The Festival of Vulcan

Gregory DiPippo

On the ancient Roman calendar of religious festivals, August 23rd was the day of the Vulcanalia, a sacrifice offered to the god Vulcan at his principal shrine in the Forum. The location of this shrine is not precisely known, but it was certainly at the foot of the Capitoline, close to the later constructions of the rostrum, the Curia Julia, the temple of Concordia, and the arch of Septimius Severus. (This was one of the first parts of the Forum to be built up, and also where one of the oldest known Latin inscriptions, the Lapis Niger, was discovered.) Its founding is attributed to the Sabine king Titus Tatius, who was contemporary to Romulus; a second temple to the god in the Campus Martius is attested in the 3rd century BC. After the great fire of 64 AD, from which Rome took many years to fully recover, another major altar to him was erected by Domitian on the Quirinal Hill, close to where the fire had started.

(Part of a map of the Roman Forum from the 1926 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, with the presumed location of the Volcanal. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Early on in Rome’s history, he was identified with the Greek Hephaestus as the god of all things having to do with the constructive use of fire, where in his original Latin guise and name, he appears to have been treated rather as the god to invoke against its destructive power. This became more of a concern as the city became more and more built up, largely with wooden buildings, over the passage of the centuries. It is therefore likely not a coincidence that the festival occurs in high summer, when the risk of fire was highest, and likewise, the risk that the wooden barns which stored the all-important summer crops, newly harvested and gathered, might be destroyed.

The Vulcanalia is for this reason connected to several other feasts concerned with agriculture and fire that occur in August from the Ides forward.

– On the 13th, the Nemoralia, in honor of Diana “of the woods” (< nemus, a grove), in which a procession by torch and candlelight was held in her shrine at the Lake of Nemi.

– On the 17th, the Portunalia, in honor of Portunus, the god of ports and livestock, whose temple was close to the main cattle market.

– On the 19th, the Vinalia Rustica, a festival of the grape harvest, dedicated to Venus, with sacrifices offered at her various temples.

– On the 21st, the Consualia, in honor of Consus, a god of harvests and stored grain. His shrine was actually buried underground, and uncovered only for this day and a second festival on December 15th.

– On the 25th, the Opiconsivia, in honor of the goddess Ops (plenty, abundance), whose name is the first element of its title, and who also had a second feast in December, on the 19th.

Vulcan was also the principal god of the port city of Ostia, where his priest was the most important magistrate, equivalent to the Roman pontifex maximus, with jurisdiction over all sacred buildings. His connection with the port, and the proximity of his feast to that of Portunus, may also refer to the preservation from fire of food imported from other parts of the empire. After the destruction wrought by the Carthaginian invasion in the 3rd B.C., and the civil wars of the later 2nd and most of the 1st cent., Rome and Italy became ever less productive, and ever more dependent on foreign agriculture, the products of which would also have to be stored long-term in warehouses.

(A bronze statue of Vulcan from the 1st half of the 2nd century AD, found at Sens in France. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Maria-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5)

The Romans also identified Mt Etna on Sicily, and one or more of the Aeolian islands off the great island’s north coast, as the chimneys of Vulcan’s forge. The closest of these to Sicily is now called “Vulcano”, a name which gave rise, through Spanish, to the English word “volcano.” They did not, however, use the name of the god or any of its derivative forms to describe the phenomenon per se of lava-spewing mountains. Coincidentally, August 24th, the day after the Vulcanalia, is when the famous eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD began, which we will discuss more tomorrow. Suffice it for today to say that there is no mention of the name Vulcanus or any of its derivatives in the eyewitness accounts given by Pliny the Younger in two letters to his friend, the historian Tacitus.

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