Ancient Roman Festivals, Celebrations and Holidays (A–Fe)
This article lists and explains important ancient Roman festivals, holidays and celebrations in alphabetical order from A to Fe. Each occasion is described in more detail below. Links to articles listing the celebrations from Fg to K, L to O and P to Z can be found at the bottom of this page.
Ancient Roman Festivals and Holidays A–Fe
- Agonalia: Celebrated Janus, the god of the beginning and the end
- The Anna Parenna Festival: Celebrated Anna Parenna, the goddess of the circle of the year
- The Apollonian Games: Celebrated Apollo, the god of restoration and healing
- The Bona Dea Festival: Celebrated Bona Dea, a deified woman
- Cerealia: Celebrated Ceres, the god of the harvest
- Equirra: Celebrated Mars, the god of war
- Faunalia: Celebrated Faunus, the god of fertility
- Feralia: Celebrated the dead (similar to today's All Saints' Day)
Celebrated: January 9th
Janus is the god of the beginning, the end and portals in Roman mythology. According to legend, Janus was first worshiped by Romulus, one of the two traditional founders of Rome.
Janus is usually portrayed as having two faces, one of which looks forward to the future while the other looks backward into the past. The god's image first showed up on an early ancient Roman coin with a ship’s prow on the backside. Much like how people play "heads or tails" today, boys in ancient Rome used to toss these coins and call "heads or ships."
Agonalia was an ancient Roman festival observed in honor of Janus. During the course of the observance, the rex sacrorum, or officiating priest, sacrificed a ram. Offerings of incense, wine, cakes and barley were also made. These were called Januae.
Numa Pompilius, the second king in the Roman tradition, dedicated the famous Ianus geminus to the god Janus, thus paying homage to him. According to popular belief of the time, passing through the Ianus geminus, which was an arcade at the northeast end of the Roman Forum, brought luck to soldiers who were on their way to war.
The Anna Parenna Festival
Celebrated: March 15th
Anna Parenna is the goddess of the circle of the year. The name Anna is actually the feminine form of annus, which means year. Anna Parenna was celebrated in March, which was the first month of the Roman calendar. More specifically, it was celebrated on the 15th, or ides, of March. Technically, Mars is the god of the first month of the coming year, whereas Anna Parenna was commonly portrayed as an old woman who represented the year that had just passed.
Ancient Roman legend has it that, in 494 B.C.E., the plebeians (common citizens) left Rome to politically pressure the patricians (aristocracy), who were in dire need of their labor for military purposes. They sought and found refuge on the Mons Sacer, a mountain near Rome. Nearly running short of food and with the constant threat of starvation, they turned to Anna, an old woman from Bovillae, who provided them with food on a daily basis. After the re-establishment of peace, the plebeians made her one of their deities and called her Parenna, which means "enduring" or "lasting throughout the whole year."
On the day of the Anna Parenna Festival, the commoners of the city of Rome visited Campus Martius, a field outside the walls. They would lay about on the grass, often pitching tents or building simple huts out of stakes and branches with togas
stretched across the tops. They drank, danced and sang, and they only returned to the city at night—often deeply intoxicated. As they drank, they offered prayers to Anna Parenna to grant them a lifespan of as many years as the number of cups of wine they could consume.
The Apollonian Games
Celebrated: July 6th–13th
Apollo was an ancient Greek god who was adopted by Rome as a deity of healing and restoration during a plague in the 5th century B.C.E. A few hundred years later after it seemed that Hannibal's army would get the upper hand over the Romans in the Second Punic War, priests decided to hold games in Apollo's honor in hopes of receiving divine intervention from him.
The Apollonian Games (also known as the Ludi Apollinares) were first held in 212 B.C.E. Initially, the celebrations were held on July 13th, but soon they morphed into an 8-day event due to their huge success with the public.
From the first day, the Apollonian Games showed signs of Greek influence with chariot races and scenic shows— both clearly Greek customs—offered for theatrical entertainment. As a part of the event, Apollo was offered a sacrificed ox.
