Ancient Roman Festivals, Celebrations and Holidays (P–Z)
This article lists and explains important ancient Roman festivals, holidays and celebrations in alphabetical order from P through Z. Each occasion is described in more detail below. Links to articles listing the celebrations from A through Fe, Fg through K and L through O can be found at the bottom of this page.
Ancient Roman Festivals and Holidays P–Z
- Parilia: Celebrated Pales, the protector of shepherds and their flocks
- Parentalia: Celebrated the manes, or souls of the dead
- Plebeian Games: Celebrated Jupiter, the god of thunder and sky
- Quirinalia: Celebrated Quirinus, a god of storms and thunder
- Robigalia: Celebrated Robigus, the god of rust
- Roman Games: Also celebrated Jupiter, the god of thunder and sky
- Saturnalia: Celebrated Saturn, the father of all gods
- Vinalia: Celebrated Venus, the goddess of beauty, fertility and wine
- Vulcanalia: Celebrated Vulcan, the god of fire
Celebrated: April 21st
Parilia was an ancient Roman festival held in honor of Pales, the protector of shepherds and their flocks. Pales was considered by some to be male (and related to Pan or Faunus) and by others to be female (similar to Vesta or Anna Parenna).
According to some experts, Parilia's name comes from the word pario, meaning to bear or increase. It was a pastoral rite held in rural areas as well as in the city of Rome itself, where it coincided with the city’s founding in 753 B.C.E. Legend has it that Romulus, one of the city's traditional founders, participated in the cleansing and renewal rituals connected to Parilia. Purifying rituals, or lustrations, were performed with fire and smoke and without the offering of any sacrifices.
Blood preserved from an October horse sacrifice six months earlier was burned along with bean shells and the ashes of the cattle ritually killed at Cerealia. The stables were also cleansed with smoke and cleaned with brooms.
Celebrants of Palilia offered up cheese, wine and cakes to Pales. In the countryside, heaps of straw were set on fire. Once lit, shepherds and their flocks had to ritually pass through them three times. Parilia came to a close with a great open-air feast.
Celebrated: February 13th
Parentalia was observed in praise of the manes, or souls of the dead. More specifically, individuals would use this time to honor their deceased relatives. Parentalia began an eight-day period of the year during which Romans would remember the dead that ended with Feralia on February 21st. February 22nd—the first day after the 8-day period devoted to the dead—was a day of forgiveness, restoration of friendships and reconciliation of conflicts between neighbors.
Parentalia was a quiet, solemn occasion without the gleeful and joyous characteristics of some other festivals. Temples, shops and public buildings closed down, and people became preoccupied with decorating graves with flowers and foods, believing that these offerings would be appreciated and actually eaten by the spirits of the dead.
Plebeian Games (Ludi Plebeii)
Celebrated: November 4th–17th
The Plebeian Games are believed to have been started by the Roman leader Flaminus in 220 B.C.E. He built the Circus Flaminius to house the Ludi Plebeii. In later years, the festival relocated to the Circus Maximus, which was a spacious, open-air arena between the Palatine and Aventine hills.
The Games were dedicated to Jupiter and included one of his feast days—November 13th. The actual competitions occurred from November 15th through 17th and consisted of horse and chariot races as well as contests involving running, boxing and wrestling. The first nine days of the Games were devoted to theatrical productions.
Roman Games (Ludi Romani)
Celebrated: September 4th–19th
Just like the Ludi Plebeii, the Roman Games can be traced back to the dedication of Jupiter's temple on Capitoline Hill on September 13th, 509 B.C.E. The games were celebrated in praise of Jupiter and were among the oldest of the Roman festivals.
The Roman Games were originally a one-day event, but by Julius Caesar's time, they had been extended to a full 15 days. They set off with a grand procession to the Circus Maximus. In addition to the athletes, the procession consisted of musicians, dancers, charioteers, men masquerading as satyrs in goatskins, devotees of the gods and animals that were to be sacrificed as part of the celebration.
The events ranged from boxing to running to wrestling to occasional mock battles to two and four-horse chariot races. All of these events took place at the Circus Maximus. One peculiarity of the chariot races was that the drivers were accompanied by partners on foot, who, after a chariot passed the finish line, had to race back to the other end of the arena to decide the outcome of the contest.
Celebrated: February 17th
Quirinus was a god often likened to Mars, the god of war. His name is connected to Quirinal, one of the seven hills on which Rome was founded and the location of an ancient Sabine town, which was the actual headquarters of the cult of Quirinus.
In later days, Quirinus was equated to Romulus and the Quirinalis, and his festival was held on February 17th—the same date on which Romulus was thought to have been deified.
Quirinalia was also connected to the beginning of warfare season in the spring when the arms of the military were brought back into play after the peaceful winter season. The temple of the god Quirinus on Quirinal was one of the oldest in the city of Rome.
Celebrated: April 25th
Robigalia was held in honor of Robigus, the god who personified diseases of crops, such as fungal infection. When Robigus was angry, farmers were in for a disastrous harvest. Robigalia was one of several annual holidays held to make the god content. The prayers and sacrifices offered on April 25th were believed to stave off mildew, rust, wilt and other blights that often destroyed farmers' crops.
Celebrated: December 17th–23rd
Beginning on December 17th, the Winter Solstice festival of Saturnalia was celebrated for seven days in praise of Saturn, the father of all gods. It was characterized by the suspension of discipline and the reversal of the usual order.
During Saturnalia, all grudges and quarrels of the past were put aside, public institutions were closed down, wars were put on hold, slaves were served by their masters and a change of dress between the sexes often occurred.
Celebrants of Saturnalia offered up gifts of imitation fruit (a kind of fertility symbol), dolls (symbols of human sacrifice) and candles (a remnant of the bonfire traditions of pagan solstice festivals). Households would often choose a mock-king to watch over their festivities. This king was characterized by all sorts of excesses, hence the modern use of the term saturnalian, meaning a period of unrestrained license.
Celebrated: April 23rd and August 19th
Vinalia, which was devoted to Venus, the goddess of fertility and wine, was observed each year on two occasions. The first, held on April 23rd, was named Vinalia Priora; the second, held on August 19th, was called Vinalia Rustica. Both celebrations were at first more focused on Jupiter, but after Venus-worship was brought into Rome in the 2nd century B.C.E., the older association with Jupiter gradually faded away.
April 23rd is believed to have been a day devoted to the first opening of the wine-skins, as new wine was typically brought into Rome a few days earlier. From the newly opened skins, libations were made to Venus, who was also the goddess of gardens and vineyards. Winemakers were advised against bringing new wine into Rome until Vinalia had been declared.
According to some experts, it was actually during the August festival that new wine was brought into the city, while others insist that Vinalia Rustica was a rite devised to protect the following year's vintage from disease, extreme weather conditions and other potentially harmful influences.
Celebrated: August 23rd
Vulcanalia was observed in praise of Vulcan, the deity of destructive volcanic fire. When sacrifices were made in his honor, entire animals—often calves or boars—were burned at once rather than in parts as was typical in some other celebration rituals.
The occasion was observed on August 23rd, which was a time of year when forest fires might occur and when granaries were in danger of catching fire. It's no coincidence that the cult of Vulcan was so prominent at Ostia, where most of Rome’s grain was stored.
Vulcanalia was celebrated not only in Rome, but also in Egypt and in Athens, where the flamen Volcanis, or priests of Vulcan, offered sacrifices, while the heads of families threw small fish caught in the Tiber River into fires. Emperor Augustus was honored as Volcanus Quietus Augustus because he divided the city of Rome into districts to facilitate more efficient fire-fighting operations.