One of the most daunting tasks I have procrastinated undertaking with respect to my writing on the Religio Romana is the Roman "Wheel of the Year." Depending on which version of the calendar one consults, somewhere from two thirds to three-quarters of the year in the Roman calendar is dedicated to festivals of some sort or another. Rather than make any attempt to practice a religion with so many holy days in the twenty-first century, what I have attempted to do is to determine which holidays were most important to the Roman populace, based not only on which seemed to be the most popular festivals, but also on the survival of ancient and agricultural traditions into the late Republic and Empire. In doing so, I have omitted holidays that are seemed simply commemorative in nature, such as festivals celebrating the dedication of a temple or a military victory. I certainly hope I have caused no great offense to any Roman entities, whether they be deities, ancestors, or spirits, but I cannot imagine how a modern pagan could do otherwise.
Many of the ancient agricultural based festivals survived into the Republican and Imperial ages, it would seem, because their focus shifted in part from seeking the blessings and purification on behalf of the crops and fields to the blessing and purification of the people, community, and state. For example, the purpose of the Ambarvalia was originally to purify the fields and corn as it ripened, and farmers would lead the sacrifices around the boundaries of the fields. Later, people in the cities also celebrated the festival, but instead of circling the sacrifices around the fields, they were led around people gathered outside the city by their tribe or district. In any case, even in Rome's most prosperous days, she was still reliant upon the goodwill of the deities involved with the harvesting of grain and grapes. So even though the focus of the Religio Romana is less agriculturally based than most ancient Indo-European traditions, it retains much more than I would have expected.
Much information about the practice of these festivals has been lost or distorted, but there is an amazing amount of writings from primary sources like Ovid and Cicero who offer all kinds of tidbits and details of religious particulars. Most of the research for this article comes from secondary sources which reference contemporary writers, and I will describe each of the following Holy Days as well as I can.
April is quite possibly the busiest month of the year in the Roman calendar. Of the 29 days in the month, only three are dies fastus [DEE-ays FAHS-toos], days when legal action is permitted, and only seven are dies comitalis [DEE-ays comb-it-TAL-ees), days when votes may be taken on political or criminal matters. There are five nefastus publicus [nay-FAHS-toos POOB-li-coos] when public festivals are celebrated, and 14 dies nefastus [DEEays nay-FAHS-toos], on which no legal action or voting of any kind may occur. A very busy month, full of festivals and games. In any case, I was able to narrow down my more modern version of the Roman calendar to include a mere seven major festivals for the month of April.
The fourth day of April marks the beginning of the Ludi Megalesia [LOO-dee meg-al-EE-see-uh], a seven day celebration. The Megalesian Games are dedicated to the Great Mother Goddess, Cybele [kib-AY-lay], a Phrygian goddess imported from Asia Minor. The cult is said to have been introduced in 204 BCE, when the sacred black stone of the goddess was brought to Rome in hopes of gaining assistance against the military threat of Hannibal and his armies. Cybele's importation also emphasizes the Trojan origins of Rome, a tradition many Roman historians and politicians sought to perpetuate. Conservative Romans were rarely tolerant of foreign cults, although over time, most Romans grudgingly accepted Cybele, who was sometimes associated with the Roman mother goddess, Magna Mater [MAHG-na MA-tair].
During the festival, games were held in honor of the Great Mother, including spectacles and theatrical performances, which were welcomed and well-attended by crowds of Romans in search of entertainment. The more aristocratic Romans gave elaborate private parties on the first day of the festival and avoided the noisy crowds as much as possible. Oriental eunuchs, called galii [GALLee- ee], were effeminate priests who paraded around the streets making a racket with their noisy cymbals, tambourines, and drums. They sang hymns in Greek, while carrying a crowned statue of the goddess on a litter throughout the city and flagellated themselves in ecstasy for the duration of the festival. Of course, respectable Romans did not participate in such gaudy displays that were entirely lacking in decorum.
