Both Connie, my querulous editor, and my mother thought I had too much Roman stuff in my book – they were so warlike and ruthless, they would complain.
But I’ve always loved the ancient Romans, for their preoccupation with measuring and celebrating time; and Latin, for its orderliness; and Rome itself, for the layers and layers of civilization still visible around each corner.
I also love festivals piled on festivals, and connections to the seasons. Today has it all. First, there’s Fornicalia, which sounds a lot more exciting than it really was: the feast of ovens, when you were supposed to sacrifice roasted grain to Ceres, goddess of corn. You had to pay attention, though, to know when to do this – it depended on where you lived, and was posted on some tablets hanging in the Forum. The earliest day you could do this was February 5, the (very early!) first day of spring for the Romans; the latest was today – the Quirinalia.
Romulus, one of Rome’s mythological founders, became Quirinus when he became a god; today was his festival. Now why it was the last possible day for Fornicalia we don’t know, but, according to Ovid, the people who ended up roasting their grain today didn’t know what ward they lived in, or maybe they just forgot to do it on the proper day.
Learn too why this day is called the Feast of Fools.
The reason for it is trivial but fitting.
The earth of old was farmed by ignorant men:
Fierce wars weakened their powerful bodies . . .
And round the Forum hang many tablets,
On which every ward displays its particular sign.
Foolish people don’t know which is their ward,
So they hold the feast on the last possible day.
Warlike, yes; but also weak, ignorant, and sometimes foolish – just like us all.