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This webpage reproduces an article in
Classical Philology
Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 1931), pp60‑69.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p60  The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century
By William M. Green

The remark is often made that the Lupercalia was among the most long-lived of pagan institutions, lasting till near the close of the fifth century, long after the old pagan worship was legally suppressed. While this is true, the references to the Lupercalia of this period found in well-known works are often distinctly uncritical. For example, Pope Hilary is said in A.D. 467 to have demanded the abolition of this festival from the Emperor Anthemius,​1 whereas the sources state only that the Pope warned the Emperor against tolerating heresies,​2 and that the Lupercalia had continued through the time of Anthemius.​3 Again, in almost all the discussions of the institution it is said that Pope Gelasius in 494 converted the pagan festival into the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (Candlemas). This conjecture of Cardinal Baronius​4 was based on the fact that Gelasius had suppressed the pagan festival, and that the quadragesima Epiphaniae (February 14), the earliest form of the Christian festival, so nearly coincided with its date, February 15. Usener and later writers on Christian ritual​5 have recognized Baronius' mistake, in that the quadragesima Epiphaniae was never celebrated in Rome, and that the date of Candlemas, which must follow Christmas with an interval of forty days, could never in the West have been  p61 other than February 2. Yet such scholars as Marquardt, Fowler, Schanz, and Frazer​6 continue to follow the sixteenth-century cardinal.

There is no doubt but that the Lupercalia continued till the time of Pope Gelasius (A.D. 494‑96). It is mentioned by Augustine in the latter part of the City of God7 (written not far from 426), and it is included in the calendar of the Christian Polemius Silvius, of 448/9.​8 When it was finally abolished by the efforts of Gelasius, he addressed to a group of senators an epistle defending the step, which approximates the length of an apologetic treatise.​9 He admits that the old pagan rite had continued under his predecessors, through the days of Alaric, Anthemius, and Ricimer, and had been abolished only in his own time;​10 but he defends the earlier popes by saying that ills could not be healed at once, and that perhaps they had tried to remove this superstition but had failed to win the support of the imperial court.11

Those who pleaded for the restoration of the prefect were all members of the bishop's spiritual flock,​12 and it was evidently through such persons that the rites had been carried on during the preceding century of Christian rule. In a long series of laws, commencing with the year 341, pagan worship had been forbidden, especially the sacrifices, such as were characteristic of the Lupercalia; and the severest penalties were prescribed.​13 The last organized resistance by the pagans was crushed by Theodosius I at the battle of the Frigidus in 394,14  p62 while the subsequent process of suppressing the pagan cult, with the occasional riots resulting, is well illustrated by the letters of St. Augustine.​15 From all the sources it would appear that the public observance of pagan rites was effectually suppressed by 408. The Lupercalia, then, must belong to the class of superstitions which lingered on among a nominally Christian people. Something of the nature of this superstition may be learned from the letter of Pope Gelasius cited above.

1. As to the purpose of the Lupercalia. — A pestilence had broken out in Campania, which Andromachus and other senators ascribed to the suppression of the Lupercalia. The Pope replied that the purpose of the festival was not to avert pestilence but to promote the fertility of women; that pestilence and ills of every sort had been abundant while the Lupercalia continued; and that there was no connection between a city festival and happenings in Campania.16

This reply raises a question as to the purpose of the rites. Gelasius cites an account from the second decade of Livy (292‑218 B.C.), to the effect that the Lupercalia was instituted to relieve the sterility of Roman matrons.​17 The service thus rendered by the scourging of the Luperci is mentioned by many writers. But a number of sources indicate that the Lupercalia was, in a wider sense, a festival of purification. It was the most important event of the month of February, which received its name from the purification (februare = "to purify").​18 The day of the Lupercalia was known as the dies februatus, or "Purified Day."​19 The course taken by the runners was a lustration of the ancient Palatine settlement;​20 but in historic times its benefits were extended to the entire city,​21 so that it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Roman inhabitants of outlying districts felt their interests involved.