Shortly after the end of the Megalesian Games, the eight-day Ludi Cereri [LOO-dee kair-AIRee], games to honor Ceres [KAIR-ays], begin on 12 April. The Ceralia [kair-AH-lee-uh], the festival that closes the games on 19 April, seems to have been established some time prior to 202 BCE. But Ceres had her own flamen, or priest from much earlier times, and her temple, located on the Aventine Hill, was dedicated in 493 BCE. Ceres was worshiped at that site along with Liber [LEE-bair] and Libera [lee- BAIR-uh], ancient Italian deities, from time immemorial in a manner that may have been similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries; however, little information remains of their details.
Ovid indicates that farmers could make offerings of spelt and salt to Ceres, as well as incense, while Virgil mentions offerings of milk, honey, and wine. As for the rituals performed at her temple, we have no information, but we do know of one peculiar tradition at the opening of the games that involved releasing foxes with burning brands tied to their tales. No one really knows the significance of this tradition, but Ovid suggests a tale where a fox's tale was set afire as a warning to other vermin to keep away from the crops.
On 15 April is the Fordicidia [for-DIK-ee-uh], a very ancient festival to promote the fertility of the fields and herds. Ovid gives an account involving the offering of a pregnant cow (forda) to the Earth, Tellus. One cow was offered by the pontiffs on the Capital, as well as one in each of the 30 curiae [CURE-ee-eye], or city wards. The unborn calves were removed from each cow by the Vestal Virgins and burned. They saved the ashes, which were then used in the Parilia.
The Parilia [pahr-REEL-ee-uh], 21 April, also an ancient agricultural festival to purify and protect flocks, is held in honor of the Pales [PAH-lays]. There has been much speculation as to the nature of the Pales, whether the Pales are singular or plural, masculine or feminine. In any case, the original purpose of the festival was the purification of the sheep and shepherds and to keep them free from disease. To this end, the sheep and sheep folds were thoroughly cleansed, fumigated, and decorated with laurel. The spring tradition of jumping over or between bonfires or leading the flocks between them derives from this purification; the fire was made of olive and pine wood with laurel branches thrown in to purify the sheep, as well as the shepherds. Offerings of millet cakes, food, and milk were made while the shepherds prayed to Pales, asking for protection. In their prayers, they also begged the Pales' forgiveness in case they had accidentally grazed on holy land, cut wood, or sullied any sacred waters. The celebration culminates in a large feast.
One of the most interesting things about the Parilia is that what began as a purely agricultural celebration. evolved into an urban festival as well. The focus, rather than sheep, became the birth and renewal of the city. People decorated their houses with greenery, just as the shepherds decorated the sheep folds. They built a large bonfire in the city, made from bean straw and laurel, into which were thrown the ashes of the unborn calves that were sacrificed at the Fordicidia, as well as the blood of the October horse sacrificed the previous year.
The next festival is not a particularly prominent one, although its focus is one very near and dear to the hearts of all Romans. On 23 April is the Vinalia Priora [vee-NAH-lee-uh pree-OR-ee-uh], the first of two wine festivals (the other being the Vinalia Rustica [vee-NAH-lee-uh ROOS-tee-cuh] on 19 August) celebrated by Romans. The main feature of this celebration was the ritual first opening of wine made last autumn. The origins and focus of the Vinalia are somewhat obscure; however, a libation of the first wine out of the cask was made to Jupiter. Only then could they be sampled by mere men. This was followed by much celebration, and farmers or merchants were then permitted to bring into the city their previous year's wine for distribution and sale.
Another festival with an agricultural focus comes on 25 April. The Robiglia [robe-I-GALL-ee-uh] is celebrated in honor of (or as a deterrent to) the spirit of corn blight, Robigus [ROBE-I-goos]. April may seem like an unlikely time to worry about corn rust, until one considers the growing season in Italy. Most grain was harvested in early June, and so it would have been most vulnerable to rust during late April, just as it was coming out of sheath. Lest rust or mildew harm the crop, a rust-colored dog and a sheep are sacrificed as appeasement to Robigus. Ovid tells of encountering a crowd all wearing white robes on its way to the grove of Robigus to throw the entrails of a dog and sheep that the flamen Quirnalis [FLA-men queer-I-NAH-lees] was carrying. Whether the red or rust color relates to the disease or the color of the grain itself, the Robigalia seems be a survival of sympathetic magic designed to protect the corn so that it could mature.
