Roman Festivals and Games

Roman Festivals (Feriae)

Festivals or Feriae (“holidays” in the sense of “holy days”; singular also feriae or dies ferialis) in ancient Rome were a very important part in Roman religious life during both the Republican and Imperial eras, and one of the primary features of the Roman calendar.

Festivals were where religious officials employed by the State conducted public rites and were either public (publicae) or private (privatae). Citizens were required to suspend business on such dates, but they were not required to attend religious ceremonies (many did so, however, as sacrificial meat was often given in such festivals). Because the ancient Romans did not observe a “weekend” as moderns do, these festivals would have constituted the days of rest for the populace.

Feriae publicae were of three kinds:

  • Stativae were annual holidays that held a fixed or stable date on the calendar.
  • Conceptivae were annual holidays that were moveable feasts; the date was announced by the magistrates or priests who were responsible for them. The following are Feriae conceptivae Compitalia, Sementivae, Fornacalia, Amburbium, Feriae Latinae (Latin Festival), Ambarvalia, Imperativae
  • Imperativae were holidays held “on demand” when special celebrations or expiations were called for.

Roman Games (ludi)

Games (ludi), such as the Ludi Apollinares, were not technically feriae, but the days on which they were celebrated were dies festi, holidays in the modern sense of days off work.

The most important festivals were the Saturnalia, the Consualia, the Lupercalia and the rites of the Bona Dea.

Festivals in the Roman Calendar

Following is a month-by-month list of Roman festivals and games.

  • Kalends – This was known as the first day of the month.
  • Nones – Originally this was the day of the half moon. In later reforms this was eight days for the Ides and occurred on the fifth or seventh day of the month, depending on where the Ides fell.
  • Ides – This was originally marked by the full moon. In later versions of the calendar, it began on the 13th day in months with 29 days. It began on the 15th day in months with 31 days.

In addition, the days of the calendar were each marked on the “fasti,” a public recording of events and religious ceremonies. The letters and their meanings are as follows:

