Photo by Jason R. Abdale (June 29, 2018).
Trees are wonderful – most people will agree with that. They provide oxygen for us to breathe, they remove pollution and excess carbon dioxide from the air, they give us shade on hot sunny days, some of them provide fruit for us to eat, a few others possess medicinal properties (such as willow, whose bark is used to make aspirin), and it has even been shown repeatedly in scientific studies that being around them creates a positive psychological effect in people’s minds. Trees are great.
Numerous cultures and civilizations all around the world have shown respect and even love for these mighty plants. In many countries, certain trees of great size or great age are regarded as cultural landmarks which cannot be harmed in any way. In the United States, there is a holiday called “Arbor Day” held in late April in which people show their appreciation for trees and are encouraged to plant more of them. In Germany, the forest is part of the Germans’ cultural identity. In Japan, lumberjacks pray to the kami (soul) of the tree before cutting it down. In northern India, there is a tree which is believed to have been the very same one which the Buddha was sitting under at the moment he achieved enlightenment. In the ancient world, there were numerous “sacred groves” – plots of woodland which were believed to possess heightened divine power – which were to be found throughout Europe and the Near East. Clearly, people like trees.
The ancient Romans were also particularly fond of trees, and they expressed their love of them during a festival which was held in mid-July for the purpose of honoring their leafy companions. It may surprise you to hear that the ancient Romans had their own version of Arbor Day, except that it lasted for three days instead of one. July 19-21 was the time in ancient Rome for the Lucaria, “the Festival of the Sacred Grove”, in which the ancient Romans honored the spirits of the forest for sheltering and protecting them when their enemies were trying to hunt them down.
But first, some background information…
On July 18, 390 BC, the army of the Roman Republic suffered one of its most shocking defeats. On that day, a horde of Gallic Celts led by Chief Brennus outmaneuvered and overwhelmed a large force of Roman troops near the shore of the Allia River in central Italy. The battle resulted in a slaughter. From then on, July 18th would be recorded in the Roman calendar as a dies ater, “a dark day”, when everyone was supposed to be in solemn mourning.
The survivors fled back to the city with the Gauls in hot pursuit. Some of the battered and terrified Roman troops who had managed to escape from the battlefield took refuge within a forest that lay between the Tiber River and the Via Salaria highway, hoping to throw off their pursuers or at least make the chase more difficult. The Roman soldiers remained hidden within those woods for the next three days while the Gauls hunted for them like a pack of wolves tracking a wounded deer, but eventually the Gauls gave up and decided that a better prize awaited them: the city of Rome itself. So after three days of scouring the forest and not finding anybody to kill, the Celtic warriors abandoned their search for the battle’s survivors and advanced down the highway towards the Eternal City, determined to take as much booty and plunder as they could carry away. (1).
It was nothing short of miraculous that the Roman soldiers who took shelter within those woods managed to escape death or capture at the hands of the barbarians who were eagerly searching for them. How could these men go completely un-noticed for three whole days? The Romans came to believe that this particular forest was blessed by the gods and the men hiding there were under divine protection – that is why they remained unseen and the Gauls were never able to find them; the trees had rendered them invisible to their enemies.
In later years, the Romans would commemorate this event every July 19-21 with a festival called the Lucaria, the Festival of the Sacred Grove, which took place during the three days that the Roman soldiers hid within the forest. The Latin word luco can mean “grove” but it can also mean “forest clearing”. The word is related to the Latin word lux, meaning “light”, for it was in the forest glades that light penetrated through the dark canopy. During this three-day period, the ancient Romans gave thanks to the spirits of the forest for sheltering and protecting them when the barbarians were trying to hunt them down (2).
There is a lot about the Lucaria which we do not know. The only record that we have of this festival comes from the writings of Verrius Flaccus, a grammarian who lived during the 1st Century BC. In his report, he states Lucaria festa in luco colebant Romani, qui permagnus inter Viam Salariam et Tiberim fuit, pro eo, quod victi a Gallis fugientes e praelio ibi se occultaverint – “The Lucaria is a feast held by the Romans in a grove which is of very large size located between the Via Salaria and the Tiber River, which the Romans had fled into after being defeated by the Gauls in battle and hid themselves there” (3). It is not known when this festival was celebrated for the first time or the last. It is not known which gods or divine entities the Romans honored and prayed to. It is almost certain that Diana, the goddess of the forest, the moon, and the hunt, was prayed to during these three days. It’s also possible that the Romans honored Silvanus, whose name literally means “of the forest” – the divine being who was seen as a dweller of the woods and a protector of them. It is not known what sort of activities went on during the Lucaria. However, my guess is that it was very much like other public festivals in ancient Rome: feasting, drinking, merriment, music, theatrical performances, etc. (4).
