The Lupercalia: A Roman Rite of Passage

The Roman festival of the Lupercalia has perplexed observers even since Roman times: “the Luperci [are so called] because at the Lupercalia they sacrifice at the Lupercal…the Lupercalia are so called because [that is when] the Luperci sacrifice at the Lupercal.”1 Because of the ambiguity surrounding the origins of the festival, the Lupercalia served many different functions in the city. In addition to its typical role as a purification and fertility rite, in this paper I will argue that the Lupercalia also served as a rite of passage for the Romans, as young Roman men and women moved from youth into adulthood and accepted their responsibilities of members of the Roman state. This transition between two ages is preserved in the rituals and the myths surrounding the festival, performing acts and telling stories concerning the crossing of barriers, signifying the importance of these transitions in Roman society. I will first explore the close relationship between myth and ritual; I will then examine myths of both Greek and Roman origin concerning the Lupercalia and the rituals they seek to explain, showing how the ritual crossing of barriers pervades descriptions of the Lupercalia and demonstrating the importance of this festival as a rite of passage.

While exploring Roman ritual, especially the Lupercalia, it is imperative not to underestimate the importance of the myths related to the festival. Mary Beard argues for the symbolic importance of stories in Roman religion: “ritual actions and the narratives which purport to explain these actions together form the Roman religious experience and together construct Roman religious meanings.”2 Thus, in trying to unwind the complexity of the coming- of-age rituals of the Lupercalia, it is important to begin with Roman explanations for these actions. While it seems naïve to us to believe that Evander or Romulus established this festival, the Romans put forward these explanations; in mimicking the actions from the stories and symbolically representing these actions—such as running naked and creating goatskin whips—the Romans gave meaning to their religious practices. Therefore, in order to better understand these rituals and how they represented a Roman rite of passage, it is necessary to take a close look at the myths of the Lupercalia and how they influenced this practice.

The rite of passage element of the Lupercalia manifests itself very clearly in the Hercules-Omphale episode of Ovid’s Fasti (2.303-358), in which Ovid explains why the Luperci are naked.3 Ovid here presents a scene not found in other traditions of the Lupercalia that survive, in which the traditional story of Hercules and the Lydian queen Omphale, to whom Hercules was enslaved for a year for the murder of Iphitus, is tweaked. In Ovid’s account, there is no evidence of submission, but rather Hercules and Omphale are both presented at a liminal age: iuvenis (2.305)4 is used for Hercules, “a young man in the flower of his age,”5 and puella (2.356) is used to describe Omphale, meaning “a maiden or a young wife.”6 Instead of the lethal warrior and Barbarian queen that the reader would expect to find when reading these names, one sees two young people on the verge of becoming adults. In the Ovidian narrative, they have become liminal figures, about to be initiated into the next step of society.

The portrayal of Hercules and Omphale as initiates is further supported by a peculiar scene of cross-dressing, in which Hercules puts on the clothes of Omphale, and Omphale dons the lion skin and club. A strange ritual not itself associated with the Lupercalia, the scene has important implications for rite of passage rituals. Omphale is described cultibus Alciden instruit illa suis (“she dressed Hercules in her own clothing”) and she herself ipsa capit clavamque gravem spoliumque leonis (“she took the heavy club and the skin of the lion”). 7 Elaine Fantham offers two possible models for the scene, either the last day of abstinence before inauguration into the Bacchanalia (fitting with the mentions of wine in this passage)8 or the performance of a marriage rite, as celebrated in some ancient cultures.9 Although she does not go on to fully explain this reasoning, the cross-dressing could symbolize the union between the two individuals, and the acceptance of a future spouse by assuming the other’s characteristics. In both cases, Hercules and Omphale, by exchanging clothes, become participants in a ritual celebrating the passage into a new stage of their lives, either the admission into a cult, or entrance into a marriage and the responsibilities that a household entails. Like the young men and women of Rome who celebrated the Lupercalia, Hercules and Omphale are symbolically transitioning into a new status in society.

