Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome (2024)

Definition, Elements, and the Formation of Names of Ancient Festivals


Festivals are periods of time during which a group interrupts daily life in order to focus on communal activities that most often are thought of as communications with the superhuman world of gods or ancestors. In a festival, a group constitutes, renews, and reinforces its identity. Accordingly, after a radical change of identity, a group will change its festival calendar, as happened for example after the Christianization of Greece and Rome, or in France after the Revolution. Festivals also construct the recipients of the rites, be they superhuman powers such as gods, heroic ancestors, the deceased, or the kings and emperors that are recipients of ruler cult. Festivals finally also construct and order time and space. They impose a recurrent pattern—seasonal, annual, multi-annual—on the flux of time, and they articulate the relationship between the ordinary space of the city and the extraordinary, sacred space of a sanctuary inside the city or outside on the countryside and along the borders of the territory.1

The Key Elements

Main elements of Greek and Roman festivals are processions, sacrifices, and athletic and musical performances, often organized as contests (agōnes).


The center of a Greco-Roman festival was the animal sacrifice that was accompanied by prayers, libations of wine, water, milk, oil, or honey, and by the burning of incense and of special sacrificial cakes and other vegetable matter. In many festivals, the animal sacrifice preceded an ample banquet in which the entire group and sometimes outsiders (such as guests and ambassadors) participated; the rules for participation and exclusion—of foreigners, slaves, or the other gender—varied according to the character of the festival, and defined groups of varying composition and size. Single actions defined hierarchical roles in the group, and the way the meat was distributed among participants confirmed such hierarchies. Animals had to be perfect, and some cities staged selection rituals in the form of beauty contests to select the perfect animal.2 Sacrifices could be spectacular as to both the form and the size of the ritual and thus heighten the extraordinary festival atmosphere. The grand festival sacrifice was the hecatomb, the sacrifice of one hundred cows or bulls; the term and thus the ritual is already Indo-European, and the number is no exaggeration, as shown by the remnants of twice fifty rows of iron rings that served to attach the animals along the sides of the monumental altar of Apollo at Klaros. A spectacular act during Athenian sacrifices was “to lift the ox.” an Athenian story tells how Theseus did so at the shrine of Apollo Delphinios to demonstrate his malehood (Pausanias. 1.19.1), and 2nd century bce ephebic inscriptions (e.g., IG II² 1006) praised the ephebes for this act; it needed several non-heroic youth to perform the feat.


Processions have many forms and functions.3 The most elementary form is the sacrificial procession; the actors and participants of a sacrifice walk the animal and carry the implements used during the sacrifice from the private home to the sanctuary. In a largely magnified and enlarged version of this, most impressively in the (centripetal) Athenian procession of the Panathenaia, a city represents itself, its varying groups, and its power in a procession that accompanied the large number of white cows together with the new cloak, the peplos, woven by Athenian women, from the margin of the city to the central shrine in the religious center of the city, the Acropolis. A comparable self-representation is the Roman pompa circensis, from the Capitol through the Forum to the Circus Maximus; it opened the major ludi and paraded musicians, dancers (including satyrs), images of the gods, and the magistrates in triumphal attire on chariots (Dionysius Halicarnassus, Antiquitates 7.72.1–13). Other processions, being centrifugal, connect inversely the political center of a city with an outlying sanctuary, as in the Heraia of Argos, leading from the city to the sanctuary of the city goddesses situated at the border of its territory. Similarly, the processions in the Christian liturgy of late antique Jerusalem connected the main church at Golgotha in the city center with Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives. In a more complex choreography, the free-standing procession that C. Vibius Salutaris, founded in Imperial Ephesus in the time of Hadrian, lead from the outlying shrine of Artemis through one city gate into the theatre and out through another gate back to the sanctuary; a large number of gilded silver images represent Artemis in several of her aspects, the ruling emperor and his empress, myths, topography, and political units of Ephesus, and the corresponding political units of Rome. In this way, the procession articulated a complex message about the relationship between the city of Ephesus, its world-famous sanctuary, and the Roman center of power.4


Athletic and musical contests mostly belonged to the Greek world; the Athenian invention of contests of tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays quickly conquered the Greek world and remained popular throughout the Roman Empire. Musical and athletic performances were always an integral part of Greek festivals. The music of lyre and flute belonged to the regular sacrifice, and the performance of paeans by the kouroi Achaiōn, the young Greek men, belonged to the sacrificial festival with which the Greeks placated Apollo after he had punished them with the plague (Homer Iliad 1.472–474). The famous Partheneion, “Girls Song” of the 7th century Spartan poet Alcman, introduces competing nubile girls singing and dancing in an unknown festival; the winning runner in the foot race in the Elean Olympia raced up to the high ash altar of Zeus to kindle the sacrificial fire. Already in the archaic period, these contests were normalized and organized into long-drawn out performances; but their connection with the central sacrifice of a festival remained alive even in the Imperial Age.5 In Rome, gladiatorial shows followed the main sacrificial day, such as the Quinquatrus festival. The Greek invention of dramatic performances (ludi scaenici) were added to festivals of gods that had a Greek flavor, mainly the Megalesia, the festival of Magna Mater, and the ludi Apollinares; the rare introduction of athletic contest in the Capitolia of Nero and Domitian were a conscious imitation of Greek customs.6

Time Structure

Greek and Roman festivals recur usually after one year; the experience of this recurrence shapes and structures the perception of time. Ancient societies do not have a festive event, such as Sunday, that recurs in a much faster rhythm. A few Greek festivals recur in longer periods, especially the major Panhellenic contests, but also the Greater Panathenaia in Athens; the four-year period of the Olympia, the most prestigious athletic festival (in ancient inclusive terminology, penteteric, “five-year-wise”) served as an unofficial way of time reckoning and became a standard for the many athletic festivals founded during the Imperial period. The logistics of ancient travel for participants and spectators will have been the main reason for these longer intervals. Very few festivals recurred in longer intervals; in Greece, the best known is the Delphic festival Septeria, which took place every eighth year and included a ritual procession to the Tempe Valley. In Rome, the Ludi Saeculares were recurring after the passage of a saeculum, a span of about 110 years. It was Augustus who, in 17 bce, consolidated the festival tradition in order to mark Rome’s return to peace and prosperity after a century of civil wars; Domitian (88 ce), Septimius Severus (204 ce) and, with a different count, Claudius (47 ce) repeated the festival.7

