The Romans could be downright weird in their religious observances. They believed in ghosts and evil spirits, demonic possessions, animals which might be part human (and vice-versa), self mutilation (the Galli priests, like their Greek Corybantic counterparts, sliced off their own most important parts), animal and occasional human sacrifice (--really! killing foreign kings and generals in the Carcer at the foot of the Capitoline Hill at the same moment the spoils of war were offered to Jupiter in his temple on the summit). A pit on the northern part of the Vatican Hill was only one of the local "entrances to hades", and there were persistent rumors of human sacrifice by ancient Roman witches.
Almost anything that any foreign religion might imagine could find an audience and eager participants in Rome. But they certainly didn't have to import strange rituals from "overseas" . Their own archaic practices were pretty shocking -- so much so that "refined" historians like Livy, Suetonius, and Plutarch wrote about the excesses.
Perhaps the strangest of the strange was the Lupercalia (leaving aside, for a different month, the "October horse.") This Lupercalia festival was really ancient -- so ancient, in fact, that even the Romans in the middle of the Republican Period (ca. 250 BC) couldn't remember what it was about. They argued amongst themselves for centuries about which god or goddess the festival was for, but the ritual was old and established so it just continued from year to year for another 750 years, until Pope Galasius 1 banned it in 494 AD and replaced it with a Christian observance called the "Purification" of the Blessed Virgin. The name of the new feast was significant.
Modern scholars, like some of the ancients, are certain that the Lupercalia festival had something to do with goat herding. That's not to long a logical leap considering what the ritual entailed. Priest of the two colleges of "Luperci" (which only means Lupercalia officiators) would gather at the "Lupercal". That was the cave in which the shepherd (or goatherd) Faustulus found Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf (a "lupa"). Even in ancient times, there were disputes about where, exactly, that cave was, but it was probably toward the bottom of the slope of the Palatine hill on the side facing the Tiber River, near the site of the putative "hut of Romulus". The priests would sacrifice young goats and a dog (later, dogs). Two youths chosen from noble families would then be brought forward, and some of the priests would use the sacrificial knife to smear blood of the goats and dog on their foreheads. Other priests would immediately wipe them clean with wool soaked in goats' milk. At this point the two youths would laugh uproariously. (Such "Joviality" was also a part of other primitive Italic rituals -- if you were "Jovial" you were merry under the influence of Jove, i.e., Jupiter, and that ensured that the ritual was OK with the gods.) Others would undoubtedly join in. At the end of the sacrificial phase of the ritual, the priests would cut the skins of the goats into strips, giving some of them to the youths to cover their naked loins. And then there would be a feast during which the goats would be eaten. What happened to the dog(s) is not recorded.
After the meal, the priests also stripped naked and used more of the goatskin strips to cover their own loins. In later days, they were joined in this by public officials. Then they all ran around a prescribed route in the city and used the last strips of the goat hides to whip bystanders. It was considered great good luck to be flogged in this way -- men were thought to gain strength and women fecundity. Newly married young women in particular would line the route in order to be struck by the priests: a good slap of the old goatskin not only ensured lots of offspring but also easy births. In general, this was thought to be great fun -- lots of laughs -- plenty of "Joviality".
As mentioned above, even the ancient Romans had forgotten what this was all about. We do have vague theories that the various parts of the rituals had something to do with "cleansing" or "purificatin" -- what the Romans would call "lustration" (and we still talk about polishing things to their original "luster"). Different things were "purified" at other times of the year, and there were special feast days for cleansing the different temples, monuments, tombs, farm implements, gate and door posts, weapons, etc. The Lupercalia was more general, but it obviously had something to do with purifying the herds of goats (and sheep?). Herding was the main occupation of those two earliest Romans, Romulus and Remus: Romans believed they were descended from herdsmen.
The Lupercalia occurred in the last month of the Roman year (-- the year began on March 1, which coincided, in their calendar, with the vernal equinox). February was a general month for cleaning and washing up and preparing for the new year. The name of the month actually meant "cleaning up month" to later Romans, but it's hard to tell when or why that meaning was attached to the word. It could have been just because that's when everybody cleaned up, or maybe the other way around: everyone cleaned up because that's what the name of the month meant. Maybe the month was named February when it was added to the calendar, because that's when all this cleansing took place. It's probably significant, however, that the Latin word for those strips of goat hide that were used to gird loins and beat young women was also "februa" and also carried a meaning of "cleaners". Were they cleansing everyone and the city of evil spirits by whipping them? Some ancient Romans thought so,and so do some modern religious researchers. Others were not completely convinced. Theories abound.