 p63  Such rituals of purification are among the commonest of all magical or religious practices designed, as Frazer says,​22 "to repel the powers of evil and so to liberate the powers of good, thus promoting the fertility at once of man, of beast, and of the earth." So the Lupercalia was believed to make provision for the growth of crops,​23 coming at a season appropriate for that purpose. In the Roman ritual a number of festivals belong to this class, and on the occasion of prodigia extraordinary lustrations took place.​24 Two writers have preserved for us versions of the prayer that accompanied the lustration of a Roman estate, which show clearly the aim to avert all forms of evil. When the farmer has given orders for the hog, sheep, and ox of the suovetaurilia to be led about his farm, he prays to Father Mars to keep off diseases, sterility, destruction, calamities, and bad weather ("morbos visos invisosque, viduertatem vastitudinemque, calamitates intemperiasque"), allowing the crops to grow to an abundant harvest, preserving shepherds and flock, giving health to master and household.​25 Festus includes a request for the averting of pestilence, disease, death, ruin, vapors, and the scab ("pesestas. . . . morbum, mortem, labem, nebulam, impetiginem").26

So firmly intrenched were such superstitions of the mob that in 397 a group of Christian missionaries in Anaunia, north of the Po, were slain for attempting to prevent the lustral ceremony.27

The Lupercalia was the best known and most spectacular of such purifications. It persisted through a century of Christian rule, while the others, so far as we know, disappeared, or were remodeled and adopted into the calendar of the church.​28 It would be quite natural for it to take over, somewhat, the functions of those that were lost. Thus the suppression of a pestilence on Campanian estates would more properly be a function of the ambarvalia, but was now associated with the Lupercalia. How seriously people believed in such an association we cannot tell. The Pope scoffs at the idea, yet thought it necessary to write an answer in several thousand words.

 p64  2. The deity honored. — The Pope describes the rites as a worship of demons, a propitiatory sacrifice to the February god — "quia daemonia non colantur et deo Februario non litetur."29

The god of the Lupercalia is given many names — Faunus, Pan, Lupercus, Lycaeus, Inuus — even Bacchus and Juno are mentioned — but the name of the month is nowhere else applied to the god. Late writers refer to a Februus, the personification of the month, who is once named as honored by the Luperci.​30 There was, in fact, no general agreement as to the identity of the god. This leads to the modern suggestion that the Lupercalia was originally a magical rather than a religious rite, and hence did not involve a reference to any particular deity.​31 This would help to explain its survival in the fifth century, among the many other magical practices which the church continued to combat through the centuries. The adjective Februarius might serve as a description of the unnamed spirit who presided over the month of purification and its principal festival, and would be less distinctively pagan than the name of any god formerly connected with the rites.

Gelasius, however, was acquainted somewhat further with the half-animal nature of this daemon, describing worshipers as "digni, qui monstrum nescio quod pecudis hominisque mixtura compositum, sive vere sive false editum celebretis."​32 One thinks at once of his identification with Pan or Faunus, and of the statue set up in the Lupercal, nude except for the goat-skin about his loins, just as the Luperci appeared in the festival.​33 Such creatures — Panes, fauns, silvans, werewolves, and a myriad of others — abound in the folk lore of all ages, and we may be sure were a part of the superstitions of the fifth century. It is strictly in accord with the tradition of Christian apologists that the Pope viewed these spirits as daemonia ("demons"), and seriously regards the possibility that the strange monster of the Lupercalia was a reality. For Augustine the existence of Sylvanos et Panes, and their relations with women, is a matter proved by indubitable testimony.​34 Furthermore, he follows Varro in believing that men have  p65 been transformed into wolves in the rites of the Arcadian Pan Lycaeus, from whose mysteries the Roman Luperci take their origin.35

Christians believed that these demons were wholly evil, and such may well have been the view even of those members of Gelasius' flock who desired to continue the superstitious practices. The issue was not as to the reality of the demons, but as to whether evils should be averted by demon-worship and magic arts, which were regarded as one and the same thing.36

3. The Luperci. — The most familiar feature of the Lupercalia was the spectacle of the nude Luperci running to and fro, a feature that is noted in the letter of Gelasius. But it seems that the runners to whom the senators would intrust the ritual were not of the rank chosen in antiquity. In Caesar's time noble youths and magistrates felt no shame in playing the part, even the consul Antony appearing conspicuously in 44 B.C.37 Under Augustus, member­ship in the two colleges of Luperci was awarded, as a mark of honor, to selected youths of equestrian rank.​38 The Christian nobles of Gelasius' time, however, would commit the function to men of the lowest class — "ad viles trivialesque personas, abiectos et infimos"; they are not even given the name Luperci.39

