The abundance of holidays and festivals in the ancient Roman calendar is almost overwhelming. Along with various public celebrations (every single month of the year!), the Roman citizens attended private celebrations too. One could only wonder how they coped with such a busy schedule.
Different types of ancient Roman festivals
All festivals in ancient Rome were part of the religious life of the Roman society. Nevertheless, the Romans made a clear distinction between feriae publicae (public celebrations) and feriae privatae (private celebrations); the former being paid for by the state and the latter by particular individuals or families.
As the days of celebrations were perceived as devoted to the gods, the public work ceased, and various religious rituals were performed. The slaves also had their periods of supposed rest. That is what Cicero suggested in “De legibus,” although those engaged in agriculture activities continued their work after a proper piaculum – animal sacrifice.
Being non-working days, those festivals entered the ancient Roman calendar as holidays (dies ferialis) divided into three main categories:
1.Feriae stativae: fixed or stable annual holidays that occurred at the same date every year.
2.Feriae conceptivae: annual moveable celebrations that were celebrated on a date announced by the magistrates or the priests (like Easter today or Thanksgiving).
3.Feriae imperativae: special celebrations imposed by the magistrates for exceptional events.
Winter Festivals in Ancient Rome
24 November: Brumalia
"Il Parassita", Roberto Bompiani, 1875, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & Magnus Manske
The name of Brumaliais related to the Latin word brūma, ae, f, meaning the shortest day in the year, the winter solstice. During this festival Saturn, Ceres and in some cases Bacchus were venerated with animal sacrifices (usually pigs) and first fruits offerings such as grain, wine, olive oil, and honey. By the late Antiquity, Brumalia was extended until mid-December, where another merry festival - Saturnalia started. The celebrations included night-time feasting, drinking, and merriment where people greeted each other with the sentence VIVES ANNOS – "May you live for (many) years!"
Saturnaliais probably one of the most popular ancient Roman festivals not only because of its similarities with some today’s celebrations but also because of its festivity and originality. Initially, it lasted one day. During the late Republic, the holiday was extended to three days and by the end of 1st century AD, it grew up to one whole week. This period was supposed to be exempted from any work and obligations, and no declaration of war could be done.
The public rituals consisted of animal sacrifice to the god Saturn and were all marked by the characteristic “looseness” of the festival; the priests performed without covering their heads (otherwise an obligatory condition), and the statue of Saturn (whose feet were usually wrapped with wool) was left barefooted. After the sacrifice, the festive part of the celebrations started with a public banquet filled with salutations and shouts: “Io, Saturnalia!”
The public feast once finished, the private celebrations began. The houses were decorated with laurel and green trees’ branches and lightened by various candles and oil lamps. During the festival, there was one rule followed by all – exchange of the standard social roles. Slaves were allowed to eat together with their masters or even, according to some text, to be served by them. A King of Saturnalia (Saturnalicius princeps) was elected among all by a lot. Although that may happen to be a slave, everyone should obey if he wanted, for example, someone to sing naked or to be thrown in cold water. All slaves were spared of punishment those days.
People with higher social status were allowed to take off their togas and put on a Greek colorful cloth considered as a home dress called synthesis. They could also put on their heads a pilleus (a hat used from freedmen) and to mix outside with the crowd where even slaves could have it worn. During the festival, gambling was allowed, and people tended to go out, play games with friends, eat and drink together.
Sigillaria, on 19 December, must have been one of the most exciting days of Saturnalia. At that day, Romans exchanged small gifts and offered toys to the children. In later times, this habit was extended to the whole festival and for one whole week people visited friends and family, dined together, and exchanged presents. Obviously, during Saturnalia, ancient Rome looked and sounded much like modern countries during their big celebrations of the year. Lines of one of Seneca the Younger’s letters confirm that: “It is now the month of December when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations…”
Another unique feature of this festival was the fact that it was celebrated not in a specific place or town, but all over the Roman Empire. It was observed as a great festivity long after its removing from the official Roman calendar.
