8 Facts About Lupercalia—the Ancient Festival Full of Whippings and Ritual Sacrifice

Sex, violence, and drunkenness: For centuries, Lupercalia was a major Roman party, surviving well into the rise of Christianity. And pretty soon, someone on your Facebook feed is probably going to claim that this holiday gave rise to our modern Valentine’s Day. So what’s the true story behind the ancient Roman festival and its relation to candy hearts?

1. Lupercalia featured odd sacrifices.

Every year on February 15, the festival began by going to the Lupercal (the legendary site where Romulus and Remus were suckled) and sacrificing a dog and a goat. According to scholar Keith Hopkins, this was unusual in and of itself, because pigs, sheep, and bulls were most commonly used as sacrificial animals. The Oxford Classical Dictionary explains that next, the blood of these animals "was smeared with a knife on the foreheads of two youths (who were obliged to laugh), and wiped with wool dipped in milk."

2. Whippings were also on the menu.

After the blood/wool excitement, Lupercalia's main attraction was the runners. The sacrificed goat’s skin was cut into thongs and (possibly—see below) girdles to be worn by the athletes. Then two sets of runners (a third set would be added later) would make their way through the streets of the city, whipping whomever they met on their way. According to some accounts, women would volunteer to be whipped because it was believed to bring fertility and make the birthing process easier for them. But as the years passed, things changed; by the 3rd century, the voluntary nature of this ritual seemed to be less voluntary. Hopkins claims that a mosaic featuring a Lupercalia celebration features “two men forcibly holding a naked woman face upwards, while a third man, half naked, whips her thighs ... The men’s drunken hilarity is matched by the beaten woman’s obvious pain."

3. People may have been naked—or maybe not.

One long-standing debate about Lupercalia is the degree of nudity. There are definite references to nudus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean naked. It could just mean “having one’s main garment removed,” possibly in reference to the runners wearing goat skin loincloths. But other writers were explicit in mentioning nudity as part of the festivities. It remains an open question whether the festival was PG-, R-, or X-rated.

4. It’s not quite clear who or what the Lupercalia festival was celebrating.

Circle of Adam Elsheimer The Lupercalian Festival in Rome
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

According to the 1st century BCE scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, "the Luperci [are so called] because at the Lupercalia they sacrifice at the Lupercal … the Lupercalia are so called because [that is when] the Luperci sacrifice at the Lupercal." This incredibly unhelpful circular definition has led to centuries of debate about who, or what, the festival was actually celebrating.

Ovid suggested that it was for Faunus (a Roman pastoral god); Livy said it was Inuus (the god of fertility); and Varro said it was a wolf goddess named Luperca. Traditionally, the two sets of runners are related to the mythological founders of Rome—Romulus and Remus—who were suckled by a wolf. But confusingly, Livy says that the twins were ambushed by bandits while celebrating the Lupercalia, leading some scholars to suggest the festival predates Romulus and Remus.

As South African scholar P.M.W. Tennant observed while discussing Romulus and Remus and the Lupercalia, “most of the ideas put forward here are obviously highly conjectural—as all theories concerning the Lupercalia are bound to be."

5. Lupercalia is when Julius Caesar was offered the crown.

Today, Lupercalia is probably most famous for what happened on February 15, 44 BCE. That day a “ naked, perfumed, drunk ” Mark Antony was one of the runners while Julius Caesar watched the proceedings from a throne. Antony went up to Julius Caesar with a diadem (a type of crown or headband) and—in what later historians have said was almost certainly scripted—attempted to give it to Caesar and proclaim him king.

The crowd's initial response to this action was tepid, but when Caesar refused the crown they cheered. Antony tried again, Caesar refused again, and the crowd exploded. Caesar ordered the crown taken to the Temple of Jupiter because Jupiter was Rome’s one king. The purpose of this exercise has been debated. Some propose Antony did it on his own to either flatter Caesar or embarrass him, while at the time it was thought that Caesar orchestrated the stunt as a way to test the waters for whether the people would accept a king. Either way, it didn't really work out for Caesar; he was assassinated one month later.

6. A Pope criticized the festival.

One of Lupercalia's most remarkable features is how long it survived. We know this because circa 494 CE, Pope Gelasius wrote a letter criticizing Christian participation in it. He commented on how in the olden days nobles would run as Lupercali and strike naked matrons, and modern participants should be willing to similarly run naked. By Gelasius’s time this had become heavily altered, leading him to proclaim “your own bashfulness ought itself to teach you that the Lupercalia is a public crime, not salvation and the cult of the Divinity, regarding which no wise man would blush. Rather the Lupercalia is an instrument of depravity, which your mind, bearing testimony against itself, blushes to fulfill.”

The letter is interesting to historians for many reasons. First, because Gelasius flat-out describes many of the less seemly rites, and it also allows historians to analyze how Lupercalia changed with time and changed with the perception of the author. For instance, Gelasius indicated that by the 5th century lower classes were the runners, whereas important figures like Mark Antony participated in earlier events.

7. Despite what you've heard, Lupercalia probably has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.

Many pop culture websites and books declare that Pope Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with a festival dedicated to St. Valentine of Rome (or possibly of Terni—the figure is mysterious) who had his feast day on February 14. But as British author Mark Forsyth once observed, "It is vitally important when writing about traditions to remember that there are only 365 days in the year ... Overlap is not significance."