Furthermore, the name Omphale, meaning “navel,” or “umbilical cord,” itself invokes a liminal and transitional state. Not only does this link her closely to motherhood (which closely ties to the rituals of the Lupercalia, as will be explained later), but the umbilical cord itself serves as a passage between mother and child. Furthermore, a navel in the sense of “world navel” as at Delphi served as a break in the barrier between humans and the gods, where communication was possible. Therefore, Hercules and Omphale in many ways represent a coming-of-age through their rituals in the myth.

After this scene, Ovid finally arrives at the reason why the Lupercali run naked: the failed rape of Omphale by Pan. The failure represents a thwarted attempt at the crossing of a symbolic barrier; by requiring that his worshipers be naked, Pan ensures success in his future endeavors. This scene is overtly erotic, reflecting the sexual nature of both Pan and the naked Luperci (as they whip women with goatskins). The episode takes place in the cave (where Pan is often worshiped, as at Athens in a cave below the Acropolis10) just as the festival of the Lupercalia occurs in the cave of the Lupercal. Pan, in the culmination of the scene, is described as tunicas ora subducit ab ima (“he goes under the deepest hem”).11 Here, Ovid uses subduco, conveying the sense of movement, or literally “leading under” into the “deepest barrier,” in this case the hem of the tunic (ora). In trying to rape Omphale (or whom he believes to be Omphale), he is attempting to penetrate a barrier (i.e. her clothes). Therefore, in order to facilitate the crossing of the barrier, Pan insists his worshipers are unclothed, accounting for the provocative dress of the Luperci.

Over time, the Romans developed their own myths of the rite of passage which are distinct from, yet complementary to, the Greek myths of the festival, in order to explain why the Luperci are unclothed. Many variations of the Romulus and Remus myth survive,12 yet all share a few elements: Romulus and Remus were participating in worship of Pan (known as Faunus in the Roman tradition), they were naked, they in some capacity chased down a herd of bulls, and in most traditions, Remus was captured (which eventually led to the overthrow of King Amulius). In some accounts such as those of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Ovid, Romulus and Remus are naked because they are worshiping Faunus. But upon closer examination, this explanation becomes problematic. Romulus and Remus were celebrating the Lupercalia according to Dionysius (θύσοντας τὰ Λύκαια τοὺς νεανίσκους or “The youths were celebrating the Lupercalia”).13 Therefore, they were naked because they believed in the myth of Hercules and Omphale and knew that Pan did not wish those worshiping him to wear clothes. In that case, however, Romulus and Remus cannot be the originators of the practice of running naked, because Romulus and Remus were themselves already Luperci. How can the nudity of Romulus and Remus be the origin of the myth, when they themselves were already celebrating the festival naked? This complicated aetiology did not seem to bother the Romans, however, and the contradiction most likely arises from the Romanization of the festival over time; the earlier Greek myth surrounding the cult of Pan turned into a festival for the founding of the city. Therefore, it is important for the reader to consider how these Roman myths shaped the rituals the Romans performed.

Plutarch gives an account of the Romulus and Remus myth that most easily explains an independent Roman origin for the nakedness of the festival, and that incorporates a rite of passage in which symbolic barriers are broken. Just as for Pan in the myth of Hercules, clothes represent a barrier for Romulus and Remus as they chase after the bulls: γυμνούς … ὅπως ὑπο τοῦ ἱδρῶτος μὴ ἐνοχλοῖντο or “[They are] naked lest they be impeded by sweat.”14 In this passage from Plutarch, the sweat brought on by wearing clothes becomes a hindrance for Romulus and Remus as they attempt to catch the bulls, and so they remove this barrier and proceed naked. Just as Romulus and Remus are described as νεανίσκους by Dionysius, Plutarch similarly calls the Luperci μειρᾴκια (1.21), or “youths about the age of 20.”15 That is, they were young, but approaching a transitional age in society where they must fight in the army, take a wife, and participate in the state. This myth is then represented in the ritual nakedness in the Lupercalia: the young men symbolically remove their clothes, taking off the barriers of society, and allowing them to pass without obstruction into Roman adulthood.

