Tarquinius Superbus
Tarquinius Superbus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

During the late republic, the Fugalia, or Regifugium (February 24), was regarded as a kind of Independence Day, celebrating the expulsion of the last king from Rome and the beginning of the republic. However, the origin of this festival is likely something different. After the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus in 510 BC, the office of Rex Sacrorum was created to continue the religious duties of the kings.

Confusion arose from an entry of the letters Q. R. C. F. in the calendars under 24 March and 24 May, which indicated Quando Rex Comitiavit Fas and meant that legal business could be transacted after the Rex Sacrorum had performed some ceremony in the comitium. The letters were wrongly interpreted as Quod Rex Comitio Fugerit, meaning the king fled from the assembly in the Forum.

The true meaning of the ceremony is unknown, but the "flight of the king" is probably connected with the Poplifugia, the "flight of the people", a purificatory ceremony held on July 5 when the crowd appears to have recoiled from something accursed. The sacrifice at the Regifugium appears to have been accompanied by guilt. The Rex Sacrorum offered the sacrifice at the comitium, a place where the transaction of political matters in which he could not take part normally occurred, and then fled from the Forum as fast as he could.

The old Roman calendar ended on February 23, after which a period of intercalation might follow to adjust the calendar to the solar year. When Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 45 BC and introduced the leap year, the extra day was inserted between 23 and 24 February. Hence the name for the leap year day was dies bissextilis, meaning that the sixth day before the Kalends of March occurred twice.

"What Tarquin the Proud said in his garden with the poppy blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger." -- Johann Georg Hamann

That quotation could be a fitting caption for the painting above, and it refers to a story of Tarquinius Superbus, whose son, having become a military leader in Gabii, sent a messenger back to his father asking advice on what to do next. Unsure whether he could trust the messenger, Tarquin gave no direct reply, but walked with the messenger in a poppy field, striking the heads off the tallest poppies. On returning to Gabii, the messenger relayed this strange behavior to Tarquin's son. Sextus Tarquinius --but not the messenger-- understood that the secret message was that he should eliminate the "tall poppies" of Gabii, the townsmen who were outstanding in their influence or ability.

  • Additional facts about the Regifugium are provided by an entry in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
  • More information about the Rex Sacrorum is provided by an entry in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
  • Information about Tarquin II, the last king of Rome, is provided by an entry in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
  • More facts about the Bissextile Day are provided by an entry in Wikipedia about the leap year.
  • Another entry in Wikipedia explains the "tall poppy" syndrome and offers a related story from Herodotus.

    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.)