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Roman Holidays (Fasti) in March

Lenten and New Year's Celebrations in March


Mars, by Diego Velazquez

Mars, by Diego Velazquez

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia
Martius (March), the Roman month devoted to and named after the god of war, Mars, was so filled with celebrations -- fasti -- that there was a special day in it to rest from the festivities. It wasn't exactly like a month with nothing but weekends. There were happy occasions, but there were also fasts and a day for bloodletting. There was even a parade of pines or palms. If it's beginning to sound slightly familiar, it should. Easter and Lenten activities bear striking similarities with the first month of the (pre-Julian calendar) year -- March.

Ides of March

Most of us are familiar with March as the month with the ominous soothsayer's warning to Gaius Julius Caesar about the Ides. Perhaps Caesar should have been out enjoying a picnic to honor the goddess Anna Perenna. Her celebration was at the first full moon of the new year -- by definition, the Ides of March. Public and private sacrifices were offered in her sacred grove on the Via Flaminia.

Anna Perenna

The Festival of Anna Perenna occurs on the Ides of March. The identity of Anna Perenna is a mystery, but she may be a personification of the year. Ovid tells two stories about her, but they may be his inventions. In one, Anna was an old woman who gave cakes to the plebeians when they seceded (494 B.C.). In the other, she is Dido's sister who was driven from Carthage to Latium after Dido's suicide. In Latium, she incurred the wrath of Aeneas' wife, fled, and was carried off by Numicus, god of a stream. When Aeneas' servants went out searching for her, they followed her tracks to the river bank where they discovered she had been turned into a water nymph.

In her article on Ovid's treatment of the Ides of March in his Fasti, Carole Newlands says Anna Perenna's festival included the drunkenness and sexual and verbal freedoms typical of carnivalesque holidays like Lupercalia and Saturnalia. At Anna Perenna's festival, reversal of typical Roman dignitas includes inversion of gender roles as when a drunken old woman drags along a drunken old man.

  • Plebeians and Secession
  • Dido
  • "Transgressive Acts: Ovid's Treatment of the Ides of March"
    Carole Newlands
    Classical Philology, 1996.


The first day of the Roman month was the Kalends. In March, the Kalends coincided with the beginning of spring and New Year's Day (this was well before Gaius Julius Caesar reformed the [k]alendar). The New Year was celebrated as the festival of Juno Lucina, also called the Matronalia. Juno Lucina was a goddess of light and childbirth, with a temple in a grove on the Esquiline Hill devoted to her. The name Lucina probably derives from the Latin word for grove (lucus) [See Vroma on the lucus explanation from Pliny.] rather than light, as was assumed in antiquity because they thought that at childbirth a child was brought to the light. Women celebrated the Matronalia at her temple. They prayed to Juno and her son Mars, and fêted their female slaves. Men also gave presents to their wives.

  • Matronalia
  • Juno Lucina
  • "Semina Ignis: The Interplay of Science and Myth in the Song of Silenus"
    Michael Paschalis
    The American Journal of Philology, 2001.

Feriae Martis

Mars' birthday fell on the Kalends. The salii, his priests, were divided into two groups (sodales) of 12 men each who, following the etymology of their name from the Latin salire, would leap or dance in procession at festivals to Mars. The salii were of ancient, pre-Republican origin, patrician, and chosen for life from families with living parents (like the Vestal Virgins). Headquartered in the Curia Saliorum on the Palatine Hill, they were charged with caring for the shields (ancilia) of Mars, and singing and dancing through Rome beating swords on the shields, at the beginning and end of the war season, in March and October. The salii's celebration in honor of Mars (Feriae Martis) lasted 24 days.

Fast and the Day of Blood

March 16th marked the end of the carnival celebration which had started with the Terminalia celebration on the 23d of February. Like Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), it was the end of a feast period and beginning of a fast, only with the Romans, the celebration was in honor of Dionysus, Jupiter, and Mars.

A 9-day fast preceded the Dies sanguinis 'Day of the Blood'. On the 22 of March, a procession of palms or a pine tree was brought to the shrine of Cybele so that the pine could be worshiped as a god. Two days later, at the Day of the Blood, the priests of Cybele slashed themselves and spun around to sprinkle her statue with blood. Afterwards, the priests washed the statue in the Almo River, a Tiber tributary.

Liberalia - Ludi Liberales

On the 17th of March, the start of the annual return to farming, early Romans celebrated the Ludi Liberales with public games for the agricultural and fertility god Liber. Liber was associated with the wine god Bacchus/Dionysus whose worshipers fell out of favor in the second century B.C. Liberalia celebration continued, however. It was the day on which free young men became full-fledged adult citizens by donning the manly toga.

A day later, there was a much needed day of rest for the fasti (festival days) weary Romans.

Print Sources:

  • Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Dictionary of Roman Religion. Facts on File, Incorporated, 1997.
  • H.H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Quiz on Fasti of March

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