Festival Names

Greek and Roman festival names share a common linguistic structure. They almost always are the neuter plural of an adjective that expresses a close connection—in Greek most commonly a derivation in -io-, in Latin in -ali- (or -ili-), less common in -io- as well; many Greek names show the suffix -tēria, which goes back to the Bronze Age. Very often, the festival name expresses the connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder—Dionysia, Hyakinthia, Demostheneia; Neptunalia, Parilia (from the goddess Pales, with dissimilation of the first /l/). Sometimes, the name is derived from an epithet (Elaphebolia, from Apollo Elaphebolos), the place of its performance (most often in the case of contests: Greek Olympia or Roman Capitolia), a specific ritual action (Plynteria, from the washing, πλύνω‎, of the image; Daphnephoria, from carrying a laurel branch, φέρεινδάφνας‎; Fordicidia, from killing a heifer, caedere fordam), a specific performer (Lupercalia, from lupercus, the young naked runner), or an event the festival claims to commemorate (Synoikia in Athens, the union of villages to form the city; Regifugium in Rome, the expulsion of the kings); and some names defy a clear understanding (Roman Agonium). In Greece, months are often named after one of its festivals, such as Attic-Ionic Pyanepsion from Pyanepsia, or Doric Theodaisios, from Theodaisa (both festival names derive from a ritual action, to cook a bean stew, ἕπτειν τὸν πύνον‎, and a banquet with the gods, δαΐς θεῶν‎). Sometimes the Greek month name reflects a festival that is insignificant in historical time, such as Attic-Ionic Maimakterion from the Maimakteria, an almost unknown festival of Zeus the Storm God; we tend to assume that the festival was more important in the distant past. Attic-Ionian month names also uniquely and specifically end with -ιών‎, and they are attested in the entire dialectal area, from Athens through the islands, from Euboia to Chios and Samos and the cities along the central part of the Anatolian west coast, and almost always in the same order. This has led scholars to the conclusion that the Attic-Ionian calendar (both the month names and the festivals on which the month names are based) existed before the dispersal of the dialect group at the very end of the Bronze Age.

Festivals in Bronze Age Texts

The occurrence of month and festival names in Linear B texts, written in the Bronze Age syllabic script for Greek, is less clear than these conclusions would suggest.8 Most names attested in Linear B remain without a correspondence in Iron Age Greece, nor do we have Linear B month names in -iōn. The month names end either in -ios or in -tos, appear always in the genitive of time and are followed by me-no, μηνός‎: the -ios forms thus are adjectives, “the month belonging to. ….” Of a total of ten undisputed month names, eight from Knossos and two from Pylus, only two, both from Cnossus, re-appear in the Iron Age documentation. The month ra-pa-to corresponds to the Cypriot month Lapatos whose etymology is unclear; the month di-wi-jo, Dīos, is widely attested not only in Iron Age Cyprus and Arcadia, where one expects Mycenaean survivals, but also in Aeolia and Western Greece; the derivation from Zeus is obvious. A possible month name at Pylus, di-pi-si-jo, might correspond to the Thessalian month Dipsios (Δίψιος‎), perhaps “Thirst Month.” None of these names derives from a known festival name, with the exception of Dios, behind which one can assume a festival called Dia.

There are also a few terms that can be understood as names of festivals or specific ritual actions. The most obvious case is the Pylian re-ke-to-te-ri-o, λεχε-στρωτήριον‎, a ritual action used as a festival name that corresponds to the Roman lectisternium. Two other Pylian terms ending in -tērion/-τήριον‎ might hide other ritual actions; and the ending -tērion survives in a few Iron Age festival names, such as the Attic-Ionian Anthestēria (widely attested through the month Anthestēriōn) or the Athenian Mystēria. A few terms in Pylus and Thebes are neuter plurals followed by the allative -de and have been understood as festival names as well; the most promising names are the Theban Ptoiade (po-to-a2-ja-de), “for the Ptoia,” a Boeotian festival attested especially in archaic times and slowly petering out in the 1st century ce, and Teleiade (te-re-ja-de), “for the Teleia,” perhaps a coming-of-age festival. With the exception of the Ptoia, none of these festivals is attested in the Iron Age, and the Roman lectisternium does not indicate survival, but a parallel development in Rome, perhaps under the formative influence of the Greek Theoxenia, where the gods visibly participated in a banquet.

Festivals in Homer and the Timing of Ancient Festivals

Homer’s Odyssey contains the first description of a Greek city festival. On the morning when Odysseus decided to fight and kill the suitors, the city was preparing a festival of Apollo: heralds led the sacred hecatomb through town, and the citizens assembled in the grove of far-shooting Apollo (Odyssey 20.276–278; cf. 21.276). The festival date is the day of the New Moon at the onset of spring (10.306–307 and 20.196). The New Moon is a typical date of Apollo’s festivals from which he received the epithet Noumēnios. The festival had its sacred place, as often with Apollo, in a grove rich with trees outside the city. All free adult males of the town participated in it. The central act was the large animal sacrifice, one hundred oxen led in a procession through the city out to the shrine; after the oxen were offered to the gods, the citizens would banquet together. Festivals are celebrations that bring gods and humans into close contact.

The correlation with the moon and the seasons is important for the Greek festival calendar. Unlike the (luni)solar Roman calendar, the calendars of the Greek cities are lunar, and each city has its own. The beginning of the year is placed at widely varying times that take indirect account of the solar year through the connection with the agricultural year, whereas the connection with the solar year and its four cardinal points, equinoxes and solstices, is vague only and compounded by the uncertainties and oscillations surrounding the local systems of intercalation; with a few exceptions—such as Ithaca in the Odyssey, or Athens—we are ill-informed about celebrations of the New Year. Local calendars vary widely: some begin the new year in summer, during the break after the cereal harvest (e.g., Athens in Hekatombaiōn or Samus in Pelysiōn, July/August; the date is only vaguely connected with the summer solstice), others in the fall, before the plowing begins (e.g., Priene in Boedromiōn, September, or Thasus in Apaturiōn, mid-October, vaguely close to the fall equinox), in spring, before the field-work begins (Miletus and its colonies in Taureōn, around the Spring equinox), or during the large agricultural break in mid-winter (e.g., Byzantium with Petageitnios, November/December, or Boeotia with Boukatios, December/January).9 The lunisolar calendar of Rome shows a comparable pattern, and the sources preserve information on a shift of the new year, from originally March 1 (Ovid Fasti 3.135) to January; in 153 bce it was decided that the consular year should start on the Kalendae Ianuariae (Inscriptiones Italiae 12:2, p. 111), which turned into a major festival throughout the empire during the Imperial period.10 Before this shift, the consuls entered office on variable dates, although March, singled out by Ovid, seems to have been important. Rather than assume a radical change, one has to posit the coexistence of different calendars, with the political calendar being predominant, but with a more private calendar from March to February still perceived in Augustan times, in the same way that, in our culture, a civil year coexists with a religious year, a financial year, or a tax year. Similarly there might have been different calendars in Greek cities, of which we have at best vague information.

When structuring time into a festival calendar, societies have a tendency to set strong ritual signs to mark the end of the old and the onset of the new annual cycle, mostly by inserting a period of suspended or inverted (“carnevalesque”) time. Whereas in contemporary Western societies the transition between December 31 and January is abrupt, even here there remain traces of a more gliding transition that in late antiquity contained the two weeks from Christmas Day on December 25 to Epiphany on January 6, with the 24 banquet days of the Brumalia, starting on November 24, leading up to it. In pre-Christian Greece and Rome, the transition was even more gliding (see the section Alternative Cycle).

