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Top 10 Bizarre Festivals of the Ancient Romans

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Ancient Romans

In today’s society there are many holidays, most of which have their origin in the Christian faith.

The Romans also had numerous feasts and festivals. Festivals were an important part of religious life in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The Roman festival calendar was well filled.

Some rather strange customs took place during Roman festivals, ranging from slaves becoming masters for a day, spectators being beaten with goatskin whips, shepherds jumping over bonfires and worshiping… ovens. Read more about it below.

Saturnalia – The slaves rule

saturnalia
Antoine-François Callet

This Roman holiday can best be compared to our current Christmas Day. Saturnalia, in Latin Saturnalia, was celebrated on December 17. It was a holiday in honor of the god Saturn .

Everyone took part in this holiday and public life in the Roman Empire almost came to a standstill. Of course, on that day the Romans made sacrifices to the god Saturn, a god whom the Romans believed had brought prosperity to the empire. Remarkable about the Saturnalia was the fact that the slaves were not required to serve their master for one day. On the feast of Saturnalia, the roles were reversed and the masters served their slaves. The Romans also distributed gifts to relatives and friends, just as we do at Christmas.

Lupercalia – Naked through the streets

Lupercalia
Andrea Camassei

This was a Roman festival in honor of the god Lupercus. Lupercalia was one of the oldest Roman festivals and was celebrated on February 15th. Originally, Lupercalia was probably a purification festival that evolved into a fertility festival during the times of the Republic and Empire.

The celebrations took place in the Lupercal, the cave in which, according to tradition, Romulus and Remus, founders of the city of Rome, were fed and raised by a she-wolf. Priests sacrificed goats and young dogs to the god Lupercus in this cave. Then young men cut the goatskins into pieces. They covered their bodies with some of these skins, but they also cut a kind of whip from it. Strangely enough, the youths then ran through the streets half-naked, using their ‘whips’ to thrash the public. That was not meant maliciously, because such a lash would bring fertility and prosperity…

Veneralia – Party for the women

veneralia
Peter Paul Rubens

The festival of Veneralia was an occasion the Roman women looked forward to for days. After all, on that day they were allowed to enter the baths for once, where normally only men were allowed. The Romans celebrated Veneralia on April 1. It was a festival in honor of the goddess Venus Verticordia, goddess of beauty and love.

The goddess Fortuna Virilis, the Roman goddess of fate, was also honored on that day. You can take those ‘flowers’ literally, because on the festival of Veneralia the Roman women removed the jewelry from the statues of both goddesses, washed the statues and then decorated them again with jewelry and roses. The women then washed themselves in the public baths, wearing wreaths of myrtle flowers on their heads.

Parilia – Fertility of the Herds

parilia
Joseph-Benoît Suvée

The Romans celebrated the Parilia festival on April 21. Parilia was a shepherd’s festival, dedicated to the Pales gods, the guardians of flocks and sheep. On the day of Parilia, the Vestal Virgins (priestesses of the goddess Vesta) distributed straw, horse blood, and the ashes of unborn calves. This allowed the shepherds to ritually cleanse and anoint their stables and flocks. During the festival of Parilia, the shepherds jumped three times over a bonfire to complete the ritual cleansing. After that, of course, there was a lot of eating and drinking at a festive meal in the open air.

Fornacalia – Ode to ovens

Fornacalia - roman festival for ovens
Jean-François Millet

In ancient Rome, even ovens were good enough to host a festival for them. The feast of Fornacalia was dedicated to the ‘fornices’: Roman ovens in which the grain was dried. The day on which Fornacalia was celebrated was proclaimed by the leader of the religious association to which one belonged.

Parentalia – Festival for the Dead

parental

During the Parentalia, a festival that lasted nine days, the Romans honored their deceased ancestors. The Parentalia started on February 13 and ended on February 20. During the festival, the Romans placed sacrificial wreaths, violets, salt, fruits, bread soaked in wine, and other gifts on the graves of the dead. Of course, there were also prayers for the souls of deceased relatives.

On February 21, the festival of the Feralia was celebrated, a day when the head of the family, like a true exorcist, drove out evil spirits. The next day, on February 22, the feast of Caristia fell. On Caristia the family gathered and they ate and drank to their heart’s content. It was an ideal opportunity to resolve family quarrels. Another day later, on February 23, the Romans celebrated the Terminalia. This was a festival in honor of the god Terminus, the god of borders. For this occasion, the Romans decorated the boundary stones and boundary marks of their estates.

Lemuria – Dispel Evil Spirits with Beans

Lemuria

The festival of the Lemuria took place on May 9, 11 and 13. During the Lemuria, wandering evil spirits (called Lemures) were driven from the houses with certain rituals and exorcisms. Strangely enough, this was done by offering beans to the evil spirits. The Vestal Virgins also contributed to the festival: they used the first wheat of the season to bake ‘sacred’ salty cake for everyone who took part in the festival.

Floralia – A merry party

floralia

As the name suggests, the Floralia was a festival of flowers. The Floralia was the festival in honor of the goddess Flora, a Roman goddess who ‘ruled’ the flowers and plants. Her feast lasted a week, from April 29 to May 3. It was cheerful during the Floralia. The Ludi Florales or ‘Flower Games’ were also held during the festival, with numerous theatrical and circus performances.

Equus October – Horsehead for the God Mars

equees october
Johann Jaritz /CC BY-SA 3.0/wikimedia

The feast of Equus October or ‘October Horse’ continued on the full moon day in October. On Equus October , the Romans celebrated the god Mars , the god of war . On that day, the Romans held races in chariots drawn by two horses. The right horse of the winning chariot had to pay its victory with life: this horse was killed and sacrificed to Mars. With the severed head and tail of the animal, priests performed all kinds of religious rituals. The Vestal Virgins were allowed to keep part of the blood, with which they later made (tasty?) cake.

Bona Dea- Roman festival exclusively for women

Bona Dea festival

Bona Dea was different from the other Roman festivals in that it was only a festival for women. The festival was celebrated at the beginning of December in honor of the goddess Bona Dea, whose ‘speciality’ was nature and fertility.

On that day, the principal women of Rome gathered in the house of the supreme authority (the consul), without any men around. What exactly happened at Bona Dea’s party has remained a secret. The women who were present were not allowed to talk about it. Rumors circulated about animal sacrifices, drinking wine, playing music and dancing.

Bona Dea scandal

When the feast of Bona Dea was held in the house of Julius Caesar in the year 62 BC , one Publius Clodius dressed as a woman managed to break in. He wanted to meet Caesar’s wife Pompeia Sulla, with whom he had a secret relationship. He was exposed and charged with blasphemy. Publius was eventually acquitted, but he had caused a major scandal in Rome. As a result, Julius Caesar divorced his wife some time later.

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