who were hopeful of having children within the year. To us, it sounds positively barbaric to have killed innocent animals (especially dogs!) in this fashion and for this bizarre purpose. However, this was a pre-Christian era rite and in Roman society at the time, animal sacrifice of all sorts was a daily routine in temples throughout the city.
First out of the cave, Marcus bolted down the narrow path where girls were already waiting, hitching up tunics and exposing bare legs, thighs, and buttocks. Warmth pulsed through his veins despite the chill air, warming him. The sight of comely women baring extremities charged his blood.
The Lupercalia must have been a rowdy festival, and also proves how superstitious the Romans were, as even high-born women were happy to participate if being swatted by a februa meant getting pregnant.
And that brings me to my favorite Lupercalia story!
Marc Antony, my main character in the Antonius Trilogy, was selected as one of the Luperci—the men who ran the course of the Lupercal. His participation was not approved of by everyone. Cicero in particular balked at the thought of a serving consul running through the streets half naked. But Antony being Antony probably LOVED every minute of it! However, the mention of his current office enables us to date this Lupercal event to 44 BC. This was but a month away from Caesar’s demise on the Ides of March.
Militarily trained, he ran well ahead of the others. Women and men pressed close about him, screaming. Now at the foot of the Palatine, he entered the Forum. The Lupercal route through Rome would end at the Rostra, where Caesar waited, sitting on a recently bestowed golden throne.
Most people probably recall this story from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; Antony offering Caesar a crown repeatedly, and Caesar turning it down… Well, far from being legend, this incident probably really happened.
Plutarch, a biographer living at the end of the 1st century AD tells about it in detail in his Life of Antony. Nobody knows for sure, but it’s likely that Caesar put his fellow consul up to the task, curious as to the opinion of the people regarding a possible kingship.
So is there any relation between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day? Well, there was a beloved Christian back in the 3rd century AD known as Valentine. He was martyred on February 14th—the day before Lupercalia. Known for assisting captured Christians and helping young couples who were Christians to safety during one of the later persecution periods, he was a beloved figure. After Lupercalia was banned and Christianity legalized, Valentine was canonized and honored on the supposed date of his martyrdom—February 14th. Thus began the yearly celebration, known as St. Valentine’s Day.
In researching the ties between the ancient rites of Lupercalia and how they might have “morphed” into Valentine’s Day, I’m skeptical that that was the case here. There may have been some symbolism, such as the color red—originally the color of a bloody februa, used in the fertility rite. But even that seems to be a stretch. There just isn’t much hard evidence that the Lupercalia “became” Valentine’s Day.
Roman history lover that I am, I’ll keep them separate. I’ll accept my roses from my husband with a broad smile and a kiss and leave the running of the Lupercal to my main man, Marcus!
Bare feet hammering the pavement, sweat beaded Marcus’s forehead, spiting the cold. Every single exhale turned to mist in the clear morning air. Prostitutes at a food stall whistled and called as he passed, admiring his lean, powerful body. His muscles were rigid whenever he stopped suddenly or whirled about, lashing out with his februa to switch a hopeful female. Part of the crowd started shouting his name in rhythm, so he lifted his februa, grinning and waving at them in response.
(Italicized portions are from Brook Allen’s Antonius: Second in Command)
Antonius: Son of Rome
By Brook Allen
For over two-thousand years, Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony—has been one of history’s most controversial men. His story was buried with him and written by his enemies. Now his entire saga is revealed in a compelling trilogy by Brook Allen.
After young Marcus Antonius’s father dies in disgrace, he yearns to restore his family’s honor during the final days of Rome’s dying Republic. Marcus is rugged, handsome, and owns abundant military talent, but upon entering manhood, he falls prey to the excesses of a violent society. His whoring, gambling, and drinking eventually reap dire consequences. Through a series of personal tragedies, Marcus must come into his own through blood, blades, and death. Once he finally earns a military commission, he faces an uphill battle to earn the respect and admiration of soldiers, proconsuls, and kings. Desperate to redeem his name and carve a legacy for himself, he refuses to let warring rebels, scheming politicians, or even an alluring young Egyptian princess.
Antonius: Second in Command
By Brook Allen
The Antonius saga continues…
Having proven himself as a formidable cavalry commander, Marcus Antonius finally earns a position at his kinsman Julius Caesar’s side. However, Caesar is an exacting general, demanding complete allegiance from his staff, even when his decisions put him at odds with the Senate. Marcus’s loyalty to Caesar comes at a cost, and he soon finds himself embroiled in mob violence and military mutinies. As civil war brings Rome’s Republic crashing down, many a relationship is torn asunder, including Marcus’s marriage. Determined to rise triumphant in Rome’s new era, Marcus faces his fears, his failures, and his enemies—not the least of whom is himself.
Amid the crisis of the Ides of March, Marcus must don the mantle of ruthlessness to carve his own legacy in Rome’s history. Enemies have been made, wills have been read, and heirs proclaimed.
But in Rome’s civil unrest, blood answers only to blood.
Brook Allen is a Music Educator in a rural community near Roanoke, VA. Aside from her regular classes, she teaches two ensembles, a Chorus and Recorder Consort. Born in Salt Lake City, UT, Brook was raised in Omaha, Nebraska and has lived all over the U.S., from the Pacific Northwest, all the way down to Florida. She graduated with a B.A. in Music Education and has a M. A. in Liberal Studies, with an emphasis on Roman History. Brook is happily married and has two energetic Labrador Retrievers. Voraciously active, she cycles, hikes, and loves to travel.
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