Lunar months mark the observed phases of the moon, new moon, the waxing half moon, the full moon, the waning half moon. In the Roman calendar (that originally was lunar as well), named days marked this progression, from Kalendae through Nonae (waxing half moon) to Idus (full moon); the days were marked by sacrifices. In many Greek city calendars, Apollo was closely connected with two of these key days, the new moon (Apollo Noumēnios) and the seventh day (first quarter), which was celebrated as his birthday. The dark and empty night that preceded the new moon was sacred to Hekate for whom offerings were placed on the crossroads. The sixth day was regarded as the birthday of Artemis, the twin sister who served as midwife at the birth of her brother; in many respects, Artemis can be understood as a less dark mirror image of Hecate. As to the distribution throughout the month, one perceives a pattern that is, however, not strictly followed. Joyful festivals and those concerned with the gods above are placed before full moon during the period of the waxing moon, many shortly before full moon (with the exception of Apollo’s festivals on day 7); festivals that have dark sides and deal with the dead and heroes tend to fall into the period of the waning moon.

The Athenian Festival Calendar

The only Greek festival calendar that is well known to us is the calendar of Athens.11 Literary texts of the 5th and 4th centuries preserve details, usually without a wider context, and from the 4th century onwards, local historians gave systematic accounts that are lost to us save for excerpts in later texts. Epigraphic calendars go back to the later 5th century and peak in the early 4th century bce. Ritual calendars from several Athenian villages (demes), set up in the early 4th century, present sacrifices at festivals in an annual sequence; with the exception of the calendar of Erchia, which preserves one of two full overviews over the liturgical year,12 they survive only in fragments. The official cult calendar of Athens was exhibited on the Agora as part of the re-codification of Athenian law after 410 and 403 bce and is named the “calendar (or code) of Nicomachus,” after its main coordinator; it is only preserved in small fragments.13 There is a tension between the mostly allusive literary sources that we use to reconstruct the structure of the Athenian festival calendar and the very detailed epigraphic sources that are mainly concerned with the financial aspect of the festivals and address the native performers.

The following account does not aim at a full overview of the Athenian festival calendar. It intends to show its principles and the methodological problems when studying it; to do so, I focus on the clusters of festivals that dominate the year, the New Year’s cluster and the Dionysiac winter cluster, and on the Festivals of Demeter, the women’s goddess.

The first month of the Athenian year was Hekatombaion, renamed from an earlier Kronion, after the shadowy Kronia festival on day 12. The main festival is the Panathenaia on day 28, attested since the late archaic age; the festival celebrated the city’s patron goddess with the dedication of a peplos in a lavish procession in which the city represented itself and its power;14 even if the Parthenon frieze depicts a mythical first procession, this idealized picture is still informative for 5th century realities.15 The procession, in the 5th and 4th centuries partly supported by the cities of the Delian League, started in the Pompeion at the gate towards Eleusis, moved through the potters’ quarter (Kerameikos), to the agora, and climbed the acropolis for the sacrifice of at least one hundred white cows. Athletic contests followed the festival, with the typical prize of amphoras of Attic olive oil, the vessels retaining even in the 4th century the original 6th-century black-figured drawing of the armed and valiant city goddess. This can be read as an indication of a major reform of the festival in the late 6th century that might coincide with the change from Kronion to Panathenaia. There must also have been a considerable expansion once the Delian League was in place and the Acropolis had reached its new splendor in Periclean times. A parallel name change happened in Laconia where the month name Hekatombios coexisted with the better attested name Hyakinthios, after the major Spartan festival, the Hyakinthia in Amyklai; it is conceivable that Hyakinthios for some time was renamed Hekatombios, after the impressive sacrifices of this festival, perhaps under Athenian influence.16

Kronion was named after the Kronia, which celebrated Kronos, the god of the Golden Age that preceded Zeus. The characteristic trait of the festival was a relaxed and cheerful meal of masters and slaves together—the inversion of ordinary social behavior that we also know from the Roman Saturnalia; Roman authors saw the parallels between Kronia and Saturnalia.17 In both cases, it marks the temporary return of the Golden Age with its carnevalesque absence of the social restraints under Zeus. Far from being a festival to mark the end of the harvest, as the Athenian Philochorus claimed (FGrH 328 F 97), the temporary return of the Golden Age marks a joyful and relaxing suspension of ordinary time that precedes the return of normalcy after the New Year’s day, as in the Roman Saturnalia.

The third festival of the month, the Synoikia of day 16, recalls the unification of Attica under Theseus—the start of the present political order that then would express itself magnificently twelve days later in the Panathenaia. Unusually and interestingly, the progression of the first month of the year thus selected the full moon as the turning point from pre-order to order.

The slow progression and suspension of the old order that moved towards the new beginning of the year in Hekatombaion began two months earlier, in Thargelion. Days 6 and 7 of this month celebrate the name-giving Thargelia. On day 6, the Athenians sent out the two pharmakoi, “scape-goats,” in order to purify the city; the ritual is with more details attested in some Ionian cities.18 On day 7, Apollo’s day, one threw together all sorts of seeds, cooked them, and offered the resulting stew to Apollo as an improvised meal before the plentitude provided by the coming harvest. On day 19, the Thracians in Athens celebrated their goddess, Bendis, with a torch race in Piraeus that was popular at the time of Socrates: towards the end of the year the indigenous pantheon opened itself up towards a foreign divinity. On day 25 finally, the city celebrated the Plynteria: the old wooden image of Athena was taken out of her sanctuary, undressed, and brought to Phaleron for a washing in the sea and a solemn new dressing, foreshadowing the dedication of the new peplos two months later.

A similar sequence of festivals preceding the end of the year characterized the last month, Skirophorion. On day 12, at the Skira or Skirophoria (“the carrying of the sunshade”), the priestess of Athena Polias and the priests of Poseidon Erechtheus—the two divinities who had their shrines at the heart of the city for which they had fought each other—together with the priest of Helius, left the Acropolis and, hiding under a white sunshade, walked to a place called Skira outside the city. After the stealthy departure of the main priests, the Acropolis was empty and without regular cult. This is another ritual sign for the temporary interruption of Athenian normalcy. We do not hear when and how they returned, nor does it matter: we deal with a long chain of festivals that slowly break up normalcy to mark the end of an annual cycle of time, and to prepare for the forceful return of the new cycle.

