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April 28 – The Floralia: The Ancient Roman Flower Festival

Get ready for some ancient Roman flower power, dude! April 28 was date of the Floralia, a festival dedicated to the goddess Flora, the ancient Roman goddess of flowers and fertility. Flora was associated with Spring, the season of new life and color, and her feast day was a lavish festival dedicated to honoring and celebrating the spring season. There were theatrical performances, competitions, and games. Bright multi-colored clothing was worn by the people to emulate the various flower colors, and women wore wreathes of flowers around their heads and laced into their hair. In ancient Rome, April 28 was a day to let your freakus flaggus flyus!!!

Image © Jason R. Abdale. November 10, 2018.

The origins of this holiday are somewhat difficult to determine. On the face of it, it would appear that the ancient Romans dedicated this holiday to the goddess Flora to celebrate the coming of Spring. Throughout the ages and among numerous civilizations, flowers are regarded as emblematic of the Spring season, and the ancient Romans were no different.

Flowers are not just pretty to look at – they are also extremely important to an agriculture-dominant society. Most fruits and vegetables are created as a result of pollenated flowers. If the flower blossoms abruptly died before they could be pollenated, or if the plants didn’t even blossom at all for some reason, then not only would the farmer have a miniscule harvest, meaning that his finances would suffer a severe down-turn, but also a devastating famine would break out. Thus, it was important to honor, celebrate, and placate the flower goddess to ensure a good Spring blossoming and a good Autumn harvest.

In Ovid’s Fasti, the poet puts these words into Flora’s mouth: “Perhaps you think I only rule over tender garlands. But my power also commands the farmers’ fields. If the crops have flourished, the threshing-floor is full: If the vines have flourished, there’ll be wine: If the olive trees have flourished, the year will be bright, and the fruit will prosper at the proper time. If the flower’s damaged, the beans and vetch die, and your imported lentils, Nile, die too. Wine too, laboriously stored in the vast cellars, froths, and clouds the wine jars’ surface with mist. Honey’s my gift: I call the winged ones who make honey, to the violets, clover and pale thyme. I carry out similar functions, when spirits run riot, and bodies themselves flourish” (1).

Photo by Jason R. Abdale. March 22, 2021.

What do we know about Flora herself? Marcus Terentius Varro claims that Flora was a Sabine goddess. There was apparently a very old temple to Flora located within “the Sabine Quarter” of the city of Rome, and order of priests had been established to preside over her holy rites (2).

According to the poet Ovid, Flora was originally named Chloris, but an error in spelling led to the Romans mistakenly writing her name as Floris, and later Flora. She was neither woman nor goddess, but was a nymph – a divine spiritual entity which inhabited woods, fields, and other wild places. According to Roman legend, she was captured and raped by Zephyrus (I am amazed and disgusted how much rape is in ancient Greek and Roman mythology), and the two of them were afterwards married. The two lived in a house set in the fields, located near a spring, and Flora was given the duty of tending to the garden. Thus, she became “the mistress of the flowers” (3).

But as with anything involving ancient history, nothing is EVER that straight-forward. The Roman writer Lactantius, who wrote during the 300s AD, gives us the story that Flora was not a goddess or a nymph, but was in fact, a famous prostitute. This woman had acquired a massive amount of wealth as a result of her midnight activities. When she died, she decreed in her will that all of her money was to be donated to the Roman people, and stipulated that a portion of her wealth was to be set aside so that public games could be celebrated each year, which would be known as the Ludi Floriales, “the Games of Flora”. The men of the Roman Senate, who presented an image of being very dignified and virtuous, was ashamed of this woman’s activities. Consequently, they re-wrote her history, claiming that she was, in fact, a goddess who presided over flowers and blossoms, an that the games were necessary in order to please her and assure a good Autumn harvest (4).

It is said that the Floralia was celebrated for the first time in 238 BC. During that year, all of Italy was ravaged by prolonged periods of bad weather, and large quantities of the year’s crops were destroyed. Italy was threatened with famine and mass starvation. The Roman Senate consulted the Sibyl, the great oracle of the Roman world, as to what ought to be done. In response, she commanded the Roman people to hold a great festival in honor of the goddess Flora as a way to gain her favor and grant protection over flowers and blossoms. This was done, and the harvest was miraculously saved. However, it wasn’t until 174 or 173 BC that the Floralia was celebrated every year (5).

