Roman Republic

Roman Pre-History

Acca Larentia and the Larentalia (23rd December)

Sources for the Larentalia

The entry for 23rd December in the pre-Julian fasti Antiates maiores records, somewhat enigmatically:

  1. Lare NP”. 

  2. We know from the sources discussed below that this was a public festival held in honour of the departed spirit of a lady who was referred to as Acca Larentia (or Larentina).

Cato (ca. 150 BC)

Macrobius (ca. 400 AD) gave a relatively full account of the origins of the Larentalia, in which he cited Cato as one of his sources:

  1. “The [23rd December] is the holy day of Jupiter called the Larentinalia (sic), about which (since it’s fun telling tales) I can offer this range of views ... [For example], Cato says that:

  2. [a woman called] Larentia became wealthy from her prostitution;

  3. after she passed away, she left [four parcels of land known as] the ager Turax, ager Semurius, ager Lintirius and ager Solonius to the Roman people; and

  4. for this reason, she was deemed worthy of a splendid tomb and the honour of annual parentatio”, (‘Saturnalia’, 1: 11-16, translated by Robert Kaster, referenced below, at pp. 105-7).


It will be useful at this point to digress, in order to explain the nature of the annual ‘parentatio’ awarded to Larentia.  Robert Schilling (referenced below, at pp. 45-6) pointed out that:

  1. “The adjective parentales corresponds to the verb parentare and to the noun parentatio.  In all these words, the reference is transparent: they evoke the di parentes, the deceased of the family, who [were] divinised in ancient Rome.”

One example of this is found in a moving sentence that Cornelius Nepos (late 1st century BC) claimed to have found in a letter allegedly written by the famous Cornelia of the Gracchi (2nd century BC) to one of her sons:

  1. Ubi mortua ero, parentabis mihi et invocabis deum parentem”, (from Nepos’ ‘De Historicis Latinis’, (see John Rolfe , referenced below, at p. 328).

  2. When I am dead, you will  you will make offerings to me, and invoke the di parentis”, translated by Charles King (referenced below, at p. 21).

Charles King (as above) observed that the male, singular ‘deum parentem’ probably referred to the spirit of Cornelia’s husband, who had pre-deceased her. 

The parentatio that Cornelia (or Nepos) anticipated would probably have taken place in a period during February, when, according to Ovid (early 1st century AD):

  1. “Honour is paid ... to the grave, (‘Fasti’, 2: 533-46, based on the translation by James Frazer, referenced below, at p. 95).

He explained that:

  1. “Aeneas, the author of piety, introduced this custom [into Latium when he] brought solemn offerings patris Genio (to his father’s spirit); the peoples learned the pious rites from him.  But, on one occasion, when [distracted by war], the people neglected the dies Parentales”, (‘Fasti’, 2: 533-46, based on the translation by James Frazer, referenced below, at pp. 96-7).

He then described the great suffering that the outraged souls (animas) inflicted on the Romans until they resumed the rites, during which, all temples were closed, no fires burned on the altars, marriages were forbidden and the magistrates laid aside their insignia. 

  1. Ovid did not specify the date at with these rites began, but the fragmentary evidence from surviving fasti (see, for example,  Howard Scullard, referenced below, at p. 74) indicates that, at least by the by the 4th century AD) it began on 13th February.

  2. Ovid presented the passages quoted above under 21st February (the date that the pre-Julian fasti Antiates maiores gave for the Feralia) and recorded that the period of the Parentalia:

  3. “... only lasts [until] the Feralia, which is so-named because the people carry (ferunt) to the dead their dues: it is the last day for placating the manes (departed spirits)”, (‘Fasti’, 2: 555-70, based on the translation by James Frazer, referenced below, at pp. 97-9).

  4. Varro (ca. 45 BC) had given a similar etymology:

  5. “Feralia: [derived from] from ‘inferi’ [those below] and ‘ferre’ [to bring] because, at that time, quibus ius ibi parentare [those whose duty it is to sacrifice to the ancestors] ferunt [bear] banquets to their tombs”, (‘On the Latin Language’, 6: 13, based on the translations by Roland Kent, referenced below, at p. 187). 

John Lydus (6th century AD) was more precise about the duration of the Parentalia:  

  1. “[The ancient Romans] would make the sacred things secure by means of drink-offerings for the deceased, and the magistrates would go out in the guise of private persons, from the 6th hour of the Ides [13th] of February until the eighth day before the Kalends of March [22nd February]”, (‘On the Months’, 29).

Howard Scullard (referenced below, at p. 74) observed that:

  1. “... the dies parentales were not [ marked in the calendars with an N (nefestus), indicating that they were not public festivals, albeit that] the Feralia [in which they culminated] was partly a dies festus (the 21st was marked F in some calendars, FP in others).”

The precise significance of the abbreviations F/ FP is unclear, but Agnes Michels (referenced below, at p. 77) argued that:

  1. “[Since] the Feralia was the occasion of a purely family rite in honour of the dead, ....  it is not surprising to find that it was not a feriae publicae, although [it was] important enough to have been included in the calendar as a named day.”

This is the crux of the present digression:

  1. the dies parentales on which men like the sons of Cornelia sacrificed to the divinised spirits of their ancestors were the days of a nine-day private festival that culminated on the Feralia (21st February), the only one of the nine days that was actually named in the Republican calendar (albeit designated only F/ FP, possibly because the law courts could open); while

  2. the 23rd December appeared in the fasti Praenestini (for example) as a public festival (NP), presumably because, on that day, state priests sacrificed to the divinised spirit of Larentia on behalf of the Roman people (for reasons that I discuss in the following section).

Larentia: Wealthy Prostitute

As we have seen, Cato characterised Acca Larentia as a wealthy prostitute who had bequeathed what must have been a large amount of land to the Roman people  for which reason, she had been deemed worthy of:

  1. a splendid tomb; and

  2. the honour of annual, public parentatio.