Another rite-of-passage ritual manifests itself in the lustratio which the Luperci ran, symbolizing Romulus’ growth to manhood in the act of killing Amulius. In Dionysius’ version of the story, Romulus and Remus (νεανίσκοι) are worshiping Faunus naked, when they are attacked by herdsmen and Remus is taken:

οἱδ ̓ ἐκπλαγέντες τῷ παραδόξῳ τοῦ πάθους καὶ ἀμηχανοῦντες ὅτι δράσειαν πρὸς

ὡπλισμένους, ἄνοπλοι μαχόμενοι κατὰ πολλὴν εὐπέτειαν ἐχειρώθησαν. (1.80)

“They being struck by the unexpectedness of the occurrence and being at a loss of what they should do against the ones performing these things, they fighting unarmed were subdued with much ease.”

Here, Romulus and Remus are “struck” (ἐκπλαγέντες) and are “at a loss” (ἀμηχανοῦντες) as to what they should do, being both “unarmed” (ἄνοπλοι) and “subdued” (ἐχειρώθησαν). All of these descriptions portray them in a passive role—as being the receiver of an action, especially of being “mastered” or “subdued,” or being “struck” by the sudden attack. Furthermore, both their lack of arms and complete nudity places them in a vulnerable position, unable to defend themselves against men holding arms, and their ignorance of what to do in the situation is emblematic of their young age and inexperience in battles. Therefore, Remus is captured, and Romulus must find a way to get his brother back. His brother’s capture comes with the discovery of his true birth, as he is finally told by Faustulus that they are not his sons. After this revelation, Romulus develops into a leader, taking counsel (βουλευσαμένῳ) deeming things fit (ἐδόκει) and preparing for the coming battle (παρασκευῇ), qualities contrasting with his rash plans to make an outright attack to save his brother only a few lines before. In losing his brother, discovering his identity, and preparing for battle, Romulus becomes a man and a leader of his people, going on to kill Amulius (perhaps the first time in battle killing a man, another symbolic moment) and establish his own city. The Romans celebrated Romulus’ transition to manhood by having young Roman males re-enact Romulus and Remus on that day—worshipping Faunus and running around naked, just as the two young brothers did on that day when they were forced to grow into adulthood and kill the king.

The path of the lustratio is furthermore indicative of the ceremonial rite of passage of this celebration. According to Plutarch, the Luperci “begin their course where Romulus originally was said to have been exposed”: ἀρχομένους τῆς περιδρομῆς τοὺς Λουπέρκους…ὅπου τον Ῥωμύλον ἐκτεθῆναι (1.21). This place was typically believed to have been the Lupercal, where the she- wolf nursed the twins. Beginning here, the Luperci would run around the city in a ritual commonly considered to purify the boundary of the city. Plutarch claims this festival is a purification rite (καθάρσια), and Varro similarly describes the procession and route of the Luperci around the Palatine: id est Lupercis nudis lustratur antiquum oppidum Palatium or “[the Lupercalia] is when the old Palatine town is purified by the naked Luperci.16 The young men begin at the Lupercal on the Palatine, running around the “ancient town,” probably referring to the first settlement of the city and the Romulean wall. Although we do not know exactly where the Lupercal was on the Palatine, we can imagine the Luperci running from the cave near the walls or even out of the gates (if the Lupercal was inside the walls), performing this cleansing ritual by running around the walls. Through lustration, they purify and protect the walls for the upcoming year, until once again the boundaries would need to be purified at the next Lupercalia. William Fowler states that “the rite served the practical purpose of keeping the boundary clear in the memory.”17 Βy successfully accomplishing this run, the young men both broke through the barrier between childhood and adulthood, and then preserved this barrier until it would be broken again in the next year. Furthermore, if we follow the path of the Luperci to its end, as T.P Wiseman believes, then the celebration concluded in the Comitium, with “a large crowd in the Forum and Caesar on the Rostra.”18 If the Luperci did end their run in the Comitium, where adult Romans men would meet to pass laws and make decisions, then this seems like the perfect telos for these young Luperci to finish their symbolic run, as they too would be at the age where they participate in government. In addition, as the Lupercalia had a close connection to the founding of the city through the myth of the she-wolf, this path of the Luperci represents the development of Rome as a city and its own rite of passage from a town on the Palatine with mundane roots (represented by the Lupercal) to a fully functioning Republic (represented by the Comitium).