The festivities began on April 28 and lasted into May 3. The reason that the date of April 28 was chosen was that a shrine or a temple dedicated to Flora was established at the Circus Maximus and was dedicated on April 28. Flora’s temple was located very close to the Temple of Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture. James Elmes stated that April 28 was actually Flora’s birthday (6).

It’s noteworthy that this flower festival extends through the first days of May. May 1 is the date of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltaine, which marks the first day of Summer in the Celtic calendar. The ancient Celtic and ancient Roman seasonal calendars were different from ours. To us, the Summer Solstice in late June marks the beginning of Summer, but to the Celts and Romans, that was the middle, the high-point, of Summer. To them, the real beginning of Summer occurred between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, sometime in early May. To the ancient Celts, the festival of Beltaine marked the beginning of Summer. Just like with the Roman Floralia, flowers played a core part in the Celtic festival of Beltaine. In the Celtic world, on May 1, the outside of people’s houses were decorated with hawthorn branches and flowers, and doors, windows, and cattle would be adorned with yellow flowers because they represented the sun (7).

Photo by Jason R. Abdale. June 29, 2018.

Meanwhile in ancient Rome, May 1st – the Kalends of May – was also the date of the Spring Compitalia Festival. The compitaliae were a series of public street fairs which were held in Rome which were dedicated to the guardian spirits of crossroads. Probably the most well-known of these was the Winter Compitalia, which was held in early January, but there was one held during each season. You can read more about these holidays by clicking here.

The Floralia was held in the Campus Martius, in the shadow of Flora’s shrine, and the aediles were responsible for conducting and overseeing the day’s festivities. The festival’s expenses were paid for by allocating a portion of the fines that had been collected from people who illegally set their livestock on publicly-owned land (8). The festivities began with the blasting of a trumpet. Torches were lit throughout the city during this multi-festival, blazing throughout the night. In the words of Ovid, putting words in the mouth of the goddess herself, “Lights are thought to be fitting for my day, because the fields glow with crimson flowers, or because flowers and flames aren’t dull in colour, and the splendour of them both attracts the eye: or because the licence of night suits my delights, and this third reason’s nearest to the truth” (9). The Celtic festival of Beltaine was also marked by the lighting of the Beltaine Bonfire, which was believed to ward off pestilence and evil spirits and to bestow fertility upon livestock (10).

“Spring”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1894)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alma_Tadema_Spring.jpg

The Floralia was a time of great merriment and celebration. During this time, more latitude was given to engage in activities which otherwise would have been frowned upon. In the words of the ancient Roman poet Ovid, “A goddess comes framed in a thousand varied garlands of flowers, and the stage has freer license for mirth… Mother of the flowers, approach, so we can honour you with joyful games!” (11). The Floralia was intended to be a day for fun and celebration, and the whole population as encouraged to lighten up and loosen up. Dining tables were covered with rose petals, people wore bright boldly-patterned clothes to mimic the vibrant rainbow of flower petals, and they wore garlands of flowers around their heads. There was dancing in the streets and a great deal excessive drinking! It was a day that the wine god Bacchus himself would have reveled in. After all, Ovid quipped, Bacchus loves flowers and he was often seen wearing crowns of them (12). During the reign of Emperor Galba, one of the monarchs who ruled during “the Year of the Four Emperors” in 69 AD, a new novelty circus attraction was exhibited for the first time: “In celebrating the games of the Floralia in his praetorship he gave a new kind of exhibition, namely of elephants walking the rope” (13).

A scene from a 1990s Xerox commercial showing an Olympian god wearing a tie-dyed toga, claiming he needs more color in his life. During the Floralia festival, he would have fit right in.

