Floralia, detail

It is generally little known that Flora was one of the fifteen principal deities of Rome – she had her own priest, the Flamen floralis – and the Floralia in her honour were one of the principal festivals and special games, the “Ludi Florae” were sponsored in her honour by the plebeian aediles – because the Floralia derived from the plebeian, not the patrician roots of the people.

The Triumph of Flora – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The Temple of Flora was built in Rome upon consultation with the Sibylline Books shortly after a drought that occurred around 241–238 BCE. The temple was located near the Circus Maximus on the lower slope of the Aventine Hill, a site associated with the plebeians of Rome. Games were instituted for the founding day of the temple (April 28), and were held only occasionally until continued crop damage led to their annual celebration beginning in 173

Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, p. 110
Floralia, painting by Hobbe Smith

In general, it was a rather licentious affair …

In 238 BC, at the direction of an oracle in the Sibylline books, a temple was built to honour Flora, an ancient goddess of flowers and blossoming plants. It was dedicated on April 28 and the Floralia instituted to solicit her protection (Pliny, Natural History, XVIII.286, cf. Velleius Paterculus, I.14.8, who says 241/240 BC). Sometime later, the festival was discontinued, only to be revived in 173 BC, when the blossoms again that year suffered from winds, hail, and rain (Ovid, Fasti, V.329ff). It was celebrated annually with games (ludi Florales) from April 28 until May 3. These farces and mimes, which received official recognition, were known for their licentiousness. The prostitutes of Rome, who regarded the day as their own, performed naked in the theatre and, suggests Juvenal (Satire VI), fought in the gladiatorial arena. In the Circus Maximus, deer and hares, symbols of fertility, were let loose in honour of the goddess as protector of gardens and fields (but not of woods and wild animals) and, instead of the customary white, colourful garments were worn during the festivities, some of which were celebrated at night (Ovid, Fasti, IV.946, V.189-190, 331ff.). Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, another symbol of fertility) also were thrown to the people in the Circus (Persius, Satires, V.177ff).

Valerius Maximus (II.10.8) relates that it was the custom at theatrical presentations during the Floralia for the spectators to demand that the actresses perform naked on stage. Rather than interfere with the festivities, Cato (the Younger), who was in attendance, walked out. The audience followed him, applauding the fact that, although disgusted and embarrassed, Cato choose to leave rather than have his presence inhibit the performance. They then went back inside. Certainly, the bawdy celebration offended Cato, who is quoted by Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, X.13) as saying that a participant acted like a harlot, going from the banquet straight to the couch, where she disported herself with others. Martial is not so forgiving of such hypocritical morality, declaring in the preface to his first book of epigrams that they are written for those who are accustomed to watching the Floralia, not for the likes of Cato, who cannot be so naive as not to have known what to expect when he choose to attend “sprightly Flora’s ritual fun, the festal jests and license of the rout.” The fourth-century poet, Ausonius, is equally impatient with such behaviour when he chides those who go to the theatre during the Floralia—”the rites which they long to see who declare they never longed to see them” (Eclogues, XXIII.25).

Floralia, from the workshop of Prosper Piatti
A Sketch for Floralia (1888) by Antonio Reyna Manescau

(© John Vincent Palatine 2020)

Hits: 139