Two days later, on the Acropolis, the Athenians sacrificed a plow ox to Zeus Polieus, the protector of civic order. Ordinarily, one did not sacrifice plow oxen; they were valuable work animals, and often they must not have been perfect enough to qualify as sacrificial animals. The sacrifice was followed by a trial that accused the sacrificer of murder; he shifted the blame to the sacrificial ox, which was convicted and drowned in the sea; the killed ox was resurrected by stuffing its hide with straw. Scholars have pointed out the connections of this festival, called Bouphonia or “Ox-murder,” with neolithic hunter’s rituals;19 but far from being a blueprint for Greek sacrificial ideology, it is its reversal: the temporary resurgence of hoary traditions marks yet another irruption of Kronian time in which the unthinkable is done and playfully evaluated. There follows a sacrifice to Athena Soteira and Zeus Soter on the last day of the month and the year, marking the first counterpoint by addressing the helpful powers that normally rule the city of Athens. Hekatombaion (or, even more pointedly, the former Kronion), however, returned to the world before Zeus, to end the month in the triumphant reassertion of Athens in the Panathenaia.

In an unknown night in Skirophorion, Athenian girls performed another strange ritual (Pausanias 1.27.3).20 Two of them were called arrhephoroi and elected from among the city nobility. The spent a year on the Acropolis, commissioned (among other things) with the task to begin the weaving of the new peplos, which the adult wives would finish. As their last task, they were sent down a secret (already Mycenaean) stairway at night that led from the Acropolis to the shrine of Aphrodite “in the Gardens”; they carried something that was carefully wrapped and brought another carefully wrapped thing back; after this, they were discharged from their duties, and two new girls took over. Whatever this secret thing was, its connection with Aphrodite points to sexuality, and in the concomitant myth, the three young daughters of Kekrops unwrapped what should have remained hidden, saw a baby and a snake, and jumped to their deaths from the Acropolis. One does not need to be a Freudian to understand the images of baby plus snake, and the effect of this on maidenly innocence.

The second complex belongs to Dionysus. It spans the three months from Posideon, through Gamelion (“Wedding Month”) and Anthesterion (“Flower Month”), to Elaphebolion (March/April), from mid-winter to early spring. Posideon has its name from a Poseidon Festival, Posideia, but nothing more is known about it in Athens, although month and festival appear, in varying dialectal forms, in other Greek cities. Gamelion is derived from the festival Hieros Gamos (“Sacred Wedding”), also called Theogamia (“Divine Wedding”); it celebrated the wedding of Zeus and Hera and, as far as we can see, was celebrated in private households and the villages only. Even less is known of the Elephebolia (“Deer Slaying”); it was dedicated to Artemis, and a late antique scholar talks about deer sacrifices—he might well have invented them out of the name. Only Anthesterion has its name from a major festival, the Anthesteria.

The sequence of festivals begins on the countryside with the “Rural Dionysia,” a raucous village celebration with a phallic procession and the sacrifice of a goat; Dikaiopolis in Aristophanes’ Acharnai performs the festival on his farm to mark the peace he concluded. Communal pleasure and transgressive male sexuality are the contradictory center of this mid-winter festival; it sets pleasure, including the thrill and power of sex, against the dead time of the year. With the rising popularity of drama during the 5th century, some villages added dramatic performances to their program, perhaps using local choral performances or cruder jesting matches as starting points. The dramatic shows in the Piraeus became important enough in the 4th century to be lumped together with the main Athenian performances at the Lenaia and City Dionysia.21 Not untypical for a festival of Dionysus, this forced the city-dwellers of Athens to leave their town for the place outside.

Gamelion contains the first citywide festival of Dionysus, the Lenaia (days 12–14, immediately preceding full moon). The meaning of the name was disputed even in antiquity; some derived it from the wine-press, λῆνος‎, others from an Attic word for menads, λῆναι‎; modern scholars also have discussed, without a clear outcome, whether a series of 5th-century vase paintings depicting menads who perform a wine ritual in front of an improvised image of Dionysus, concern this festival or the Anthesteria.22 The main features of the festival were processions and dramatic contests. The procession contained wagons from which participants made fun of bystanders and major Athenian personalities—a ritual also attested in the Anthesteria. The contest concerned tragedies and comedies; like those of the Rural Dionysia, they might derive from more rustic entertainments.23

The Anthesteria is, religiously, the most important and intriguing festival of Anthesterion, the only Athenian month whose name in historical times reflects a major festival. It took place from days 11 to 13, in a clearly defined and named progression, and was associated with the shrine of Dionysus en Limnais, “In the Marshes,” presumably outside the city to the south of the Acropolis, although many of the rites were also held in private houses.24

The first day, Anthesterion 11, was the Pithoigia, “Vat Opening,” the ceremonial opening of the wine vats that contained the year’s wine harvest and which was at least partly performed in the shrine itself. As fits the tasting of the new wine, singing and dancing went with it. Perhaps on the same day, a procession brought Dionysus and his followers, the satyrs, into the city; they arrived from outside in a ship with wheels (attested only by several Attic vase paintings of a wheeled ship with Dionysus and the satyrs). Dionysus’s arrival from the sea is an apt image for the intrusion of the ecstatic god who, as Euripides showed in his Bacchants, posed a deadly threat to daily orderliness: his arrival fits a festival that was characterized both by wine drinking and uncanniness.

The next day was Choes, “Pitchers,” from the main ritual, a strange drinking contest: each participant sat alone and had his own wine pitchers (about three liters of wine) that he emptied without speaking. It was a dark day; the temples were closed, Athenians smeared their house doors with black pitch and chewed backthorn leaves to keep evil away. Social boundaries collapsed as well—the slaves participated in the drinking. At the end, everybody got rid of their banqueting wreath by dedicating it in the shrine in the Marshes, the only temple open. The Athenians explained the ritual with the story of how Orestes came to Athens, still polluted by his matricide, and since the Athenians did not want to reject him but could neither let him pollute them, they closed their temples and diplomatically invented this highly abnormal “banquet” (Phanodemus, FGrH 325 F 11). The same day—or rather the evening that in Athenian reckoning already belonged to the following day—witnessed a ritual that for decades excited scholarly imagination, the wedding of the wife of archōn basileus, “Executive King,” with Dionysus that entailed “many secret sacred rites” on behalf of the city. Since it was secret, much remains unknown. In a festival that was markedly male, it is the only ritual in which women—the “Queen” was helped by a group of “Revered Women”—became active as well.

The final day was called Chytroi, “Pots,” from the pot in which each household cooked a mush of seeds for Hermes Chthonios, “He of the Underworld,” from which priests, bound to purity, could not eat. This was said to recall the first human meal after the Flood. Chytroi was not just an unlucky day dedicated to the dead, but also the hopeful transition to normal life; already the secret Sacred Wedding of the preceding night sounded a hopeful note. Another enigmatic ritual of this day as well has a similar meaning. A Byzantine author preserves the ritual formula “Out with you, the Anthesteria are over,” and tells us that this was addressed either to Carian slaves who participated in the festivities (Kāres) or Demons (Kēres). Neither makes much sense: there were not many Carian slaves in Athens, nor can Kēres mean the dead to whose protector Hermes one offered the seed mush. But Carians were also thought to be the original inhabitants of Attica, and demons stay away from daily life: whoever the addressees of this ritual were, it was a fitting conclusion to a period of ritual strangeness, comparable to many early modern carneval rituals that were held at about the same time of the year.