Many of the features of this day’s celebrations could be quite raunchy! Among the day’s festivities were strippers, nude dancers, plays in which all of the actors and actresses should be naked, female wrestlers, and female gladiator fights – no mention is made if they fought naked (14). In the words of the poet Juvenal…

“The female wrestling ring; who hasn’t seen the battered training-post, hacked by repeated sword-blows, scarred by her shield. The girl’s fully trained, totally qualified, ready for the fanfare and fights at the Floralia, unless that is she plans something more, practises now for the wider arena. How can you call her decent, a helmeted woman who spurns her very own gender? She loves a fight, even so she’d not wish to be a man; the pleasure we get is so little, after all! What a sight, if they auctioned off the wives’ paraphernalia, the sword-belts, arm-protectors, crests, and the half-size left-leg shin-guards! Or if it’s a different fight she wages, how happy you’d be if she managed to sell off her greaves. Yet these are the girls who sweat in the thinnest dress, whose delicate skins are chafed by the smoothest wisps of silk. Hear her cries as she drives home the thrusts she’s learned, feel how heavy the helmet is that she bows beneath, see the breadth, the thickness, of those bandages round her knees, and laugh when she takes to a chamber-pot, fully armed! Grand-daughters of Lepidus, blind Metellus, and Fabius Maximus Gurges too, what gladiator’s wife ever wore stuff like this? When did Asylus’s wife grunt at the training-post?” (15)

As far as Ovid was concerned, all of this was perfectly natural. Surely, for a such a light-hearted and care-free goddess as Flora, dour solemnity would be banned on her feast days. These were the days to feel alive, to embrace the vigors of one’s youth, because you’re only young for a brief time, so make the most of it while you can: “I was going to ask why there’s greater wantonness in her games, and freer jests, but it struck me that the goddess isn’t strict, and the gifts she brings are agents of delight…The reason the crowd of whores celebrate these games is not a difficult one for us to discover. The goddess isn’t gloomy, she’s not high-flown, she wants her rites to be open to the common man, and warns us to use life’s beauty while it’s in bloom” (16)

However, for the prudish Lactantius, these festivities were a scandalous abomination: “Those games, therefore, are celebrated with all wantonness, as is suitable to the memory of a harlot. For besides licentiousness of words, in which all lewdness is poured forth, women are also stripped of their garments at the demand of the people, and then perform the office of mimeplayers, and are detained in the sight of the people with indecent gestures, even to the satiating of unchaste eyes” (17)

The sexual licentiousness associated with the Floralia festival might also have social connections with the pagan calendars of the Romans and Celts. This was, after all, “the lusty month of May”. In the Celtic world during May, marriage vows were temporarily suspended and people were given full permission to have affairs with whomever they wished. Men and women got their rocks off as if there was no tomorrow in the hope that their raging horniness would encourage flowers to bloom and crops to grow (18).

Beast hunts were held in the Circus Maximus on the last day of the celebration Hunting rabbits, deer, wild goats, and other herbivorous animals was encouraged on this day, but the hunting of predatory animals such as lions, wolves, foxes, and bears was not. The reason for this was that these herbivorous animals were a frequently-encountered pest in one’s farms and gardens. They devoured and destroyed acres of crops, and ate the green shoots before they had a chance to blossom and fruit. Such animals, went Ovid, were repugnant to Flora and to other gods and goddesses associated with the Earth’s produce, and therefore they needed to be culled to prevent them from causing too much damage. However, since creatures like lions and wolves did not eat grain, fruits, or flowers, they were no threat to farmers, and therefore could be left alone for today (19).

So on April 28 to May 3, go crazy! Lighten up, loosen up, and live it up! Put some flowers in your hair and wear outrageously colorful clothing. Eat, drink, and be merry, and enjoy the joys of life. Summer is a-comin’ in.

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, chapter 74. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 71; Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, chapter 45. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 311; 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 92.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  4. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 18, chapter 69; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 389; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238; 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 92-93.
  7. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 224-225.
  8. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Reverend Thomas Wilson, An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; 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 92.
  9. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 390.
  10. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 218-225.
  11. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  12. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180.
  13. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 7 – “The Life of Galba”, chapter 6.
  14. Quintus Valerius Maximus, Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, book 2, chapter 10, verse 8; Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
  15. Juvenal, Satire #6.
  16. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  17. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
  18. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 228-229; “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”.
  19. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741.
  • Elmes, James. A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
  • Fowler, William Warde. 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.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Kennett, Basil. Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695.
  • Seyffert, Oskar. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891.
  • Smith, William. A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, Charles Roach; Madden, Frederick W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
  • Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783.
  • Huff Post. “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”, by Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway (May 1, 2014). https://www.huffpost.com/entry/greenwood-marriages-and-t_b_5242087.