Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on the 17th of December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to the 23rd of December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: 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 social egalitarianism. 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 Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.
The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth 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.
Public religious observance
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, whose head was uncovered; 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, but the uncovering of the priest’s head may also be one of the Saturnalian reversals, 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, as if he were present and actively participating in the festivities. A public banquet followed (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 at home. 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.
The phrase io Saturnalia was the characteristic shout or salutation of the festival, originally commencing after the public banquet on the single day of December 17. The interjection io (Greek ἰώ, ǐō) is pronounced either with two syllables (a short i and a long o) or as a single syllable (with the i becoming the Latin consonantal j and pronounced yō). It was a strongly emotive ritual exclamation or invocation, used for instance in announcing triumph or celebrating Bacchus, but also to punctuate a joke.
“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.”
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 two satires 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.
The toga, the characteristic garment of the male Roman citizen, was set aside in favor of the Greek synthesis, colourful “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 pilleus, the conical felt cap that was the usual mark of a freedman. Slaves, who ordinarily were not entitled to wear the pilleus, wore it as well, so that everyone was “pilleated” 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, but the classicist Erich Segal saw Roman comedy, with its cast of impudent, free-wheeling slaves and libertine seniors, as imbued with the Saturnalian spirit.
Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at least frowned upon, were permitted for all, even slaves. Coins and nuts were the stakes. 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 Laurentine villa, which he used 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 or studies.”
The Sigillaria on December 19 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”, of which Augustus was particularly fond. 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. Patrons 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.
On the calendar
As an observance of state religion, Saturnalia was supposed to have been held ante diem xvi Kalendas Ianuarias, sixteen 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. It was a dies festus, a legal holiday when no public business could be conducted. The day marked the dedication anniversary (dies natalis) of the Temple to Saturn in the Roman Forum in 497 BC. When Julius Caesar had the calendar reformed because it had fallen out of synchronization with the solar year, two days were added to the month, and Saturnalia fell on December 17. It was felt, however, that the original day had thus been moved by two days, and so Saturnalia was celebrated under Augustus as a three-day official holiday encompassing both dates.
By the late Republic, the private festivities of Saturnalia had expanded to seven days, but during the Imperial period contracted variously to three to five days. Caligula extended official observances to five.
December 17 was the first day of the astrological sign Capricorn, the house of Saturn, the planet named for the god. Its proximity to the winter solstice (December 25 on the Julian calendar) was endowed with various meanings by both ancient and modern scholars: for instance, the widespread use of wax candles (cerei, singular cereus) may refer to “the returning power of the sun’s light after the solstice”.
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). 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 (234–149 BC) 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 (see evocatio), and the Second Punic War in particular created pressures on Roman society that led to a number of religious innovations and reforms. Robert E.A. Palmer has 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.
King of the Saturnalia
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. His capricious commands, such as “Sing naked” or “Throw him into cold water,” had to be obeyed by the other guests at the convivium: he creates and (mis)rules 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 princeps of the Saturnalia may have developed as a satiric response to the new era of rule by a princeps, the title assumed by the first emperor Augustus to avoid the hated connotations of the word “king” (rex). 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.
Theology and philosophical views
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”.
As a deity of agricultural bounty, Saturn embodied prosperity and wealth in general. The name of his consort Ops meant “wealth, resources”. Her festival, Opalia, was celebrated on December 19. The Temple of Saturn housed the state treasury (aerarium Saturni), and was the administrative headquarters of the quaestors, the public officials whose duties included oversight of the mint. It was among the oldest cult sites in Rome, and had been the location of “a very ancient” altar (ara) even before the building of the first temple in 497 BC.
The Romans regarded Saturn as the original and autochthonous ruler of the Capitolium, and the first 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 (Zeus) and expelled from Greece. His contradictions—a foreigner with one of Rome’s oldest sanctuaries, and a god of liberation who is kept in fetters most of the year—indicate Saturn’s capacity for obliterating social distinctions.
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 Vergil 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.”
