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"You start in April and cross to the time of May
One has you as it leaves, one as it comes
Since the edges of these months are yours and defer
To you, either of them suits your praises.
The Circus continues and the theatre's lauded palm,
Let this song, too, join the Circus spectacle."
Ovid, Fasti (V.185-190)
In 238 BC, at the direction of an oracle in the Sibylline books, a temple was built to honor Flora, an ancient goddess of flowers and blossoming plants. It was dedicated on April 28 and the Floralia instituted to solicit her protection (Pliny, Natural History, XVIII.286, cf. Velleius Paterculus, I.14.8, who says 241/240 BC). Sometime later, the festival was discontinued, only to be revived in 173 BC, when the blossoms again that year suffered from winds, hail, and rain (Ovid, Fasti, V.329ff). It was celebrated annually with games (ludi Florales) from April 28 until May 3. These farces and mimes, which received official recognition, were known for their licentiousness. The prostitutes of Rome, who regarded the day as their own, performed naked in the theater and, suggests Juvenal (Satire VI), fought in the gladiatorial arena. In the Circus Maximus, deer and hares, symbols of fertility, were let loose in honor of the goddess as protector of gardens and fields (but not of woods and wild animals) and, instead of the customary white, colorful garments were worn during the festivities, some of which were celebrated at night (Ovid, Fasti, IV.946, V.189-190, 331ff.). Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, another symbol of fertility) also were thrown to the people in the Circus (Persius, Satires, V.177ff).
Valerius Maximus (II.10.8) relates that it was the custom at theatrical presentations during the Floralia for the spectators to demand that the actresses perform naked on stage. Rather than interfere with the festivities, Cato (the Younger), who was in attendance, walked out. The audience followed him, applauding the fact that, although disgusted and embarrassed, Cato choose to leave rather than have his presence inhibit the performance. They then went back inside. Certainly, the bawdy celebration offended Cato, who is quoted by Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, X.13) as saying that a participant acted like a harlot, going from the banquet straight to the couch, where she disported herself with others. Martial is not so forgiving of such hypocritical morality, declaring in the preface to his first book of epigrams that they are written for those who are accustomed to watching the Floralia, not for the likes of Cato, who cannot be so naive as not to have known what to expect when he choose to attend "sprightly Flora's ritual fun, the festal jests and license of the rout." The fourth-century poet, Ausonius, is equally impatient with such behavior when he chides those who go to the theater during the Floralia—"the rites which they long to see who declare they never longed to see them" (Eclogues, XXIII.25).
Writing in the decade after the Diocletian persecution (AD 303), Lactantius, a younger contemporary of Valerius, has his own notion as to the origins of the festival.
"Flora, having obtained great wealth by this practice [harlotry], made the people her heir, and left a fixed sum of money, from the annual proceeds of which her birthday might be celebrated by public games, which they called Floralia. And because this appeared disgraceful to the senate, in order that a kind of dignity might be given to a shameful matter, they resolved that an argument should be taken from the name itself. They pretended that she was the goddess who presides over flowers, and that she must be appeased, that the crops, together with the trees or vines, might produce a good and abundant blossom. The poet [Ovid] followed up this idea in his Fasti, and related that there was a nymph, by no means obscure, who was called Chloris, and that, on her marriage with Zephyrus, she received from her husband as a wedding gift the control over all flowers. These things are spoken with propriety, but to believe them is unbecoming and shameful. And when the truth is in question, ought disguises of this kind to deceive us? Those games, therefore, are celebrated with all wantonness, as is suitable to the memory of a harlot. For besides licentiousness of words, in which all lewdness is poured forth, women are also stripped of their garments at the demand of the people, and then perform the office of mimeplayers, and are detained in the sight of the people with indecent gestures, even to the satiating of unchaste eyes."
Divinæ Institutiones (I.20)
Indeed, Lactantius relates the same story of Larentia (Larentina), the wife of Faustulus, who had found Romulus and Remus, to explain the origin of another Roman festival, the Larentinalia on December 23.
A century later, Augustine also criticized the celebration of Flora, questioning why it should be "more satisfactory to irritate the gods by temperance, than to pacify them by debauchery; and to provoke their hate by honest living, than soothe it by such unseemly debauchery" (De Civitate Die, II.27). To which the goddess doubtless would have replied: "use life's beauty as it blooms" (Fasti, V.353).
A Dutch expatriate living in England, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836-1912) began to paint the imagined world of classical Greece and Rome after a visit to Pompeii in 1863. His languid, often sensuous, figures found acceptance in Victorian society because of their classical setting.
Two notes: Ovid speaks of rabbits and capreae being released in the Circus. The word is the plural for "roe deer," but "goats" has been given in translation as well and, indeed, that is the ancient name for the isle of Capri, where goats were found. Yet, the plural of a female goat is caprae and, presumably, there is an etymological association that allows translators of the passage to offer two different meanings for the word.
Whereas Pliny is quite specific as to the date of the Floralia, which was instituted in 516 AUC (238 BC), the date provided by Velleius Paterculus must be calculated, which may explain why both 241 BC and 240 BC are given. The Oxford Classical Dictionary says simply 240-1 BC.
The detail above is from the Fasti Praenestini, which is in the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme (Rome), and pertains to April 26-30. For April 28, one can read Eodem die aedes, quae rebus florescendis praeest, dedicata est propter strilitatem frugum.
References: Pliny: Natural History (1938-) translated by H. Rackham et al. (Loeb Classical Library); Ovid: Fasti (2000) translated by A. J. Boyle and R. D. Woodard (Penguin Classics); Varlerius Maximus: Memorial Doings and Sayings (2000) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library); Velleius Paterculus: Compendium of Roman History (1924) translated by Frederick W. Shipley (Loeb Classical Library); Martial: Epigrams (1968) translated by Walter C. A. Ker (Loeb Classical Library); Juvenal and Persius (1918) translated by G. G. Ramsay (Loeb Classical Library); Ausonius (1919) translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (Loeb Classical Library); A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol VII: Lactantius) (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series I (Vol II: Augustine) (1898) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; Alma Tadema's Spring (1978) by Burton B. Fredericksen (J. Paul Getty Museum).
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