The final Dionysiac festival was the City Dionysia in Elephebolion (day 9 to day 13). Again, an opening ritual brought the god from outside into town, this time in the shape of his statue brought from its old shrine in the village of Eleutherai, at the border to Attica, and put up for the duration of the festival next to the god’s altar in the orchestra of the Dionysos theatre. The festival was promoted (or even founded) through the patronage of the tyrant Peisistratos in the later 6th century bce, and with the rise of dramatic performances, it rapidly became the main venue for tragedies and comedies, open to participants from all over Greece.25

Both festival complexes, the one around the turning of year, and the Dionysiac winter/spring complex, were mainly affairs for the male Athenian citizen, with a feminine element characterized by secrecy, be it the arrhephoroi or the wedding of the “Queen.” Women appear in both as future or actual brides, to be married to give life to a new generation of citizens. The same is visible in the one full women’s festival, the Thesmophoria, which was celebrated in the month of Pyanopsion (late October or early November).

As with Anthesteria and Lenaia, it is a sequence of three days before the full moon, day 11 to day 13. It was celebrated only by women, wives and daughters, and took place in the local shrine of Demeter, the Thesmophorion. The city Thesmophorion might be identical with the Eleusinion, which is above the agora, near the Sacred Way of the Panathenaia procession; we know that shrines of Demeter had a tendency to be located half-way up a hill-side.26 The first day was called Anodos, “Way Up,” when the women retired to the local Thesmophorion, the shrine of Demeter Thesmophoros, and built temporary huts in which they would stay all three days, sitting and sleeping on the bare floor or on leaves. Men were strictly excluded from the space of the shrine; about the Parian Thesmophorion, we hear how a male intruder came to his death (Herodotus 6.134). The second day was Nēsteia, “Fasting”; women, normally the providers of food, kept strictly away from it. The third day had a telling name too, Kalligeneia, “Beautiful Birth”: the women prayed for the birth of beautiful children; Kalligeneia was also a local goddess.

The Thesmophoria is the festival that Athens shared with a large number of other cities: Demeter Thesmophoros was the preeminent goddess of free married women. Rituals from other places are rarely documented, but we hear that the women in Syracuse “lived the ancient life” by cooking meat not on a fire but on rocks heated by the sun (Diodorus 5.4.7), or that those in Cyrene killed animals with a sword and smeared their faces with the blood (Suidas s.v. Thesmophoros). The suspension of ordinary social life, through returning to pre-civilizatory conditions or unwomanly slaughter with swords, is even more manifest than in the Athenian fasting and refusal of houses and beds. The epithet Thesmo-phoros and the festival Thesmo-phoria present another etymological puzzle. If the name derives from a ritual, then something—thesmos—is carried, like the vine shoots (ōskhos) in the Dionysiac Oschophoria in Attic Phaleron or the laurel twig in the Daphnephoria of Thebes. This something is the remains of sacrificial piglets and clay images of human genitalia that the women deposited (tithēmi) in underground pits and a year later brought up again, to be mixed among the grain seed to help its success; such pits have been pointed out in Eleusis.27 Other Athenian festivals of Demeter directly focus on agriculture, especially the Proërosia, a pre-plowing sacrifice on the level of the villages, celebrated on Pyanopsion 6 (October) in Eleusis, in Boedromion (September/October) in Thorikos.28 Agricultural concerns easily add themselves to concerns of human fertility. At some point, however, ancient commentators lost faith in this explanation from ritual and understood thesmós as laws and Demeter as the goddess whose cultural invention, agriculture, had also brought laws and civilization to humanity. The ritual suspension of civilization helped such an interpretation, and it resonated with a 5th-century understanding of the cultural mission of Athens and with the later role of Demeters’s Egyptian hom*ologue, Isis, as a lawgiver.

The main Athenian festival of Demeter, at least as to its impact beyond Attica, is the Mysteria of Eleusis.29 Although a Bronze Age sanctuary at Eleusis is problematical, the festival name follows the already Bronze Age ending in -tēria, but my- is somewhat opaque: does it derive from μύω‎ “to shut the eyes,” alluding to its secrecy, or from μυέω‎ “to initiate”? It is arguable that the cult started out as a clan cult (there is evidence for Demeter Patrōia as clan goddess), but this would belong to a highly hypothetical and not necessarily Bronze Age pre-history.

The foundation of the Mysteria is described in the 7th century Homeric Hymn to Demeter.30 Demeter came to Eleusis in search of her abducted daughter Persephone/Kore, showed her divine nature, and asked for the cult to be founded; she insisted on the secrecy of the ritual (vv. 478–479) and on the gains from it, better conditions after death for the initiates (vv. 481–483), and rich harvests in life for those whom the Two Goddesses (tō Theō, Demeter and Kore) favor (vv. 486–489). Later transformations of this myth insisted on Demeter’s gift of grain and agriculture to the Athenians and to all humans, thanks to the Eleusinian hero Triptolemos.31 Once ancient cultural theory defined agriculture as the decisive step to civilization, Eleusis and, through it, Athens turned into the cradle of humanity; at least during the 5th century Athenian empire, this had clear political implications (Isocrates Panegyricus 28).

In our sources, the Mysteria are described as a lengthy festival. It started on Boedromion 14 with the transfer of secret cult objects (hiera) and cult staff from outlying Eleusis to the Athenian Eleusinion, above the agora, followed on day 15 by the assembly of all participants and the official instruction by the hierophant, the most senior priest, and on day 16 by a preliminary bath of the candidates with their sacrificial piglets in the sea. Three fasting days followed; the last fasting day was also the day of the Epidauria on day 18, which celebrated the arrival of Asklepios as candidate for initiation. On day 19, the sacred personnel, initiates, and candidates for initiation walked in a long procession along the Sacred Way to Eleusis, led by the image of Iakchos, the Dionysus-like god of initiatory enthusiasm. The secret ritual followed in the night, after some preliminary rituals; the hierophant (“He who shows the sacred things”), a member of the priestly family of the Eumolpids, played the main part. Details are tantalizingly scarce; we hear of an apparition of Persephone in fire and the showing of a sheaf of wheat, and texts underline the importance of visuality during the ritual—one “sees” the Mysteria.

Unlike in any other city festival, participation in the Mysteria was not confined to citizens of Athens: participation was entirely voluntary, but open to both genders, to slaves as well as to free-born, and from early on to everybody who spoke Greek and was not affected by pollution. This openness corresponds with the aim of the ritual as expressed already in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter: to guarantee (agricultural) wealth in this life and a better lot in the after-life. Over time, the emphasis shifted to the eschatological hope, and the Athenian festival Mysteria became the template for a growing number of initiatory cults, “mysteries,” that procured individual salvation through specific rituals that brought an individual in very close contact with a divinity.

