The Lucaria: Honouring the Gods of the Grove in Ancient Rome

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Cupid Holds Pan's Horn

The Lucaria may have been a festival to pacify the spirits of an ancient grove swallowed up by Roman developments. Picture by Federicco Zuccari, showing Cupid subduing the ancient god of the woods, Pan. Image by wmpearl.

The Romans celebrated the Lucaria between the 19th and 21st of July. The meaning and the details- even the deity for whom the rites were dedicated- are lost to us.

All we do know is that the Romans celebrated the festival in the location of a sacred grove situated between the River Tiber and the Via Salaria, the ancient salt route connecting Rome and the marshes at the mouth of the Tiber.

Even though the Roman calendar recorded the festival, it’s meaning perplexed the Romans themselves as to the meaning. As with the Poplifugia early in the month, some later Roman writers connected the Lucaria with conflict with the Gauls.

But like the Poplifugia, it seems that the explanation for the Lucaria may lie in archaic Roman rites and its name.

The Lucaria and the Battle of Allia

Verrius Flaccus was a grammarian of the first century BC who set up a fasti or calendar in Praeneste. He claimed the Romans marked the Lucaria at this particular sacred grove- which historians have calculated was on the Pincian Hill- because it was the place where Roman troops sought refuge after their defeat by the Gauls at the Battle of Allia in the fourth century BC. While the Gauls sacked Rome (the Pincian Hill lay outside the city walls at this time), the Roman troops hid amongst the trees.

The whole episode is one of the worst in Roman history, not least because the Gauls only left when the Romans paid them off with gold. So it is very hard to see why the Romans would want to mark it at all.

But it is not the battle, but the grove that is the significant to the celebration of this obscure festival. 

“Lucus”-The Grove

The name of the festival could well have come from the word “lucar” which was the name for the forest tax, which, according to Fowler, that the Romans used to pay for the games of the festival from the sacred receipts of the groves. The name is also closely associated with the word for grove itself: lucus.

Either way, the etymology suggests that the sacred grove was the vital element to the Lucaria. Archaic Romans held groves or woodlands as sacred places. They were the wild, unclaimed places-the places where the spirits dwelt.

Recorded surviving agricultural rites from the historic Roman era preserve this archaic roman attitude to the spirits and their dwelling places.

“Whether Thou be God or Goddess” Honouring the Spirits

Silvanus relief

Silvanus was one of the ancient gods of the wood. But we do not know if he was honoured at the Lucaria-the exact diety is lost. Relief from Rome (CIL VI 3712, VI 31180).

Cato, in his “On Agriculture,” describes how it was essential to respect and essentially “keep on the right side” of these spirits when farming the land nearby. Logically, the Romans recognised that the local sprites may not have been too happy to have their native homeland cleared away by Roman farmers. Therefore, it was essential to do this with the proper reverence- and gifts.

“The following is the Roman formula to be observed in thinning a grove,” explains Cato. “[A] pig is to be sacrificed and the following prayer uttered: ‘whether thou be god or goddess to whom this grove is dedicated, as it is thy right to receive a sacrifice of a pig for the thinning of this scared grove, and to this intent, whether I or one at my bidding do it, may it be rightly done. To this end, in offering this pig to thee I humbly beg that thou wilt be gracious and merciful to me, to my house and household and to my children. Wilt thou deign to receive this pig which I offer to this end.’”

Nor did the observances end there. For once the farmers cleared the land and absorbed it into the farm, it was still necessary to “keep the neighbours happy”:

“If you wish to till the ground,” Cato continues, “offer a second sacrifice in the same way, with the addition of the words: ‘for the sake of doing this work.’ So long as the work continues, the ritual must be performed in some part of the land every day; and if you miss a day, or if public or domestic feast days intervene, a new offering must be made.” 

A Festival for the Pincian Grove

 It is possible that the Lucaria refers to a similar practice relating to the land on the Pincian Hill. For although the Pincian was not one of the original Seven Hills of Rome and only included within the city walls in the third century AD, it became the location for various villas, orchards and gardens of the nobility. It seems the Romans cleared the sacred grove of the Lucaria to make way for some of those gardens, namely the gardens of Lucullus, Pompeius and Sallust.

So it is not inconceivable that the Romans instigated the Lucaria to compensate the spirits of the grove for its loss, not to farming but to the pleasure gardens of the encroaching city.

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

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