Timothy Cornell (in T. J. Cornell, editor, referenced below, at Vol. III, pp. 74-5) pointed out that the prostitute Larentia appears in none of the surviving ‘historical’ accounts of Rome in the Regal period, which suggests that this fragment from Cato came from an antiquarian (as opposed to an ‘historical’) account of the origins of the Larentalia.  If this hypothesis is correct, then Cato would have relied on an established antiquarian tradition that had been based on the following ‘facts on the ground’:

  1. the annual public festival on 23rd December was marked in the Calendar as the Larentalia;

  2. the public parantatio on that day were made at a ‘splendid’ structure that was (or was thought to be) a tomb; and

  3. this putative tomb (presumably) stood at the junction of the four fields mentioned above, which were public land.

These facts would have invited an aetiology in which:

  1. a lady called Larentia, whose dies mortalis was 23rd December, had earned the gratitude of the Roman people by bequeathing a large amount of land to them, thereby becoming, in some sense, a mater patriae (albeit that this title would not have been used before the Augustan period); and

  2. the Roman people had therefore built a splendid tomb for her on the land in question, and public priests performed the annual parentatio there on behalf of the whole community.

I think it unlikely that Cato himself had proposed this aetiology, although it is possible that he had added the information that Larentia had  earned her considerable wealth through prostitution.

C. Licinius Macer(1st century BC)

The ‘Origo Gentis Romanae’ (the work of a now-anonymous author of the 4th century AD) contains a fragment of the work of C. Licinius Macer that relates to Acca Larentia.  The story is set at Alba, where Amulius has just seized power from his brother, King Numitor: according to the OGR:

  1. “... [the now-unknown] Marcus Octavius and Licinius Macer relate that Amulius, ... [had] been seized by love for the priestess Rhea, [the daughter of Numitor].  As dawn began to break, ... he assaulted her in the grove of Mars as she was seeking water for use in ceremonies.  Then, when months had duly passed, twins were born.  When Amulius became aware of this, ... he commanded that the priestess should be killed, and that her offspring should be delivered to him.  And  Numitor, hoping that, if they survived, these twins  would someday avenge his injuries, put others in their place and gave them to Faustulus, master of shepherds, for rearing”, (‘Origo Gentis Romanae’, 19: 5 - this link goes directly to a pdf).

Macrobius cited a related passage by Macer following his citation of Cato discussed above:

  1. “In Book 1 of his ‘Histories’, Macer establishes that Acca Larentia, the wife of Faustulus, was the nurse of Romulus and Remus, and that, during Romulus’ reign, [presumably after Faustulus’ death], she was married off to a rich Etruscan named Carutius.  [When he died], she inherited his estate and later left it to Romulus, whom she had raised and who, caussa pietatis (out of piety), established parentalia diemque festum (parentalia and a festival)”, (‘Saturnalia’, 1: 11-17, translated by Robert Kaster, referenced below, at pp. 105-7).

Macer’s account is consistent with that of Cato (above) in asserting that Larentia (now Acca Larentia) was honoured with her own public parentatio after her death because of a significant bequest that had benefitted the Roman people.  However, there were also important differences between the two accounts: Macer:

  1. identified Acca Larentia as the wife of Faustulus and the wet nurse of Romulus and Remus;

  2. attributed her wealth, not to her work as a prostitute, but to her subsequent marriage to a rich Etruscan;

  3. identified Romulus, her foster-son, as her heir; and

  4. claimed that he (out of piety) had instituted parentalia and a festival for her, presumably on 23rd December.

Acca Larentia: Wet Nurse of Romulus and Remus

It is possible that we can trace the tradition that Acca Larentia was the wife of Faustulus and the wet nurse of Romulus and Remus back to Ennius’ ‘Annales’ (ca. 175 BC): the relevant citation comes in another passage in the ‘Origo Gentis Romanae’ that followed a tradition in which:

  1. Amulius had ordered that Rhea Silva’s babies should be drowned in the Tiber; but

  2. they had washed up on  on the bank and been suckled by a she-wolf. 

In this tradition, a swineherd called Faustulus discovered them there and:

  1. “... gave them for raising to his wife, Acca Larentia, as <Ennius> writes in Book I and Caesar writes in Book II”, (‘Origo Gentis Romanae’, 20:) 

The word given here as <Ennius>’ is uncertain, but (for example):

  1. Christopher Smith (referenced below, at p. 103 and p. 119) accepted it as referring to the poet Ennius; and

  2. Sander Goldberg and Gesine Manuwald (referenced below, at p. 115) included this fragment as T7 in the new Loeb edition of the surviving fragments from Ennius’ ‘Annals’.

Goldberg and Manuwald (as above) pointed out (at note 1) the ‘Caesar’ who was cited alongside Ennius was probably L. Julius Caesar (cos 64 BC), who is known to have written a book on augury and another called ‘Libri Pontificales’.

The table published by Christopher Smith (referenced below, at pp. 113-9) indicates that

  1. Ennius was quoted on only one other occasion in the OGR, in relation to a passage (4: 5) that was widely cited elsewhere; while

  2. L. Julius Caesar (cos 64 BC)  (cited variously as ‘Caesar’ , Lucius Caesar, Caius (sic) Caesar and/ or libri Pontificalum) appeared on this and on ten other occasions, which makes him the most frequently cited author in the work. 

It therefore seems to me that the author of the OGR probably took the information in the passage under discussion here directly from Caesar, who had, in turn, cited Ennius in the relevant passage of his work.  We might push this further, to hypothesise that:

  1. Caesar, like Macer, thought that Romulus had instituted the Larentalia for his wet nurse; and

  2. both of them had taken this tradition from Ennius.  

Valerius Antias (1st century BC)

The ‘Origo Gentis Romanae’ also contains two fragments of the ‘Histories’ of Valerius Antias that relate to Acca Larentia and/or the Larentalia. 

  1. According to the first of these passages, when Amulius seized power from Numitor, he also:

  2. “... commanded that [Numitor’s daughter], Rhea Silvia, become a priestess of Vesta, ... [claiming that he had dreamed that this was Vesta’s command, although], in fact, he had decided for himself that it must be so done, so that she might not bear a child who would avenge ancestral injuries, as writes Valerius Antias in Book I”, (‘Origo Gentis Romanae’, 19: 4).  

