Originally written on April 27, 2021. Updated 2022
The Floralia was a festival in ancient Rome in honor of the goddess Flora, held April 27 during the Republican era, or April 28 in the Julian calendar.
The festival included Ludi Florae, the “Games of Flora” which lasted for six days under the empire.
The festival had a licentious, pleasure-seeking atmosphere and, in contrast to many festivals which had a patrician character, the games of Flora were plebeian in nature.
The holiday for Flora (as officially determined by Julius Caesar when he fixed the Roman calendar) ran from April 28 to May 3.
Flora was one of the most ancient goddesses of Roman religion, and was one of fifteen deities to have her own state-supported high priest, the so-called flamen Florialis. A goddess of flowers, vegetation, and fertility, she received sacrifices (piacula) in the sacred grove of the Arval Brothers, an archaic body of priests who offered annual sacrifices to the Lares and gods to guarantee good harvests.
Flusalis (linguistically equivalent to Floralia) was a month on the Sabine calendar, and the Temple of Flora was built in Rome upon consultation with the Sibylline Books shortly after a drought that occurred around 241–238 BCE. It was located near the Circus Maximus on the lower slope of the Aventine Hill, a site associated with the plebeians of Rome.
Games (ludi) 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.
They were presented by the plebeian aediles and paid for by fines collected when public lands (ager publicus) were encroached upon.
The festival opened with theatrical performances (ludi scaenici), and concluded with competitive events and spectacles at the Circus and a sacrifice to Flora. In 68 CE, the entertainments at the Floralia presented under the emperor Galba featured a tightrope-walking elephant.
The celebration included also floral wreaths worn in the hair and, after the theatrical performances, the celebration continued in the Circus Maximus, where hares (known for multiplying rapidly, making it a popular symbol of fertility and sexuality) and goats, which had a reputation for being very fertile animals, were set free, and beans scattered to ensure fertility.
Prostitutes also participated in the Floralia and, according to the satirist Juvenal, they danced naked and fought in mock gladiator combat.
In the Renaissance, some writers thought that Flora had been a human prostitute who was turned into a goddess, possibly because of the licentiousness of the Ludi Florales or because Flora, apparently, was a common name for prostitutes in ancient Rome.
Many prostitutes in ancient Rome were slaves, and even free women who worked as prostitutes lost their legal and social standing as citizens, but their inclusion at religious festivals indicates that they were not completely outcast from society.
It was not rare that during these days the particular coins were launched on the crowd with imprinted sex scenes, which were worth a free entrance to the city’s brothels, called “lupanari” meaning a wolf den (in ancient Rome, a prostitute was called a lupa – “she-wolf”).