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The Roman Festival of Lupercalia

Its History and Gods


The Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus

The Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus

Claire Campbell

Those looking for the origins of Valentine's Day inevitably encounter the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. The Lupercalia festival is described in sometimes conflicting details by classical and Christian writers, so we have some idea of what went on at it, but there's even more about it we don't know. For example, we don't know:

  • which god was celebrated,
  • exactly how/where the Lupercalia was celebrated, or
  • what its origins were.

Lupercalia is one of the most ancient of the Roman holidays (one of the feriae listed on ancient calendars from even before the time Julius Caesar reformed the calendar). It is familiar to us today for 2 main reasons:

  1. It is associated with Valentine's Day
  2. It is the setting for Caesar's refusal of the crown that was made immortal by Shakespeare, in his Julius Caesar. This is important in two ways: the association of Julius Caesar and the Lupercalia gives us some insight into the final months of Caesar's life as well as a look at the Roman holiday.

The name of the Lupercalia was talked about a lot in the wake of the 2007 discovery of the legendary Lupercal cave -- where, supposedly, the twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf.

The Lupercalia may be the longest-lasting of the Roman pagan festivals. Some modern Christian festivals, like Christmas and Easter, may have taken over elements of earlier pagan religions, but they are not essentially Roman, pagan holidays. Lupercalia may have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 B.C.) or even before. It ended about 1200 years later, at the end of the 5th century A.D., at least in the West, although it continued in the East for another few centuries. There may be many reasons why Lupercalia lasted so long, but most important must have been its wide appeal.

Why Is Lupercalia Associated With Valentine's Day?

If all you know about Lupercalia is that it was the background for Mark Antony to offer the crown to Caesar 3 times in Act I of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, you probably wouldn't guess that Lupercalia was associated with Valentine's Day. Other than Lupercalia, the big calendar event in Shakespeare's tragedy is the Ides of March, March 15. Although scholars have argued that Shakespeare did not intend to portray Lupercalia as the day before the assassination, it sure sounds that way. Cicero points to the danger to the Republic that Caesar presented on this Lupercalia, according to J.A. North -- a danger the assassins addressed on that Ides.

"It was also, to quote Cicero (Philippic I3): that day on which, sodden with wine, smothered with perfumes and naked (Antony) dared to urge the groaning people of Rome into slavery by offering Caesar the diadem that symbolized the kingship."
"Caesar at the Lupercalia," by J. A. North; The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 98 (2008), pp. 144-160

Chronologically, Lupercalia was a full month before the Ides of March. Lupercalia was February 15 or February 13-15, a period either proximate to or covering modern Valentine's Day.

Sharing a date is not enough to connect Lupercalia and Valentine's Day closely. For that there is a thematic connection....

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