Friends, Romans, naked wolf-men … why an ancient festival is still controversial
The annual Lupercalia festival turned society upside down –
and the location of its starting point is still hotly debated.
Scenes from films like Gladiator and series such as HBO’s Rome might lead you to think that the ancient Romans were liberal in their view of nudity. In fact the opposite was true. It was only during exceptional occasions that Romans were freed from their social norms – and the most spectacular occasion was the annual Lupercalia festival.
From the earliest days of Rome, 15 February was reserved for this strange festival. It was so unusual that Cicero disparaged the festival as savage and uncivilised remnants of primitive times. A closer look at the rituals might explain his attitude: men of the nobility stripped down to their underwear in order to strike women with strips of goatskin. Classed as priests, these were not men of the cloth as we would understand it – Roman religion was nothing like modern Christianity or Islam – but young men of military age who showed off their muscles running around the Palatine hill and the Forum, the city centre of ancient Rome.
These young men were known as the Luperci, or wolf-men, because the origin of the festival was tied to the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. The ritual started at the Lupercal cave, where a she-wolf was reputed to have suckled the infant twins. Great fertility was believed to be associated with the site.
The association of Lupercal brothers is openly pastoral and uncivilised. Their woodland company was established before civilisation and laws.
Marcus Tullius Cicero