  3. It seems that, in this tradition,  Amulius’ precaution turned out to be ineffective, since:

  4. “... [as Antias also relates, twin boys were] born to Rhea Silvia and Faustulus, a slave.  [Amulius initially] ordered that these babies should be killed but, when Numitor persuaded him otherwise, he gave them for raising to his amicae (female friend, perhaps girlfriend), Acca Larentia, who was known as lupa (she-wolf) because she was accustomed to sell her body.  (It [is], indeed, well known that prostitutes are thus named, and that the places where they lodge are called lupinaria.)”, (‘Origo Gentis Romanae’, 21: 1-2). 

Aulus Gellius (2nd century AD) cited a third passage from Antias that is relevant here:

  1. “... Acca Larentia was a public prostitute who had earned a great deal of money by that trade.  In her will, she left all of her property:

  2. to king Romulus, according to Antias’ ‘History’; or

  3. to the Roman people, according to others.

  4. Because of that favour, she is offered public sacrifice by the flamen Quirinalis [see below], and a day that was named for her was added to the calendar”, (‘Attic Nights’’, 7: 7: 6-7). 

Thus, in Antias’ account:

  1. Romulus and Remus were the the children of the Vestal, Rhea Silva and a slave called Faustulus;

  2. Amulius gave them for raising to his amicae, Acca Larentia, who was also a wealthy public prostitute; and

  3. when she died, she left her wealth to Romulus (or, according to others who followed this tradition, to the Roman people).

Stephen Oakley (in T. J. Cornell, editor, referenced below, at Vol. 3, p. 331) pointed out that:

  1. “... Antias is the earliest author [as far as we know who is] attested as giving a rationalising re-writing of the twins’ preservation [from Amulius] in which:

  2. the two different identities of Acca Larentia:

  3. the prostitute [Cato];

  4. and twins’ wet nurse [Ennius, Caesar and Macer];

  5. were merged; and

  6. the wolf legend was was ingeniously explained in terms of the use of lupa for prostitute.

  7. Although the possibility that he was following an earlier author cannot be excluded, the fact that the OGR and Gellius attribute this version to Antias suggests that [he was responsible for] this radical re-working of the [earlier traditions] ...”

It seems to me that Antias was almost certainly one of the sources for Gellius assertion that:

  1. “Because of [Acca Larentina’s bequest], she is offered public sacrifice ... , and a day that was named for her was added to the calendar”;

since this would explain why he had included an account of that bequest in his ‘Histories’.  However, as I discuss further below, it is possible that Gellius’ assertion that the flamen Quirinalis coffered these sacrifices came from the ‘others’ who recorded that she made her bequest to the Roman people.

Varro (ca. 45 BC)

Possible location of the tomb of Acca Larentia

Adapted from the website Digital Augustan Rome

Varro (ca. 45 BC) described this festival, which he called the [feriae] Larintinae (Larentine festival):

  1. “The Larentinae, which some, when writing (quidam in scribendum), call the Larentalia, was named for Acca Larentia: sacerdotes nostri publice parentant (our priests make public parentatio) 6 days after the Saturnalia [i.e., on the 23rd December], on <diem tarentum Accas tarantinas > [see below]. This sacrifice is made in the Velabrum, at the exit into the Via Nova: some say that it is sepulcrum Accaea (at the tomb of Acca), on the grounds that, near there, faciunt diis manibus servilibus sacerdote (priests sacrifice to the departed spirits of slaves)”, (‘On the Latin Language’, 6: 23-4, based on the translations by Roland Kent, referenced below, at p. 197 and Peter Wiseman, referenced below, at p. 174).

Filippo Coarelli (referenced below, 2012, at p. 82) suggested that the putative tomb of Acca Larentiawas located near the start of the Vicus Tuscus (as indicated on the map above).

In this passage, Varro noted that some writers referred to his ‘feriae Larentinae’ as the Larentalia; Robert Palmer (referenced below, 1970, at p. 107, note 1) suggested that this uncertainty about the name of the festival reflected the abbreviation of its title in the fasti Antiates maiores and presumably also in the other, now-lost pre-Julian fasti.  He also reproduced (at note 2) the clearly corrupt part of the passage in the surviving manuscripts:

  1. <diem tarentum Accas tarantinas >

Some scholars (see, for example, Roland Kent, referenced below, at p. 197 - contra Daniel Nečas Hraste and Krešimir Vuković (referenced below, at p. 332) emend this to indicate:

  1. dies parentum Acca Larentinas’ (the day of the parentalia of Acca Larentia/ Acca Larentina’.

I assume in what follows that this is, indeed, the correct emendation.  Thus, according to Varro:

  1. on the 23rd December, public priests sacrificed to the departed spirit of Acca Larentia at what was presumed to be her tomb in the Velabrum; and

  2. nearby, priests sacrifice to the departed spirits of slaves (as discussed further below).

Cicero (43 BC)

Proposed Honour for Decimus Junius Brutus

Cicero referred to the festival of Acca Larentia in a letter to M. Junius Brutus [see below] in July 43 BC:

  1. “There came that most joyful day of the liberation of Decimus Brutus, which happened also to be his birthday.  I proposed that Brutus’ name should be entered in the fasti beside that day [21st April], following the precedent of our ancestors, who paid that compliment to a woman, Larentia, at whose altar in the Velabrum you pontifices offer sacrifice.  [This refers to the fact that his correspondent was a pontifex.]  In trying to confer that honour on [Decimus] Brutus, I wished the fasti to contain a permanent record of a most welcome victory”, (‘Letters to Brutus’, 23, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 2002, at p. 277).

Decimus Junius Brutus, the man for whom Cicero had unsuccessfully proposed his extraordinary honour, had been liberated from a siege at Mutina in Cisalpine Gaul on 21st April 43 BC. 

The chain of events that led up to this siege is complicated, but crucial to our understanding of this passage in Cicero’s letter:

  1. Decimus Brutus, was one of the two men who had organised the murder of Julius Caesar on 15th March 44 BC, had subsequently found it expedient to take up the post of propraetor in Cisalpine Gaul (which Caesar had assigned to him).

  2. Towards the end of the year, Mark Antony, who had been Caesar’s colleague as consul and still held that office, claimed Cisalpine Gaul as his province and succeeded in besieging Decimus Brutus and his army at Mutina.

