By Sheila Cook - Volunteer Guide

Juno, the wife of Jupiter and the chief goddess in the Roman pantheon, was connected with all aspects of the life of women. In particular, in her role as Juno Lucina, she was the goddess of fertility and childbirth, and she had been worshipped from the very beginnings of antiquity at a grove on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Interestingly, her worship was said to have been instituted by Titus Tatius, King of the Sabines who had ruled jointly with Romulus, the founder of Rome. The festival of Matronalia was said to symbolise the peace that followed the first marriages between the warring Romans and the Sabine women: marriages which, according to the myth, were the consequence of the Sabine’s women abduction by the motley crew of Romulus’ Italic followers, preoccupied with ensuring that Rome would last longer than one generation.

The Matronalia was celebrated on March 1st and is referred to by ancient sources as either the Kalends of March or the Women’s Kalends. In the early Roman era, March 1st was celebrated as New Year’s Day, which explains why some of the names derived from the Roman calendar which we use today are two months out, e.g., September was originally the seventh month and October the eighth.

The festival signalled a period of renewal when laurel garlands decorating the houses of priests and practitioners of the sacred rites were replaced.  At the Temple of Vesta, the Vestal Virgins also extinguished the sacred fire on the hearth and re-lit it. The festival was often regarded as the female counterpart of Saturnalia in its importance, and focussed on interactions between mistresses and their slaves, relations between spouses and the production of Roman’s societal system’s only guarantee of survival: legitimate children.

The most popular time for Roman weddings was the second half of June, the month of Juno.  This meant that if a bride had become pregnant shortly after marriage (and Juno Lucina was also called upon by newlyweds to help them successfully conceive a child), she would be on the verge of giving birth by 1st March. Thus, it was a very convenient date to have a festival for the goddess of light and childbirth, combined with the birthday of Mars, who was Juno’s son, and the New Year.

Juno Lucina was associated with light (lux), specifically in her role as protector of pregnant women or those in childbirth, as she was the goddess who brings the child into the light. This association with light is still evident in some modern Romance languages. One expression for giving birth today in Spanish is dar a luz, and in Italian dare alla luce, both of which mean ‘give to the light’. Worshippers would call upon Lucina for an easy delivery and a healthy child, and they would symbolically let down their hair and loosen their clothing in an act of sympathetic magic. The primary participants in the Matronalia rites were matronae, or married, often aristocratic women. Importantly, you did not need to be a mother in order to participate to the festival. In fact, many intriguing female figures in Roman time used this festival, motherhood, and the production of legitimate heirs, as an occasion to establish their place in society.  For example, Antony Birley points out that we can be fairly certain that the Matronalia was celebrated at Vindolanda.  Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commanding officer Flavius Cerialis, would have led the festivities for Vindolanda’s women, in a show of generosity which is evidenced by accounts of expenditure on the Kalends of March on a writing tablet (Tab.Vindol.581, 93.1474I-V), from the household accounts of Cerialis.

Ancient sources refer to four main aspects of the festival, two components of which were the same as the Saturnalia festival held in December: a feast for slaves and a gift exchange. The first religious component consisted of matronae making offerings to Juno Lucina at her temple on the Esquiline Hill or other sacred places. Women of other social statuses may have also attended the rites but responsibility to worship Juno belonged to married women. In his Fasti, Ovid reports Mars describing this day, the date of his birthday:

‘It’s right that Roman mothers observe that fruitful season,

Since in childbirth they both struggle and pray.

On the hill that now has the name of Esquiline,

A temple was founded, as I recall, on this day,

By the Roman women in honour of Juno.

(…) My mother, Juno, loves brides: crowds of mothers worship me:

Such a virtuous reason above all befits her and me.’

Bring the goddess flowers: the goddess loves flowering plants:

Garland your heads with fresh flowers, and say:

‘You, Lucina, have given us the light of life’: and say:

‘You hear the prayer of women in childbirth.’

The second component involved husbands praying for the welfare of their wives and their marriages, although it is uncertain who they prayed to. Later in the day, married women prepared a holiday feast and waited on their female slaves, and probably the male ones as well, although this is not clear. The fourth element was the gift exchange. As well as married women receiving gifts from their husbands and children, unmarried women also received gifts from lovers or male friends. These would typically be flowers, jewellery, and sweets.

We can imagine the excitement there would have been on this date, just as we experience in the run up to New Year’s Day.  Entire households would look forward to the ceremony, as it would provide a welcome break from their everyday life.  For slaves especially it was one of a very few days in the year when they had the chance to relax and enjoy themselves. Husbands and wives would pray for a harmonious marriage, and healthy children:  both of these these, in Roman times, were not only the key to a serene life and old age, but also an important way to assert oneself in society.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

References

Shelton J-A, As the Romans Did (source book), Oxford UP 1998

Ovid, Fasti 3,                                                                                                                                                         www.poetryintranslation.com

Birley A, Garrison Life at Vindolanda, Stroud 2002

Bowman AK, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, London 1994

Dolanski F, Matronalia, Online 2019                                    

Wikipedia    +      Encyclopaedia Britannica

Further Reading 

E.M. Greene. 2013. “Female Networks in the Military Communities of the Roman West: A view from the Vindolanda Tablets” in E. Hemelrijk and G. Woolf (eds.), Women and the Roman City in the Latin West. Mnemosyne Journal Supplement, Brill. 369-90.