February 13 – Rest in Peace: The Parentalia Festival of the Dead

Gone But Not Forgotten, painted by John Willian Waterhouse (1873).

The Parentalia was a private remembrance day for the family’s deceased. The festival, for lack of a better word, lasted from February 13 to 21. During these days, all of the temples were closed and marriages were forbidden because it was believed that getting married during a time devoted to the dead would bring bad luck. Magistrates were not allowed to wear togas during the Parentalia period. Finally, torture and executions were not allowed to take place during this time (Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, A Treatise on the Arts, Manufactures, and Institutions of the Greeks and Romans, Volume 2. London: Longman & Co., 1835. Page 168; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 308)

All Roman cemeteries were located outside the city limits. There were obvious health reasons for this, but there were also spiritual concerns as well. The Romans did not want the dead to ritually contaminate the world of the living, therefore the worlds of the dead and the living needed to be separated from each other.

Legend had it that Prince Aeneas himself initiated the rituals that were to become associated with the Parentalia. Later, King Numa Pompilius, one of Rome’s early kings, established some regulations concerning this time, among them specifying that it would last for eleven days; it was later shortened to just nine (Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, A Treatise on the Arts, Manufactures, and Institutions of the Greeks and Romans, Volume 2. London: Longman & Co., 1835. Page 168).

Honor and respect needed to be paid to the spirits of your dead family. If not, then they would be insulted and they would come back to haunt you or cause misfortune, as the poet Ovid relates…

“Once, waging a long war with fierce weapons, they neglected the Parentalia, Festival of the Dead. It did not go unpunished: they say from that ominous day Rome grew hot from funeral fires near the City. I scarcely believe it, but they say that ancestral spirits came moaning from their tombs in the still of night, and misshapen spirits, a bodiless throng, howled through the City streets, and through the broad fields. Afterwards neglected honour was paid to the tombs, and there was an end to the portents, and the funerals” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21)

The Parentalia ritual began on February 13 at the sixth hour of the day with a general invocation made by one of the Vestal Virgins to the shades of the dead. This special prayer, known as the parentatio, was conducted at tomb of Tarpeia, who herself had been a Vestal Virgin in ages past. However, this opening address seems to be the only public part of this multi-day mourning period. For most Romans, this was a quiet, respectful, private affair. Family members visited the cemeteries and laid flower garlands on the tombs and grave sites of their loved ones, and left offerings of bread, water, wine, milk, salt, honey, olive oil, and violets to the spirits of the dead. Animal sacrifices did occur on this day – Lucrertius (“De Rerum Natura”) and Festus (“De Verborum Significatione”) make references to it – but they seem to have been extremely rare. It also said that families held picnics inside the cemeteries at the gravesites of loved ones. This may seem very bizarre to many people today, but the idea was to share a meal with the dead as though the dead were still alive (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Pages 306, 308).

Vestalin mit Efeugirlande (Vestal Virgin with Ivy Garland), painted by Carl Friedrich Deckler.

The Roman historian Plutarch makes some observations concerning Roman funeral rituals. For family members visiting the graves of their dead family, the men wore the “toga pulla”, which was blackened as a gesture of mourning, and they covered their heads as if in prayer with the folds of their togas when they escorted the bodies of their parents to their gravesite. The women, by contrast, wore a long white dress and walked with their head uncovered and their hair hanging loose. The whole of this is to create the opposite of what is customary, for in ordinary times the men wore white togas and only covered their heads when performing religious services, while the women often wore their hair up and covered as a representation of modesty; loose hair was often indicative of being a loose woman. Colored or decorated clothing was regarded as wholly inappropriate to the solemnity of the situation (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #14, 26, and 34; “Funus”).

Samuel Fales Dunlap, a 19th Century religious crack pot who fancied himself an academic, stated that on February 12 and 13 in ancient Greece, libations were poured over the graves of the dead, their stone monuments were sprinkled with spring water, a pot filled with seeds was brought to the grave as an offering, and prayers were given to Hermes (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 97). It’s entirely possible that the Romans were taking cues from the ancient Greeks when it came to the particulars of these rituals, especially the idea that you should behave in a way which is uncustomary. For example, Plutarch relates that in Greece it was the custom of women to cut their hair very short and for men to go for prolonged periods of time without shaving as a mark of how they were overwhelmed with grief (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #14).

During the period in which families attended to the funerary rites, there were other holidays as well. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Lupercalia on February 15, which merits a thorough description in itself that you can read here. So don’t get the idea that February 13-21 was a dreary plodding period of somber melancholy, because it wasn’t. The time for duties to the ancestors concluded on February 21 with another festival known as the Feralia, which likewise I shall write a description of when the time comes.


Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!

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