  3. In Mark Antony’s absence from Rome, the young Octavian (who had been posthumously adopted by Caesar and was a third contender for power) marched on Rome with his private army and illegally occupied the Forum.

  4. Cicero, who had played no part in Caesar’s murder, subsequently supported the murderers against Mark Antony (whom he hated).  He returned to Rome in order to fill the political vacuum, and publicly praised Octavian because he needed his military support in the approaching confrontation with Mark Antony.

  5. Immediately after Aulus Hirtius and C. Vibius Pansa, the consuls of 43 BC, took office, Cicero successfully proposed that Octavian should be appointed as propraetor (despite the fact that he was under-age), thereby legitimising his military command.  The scene was set for Hirtius, Pansa and Octavian to lead their respective armies against Mark Antony and raise the siege at Mutina.

  6. On 14th April 43 BC, the two consular armies engaged with that of Mark Antony at Forum Gallorum.  The consuls seem to have had the better of the fighting, although Pansa was seriously wounded.  In a speech to the Senate soon after this ‘victory’ (‘Philippics’, 14: 29, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, at p. 321), Cicero proposed that supplicationes (public thanksgivings to the gods) should be held in the joint names of Hirtius, Pansa and Octavian for an unprecedented 50 days, even though Octavian had played no active role in this battle. 

  7. On 21st April, Hirtius and Octavian defeated Mark Antony outside Mutina and liberated the city, as Mark Antony retreated along the Via Aemilia towards Gaul.  Hirtius died during this battle and Pansa died shortly after.  The Roman armies were now under the command of Octavian and Decimus Brutus.

The news of the victory reached Rome on 27th April.  As Carsten Hjort Lange  (referenced below, at p.79) pointed out, it was:

  1. “ ... initially hailed with enthusiasm ... (although eventually [undermined by] the consuls' deaths and Antonius's escape).  Now Cicero at last got his way ... : [Mark Antony] and his followers were declared public enemies, and a triumph was voted to Decimus Brutus. The justification [for a triumph awarded for the defeat of another Roman] was thus that, since they were enemies not citizens, it was permissible to triumph over them.  Cicero was of course happy to support Decimus Brutus's triumph, but in the end Brutus never celebrated it, as he never returned to Rome.”

This was presumably the the point at which Cicero proposed (again unsuccessfully) that the name of Decimus Brutus should be entered in the fasti

Cicero’s correspondent, M. Junius Brutus ( relative of Decimus Brutus) had participated in Caesar’s murder and, by the time of this correspondence, was living in self-imposed exile in Greece.  Cicero’s letter to him was his response to:

  1. “... a letter of yours in which, while paying me a number of compliments, you find one fault, namely that I am ... prodigal in voting honours”, (‘Letters to Brutus’, 23, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 2002, at p. 273).

He started his defence by reminding Brutus of the objective that had guided his dealings with the Senate in the period following Caesar’s murder:

  1. “You will not have forgotten, Brutus, that, after Caesar’s death, ...  I said that you and your associates had left one thing undone ... : although you had removed  ... a great stain on the honour of the Roman people and won immortal glory for yourselves, [you had not removed] the apparatus of monarchy, [which had] passed to:

  2. [M. Aemilius Lepidus, the proconsul of Gallia Transalpina, who had welcomed Mark Antony to his province after Mutina]; and

  3. [Mark] Antony [himself];

  4. [the former] a weathercock and the other ... a blackguard”, (‘Letters to Brutus’, 23, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 2002, at p. 275).

It seems that the honours to which Brutus had objected had been those given to Octavian, because Cicero countered that:

  1. “All I will say [in answer to your charge] is that this young man, Caesar [i.e., Octavian], thanks to whom ... we are still alive, drew his inspiration from my counsels.  I have given him no honours, Brutus, but what were due, none that were unnecessary.  ... ”, (‘Letters to Brutus’, 23, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 2002, at p. 277).

This, of course, glosses over the undeserved honour that Cicero had secured for Octavian after the ‘victory’ at Forum Gallorum, which was presumably what Brutus had had in mind.   Having said that, Cicero admitted that he had proposed another honour for Octavian, even though he had refused to assist Decimus Brutus in his pursuit of Mark Antony and was still at Mutina, in command of what had been Pansa’s army:

  1. “I suspect that another proposal of mine is less to your liking ... : namely that Caesar should be granted leave to enter Rome in ovation.  For my part ... , I do not think that I have made a wiser proposal in the course of this war, (‘Letters to Brutus’, 23, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 2002, at p. 277-9).

It is clear from this that, as he wrote this letter, he expected that Decimus Brutus would eliminate Mark Antony and Lepidus in Gaul and once he had thus dismantled the apparatus of monarchy, that Octavian would return to Rome and reach an accommodation with him. 

We now come to the context in which Cicero placed the passage under discussion here, in which Cicero described his proposed additional honour for the triumphal Decimus Brutus in the euphoria that had followed the victory at Mutina.  He noted wistfully that:

  1. “... for some reason, it is easier to find good will [from the Senate] in the hour of danger than [to secure] gratitude [from them] in victory.  There came that most joyful day of the liberation of Decimus Brutus, which happened also to be his birthday.  I proposed that Brutus’ name should be entered in the fasti beside that day [21st April], following the precedent of our ancestors, who paid that compliment to a woman, Larentia, at whose altar in the Velabrum you pontifices offer sacrifice.  In trying to confer that honour on [Decimus] Brutus, I wished the fasti to contain a permanent record of a most welcome victory.  [However], on that day, I [found out] that gratitude has considerably fewer votes in the Senate than spite, [which explained why, in Cicero’s view, his proposal had been rejected]”, (‘Letters to Brutus’, 23, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 2002, at p. 277).

In other words, Cicero answer to M. Brutus was that he had no regrets about the honours that he had proposed for Octavian, albeit that, had it been in his power, he would have awarded a far greater honours for Decimus Brutus. 

