Commemorating Fors Fortuna: The Romans Celebrate Luck

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Fresco of the Goddess Fortuna. Archaeological Museum of Milan. Copyright:  Giovanni Dall'Orto,

A fresco of the Goddess Fortuna depicts the deity of good fortune at the Archaeological Museum of Milan. Image by Giovanni Dall’Orto.

Fors Fortuna was a doubly lucky goddess for the Romans, with a name that emphasized luck twice. The 24th June was the traditional day for ordinary citizens to celebrate the establishment of one of her oldest temples in Rome. Who was the Roman Goddess of Good Fortune?

The Goddess of Good Fortune

As her name suggests, Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck. The Romans attached various prefixes and postfixes to her name, to change the exact focus of that good fortune. Fortuna Muliebris was the goddess of “women’s luck,” linked to fertility and childbirth, while the later Fortuna Redux was a luck goddess beloved of the Augustan era, courted to ensure the successful return of troops from war.

But it was Fors Fortuna who was the most popular form of the goddess in Rome- Fors being the Latin for ‘chance’ or ‘luck,’ giving the primary attributes of the goddess a double emphasis.

The Origins of Fortuna

Fors Fortuna was not one of the oldest Roman gods. She has no feast day marked on the most ancient Roman calendars and crucially, had no flamen or priest dedicated to her cult.

Her role in good fortune means Fortuna is often connected with the Greek goddess of luck, Tyche. But this does not mean that the Romans adopted Fortuna from the Greeks.

In fact, she was very much an Italic deity. Cults to Fortuna were well established at Antium and Praeneste, towns within 35 miles and 22 miles of Rome respectively. As the Roman state expanded their reach into Italy during the second century BC, the cult really became established in the city.

But many sources suggest that the Roman’s adopted Fors Fortuna much earlier than that.

Fortuna’s Temple and Cult in Rome

“But of Fortune there are splendid and ancient shrines, all but coeval with the first foundations of the City,” states Plutarch. “For the first to build a temple of Fortune was Ancus Marcius, the grandson of Numaand king fourth in line from Romulus.”

According to Plutarch, it was Romulus who “added the title of Fortis to Fortuna for in Fortune Manly Fortitude shares most largely in the winning of victory.”

This association between luck and victory was dear to the Roman hearts and probably explains why they were so taken with Fors Fortuna. But Plutarch’s account is not the only one that links the goddess with early Rome.

Varro recounts how the early Roman King, Servius Tullius established a fanum or shrines in the city on the right bank of the Tiber near the Forum Boarium-during the month of June. The King had good reason to be grateful to Fortune: who, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus had “favoured him all his life,” raising him from the son of a slave to King of Rome.

These ancient precedents for Fors Fortuna in Rome are born out by archaeology. Excavations have revealed archaic twin temples to Fors Fortuna and Matuta Mater- in the vicinity of the Forum Boarium.

The Festival of Fors Fortuna: 24th June

It was to commemorate the foundation of King Tullius’s riverside shrine to Fors Fortuna that the Romans marked 24th June as sacred to Fors Fortuna. Even in the early imperial period, popular festivities marked the day.

Ovid’s Fasti provides us with the fullest account of these celebrations. It seems the cult was popular with the plebeians and slaves –possibly because the King who established the goddess’s shrine came from such lowly beginnings.

The River Tiber, the site of Tullius’s temple was central to events. People hurried to the shrine on foot along its banks or along the river itself in a “speedy skiff.” The revelers garlanded themselves with flowers and took plenty of wine along to mark the temples day of dedication. It was not unusual or unacceptable for them to end up roaring drunk.

Links to the Summer Solstice

Interestingly, although it is not possible to say with any certainty if this is a more than a coincidence, the celebrations for Fortuna’s temple coincided with what many ancient writers agreed was the day of the summer solstice.

Instead of marking the day on the 21st June, Pliny and Columella both mark the day on the 24th, the very day of the celebrations at Fortuna’s shrine. So perhaps the revels had a double significance.

Fors Fortuna

For the Romans, the celebration of Fors Fortuna on each 24 June meant a chance to participate in festivities and to honor a goddess who brought good luck.

© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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