No festival calendar is unaffected by change over time, both in the details of a single festivals and the introduction of new and disappearance of old festivals. Often enough, our evidence does not allow us to perceive detailed changes; we have no means to verify the accusation brought against Nicomachus that, in codifying the sacrificial calendar of Athens, he introduced multiple additional sacrifices (Lysias Oratio 30). We saw that there is reason to assume that the City Dionysia changed radically at the time of Peisitratos; but we lack the means to tell what those changes were, or whether Peisistratos altogether introduced the festival. We can trace some changes of the Mysteria; but in the case of an important text, a 2nd-century ce decree of the Athenian assembly on the procession to Eleusis (IG II2 1078), it is almost impossible to decide between restoration and invented tradition. Things are easier when there is information about new cults. There is good reason to postulate the secondary introduction of the Epidauria into the preparatory phase of the Mysteria: the Epidaurian cult of Asclepius, founded in the 6th century bce, began to expand in the early 5th century, but only late in that century did he receive a shrine in Piraeus, and even later below the Athenian Acropolis.32 A similar 5th-century introduction can be assumed for the Bendideia, the festival of the main goddess of the Thracian traders in the Piraeus; the first we hear raving about their torch race is Socrates (Plato Republic 327A). Things get considerably easier only with the introduction of ruler cults during the Hellenistic and Imperial periods.

The case of the Hephaisteia is symptomatic of the problems that confront the historian. A fragmentary inscription from 421–420 bce presents either a radical reform of an existing festival, perhaps introducing a torch race of the ephebes calqued on that of the Prometheia, or the foundation of a new festival (IG I3 82); the interpretation still is debated, with a slight preference for reform over foundation.33 At any rate, the inscription is more or less contemporary with the temple of Athena and Hephaistos on the Agora, the so-called “Theseion,” and a new emphasis on the role of blacksmiths, potters, and vase-painters, whose work contributed significantly to the wealth and allure of Athens, makes political sense.

Greek Festivals Outside Athens before the Roman Conquest

Evidence for festivals outside Athens is scanty and haphazard, derived mostly from inscriptions or late texts such as Plutarch’s various treatises (written in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries ce) or Pausanias’s Description of Greece (after 150 ce); neither author’s information can be projected back into the classical or Hellenistic past.34 A case in point is the Laphria of Patras, as described by Pausanias (7.18.11/12). For this Artemis festival, one surrounded the altar of the goddess with palisades of green wood, built easy ramps up to the altar, and drove wild animals into the space between pyre and palisades. Then the wood on the altar was lit, and the animals were slowly driven into the flames and burnt alive. The cult of Artemis Laphria was introduced in Patrai from Calydon, when Augustus re-founded the town as a Roman colony, and early scholars tended to assume that this cruel sacrifice was a “genuinely archaic rite” brought from backward Calydon to the new town.35 But this is far from certain, and it makes more sense to see the Roman taste for circus cruelty at work in the radical overhaul of an earlier festival.

In rare cases, we can spot such transformations. Pausanias described the strange ritual in the cult of Artemis Orthia, where young ephebes were whipped until their blood was running onto the altar; this replaced an original human sacrifice. Artemis’ priestess stood nearby, carrying the old image of the goddess that Orestes had brought from the Taurians; when the boys were not whipped hard enough, the image became heavy (Pausanias 3.16.7–11). Roman tourists flocked to the spectacle. Cicero described it from autopsy (Cicero Tusculans 2.34), and in Imperial times the Spartans built a theatre round the altar. But the ritual is far from old: Plato (Laws 633b) and Xenophon (Constitution of Sparta 2) describe a very different ephebic rite, a contest between two groups around the altar of Artemis Orthia, in which one group tried to steal cheese from the altar, another group defended the altar, armed with sticks; there was no blood and much less violence. The festival must have been radically remodeled and the cruelty introduced during the reform of the Spartan state in the 2nd century bce.

If one disregards these and similar developments, the festivals attested to in other Greek cities conform to the phenomenology we saw at Athens. Although we often lack evidence about when a new annual cycle began, several cities celebrated Kronia or comparable festivals that inverted daily normalcy in a way reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia: they might well have belonged to the same context. We already saw how widespread Thesmophoria were; even if the scanty details from outside Athens varied widely, one suspects a very old common institution of female rituals. The same is true for the Apaturia (“Festival of Common Ancestors”), the festival that defined Ionian and Attic tribal unity (Herodotus 1.147); again, the evidence is mainly Athenian. Festivals of Dionysus outside Athens rapidly adopted the Athenian innovation of dramatic contests, which led to the foundation of the Association of Dionysiac Artists in the early 3rd century bce, a sort of international trade union to protect the travelling artists. Some rituals echo Athenian customs, such as the procession with the wheeled ship that is attested to also in Smyrna and in Clazomenae; on either side of the Aegean, this image expressed the arrival of the disturbing god from an outside that is the sea.

However, we perceive mainly the differences and lack a unifying interpretative template, when detailed Athenian evidence is absent. Outside the Attic-Ionian world, festivals named Agr(i)ania and Agr(i)onia and months named Agrianios, Agrionios, or Agerranios were wide-spread, in both west Greek and Aeolian cities. Ancient authors give widely divergent details on the god celebrated in these festivals and the rituals associated with them. Most often, the god is Dionysus, and the stories tell about the murderous madness he sent; these stories reach from Boeotia to Chios and suggest a pre-migration, late Bronze Age origin of these cults; but in other places, Hera is involved as well (Argos). The common theme of the myths is the deadly clash of gendered groups that express themselves in rituals of confrontation and persecution and that end with reconciliation in a common meal and sacrifice. Burkert associated these rituals with the dissolution during New Year; this is tempting, but perhaps too narrow. For Athens, we saw how the suspension of normal order was tied not only to the transition from one annual cycle to the next, but also, as in the Dionysiac cycle, to the more elementary transition from winter to spring.36

Roman Festivals

As with the Athenian festival calendar, this is not the place for a detailed overview.37 I will discuss significant differences with the Greek world and then give an overview of how the festival calendar was constructed.


Rome’s festival calendar is preserved in a few literary and many epigraphical sources. A series of fragmentary stone calendars, most of them inscribed during the few decades after Caesar’s reform, present the Roman calendar of the late Republican and early Imperial period.38 There are a few later calendars, fragmentary wall paintings or manuscripts, among which the illustrated manuscript calendar of 354 ce, and a papyrus calendar from the Roman garrison at Dura Europos (dated 225–235 ce) are prominent.39 Ovid’s Fasti contains in splendid detail the first six months of the year, whereas the relevant writings of M. Terentius Varro and Verrius Flaccus are lost, with the exception of some books of Varro’s De lingua Latina (relevant bk. vi) and the later excerpts from Verrius Flaccus’s De verborum significatione by Festus and Paulus Diaconus. The late learned writers Macrobius (Saturnalia) and John Lydus (De Mensibus) contain earlier information but need to be used judiciously.


