By Andy Hugman - Volunteer Guide

You might think that this would be a simple question.  But for historians there are lots of things to consider when trying to answer this question as life was very different for people living in Roman Britain than it is for us today. Therefore, to answer this question we need to put aside some of our own conceptions about celebrations surrounding spring, and their purpose.  Instead, we need to consider three important areas: when; how and why; and how that is different in our lives?

When is spring?

Listening to the weather presenters on your TV you know that the official first day of spring is March 1 (and the last is May 31).If someone asked you when each of the seasons occurs, how would you respond? Your answer may depend on whether you think of the seasons more traditionally, or, if you are for example a farmer, a more weather-related way.

The astronomical seasons are the ones most of us are familiar with because their start dates are listed on our calendars. They're called astronomical because, like our calendar, the dates of their occurrence are based on the position of Earth in relation to the sun. In Britain Astronomical spring is a result of Earth's north pole tilt moving from its maximum lean away from the sun to one equidistant from the sun, and of the sun's light aiming directly at the equator. It begins on March 21-22.1 

Another way to define the seasons is by grouping the twelve calendar months into four 3-month periods based on similar temperatures. Here in Britain Meteorological spring begins on March 1 and includes the months of March, April, and May.  Weather forecasters (and farmers) didn't implement this classification just for the heck of it. Rather, they prefer to deal with data from whole rather than fractions of months, and align calendar dates more closely with the temperatures felt during that period, the scheme (which has been around since the early- to mid-1900s) allows weather scientists to more easily compare weather patterns from one season to another -- something the astronomical convention makes cumbersome due to seasonal lag (the delay in seasonal temperatures settling in).  Although folks may not be used to the meteorological way, in a lot of ways it's the more natural scheme for how we live our lives today. Gone are the days when we pore over the happenings of the celestial heavens and organize our lives accordingly. But organizing our lives around months and similar stretches of temperatures is truer to our modern reality.2

How, what, and why celebrate

There are two main ways that various Roman festivals or celebrations have been classified: by date and subject.  The poet Ovid wrote a series of poems, the Fasti about them – a separate book for each month3. To count as a celebration or a festival the events had to be happen each year (or less often); in a regular place; open to all and with a repeated programme of rituals like sacrifices, banquets, and a procession; aiming to renew or keep the relationship with a divine power and building up the community4.  Regular requirements excluded weddings, funerals, victories, and triumphs, but might have included arena games (including, chariot- and horse racing). 

Fresco of chariot race in Ostia, near Rome. 

In this series of blogs there are example of seven other blogs: Mars; Quinquatrus; Megalesia; Cerealia; Parilia; Floralia; and Rosaliae Signorum.  You can click on each name to find out about those. There were many other examples of the Romans’ appetite for celebrations.  Some examples of other classifications can be found on the internet3, 5.

“The Roman gods were created like humans, … but nowhere appear as their creators ... their religion knew neither revelation nor sacred book or dogma, and religious services did not include reading sacred texts or sermons. No religious instruction existed, other than passive attendance at a rite celebrated at home by the head of the family or on the forum by a magistrate. Citizens were not the creature of a god, and the notion of creator does not even play any role in religion.”6.

Today, scholars consider that Roman celebrations and festivals indicate “the importance of public rituals and priesthoods directly connected with the spiritual and material well-being of the community”.7   There was no clergy as can be found, for example, in present day Christian, Hindu, Islam or Judaic religions.  Roman religions were ritualistic and the only "faith" was to practice, particularly not to refuse or hinder the ritual.

Citizens and others in the Empire were free to follow almost any religion provided the traditional protocol of symbolic submission and allegiance to imperial authority was performed. Many Romans interpreted the refusal to sacrifice to their traditional gods as an act of political defiance and therefore something to be punished or scorned.  The point of contention, as seen from the Roman side, was not belief in Jesus but rather the refusal of those who did to acknowledge the tropes of imperial authority associated with the worship of other gods within the Empire.

How’s it different today?

This contrasts with the focus of our own spring celebrations has been the Christian festival of Easter, which celebrates the last week of Jesus’ life.8.  It wasn’t until the 4th century, at the earliest, that Christianity became the dominant religion.9


The remains and a reconstruction of a late Roman Christian church at Vindolanda. 

To say nothing of rabbits or chocolate eggs! This festival lasts through March, April and May and relies on the movement of the moon for its exact dates.  Religious observance is based on Palm, Easter, and Pentecost well as Good Friday.  This latter day, recalling the day of Jesus’ death, is the only part of the celebration which is marked by both religious, financial, and political authorities.

We shouldn’t forget that May Day has been marked and celebrated since ancient times and is a time of fun and festivities in many British villages and towns. These celebrations have obviously increased since the day became an official public holiday because more people can hold and be part of their community’s events.  Spring is well underway by the time May Day comes around, and in many ways the day is a celebration of the new life all around and the warm months to come. Parades in the Britain vary from place to place but a few common sights and sounds include Morris Dancers; Maypole dancing; Crowning of the Queen of May; Dawn flower picking; and picnics, pub events and more.

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

References and sources:

  1. Means, Tiffany. "The Astronomical vs. Meteorological Seasons." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020,
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Fasti. On the Roman Calendar. Translated by A. S. Kline. 2004 
  4. Iddeng, Jon W. “What is a Greco-Roman Festival? A Polythetic Approach” in Rasmus Brandt and Jon W. Iddeng Eds Greek and Roman Festivals Content, Meaning, and Practice” Oxford University Press 2012
  5. Connor, “Roman Festivals Calendar List” Jan 2021.

Heli, Richard M. “Ancient Roman Holidays & Festivals”  1994-2014

  1. Scheid John, "Politics and religion in ancient Rome. What is the place for freedom ofreligion in a state religion? The Life of Ideas, June 28, 2011. ISSN: 2105-3030. URL:
  2. Bondioli, Nelson. (2017). Roman Religion in the Time of Augustus. Numen. 64. 49-63. 10.1163/15685276-12341449.
  3. Easter 2012 © 2021 Public Holidays Global Pty Ltd ABN 53 608 843 885
  4. Collins, Rob. “Living on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Rome's Northern Frontier” Pen & Sword 2020
  5. In 1971, the Banking and Financial Dealings Act changed the date of the Spring or May Bank Holiday to make it fall on the last Monday in May rather than on the day after Whit Sunday, which itself fell seven Sundays past Easter.