Temple of Saturn in Rome. Click for attribution and to enlarge
Saturnalian Days in Nero’s Time
Rome, 62 AD, December. Emperor Nero is ruling. The philosopher Seneca is writing a letter (num 18) to his friend Lucilius:
December est mensis
(It is the month of December)
cum maxime civitas sudat.
(when the city is in great sweat and hectic.)
Ius luxuriae publice datum est;
(The right to looseness has been officially given;)
ingenti apparatu sonant omnia […]
(everything resounds with mightily preparations […])
The festival most loved by the peoples of the empire, the Saturnalia, has officially started. Excitement is growing everywhere.
The philosopher calmly sitting in his elegant tablinum is reflecting on what he and his friend should do, whether participate or not in the joy of the banquets.
Si te hic haberetur,
(If I had you here with me)
libenter tecum conferrem […]
(I should be glad to consult you […])
utrum nihil ex cotidiana consuetudine movendum,
(whether nothing in our daily routine should be changed,)
an, ne dissidere videremur cum publicis moribus,
(or, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public,)
et hilarius cenandum et exuendam togam
(in merrier fashion should we also dine and doff the toga)
What Is the Ritual like?
The official sacrifice held in the temple of Saturn at the Forum has probably ended. It is about to be followed by a banquet in that same place where participants will shout the auspicious salute: Io Saturnalia! (which reminds of our New Year toasts) and where things will soon turn into a heated, unruly feast.
Have a (faint?) idea of the ceremony in a ritual text written by a neo-pagan reconstructionist, Apollonius Sophistes.
Apollonius’ aim is that of performing the ceremony in real life.
Mario: “Performing it today? Are these people nuts??”
Extropian: “Possibly, but trying to re-establish forms of paganism with bits of historical accuracy is far more intriguing than any Wiccan mish-mash. Not my cup of tea in any case.”
Detail from ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ by the Victorian Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836-1912). Click to zoom in and enter Tadema’s vision of Roman Antiquity
Banquets in Homes with Gifts
Euphoria is pervading the city. Banquets in private houses will be unruly too, as it happens every year. These private feasts need a last-minute touch to the elaborate dishes, cookies, gifts, arranging of candles (cerei) symbolising the rebirth of the sun, little puppets of paste (sigillaria), music & dance preparations there including a choice of poetic (and often scurrilous) songs.
Little texts, like our gift-tags, accompany the presents. The poet Martial who wrote a few of them in his Epigrams throws light on what is about to be exchanged:
“Writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, money-boxes, 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.” (list compiled by Wikipedia).
Slaves’ Licence, Dresses & Wishes
Slaves will be allowed (almost) any kind of licence. A Lord of Misrule impersonating jolly Saturn will be chosen in homes by lot and will direct the fun.
By the way, isn’t jolly Saturn a bit like Santa?
[The Lord of Misrule is a common figure in Medieval Britain with a similar role, and so is le Pape des Fous or des Sots in Medieval France]
The American historian Gordon J. Laing observes:
In ancient Rome slaves were “permitted to treat their masters as if they were their social equals. Frequently indeed masters and slaves changed places and the latter were waited on by the former […] A ‘king’ was chosen by lot, who would bid one of his ‘subjects’ dance, another sing, another carry a flute-girl on his back and so forth. In this play-king the Romans ridiculed royalty.”
The Assyrian Lucian of Samosata writes in his Saturnalia (a 2nd cent. AD satirical dialogue between Kronos-Saturn and his priest:)
“During my week [Kronos is speaking] the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside […] this festive season, when ’tis lawful to be drunken, and slaves have licence to revile their lords.”
As in our New Year’s eve it’s time to make wishes for the year to come. Kronos asks his priest about his:
Kronus: “Make up your own mind what to pray for […] Then, I will do my best not to disappoint you.”
Priest: “No originality about it; the usual thing, please: wealth, plenty of gold, landed proprietorship, a train of slaves, gay soft raiment, silver, ivory, in fact everything that is worth anything. Best of Cronuses, give me some of these!”
Sansculottes, icon figure of the French revolution, wearing the liberty berets typical of ex slaves and worn during the Saturnalia to stress social equality
How will people be dressed? In a way to stress social equality.
Seneca mentioned the doffing off of the solemn toga. People in banquets will wear the synthesis, a simple dinner dress, and the pileus, the conical cap of the freedmen, a felt close-fitting beret similar to the phrygian cap which not for nothing will in later ages be adopted as a freedom icon during the French revolution (le bonnet rouge: see image above) and in the Americas.
[Further information on Saturnalia at Lacus Curtius’; in a sparkling article by Mary Beard; and in Wikipedia’s Saturnalia entry]
Mixed Feelings of the Intellectuals
In front of all this frenzy the stoic Seneca is inclined to choose a middle between extremes (and he incidentally mentions the caps too):
Si te bene novi,
(If I know you well,)
nec per omnia nos similes esse pilleatae turbae voluisses
(you would have wished that we should be neither like the liberty-capped throng in all ways,)
nec per omnia dissimiles;
(not in all ways dissimilar;)
licet enim sine luxuria agere festum diem
(one may in fact enjoy holiday without excess.)
It is understandable. The man in the street will generally behave differently from the intellectuals, often (but not always) annoyed and a little blasé about all the fuss.
During the December revels occurring at his mansion “the younger Pliny– writes Mary Beard – loftily takes himself off to the attic to get on with his work (he doesn’t want to put a dampener on the slaves’ fun – but, more to the point, he doesn’t want to be disturbed by their rowdiness.)”
Catullus at Lesbia’s by Laurence Alma Tadema (1836-1912). Click to enlarge
The poet Catullus loves Saturnalia instead (“the best of days”) and so does the poet Statius who at the end of the first century AD will exclaim:
“For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue”
And in fact Saturnalia and some of its spirit will somewhat survive as we have seen and will perhaps later further see.
See part 1 on Saturnalia:
Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)