It is the most wonderful time of the year. Snow on the ground (just), food in the fridge and hot spiced wine to drink. It must be – Saturnalia! This Roman festival was celebrated in the depths of winter, in honour of the pagan god Saturn. Although the celebration altered in length throughout the years, at its height it lasted six days (traditionally between the 17 and 23 December), and during this time all work and schooling stopped – even executions were cancelled. It is believed to have originated as a farmers’ festival, intended to mark the end of the ploughing season. Saturn himself was a mysterious, agricultural figure; the remains of his temple can still be found in the Forum of Rome, which would once have housed a large cult statue of the god, purportedly filled with olive-oil. So, just how was Saturn’s festival, described by the poet Catullus as “the best of times”, celebrated?
Much like modern seasonal festivities, a key aspect of the Saturnalia was food and drink. Feasts were routinely held for family and friends in the privacy of the home, but from 217BCE onwards, there were also public Saturnalia banquets. Here, one could expect a wealth of lavish dishes, including a roast-pig and stuffed sausages – pigs were traditionally sacrificed to Saturn, and so were particularly popular during this festival – as well as sweet, honeyed desserts, or seasonal fruit. Drink would also have been plentiful; the Romans drank their wine watered down, and during this chilly time of year the water mixed into their cups would have been warm, heated in small boilers called authepsae. During these feasts, fine clothes were worn and freeborn men exchanged their traditional toga, emblematic of Roman civic life, for a brightly coloured dinner-suit: the synthesis.
Gift-giving was another important tradition. These gifts could range from modest items such as wax fruit, tablets, or candles, to more expensive presents, including rare animals to be kept as pets. It was also customary to exchange small wax or terracotta figures fashioned by manufacturers known as the sigillarii, and, because of this, the last days of the Saturnalia were known as ‘Sigillaria’. Although there is, typically, scant mention of women and children in the written sources, Fanny Dolansky argues that gifts referenced by the poet Martial, including hairpins, wigs, breast-bands and sunshades, as well as ‘kids’’ sweets and a baby’s rattle, suggest their presence at the feast. The festival can be seen, therefore, as a family affair.
However, Saturnalia was also a time of subversion when the well-established social order was turned on its head. Usually prohibited, gambling, drinking, singing, and dancing filled the streets and everywhere would be heard the festive greeting: Io Saturnalia! For these few raucous days, there was a reversal of roles within households. Slaves were temporarily relieved of their duties and given the freedom to speak freely, even to rebuke their masters, as depicted in the poet Horace’s Satires 2.7. Customs varied, but it was common for slaves to be waited on by their masters or to dine alongside them. Dice would be thrown in order to choose the ‘King of the Saturnalia’, a kind of ‘Lord of Misrule’, whose every command was to be obeyed; their orders were often intended to humiliate and could include singing to drunken crowds, or even stripping naked and dancing before fellow revellers. As is so often the case, not everybody was up for the party; Pliny the Younger remarked that he was grateful for his sitting-room, closed off from the rest of the house, because this meant that when the Saturnalia celebrations became too noisy and chaotic, they did not interrupt his studies.
There was method in the mid-winter madness though. Using the theories of sociologist Claude Grignon, Dolansky argues that the Saturnalia should be understood as a “carnival ritual”, which, through “symbolic compensation and inversion”, allows “the ordinary order of things to be accepted anew and to resume”. As a slave society, Rome relied entirely on enforced human labour to function. Maintaining this involved the continuous reaffirmation of a strict hierarchy and festivals such as the Saturnalia were designed to address and defuse tensions that might arise throughout the year as a consequence. Although some slaves might have enjoyed the holiday due to the opportunity to eat well and speak their minds, it is important to point out that many, including the former-slave and Stoic, Epictetus, were more cynical about the extent of the ‘privileges’ bestowed upon them.
Understandably, some have seen similarities between the celebrations of Saturnalia and Christmas today. For a time, the two festivals existed alongside one another, until the eventual triumph of Christianity over a dwindling pagan religion. Even so, from the decorating of houses with winter greenery to the lighting of candles to eating and drinking together, and the giving and receiving of gifts, many of the traditions we carry out over the winter holidays would have been very familiar to a Roman household. Io Saturnalia!
Written by Hazel Atkinson
Horace and Gowers, Emily. Satires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Dolansky, Fanny, “Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic Life.” In A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, edited by Beryl Rawson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2011.
Salusbury, Matt. “Did the Romans Invent Christmas?” 2009. Accessed: 3 December 2020. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/did-romans-invent-christmas
History, “Saturnalia.” 2017. Accessed: 3 December 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/saturnalia#:~:text=Before%20the%20end%20of%20the,of%20us%20know%20them%20today.