How the Romans celebrated spring

Spring – awakening from winter sleep, the celebration of new life, blossoms and fertility. In many religions, the revival from the dead and a fresh start.

Until the arrival of Christianity, Easter did not exist as a festival for Romans. So how did they mark the arrival of spring? We have three alternatives: Cerealia, Parilia and Floralia.

Spring (1894) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, depicting the Cerealia in a Roman street

Ovid hints at its archaic, brutal nature of the Cerealia (held for seven days from mid to late April) when he describes a nighttime ritual; blazing torches were tied to the tails of live foxes, who were released into the Circus Maximus.

The origin and purpose of this ritual are unknown; it may have been intended to cleanse the growing crops and protect them from disease and vermin, or to add warmth and vitality to their growth.

Ovid suggests that long ago, at ancient Carleoli, a farm-boy caught a fox stealing chickens and tried to burn it alive. The fox escaped, ablaze; in its flight it fired the fields and their crops, which were sacred to Ceres. Ever since, foxes are punished at her festival.

The ludi Ceriales – games were essential to any Roman festival – were held in the Circus Maximus. Ovid mentions that Ceres’ search for her lost daughter Proserpina was represented by women clothed in white, running about with lighted torches.

During the Republican era, the Cerealia was organised by the plebeian aediles (minor public magistrates), Ceres being one of the patron deities of the plebs or common people.

The festival included circus games (ludi circuses), opening with a horse race in the Circus Maximus, with a starting point just below the Aventine Temple of Ceres, Liber and Libera. After around 175 BC, the Cerealia included ludi scaenici, theatrical performances.



Festa di Pales, o L’estate (1783), Joseph-Benoît Suvée

The annual festival of the Parilia on 21 April, intended to purify both sheep and shepherd, was in honour of Pales, a deity of uncertain gender who was a patron of shepherds and sheep.

Ovid describes the Parilia at length in the Fasti, an elegiac poem on the Roman religious calendar, and implies that it predates the founding of Rome, traditionally 753 BC, as indicated by its pastoral, pre-agricultural concerns.

During the Republic, farming was idealised and central to Roman identity, so the festival took on a more generally rural character. Increasing urbanisation caused the rustic Parilia to be reinterpreted rather than abandoned, reflecting Rome’s traditionalist nature.

During the Imperial period, the date was celebrated as Rome’s ‘birthday’ (dies natalis Romae).


Triumph of Flora by Tiepolo (ca. 1743),

And lastly, the Floralia celebrated the goddess Flora, and took place on 27 April during the Republican era, or April 28 on the Julian calendar. It began in Rome in 240 or 238 B.C. when the temple to Flora was dedicated to invoke the goddess’s protection of blossoms, essential to the life cycle of food-producing plants.

The Floralia fell out of favour and was discontinued until 173 BC, when the senate, concerned about wind, hail, and other damage to the flowers, ordered Flora’s celebration reinstated as the ludi Florales (or ludi Florae). (See Ovid Fasti 5.292 ff and 327 ff.). Under the Empire, the games lasted for six days.

The festival had a licentious, pleasure-seeking atmosphere and in contrast to festivals based on Rome’s archaic patrician religion, the games of Flora had a plebeian character.


Fragment of the Fasti Praenestini showing a note on the Ludi Florae

The games of Flora were presented by the plebeian aediles and paid for by fines, and probably partly by these aediles, who used the games as a socially acceptable way of gaining popularity and so votes in future elections for higher office.

Cicero mentions his role in organising the Floralia games when he was aedile in 69 BC. (Orationes Verrinae ii, 5, 36-7). The festival opened with theatrical performances (ludi scaenici), and concluded with competitive events and spectacles at the Circus and a sacrifice to Flora. In 30 AD, the entertainments at the Floralia presented under the future emperor Galba (then a praetor) featured a tightrope-walking elephant.

Participation of prostitutes
Prostitutes participated in the Floralia; according to the satirist Juvenal, prostitutes danced naked and fought in mock gladiator combat. Many prostitutes in ancient Rome were slaves, and even free women who worked as prostitutes lost their legal and social standing as citizens, but their inclusion at religious festivals indicates that sex workers were not completely outcast from society.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOvid says that hares (Aha!) and goats – animals considered fertile and salacious – were ceremonially released as part of the festivities. Persius says that the crowd was pelted with vetches, beans, and lupins, also symbols of fertility.
In contrast to the Cerealia, when white garments were worn, multi-coloured clothing was customary. There may have been evening ceremonies, since sources mention measures taken to light the way after the theatrical performances.

1700 year old Berryfields egg

And eggs? In Rome, the egg symbolised life and fertility and was used in the rites of Venus (the patroness of the month of April). An egg preceded the religious procession for Ceres, goddess of agriculture (see Cerealia above).

Macrobius wrote that in the rites of Liber, Roman god of fertility and wine (who was also called Bacchus and identified with Dionysius), eggs were honoured, worshipped, and called the symbol of the universe, the beginning of all things.

Eggs are represented on Roman sarcophagi, perhaps with the wish that the spirit of the departed may have a renewal of life.

And today?
In Romania, Palm Sunday is called Duminica Floriilor, a name derived from Floralia; as often happened, the name of a long established Roman festival was given to a Christian feast celebrated during the same season.

But in Roma Nova, along with other traditional Roman festivals, Carina and family celebrate Floralia. However, it doesn’t always turn out to be the happiest of times especially when the blue-uniformed custodes are hammering on the door as in SUCCESSIO


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers.

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