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For the saint by the name 'Lupercus', see Marcellus of Tangier. For the Patrick Wolf album, see Lupercalia (album).
Lupercalia most likely derives from lupus, "wolf," though both the etymology and its significance are obscure(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 13—15

Lupercalia was a very ancient, possibly pre-Roman pastoral festival, observed on February 13 through 15 to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Lupercalia subsumed Februa, an earlier-origin spring cleansing ritual held on the same date, which gives the month of February (Februarius) its name.

The name Lupercalia was believed in antiquity to evince some connection with the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia (from Ancient Greek: λύκοςlukos, "wolf", Latin lupus) and the worship of Lycaean Pan, assumed to be a Greek equivalent to Faunus, as instituted by Evander.

In Roman mythology, Lupercus is a god sometimes identified with the Roman god Faunus, who is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan. Lupercus is the god of shepherds. His festival, celebrated on the anniversary of the founding of his temple on February 15, was called the Lupercalia. His priests wore goatskins. The historian Justin mentions an image of "the Lycaean god, whom the Greeks call Pan and the Romans Lupercus," nude save for the girdle of goatskin, which stood in the Lupercal, the cave where Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. There, on the Ides of February (in February the ides is the 13th), a goat and a dog were sacrificed, and salt mealcakes prepared by the Vestal Virgins were burnt.

Late Republic and Empire

Plutarch described Lupercalia:

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time 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.

The Lupercalia festival was partly in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, explaining the name of the festival, Lupercalia, or "Wolf Festival." The festival was celebrated near the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine Hill (the central hill where Rome was traditionally founded), to expiate and purify new life in the Spring. A known Lupercalia festival of 44 BC attests to the continuity of the festival but the Lupercal cave may have fallen into disrepair, and was later rebuilt by Augustus. It has been tentatively identified with a cavern discovered in 2007, 50 feet (15 m) below the remains of Augustus' palace.

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 rites were directed by the Luperci, the "brothers of the wolf (lupus)", a corporation of sacerdotes (priests) of Faunus, dressed only in a goatskin, whose institution is attributed either to the Arcadian Evander, or to Romulus and Remus. The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilia (or Quinctia) and gens Fabia; at the head of each of these colleges was a magister. In 44 BC, a third college, the Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. Antony offered Caesar a crown during the festival, an act that was widely interpreted as a sign that Caesar aspired to make himself king and was gauging the reaction of the crowd. In imperial times the members were usually of equestrian standing.

The festival began with the sacrifice by the Luperci (or the flamen dialis) of two male goats and a dog. Next two young patrician Luperci were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk, after which they were expected to smile and laugh.

The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the animals, which were called februa, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, in imitation of Lupercus, and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands in two bands, striking the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips. This was supposed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.

The Lupercalia in the 5th century

By the 5th century, when the public performance of pagan rites had been outlawed, a nominally Christian Roman populace still clung to the Lupercalia in the time of Pope Gelasius I (494–96). It had been literally degraded since the 1st century, when in 44 BC the consul Mark Antony did not scruple to run with the Luperci; now the upper classes left the festivities to the rabble. Whatever the fortunes of the rites in the meantime, in the last decade of the 5th century they prompted Pope Gelasius I's taunt to the senators who were intent on preserving them: "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." The remark was addressed to the senator Andromachus by Gelasius in an extended literary epistle that was virtually a diatribe against the Lupercalia. Gelasius finally abolished the Lupercalia after a long dispute.

Some authors claim that Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with the "Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary," but researcher Oruch says that there is no written record of Gelasius ever intending a replacement of Lupercalia. 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. 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.

References in art

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

Horace's Ode III, 18 describes Lupercalia.

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

CAESAR (to Calpurnia)

Stand you directly in Antonius' way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!


Caesar, my lord?


Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

See also


  1. H.H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 77–78.
  2. 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, sixty years before the Trojan War.
  3. 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.
  4. Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, s.v. "Lupercus"
  5. Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 43.1.7.
  6. Plutarch • Life of Caesar
  7. Ovid, Fasti: Lupercalia
  8. Livy, Ab urbe condita 1.5
  9. Christian Meier (trans. David McLintock), Caesar, Basic Books, New York, 1995, p.477.
  10. One of Plutarch's Roman Questions was "68. Why do the Luperci sacrifice a dog?" His best response was "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).
  11. Plutarch, Life of Antony, Cicero, Philippics II.85.
  12. ad viles trivialesque personas, abiectos et infimos. (Gelasius)
  13. Gelasius, Epistle to Andromachus, quoted in Green 1931:65.
  14. ^ Henry Ansgar Kelly, in "Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine" (Leiden: Brill) 1986, pp. 58-63
  15. ^ 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 80-210-4126-9 
  16. ^ Jack B. Oruch, "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February" Speculum 56.3 (July 1981:534–565)


  • Green, William M. (January 1931). "The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century". Classical Philology 26 (1): 60–69. doi:10.1086/361308. Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  • Liebler, Naomi Conn (1988). The Ritual Ground of Julius Caesar.
  • Pauly-Wissowa

Further reading

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • T.P. Wiseman, "The God of the Lupercal," in Idem, Unwritten Rome. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 2008.

External links

  • William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1875: Lupercalia.
  • Dr Leo Ruickbie, St Valentine's Day and its Origins in Lupercalia

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