May in Ancient Rome – a game of two halves

In Ancient Rome the month of May – Maius – was literally a game of two halves. May for Romans began with the Ludi Florae, which were known for their general debauchery. The games actually began on 27 April and were dedicated to the goddess Flora. The ludi were considered games for the people – the plebeians – rather than the nobles and elite.

Statue of the goddess Flora (Image: Carole Raddato CCL)

The Roman Goddess Flora

The Temple of Flora was situated on the slope of the Aventine Hill, in the area of the Circo Maximo, where public games frequently were held. The Ludi Florae marked the consecration of the temple of Flora on 27 April – after the Julian Calendar was introduced, however, they were held from 28 April.

The goddess was honoured with her own state-funded high priest – one of only 15 deities afforded this tribute. Flora represented growth, fertility and the abundance of nature, including the renewal of plants and vegetation in spring.

The general marking of renewed fertility in nature is perhaps what led to the somewhat bawdy nature of the games, which last for six days, into the month of May. There would be drinking, feasting, plus romantic or sexual encounters during that time. By coincidence, today, the Circo Maximo is still used for exercising and dog walking by Romans – but you will frequently see young Romans having a cuddle on the grassy banks in warm weather, just like their ancestors.

Circo Maximo

Fun at the Floralia

In Ancient Rome, it was frowned upon to be seen drunk in public, but the Festival of Floralia seemed to loosen up the togas of Roman citizens who, like we do today, welcomed the warmer weather and abundance in nature that accompanies it. Even sex workers in Ancient Rome joined in the festival – much like our Davos summits today!

Although the games were dedicated to the people, they were paid for using fines collected for trespassing on public land.

The games would not only involve sporting events at the Circo Maximo – but also theatre performances, which the Romans loved; and other spectacles, which varied from year to year. It is suggested that on one occasion an elephant was trained to use a tightrope.  Hardly surprising that circus traditions originated in Italy – the Ancient Romans loved anything novel or entertaining.

Beware the Limures (Image: Pixabay)


After the games ended. May turned into a more sober affair – perhaps just as well, as many Romans might well be nursing hangovers.

On 9, 11 and 13 May, Ancient Romans participated in marking a household observance called the Lemuria – the Lemures or Larvae (the Latin for a face mask was “larva”) were thought to be frightening and malevolent spirits of dead ancestors who might plague households if they were not spoken of kindly. They assumed terrifying appearances and were thought to be able to cause actual harm to family members.

To pacify the Lemures, the paternal head of a family had to get out of bed at midnight and perform a sort of exorcism. After cleansing his hands, he would summon the Lemures with black beans and then use incantations to make sure they returned to the Underworld, before popping himself back into bed with a clear conscience.

The Romans were generally very superstitious people who believed in oracles and fortune tellers. But the festival of Lemures, it is suggested, was invented by Ancient Rome’s first king, Romulus, who murdered his twin brother Remus to assume power. We may also derive the saying “Never speak ill of the dead” from the Lemuria.

Even today we sometimes use rituals to exorcise perceived spirits in our homes – salt, sage and holy water are common features of exorcism or protection rituals.

Once the Ancient Romans had thoroughly enjoyed themselves and pacified their malevolent dead ancestors, May turned into a much calmer month and Romans began to look forward to the summer months – and more festivals!

Christian May Celebrations in Rome

Today in Rome, May is a time for Christian festivals – in Trastevere, Saint Paschal Baylon, protector of women, is remembered for having died in a state of sanctity on 17 May 1582.

There is also a Christian pilgrimage of the seven churches, which takes in seven basilicas between St Peter’s and Santa Maria Maggiore.

St Peter’s, Rome


But Rome in May is still blooming – between April and May, the Spanish Steps are covered in pink and white azaleas, grown specially in a nursery every year to mark the arrival of spring in the Eternal City, a tradition known as the “infiorata”.

The goddess Flora would approve!

Buon viaggio!

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