The last myth and subsequent ritual closely tied to the celebration of the Lupercalia in its capacity as a rite of passage is that concerning the barrenness of the Sabine women. Ovid informs us of Romulus’ distress over the infertility of their new brides, and he consults Juno who gives him strange advice: “Italidas matres” inquit “sacer hircus inito” (“‘Let the sacred goat’ he said, ‘enter the Italian mothers’”).19 Holleman notes the link between the verb inito and the name Inuus,20 the Roman god of copulation, whom Livy names as the god of the Lupercal.21 The connotation of sexual penetration makes this statement from the goddess disturbing initially. It is a nameless Etruscan who came up with the idea to whip the Sabine women, thereby linking the celebration of the Lupercalia to not only the Greek and Roman, but also to the Etruscan tradition. The women are symbolically penetrated by the goat as the goatskin whip breaks the skin, fulfilling the words of Juno.22 Ovid describes these married women as puellae, just like Omphale was described; they are women who just entered into married life, and have not yet borne children and passed into the next stage of their life—motherhood. Therefore, this act of penetration by the goat turns them into matres, as Italidas matres is the direct object of the verb inito. Young Roman women believing in this myth were then whipped by the young men in fulfillment of this tradition, believing that it promoted fertility: ἅι δ ̓ ἐν ἡλικίᾳ γυναῖκες οὐ φεύγουσι τὸ παίεσθαι, νομίζουσαι πρός εὐτοκίαν καὶ κύησιν συνεργεῖν or “The young women do not flee the striking, they believe it to facilitate easy delivery and conception.”23The whipping of these ἅι δ ̓ ἐν ἡλικίᾳ γυναῖκες, or “women of marriageable age”24 becomes more than a fertility rite—the act is the deliberate penetration of a barrier in which the young woman is brought into the fertile stage of her life, where she can more easily bear children. Because of these traditions, the Lupercalia served as a coming of age ritual for both young Roman men and woman.

Further evidence of the important role the Lupercalia played in Roman lives as a rite of passage is dedicatory inscriptions in which a person is named as a Lupercus. In these inscriptions, Roman men would list their many accomplishments, and included as one of these accomplishments was participation in the Lupercalia: C(aius) Curtius…lupercus. 25 Here, a certain Caius Curtius lists himself as a Lupercus, and the description of his role in the festival is one of the only things we know about him after his death besides his name, marking it as a defining moment in his life. These inscriptions were not limited to Rome but can be found elsewhere in Latium, Etruscan cities, and even as far as France where a Lucius Sammius is described as a Lupercus in addition to his prefecture in Narbo: luperco…provinciae Narbonen/sis praef(ecto).26 These young men would travel all the way to Rome in order to participate in this ritual. In doing so, they went back to their cities proud to have come to Rome and to have celebrated the festival: they valued the experience to the extent that they deemed it worthy enough to describe them after death and become an integral aspect of their identities. These men were part of a great tradition in celebrating a ritual closely tied to the foundation of the city. By participating this ritual—a ritual believed to have been established before the city existed, in which even the city’s founders participated—these men marked a significant step in their lives, an important passage for them in truly becoming Roman men.

Through its myths and the enactment of these myths through ritual practice, the Lupercalia served as a rite of passage for the Romans; in symbolically crossing barriers through these rituals, young Roman men and women moved from youth into adulthood, and accepted their responsibilities of members of the Roman state. In concluding her article, Mary Beard marvels at Roman “ritual time, whose sequence had collapsed into an overlapping series of stories.”27 The Romans celebrated events that happened in their history, becoming part of that very history through enactment. In the observance of these rituals of the Lupercalia, the Romans followed in the footsteps of Romulus and Remus and many other Romans that came before them; the celebration of myths and rituals therefore truly defined what it meant to be Roman.


