The Poplifugia: a Roman Festival Celebrating a Flight

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This marble fragment of an architectural relief in Rome, Italy, dating from the first quarter of the 2nd century CE, shows the preparation of a sacrifice. Image by Jastrow.

The 5th July marks the celebration of the Poplifugia, an ancient and obscure Roman celebration.

The exact significance of the festival is lost, but its name may contain clues to its original context- either as a commemoration of key events in early Roman history or else as a rite of purification.

What was the Poplifugia?

Fowler mentions that the Romans marked the Poplifugia in capitals on the ancient Roman calendar, indicating that it was an important event for the archaic Romans. But by the time of the late Republic, this ceremony had become obscure even to the Romans themselves who, although they still observed the festival, mislaid its original meaning.

The exact details of the ritual are lost but seem to have involved someone being chased out of Regia or “Kings House,” the residence in the forum once used by the roman kings and later, the Pontifex Maximus.

This element of chase appears significant, especially when considered in conjunction with a reference by Varro in his On the Latin Language:

The day seems to have been called Poplifugia. Because on it the people fled into sudden uproar.”

The inclusion of the word popli –”people” and fugerit –”fled” within the name does make this suggestion plausible on the face of it.

But what was this event from which the people fled?

“The People’s Flight”

According to Varro, this flight refers to events after the burning of Rome by the Gauls. The inhabitants of Ficuleae and Fidenae seized the opportunity to attack the vulnerable Romans and, in the face of this attack, the people fled. Two days later, the Romans reversed the situation, celebrating this victory on the 7th July.

The context of the festival of the Nonae Caprotinae or feast of Juno Caprotinae, as the Romans knew this victory festival, seems to have been well-remembered. But events surrounding the Poplifugia seem confused.

Firstly, there is the detail of who attacked the city. Macrobius in his Satyricon contradicts Varro by claiming the attackers were Tuscan, whereas Plutarch simply names them as “Latins.”

And while it is understandable that the Romans wished to commemorate the salvation of their city, why would they wish to commemorate its loss and their retreat?

Other authors offer a different explanation for the festival.

Death of Romulus

The Death of Romulus was also associated with the Poplifugia by some ancient authors. Picture: Romulus being taken up to Olympus by Mars by Jean-Baptiste Nattier

Some ancient authors associated the death of Romulus with the Poplifugia. This painting by Jean-Baptiste Nattier depicts Mars taking Romulus up to Olympus. Image by Vert.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives installments of Camillus and Romulus suggests that the flight in question has nothing to do with fleeing from foes but the death of Romulus.

The day on which he vanished is called People’s Flight,’ says Plutarch, who describes how Rome’s first King disappeared in the Capra Marshes outside Rome and how the flight in question is of the people out of Rome to make sacrifice at that same spot.

However, there is one crucial problem between this link between the death of Romulus and the Poplifugia- as there is with the theory that the festival marked the flight of the Romans after the attack of the city. That problem is the date.

The ancient writers refer to an event on the nones-which in July, fell on the 7th of the month, not the 5th as it did in some other months.

This is the date of the Nonae Caprotinae. Apart from Varro, all the ancient writers link this flight of the people with the Nonae Caprotinae-suggesting that the Poplifugia had nothing to do with it at all.

So does this mean that the original meaning of the Poplifugia is lost?

An Ancient Lustration?

Perhaps not. For although it is clear that by the late Republic, the exact context of the Poplifugia was lost, we can hazard a guess as to what it was about.

Macrobius offers a clue. His Satyricon makes reference to the sacrifice of a bull and the reading of its entrails at the Poplifugia. This sounds very much like a lustration– a ceremony of purification and the aversion of evil. A lustration involved a circumambulation or circular procession of music, dancing and chants headed by priests and the instruments of purification: torches and animals.

The procession would circle the area in question three times before making the sacrifice. Then, the priests examined entrails of the animal and the procession ended.

Early July in the Mediterranean was a hot dry season when cattle fodder would have been scarce and disease a risk. So to hold a lustration at this time would have made sense as a precaution against the evil of an epidemic.

A Conundrum Solved?

Fowler believes this was the purpose behind the Poplifugia- especially as there are parallels in other Mediterranean cultures. In Greece, priests sacrificed cattle in a similar fashion at the Athenian Bouphonm. At Iguvium in Umbria, the citizens chased away four heifers before pursuing and killing them, as a way of protecting their city from evil influences.

Fowler believes this accounts for the “flight” element of the Poplifugia. This flight was not of the people of Rome from an advancing enemy but instead that of a ritual scapegoat, who carried away the ills of the city.

It is as likely a suggestion as any.

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

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