How February in Ancient Rome shaped our calendar

Th month of February holds a special place in Roman history – because it helped to shape our modern calendar.

February in Roman times was the shortest month of the calendar – just as it is today. Originally March – Mars – was the first month of the calendar, which initially in Roman times had only ten months. It was altered by the second king of Rome, Numa Pompillius, who added January (Ianuarius, names after the god Janus) and February (Februarius).

February was named after the festival of Lupercalia – a celebration of purification, which cleansed the city of Rome. The purgings were known as Februa – and also helped promote healthy living and fertility in ancient Rome, just as spring was about to arrive. The purification of Rome was also dedicated to the Etruscan god Februus, who was also worshipped by the Romans.

The calendar changed to 12 months in 713 BC – Numa Pompilius was one of seven kings of Rome and he added February to the end of the calendar. It was decided to dedicate the last month of the year to purification – in Latin Februare – and to the Etruscan god Februus. He was the god of wealth and riches – heralding hopes for the spring and the later harvest; and he was also associated with death and the Underworld, completing the cycle of nature as symbolised by the planting of seeds, the blossoming of them in spring, the harvest and wealth from it – and the land falling fallow during winter months.

Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf, Verona, Italy

At the foot of the Palatine Hill stood a cave called Lupercal, where it is said the twin brothers who founded Rome were suckled by the she-wolf who raised them. In the cave of Lupercal – from the Latin for wolf, lupus – stood a statue of the god Lupercal, who was known to Ancient Greeks as Pan. He was naked, apart from a loin cloth made from goat’s skin.

The Palatine Hill was also home to the shrine of a goddess called Rumina, known for breastfeeding.

There were also priests dedicated to the cult of Lupercalia and these were known as Luperci – brothers of the wolf. They were mainly aged between 20 and 40 – the age for men in their prime and at their most fertile. The priests held a ritual whereby after the sacrifice of a goat and a dog, they ran naked through the streets of Rome after being anointed with sacrificial blood. It was customary for young women to extend their hands as the priests passed, in the hope they would be struck by the Luperci. If they were lucky enough to have their hands struck, it was taken as a blessing – those already pregnant would be granted an easy delivery and those who were infertile would become pregnant. In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, the opening act begins during Lupercalia when Julius Caesar as Mark Antony – at the time, the “magister” or master of the Luperci – to strike his wife Calpurnia, so that she will become pregnant. Calpurnia was a seer and Caesar’s fourth wife, who was married to him at the time he was assassinated. She had begged him not to go to the senate on the day of his death, after experiencing troubling nightmares the night before. She did not become pregnant and Caesar died without an heir after his son by Cleopatra died in childhood. His named his heir as his great nephew and adopted son, Octavius, who later became the first Roman emperor, Augustus.

Julius Caesar

February was very much associated with beginnings and endings – representing the start of life after a barren period. Today, February is thought of as a romantic month – Leap Year was added by Julius Caesar to address the time lapse in the calendar every four years because of the earth’s rotation. It became known as the Julian calendar – and today we still celebrate Leap Year on 29 February every four years, when women are allowed to propose to men. Valentine’s is also one of the biggest celebrations every year, making February possibly the most romantic month of the year.

Whether or not you are lucky – or unlucky – enough to get your hand slapped by a passing naked priest. It is one Roman tradition we have dropped in modern time. Probably a wise decision.

Happy February – or Felix Februarii!

Lupercalia by Andrea Camasei, Prado Museum (Image Wikipedia CCL)

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