The last major holiday in April is the six-day Ludi Florae [LOO-dee FLOOR-eye], from 27 April to 2 May. Flora is an ancient Italian goddess of vegetation. As such, a spring festival and six days of games held in her honor. At some time during the third century BCE, and due to a recommendation derived from a consultation of the Sibylline Books, these games were instituted. The idea was that if the crops flowered well in April, one could expect harvest to be good. Accordingly, during the games, spectators where showered with vetches, beans, and lupines presumably as a magical stimulating fertility. On the last day of the games, hundreds of hares and goats (animals notable for their reproductive stamina) were released.
By the time of Augustus, the focus of the festival had (understandably) evolved from the flowering of grain to sex and licentiousness. Prostitutes claimed the Floralia as their own holiday, and Juvenal claims that some prostitutes performed in the nude and even fought as gladiators in the games. Many of the more popular, albeit less respectable theatrical performances involved strip-tease plays. Ovid also mentions that all women wore garments of many colors, as opposed to the customary white clothing worn during Ceralia. We continue this tradition of getting out our colorful spring clothing this time of year to this day.
At the same time, and by way of contrast, occurs the Feriae Latinae [FAIR-ee-eye lah-TEEN-eye], the Latin Festival, which survived from the time of the Latin League. This festival was a joint celebration of Romans and Latins who gathered in Alban hills, normally before consuls took off for campaigning season. Originally, all states sent representatives (Pliny the Elder listed some 47 states in attendance), who made offerings of milk and sacrificed a white heifer which they later shared as a communal meal. In early times, it would probably have been a somber ritual, with each delegate pledging loyalty to each other and to their gods and honoring the kinship among them. By the time Rome had reached prominence in Latium, the festival had probably become more of an opportunity for other communities to offer allegiance to Rome, while Rome recognized each state's contribution to the rise of the Roman state.
May is a somewhat gloomy month, given the somber nature of its key celebrations. In May, there are four dies nefastus, days on which no legal or political business could take place; three dies nefastus publicus, public festival days; six dies fastus, on which legal action was permitted; and 17 dies comitiales, which were open to all legal and political business. May was considered a unlucky month to marry, possibly because of darkness of festivals like the Lemuria.
The Lemuria [lee-MER-ee-uh] is a festival of the dead, occurring on 3 non-successive days, on 9, 11, and 13 May. While there is no extant information on the public rites involved, we have access to details of the domestic cult rituals. These rituals, performed by the paterfamilias [pah-tair-fam-ILL-EEUS], or head of the family, appease the spirits of deceased household members so they won't haunt the house. At midnight, the paterfamilias rises, washes his hands, makes the mano fico [MAH-no FEE-ko] sign (making a sort of fist with the thumb sticking out between the second and third fingers), and walks barefoot through the house spitting out nine black beans (or casting them over his shoulder). With his eyes averted, for each bean cast, he says "With this I ransom me and mine." Then he washes his hands again, hits a loud gong, and repeats nine times, "Ancestral ghosts, depart!" At this point, he looks around and any ghosts are gone. Perhaps the beans act as some sort of bribe or a ransom for members of the living household that the lemures might otherwise carry off, and I liken this practice to ADF's outsider offerings.
In Italy, grains ripen toward the end of May and are cut in early June, so that May is a busy month for farmers, who must keep their fields clear of weeds and anticipate the coming harvest. Meanwhile, in the city, after the busy month of April when precious little business could be conducted, politicians and businessmen tried to accomplish as much as possible before the hot, dry months of summer. While there are also the festivals of Agonalia [ah-go-NAHlee- uh], which also occurs in March and December, and the Tubilustrium [too-bee-LOOS-tree-um], the purification of the assembly trumpets, the main celebration of Ambarvalia [ahm-bar-WALL-ee-uh] occurs during the Feriae Conceptivae [FAIR-ee-eye konekep- TEE-why} , a moveable feast at the end of May.
