Although it is famously the Ides of March upon which Julius Caesar met his demise, it was in fact a month before on the Ides of February when he sealed his fate. Two thousand and fifty six years ago today, for the Ides occur on the 13th during the short months, Caesar thrice refused the crown offered to him by Marc Antony during the festival of Lupercalia, a test to judge the will of the people to accept his tyrannical ambitions. The response of the crowd was a barometer of their love for Caesar and his refusal was meant to assuage the fears of the ruling class that he was contemplating more and permanent power.
The test failed when some in the ebullient throng placed crowns on Caesar’s statues after he refused the crown himself and two Tribunes not only removed the crowns but jailed the people who placed them on the likenesses of Caesar. Instead of continuing to play it cool, Caesar became incensed and stripped the Tribunes of their positions, tipping his hand that he had aspirations to overturn centuries of Roman democracy and reinstate himself as a monarch.
The Lupercalia, which some argue is a precursor to St. Valentine’s Day, is a unique and fascinating holiday as it marks one of the few instances in the Classical World where dogs were sacrificed.
Why do the Luperci sacrifice a dog?
Is it because this performance constitutes a rite of purification of the city? In fact they call this month February, and indeed this very day, februata; and to strike with a kind of leather thong they call februare, the word meaning “to purify.” Nearly all the Greeks used a dog as the sacrificial victim for ceremonies of purification; and some, at least, make use of it even to this day. They bring forth for Hecatê puppies along with the other materials for purification, and rub round about with puppies such persons as are in need of cleansing, and this kind of purification they call periskylakismos (“puppifrication”).
Or is it that lupus means “wolf” and the Lupercalia is the Wolf Festival, and that the dog is hostile to the wolf, and for this reason is sacrificed at the Wolf Festival?
Or is it that the dogs bark at the Luperci and annoy them as they race about in the city?
Or is it that the sacrifice is made to Pan, and a dog is something dear to Pan because of his herds of goats?
- Plutarch, Roman Questions
Plutarch also documented how the events on Lupercalia, those two millennia ago, put the conspiracy to kill Caesar in motion:
There was added to these causes of offence his insult to the tribunes. It was, namely, the festival of the Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
These ceremonies Caesar was witnessing, seated upon the rostra on a golden throne, arrayed in triumphal attire. And Antony was one of the runners in the sacred race; for he was consul. Accordingly, after he had dashed into the forum and the crowd had made way for him, he carried a diadem, round which a wreath of laurel was tied, and held it out to Caesar. Then there was applause, not loud, but slight and preconcerted. But when Caesar pushed away the diadem, all the people applauded; and when Antony offered it again, few, and when Caesar declined it again, all, applauded.
The experiment having thus failed, Caesar rose from his seat, after ordering the wreath to be carried up to the Capitol; but then his statues were seen to have been decked with royal diadems. So two of the tribunes, Flavius and Maryllus, went up to them and pulled off the diadems, and after discovering those who had first hailed Caesar as king, led them off to prison. Moreover, the people followed the tribunes with applause and called them Brutuses, because Brutus was the man who put an end to the royal succession and brought the power into the hands of the senate and people instead of a sole ruler. At this, Caesar was greatly vexed, and deprived Maryllus and Flavius of their office, while in his denunciation of them, although he at the same time insulted the people, he called them repeatedly Brutes and Cymaeans.
Under these circumstances the multitude turned their thoughts towards Marcus Brutus…
- Plutarch, The Life of Caesar
And we all know how that ended.
So Felices Lupercalia, and thank dog we don’t have to sacrifice puppies to cleanse the city and promote fertility any more. We kill flowers and eat chocolate instead.
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