Acca Larentia: Goddess of Fertility Celebrated on Larentalia

Acca Larentia (or Larentia), a mythical woman who occurs in the stories of early Roman history. Macrobius (Macr. 1.10), together with Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. 35; Romul. 5) relates the following tradition about her:

In the reign of Ancus Martius [the fourth King of Rome] a servant (aedituus) of the temple of Hercules, during days of celebration, invited the demigod Hercules to a game of dice, promising that if he [the servant] should lose the game, he would treat the demigod with a repast [a rich feast] and a beautiful woman.

When the demigod had conquered the servant, the servant brought him Acca Laurentia, then the most beautiful and most notorious woman, together with a well stored table in the temple. After spending the night with Acca Larentia, Hercules advised her to try to gain the affection of the first wealthy man she should meet.

She succeeded in making Carutius, an Etruscan, (or Tarrutius in other versions), love and marry her. After his death she inherited his large property, which, when she herself died, she left to the Roman people. Ancus, in gratitude for this, allowed her to be buried in the Velabrum, and instituted an annual festival, the Larentalia, at which sacrifices were offered to the Lares [Ancient Roman guardian deities]. (Comp. Varr. Ling. Lat. v. p. 85, ed. Bip.)

Some legends say Acca Larentia provided for the citizens of Rome by giving her foster son, Romulus, enough wealth to make the city prosper. Others say that she created an endowment for the people, who celebrated her generosity every December 23 in the Larentalia. Acca Larentia’s position as the city’s ancestral mother is further suggested by the similarity of her name to that of the Lares (see Lara). (Balsdon; Beard 1989; Edlund 1987; Krapp
1942; Staples; Warmington)

According to others (Macer, apud Macrob. l.c.; Ov. Fast. 3.55, &c.; Plin. Nat. 18.2), Acca Laurentia was the wife of the shepherd Faustulus and the nurse of Romulus and Remus after they had been taken from the she-wolf who protected them in their infancy. Plutarch indeed states, that this Laurentia was altogether a different being from the one occurring in the reign of Ancus; but other writers, such as Macer, claim their stories talk of the same person. (Comp. Gel. 6.7.)

According to Massurius Sabinus in Gellius (l.c.) she was the mother of twelve sons, and when one of them died, Romulus entered into his place, and adopted in conjunction with the remaining eleven brothers, the name of fratres arvales. (Comp. Plin. l.c.)

According to other accounts again she was not the wife of Faustulus, but a prostitute who shepherds call a “lupa” (or “wolf” in Roman slang). Upon her death, she left all the property she gained in that way to the Roman people. (Valer. Ant. apud Gell. l.c.; Livy, 1.4.)

Whatever may be thought of the contradictory statements respecting Acca Laurentia, thus much seems clear: that she was of Etruscan origin, and connected with the worship of the Lares, from which her name Larentia itself seems to be derived. This appears further from the number of her sons, which answers to that of the twelve country Lares, and from the circumstance that the day sacred to her was followed by one sacred to the Lares. (Macrob. Sat. l.c.; compare Müller, Etrusker, ii. p. 103, &c.; Hartung, Die Religion der Römer, ii. p. 144, &c.).

Source stories of Acca Larentia

Taken from Livy, Book I and II, 1.4

4. But the Fates were resolved, as I suppose, upon the founding of this great City, and the beginning of the mightiest of empires, next after that of Heaven. The Vestal Virgin [Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus] was ravished, and having given birth to twin sons, named Mars [Roman god of war] as the father of her doubtful offspring, whether actually so believing, or because it seemed less wrong if a god were the author of her fault [Vestal Virgins were priestesses forbidden to engage in physical intimacy].

But neither gods nor men protected the mother herself or her babes from the king’s [Amulius, king of Alba Longa] cruelty; the priestess he ordered to be manacled and cast into prison, the children to be committed to the river. It happened by singular good fortune that the Tiber having spread beyond its banks into stagnant pools afforded nowhere any access to the regular channel of the river, and the men who brought the twins were led to hope that being infants they might be drowned, no matter how sluggish the stream. So they made shift to discharge the king’s command, by exposing the babes at the nearest point of the overflow, where the fig-tree Ruminalis —formerly, they say, called Romularis —now stands.

In those days this was a wild and uninhabited region. The story persists that when the floating basket in which the children had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down out of the surrounding hills to slake her thirst, turned her steps towards the cry of the infants, and with her teats gave them suck so gently, that the keeper of the royal flock found her licking them with her tongue. Tradition assigns to this man the name of Faustulus, and adds that he carried the twins to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to rear.

Some think that Larentia, having been free with her favours [promiscuous], had got the name of “she-wolf” [“lupa”1 in Roman slang, meaning prostitute] among the shepherds, and that this gave rise to this marvellous story.  The boys, thus born and reared, had no sooner attained to youth than they began —yet without neglecting the farmstead or the flocks —to range the glades of the mountains for game. Having in this way gained both strength and resolution, they would now not only face wild beasts, but would attack robbers laden with their spoils, and divide up what they took from them among the shepherds, with whom they shared their toils and pranks, while their band of young men grew larger every day.

1 The word lupa was sometimes used in the sense of “courtesan.”

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