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February 1 – The Month of Februus, the Ancient Roman God of Purification

In the ancient Roman calendar, several of the months are named after gods in the Roman pantheon. January is named after Janus, the god of new beginnings. March is named after Mars, the god of war. But what about February? February is the month of Februus, the god of purification. The name Februus comes from the Latin verb februa (which may have either Etruscan or Sabine roots), which means “to purge, purify, or cleanse”. The word “fever” is based on the same origin as the name “February”, because the Romans believed that you could purge sickness from your body by sweating it out of your system (1).

In addition to having the entire month dedicated in Februus’ honor, the ancient Romans also had a specific day dedicated to him in their calendar. This was called the Februalia, the Feast of Februus. In one source, it says that the Februalia purification ritual spanned from February 13 to 15 (2), but in all other sources that I have seen, it states that it only took place on the 15th. Later, the purification rituals of the Februalia were absorbed into the fertility ritual of the Lupercalia, which you can read about in more detail here.

In the past, the Roman calendar began with the month of March and ended with the month of February. Mars was seen as the divine father of the Romans, for he was the father of their first king Romulus; the year began with the month that bore his name. February, the final month of the calendar, was regarded as the death of the year, and consequently February was known for reverence to the dead (3). Traditionally, Roman government officials began their term-of-office on the first day of the year (March 1st) and exited on the last day of the year (February 28th or 29th). However, during the 150s to 130s BC, several important changes occurred within the Roman Republic, and many of these changes had to do with the Roman military campaigns in Spain. Military campaigns almost always began in March or April, when the temperature warmed, the snows melted, and the Roman Army could move. However, the immensities of the fighting in Spain meant that Roman military commanders were given precious little time to organize their campaigns. As a result of the wars in Spain, the rules and conventions of government needed to be changed due to the necessities of waging military operations in that theater, including extending the term-of-office for certain officials in order for them to more effectively carry out their duties, and even changing the Roman calendar. It was decided to shift the months of the calendar around. January and February, which had previously been the eleventh and twelfth months, were now moved to the beginning of the year to serve as the first and second months. Roman politicians and military commanders now assumed their powers on January 1 instead of March 1, which gave them at least sixty more days to prepare their troops for the upcoming military campaigns. This is also the reason why the months of September (literally translated to “Month Number 7”), October, November, and December now serve as the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year (4).

The Roman poet Ovid writes about the purification rituals of February in his Fasti:

“The fathers of Rome called purification ‘februa’. Many things still indicate that meaning for the word. The high priests ask the King and the Flamen for woolen cloths, called ‘februa’ in the ancient tongue. When houses are cleansed, the roasted grain and salt, the lictor receives, are called by the same name. The same name too is given to the branch, cut from a pure tree, whose leaves wreathe the priests’ holy brows. I’ve seen the priest’s wife (the Flaminica) ask for ‘februa’, and at her request she was given a branch of pine. In short anything used to purify our bodies, had that title in the days of our hairy ancestors. The month is so called, because the Luperci cleanse the earth with strips of purifying hide, or because the time is pure, having placated the dead, when the days devoted to the departed are over. Our ancestors believed every sin and cause of evil could be erased by rites of purification. Greece set the example: she considered the guilty could rid themselves of sins by being purified” (5)

Ovid also states that a gathering was held every February 1 at the Forest of Alernus, located where the Tiber River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, he does not provide any reason for this assembly of people at this wood, nor does he go into any description as to what activities occurred there. Elsewhere, at the tomb of Numa Pompilius and at Jupiter’s temple of the Capitoline Hill, a sheep was sacrificed. (6)

Ovid also states that February 1 marked the date that at least two temples were built dedicated to the goddess Juno, the queen of the Roman gods. However, Ovid remarks that these temples had long fallen into ruins by the time that he was writing (7).

Source citations

  1. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  2. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  4. Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 8 – “The Roman Conquest of Spain”.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.
  7. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.

Bibliography

March 1 – The Month of Mars

March is the month dedicated to the ancient Roman war god Mars. By now, the weather is warming up, the snows have melted, and you can once again get your armies on the move. March is the month where you, literally, march off to war.

“Come Mars, God of War, lay aside your shield and spear. A moment, from your helmet, free your shining hair. What has a poet to do with Mars, you might ask? The month I sing of takes its name from you” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, introduction).

Here’s something that you might find interesting: did you know that the woodpecker was a bird sacred to Mars, and Romans were banned by religious law from eating them? Ovid makes mention of the woodpecker as “bird of Mars” as well as alluding to a legend that a woodpecker brought the infantry Romulus and Remus food to eat (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, introduction), and Plutarch explains why the Romans held woodpeckers in such high regard: “It is a courageous and spirited bird and has a beak so strong that it can overturn oaks by pecking them until it has reached the inmost part of the tree” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #21). Perhaps this is the reason why Roman officers wore those red crests on their helmets!

Many people think of the year beginning on January 1, but this wasn’t always the case. In ancient Rome, the calendar originally began on March 1. However, this was changed in the late Republican period due to problems with mobilizing the army. The Roman Army was not commanded by career military officers, but politicians who performed military service as part of their duties to the State. Elected politicians took their offices on March 1, the beginning of the year, but this gave them precious little time to get the army ready for mobilization when the Spring thaw came. Therefore, the Roman calendar was changed so that it started on January 1, known as “the Calends”, and this gave Rome’s consuls two months to prepare for the Spring offensive. One of the reasons for this shift in the calendar was the trouble that the Romans were having in conducting military operations in Spain, but that’s a story for another day (Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 7 – “Romans and Carthaginians in Spain”; Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 8 – “The Roman Conquest of Spain”).

In many Germanic societies, especially during the Dark Ages, March 1 was the day where the militia had to enroll for another season of military service. This was known as the Marchfeld, or “Mars Field” (this is likely a copy of the ancient Roman Campus Martius “the Field of Mars”, where Roman soldiers trained and were assembled for another year’s military service), and is well-attested in our records of the Frankish kingdom beginning in the 6th Century AD. The Lombards, another Germanic people, appear to have adopted this custom, since we have records dating to the 8th Century of a similar mustering ceremony occurring on March 1 in their kingdom. The Ostrogoths also conducted an annual mustering of warriors (Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. London: Routledge, 2003. Pages 43 and 82).

Ovid also explains that March 1 marked one of several feast days dedicated to Mars. During Rome’s war against the Sabines, a peace was formed between the two warring sides on this day, due in large part to the pleas and prayers of the women. For this reason, Ovid explains, March 1 was a day in which women honored Mars. Also, marriages were not allowed to take place on this day – it was considered bad luck for a woman to marry on a day dedicated to war, possibly out of the belief that her husband would be killed in battle. As Ovid says, “Girl, if you’d marry, delay, however eager both are. A little delay, at this time, is of great advantage. Weapons excite to war, war’s bad for those married. The omens will be better when weapons are put away” (Ovid, Fasti, book 1, “March 1”).

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