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.”

“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”

[Silvae, I.6.98ff]

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)

38 thoughts on “Roman Saturnalia. Frenzy, Banquets, Slaves and Gifts (2)

    1. You are right, but my post was on Saturnalia only, after all. You’ll see that the Roman pileus is tighter fitting while the phrygian cap is looser, with the top often pulled forward. I believe they came to mean the same thing (freedom), given the popularity of Saturnalia. We see pilei in Italian Renaissance paintings too.

      Eager to see what you find out and whether you’ll write a post on it.


  1. I find the exchange of gifts an interesting detail, given that every time I have seen the custom of Christmas gift-giving discussed by Christians, the gifts of the Magi are cited. It seems we have another pre-Christian carry-over here that I had not yet suspected.


    1. So many pre-Christian survivals are there, and Christians – I don’t want to offend them, I feel I am a bit too – tend to forget how much of their past is pagan. I don’t see – or maybe I see – why they dislike any historical perspective: God is outside history.


      1. stop worrying about offending, you are amongst friends.

        “…God is outside history…” i like this. today a friend took me to an exhibit about saints, relics and devotion in medieval europe. wow, what an eye opener. i had seen a reliquary in vienna, but i thought it was just an interesting and fancy way to display the bones of a saint – i did not realize the pagan symbolism that the objects had mystical powers and that viewing or coming in contact with them brought healing and granting of indulgences.

        even more, reliquaries are not unique to christians.

        once again, my ignorance of others belief systems astounds me. thanks writing part 2 MoR!


        1. stop worrying about offending, you are amongst friends.

          Which warms me up, but right for the reason you are all friends, religion being a delicate subject makes me afraid of hurting someone’s feelings

          I am not here to promote my blog but I have written two posts (1, 2) on saints and reliquaries that might interest you. (Btw, which other religion likes reliquaries: the Muslim, the Jewish?)

          Thank you again for inspiring me Dafna. It motivated me quite a lot.


          1. i will at your posts on reliquaries. thank you.

            if wikipedia can be trusted, the other two religions are hindu and buddhist.

            jews must bury the dead immediately and with as little fanfare as possible. i’m fairly certain the same goes for muslims. just a simple shroud and back to dust we go.


          2. Which should somewhat indicate – only a guess – that Jews and Muslims bear less pagan (polytheistic) traces than, for example, the Catholics. Worth some research. Ciao. Grazie.


    2. @Paul

      I now understand why I’m using baby-oil in my showers: not to be caught by Flavia the day I’m starting to sacrifice to Juno again 🙂

      Sled, no kidding now. Is Johnson’s baby oil any good? Since the day I use it a bit during shower I don’t scratch myself any more.


      1. I am no fan of mineral oil because I’m a little sensitive to petroleum, but if you aren’t, it will probably not leach too many fat-soluble vitamins out of your skin. 🙂

        I like grape-seed oil mixed with sea salt as a bath scrub, the salt causes the oil to penetrate into deeper layers of the skin.


        1. So you mean Baby Oil has got Petroleum inside?? Damn, I could try your grape-seed oil but I’m not too crazy about leaving a trail of sweet grape perfume on my way, like a cinaedus 🙂

          Not that I mind about cinaedi, they having an ancient tradition chez nous.


          1. After the oil has been pressed it doesn’t smell of anything.

            No one will mistake you for a cinaedus — well, having a more sensitive nose, my cat-a-might.


  2. Wow! The ancient Romans sure knew how to live… Almost makes you wish you were there… well, except for the lack of proper anesthetics (making surgery a problem), poor sanitation (though better in Rome than most places), and very primitive medicine, of course.

    I like this:

    Ius luxuriae publice datum est

    So I am putting it somewhere on my blog.


    1. They surely knew how to live. I wished so many times I could get there on a time machine, with proper vaccinations though.
      ‘Ius luxuriae publice datum est’ 🙂
      Latin is lapidary, no matter the content.


    1. He surely could. Even though some of his … stuff could be too much even for a rapper, American (or Italian or German etc.), I got little doubts about it.


      1. OK, but wouldn’t it be great if young people were introduced to naughty poetry first? Then they would know that poetry is muscular and fun, instead of thinking of it as castor oil.

        Then we could bring them along to “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

        Shakespeare is terrific in this way, actually, but American schools downplay the racy parts.

        Just one of my ideas for when I become Minister of Education.


        1. That would certainly be a great means to attract youth to poetry, and students would adore you as Ministry of Education (parents possibly less) 🙂

          But I totally agree that wonderful works such as Shakespeare’s shouldn’t be expurgated for the young.

          Update: after all it doesn’t make any sense considering what they can today find in the Internet. Your idea seems very reasonable, no kidding.


    1. Thank you Thomas. Latin is only apparently easy. But English speaking people have an advantage over, say, the Germans. Languages are a wonderful hobby for retired people 🙂


  3. Best wishes to you hombre romano.
    “Latin is lapidary”. Yes indeed. Already borrowed Si te hic haberetur to use somewhere else… not a blog for sure.

    And thank God for our pagan roots, and thank you for reminding us (forget about religions…) where our rites spring from.

    An yes, submerge in the Coen’s, and tell us your impressions.

    Un abrazo.


    1. @Ana

      Best wishes Ana. Si te hic haberetur seems romantic but could be anything. I will get to the Coen’s. As for the pagan roots, this is the place 🙂
      Tres abrazos.


  4. Great post.
    It makes me aware of the fact that -despite a degree in History- I have little knowledge of Roman history.


    1. Well, that’s a serious case indeed. How can you forget your roots from Gallia Togata and Augusta Taurinorum? 🙂

      (if I well recall your Italian region of origin Lola)

      I read your *latest post* on Goliarda Sapienza. That’s one author I’d love to discover.

      Always wondered (*here* for example) why Sicilian novelists of the 1900s are almost the only ones in our country to offer wide historical frescos.


  5. You’re right!
    Shame on me 😉

    L’arte della gioia is worth reading. I agree with you even if it is more a “cultural” fresco which indeed offers some historical insights.


  6. Reblogged this on The Notebook and commented:

    Ecco la seconda puntata sui Saturnali (qui trovate la traduzione italiana). Comincia con una scenetta al tempo dell’imperatore Nerone quando Seneca, scrivendo all’amico Lucilio, si chiede se sia meglio abbandonarsi alla frenesia generale oppure, come se nulla fosse, continuare con la solita vita composta governata dalla ragione. Enjoy.


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