Beard, “A Complex of Times: No More Sheep on Romulus’ Birthday,” Roman Religion. Ed. Clifford Ando. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Roman Antiquities, Volume I, Loeb Classical Library, 1937.

Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People. Macmillan and Company, London, 1922.

Holleman, “Ovid and the Lupercalia,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 22, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1973), pp. 260-268

Lewis, Charlton and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879.

Livy 1.5. Livy: The History of Rome Books 1-5. Trans. Valerie Warrior. Hackett, 1996.

Ovid Fasti. Loeb Classical Library 1989.

Plutarch, Romulus, Parallel Lives, Volume I, Loeb Classical Library, 1914.

Wiseman, “The God of the Lupercal” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85, 1995.

Varro, De Lingua Latina, Latin text from

Fantham, “Sexual Comedy in Ovid’s Fasti: Sources and Motivation,” Harvard Studies in

Classical Philology, Vol. 87, (1983), pp. 185-216.

  1. 585 Varro, De Lingua Latina. From p. 1, T. P. Wiseman “The God of the Lupercal” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85, (1995)
  2. p. 276 Beard, “A Complex of Times: No More Sheep on Romulus’ Birthday” Roman Religion. Ed. Clifford Ando. Edinburgh University Press, 2004
  3. The lack of dress of the Luperci is a distinctive ritual that sets the Lupercalia apart from many other Roman festivals. Scholars have argued over the exact dress, whether they are actually naked, as claimed by Virgil— nudosque Lupercos (Aen. 8.663)—and Livy—nudi iuvenes (1.5)—or whether they are covered by the skin of the goat just sacrificed as in Dionysius—γυμοὺς ὑπεζωσμἐνους τὴν αἰδω ταῖς δοραῖς τῶν νεοθύτων (1.80). A.W.J. Holleman attributes the addition of the goat skin clothing to the Augustan reforms of the festival “to make the festival more decent” (224). A full discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of the paper.
  4. Ovid, Fasti. Loeb Classical Library 1989.
  5. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879.
  6. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879.
  7. Ovid, Fasti 2.318 and 2.325 Loeb Classical Library, 1989. Translations are my own.
  8. Ovid, Fasti 2.317 and 2.333 Loeb Classical Library, 1989.
  9. p. 196 Elaine Fantham, “Sexual Comedy in Ovid’s Fasti: Sources and Motivation,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 87, (1983), pp. 185-216
  10. p. 4 T. P. Wiseman “The God of the Lupercal” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85, (1995)
  11. Ovid, Fasti 2.347 Loeb Classical Library, 1989.
  12. Namely, Ovid Fasti 2.359-382, Plutarch Romulus 21.7, Dionysius 1.80.
  13. λύκαια is the Greek name for the Lupercalia. Dionysius 1.80
  14. Plutarch Romulus 1.21, Parallel Lives, Volume I, Loeb Classical Library, 1914.
  15. Henry Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1940.
  16. Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.34.
  17. p. 212 William Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People. Macmillan and Company, London, 1922.
  18. p. 4 T. P. Wiseman “The God of the Lupercal” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85, (1995) Main evidence of this telos is the famous event of the Lupercalia in 44 BC, in which Mark Antony, as a Lupercus, offers Caesar a crown in the Comitia.
  19. 2.441 Ovid Fasti. Loeb Classical Library 1989.
  20. p. 261 A. W. J. Holleman, “Ovid and the Lupercalia,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 22, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1973), pp. 260-268
  21. Livy 1.5. Livy: The History of Rome Books 1-5. Trans. Valerie Warrior. Hackett, 1996.
  22. p. 14 T. P. Wiseman “The God of the Lupercal” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85, (1995)
  23. Plutarch Romulus 1.21, Parallel Lives, Volume I, Loeb Classical Library, 1914.
  24. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879.
  25. CIL 6.32437 (= ILS 4945), Selection of Latin Dedicatory Inscriptions For Luperci.
  26. CIL 12.3183 (= ILS 5274), Selection of Latin Dedicatory Inscriptions For Luperci.
  27. p. 288 Beard, Roman Religion. Ed. Clifford Ando. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.