  • F – (Fastus) These days were appropriate times to begin action in the civil courts.
  • C – (Comitalis) Days when Roman people could organize assemblies.
  • N – (Nefastus) Political activities and administration of justice were not allowed on these days.
  • NP/FP (Feriae) – The exact meaning is unknown, but these were thought to be public holidays. Certain things were allowed only before or after noon.
  • QRCF (Quando rex comitiavit fas) – These days were appropriate for priests to call an assembly.
  • EN (Endotercissus) – The latin translates to “cut in half.” These were days where sacrifices were being prepared in the morning and offered in the evening.
  • January,Ianuarius, fully Mensis Ianuarius (“month of Janus”)
    • 1 Jan: From 153 BC onward this was the day when the new consuls, the highest magistrates of the Roman Republic were sworn into office in the Senate. Bulls were sacrificed in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus to thank him for his protection during the preceding year. This was accompanied by vota publica (public vows for the wellbeing of the republic and later of the emperor) and the taking of auspices. Festivals were also held for the imported cult of Aesculapius and for the obscure god Vediovis.
    • Compitalia 3-5 Jan: most common dates for Compitalia, a movable feast (feriae conceptivae)
    • 5 (Nones) Jan: Dies natalis (founding day) of the shrine of Vica Pota on the Velian Hill
    • 9 Jan: Agonalia in honor of Janus, after whom the month January is named; first of at least four festivals named Agonalia throughout the year
    • 11 and 15 Jan: Carmentalia, with Juturna celebrated also on the 11th
    • 13 (Ides) Jan
    • 24–26 Jan: most common dates for the Sementivae, a feriae conceptivae of sowing, perhaps also known as the Paganalia as celebrated by the pagi
    • 27 Jan: Dies natalis of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, or perhaps marking its rededication (see also July 15); Ludi Castores (“Games of the Castors”) celebrated at Ostia during the Imperial period
  • February / Februarius In the archaic Roman calendar, February was the last month of the year. The name derives from februa, “the means of purification, expiatory offerings.” It marked a turn of season, with February 5 the official first day of spring bringing the renewal of agricultural activities after winter.
    • Parentalia 13 – 21 Feb: During this festival the Romans honoured their ancestors at the family shrines within their own homes, thus, all other temples remained closed and weddings were forbidden.
    • Lupercalia 15 Feb: This feast celebrated the founding of Rome, and was held in honour of the god Pan. The festival began with the sacrifice of two goats and a dog, then the bloody knife was touched to the foreheads of two youths of illustrious descent who must smile as they are touched, and afterwards, the blood was wiped from their faces with wool dipped in milk. Following this, the victims were skinned and their hides cut into thongs out of which were fashioned a pair of whips. The youths then ran naked around the Palatine Hill and the city, whipping all they came across. The festival derives its name from the Greek name for Pan, Lyceus, from λυκοσ, ‘a wolf’. The Lupercal, where the festival was celebrated, lay at the foot of the Aventine Hill, and was where the she-wolf was reputed to have reared Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome.
    • Terminalia 23 Feb: This festival marked the end of the ancient Roman year.
  • March / Martius In the old Roman calendar (until perhaps as late as 153 BC), the mensis Martius (“Mars’ Month”) was the first month of the year. It is one of the few months to be named for a god, Mars, whose festivals dominate the month.
    • Matronalia 1 Mar: A festival held at Rome in honour of Mars, in commemoration of the rape of the Sabine women. Only married women could attend the celebrations, during which they made offerings of flowers in the temples of Juno.
    • ? 1 Mar: This was the day on which the Vestal Virgins lit a new fire to the Goddess Vesta, in celebration of the beginning of the ancient new year. The Temple of Vesta was situated at the edge of the Forum in the heart of Rome.
    • Anna Perenna 15 Mar: During this festival, Roman families traditionally picknicked along the banks of the Tiber.
  • April / Aprilis Piece of the fragmentary Fasti Praenestini for April, showing the Vinalia (VIN) and Robigalia (ROB). A major feriae conceptivae in April was the Latin Festival.
    • Ludi Megalenses 4 – 10 Apr: Games in honour of Cybele, whose sanctuary on the Palatine Hill was dedicated in 191BC.
    • Ludi Ceriales 12 – 19 Apr: Games held in honour of Ceres since 202BC.
    • Quinquatria 18 – 22 Apr: This popular festival was held in honour of the goddess Minerva at Rome. The celebrations lasted for five days, and is the basis for the name of the festival. On the first day, sacrifices and oblations were offered, though no blood was spilled, the next three days were taken up mostly with gladiatorial displays, and on the fifth and final day a solemn procession was held through the streets of the city. The scholars and pedagogues were also given a holiday at this time, and it was customary for them to offer up sacrifices to Minerva, who was their patron goddess. The school-masters would also receive gifts from their pupils when they resumed lessons at the end of the holiday; all of these gifts would be accepted in the name of Minerval (sic). Throughout the festival plays would be enacted and public discussion of the arts openly encouraged. The festival was also associated with the opening of the campaign season; during this time the arms, horses and trumpets of the Army would be ceremoniously purified at Rome. The ancient ‘Dance of the Salii’ took place during the Quinquatria on 19 Apr, and also during the Armilustrium on 19 Oct.
    • Robigalia 25 Apr: An ancient religious festival, on which day foot races were held in Rome.
    • Florales 28 Apr – 3 May: The festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers, during which the Roman wore fresh garlands of flowers about their necks, and danced through the streets. Instituted after 173BC.
  • May / Maius The feriae conceptivae of this month was the Ambarvalia.
    • Ludi Martiales¹ 12 May: Games held in connection with the dedication of the shrine and temple of Mars Ultor; also held on 1 Aug.
    • Rosaliae Signorum ? May: A military festival, during which the standards of all of Rome’s military units, including the Auxilia, were decorated with wreaths of roses and paraded though the camp. This ancient religious observance was also accompanied by a civil festival and carnival atmosphere, especially within the Roman capital.
  • June / Iunius On the ancient Roman calendar, mensis Iunius or Iunius, also Junius (June), was the fourth month, following Maius (May).
    • Matronalia ? Jun: A festival held at Rome in honour of Matuta or Ino. Only matrons and free-born women could attend the celebrations, during which they made offerings of flowers and carried their younger relatives in procession.
    • Vestalia 9th Jun: Festival held at Rome in honour of Vesta. The Vestal Virgins were banqueted, and all the millstones in the city were decked with garlands, the asses used to turn the millstones were likewise festooned with blooms then paraded through the streets, also accompanied by the ladies of the City who walked barefoot in the procession, which terminated at the temple to the goddess.
  • July / Quintilis (Quinctilis) Until renamed for Julius Caesar, this month was called Quinctilis or Quintilis, originally the fifth month (quint-) when the year began in March. From this point in the calendar forward, the months had numerical designations.
    • Ludi Apollinares 6 – 13 Jul: First held in 208BC.
    • Ludi Victoriae Caesaris 20 – 30 Jul: Games held in celebration of Caesar’s conquests.
  • August / Augustus (Sextilis) – Until renamed for Augustus Caesar, this month was called Sextilis, originally the sixth month (sext-) when the year began in March.
    • Ludi Martiales² 1 Aug: Games held in connection with the dedication of the shrine and temple of Mars Ultor; also held on 12 May. ? 13 Aug This was the feast of Diana the moon goddess, during which slaves were given a holiday.
    • Consualia¹ 21 Aug: This ancient religious festival featured races on foot and on muleback, and was also held on 15 Dec.
  • September
    • Ludi Romani 4 – 19 Sep: The ‘Games of the Roman People’, instituted in 366BC.
  • October
    • Ludi Fortunae Reducis 3 – 12 Oct: Games instituted by Augustus in 11BC.
    • Armilustrium 19 Oct: The ‘Dance of the Salii’ took place on this festival and also during the Quinquatria on 19 Apr.
    • Ludi Victoriae Sullanae 26 Oct – 1 Nov: Games instituted by the dictator Sulla in celebration of his victories, and dedicated in his honour for up to 200 years after his death in ?BC.
  • November
    • Ludi Plebei 4 – 17 Nov: The ‘Games of the Common People’ were instituted sometime between 220 and 216BC.
  • December
    • Saturnalia 7 – 14 Dec: The most important festival of the year was held in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. During the main feast day of this festival, the masters of every household in Rome waited upon their domestic slaves. Consualia² 15 Dec This ancient religious festival featured races on foot and on muleback, and was also held on 21 Aug.
    • Ludi Palatini 3 day festival instituted by Livia in AD 15?, and consecrated to the memory of Augustus.

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