Saturn also had a less benevolent aspect. Another of his consorts was Lua, sometimes called Lua Saturni (“Saturn’s Lua”) and identified with Lua Mater, “Mother Destruction”, a goddess in whose honor the weapons of enemies killed in war were burned, perhaps in expiation. Saturn’s chthonic nature connected him to the underworld and its ruler Dis Pater, the Roman equivalent of Greek Plouton (Pluto in Latin) who was also a god of hidden wealth. In sources of the third century AD and later, Saturn is recorded as receiving dead gladiators as offerings (munera) during or near the Saturnalia. These gladiator events, ten days in all throughout December, were presented mainly by the quaestors and sponsored with funds from the treasury of Saturn. The practice of gladiator munera was criticized by Christian apologists as a form of human sacrifice. Although there is no evidence of this practice during the Republic, the offering of gladiators led to later theories that the primeval Saturn had demanded human victims. Macrobius says that Dis Pater was placated with human heads and Saturn with sacrificial victims consisting of men (virorum victimis). During the visit of Hercules to Italy, the civilizing demigod insisted that the practice be halted and the ritual reinterpreted. Instead of heads to Dis Pater, the Romans were to offer effigies or masks (oscilla); a mask appears in the representation of Saturnalia in the Calendar of Filocalus. Since the Greek word phota meant both vir (man) and lumina (lights), candles were a substitute offering to Saturn for the light of life. The figurines that were exchanged as gifts (sigillaria) may also have represented token substitutes.
In The Golden Bough, J.G. Frazer interpreted an incident from the Acts of Saint Dasius, an early martyrological text, as indicative of human sacrifice in connection with the Saturnalia. Dasius was a Christian soldier who refused to play the part of the King of the Saturnalia when it was allotted to him, and for his refusal was killed. From this anecdote, Frazer surmises that the King of the Saturnalia was originally a scapegoat victim who was killed as a human sacrifice to Saturn at the end of his festival. Since the role of the “king” is not attested before the Imperial period, this interpretation is not generally accepted by modern specialists of Roman religion. The martyrdom of Dasius took place at Durostorum in the province of Moesia Inferior on November 20, 303 AD, the anniversary of Diocletian’s accession as emperor (dies imperii) and nearly a month before the date of the communal sacrifice for the Saturnalia (December 17). The execution occurred more broadly in the context of general harassment of Christians in the Roman military during the Diocletianic Persecution, the edict for which had been issued in February of that year, and only after Dasius refused to venerate Imperial icons. K.M. Coleman regards the martyrdom of Dasius as an enactment of scapegoat ritual, but likens it to the ritualized executions that took place as mythological scenarios in the arena, with the costuming and role of the Christian meant to enhance the purposes of retributive justice and the restoration of the pax deorum. As an element of martyr narrative, the torture of the mock “king” may recall the mocking of Jesus of Nazareth by Roman soldiers in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.
Other ancient interpretations
The Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry took an allegorical view of the Saturnalia. He saw the festival’s theme of liberation and dissolution as representing the “freeing of souls into immortality”—an interpretation that Mithraists may also have followed, since they included many slaves and freedmen. According to Porphyry, the Saturnalia occurred near the winter solstice because the sun enters Capricorn, the astrological house of Saturn, at that time. In the Saturnalia of Macrobius, the proximity of the Saturnalia to the winter solstice leads to an exposition of solar monotheism, the belief that the Sun ultimately encompasses all divinities as one. Perceived relations among the Mithraic mysteries, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”) on December 25, and the Christian Nativity as celebrated in December are a matter of long-standing and complex scholarly debate.
The Mishna and Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) describe a pagan festival called Saturna which occurs eight days before the winter solstice. It is followed eight days after the solstice with a festival called Kalenda. The Talmud ascribes the origins of this festival to Adam, who saw that the days were getting shorter and thought it was punishment for his sin. He was afraid that the world was returning to the chaos and emptiness that existed before creation. He sat and fasted for eight days. Once he saw that the days were getting longer again he realized that this was the natural cycle of the world, so made eight days of celebration. The Talmud states that this festival was later turned into a pagan festival.
Influence on Christmas
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. As William Warde Fowler noted, 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.”
A number of scholars, including historian David Stephens from the University of Central Florida and Professor Parker-Ducharme from Tulane University, view aspects of the Saturnalia festival as the origin of some later Christmas customs, particularly the practice of gift giving.