Unfortunately, this letter is our only surviving source for Cicero’s rejected proposal, and it is important to remember that it might not accurately reflect the case that Cicero actually made in the Senate.  In particular, I doubt that he actually claimed in the Senate that the case of Acca Larentia provided a precedent for his proposal, since it was clearly inaccurate:

  1. According to the accepted tradition at that time, Acca Larentia’s name had been added to the fasti on her dies mortalis in recognition of her valuable bequest to Romulus and/or the Roman people: thus, when the pontifices and other priests offered sacrifices at the public festival of the Larentalia, they did so to her departed spirit at an altar at her tomb.  The public nature of these sacrifices was an indeed an unprecedented honour, but they were otherwise comparable to the private sacrifices that were offered during the Parentalia to the departed spirits of family ancestors at family tombs.  (Modern scholars sometimes refer to Acca Larentia as a goddess, but no surviving source records her as such.)

  2. Cicero’s proposal was that the name of Decimus  Brutus should be added to the fasti on his dies natalis, in recognition of the fact that he destroyed the apparatus of monarchy and saved the Republic by:

  3. planning and participating in the murder of Caesar; and then

  4. defeating Mark Antony (on a day that had happened to be his birthday);

  5. public priests should make annual sacrifices in his honour, even though he was still very much alive.

So, having disposed of this red herring, we might consider what Cicero had actually proposed.

  1. He (of all people) is unlikely to have proposed to the Senate that sacrifices should be offered to Decimus Brutus as a living god.

  2. Thus, he had presumably proposed that  sacrifices should be offered to the gods at a public festival held on the dies natalis of Decimus Brutus, in thanksgiving for his birth. 

That would still have been an entirely unprecedented honour for a living person: even the name of Caesar did not appear in the fasti until Octavius dedicated the Temple of Divus Julius on 18th August 29 BC (see, for example, the fasti Antiates for the day).  As we have seen, the Senate had already awarded Decimus Brutus a triumph over a fellow-Roman: the unprecedented addition of his name in the fasti during his lifetime was apparently a bridge too far.

We can now focus in on what this passage from Cicero’s letter actually tells us about the Acca Larentia and the Larentalia in the late Republic: 

  1. It is clear that, at the Larentalia, public priests (including the pontifices) still sacrificed to the departed spirit of Acca Larentia at an altar in the Velabrum (presumably at her putative tomb, although Cicero did not say so).

  2. Furthermore, since Cicero had to rely on her for the precedent that he offered to M. Brutus (and perhaps to the Senate), she was presumably the only mortal recorded in the fasti at that time.

Decimus Brutus (cos 138 BC) and the Larentalia

Cicero almost certainly referred to the grandfather of the D. Brutus discussed above (see the family tree by Olga Liubimova, referenced below, at p. 846) in a now-mutilated passage:

  1. “... <lacuna> used December as the last month of the year, as the ancients had used February’, (‘On the Laws’, 2: 54, translated by Clinton Keyes, referenced below, at p. 439).

Keyes observed (at note 1) that, as it survives, this passage begins with:

  1. “... a gap of considerable length;  ... At the point where our manuscripts resume, the subject is the offering of sacrifices in honour of dead relatives (parentare).  Plutarch [see below] states that, according to Cicero, these offerings were regularly made by the Romans in February (originally the last month of the year), while D. Junius Brutus (cos 138 BC) made them in December.  Therefore he is evidently the person referred to here, and Cicero is explaining why he made this change [in the context of the parentare in honour of his ancestors] .”

The relevant passage by Plutarch (ca. 100 AD started as follows:

  1. “Why is it that, while the other Romans make libations and offerings to the dead in the month of February, Cicero  has recorded that Decimus Brutus [cos 138 BC] used to do so in the month of December?”, (‘Roman Questions’, 34, translated by Frank Cole Babbitt, referenced below, at pp. 57-9).

Thus Cicero was probably suggesting that this Decimus Brutus usually sacrificed to the spirits of his ancestors in December, on the principal that the ancients had established that this should be done in the last month of the year. 

In order to understand why Cicero came to his conclusion, we should look at the following passage by Varro:

  1. “The [reason for the] names of the months  ... [is  explained] if you count from March, as the ancients [originally did]; for them, the first month was Martius (March), which was named for Mars. [Varro then gave etymologies for April, May and June, after which came five months that were] named from their number: Quintilis [later July] and so in succession to Decembris.  Of the two that were [soon] added to these, the first was called Ianuarius [January] from Janus] ... [and the second] Februarius (February):

  2. some say [that from the di inferi  (spirits of the departed) because at that time sacrifices are made to them (during the Paentalia, which culminated in the Feralia);

  3. but I think that February rather from the dies februatus (Purification Day), because then the people februatur ‘is purified’ [at the Lupercalia]”, (‘On the Latin Language’, 6: 33-4, based on the translations by Roland Kent, referenced below, at pp. 205-7).

In this passage, Varro explained that the Roman year had originally begun in March, as evidenced by the fact that  Quinitilis, for example, was so-named because it was the fifth month of the year.  Two months (January and February) were soon added, so that the year was then made up of twelve shorter months, the first of which was still March, and the last of which was February, the month of the Ferentalia.   At an unknown date, but certainly before the compilation of the pre-Julian fasti Antiates maiores and thus by the time that Varro was writing, the calendar was written with January as the first month of the year and December as the last, but the festivals were still recorded in their original months (including, of course, the Feralia and the Lupercalia in February, which was now the second rather than the last month of the year).  Thus, Cicero thought that, while everyone else at Rome had celebrated the Parentalia/ Ferentalia in February,  Decimus Brutus (cos 138 BC) had done so in December because he privileged the ancient custom in which this had been done done in the last month of the year.  Interestingly, Plutarch apparently thought that Cicero was wrong: in answering the question that he hadposed in the passage above, he  considered a number of unsatisfactory answers before wondering whether:

  1. “... [the] statement that Brutus alone sacrificed to the dead in [December might be] a falsehood? For, it is in December that [the Romans] make offerings to Larentia and bring libations to her tomb”, (‘Roman Questions’, 34, translated by Frank Cole Babbitt, referenced below, at pp. 59).

It seems that Plutarch was suggesting here that Decimus Brutus (cos 138 BC) had simply celebrated the Larentalia in December, like everybody else. 