3-5 January: Compitalia
Fresco of Moregine architectural complex, located outside the walls of Pompeii representing men wearing togae praetextae participating in a religious ceremony, probably the Compitalia
Originally a movable feast, Compitalia was fixed at January 3rd to 5th in the times of the early Empire. The festival was the countryside variation of Saturnalia, although its origins probably predated the birth of Rome. Compitalia was celebrated in honor of Lares Compitales – household deities who presided over the cross-ways (compita). At the boundary of his farm, a Roman landlord would build a small shrine where he would put wool figures of his family’s members and then would scarify an animal for purifying the farm for the coming year.
As a part of the celebration the slaves received extra food ratio and had a common dinner with the vilicus (the foreman in charge) and his wife. The people who led the celebration of Compitalia were called magistri vici (village officers) and during the festival were allowed to wear toga praetexta - a distinctive garment worn by freeborn Romans. In the Republican period, public games were added to the celebrations.
Historians suggest that probably in ancient times landlords celebrated Saturnalia first at the city with his town slaves, and later they celebrated Compitalia with the slaves of their farms. Marcobius confirms the importance of that festival and reports that it was still observed in the 4th century AD.
13 - 15 February: Lupercalia
The Lupercalia Festival, Andrea Camassei, 1635
Lupercalia -a "Wolf Festival" - was an ancient Roman festival observed in mid-February with a main purpose to turn away the evil spirits and to purify the city. It was consecrated to Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus and the public rituals took place near the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine Hill where the brothers were found. Lupercalia was said to have replaced an older ritual of purification held on these days called Februalia (from februrae, a Latin word borrowed from the Etruscan word for purging, meaning “purification means”). The festival is also associated with Lupercus, an ancient Roman god sometimes identified with Faunus – the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan. The public rites of Lupercalia included ritual sacrifices of one dog and two male goats as well as a distribution of special cakes made by the Vestals from corn of the previous year.
The funniest part of that festival came after the end of the official sacrifices where the priests of Faunus, called Luperci, dressed only in goat skins led two young patricians in front of the altar. They were smeared with the blood of the sacrificial animals and wiped out with wool soaked in milk. The priests cut thongs from the goat skins and named them februa – means of purification. Two teams of noble youth were formed having the two anointed young men as their captains. Those groups, altogether with the Luperci, started running around the old Palatine city in laugh and jokes, striking with the thongs whoever got in their way. According to Plutarch, girls and women intentionally searched for the running merry men, as they believed that getting lashes from these whips will prevent them from sterility and that will fortify their fertility. Pregnant women would also line-up for lashes because of their supposed power of relieving childbirth pains.
Participation in Lupercalia did not make ancient Romans indignant, at least not in 1st century BC when Mark Antony is said to have run through the city as a priest of one of the Luperci’s collegia instituted in honor of Julius Caesar.
22 February: Caristia
Family banquet, Painting from Pompeii, National Archeological Museum, Naples
Caristia was one-day private celebration known as Cara Cognatio – “The Festival of the Caring Kin.” It was celebrated right after the nine-day festival Parentalia (13-21 February) which was dedicated to the honoring of the family ancestors, but on its last day (February 21) the souls of the dead family members were venerated. On this day, families visited the tombs of their ancestors and offered sacred offerings of bread soaked in wine, salt, wheat, flower garlands and violets petals.
The next day – Caristia, after arranging their relationship with the dead, the Romans turned to the life and tried to arrange their relationship with the living. Celebrating life was at the center of that occasion and Cara Cognatio was a kind of a “feast of family love” which people commemorated with banqueting and gift exchanging. That was a reconciliation day when all family disagreements should be put aside, all conflicts forgotten and everyone pardoned.
Caristia first started with prayers and offerings of grape, grain, honey sweets, and wine to the Lares – the household guardian deities. Then the real celebration began around the table including big amounts of realRoman eating and drinking.
That Cara Cognatio was highly cherished by the Romans talks the fact that it was still celebrated in the 5th century AD. Approximately at that time it was substituted with a feast day commemorating the burial of St. Peter and St. Paul.
In the archaic Roman calendar, February was the last month of the year. With the beginning of March came the New Year. The goddess of the year – Anna Perenna was celebrated on the Ides of March (March 15) with heavily drinking outside in tents or right on the river bank. It was believed that one should drink as many drinks as many years he would like to live.