Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lupercal!

(Photo by Benvegnù-Guaitoli)

Italian newspapers are reporting an announcement by archaeologists that the Lupercal, the legendary cave in which Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf, has been found (English version here). Ancient Rome was littered with places that the Romans related to their mythical past. Romulus was said to have founded Rome on the Palatine hill, and in later years there was an actual Hut of Romulus on the hill, preserved, the ancient Romans believed, from the city's origin. Later archaeological excavation discovered the foundations of Iron Age houses on the hill, which must have been discovered by the Romans while building on the hill and reconstructed in a bit of ancient archaeology. Literary sources also tell of a cave in which the twin brothers were suckled after their father exposed them by the Tiber. Later, they were discovered and raised by the shepherd, Faustulus. The Romans identified the supposed cave and built a shrine there, which was the central place of the festival known as the Lupercalia, but it had been lost until the recent discovery (although there are Renaissance accounts that indicate it still existed then).



(Photo by Benvegnù-Guaitoli)

The grotto was discovered during the recent restoration work done on the House of Augustus. A small shaft (shown above) led researchers to a domed hall, much of which was filled with debris. The dome is covered with painting, stucco and seashells, in very vivid colors. The location is appropriate, as Augustus restored the cave and reinstituted the Lupercalia as part of his program of religious revival.

From literary sources, we know the Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15. Priests, known as Luperci, would sacrifice two male goats and a dog, and two young patrician youths would be smeared with the blood, after which it would be wiped off with wool dipped in milk. Leather thongs would be cut from the skins of the sacrifices, and the priests would run around the Palatine, striking everybody they came upon. Girls who were struck were thought to become extra fertile. The ceremony lasted until the end of the 5th century, when it was outlawed by Pope Gelasius.

Further excavation of the site may tell us more about the Lupercalia and the cult activity here.

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