Roman “Love”: Getting The Girl No Matter What

A meme not created by me. Unfortunately, I can't find the site again to give credit where credit is due.

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Valentine’s Day.  While most of us associate the holiday with Hallmark and florists and guilt, the roots of today’s festivities, like so many of our modern holidays, stretch back to ancient times.  Here’s a short article from National Geographic that briefly explains how St. Valentine’s Day may have grown out of the Roman tradition of the Lupercalia, in which naked young men who were members of an association called the Luperci (from Latin word for “wolf”) ran around the Palatine hill in Rome striking young women with whips made from goat skin.  The event, which took place on February 15, was a purification rite and was also designed to promote fertility in the women.  The purification aspect of the rite was the oldest part, a very ancient tradition called the Februa, from which we take the name of our month.  At some point, it was combined with the Lupercalia.

What the Nat Geo article does not address is that the goat skin came from sacrifices performed earlier that day.  A dog and some goats were slaughtered in the Lupercal, the cave at the foot of the Palatine hill in which Roman tradition said that a she-wolf reared the twins Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Coin from the reign of Constantine (minted 322-323 AD) showing Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf. You can buy one of these on Ebay for $45.00, "used." Caveat emptor, as always.

The association of the cave with the wolf suckling the twins, a popular motif in Roman art, explains the fertility aspect of the Lupercalia.  Following the sacrifice, the bloody knife was wiped on the foreheads of two laughing youths (they were required to laugh), then cleaned with a piece of wool dipped in milk – another reference to the wolf nursing the twins.  Only then did the Luperci make their naked way around the Palatine with their whips.

The last year in which we know the Lupercalia was celebrated was 494 AD, after which the Church banned Christians from participating.  The fact that the Church had to make such a law tells us, of course, that up until then Christians were involved.  The bishop of Rome at the time, Gelasius I, transformed the Lupercalia into the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, thereby turning the fertility aspect of the rite completely on its head while retaining echoes of the older original purification rituals.

That’s the story of the Roman Lupercalia and its association with modern Valentine’s day.  But I’d also like to share with you today another aspect of ancient “romantic” life.  Many of us are familiar with the beautiful love poems of Roman authors like Ovid or the delightfully off-color (but still deeply romantic) Catullus; if you have never read any of their poetry, do yourself a favor and find some.  But many people are less aware of another type of love writing from the Greek and Roman world: romantic spells.

Many ancient magic spells, which were engraved on lead tablets, aimed to do harm to others – to spoil their crops or cause them bodily harm, for instance. But some spells enlisted the aid of outside powers to ensnare or otherwise control an object of desire.  For example, one ancient spell issues commands to Myrrh.  Myrrh was a spice strongly associated with lovemaking in the ancient world, and it was often burned to “set the mood” for an amorous encounter.  It is addressed as a magical force here.  The spell reads (in Greek): “Myrrh, as you burn, so also will you burn her…arouse yourself, Myrrh, and go…” (PGM 36 333-60).  Whoever wrote the spell told Myrrh to “arouse” itself.  He (or she) likely intended a double meaning.  The command is that Myrrh should get a move on and get the job done, but the phrase is also probably a reference to the known quality of myrrh as a sexually arousing scent.  This lovesick individual orders Myrrh to physically enter the body of their beloved, to take them over completely, to infect their very bones.  I leave it up to my readers to decide whether or not such a controlling, consuming passion is romantic.



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5 responses to “Roman “Love”: Getting The Girl No Matter What

  1. Angeline Chiu

    Sure, but a big part of the “romantic” aspect of it comes out of the Middle Ages and courtly love. One of the earliest references to St. Valentine’s Day is Chaucer in the 1380s, who said that on this day birds choose mates (and this then applied to people as well). Shakespeare refers to this idea too in “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

  2. Yes, I didn’t really include anything on the later “St. Valentine’s Day” traditions, because they have nothing much to do with the Romans. Except, of course, for the fact that the Romans were the ones that martyred St. Valentine(s). There were actually quite a few Christian martyrs by the name Valentinus, but only two were made saints, at least that I know of. One was beheaded in 270 – his relics are in the Church of St. Praxedes on the Esquiline. The other was killed in Terni, about 60 miles from Rome. Though the locals there have tried to capitalize on this potential tourist draw, I don’t know that they have been very successful. Maybe they should open a Hallmark.

  3. Angeline Chiu

    The business with love magic is really fascinating too. Theocritus’ Idyll 2 is a great one.

  4. Don’t know about you, but I am ALWAYS most fertile after being struck by a naked, running, goat-skin-whip-wielding man. . . .

    It was great meeting you last week, Candace!


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