February – the month of purification in Ancient Rome

The month of February (Februarius) was thought to be one of two months inserted into the calendar between the end of winter – December (Decembris) – and the start of Spring, March (Martius). The calendar was drawn up by the Roman king Numa Pompilius (715-c670BC).

The months of January (Ianuarius) and February denoted midwinter – but the calendar was changed by a much more familiar Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar (1 Jan 49BC – 15 Mar 44BC).

To regulate the calendar so that the months coincided with the cycles of nature and could be predicted, Caesar allocated February 28 days instead of the usual 30 or 31. He also introduced Leap Year every four years to compensate for the slight difference in the speed earth travelled around the sun, which meant the calendar accumulated an extra day every four years. Originally, however, the extra day added to February was earlier in the month, between 23 February and 24 February.

Area Sacra, Rome, consisting of four different temples and near where Julius Caesar was murdered
Area Sacra

February was an important month for the Romans, perhaps because of the preparations for Spring, which included festivals of purification. The festivals might have involved animal sacrifices – but the name February is connected to the word “febrile”. Some ceremonies might have involved cleansing and purification to ward off evil spirits, including “sweating’ these out. It might be that Ancient Romans literally turned up the heat in February to purge themselves.

Whereas we now celebrate Valentine’s Day on 14 February, the Romans originally celebrated the festival of Lupercalia on 15 February, which was a ceremony linked to fertility and fruitfulness, perhaps anticipating nature blossoming as the weather changed.

The god associated with February is Februus – the god of purification, who was also the god of wealth and the god of death.

Getting fruitful in spring – the biggest lemon ever in the Borghese Gardens

Ironically, it was 15 February 44BC that marked the events which led to Caesar’s assassination on 15 March the same year, after Mark Antony offered Caesar the title of king, prompting fears that Caesar’s growing power and confidence was leading to him trying to establish himself as an omnipotent ruler in perpetuity.

Tusculum portrait Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar bust

Caesar is now considered not only as one of the most well known and successful of all the Roman rulers – but one of the most successful leaders in history, perhaps thanks in part to the myth that grew up after his assassination. The Jewish Ghetto in Rome was one of the first groups to mourn his passing, because he was considered a friend to the Jews, unlike other Roman emperors like Hadrian and Titus.

Caesar also claimed to be a direct descendant of Iulus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, immortalised in Virgil’s Aeneid, which told the tale of the Trojan wars. It was common for Roman emperors to associate themselves with historical figures such as Aeneas or Hercules to add to their own mythology and strengthen their position.

autumn VEII
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument in an early Spring sunset

February can frequently be a bleak month weatherwise – but there is always a hint of Spring just around the corner.  Nowadays we might think of getting in shape, ready for summer – and the warmer weather sends us digging into our wardrobes to find our summer clothes again.

Literally on the March – ready for Spring in Piazza di Spagna

With their feast day on 15 February, the Romans did something similar – though whether they dug out their favourite lightweight toga ready for Spring has not yet been documented. I like to think they did!

Happy February – or Februarius Felix!

Months of the year in Latin:

January – Januarius

February – Februarius

March – Martius

April – Aprilis

May – Maius

June – Junius

July – Julius

August – Augustus

September – Septembris

October – Octobris

November – Novembris

December – Decembris

Want to brush up your Latin? There is a beginners’ course online at the National Archives website. 

Images copyright A. Meredith except where stated

Featured image: Fountain of the Naiads, Piazza della Repubblica, Rome (Image Pixabay)

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