The route the whippers ran was also significant. Originally, it was just around the Palatine hill along the line of Rome's first "pomerium", the city's sacred boundary, which supposedly was laid out by Romulus. As the city grew, there were occasional expansions of the pomerium, and the runners' route reflected those changes. Because of that, modern scholars of Roman myth think the Lupercalia was also somehow an annual revalidation and re-sanctification and "cleaning up" of the borders of the city.
Julius Caesar and the Lupercalia: In the Autumn of 45 BC Caesar had returned to Rome from his wars with Pompey and his dalliance in Egypt. He soon had dictatorial powers -- granted to him by a cringing Senate, who were fearful of his surrounding legions but also wary of the mob that initially supported Caesar's "reforms". In a few short months, he overstepped, doing several things that lost him the support of the mob. In order to build a new theater to rival the one that had been built by Pompey, he destroyed part of a temple of Apollo (the remains of which are next to the Theater of Marcellus, built later by Augustus). Caesar had also brought his famous Egyptian squeeze, Cleopatra, back to town with him and kept her in a sumptuous trans-Tiber (Trastevere) villa. The final straw came at the time of the Lupercalia, February 15, 44 BC -- the day on which the plot to assassinate Caesar really thickened.
It was a busy day for Caesar and Mark Antony. According to Plutarch and other historians, Caesar was seated on the "victor's" throne in his triumphal robes -- he was the latest returning general who had been granted a "triumph", and therefore he rated the chair. Anthony, as Consul, was running semi-naked with the Luperci, the whipping Lupercalia priests. Early on, a soothsayer sidled up to Caesar and said that famous sooth, warning Caesar to "Beware the Ides of March". Caesar made light of the warning.
Nobody knows what prompted Mark Antony to twice offer Caesar a royal crown after the running and whipping that day, but it's well attested that he did so. Caesar's Senatorial enemies were quick to say that Caesar had put him up to it as a way to test the waters. They said that Antony was, after all, a creature of Caesar, and Caesar had, in fact, left Antony in Rome to run the political machine while Caesar belligerently pursued Pompey and then amorously pursued Cleo. Caesar, noting the murmurs and foul looks of the crowd, refused the royal offer, but many said he wasn't quick about doing so. A moment's hesitation on his part, they said, had told the tale of his real royal plans. But there was more.
Caesar's supporters had also hung diadems (miniature royal insignia -- crowns, etc.), on his statues in the city center. Two "Tribunes of the People", Flavius and Marullus, pulled down the offending decorations and were cheered by the crowd who called them "Brutus" -- a reference to that Brutus who had slain the last Tarquin king of Rome. In anger, Caesar had the Tribunes dismissed, and he ridiculed the crowd that had cheered them. According to Plutarch, "This made the multitude turn their thoughts to Marcus BrutusÍ" That, of course, was the other Brutus, who with Cassius, was a mainstay of the plot that killed Caesar a month later, as the soothsayer had warned. The events of that Lupercalia form the opening scene of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Shakespeare's account of the events is what most Westerners know.
Lupercalia entry from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities ( SMIGRA): http://www.ku.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Lupercalia.html
The Lupercal cave from Platner's Topo Dictionary: http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/.Texts/PLATOP*/Lupercal.html
The Luperci priesthoods, from SMIGRA: http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Luperci.html
Lupercalia basics -- a University crib sheet: http://abacus.bates.edu/~mimber/Rciv/lupercalia.htm
Excerpts from Plutarch
How it all ties in with Valentine's Day: http://altreligion.about.com/library/weekly/aa020400a.htm,
and numerous other web sites: http://www.google.com/search?num=100&hl=en&newwindow=1&client=googlet&q=valentine+lupercalia&btnG=Google+Search
P.S.: The Romans were weird. If their religion isn't enough to convince you, just think of the mass slaughter in their "sports" arenas -- and remember, they took their kids to see it. If you want examples of modern weirdness, just use your Internet search engine to look up "lupercalia" on the web. To avoid most of the violent sex and/or "alternate religions" web sites, you have to add "rome", "roman", or "roma" (in lower case) to the string of search words.
Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2002.html for other articles.