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Io Saturnalia, Amici: Happy Saturnalia, Friends!

Ancient World

Io Saturnalia, Amici: Happy Saturnalia, Friends!

Etruscan dancers from the tomb of the Triclinium in the Necropolis of Monterozzi, c. 470 BCE


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB

“During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

—Lucian of Samosata, Saturnalia

Whenever we think about celebrations that take place in December, Christmas and New Year’s Eve immediately come to mind. Few people know that the Romans also had a festival at this same time of year: Saturnalia. The festival in honor of the god Saturn lasted for a week (December 17-23) and was very popular among Romans of every social extraction. Schools were closed, courts were not in session, and no declaration of war could be made. Here is some of what took place during this holiday which Catullus called “the best of days”.

1. Banquets: Feasts Worthy of a Roman

Saturnalia was a religious festival, so it would start with sacrifices and offerings for the gods. However, when the sacrifice was over, a public banquet was held in which even slaves were allowed to take part. In these banquets a huge variety of food would be displayed to the guests and, according to Seneca’s description of a Roman banquet, some would bring a feather for a bizarre purpose; when they were done eating, they would stick the feather down their throats in order to vomit so they could keep on eating.

2. Role Reversals: Slaves Become Masters!

Another interesting occurrence during Saturnalia was that slaves would take the place of their masters. This “Saturnalian license” also allowed them to disrespect their masters without the threat of punishment. The Augustan poet Horace calls it “December liberty” in two of his satires. Unfortunately for the slaves, these role reversals were temporary and life returned to normal as soon as the festival was over.

Most scholars believe that this role-reversing tradition was copied from an ancient Greek festival known as Kronia, a feast celebrated to honor Kronos, the counterpart of the Roman god Saturn. It is worth mentioning that the Persians also had a similar role-reversing holiday known as Sacaea.

3. Giving Gifts: A Tradition from Ancient Rome

On December 19, the Romans would exchange gifts. In ancient Rome (and today!) gifts of value marked social status. They were often pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made especially for the day, or even gag gifts. According to Suetonius in his work About the Life of the Twelve Caesars, the emperor Augustus was very fond of the latter. Catullus once received a gift like this from his friend and contemporary Calvus who gave him a book containing very bad poetry. He would later write a poem about this.

We hope that you have enjoyed this write-up on the Roman late-December celebration. In addition to Saturnalia, the Romans had many other festivals which we will talk about a few months from now. For it is our belief that the more we learn about the traditions of the fathers of Western Civilization, the more we learn about the origins of our own traditions.

Io Saturnalia, amici!


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Latin, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, and German and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. He has also worked as a tutor and teacher in a number of languages. Mr. Gurgel has been instrumental in expanding the Carmenta Online Latin School’s presence in a variety of social media.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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