To this part of their proposal the Pope makes a taunting reply: such a performance is not the ancient rite at all, and would have no efficacy whatever. "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!" Their unwillingness to do so was a confession that it was a shameful institution in which no Christian of dignity could engage.40

The degradation of the ritual is also referred to as a matter of the past. The Pope maintained that the adherents of the superstition had corrupted the cult in having it performed by improper persons, so that now, if anything was to be done, a complete renewal (instauratio) was needed to repair matters.41

 p66  When Gratian in 382 expropriated the property and income of the pagan priesthoods, revoked their immunities, and forbade all future gifts,​42 the structure of the ancient priestly colleges must have rapidly collapsed. The prohibition of pagan-worship made their profession illegal,​43 and as outlaws they were driven from the metropolitan cities.​44 All this rendered the continuance of the equestrian colleges of Luperci quite out of the question. Popular superstition led to the continuance of some form of the rite; but persons of standing were reluctant to make the required display, and left that task to the vulgar.

4. The songs. — As to the sportive behavior of the performers, Gelasius' letter gives a suggestion of unique interest. It appears that a minister of the church had been guilty of adultery, and the same senators that urged the continuance of the Lupercalia demanded also that an example be made of the offending cleric.​45 Now the connection between the two demands is not explicitly stated, but it seems implied that the offender was to be humiliated by having his crime made the subject of public jesting at the Lupercalia. That festival is characterized as a matter of jesting and vile songs ("ludibrii et cantilenarum turpium"), a religious observance which is celebrated by remarks of obscenity and of crimes ("quae obscenitatum et flagitiorum vocibus celebratur"). Its defenders argued that by carrying out this practice and publishing the misdeeds of everyone ("haec agendo et facinora uniuscuiusque vulgando"), men were deterred from such deeds and checked by shame, fearing that they would become the subject of public song ("ne de his publica voce cantetur"). The only misdeeds mentioned are those of the guilty cleric.

The Pope replies that such a performance rather destroys shame and suggests criminal conduct. Jesting serves not to repress evil but as an occasion for merrymaking. One is actually affording a service to such a religion in committing the misdeeds which may be taken as the subjects of song. Thus the festival, like the whole pagan system, is grossly immoral.46

 p67  The sportive license of the Lupercalia is frequently mentioned in the classical literature,​47 but without referring to the subject matter of jests. When merrymaking takes the form of obscene verses, it is natural that these are made use of to lampoon anyone who appears a suitable target. The abuses thus growing out of the licentious Fescennine verses led to legal prohibitions.48

The licentious character of the pagan festivals is constantly attacked by the Christian apologists, and, we may be sure, was dear to the pagans. An opportunity such as was here afforded to make merry at the expense of a Christian minister would appeal strongly to those who loved the old superstitions, and would meet with a most spirited resistance on the part of the church.

5. The sacrifices. — The protest of senators was made because propitiatory sacrifice was not being made to the February god ("quia deo Februario non litetur"), a phrase also used by the Pope to describe the sacrifice of olden times.​49 The word litare means to sacrifice, or to propitiate by means of sacrifice, and is regularly applied to offerings of victims, incense, or sacrificial meal. In a transferred sense it may mean "propitiate, appease." Thus in the Vulgate it is used of propitiating God by a life of righteousness,​50 in Tertullian of reverence to God.​51 The letter of Gelasius gives no clue as to whether the February god was to be propitiated by the ancient sacrifice of goats, dog, and mola salsa, or by other means.

On the one hand, the goat-sacrifice and the skins of the slaughtered animals played such an essential part in the festival that they would seem quite inseparable from it, especially since the god himself remained monstrum pecudis hominisque mixtura compositum. On the other, this long continuance of animal sacrifice, which was the central object of Christian attack, seems incredible. A law of 392, for example, distinguished between the immolation of a victim or consulting of entrails, as crimes punishable by death; and other acts, such as offering incense, setting up altars, etc., as punishable by a fine.52

 p68  The bishops and clergy were everywhere active in promoting the enforcement of the laws, and it is difficult to believe that the bloody sacrifice was annually and publicly performed in Christian Rome, the seat of apostolic authority. If the animals were still slaughtered in Gelasius' day, we should expect him to denounce that abomination while pointing out, as he does, the inconsistency of the rite with the Christian profession.

