ab urbe condita - The Birthday of Rome and the festival of the Parilia

On 21 April in Ancient Rome, not only the founding of the city was celebrated, but the Parilia as well, an old festival in honour of Pales, a deity of shepherds and livestock.

“The night has gone, and Dawn comes up. I am called upon to sing of the Parilia, and not in vain shall be the call, if kindly Pales favours me. O kindly Pales, favour me when I sing of pastoral rites, if I pay my respects to thy festival. Sure it is that I have often brought with full hands the ashes of the calf and the beanstraws, chaste means of expiation. Sure it is that I have leaped over the flames ranged three in a row, and the moist laurel-bough has sprinkled water on me. The goddess is moved and favours the work I have in hand. My bark is launched ; now fair winds fill my sails.” (Ovid “Fasti”)

John Leech’s imagination of “Remus jumping over the Walls”, an illustration for Gilbert Abbott A Beckett’s “ The Comic History of Rome” (ca 1850)

It was yet another primal mythological scene. Two brothers about to found a city, each on a different hill, both asking the gods for a sign about whose enterprise they would favour. The deities answered promptly. Over one hill, six vultures appeared and twelve eagles over the other. And since the story took place in Latium and not in Egypt or Zimbabwe, the oracular facts were quite plain for everyone present and that was that. Or almost. Romulus, the preferred sibling, already stonewalled on the Palatine while Remus, rather miffed, walked down from his Aventine, future cradle of the future city’s great unwashed, climbed up his brother’s hill, saw the new townwall, jumped over it and Romulus drew his sword and slew him for the insult. "So perish every one that shall hereafter leap over my wall", quoth Romulus, at least according to Livy and named the place Rome, in all modesty, after himself. It was a rather gorily auspicious beginning and those inclined to believe in omens blamed everything from the conflict of the Aventinian plebeians and the Palatine patricians to Rome’s endless civil wars on the city founder’s fratricide. And it was, since Marcus Terentius Varro came up with the idea around 100 BCE, Day 1 of the Roman year numbering system, AUC, ab urbe condita, "from the founding of the City”, April 21, 753 BCE, according to our time reckoning that came in use at the court of Charlemagne around 800. Common era.

The discovery of Romulus, Remus and the She-Wolf by Faustulus, as envisioned by Peter Paul Rubens in 1616

Whether or not Romulus and Remus were aware of the ages-old fertility festival that was celebrated in Latium since time immemorial on April 21th or if it even was the typical family quarrel that typically erupted and escalated on a holiday is not handed down, at least not by Livy. However, propagandists were and at the latest since Julius Caesar won the final battle of his war against the Republic at Munda in 45 BCE a couple of days before Parilia as the old festival was known , he made April 21st into a national Roman holiday and since Hadrian roughly 150 years later, it became the feast day of Roma the Goddess. The rural population, though, still remembered Romulus’ and Remus’ foster-father Faustulus the Shepherd and Pales, either a god or a goddess or both or a divine couple, the patron deity of shepherds, sheep and other livestock, revered in one form or the other since before the days when agriculture or importing grain from Carthage and Egypt became the dominant form of providing sustenance.

The Flemish painter Joseph-Benoît Suvée’s (1743 – 1807) neo-classicistic idea of the “Festa di Pales” (ca 1783)

The customs of the original, rural Parilia with cleaning and smoking out sheep pens, shepherds leaping through flames and sheep and cattle with garlands around their horns being driven through the smoke and a bit of carousing afterwards were innocent enough, while the later urban Parilia had a few rites that seem atavistically beyond the pale, with slaughtering pregnant cows, burning the unborn calves and mixing the ashes with the blood of last year’s horse sacrifice and add bean straw for a new bonfire leap through that and party afterwards. For how long Pales was celebrated in the rural and urban custom is uncertain but late antiquity saw the old festival finally superseded by the Natalis Urbis, the city’s birthdayand the Romaea or Rhomaia in Constantinople, festivals revived in Rome itself in mid-15th century when the rest of the Roman Empire ended on the Bosporus in 1453.

And more about the Parilia on:


and a full text of Ovid’s “Fasti”in Latin and an English translation by Sir James Fraser of “Golden Bough”-fame himself on: