The term hilaria appears to have been used in two different contexts in ancient Rome. In the first case, it referred to any day to commemorate a variety of joyous occasions, public and private, such as the accession of an emperor or the anniversaries of marriages and births. In the second case, it referred to the celebrations on March 25, the last day of a four-day festival to honor Cybele, the mother of the gods, and her consort Attis.

As a religious festival, the Hilaria celebrated the resurrection of Attis. It followed two days of mourning, and was characterized by enthusiastic dances performed with drums, cymbals, and horns. All kinds of amusements and games were allowed on this day; masquerades were the most prominent among them, and everyone might, in his disguise, imitate anyone he liked, including the magistrates. It is possible that modern April Fools' Day may have been influenced by the Hilaria. The teasing, practical jokes, and general silliness of the latter may have grown out of the masquerades and boisterous merrymaking of the former.

The cult of Cybele, also known as Agdistis and Magna Mater, was established in Asia Minor long before it was introduced in Rome in 204 BC. She was attended by the Corybantes and Dactyls, who honored her with wild music and dancing. Her eunuch priests in Rome, called galli, were thought to castrate themselves in imitation of her consort Attis.

In addition to castration of the priests and ecstatic dancing, the rites of Cybele and Attis also included self-flagellation and a bath in the blood of a bull (taurobolium) or a ram (criobolium). The Day of Blood (March 24) was followed by the Day of Joy (March 25) at the resurrection of Attis.

  • A detailed account of Attis and his relation to Cybele and the Hilaria is given at The Myth and Ritual of Attis.
  • A brief synopsis of the spring festival of Cybele and Attis (March 22-25) is given on the Universal Festival Calendar.
  • A brief article gives a variation of the myth in which Cybele is known as Agdistis.
  • An encyclopedia article explains the role of Attis, or Atys, in the worship of Cybele.
  • A short paper entitled Cybele in Rome elucidates how Rome used and adapted the cult of Cybele.
  • A short description of the practices and rituals of the cult of Cybele are given, including the taurobolium.

    Some of the preceding information comes from Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, written by Leslie Adkins and Roy A. Adkins and published in 1998 by Oxford University Press (New York).

    [ return to Martius ]