Lupercalia; The Ancient Valentine’s Day

Most cards this time of the year will tell you “Will you be my Valentine?” or “Happy Valentine’s Day!”, but, should we really have celebrated this feast?


A man of God, Pope Gelasius I, towards the end of the 5th century AD, is said to have eliminated a Roman pagan festival of purification and fertility, to replace it with the “Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” – however, there is no documentation to confirm this claim.


But what we actually know is that he added a certain “Valentine” to the calendar of saints, on the 14th of February 496. Valentine of Rome, a priest, was beheaded two centuries before by Roman Emperor Claudius II for marrying Christian couples and refusing to deny his faith during his imprisonment. Initially, the date was set to commemorate Valentine’s martyrdom, and through the ages, it became associated with love and passion, very much like an ancient festival which he openly criticised, opposed and discouraged civilians from taking part in.


Lupercalia was a festival celebrated on the 15th February for about twelve hundred years by the Romans and it can be traced back to the 6th century BC. The Catholic Church portrayed it as a bloody, drunken, sexual festival and tried to ban it, though the Roman Senate emphasised its need for the safety and welfare of Rome.


According to the legend, Romulus and Remus, sons of Mars and a Vestal Virgin, were suckled by a she-wolf and raised in the Lupercal cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill, after they floated down the Tiber river as infants who were to be drowned upon the orders of their uncle, King Amulius. The twins were later adopted by shepherds and killed their uncle. Romulus then killed Remus following a dispute, and founded Rome at the foot of the hill.


On the left to right: Mars, Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf, and a shepherd. Ara Pacis.


Although the origin and purpose of Lupercalia are not clear, scholars say that the Romans celebrated it to honour the she-wolf and to satisfy Lupercus, the Roman God of Fertility or Faunus, the Roman equivalent of Pan. Two colleges of priests – the Quintilii, who were said to be the descendants of the followers of Romulus and the Fabii, those who followed Remus – would meet inside the Lupercal cave. Prior to the ritual, the priests would binge drink wine and feast. The ritual, then, began by sacrificing goats and a dog. Two younger men from the priests were brought forward, and a bloody knife was rubbed across their foreheads, and the blood was washed off immediately by another priest using goat’s milk. The symbolism is rather obvious; the young men stood for Romulus and Remus and the milk washing off the blood represented their violent acts being forgiven. The priests then made whips out of the goats’ skins, called thongs or februa and ran around the city of Rome naked (or nearly naked), whipping women who were within their reach.


Now, the whips were not designed to injure anyone. Many women would actually run near the priests to get whipped because it meant that they would be very fertile. Besides, the feast was supposed to be filled with laughter, when crowds in Rome would watch naked, tipsy priests walk around whipping women. Lupercalia is one of the oldest Roman celebrations and perhaps you have already heard of it if you read Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.


In 44 BC, Julius Caesar placed his own college of priests in the cave along with the Quintilii and the Fabii, called the Julii, whose first magister was none other than Marcus Antonius. He could achieve this because he was the Pontifex Maximus, who endorses the role of chief high priest of the College of Pontiffs. Antonius was one of the two consuls and Caesar had been appointed dictator in perpetuum (for life) earlier in February, which meant that he could appoint magistrate at will. This was unusual in the Roman Republic since dictators could only serve a maximum of six months once they had been appointed. He wanted to gain the full power of Rome, to be able to control everything because he believed that Rome would fare, but most citizens were afraid of the idea of a monarchy, knowing that their previous one ended in chaos.


During Lupercalia, Marcus Antonius ran to Julius Caesar, carrying a diadem with a wreath of laurel tied around it. A few from the crowd cheered, but when Caesar refused the diadem, all applauded. When Antonius offered it again, fewer cheered, yet when Caesar declined it a second time, there was, once more, a round of applause. Caesar, upset, left the rostra where he was sitting on a golden throne. Realising that his experiment was a failure, because ultimately he wanted to be crowned, he ordered the diadem to be brought to the Capitol. His statues were decorated with diadems, which were pulled off by Flavius and Maryllus, two tribunes, were deprived of their office by Caesar. A month later, on the 15th March 44 BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times.


Pagan feriae or holidays have been fundamental to all civilisations, not just the Roman. When we come to think of it, perhaps after a couple of glasses of wine or beer, ancient pagan celebrations and Catholic ones aren’t that different. In fact, you might realise that the Church simply adapted these pagan festivals. Valentine’s Day doesn’t fall far from the Lupercalia tree, and neither does Christmas from Natalis Invicti. The 14th of February was originally created to remember a martyr, and nowadays we celebrate love and passion. Not very holy. Are we all just incurable pagans at heart, bound to return to our roots?



For those of you who would like to read further about anything mentioned above, here are some of the sources I used myself.

I recommend Historia Civilis, a Youtube channel which uploads videos about Roman and Greek related history.

Plutarch‘s biographies.

Obviously, Wikipedia provides a great deal of information.

Or just, you know, watch a good old documentary and seek information for yourself.



Dora Marossy

Currently reading Mary Beard's Confronting the Classics and Factfulness by Hans Rosling.

Dora Marossy

Currently reading Mary Beard's Confronting the Classics and Factfulness by Hans Rosling.