In many respects, for most of the 1st century bce, Rome was just another polis at the margins of the Greek world, slowly absorbing Greek influence, mediated through Etruria or most often directly, while preserving and developing its own political structures. When one looks at the religious calendar and its implementation, several Roman peculiarities stand out. Unlike Greek cities, the religion of Rome was controlled by the senate and tended by a large number of different groups of permanent professional priests, giving Roman religion a high degree of institutional memory and stability; in the inscribed stone calendars of the first centuries bce and ce, the oldest festivals, traditionally ascribed to King Numa, are still remembered and written in larger letters than later events. Rome moved from a lunar calendar to a solar calendar, whose accuracy was perfected by Caesar’s calendar reform.40 There were remnants of the older system, however. The first day (Kalendae), the first quarter (Nonae), and the middle of the month (Idus) were named as starting points for the backwards count of days; Kalendae and Idus were also marked by a sacrifice, to Juno and Janus at the Kalendae, to Jupiter at the Idus; this derives from the observations of the lunar cycle, with new moon, first quarter, and full moon. The Kalendae received their name because on this day the pontifex minor announced publicly (kalare, cognate of Greek καλεῖν‎) whether the Nonae were on day 5 or 7 and invited the people for the Nonae to a convocation, where he announced the dates of the public holidays in the month to come (Macr. Sat. 1.15.10–13). Rome also systematically celebrated the foundation days of its temples (natales templorum), be it (for the gods of Numa’s festival calendar) incorporated into the traditional festival or as a separate festival. Finally, Romans were very reluctant to have one festival immediately following another, but they introduced an empty “buffer day” between the two, for whatever reason.

The basic elements of Roman festivals are the same as in Greece—processions, sacrifices with common meals and entertaining performances, circus races and games or, under Greek influence, the staging of dramas, but no contests (except the late Capitolia). Not all festivals were performed by the entire population, although Augustan writers project such an image back upon the seemingly much simpler conditions of earlier times; unlike the Athenians, Romans made a distinction between festivals that were tied to a date (feriae stativae) and those whose date was determined and proclaimed every year (feriae conceptivae). These latter holidays were so rare that Ovid made a fuss about not finding the Feriae sem*ntivae in his calendar until he realized that they were conceptivae, because originally tied to the shifting start of the seeding season (Fasti 1.657–662).

As in Greece, the Roman festival calendar changed, especially through the addition of memorial days during the Imperial period. Another source of change was Augustus’s restoration that very often is better seen as the conscious invention of a tradition. During the turbulent century between the Gracchi and Caesar, traditions that might have been changed or forgotten had to be restored to keep the peace with the gods. Augustus intervened in many cases, changing details (such as the roster of participants in the Lupercalia) or introducing new festivals such as the Ludi Saeculares of 17 bce, or new religious bodies with their own festival calendar, such as the Fratres Arvales, whose inscriptions preserve a detailed picture of religious activities during the imperial centuries.41

The Traditional Roman Festival Year

The Roman festival calendar of the late Republic exhibits two different annual cycles, one beginning on January 1, the other on March 1. The first cycle has been understood as a newer system replacing an older one without fully removing it. This might well be correct; but in a synchronic perspective, one can view it as two different annual cycles inside the same calendar, one with more relevance for the state (political cycle), the other for the individual (alternative cycle).

The Political Cycle

The political cycle is the dominant system of Roman time reckoning at the time of our sources: stone calendars, Ovid’s Fasti, and later manuscript calendars start with January 1 and end with December 31.

Whereas the stone calendars give no prominence whatsoever to the Kalendae Ianuariae, Ovid puts emphasis on the day on which consuls entered into office, with a sacrifice to Jupiter Capitolinus, in the presence, according to Ovid, of all citizens in their splendid white togas. It is a brilliant event of Roman self-representation, and even Jupiter rejoiced that “he sees nothing that is not Roman” (Fasti 1.86). This importance of the day for political ideology would grow rapidly throughout the Imperial epoch, when often one of the consuls was the emperor himself; not the least outside of Rome in the provinces of the empire, January 1 coalesced with the Vota pro imperatore on Janary 3, celebrations in private homes on January 2, and circus games from January 3 to 5, into a lengthy festival period. In the Eastern provinces, this five-day festival came to be known as the Kalendae Ianuariae or Kalandai long after the Christianization of the empire.

At the other end of the annual cycle, there was the old festival of the Saturnalia of December 17, which by the time of Seneca, had developed into a drawn-out and boisterous carnival. Already in Republican times, the festival lasted three days; during the Imperial epoch, it was extended over seven days, until December 23. Courts were closed, and in an easy symbolism, one freed the image of Saturnus that was fettered throughout the year; this resounded with the Greek myth of Kronos put in jail by Zeus—with Kronos set free, the rule of Zeus had an end. After the official sacrifice at the temple on the Forum, there was a public banquet. During the following days, people enjoyed relaxed meals at home; they replaced the formal white toga with an informal dress and felt cap; slaves dined with their masters or were served by them; people painted their faces black as if they were wearing a mask, and one played with the otherwise prohibited dice.42 All this shows a temporary suspension of social order and “Romanness,” the very inversion of what was soon to come with the sacrifice to Jupiter Capitolinus on January 1.

Typical for Rome, however, this boisterous festival overlaid other rituals noted on the stone calendars, the Consualia (day 15), Opalia (day 21), and Larentalia (day 23). They had no public side but were sacrifices to the respective recipients, the minor gods Consus and Ops, and Larenta who received a parentatio, the sacrifice for a deceased person. Larenta remains a mystery; Romans understood Consus as the god of storage (condere), Ops as goddess of Means; there might be the background of a ritual to protect the stored foodstuff, to make it last during the winter that was to come. If so, in the urban world of late Republican and Imperial Rome this remained a quaint rite, remembered by the priests and their long memory, but disregarded by everybody else.

At the beginning of December, Roman matronae celebrated the festival of Bona Dea in the house of one of the consuls.43 Men (and even male dogs and statues) were excluded; the women acted themselves as sacrificers, decorated the rooms with vines, and consumed large quantities of wine. Although the ritual forms have invited a comparison with the Greek Thesmophoria, there is no direct connection; the exclusion of men and the radical inversion of upper class female behavior fit into the rituals of the last month of the year, experimenting with social boundaries, and proposing alternative albeit temporary models of behavior.44

Another festival series stresses the military aspect of Rome; the respective festivals cluster around the beginning and end of the campaign season, March and October. On February 27 and March 14, the Equirria were held for Mars on the Mars Field: these were horse races (equi currunt), the first preparing for March 1, the birthday of Mars, the later the truly military ones. It corresponded with the “October Horse” festival, a strange horse sacrifice on October 15, performed by the priest (flamen) of Mars. The horse blood was stored as a ritual substance for purifications; its head was fought over by the young men of two city regions, and the winners hung it as a talisman to a building. The end of warfare had become the reason for perhaps uncanny but certainly positive things.

