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The Lupercalia

Spring was thought to begin on February 5, which was the time for the seed to be sown. It was a time, too, for purification and the expiation of any unintentional offense that might have been given to the gods. The month of February takes its name, in fact, from the instruments of purification (februa) used in such rites, the best known of which is the Lupercalia, an ancient pastoral festival in celebration of Lupercus, a god of fertility (Plutarch. Life of Romulus, XXI.35). It was celebrated in the Lupercal, a grotto at the foot of the Palatine Hill where Romulus and Remus traditionally were thought to have been suckled by a she-wolf (lupus). The twins, born of Mars and Silvia, the Vestal daughter of the king, eventually restored their grandfather to the throne and, at the site where they themselves had been rescued, founded Rome in 753 BC.

On February 15, two young men of noble birth from the Luperci, priests of Lupercus, who were naked except for the skins of goats that had been sacrificed that day, ran from the Lupercal around the bounds of the Palatine, both to purify that ancient site in a ceremony of lustration and, striking the women they met with strips of flayed goat skin, to promote fertility and easy childbirth. "Neither potent herbs, nor prayers, nor magic spells shall make of thee a mother," admonishes Ovid, "submit with patience to the blows dealt by a fruitful hand" (Fasti, II.425427).

It was at the Lupercalia in 44 BC that Mark Antony, who as high priest of the Luperci (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, LXXVI.1), ran up to Caesar as he watched from his gilded chair on the Rostra and offered him a laurel wreath as a token of kingship, a gesture that some in the crowd applauded (Cicero, Philippics, II.34; Dio, Roman History, XLIV.11.13). But, when it ostensibly was rejected, there was a roar of approval, which demonstrated to Caesar that his being crowned did not have the support of the people. His statues, too, had been decorated with diadems, which the tribunes, as defenders of the plebs, removed to the loud applause of the people, who called them "Brutuses" because it was Brutus who had deposed the kings of ancient Rome and given power to the senate and people. Caesar, angry at the insult, berated the men and deprived them of their tribuneship (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, LXI).

Exactly one month later, he was assassinated.