Most medieval historians agree there’s no evidence that Pope Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with any festival whatsoever (a similar claim that Candlemas replaced Lupercalia is also without merit) with scholar Jack Oruch proclaiming “at no point does Gelasius speak of compromise or of adapting any pagan customs” and another professor telling History.com: "It just drives me crazy that the Roman story keeps circulating and circulating." Meanwhile, popular legends that Lupercalia featured girls writing their names on paper that would be drawn from a box by boys are likely an 18th-century invention.

Most mainstream historians instead propose that Valentine’s Day and romance became associated with each other only in the late 14th century, and specifically because of a Geoffrey Chaucer poem called "Parliament of Fowls" (or "Parlement of Foules").

8. Valentine’s Day might not even be on February 14.

In Chaucer’s poem, he proclaimed (in modern spelling) “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day / When every bird came there to choose his mate.” But some historians have noted that February 14 is still very cold in England and is unlikely to be a good bird mating season. In the 1980s some historians, led by Andy Kelly of UCLA, began proposing that the "Valentine" Chaucer was referring to was St. Valentine of Genoa, whose feast day occurred on May 2 or May 3 (sources differ), instead of Valentine of Rome. This is especially relevant because King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia concluded their marriage treaty on May 2, meaning Chaucer may have chosen Valentine by just picking out a random saint whose day fell on the correct day in May. Over the years, the association with May weakened and the day migrated to the more famous Valentine of Rome.

Other scholars objected, pointing out that there are many references to fertility rites and festivals in February—such as Lupercalia—and that Chaucer may have been discussing the more famous Valentine of Rome and February 14.

"In medieval studies there is neither consensus nor continuing debate on the question which St. Valentine Chaucer had in mind," Professor Steven Justice of the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. "The evidence just hasn't supported any conclusive arguments one way or the other, and unless one is (a) convinced that the feast, whichever it is, identifies the historical occasion of the poem, if it had one, and (b) interested in that historical occasion, the question does not seem very consequential. One would like an answer just because one doesn't like unanswered questions, but it's not clear that much hangs on it."

One thing is clear: Today, whether you celebrate Lupercalia or St. Valentine of Rome’s day in February or St. Valentine of Genoa in May, it's best leave out the goat sacrifices and running naked through the streets.

Soon You'll Be Able to Book a Night Inside the Palace of Versailles

The exterior of the Palace of Versailles
The exterior of the Palace of Versailles
mtnmichelle/iStock via Getty Images

Beginning next spring, interested tourists can say au revoir to more traditional lodging in favor of spending the night inside the Palace of Versailles, as Thrillist reports.

Back in 2015, the palace’s management announced it was looking for an outside partner to convert three of the palace’s buildings into guest accommodations. That outside partner turned out to be Airelles, a luxury hospitality group with three other properties in France.

In 2020, the company will begin accepting bookings for Le Grand Contrôle, a 14-room hotel located in the palace’s south wing. The hotel will also feature a new restaurant from famed French chef Alain Ducasse, the second-most decorated Michelin star chef in the world.

Tourists beware, though: A single night at the company’s other properties generally cost upwards of $500 per night, so a stay at Le Grand Contrôle is unlikely to be cheap. But visitors who want to shell out the money for a room can look forward to an unbeatable location, first-class dining, and the joy of relaxing while telling others to “let them eat cake” (which Marie Antoinette never said, but it's befitting nonetheless).

[h/t Thrillist]

Further Reading: Books About (And By) Theodore Roosevelt

Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress
Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress

If you're enjoying what you're learning on History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt, we suggest checking out these books about—and a few of them by—our 26th president. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast here!

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The first book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s years from birth to the vice presidency.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

The second book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s seven years in the White House.

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The final book in the trilogy focuses on Roosevelt’s post-presidential years.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton

A fascinating one-volume biography of Roosevelt.

The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann

In addition to covering the big three Roosevelts—TR, FDR, and Eleanor—this must-read book features the Roosevelt siblings and cousins, revealing secrets and feuds within this famous family.

Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon by Michael Cullinane

An analysis of Roosevelt’s legacy.

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley

A look at TR’s life from a naturalist perspective.

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks

A look at TR’s time as police commissioner of New York.

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

This book covers when Roosevelt was accused of libel, and took the stand in his own defense.

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis

An account of the lives of Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, and their relationship—including their dinner, which made history.

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger L. Di Silvestro

Di Silvestro’s book covers TR’s time as a rancher in the Dakotas, where he retreated after the deaths of his wife and mother and a rough end to his career as an assemblyman.

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough

This National Book Award–winning biography takes on TR’s early years.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

An account of Roosevelt’s journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon—during which he almost died.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A look at the relationship between Roosevelt and his successor, Taft, a one-time friend who became an enemy.

A Passion to Lead: Theodore Roosevelt in His Own Words by Edited by Laura Ross

Selections from Roosevelt’s writings accompanied by gorgeous photographs.

Hunting Trips of a Ranchman by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on hunting.

Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on his time as a rancher in the Dakotas.

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt

This book, published in 1913, is Roosevelt's life in his own words.

Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches

This book features four famous speeches and more than 350 letters written by TR to family, friends, and diplomats between 1881 and 1919.

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