Lupercalia: an alternative mid-February holiday

At this time of year we are so used to marking Valentine’s Day it is easy to be misled into thinking that this was the only festival ever to be celebrated at this point in our calendar. There is, however, a more ancient festival celebrated at this time – Lupercalia. Although it pre-dates the Roman Period, Lupercalia is most commonly known as an occasion which the Romans associated with cleansing and purification.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens during the festival with Marullus asking Flavius whether they can send the craftsmen out on the streets back to work, as it is both a holiday and a time of triumph for Caesar:

Flavius: Go you down that way towards the Capitol; this way will I disrobe the images, if you do find them deck’d with ceremonies.

Marullus: May we do so? You know it is the feast of Lupercal.

Flavius: It is no matter; let no images be hung with Caesar’s trophies. I’ll about, and drive away the vulgar from the streets . . .

Julius Caesar Act I, Scene I

The festival had associations with the god Lupercus (the equivalent of the Roman Faunus and the Greek Pan). Lupercus was the god of shepherds and the festival is thought to celebrate the founding of his first temple, which took place on 15 February. However, it is most prominently linked with Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the legendary twins Romulus and Remus.

Lupa Romulus Remus coin

Fourth Century coin showing Lupa suckling Romulus and Remus,
discovered in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collection.

 

This small, but charming coin from our museum collection illustrates the two brothers and a much stylised Lupa on its reverse. Supposedly the Lupercalia festival superseded an earlier cleansing-ritual known as Februa, where (you’ve guessed it!) we get the month ‘February’ from. So we may not celebrate Lupercalia in exactly the same way as our Roman predecessors, or indeed even be aware that we are marking this ancient festival, but it’s always fascinating to discover the origins of some of our modern celebrations.

A freely available online exhibition exploring keys aspects of the music in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as music inspired by Shakespeare.