March 23 was Tubilustrium, the ritual purification of the signal trumpets, to make them ready for use; it corresponded with a rite on October 19, Armilustrium, the purification of weapons after war. Tubilustrium was preceded by the enigmatic agonium Martiale of March 17. All these rites became visible for the city through the performance of the Salii, a noble fraternity of young men dancing in full armor, including a small round shield. Given the prominence of warlike festivals in March, one wonders whether the five days of the Minerva festival Quinquatrus (March 19–23, with her birthday on day 19) that intersect with Tubilustrium, had a military meaning. Unlike warlike Greek Athena, Roman Minerva usually is a goddess of the arts and of healing; but according to Ovid, the four final days of the festival were organized as gladiatorial games in honor of a Minerva who loved swords (Fasti 3.813–14).

The Alternative Cycle

The alternative cycle began on March 1 with the anniversary of the temple of Juno Lucina and the festival Matronalia (which does not appear among the old festivals of Numa). Juno Lucina was a goddess who helped with childbirth, and the Matronalia was a family celebration in which husbands gave presents to their wives (matronae); together they sacrificed and prayed for the continuation of their marriage (Ov. Fasti 3.170). The day thus marked the coherence of the family and the protection of childbirth, which helped to secure the continuity of the family.

Although birth obviously is a beginning, it would not necessarily point to an alternative New Year in March, if Roman authors would not claim March 1 as an earlier New Year, and if the intercalary days were not placed in the gap between February and March. One has to keep in mind that, with the exception of the relatively strong and growing emphasis on the Kalendae Ianuarie, ancient festival calendars did not invest the first day of the first month with special New Year’s rituals; rather they invested the rites of the last month with signs that point to the end of a cycle. This is true for Roman February as well. February had purification, februatio, already in its name, and purification precedes any new beginning (see Athenian Thargelion and the Thargelia with its scapegoat ritual). Ovid pondered whether it was the Lupercalia (February 15) with its running luperci or the Feralia (February 21) that was a festival of purification. The Lupercalia combined signs of purification with inversion: the luperci of the Republican epoch were young aristocrats, after Augustus’s reform, young knights who were running on a given but, to us, unclear route around the Palatine that was, with Romulus’s hut and the temple of Mater Magna, the archaic center of Rome; they were nudi (in images, they wore a sort of shorts), brandished whips, and beat young women in particular, who took this as a ritual to help with becoming pregnant. Public nudity of elite males and open mock violence against women emphasize, at a critical transition in the year, violent male sexuality as a creative power; at the same time, they are signs of ritual inversion that phenomenologically, recalls early modern European rites of the end of December. The initiation of the luperci (on the same day?) shows a mock killing and the sacrifice of a dog, yet other extraordinary rituals. Mythology connects the ritual with a fight of Romulus and Remus against cow thieves, which led, in the end, to the foundation of Rome. The myth transports the same ideology of a new beginning and applies it to Rome itself.

The first half of February was characterized by the dies parentales: nine days of public grief during which the magistrates did not wear their togae praetextae, law courts and temples were closed, marriages were forbidden, and the families tended their graves. This started on February 13 and ended on day 21 with the Feralia, the public commemoration of the dead, which was followed on day 22 by Cara Cognatio, the private family ritual of commemoration. Before the new year begins, one remembers and cares for one’s dead. This has a much shorter parallel in the Larentalia of December 23 and shows that two ritual cycles cannot simply be seen as public versus private.

Innovation in the Imperial Festival Calendars

During the long Roman Empire, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions. Two phenomena have to be pointed out—the rise of ruler cults and other political festivals, and the private foundation of festivals and contests.

Ruler Cult and Comparable Festivals

Ruler cult developed in the cities of Greece during Hellenistic times. It has no single root, although the Egyptian worship of the pharaoh as a god and Alexander’s claim to god-like status were important, as was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its usually helpful manifestation, thereby allowing a cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Hellenistic kings usually received cult, and the worshipping cities were quick to found royal festival days with sacrifices and hymnic performances. Once Rome took over, powerful generals and then the emperors continued to be worshipped. Augustus imposed some rules, but did not prohibit his worship in the Eastern provinces, and the cults and festivals of the ruling emperor as well as of divinized former emperors multiplied throughout the Greek East.45

Other festivals throughout the empire gave religious expression to the coherence of the empire. Already during Hellenistic times, Greek cities introduced the cult of the goddess Roma.46 Some city festivals of Rome achieved a wider impact than his new cult. The Kalendae Ianuariae were combined with the Vota pro imperio of January 3 into a longer festival period that spread throughout the empire and was protected by the Christian emperors, especially through a rescript of Theodosius I from summer 398, which reorganized the legal feriae (Cod.Theodos. 2.8.2 = Cod.Just. 11.43.3); this guaranteed their survival in the Byzantine empire.47 Under Hadrian, the Parilia were renamed “Birthday of Rome,” a generic name that allowed them to be adopted in many Greek cities, including those of Palestine (Avodah Zarah 1:3). A few nonpolitical festivals, such as the Saturnalia, were celebrated by the garrisons and spread from there to neighboring cities, only to be superseded in the 4th century by the Brumalia, an almost month-long celebration of hospitality that developed from a minor neighborhood festival in late autumn, the Bruma.

Private Foundations

Similarly, wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities founded festivals in memory of family members. During the Imperial epoch, such foundations multiplied, gained in grandeur, and often attracted emperor cults, as in the case of the Demostheneia in Oinoanda, a Hadrianic foundation by one Demosthenes. It was a musical agon that lasted twenty-three days and contained a sacrifice to the emperor.48 Similar foundations are known from other cities. Even emperors participated—first Nero, then Domitian founded athletic contests in the Greek mode; the Capitolia, Nero’s foundation, disappeared with his death, but when Domitian took it up again, it lasted and was adopted by several cities in the Greek East.


There is no comprehensive history of festivals in Greece and Rome. Historians of Greek religion, from Mommsen to Parker, have concentrated almost exclusively on Athenian festivals;49 for non-Athenian festivals, Nilsson is still the reliable source,50 despite the shortcomings of his documentation and a somewhat narrow concentration on religious festivals as opposed to political ones. As for Roman festivals, scholars have usually concentrated on the well-documented late Republican/early Augustan era; only Dumézil looked at archaic Rome, in a somewhat questionable reconstruction,51 whereas the two masterly historians of Roman religion, Wissowa and Beard, embed festivals in their overall narrative, effectively hiding them, despite their good indices.52

Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome (2024)


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