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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.


Lupercalia, a very ancient, possibly pre‑Roman, pastoral festival in honour of Lupercus. Its rites were under the superintendence of a corporation of priests called Luperci,​1 whose institution is attributed either to the Arcadian Evander, or to Romulus and Remus. In front of the Porta Romana, on the western side of the Palatine hill, close to the Ficus Ruminalis and the Casa Romuli, was the cave of Lupercus; in it, according to the legend, the she‑wolf had suckled the twins, and the bronze wolf, which is still preserved in the Capitol, was placed in it in 296 B.C. But the festival itself, which was held on February 15th, contains no reference to the Romulus legend, which is probably later in origin, though earlier than the grecizing Evander legend. The festival began with the sacrifice by the Luperci (or the flamen dialis) of goats and a dog; after which two of the Luperci were led to the altar, their foreheads were touched with a bloody knife, and the blood wiped off with wool dipped in milk; then the ritual required that the two young men should laugh. The smearing of the forehead with blood probably refers to human sacrifice originally practised at the festival. The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the victims and ran in two bands round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, striking the people who crowded near. A blow from the thong prevented sterility in women. These thongs were called februa, the festival Februatio, and the day dies februatus (februare = to purify); hence the name of the month February, the last of the old Roman year. The object of the festival was, by expiation and purification, to secure the fruitfulness of the land, the increase of the flocks and the prosperity of the whole people. The Lupercal (cave of Lupercus), which had fallen into a state of decay, was rebuilt by Augustus; the celebration of the festival had been maintained, as we know from the famous occurrence of it in 44 B.C. It survived until A.D. 494, when it was changed by Gelasius into the feast of the Purification.​a Lupercus, in whose honour the festival was held, is identified with Faunus or Inuus, Evander (Εὔανδρος), in the Greek legend being a translation of Faunus (the "kindly"). The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilia (or Quinctia)​2 and Fabia; at the head of each of these colleges was a magister. In 44 B.C. a third college, Luperci Julii, was instituted in honour of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. In imperial times the members were usually of equestrian standing.

See Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, III (1885) p438; W. Warde Fowler, Roman Festivals (1899), p310 foll.º and article in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rd ed. 1891).​b

The Author's Notes:

1 Many derivations are suggested, but it seems most probable that Luperci simply means "wolves" (the last part of the word exhibiting a similar formation to nov‑erca), the name having its origin in the primitive worship of the wolf as a wolf‑god.

2 Mommsen considers the Quinctia to be the older gens, and the Quinctilia a later introduction from Alba.

Thayer's Notes:

a This can be viewed as a simplification befitting an encyclopedia article, but in fact it's an outright mistake originating in a 16c scholar's misreading of the Pope's letter. He in turn was uncritically followed by some of the big names in 19c scholar­ship, including unfortunately the writer on whom this article chiefly relies. Another 19c scholar finally caught the error: see my note to the article in Smith's Dictionary, and especially the journal article linked there, "The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century".

Somewhat similarly, the connection of the Lupercalia with St. Valentine's Day: see the same note, and the further resources cited there.

b The links to Marquardt and Smith's Dictionary are to the editions available online, which are not those indicated. The link to Warde Fowler — his twelve pages on the Lupercalia will be the most valuable to the serious yet German-challenged student — is to the same edition, but the citation as printed was in error and I've corrected it.

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Page updated: 29 Aug 17