The worship of Volcanus, an ancient Italian god of fire, is said to have been established by Titus Tatius. The Romans came to identify their deity with the Greek god Hephaistos and bestowed his skill in metal working and his lameness on their own Vulcan. His temple stood outside the city in the Campus Martius, but an altar was located at the foot of the Capitoline hill in the Forum Romanum. The Vulcanal consisted of an open-air, horseshoe-shaped altar, a column for the cult statue, and the Lapis Niger, an inscribed stela declaring the sanctity of the site. In earliest times it may have served as a speakers' stand and as a place for cremations. Games in Vulcan's honor were held during the Vulcanalia (August 23) to allay wild fires, earthquakes, and volcanoes. His epithets of Quietus and Mulciber imply the power to halt fires.

In spite of the brutual summer heat, many citizens of Rome gathered in the Forum Romanum to observe the time-honored festival. Sacrificing live fish and lighting bonfires at night were part of the festival, most of which took place outside the city in the Campus Martius. (Romans learned the hard way to situate his temple there!) Little is known of the cult except that it was customary to start work by candlelight on that day, and bonfires were lighted at night in his honor. People sacrificed fish, which were thrown live on the fire, or drove animals into the fire as substitutes for human lives. Vulcan was especially honored in Ostia where vast warehouses of stored grain were vulnerable to fire. The goddesses Juturna and Stata Mater were also honored for their roles in quenching fires. His consort Maia received a sacrifice on this occasion, as did Hora, Ops Opifera, and the Nymphs, but their links with Vulcan are obscure. It does not pay to skimp on observances during the Vulcanalia. Look what happened to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae just one day after the festival in AD 79.

Additional information may be found here:

  • The Volcanal and Lapis Niger in the Roman Forum are described and illustrated with models and photographs.
  • This brief article suggests that Stata Mater may have been Vesta; her association with fire and the hearth makes sense.
  • An entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia gives more information about Vulcan, his consort Maia, Ops Opifera, and the Nymphae.

    photo courtesy of VRoma

    Some of the preceding information comes from Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, written by H. H. Scullard and published in 1981 by Cornell University Press (Ithaca, New York).

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