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Saturnalia: the History and Traditions of the Winter Festival - by Mansi Dhokia

This article is running in parallel with the Academus Saturnalia Fundraiser; the quiz will be taking place on the 1st December, 7:30pm. Tickets cost £3 and can be purchased here.

Saturnalia was a religious festival for the Romans held in mid-winter with a long, rich history and some interesting customs. The festival itself derived from older farming traditions and the winter solstice and it was dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. Whilst it was originally a one-day festival, by the time of the late Roman Republic it had expanded into a week of festivities starting on December 17th.

Saturn was a fairly mysterious figure in Roman theology: he is often depicted with agricultural tools, emphasising his relationship to farming and possibly providing an explanation for why this originally agricultural festival is dedicated to him. He is regarded as a primordial deity who taught humanity about agriculture leading to an age of prosperity for humanity, hence why the celebrations are so festive and full of fun. Livy claimed that the festival began in the 5th century CE, but there is evidence of the Saturnalia being even older and predating Rome. There is a tradition that the god Janus introduced the festival to thank Saturn for the introduction of agriculture to Italy, and the festival corresponds with the gathering of the final harvest in the harvest season.

During the weeklong festivities, Roman norms were suspended in favour of eating, drinking, gift-giving and partying. All social norms are inverted: there was no business, drunkenness and gambling were encouraged, slaves were allowed to eat and drink with their masters. Pleasure was the primary purpose of the festival, which seems to have been enjoyed by all the citizens of Rome. On December 17th, there was a public banquet for Saturn that marked the beginning of the festival. The statue of Saturn was released from his temple to show that during this period, Saturn was the King in Rome. The woollen bonds were released from the feet of the statue of Saturn in his temple, symbolising his freedom and the freedom of the Romans during the festival.

The Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum
The Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum

A mock king (Saturnalicus Princeps or ‘leader of the Saturnalia’) was chosen to preside over the festival, which would have been particularly subversive in the Roman Republic as the concept of a singular leader was something pejorative. As well as this, each household elected their own king of the festival to lead the fun and games on a smaller scale, and the household Saturnalicus Princeps was typically someone lower in the household who was responsible for creating mischief and fun in the house. For example, they might insult guests, wear crazy clothes and chase girls around; they ruled over the chaos synonymous with the Saturnalia season rather than the normal Roman order. Houses were decorated with lights, wreaths and other greenery, and people also dressed up in special, coloured togas known as synthesis.

Role reversal was important to the Saturnalia celebrations, and none of the traditions is more curious than the reversal of masters and slaves. During Saturnalia, slaves were allowed to dine and celebrate with their masters, rather than having to work. Perhaps more peculiar is the tradition of Roman citizens wearing the pilleus, a felt-cap typically worn by freed-man and slaves who were about to be freed. At some tables, the masters even served the slaves food whilst they sat at the head of the table typically reserved for the free citizens. This reinforces the idea of social norms and hierarchies being suspended in the festive period, but it is also a time-limited tradition: as soon as Saturnalia is over the slaves return to work and are not allowed the luxuries afforded to them during the Saturnalia period. Whilst it is a pleasant image to think of the slaves and masters’ power dynamics being reversed for a while, it also reinforces their roles and highlights their power dynamics as it was such a reversal for them to play at another role in society for a short while. It released the pressure of the rigid social structures, as slaves were even allowed to joke around with their masters and show insolence, albeit for a short period of time.

Drawing depicting a drunken reveller being carried away by his friends during the Saturnalia by John Reinhard
Drawing depicting a drunken reveller being carried away by his friends during the Saturnalia by John Reinhard

Another Saturnalia custom was that of gift-giving. The closing days of the festival were called Sigillaria, named after the sigilla or wax figures that were exchanged during the festival. Other gifts that were commonly exchanged were terracotta statuettes, candles and delicacies such as jellied figs. Wax candles called cerei were also common gifts, to symbolise light returning after the winter solstice. These goods were all on sale at the markets, and it was traditional for people to give money to their dependents to buy these items.

As Rome moved into the imperial period, figures such as Augustus tried to cut the festival down and restore it to only 3 days, but the Roman public continued to celebrate for the full week as they had grown accustomed to. This attests to the fact that Saturnalia was a jolly festival and great fun for the whole population. The shouts of ‘Io Saturnalia’ were heard throughout the streets, and for a brief period, Rome was transformed into a city full of joy and celebration. A lot of the Saturnalia traditions and good spirit are still seen in modern-day Christmas celebrations: who doesn’t love a good party?

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