Saturnalia – A Roman Celebration

Welcome to Rome Across Europe! Who’s ready for a party?

The ancient world was filled with lots of celebrations that millions of people participated in. Lots of the traditions from these festivities have been carried on, at least in part, to the present.

Today we start the festival and celebrate Saturnalia!Solstice-SaturnaliaCeleb

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn. Originally it was held on 17 December of the Julian Calendar, but the party later expanded with festivities through to 23 December.

The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Forum Romanum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms.Forum.Romanum

Gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days”.

In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labor in a state of innocence.

The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age, not all of them desirable. The Greek equivalent was the Kronia.

Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, Saturnalia as a whole is not described from beginning to end in any single ancient source. Modern understanding of the festival is pieced together from several accounts dealing with various aspects.

The Saturnalia was the dramatic setting of the multivolume work of that name by Macrobius, a Latin writer from late antiquity who is the major source for information about the holiday. In one of the interpretations in Macrobius’s work, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth.

The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Imperium Rōmānum at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus (Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun) on 25 December.sol invictus

The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs have influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year.

The statue of Saturn at his main temple normally had its feet bound in wool, which was removed for the holiday as an act of liberation. The official rituals were carried out according to “Greek rite” (ritus graecus).

The sacrifice was officiated by a priest with an uncovered head. In Roman rite, priests sacrificed capite velato, with head covered by a special fold of the toga.

This procedure is usually explained by Saturn’s assimilation with his Greek counterpart Cronus, since the Romans often adopted and reinterpreted Greek myths, iconography, and even religious practices, for their own deities. The uncovering of the priest’s head, however, was a Saturnalian reversal, the opposite of what was normal.

Following the sacrifice the Roman Senate arranged a lectisternium, a ritual of Greek origin that typically involved placing a deity’s image on a sumptuous couch. It was to be like Saturn was present and actively participating in the festivities, with a public banquet to follow (convivium publicum).

The day was supposed to be a holiday from all forms of work. Schools were closed, and exercise regimens were suspended. Courts were not in session, so no justice was administered, and no declaration of war could be made.

After the public rituals, observances continued in domus. On December 18 and 19, which were also holidays from public business, families conducted domestic rituals. They bathed early, and those with means sacrificed a suckling pig, a traditional offering to an earth deity.

Saturnalia is the best-known of several festivals in the Greco-Roman world characterized by role reversals and behavioral license. Slaves were treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters.

Ancient sources differ on the circumstances: some suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food. The practice may have varied over time, and in any case slaves would still have prepared the meal.

Saturnalian license also permitted slaves to enjoy a pretense of disrespect for their masters, and exempted them from punishment. It was a time for free speech. The Augustan poet Horace calls it “December Liberty”.

In a pair of satirae set during the Saturnalia, Horace has a slave offer sharp criticism to his master. But everyone knew that the leveling of the social hierarchy was temporary and had limits. No social norms were ultimately threatened, because the holiday would end.en-las-saturnales

The toga, the characteristic garment of the male Roman citizen, was set aside in favor of the Greek synthesis, colorful “dinner clothes” otherwise considered in poor taste for daytime wear. Romans of citizen status normally went about bare-headed, but for the Saturnalia donned the pileus, the conical felt cap that was the usual mark of a freedman. Slaves, who ordinarily were not entitled to wear the pileus, wore it as well, so that everyone was capped without distinction.

The participation of freeborn Roman women is implied by sources that name gifts for women, but their presence at banquets may have depended on the custom of their time. From the late Republic onward, women mingled socially with men more freely than they had in earlier times. Female entertainers were certainly present at some otherwise all-male gatherings.

Role-playing was implicit in the Saturnalia’s status reversals, and there are hints of mask-wearing or “guising“. No theatrical events are mentioned in connection with the festivities though.

The phrase io Saturnalia was the characteristic shout or salutation of the festival, originally commencing after the public banquet on the single day of 17 December. The interjection io, pronounced yō, was a strongly emotive ritual exclamation or invocation. It was used for instance in announcing triumphus or celebrating Bacchus, but also to punctuate a joke.

Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at least frowned upon, were permitted for all, even slaves. Coins and nuts were the stakes.Saturnalian dice and mask

On the Calendar of Philocalus, the Saturnalia is represented by a man wearing a fur-trimmed coat next to a table with dice, and a caption reading “Now you have license, slave, to game with your master.” Rampant overeating and drunkenness became the rule, and a sober person the exception.

Seneca looked forward to the holiday, if somewhat tentatively, in a letter to a friend:

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.

Some Romans found it all a bit much. Pliny describes a secluded suite of rooms in his villa Laurentum, which he used as a retreat “especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the license of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don’t hamper the games of my people and they don’t hinder my work or studies.”

The 19 December was a day of gift-giving. Because gifts of value would mark social status contrary to the spirit of the season, these were often the pottery or wax figurines called Sigillaria made specially for the day, candles, or gag gifts.sigillaria

The Emperor Augustus was particularly fond of gag gifts. Children received toys as gifts.

In his many poems about the Saturnalia, Martial names both expensive and quite cheap gifts, including writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, 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.

Gifts might be as costly as a slave or exotic animal, but Martial suggests that token gifts of low intrinsic value inversely measure the high quality of a friendship.

