Today is the 15th February, and on that day in ancient Rome the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated, in honour of Lupercus, the god of fertility. The festival began with the sacrifice of sheep and goats, and the hides of these animals would then be shredded into strips or thongs. The young lads of Rome would then run round the city whipping the citizens with these bloody thongs. It was believed that a lash from a thong would prevent sterility in women, so young women actively sought out a thwacking.
It was at the festival of Lupercalia in 44BC that Julius Caesar was warned by a soothsayer to ‘Beware the Ides of March’, to use Shakespeare’s words. Mark Anthony, the then Consul of the Roman Republic, was said to have gone running round the city with the whipping lads on that day. In Act 1 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, whose action takes place at this festival, Caesar makes reference to the whipping and the fertility significance when he tells Mark Anthony:
Forget not in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calphurnia, for our elders say
The barren, touchèd in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.