The country year was defined by a succession of festivals in honour of rural deities - some serious, some riotous.


To the countryman, the natural world teemed with religious significance. The fields, orchards, vineyards, springs, and woods all had their attendant deities or spirits. Silvanus, god of the woods and fields, guarded the boundary between farmland and forest, and the estate had regularly to be protected from natural and supernatural hazards by lustration, the ritual of purification involving sacrifice and a solemn procession round its perimeter.


Head of Silvanus, crowned with pine. (VRoma: Museo Montemartini: Ann Raia)

The farmer’s annual round began in the spring, which the original Roman calendar reflected by its year beginning on 15 March. The establishment of what is now New Year’s Day in Christian countries at 1 January was for sheer administrative convenience. In 153 BC, in order to enable the arrival in Spain of the incoming consul to coincide with the start of the campaign season, the beginning of his term of office, and thus of the year, was advanced to 1 January, and there it remained.

The first celebration of the country year was the Liberalia on 17 March, in honour of Liber, god of fertility in the fields and vineyards. It was also the traditional date on which a teenage boy abandoned his toga praetexta for the toga virilis.


Tellus, with the four seasons as her children. Detail from mosaic in a Roman villa in Sentinum, AD 200--50. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The latter part of April was a riot of festivals, each with its special significance. At the Fordicia on 15 April, pregnant cows were sacrificed to the earth-goddess Tellus.


Statue of Ceres, goddess of agriculture and especially of corn, with robe of coloured marble. At her festival 19 April, the farmer led a procession of workers three times round the new-grown crops.(VRoma: Uffizi Museum, Florence: Barbara McManus)

In Rome itself, there was a macabre finale to the festival of Ceres, when flaming torches were attached to the tails of foxes, which were let loose in the space below the Capitoline Hill that later became the Circus Maximus. After the Vinalia Rustica, probably a drunken revel to celebrate the end of winter, and the sacrifice of the red dog to Robigus, god of mildew, April closed with the Floralia, ostensibly to petition for the healthy blossoming of the season’s flowers. It lasted from 28 April to 3 May, and appears to have been celebrated with the greatest jollity and licence.


Wall painting of Flora, after whom the Floralia was named. (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal)

As the crops ripened, there were several rites of a more serious nature, including the movable feast of the Ambarvalia, during which the ritual lustration was renewed and the farmer sacrificed a pig, a sheep, and an ox, together with items from the previous harvest and the first fruits of the new.


Fresco of a garden from the House of the Fruit Orchard, Pompeii. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

When the corn was cut in August, there were celebrations to Consus, god of the granary, and Ops, god of harvest wealth, and a further Vinalia Rustica.


Major granary at the port of Ostia. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The real festival of thanksgiving for the wine crop, the Meditrinalia, was observed on 11 October. Sowing took place in December, during which there were repeats of the festivals of Consus and Ops. The Saturnalia was on 17 December. This festival was observed in the country as a genuine celebration of seed-time: in towns it was a longer celebration which embodied some of the secular traditions later associated with Christmas, including holidays from school, candles, exchange of gifts, the mingling of household staff with the family, and the wearing of party hats.


Saturn, god of sowing. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

Believe it or not:

At the Compitalia, a moveable festival held in early January to mark the end of the agricultural year, a farmer hung up a plough on a shrine, and also a woollen doll for every free person on the estate and a woollen ball for every slave.

Consus was one of the original Roman gods, whose festival on 21 August was traditionally associated with the entertainment offered to the Sabines by Romulus, during which he abducted their womenfolk. By a strange coincidence, his main shrine was in an underground granary beneath the Circus Maximus, Rome’s famous race-course. The Romans were passionate about chariot-racing, and so the Consualia, festival of Consus, was conveniently celebrated in Rome with a full card of events. Other horses, and mules, were garlanded with flowers and given the day off.