In defense of the performance it was urged that it was a mere shadow (imago) of the ancient pagan festival. The Pope agrees, but replies that if the genuine ceremony, performed ritu integro, was worthless, how much more so the shadow!​53 The changes referred to in these words include the matter of the selection of the runners, but the words are more appropriate if applying to more extensive changes, such as the suppression of the animal sacrifice.

One passage of doubtful text may have a bearing on this question. According to the MS the Pope challenges the nobles, "ipsi cum *ridiculo* nudi discurrite."​54 Guenther offers the emendation resticulo, a rare word found in the Digest and in Ambrose.​55 If this conjecture is right, it would mean that the runners carried cords instead of the ancient goat-skin thongs, and would imply that the sacrifice had ceased.

6. The flagellation. — Some change had occurred in the scourging inflicted by the runners, since this, like the running of the nobles, is described as a thing of the past. "Apud illos enim nobiles ipsi currebant et matronae nudato publice corpore vapulabant."​56 Nowhere else is it said that matrons bared their bodies to the scourge. In the time of Juvenal and Plutarch women offered the palms of their hands, like children in school.​57 Ovid, however, in describing the origin of this practice, says the girls were bidden to offer their backs to be beaten.​58 Gelasius, as we have noted, cites Livy as to the occasion when this feature of the ritual was instituted, and must owe his knowledge of the exposure of the body by the matrons to the same, or a similar, source. It is altogether likely that such a rude practice would give way, and be replaced by that described as usual in classical times.

 p69  It is not stated whether the flagellation was now entirely a thing of the past or only modified. The balanced phrases nobiles currebant, matronae vapulabant may indicate that the women of rank, like men of similar station, no longer took part in the ritual, but left it to the lower class.

The evidence, then, as to the Lupercalia at this late date shows that it was a performance of the superstitious Christian mob. They thought of it as a purificatory rite by which evils might be averted from the state, its benefits even extending to outlying portions of Italy. The demon to be propitiated was of half-animal form, deriving its name Februarius from the month of purification. But, though the rites retained the name of "Lupercalia," they were considerably altered. Nude runners, not the ancient and honored Luperci, ran to and fro, singing sportive verses in which conspicuous scandals might be aired for the amusement of the people and the humiliation of the offender. As to the other practices of the day we have no complete evidence, and may suspect that they had suffered radical modification at the hands of the several Christian generations through which they had passed.

Some of the nobles shared the popular superstition, and wished to gratify the popular taste, though they had no inclination to humiliate themselves by becoming the performers in the entertainment.

The Pope was himself not entirely free from the superstition, but was none the less firm in his determination to stamp out the last remnants of demon-worship. That worship appeared in a typically indecent form, such as aroused the ire of the Christian moralists from St. Paul to St. Augustine. It now fell to the lot of Pope Gelasius to complete the work of Christian teachers and lawmakers, and declare that no one baptized, no Christian, should be defiled by the pagan rites.

University of California

The Author's Notes:

1 J. G. Frazer, Fasti of Ovid (London: Macmillan & Co., 1929), II, 328, follows H. H. Milman, History of Latin Christianity4 (New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1903), I, 287, who in turns follows Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, IV, chap. xxxvi, 32 ff. (ed. Bury; New York: Macmillan, 1898). Gibbon and Milman are equivocal as to Hilary's protest against the Lupercalia, while Frazer makes the unqualified assertion. Bury offers no correction in Gibbon's statement.

2 Avell. in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (ed. Guenther; Vienna: Tempsky, 1895), XXXV, 453 f.

Thayer's Note: The article actually cites CSEL "XXXV, 390 f." I have Roger Pearse to thank for the correction.

3 Avell., p457, 20.

4 C. Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici (Barri-Ducis; L. Guerin, 1864‑83), IX, 603.

Thayer's Note: As you will see if you follow that link, that's merely Baronius' incidental reference to his own earlier work, which is to be found in his exhaustively annotated Martyrologium Romanum, p63 col. 1; the statements he makes about Gelasius' letter are accurate, but he inexplicably chose to make them in his notes on the celebration (February 2) of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

5 H. Usener, Weihnachtsfest (Bonn: Cohen, 1889), p318; T. Barnes, "Candlemas" in Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York; Scribner's, 1908‑27), III, 190; L. Duchesne, Christian Worship5 (London: SPCK, 1923), p271.

6 J. Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1878), III, 427; W. W. Fowler, Roman Festivals (London: Macmillan & Co., 1899), p321; M. Schanz, Geschichte der römischen Literatur (München: Beck, 1920), IV, Part II, 603; Frazer, loc. cit. So also in a Columbia dissertation, A. M. Franklin, The Lupercalia (New York, 1921).

7 Civ. XVIII.12.17.

8 CIL I2.259.

9 Epist. 100 — Avell. pp453‑64.

10 Ibid., p461, 2.23 ff.

11 Ibid., pp462, 23‑464, 4. His belief that the earlier popes had made such an effort is twice qualified (forsitan, fortasse) in a manner overlooked by Gibbon and those who followed him (cf. n1 above, p60).

12 Ibid., pp454, 10; 463, 5‑15, etc.

13 Cod. Theod. XVI.10.2‑25et al. Cf. the collection of laws, in translation, by M. A. Huttmann, "The Establishment of Christianity and the Proscription of Paganism," in Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, LX, Part II, 169‑249.

Thayer's Note: Huttmann's monograph, possibly an earlier or a later version, is online as a free-standing book (with different pagination).

14 Cf. J. Geffcken, Ausgang des griechisch-römischen Heidentums (Heidelberg: Winter, 1920), pp160‑62.

15 Epist. 50, 90, 91, 96, 97, 103, 104. Cf. E. F. Humphrey, Politics and Religion in the Days of Augustine (New York: Columbia Diss., 1912).

16 Avell., pp454, 12 ff.; 456, 23‑457, 28.

17 Ibid., p457, 4 ff.

18 CIL I2.259; Pol. Silv. fast. Febr. tit.; Varro Ling. V.34; Ov. Fast. II.31 f.; Censor. xxii.14 f.; Paul. Fest. p85; Dio. Hal. I.80; Plut. Numa xix.5; Lydus de Mensibus IV.25.

19 Varro, Censor. loc. cit.

20 Varro loc. cit.

21 Ov., Censor. loc. cit.

22 Op. cit., II, 335.

23 Lydus loc. cit.

24 G. Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer2 (München: Beck, 1912), pp390 f.

25 Cato agr. 141.

26 Paul. Fest., p210 s.v. pesestas.

27 Max. Taur. Serm. 81 Wissowa, op. cit., p101, n2.

28 Usener has argued that the latter was the case with the Ambarvalia, Amburbale, and Robigalia. Weihnachtsfest, pp296‑303; Wissowa, op. cit., p101, n5.

29 Avell., p454, 13.

30 Lydus loc. cit.; Steuding in Roscher's Lexikons.v.

31 Frazer, op. cit., II, 335.

32 Avell., p460, 26 f.

33 Just. xliii.1, 7.

34 Civ. xv.23; cf. Wissowa, op. cit., p211, n6.

35 Civ. xviii.17.

36 Ibid. viii.17‑22.

37 Plut. Anton. 12.

38 Val. Max. II.2.9; Wissowa, op. cit., p561.

39 Avell., p458, 25.

40 Ibid., pp458, 26‑459, 11 et saepe.

41 Ibid., p462, 5 ff.

42 Cf. Huttmann, op. cit., pp192 f.; Geffcken, op. cit., pp145 f.; Wissowa, op. cit. p98.

43 Cod. Theod. XVI.10.14 (396 A.D.).

44 Ibid. XVI.10.20 (415 A.D.).

45 Avell., p455, 23 ff.

46 Ibid., pp459, 19‑460, 20.

47 Cic. Phil. xiii.31; Wissowa, op. cit., p560, n4.

48 Hor. Epist. II.1.145‑55. Cf. Mart. I.4.3 f.

49 Avell., pp454, 13; 456, 28.

50 Vulg. Sirach xxv.3.

51 Tert. Patient. 10.

52 Cod. Theod. XVI.10.12. Cf. XVI.10.10.25. Novell. Theod. III.8; Cod. Just. I.11.7.

53 Avell., p462, 9‑14.

54 Ibid., p458, 28.

55 Forcellini, s.v.

56 Avell., p458, 22.

57 Plut. Caes. lxi.2; Juv. II.142.

58 Ov. Fast. II.445 f.

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