Saturnalia

Saturnalia

[sat-er-ney-lee-uh, -neyl-yuh]
Saturnalia: see Saturn, in Roman religion.
Saturnalia is the feast with which the Romans commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, which was on 17 December. Over the years, it expanded to a whole week, to 23 December.

Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was marked by tomfoolery and reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places.

Origins

The Saturnalia was a large and important public festival in Rome. The Saturnalia was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day, but it was so popular that soon it lasted a week, despite Augustus' efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula's, to five. It involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves; however, although it was officially condoned only during this period, one should not assume that it was rare or much remarked upon during the rest of the year. It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e. colorful, informal "dinner clothes"; and the pileus (freedman's hat) was worn by everyone. Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with (a pretense of) disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet: before, with, or served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial; the banquet, for example, would often be prepared by the slaves, and they would prepare their masters' dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries; it reversed the social order without subverting it.

The customary greeting for the occasion is a "io, Saturnalia!" — io (pronounced "yo") being a Latin interjection related to "ho" (as in "Ho, praise to Saturn").

Saturnalia in Literature

Seneca the Younger wrote about Rome during Saturnalia around AD 50 (Sen. epist. 18,1-2):

It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business....Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.

Horace in his Satire II.7 (published circa 30 BC) uses a setting of the Saturnalia for a frank exchange between a slave and his master in which the slave criticizes his master for being himself enslaved to his passions. Martial Epigrams Book 14 (circa AD 84 or 85) is a series of poems each based on likely saturnalia gifts, some expensive, some very cheap. For example: writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets. Pliny in Epistles 2.17.24 (early second century AD) describes a secluded suite of rooms in his Laurentine villa which he uses as a retreat:

...especially during the saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the licence of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don't hamper the games of my people and they don't hinder my work/studies.

Macrobius in Saturnalia I.24.23-23 wrote:

Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table.

The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as the best of days (Cat. 14.15). It was a time of celebration, visits to friends, and gift-giving, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria).

Saturnalia's relation to Christmas

There is a theory that Christians in the fourth century assigned December 25 (the Winter Solstice on the Julian calendar) as Christ's birthday (and thus Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday. This theory is much disputed, as the dates of Saturnalia are not coincident with Christmas. A more refined argument is that Christmas was set on the feast of Sol Invictus, which was on December 25, and which had supplanted Saturnalia. However, with many of the traditions of Saturnalia incorporated into Sol Invictus, it is possible that some of those traditions were also carried forward as a part of the Christian holiday.

Bibliography

Excluding the section on Christmas, a good deal of this article was taken from a March 2005 handout and lecture from the course "Roman Leisure" by Professor Woolf of the University of St Andrews. Sources:

  • Balsdon, "Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome" p 124-5.
  • Beard, M. North, J. and Price, S. "Religions of Rome. Vol II A Source Book, numbers 5.3 and 7.3.
  • Dupont 1992 p 205-7. And the Oxford Classical Dictionary sv. Saturnalia.

Notes

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