As the festive period comes to an end and we look forward to another year, why don’t we take a look at some of the festivals of ancient Rome that were held throughout the year? The Romans were famous for their rowdy celebration of festivals with excessive drinking, feasting and merrymaking on the streets that was sometimes accompanied by rituals that we would now find very strange. But before you start thinking that they were a hedonistic crowd, keep in mind that they were religious religious people who paid a lot of importance to appeasing the gods and in order to do so, they regularly held rituals and festivities in their honor. Let us dive into four festivals of ancient Rome that were tremendously popular in the city.
If you wanted to witness of the most bizarre rituals of ancient Rome, then the ceremony of Lupercalia was your place to be! The origin of this ancient Roman festival is unknown but it is said to be a shepherd festival connected with Romulus and Remus and was celebrated every year on 15th February in the Lupercal Cave on the Palatine Hill (where Romulus and Remus are said to have been suckled by the she-wolf).
The festival began with two naked youths of noble birth being anointed with the blood of a goat and a dog, sacrificed to the god of fertility. As they were covered in blood, the youths were required to break out into a laughter.
When the blood was wiped off them, the youths enjoyed a meal with plenty of wine and then cut pieces of goat skin and imitating the god Lupercus, covered their bodies in pieces of goat skin and ran through the streets of Rome. They held more pieces of goat skin in their hands and as they ran, they touched or struck people with them along the way.
Women voluntarily came forward to be struck as they believed that this would result in easy child birth. By the time of Julius Caesar, the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia was no longer as popular as it used to be. Although Augustus revived this festival during his reign, it took a more dignified turn and the famous ritual of youths running through the streets naked was banned.
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Imagine walking on the streets of ancient Rome and seeing a large phallus being paraded into the city with a rowdy crowd singing crude songs. This is the view you were to likely come across on the day of the Liberalia, one of the festivals of ancient Rome beloved by the plebians.
Liberalia was held on 17th March in honor of the Roman god Liber, also known as Pater Liber, and his partner Libera. He was the god of wine, male fertility and freedom whose image was closely related to that of the Greek god Dionysius.
As with all Roman festivals, Liberalia was celebrated with sacrifices, processions, singing in the streets and drinking a lot of wine, not so different from our own times, except for the sacrifices! Liberalia was also special because it marked the day that young boys came of age and dawned their togas. During this coming-of-age festival young boys removed their amulet known as the bull praetexta, from around their necks and along with a lock of their hair, laid it on the altar of the Lares (household deities). Beginning their adulthood being blessed by Liber was see as favorable for Roman citizens.
Perhaps one of the most famous festivals of ancient Rome, well-known even today as the festival from which Christmas borrows several traditions is the Saturnalia. The festival was celebrated in honor of the god Saturn, god of agriculture and time. Although initially Saturnalia lasted only a day, by the late Republic, festivities began on December 17th and lasted for a week.
The holiday festivities that took place in ancient Rome were similar to our own. School and work came to a halt as people decorated their houses and streets with wreaths and other decorations. The days were spent feasting, excessive drinking, gambling, visiting relatives and exchanging gifts. As with all ancient Roman festivals, the initiation of festivities required a sacrifice. In this case sacrificed a sacrificed a suckling pig in their homes in honor of Saturn.
This ancient Roman festival involved a strange tradition: societal norms were overturned and masters served slaves. Slaves were allowed to speak freely and even rudely to their masters without the fear of punishment. They could also eat with and sometimes even before their masters and wear hats that were only allowed to be worn by free citizens.
All the previous festivals that we have mentioned here include priests and sacrifices to the gods. But did you know that another famous way of celebrating ancient Roman festivals was to organize athletic games. The famous Ludi Romani held in September included athletic games, chariot races, gladiatorial fights and theatrical performances.
It is said that the king Tarquinius Priscus held the first Ludi Romani in the Circus Maximus. Initially the games lasted only four days and included boxing, wrestling and chariot racing. But by the late Republican period, the games lasted a total of two weeks and also included gladiators and theatrical events.
This ancient Roman festival is said to have been held in honor of the god Jupiter and were initiated by a procession that started on the Capitoline Hill and ended at the Circus Maximus. The procession was led by the chief magistrate of the city who was followed by the patrician youth, dressed and divided based on their social standing. This group was followed by the athletes, dancers, musicians and a group of satirical artists who gave the procession a comic effect.
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