Cato the Elder, an old-fashioned traditionalist conservative among the Roman Senatorial class, who was well-known for his religious devotions and his superstitious ideas, realized that forests might be the abodes of gods or other supernatural entities. Therefore it was necessary to offer prayers to them in order to pardon him for intruding into what might be their homes. In one of his essays, Cato said that if it was your intention to go into the woods to cut down trees, you needed to offer up a piglet as a sacrifice to whatever god or goddess presided over those woods, so that you would lessen their anger towards you. While doing so, you must offer up the following prayer: Si Deus, si dea es, quoium illud sacrum est, uti tibi ius siet porco piaculo facere, illiusce sacri coercendi ergo. Harumce rerum ergo, sive ego, sive quis iussu meo fecerit, uti id recte factum siet. Eius rei ergo te hoc porco piaculo immolando bonas preces precor, uti sies volens propitius mihi, domo familiaeque meae, liberisque meis. Harumce rerum ergo macte hoc porco piaculo immolando esto – “Whatever god, whatever goddess you may be to whom this place is sacred, since it is proper to sacrifice the expiation swine for the taking of this sacred place, therefore, may what I do or what another by my order does be rightly done. Therefore in slaughtering for you this expiation swine I pray with good prayers that you be willing and favorable to me, to my house and household and to my children; wherefore, accept the slaughter of this expiatory piglet” (5).
The ancient Roman writer Plutarch writes that it was customary to pay actors who performed at public festivals with money which was acquired from selling timber. This money was called lucar, in reference to the Latin word luco “grove”, and even to this day “lucar” is sometimes used as a slang word for money. It’s also where we get the word “lucrative” from, meaning something which is financially profitable. Later on, the words lucar and lucaria referred to money which was used in ancient Rome which was set aside solely for the purpose of being expended on games and other public entertainments (6).
Another 19th Century source makes reference to a second Lucaria festival which was held on February 1, and was held in honor of the god Jupiter. However, since I have not been able to find any mention of this particular festival elsewhere, I can only conclude that it was an error made by the author (7).
The “Sacred Grove” which once stood between the Tiber River and the Via Salaria highway did not stand forever. Gradually the wealthy, eager to get away from the crowded hubbub of the city, built lavish country estates just outside of Rome’s city limits. One of the targets for constructing these estates was this holy forest. This place, which the ancient Romans had regarded as special and sacred for many years, now stood in the way. Little by little, the trees came down, and marble mansions with well-tailored gardens rose up where oaks, pines, and laurels had formerly stood. When money talks, morals walk, and the ancient Romans’ religious devotions were easily cast aside in favor of the will of the rich. It has been proposed that the Lucaria festival was actually intended as a way to placate whatever gods or spirits presided over these woods as a way to assuage their anger for this supposed act of sacrilege and flagrant disrespect – we’ll never know for sure (8).
- A Dictionary of Polite Literature, Or, Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes. Volume II. 1804.
- W. H. D. Rouse, ed. The Year’s Work in Classical Studies, Volume 2; Volume 1907. London: Murray, 1907. Page 68.
- William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 182; “The Lucaria: Honouring the Gods of the Grove”.
- William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 183.
- William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 184; Enrica Sciarrino, Cato the Censor and the Beginning of Latin Prose: From Poetic Translation to Elite Transcription. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2011. Pages 150-152.
- Plutarch, Roman Questions, #88; Reverend Thomas Wilson, An Archaeological Dictionary; or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: 1783; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 183.
- Adam Clarke, Commentary on the New Testament, Volume II. London: J. Butterworth & Son, 1817.
- “The Lucaria: Honouring the Gods of the Grove”.
- A Dictionary of Polite Literature, Or, Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes. Volume II. 1804.
- Clarke, Adam. Commentary on the New Testament, Volume II. London: J. Butterworth & Son, 1817
- Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
- History and Archaeology Online – Rediscovering the Past. “The Lucaria: Honouring the Gods of the Grove”, by Natasha Sheldon (July 19, 2019). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/the-lucaria-honouring-the-gods-of-the-grove/.
- Plutarch, Roman Questions, #88. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library, 1936. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/D.html.
- Rouse, W. H. D. ed. The Year’s Work in Classical Studies, Volume 2; Volume 1907. London: Murray, 1907.
- Sciarrino, Enrica. Cato the Censor and the Beginning of Latin Prose: From Poetic Translation to Elite Transcription. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2011. https://kb.osu.edu/bitstream/handle/1811/49786/SciarrinoFinal4Print.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
- Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary; or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: 1783.
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!