The Romans believed that King Numa had created the fasti, and that, in this original calendar, the festivals of February were regarded as taking place at the start of the year.

March was the first month of the year in the pre-Julian calendar that Brutus would have used,, as evidenced by the fact that the ‘numbered’ months of the latter part of the year began with Quintilis (later July), the 5th month of the year.

“The names of the months are in general obvious, if you count from March, as the ancients arranged them; for the first month, Martius, is from Mars.

It is unclear when the change from January to March had been made, but Agnes Michels (referenced below, at pp. 97-101 and pp. 128-9)

Livy (ca. 27 BC)

Livy is our earliest surviving source for a narrative account of how Romulus and Remus escaped from Amulius.  He began his account at the point that Amulius had usurped power and made Rhea Silvia a Vestal so that she would remain a virgin:

  1. “But, the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under Heaven.  The Vestal was [therefore] forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it or so that her sin might appear less heinous if [she claimed that] a god had been the cause of it.  But neither gods nor men sheltered the priestess herself or her babies from the king's cruelty; she was thrown into prison and they were ordered to be thrown into the Tiber.  By a heaven-sent chance, it happened that the river had burst its banks,so that stretches of standing water prevented any approach to the main channel.  Those who were carrying the children expected that this shallow water would be sufficient to drown the boys, so ... they exposed them at the nearest point of the overflow, where the Ficus Ruminalis (said to have been formerly called Romularis) now stands.  The locality was then a wilderness.  The tradition goes on to say that, after the floating cradle in which the boys had been exposed had been stranded on dry land by the retreating water, a thirsty she-wolf from the surrounding hills, attracted by the crying of the children, came to them, gave them her teats to suck, and was so gentle towards them that the king's shepherd (according to the story, his name was Faustulus) found her licking them with her tongue.  He took them to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to be reared.  Some writers think that, because of her unchaste life, Larentia was known among the shepherds as lupa (she-wolf), and that this was the origin of the marvellous story [of the she-wolf who nursed the babies]”, (‘History of Rome’, 1: 4: 1-7). 

It is entirely likely that Valerius Antias was among the ‘other writers to whom Livy referred in his closing sentence.

Verrius Flaccus (ca. 6 AD)

The grammarian M. Verrius Flaccus added the following note to the festival recorded in the fasti Praenestini under 23rd December:

  1. “ [Fer]iae Iovi (Festival of Jupiter). Accae Larentin[ae] [lacuna - see below]: 

  2. Some say that she was [the wet nurse] of Remus and Romulus.

  3. Others [say] that [she was] a prostitute, the mistress of Hercules. 

  4. Parentari ie publice (public offerings are made to her departed spirit) because she made the Roman people the heirs of a large amount of money, which had been bequeathed to her by the will of Tarutilus, her lover.”

The first line of the Flaccus’ note is generally completed as:

  1. [Fer]iae Iovi. Accae Larentin[ae Parentalia fiunt] (Festival of Jupiter: Parentalia are held in honour of Acca Larentia): see, for example, the edition of the inscription published as EDR072764 and Howard Scullard (referenced below, at p. 210).

This note represents the first time in our surviving sources in which Acca Larentia is associated with Hercules.

For completeness, I should note that, according to Paul the Deacon’s epitome of Flaccus’ lexicon:

  1. “Larentalia: festival of the wife of Faustulus, the nurse of Romulus and Remus”, (‘De verborum significatione’, 106L, my translation).

However, this does not necessarily mean that the original lexicon ignored the alternative tradition in which she was  was ‘a prostitute, the mistress of Hercules’.

Ovid (early 1st century AD)

Ovid first recorded Acca Larentia in his introduction to the month of March, the month in which Mars impregnated the Vestal  [Rhea] Silvia, who then gave birth to Romulus and Remus:

  1. “When Amulius learned of this, ... he ordered the twins to be drowned in the [Tiber].  The water shrank from such a crime, and the boys were left on dry land.  Who does not knows that the infants thrived on the milk of a wild beast, and that a woodpecker often brought food to them?  Nor would I fail to mention you, Larentia, the nurse of so great a nation, nor the help that you gave poor Faustulus.  Your honour will find its place when I come to tell of the Larentalia: that festival falls in December, acceptus genii (the favourite month of the genii or departed spirits)”, (‘Fasti’, 3: 55-9, translated by James Frazer, referenced below, at p. 125).

Unfortunately, Ovid did not live long enough to reach beyond June in the ‘Fasti’.

Acca Larentia and the Death of Remus

Ovid’s next mention of Acca Larentia was in his passage on the Parilia (21st April), the day on which Romulus built the walls that would surround the new city on the Palatine:

  1. “... the work was overseen by Celer, whom Romulus ... ordered [to kill anyone who crossed the walls].  Remus, unknowingly, began to mock the low walls ... [When] Remus leapt over them, ... Celer struck [him] with his shovel: Remus sank, bloodied, to the stony ground.  When [Romulus]  heard, he smothered his rising tears: ... he wouldn’t weep in public, but set an example of fortitude, saying:

  2. ‘So dies the enemy who shall cross my walls.’

  3. But he granted Remus funeral honours ... When they set down the bier, he gave it a last kiss, and said: ‘Farewell, my brother, taken against my will!’

  4. He then anointed the body for burning. Faustulus and Acca, her hair loosened in mourning, did as he did.  Then, the as yet unnamed Quirites wept for the youth: and finally, the pyre, wet by their tears, was lit”, (‘Fasti’, 4: 837-56, translated by James Frazer, referenced below, at pp. 251-3).

Ovid’s third reference to Acca Larentia in his account f the origins of the Lemuria (9th May)

  1. “When Romulus had sunk his brother’s spirit in the grave, and justice was done to the over-hasty Remus, the wretched Faustulus and Acca, with streaming hair, sprinkled the burned bones with their tears.  Then at twilight they returned home grieving, and flung themselves on the hard couch, just as it lay.  The bloodstained ghost of Remus seemed to stand by the bed ...”, (‘Fasti’, 5: 451-8, translated by James Frazer, referenced below, at pp. 293-5).