Patroni or Bosses might pass along a gratuity (sigillaricium) to their poorer clients or dependents to help them buy gifts. Some Emperors were noted for their devoted observance of the Sigillaria.

In a practice that might be compared to modern greeting cards, verses sometimes accompanied the gifts. Martial has a collection of poems written as if to be attached to gifts. Catullus received a book of bad poems by “the worst poet of all time” as a joke from a friend.

Gift-giving was not confined to the day of the Sigillaria. In some households, guests and family members received gifts after the feast in which slaves had shared.

As an observance of state religion, Saturnalia was supposed to have been held ante diem xvi Kalendas Ianuarias, 16 days before the Kalends of January, on the oldest Roman religious calendar, which the Romans believed to have been established by the legendary founder Romulus and his successor Numa Pompilius.

When Julius Caesar had the calendar reformed because it had fallen out of synchronization with the solar year, 2 days were added to the month, and Saturnalia fell on 17 December. It was felt, however, that the original day had thus been moved by 2 days, and so Saturnalia was celebrated under Augustus as a 3-day official holiday encompassing both dates.

By the late Res Publica Romana, the private festivities of Saturnalia had expanded to 7 days, but during the Imperial period contracted variously to 3 to 5 days. Caligula extended official observances to 5 days.

December 17 was the opening day of the astrological sign Capricorn, the house of Saturn, the planet named for the god. Its proximity to the winter solstice (December 21-December 23 on the Julian calendar) was endowed with various meanings by both ancient and modern scholars. For instance, the widespread use of wax candles may refer to “the returning power of the sun’s light after the solstice”.Lucius_Appuleius_Saturninus

Saturnalia underwent a major reform in 217 BC, after the Battle of Lake Trasimene, when the Romans suffered one of their most crushing defeats by Carthage during the Second Punic War. Until that time, they had celebrated the holiday according to Roman custom (Mos Maiorum).

It was after a consultation of the Sibylline books that they adopted “Greek rite”, introducing sacrifices carried out in the Greek manner, the public banquet, and the continual shouts of io Saturnalia that became characteristic of the celebration. Cato the Elder remembered a time before the so-called “Greek” elements had been added to the Roman Saturnalia.

It was not unusual for the Romans to offer cult (cultus) to the deities of other nations in the hope of redirecting their favor, and the Second Punic War in particular created pressures on Roman society that led to a number of religious innovations and reforms.

It has been argued that the introduction of new rites at this time was in part an effort to appease Ba’al Hammon, the Carthaginian god who was regarded as the counterpart of the Roman Saturn and Greek Cronus. The table service that masters offered their slaves thus would have extended to Carthaginian or African war captives.

Imperial sources refer to a Saturnalicius princeps who ruled as master of ceremonies for the proceedings. He was appointed by lot, and has been compared to the medieval Lord of Misrule at the Feast of Fools.King of Saturnalia

His capricious commands, such as “Sing naked” or “Throw him into cold water” had to be obeyed by the other guests at the convivium. The Lord of Misrule created and (mis)ruled a chaotic and absurd world. The future Emperor Nero is recorded as playing the role in his youth.

Since this figure does not appear in accounts from the Republican period, the princepes of the Saturnalia may have developed as a satiric response to the new era of rule by a Princeps, the title assumed by the original Emperor Augustus to avoid the hated connotations of the word rex (king).

Art and literature under Augustus celebrated his reign as a new Golden Age, but the Saturnalia makes a mockery of a world in which law is determined by one man and the traditional social and political networks are reduced to the power of the emperor over his subjects. In a poem about a lavish Saturnalia under Domitian, Statius makes it clear that the Emperor, like Jupiter, still reigns during the temporary return of Saturn.

The Saturnalia reflects the contradictory nature of the deity Saturn himself: “there are joyful and utopian aspects of careless well-being side by side with disquieting elements of threat and danger”.Escultura_Saturnalia_de_Ernesto_Biondi

The Romans regarded Saturn as the original and autochthonous ruler of the Capitolium, and the foremost King of Latium or even the whole of Italy. At the same time, there was a tradition that Saturn had been an immigrant deity, received by Janus after he was usurped by his son Jupiter and expelled from Greece.

Roman mythology of the Golden Age of Saturn’s reign differed from the Greek tradition. He arrived in Italy “dethroned and fugitive”, but brought agriculture and civilization and became a king.

As the Augustan poet Virgil described it,

“he gathered together the unruly race” of fauns and nymphs “scattered over mountain heights, and gave them laws…Under his reign were the golden ages men tell of: in such perfect peace he ruled the nations.”saturnalia1

Unlike several Roman religious festivals which were particular to cult sites in the city, the prolonged seasonal celebration of Saturnalia at home could be held anywhere in the Empire. Saturnalia continued as a secular celebration long after it was removed from the official calendar.

Saturnalia has left its traces and found its parallels in great numbers of medieval and modern customs, occurring about the time of the winter solstice, even Christmas.

We hope you enjoyed today’s celebration and look forward to having you back soon. Happy Holidays and till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Miller, John F. Roman Festivals. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dolansky, Fanny. Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Macrobius. Saturnalia.

Chance, Jane. Medieval Mythography: From Roman North Africa to the School of Chartres, A.D. 433–1177. University Press of Florida, 1994.

Versnel. Saturnus and the Saturnalia.

Helgeland. Christians and the Roman Army.

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