The Ambarvalia is the annual "beating of the bounds," a means of purifiying the fields by leading sacrificial victims around boundaries. There were both both public and private rites involving the agricultural deities Ceres, goddess of growth, and Mars, god of strength, Rome continued the rural tradition involving a public procession with pigs, sheep, oxen around the old boundaries of Rome with sacrifices at particular locations. Tradition has it that Romulus, when he founded Rome, performed just such a lustration in plowing around the site to create the pomerium, or sacred boundary.
In the countryside, the Ambarvalia was performed by every farm and every village, its citizens leading the sacrificial victims around their homestead or town to purify it. In the city, such a lustration was also performed to conclude the census; a bull, a sheep, and a pig were lead three times around the Roman people, who had gathered and grouped themselves by curiae outside the city.
During the 30 days of June, there are eight dies nefasti days on which no legal or political business could take place; two dies nefastus publicus, public festival days; two dies fastus, on which legal action was permitted; and 17 dies comitiales, which were open to all legal and political business. Like May, the first part was considered an unlucky time to get married, until the end of the Vestalia [west-AHL-ee-uh], the first major festival in June, at which time the refuse from the temple of Vesta [WES-tah] was cleaned out and dumped into the Tiber.
The Vestalia is a seven day festival, although on 7 June is the Vesta aperitur [WES-tah ah-PAIR-ee-tour] two days before Vestalia is actually consecrated to Vesta. On that day the penus [PAY-noos] (literally, "storehouse"), the inner sanctum of the temple of Vesta, was opened for women. Usually, it was open only to Vestals and to the Pontifex Maximus; men were forbidden to enter the temple at any time, which would then be closed at the culmination of the festival, on 15 June.
The Vestalia begins officially on 9 June. Vesta is one of the most ancient and revered of all Roman deities, hearkening back to the times when families lived in huts and kept their own hearth as sacred. As people began to gather in villages, a community hearth was its central focus, and in Rome, the temple of Vesta, home of the state hearth, was in a round building, much like the huts ancients would have occupied in pre-urban times. Ovid describes meeting married Roman women in bare feet coming and going from the temple of Vesta with simple offerings of food.
The state temple of Vesta's importance is demonstrated by the fact that in addition to the eternal flame maintained by the Vestals, along with the Penates [pen-AH-tays] (guardians of the storehouse) of the Roman People, and the Palladium [pah-LAYdee- um], the statue of Pallas Athene that had been rescued from the fires of Troy by Aeneas. Vesta represented the prosperity of Rome and the eternal flame was symbolic of Rome's eternal power. The Vestalia was also considered a holiday period for bakers and millers because of the mola salsa [MO-lah SAL-suh} , a special offering bread prepared by the Vestals with water they carried by hand from a sacred spring.
On 15 June was the Vesta clauditur [WES-tuh clow- DEE-tour], the day dirt was swept from temple of Vesta, and taken to be dumped in the Tiber River. At that time, the temple was again closed to the public, and business could continue. In fact, the day is designated on calendars as "Q.S.D.F." (Quando Stercus Delatum Fas), meaning "as soon as the rubbish is cleared out." So in addition to the annual tradition of getting out Spring clothes and Easter bonnets, we can also attribute our penchant for spring cleaning.
Finally, there are two remaining festivals in June worth mentioning. On 11 June is the Matralia [mah-TRAL-ee-uh], a festival for mothers, in honor of Mater Matuta, an ancient Italian goddess. On 24 June, the festival of Fors Fortuna [FORS for- TUNE-uh] was celebrated in commemoration of a temple dedication in 293BCE. The temple had been vowed in gratitude for and celebration of a Roman victory over the Etruscans and Samnites, but is noteworthy since slaves could participate. Most rituals prohibited slaves and women from attending, but Fortuna was a very popular deity, in part because of uniquely class-free favor she grants to those of all walks of life.
Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Ogilvie, R.M. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1969.
Ovid. Fasti. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.