St. Patrick’s Day, Liberalia & the Toga Virilis

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17 March has been a good excuse for a drink since Ancient Roman times. The Liberalia was a feast that celebrated the maturation of young boys to manhood.

For the Liberalia ceremony, Roman boys (around age 14), discarded the toga praetexta, which was decorated with a broad purple border. The boys donned the clothing of adulthood, the pure white toga virilis, or ‘man’s gown.’ The garment identified him as a Roman citizen and an eligible voter.

In the novel, Rufius throws a party for Aeson’s ‘Toga Virilis’ (coming of age). And Rufius reflects on his own ‘Toga Virilis’ – how he never really upgraded to the adult toga of a magistrate or senator, never qualified to wear an adult toga with wide purple boarders that singled out a man of his class, as his sexuality had excluded him from taking up public office. As a cinaedus he was an ‘eternal boy’.

The celebration on 17 March was meant to honor Liber Pater, an ancient god of fertility and wine (like Bacchus, the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysus). Rufius approved of the wine-glugging!

Ovid mentions the feast in his almanac entry for the festival. This ancient rustic ceremony included a procession in which the devotees carried a large phallus through the countryside to bring the blessing of fertility to the land and the people. At the end of the procession, a virtuous and respected matron placed a wreath upon the phallus.

While Liberalia is a relatively unknown event in modern times, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity for modern Westerners to celebrate the Patron Saint of Ireland. It is possible that the reason these festivals share the same date is an example of the Roman Catholic Church choosing an existing pagan festival for a Christian one. There is no academic research I’m aware of to support this claim, but it is certainly a pattern.

Both St. Patrick’s Day and the Liberalia share the ritual of praising Bacchus by having a jolly good drink. Having Paddy blood flowing through my veins, I’ll raise my glass to both, by Bacchus!

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