Francis Towne, Monte Cavo II, 1781
Feriae Latinae

The Latin Festival (feriae Latinae) was originally held by a league of Latin cities, led perhaps by Alba Longa, who sent delegates to worship Jupiter Latiaris together, to deliberate and decide on matters of the confederacy, and to settle any disputes which might have arisen among its members. The site of the festival was the summit of the Alban mount, some thirteen miles southeast of Rome. Although the Romans may not have been members at first, and the main celebration did not take place in Rome itself, the festival nevertheless played a very important part in Roman public life from the very early times until the end of the fourth century. It was one of the moveable feasts, and its date was fixed at the beginning of each year by the incoming consuls. It was normally held before the consuls went off on the campaigning season in the spring, or sometimes a little later. This festival was a great tool in the hands of the magistrates who had to appoint the time of its celebration. It might often suit their purpose either to hold the festival at a particular time or to delay it, depending upon the state of affairs in Rome.

The central act was a sacrifice of a pure white heifer that had never known the yoke, and it was made on behalf of the whole league. (It may have been made by the Latins in rotation until the Romans gained control in 338 BC, and then it became the task of the Roman consuls.) The leader offered a libation of milk, and the rest of the cities brought other agricultural products such as lambs or cheese. The flesh of the main sacrificial victim was divided among the delegates and shared in a common meal.

Multitudes flocked to the Alban mount on the occasion, and the season was one of great rejoicing and feasting. Pliny mentions a race of four-horse chariots for those who stayed in Rome during the Latin holiday. One puzzling feature of the celebrations was that little puppets (oscilla) fashioned like humans were said to have been hung up in the trees. The idea behind the oscilla may have been charms against evil influences. The essential part of the festival lasted only one day, and when all was completed on the Alban Mount, a bonfire on its summit signaled to Latium that the festival was over.

The painting above is of Monte Cavo, the Mons Albanus of Roman times, site of the temple of Jupiter Latiaris and of the Latin festival.

  • Additional facts about the feriae Latinae are provided by an entry in Smith's A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
  • Information about the Mons Albanus and the temple of Jupiter Latiaris is provided in this encyclopedia entry.
  • More information about oscilla is provided in this encyclopedia entry.
  • Information about the Latin League is provided in this Encyclopædia Britannica entry.
  • Information about Alba Longa is provided in this entry of Wikipedia.

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