Remus lamented his fate and begged his erstwhile foster parents to ask Romulus to establish a feast in his honour:

  1. “Romulus complied, and gave the name of Remuria to the day on which due worship is paid to buried ancestors.  In the passage of time, the rough letter, which stood at the beginning of the name, was changed into the smooth; and soon the souls of the silent multitude were also called Lemures:  ... The ancients shut the temples on these days, as even now you see them closed at the season sacred to the dead.  The times are unsuitable for the marriage of both widows and maidens: she who marries [on these days], will not live long.  For the same reason, if you give weight to proverbs, the people say bad women wed in May.  But these three festivals fall about the same time, though not on three consecutive days”, (‘Fasti’, 5: 479-92, translated by James Frazer, referenced below, at pp. 295-7).

The surviving fasti record public festivals named Lemuria on 9th, 11th and 13th May (see, for example, Howard Scullard, referenced below, at pp. 118 and 261).

Masurius Sabinus (early 1st century AD)

According to Aulus Gellius (2nd century AD):

  1. “... Masurius Sabinus, in the first book of his ‘Memorialia’, following certain historians, asserts that Acca Larentia was Romulus’ nurse. His words are:

  2. ‘This woman, who had twelve sons, lost one of them by death.  Romulus gave himself to Acca as a son in his place, and called himself and her other sons Arval Brethren.  Since that time, there has always been a college of Arval Brethren, twelve in number, and the insignia of the priesthood are a garland of wheat ears and white fillets’”, ‘Attic Nights’, 7: 7: 8).

Masurius might well have been the source used by Pliny ithe Elder n his very similar account of the origins of the Arval brethren:

  1. “Romulus was the first who established the Arval priesthood at Rome.  This order consisted of the eleven sons of Acca Larcntia, his nurse, together with Romulus himself, who became of the twelfth [member] of the brotherhood.  He bestowed upon this priesthood, the most august distinction that he could: a wreath of years of corn, tied together with a white fillet; and this ... was the first chaplet that was ever used at Rome.  This dignity is only ended with life itself and, always attends its owner, even in exile or in captivity”, (‘Natural History’, 18: 2).

Plutarch (ca. 100 AD)

Plutarch was also aware that the festival in December was called the Larentalia, albeit that he thought (for an unknown reason) that Acca Larentia was honoured in April:

  1. “And why do [the Romans]  thus honour Larentia who was at one time a courtesan?  They record that there was another Larentia, Acca the nurse of Romulus, whom they honour in April.  But they say that the surname of the courtesan Larentia was Fabula. ...[W]hen she herself when she herself died, she left her property to the State; and for that reason she has these honours”, (‘Roman Questions’, 35, translated by Frank Cole Babbitt, referenced below, at pp. 59-63).

Plutarch also recorded these two Larentalia  in his ‘Life of Romulus’:

  1. “... some say that the name of the [wet nurse of Romulus and Remus], by its ambiguity, deflected the story into the realm of the fabulous.  For the Latins use the word ‘lupae’, for both she-wolves  and women of loose character, and such a woman was Acca Larentia, the wife of Faustulus, the foster-father of the infants.: ... the Romans sacrifice .. to her and, in the month of April, the priest of Ares [the flamen Martialis] pours libations in her honour and the festival is called Larentalia”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 4: 3)

  2. “[The Romans] also honour another Larentia, for the following reason. ... [She was given to Hercules in his temple and then, on his instructions, become the lover of a man called] Tarrutius.  This man took Larentia to his bed and loved her well and, at his death, left her heir to many and fair possessions, most of which she bequeathed to the people.  And it is said that, when she was now famous and regarded as the beloved of a god, she disappeared at the spot where the other Larentia also lies buried.  This spot is now called Velabrum, ...”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 5: 1-5)

Macrobius (ca. 400 AD) gave a relatively full account of both of traditions summarised by Flaccus, in which he cited his sources:

  1. “The [23rd December] is the holy day of Jupiter called the Larentinalia (sic), about which (since it’s fun telling tales) I can offer this range of views:

  2. [Some]say that, in the reign of Ancus, the temple warden of Hercules was enjoying his holiday leisure and challenged the god to a game of dice (he would handle the dice for both of them), adding the stipulation that the loser would meet the cost of a meal and a prostitute.  So, when Hercules won, the warden locked up Acca Larentia, the most notorious prostitute of the day, in the temple with a meal; the next day she put about the rumour that, after sleeping with her, the god told her, as a kind of tip, that she should not fail to benefit from the first opportunity that presented itself when she returned home.  And so it happened that, soon after leaving the temple, she was propositioned by Carutius, who had been taken by her beauty.  She did as he desired and married him.  Then, after his death, she inherited all his possessions and, when she died, she named the Roman people her heir.  For that reason Ancus buried her in the Velabrum, the most frequented spot in the city, and established a solemn sacrifice to her in which a flamen makes an offering to her Di Manes (ancestors): the festival is consecrated to Jupiter, because the ancients believed that he bestows souls and receives them back after death. 

  3. Cato [ca. 150 BC] says that Larentia became wealthy from her prostitution and  after she passed away, left the Roman people the ager Turax, ager Semurius, ager Lintirius and ager Solonius and that, for this reason, she was deemed worthy of a splendid tomb and the honour of annual offerings at the Parentalia.

  4. In Book 1 of his ‘Histories’, [Licinius Macer (early 1st century BC )] establishes that Acca Larentia, the wife of Faustulus, was the nurse of Romulus and Remus, and that, during Romulus’ reign, [presumably after Faustulus’ death], she was married off to a rich Etruscan named Carutius.  [When he died], she inherited his estate and later left it to Romulus, whom she had raised and who out of filial devotion established her festival and the offerings at the Parentalia (‘Saturnalia’, 1: 11-17, translated by Robert Kaster, referenced below, at pp. 105-7).

Peter Wiseman (referenced below, 2004, at p,. 174) argued that:

  1. “There were evidently two sacrifices in the Velabrum:

  2. one at the Larentalia festival (23 December); and

  3. one [on a different day ??] for the di manes of slaves. 

  4. The sites were not identical, but close enough for some authorities to identify the former as the tomb of Acca Larentia, presumably on the assumption that she had been a slave.”

