By Meta Waters Volunteer Guide

Floralias - is it a festival to pay homage to Flora, the goddess of flowers and blossoming plants, or a bawdy and pleasure-seeking celebration?  Well, a lot of both in my view.

Unlike Christianity that advocates the worships one god or monotheism, we know the Romans, and people of the Roman Empire, honoured a variety of gods, polytheism.  Traditions, cults and religious practices were of great significance to the Romans; and religious practices involved paying homage to their many gods for all sorts of reasons.  Whether that be, for example, political success , for a safe journey, military campaigns, economics, plentiful blossoms, flowering plants, or to ensure successful crops and harvest or even good weather on a trip, their was a Roman god to cover almost any eventuality.

Floralias was a festival dedicated to the god Flora.  Not all gods were celebrated with festivals but Flora was.  As well as the festival there was the addition of special games, Ludi Florales.  Floralias was recognised and possibly celebrated by the whole community.   It would have involved worship and the offering of sacrifices to Flora, in return for successful crops, vegetation, flowers and fertility; “du ut des”, meaning ‘I give that you might give’.  It expressed the reciprocity of exchange between human and deity within Roman religion.

Floralias was a public festival (ferias publicae) and took commenced on 28 Apr (Julian calendar), until 3 May.  It is documented that the Temple of Flora was built shortly after a drought around 241 - 238 BC, by Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines (an ancient Italian people who lived in the area of Rome before Rome was built) and located close to the Circus Maximus, on the lower slope of the Aventine Hill in Rome.  As one of the ancient goddesses established before the Republic, Flora is believed to have her origins in Greek mythology, where she is known as Chloris (Khloris).  Chloris is associated with spring, flowers, and new growth.  Ovid (recorded in Fasti, 5) recounts how the festival Floralias was discontinued; but following a succession of poor or failing blossoms, Floralias was resurrected in 173 BC and celebrated annually thereafter.

The significance of Flora within Roman culture is clear, she was classed as one of the fifteen deities with official cults during the Republic and was awarded a flamen (a priest).  Flamen Floralis was one of twelve flamines minores and would have been distinguished by their official clothing.  These priests would have led the celebrations to Flora, which were then followed by Ludi Florales.  

Ludi Florales – The Games

The games were both administered and funded by the state.  Cicero (the Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and academic sceptic, 106-43 BC) refers to organising the games for Flora in 69 BC when he was an aedile, part of an elected office responsible for regulating public festivals. The funding of an event that lasted 6 days would have been expensive to the public purse and noble families were expected to add their own embellishments to public games from their own pockets.  But why  commit so much? The games were funded not only because of the religious significance and the importance Romans placed upon their religious ceremonies but for political gain.  The aediles may have viewed the games as an opportunity to maintain good relations with the community and to retain votes for future elections. The more private money they added to the public purse for holding such celebrations, the more impressively noble families could show off their wealth, prestige and generosity.   

The games associated with Floralias were considered by some as licentious and bawdy, and they included theatricals in the form of farces and mimes.   Floralias audiences demanded the actresses perform naked, while prostitutes considered the festival as their own, and the mimes are said to have been very explicit.  Juvenal (Roman Poet, Satire VI) suggests that prostitutes fought in the gladiatorial arena during the festival. To symbolise fertility in honour of Flora, hares and deer (or goats depending on the translation of Caprae/Capreae - the former being the plural of a female goat and the latter the plural of a roe-deer) were released in the Circus Maximus.  A further symbol of fertility was the throwing of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) to the audiences in the Circus.

The celebration of spring is still marked in many northern hemisphere countries, we only have to look at Britain to see how the celebration of May Day resembles some of the activities of Floralias – although it is now custom to remained clothed during the festivities. Ceremonies associated with May Day have their roots dating back to before Christianity; the Celtic traditions of flowers, decorating a May bush and making offerings to the fairies are very reminiscent of Floralias.

Throughout the centuries many artists have captured the spirit of Flora. The image that inspires me most is Giovanni Batista Tiepolo’s Triumph of Flora; it captures the beauty of Flora and the vitality of life through the offering flowering plants in her honour. Painted in 1743 the scene is based on Ovid’s description of the Floralias.

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


Fasti; Ovid

Satire; Juvenal

Greek and Roman Festivals; J. Rasmus Brandt and Jon W. Iddeng

Roman Religion in the Time of Augustus; Nelson de Paiva Bondioli

Living on the EDGE OF EMPRE; Rob Collins


Wikimedia commons; image of the Triumph of Flora