Floralia: The Roman May Day Celebration

Spring flowers were celebrated during the Floralia festival of ancient Rome. Image by Maria Mosolova/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The Romans had a celebration for just about everything. Certainly, any Roman deity worth their salt got a holiday of their own, and the spring goddess Flora was no exception. She was the goddess of spring flowers and vegetation, and one of many fertility goddesses. In fact, she was so well respected as a fertility deity that she was often seen as a the patron deity of Roman prostitutes.

Origins of Floralia

Flora's holiday originated around 235 b.c.e.

Pliny tells us in his Natural History that her temple was dedicated around that time at the instruction of an oracle in the Sibylline books. By building a temple to Flora, and holding a festival in her name, the Romans could solicit Flora's protection. It was believed that a good festival ensured that she would watch over the blooming flowers around the city. At some point the celebration was discontinued -- but it clearly took its toll when wind and hail did some serious damage to the flowers of Rome.

In 173 b.c.e., the Senate reinstated the holiday, and renamed it the Ludi Floralis, which included public games and theatrical performances. These plays and stage events were often pretty bawdy, especially since Roman prostitutes often worked as actresses. During the Floralia, they performed nude on stage, and apparently even participated in naked gladiatorial battles for the entertainment of the Roman populace.

In one rather well-known anecdote, Cato the Younger was said to have walked out of a performance when he saw the "licentious" behavior of the women onstage. Rather than have his own presence inhibit the actors and audience, he simply went home. Of course, then Cato wrote a fairly scathing account of the entire event, in which he denounced several of the play's participants for behaving like harlots.

Floralia Celebrations

Oxford professor and anthropologist E.O. James discusses the Maypole and its connection to Roman traditions in his 1962 article, The Influence of Folklore On the History of Religion. James suggests that trees were stripped of their leaves and limbs, and then decorated with garlands of ivy, vines and flowers as part of the festival of Floralia. Other theories include that the trees, or poles, were wrapped in violets as homage to Attis and Cybele

The Nova Roma website, which is the home for one of the largest Roman Pagan groups today, has a page dedicated to the Floralia festival. It reads, in part, "Great Banquets and Games were in abundance. Romans wore colorful garments and walked around clutching bouquets of flowers and wore wreaths of flowers around their neck or in their hair. They scattered the flowers of lupines, bean and vetch about. Romans attended bawdy plays where prostitutes and female actresses performed naked at the demand of the crowds, cheered and jeered at licentious farces and mimes, attended gladiatorial games and chariot races where chickpeas were thrown to the people and hunted the symbols of fertility; deer (or goats) and hare. The festivities began in the morning with the rituals continuing as Romans danced, drank and surrounded themselves with flowers into the night."

The Floralia took place during the five days between April 28 and May 3. Citizens celebrated with drinking and dancing. Flowers were everywhere, in the temples and on the heads of revelers. Anyone making an offering to Flora might give her a libation of milk and honey.