I wonder whether the slaves buried here were public slaves who assisted at the rites of Hercules Victor at the Ara Maxima (see the map above), which might explain why, in some traditions, Acca Larentia  had been, in some sense, a mistress of Hercules.  The earliest surviving account of the involvement of public slaves in these rites is by Livy:

  1. “... Appius [Claudius], exhibiting the obstinacy which had marked his family from the earliest days, exercised the censorship [of 312 BC] alone [after his colleague resigned].  In the case of gens Potitia, who had held the priesthood of Hercules at the Ara Maxima as a hereditary privilege, it was Appius who authorised them to teach the ritual of that sacrifice to public slaves, in order to transfer the office (ministerium) to them”, (‘History of Rome”, 9: 29: 9). 

Hans-Friedrich Mueller (referenced below, at p. 315), citing primarily Robert Palmer (referenced below, 1965) and Peter Wiseman (referenced below, 1979) has summarised recent scholarship that has refuted this annalistic tradition, not least because the gens Potitia is otherwise unattested in Rome. 

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, at p. 382) pointed out that, according to Varro (‘On the Latin Language’, 6: 54), the Urban Praetor conducted the sacrifice at the Ara Maxima, at least in the late Republic, and he suggested that this might have been the role of the gens Pinaria until 312 BC.

Robert Palmer (referenced below, 1965, at p. 296) suggested that the ministerium that was allegedly transferred to the gens Potitia was a lesser role, and that the Potitii themselves might well have been slaves (an hypothesis that Oakley, as, above, suggested was more satisfactory that others, albeit that there is no secure evidence for it).

In other words, although the annalistic tradition is open to question, it is entirely possible that public slaves 

As noted above, the Romans celebrated a festival known as the Parentalia , which began on the 13th February and lasted till the 21st or 22nd: however, as Ariadne Staples (referenced below, at p. 66) pointed out:

  1. “The [Parentalia of Acca Larentia on 23rd December] ... was a public ritual performed by state priests, while the Parentalia [on 17th February] was a private family ceremony.”

Although there must be some uncertainty about both of these completions, it seems to me that Staples’ observation in relation to Varro’s putative ‘Parentalia of Acca Larentia’ offers considerable support for both of them.

Gellius himself is our only surviving source for the fact that the flamen Quirinalis made a public sacrifice for Acca Larentia at the Larentalia.  As we saw above, Varro referred to public sacrifices made on this day by sacerores. and Cicero explicitly mentioned pontifices in this context.  Thus, Ariadne Staples (referenced below, at p. 66) concluded that the flamen Quirinalis was only one of the state priests who officiated at the Larentalia.

Read more:

O. V. Liubimova, “The Mother of Decimus Brutus and the Wife of Gaius Gracchus”, Mnemosyne, 74 (2021) 825-50

C. W. King, “The Ancient Roman Afterlife: Di Manes, Belief, and the Cult of the Dead”, (2020)  Austin, Texas

S. M. Goldberg and G. Manuwald (translators), “Ennius: Fragmentary Republican Latin, Volume I: Ennius, Testimonia. Epic Fragments”, (2018) Cambridge MA

D. Nečas Hraste and K. Vuković, “Virgins and Prostitutes in Roman Mythology”, Latomus, 74:2 (2015) 313-38

T. J. Cornell (editor), “The Fragments of the Roman Historians”, (2013) Oxford

C. H. Lange, “Triumph and Civil War in the Late Republic”, Papers of the British School at Rome, 81 (2013) 67-90

F. K. A. Martelli, “Ovid’s Revisions: The Editor as Author”, (2013) Cambridge and New York

A. Staples, “From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion”, (2013)  London and New York

F. Coarelli, “Palatium. Il Palatino dalle Origini all' Impero”, (2012) Rome

R. A. Kaster, “Macrobius: Saturnalia, Volume I; Books 1-2”, (2011) Cambridge MA

G. Sumi, “Topography and Ideology: Caesar's Monument and the Aedes Divi Iulii in Augustan Rome”, Classical Quarterly, 61.1 (2011) 205–19 

D. R. Shackleton Bailey (translator), “Cicero: Philippics 7-14”, (2010) Cambridge MA

C. J. Smith, “The Origo Gentis Romanae: Facts and Fictions”, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 48 (2005) 97-136

T. P. Wiseman, “Where Was the Nova Via?”, Papers of the British School at Rome, 72 (2004) 167-183

H.-F. Mueller, “The Extinction of the Potitii and in Sacred History of Augustan Rome”, in

  1. D. S. Levene and D. P. Nelis, “Clio and the Poets: Augustan Poetry and the Traditions of Ancient Historiography” (2002) Leiden, at pp. 313-29

D. R. Shackleton Bailey (translator), “Cicero: Letters to Quintus and Brutus; Letter Fragments;  Letter to Octavian.; Invectives; Handbook of Electioneering”, (2002) Cambridge MA

H. H. Scullard, “Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic”, (1981) London

T. P. Wiseman, “Clio’s Cosmetics”, (1979) Liverpool

R. Palmer, “The Archaic Community of the Romans”, (1970) Cambridge

A. K. Michels, “The Calendar of the Roman Republic”, (1967) London

R. Palmer, “The Censors of 312 B.C. and the State Religion”, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte , 14: 3 (1965) 293-324

R. Schilling, “Roman Festivals and Their Significance”, Acta Classica, 7 (1964) 44-56

R. Kent (translator), “Varro: On the Latin Language, Volume I: Books 5-7”, (1938) Cambridge MA

F. C. Babbitt (translator), “Plutarch: Moralia, Volume IV: Roman Questions; Greek Questions; Greek and Roman Parallel Stories; On the Fortune of the Romans; On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander; Were the Athenians More Famous in War or in Wisdom?”, (1936) Cambridge MA

J. Frazer (translator), “Ovid: Fasti”, (1931) Cambridge MA

J. C. Rolfe (translator), “Cornelius Nepos: On Great Generals; On Historian, (1929) Cambridge MA

C. W. Keyes (translator), “Cicero: On the Republic; On the Laws”, (1928) Cambridge MA

W. Warde Fowler, “The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic”, (1899) London

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