Great feasts were held during the Apollonian Games, and many citizens participated. Two days were devoted to races and games in the Circus Maximus, a spacious outdoor arena, while the other six were devoted to theatrical plays and market fairs.
The Bona Dea Festival
Celebrated: May 1st
The ancient Bona Dea Festival, also known as Maia Maiesta, was observed only by women; men were not permitted to take part in the occasion. The observance honored Bona Dea, who was known variously as the daughter, sister or wife of the ancient Roman fertility god, Faunus.
Much like Anna Parenna, Bona Dea was an actual woman who was deified after being unjustly murdered by her husband. Bona Dea revealed her prophesies to women only. The caretakers of her temple were all women, and all of her rites were performed exclusively by women as well.
Held on May 1st, the Bona Dea holiday commemorated the day that the temple of the goddess had been dedicated on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Although the ceremonies and rituals were carried out by vestal virgins and respectable matrons, they apparently included elements of phallic worship and the reciting of indecencies that were not to be repeated in front of the uninitiated. Without a doubt, the celebration of the Bona Dea Festival strengthened the Roman belief that the month of May was unlucky for marriage.
Celebrated: April 19th
Ceres, the goddess of grain and harvests, was commonly equated with the Greek goddess, Demeter. Celebrations in her honor were carried out in many places in the ancient world, but Cerealia originated in Rome, where she was honored at her temple on the Aventine Hill alongside two other important fertility deities, Liber and his female counterpart, Libera. A similar holiday called Thesmophoria was celebrated in ancient Greece.
Celebrations of Ceres centered around the activity of plebeians, as they often suffered starvation when there was a shortage of grain. In many places, Cerealia was celebrated only by Roman matrons who abstained from wine and other earthly pleasures for a number of days preceding the occasion. People in mourning were not permitted to show up at the celebration, so it likely was not celebrated after the Battle of Cannae, during which 50,000 Roman troops were slaughtered by Hannibal's forces.
It is sometimes theorized that April Fools’ Day is an old relic of Cerealia because it is also held in April. To back this theory, some scholars refer to an ancient Roman legend in which Ceres’ daughter, Proserpine, was dragged off to the underworld by Pluto. Ceres, hearing the echos of her daughter's cries, tried to follow her voice, but it proved to be a fool’s errand, as locating the echos' source in the underworld was impossible.
Celebrated: February 27th and March 14th
According to legend, Romulus, one of the two brothers who founded Rome, began the Equirria tradition and dedicated it to Mars, the god of war. Equirria was held on both February 27th and March 14th and, for the most part, involved racing horses.
Scholars theorize that the two annual Equirrias were held little more than two weeks apart from each other because they were opportunities to start training horses and warriors in public for upcoming military excursions that were typically undertaken by Roman soldiers each spring. The later Equirria might also have been related to Mamuralia, which was also held on March 14th.
Celebrated: December 5th and February 13th
Faunus, the god of the forest and fertility in ancient Roman mythology, was often thought to be the source of eerie noises heard in thick woods. Faunalia, a festival held in Faunus' honor, was observed primarily by farmers and other rural workers on December 5th with games and feasting. However, city-dwellers also adopted the tradition, and most celebrated it on February 13th and for a shorter period of time.
Faunus was known as either the brother, father or husband of Bona Dea, the goddess of prophecy. Other fertility gods like Lupercus (associated with Lupercalia) and Inuus (fertilizer of cattle) were believed to be equivalents of Faunus. The Fauni, or fauns, were spirits of the forest similar to the satyrs of Greek tradition.
Celebrated: February 21st
Feralia signified the culmination of a one-week-long celebration honoring the manes, or spirits of the dead. This Roman tradition began on February 13th with Parentalia, a private celebration honoring deceased family members, and ended on February 21st with Feralia, a more communal public holiday.
On this day, people placed gifts and offerings on the graves of deceased friends and family members to celebrate the anniversary of the funeral feast. Feralia is somewhat similar to All Souls’ Day, a well-known Christian holiday that is still observed by many.