Roman Saturnalia. Frenzy, Banquets, Slaves and Gifts (2)

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.

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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”

[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.

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See part 1 on Saturnalia:

Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)

Sex and the City (of Rome). 2

Lovers. Herculaneum Fresco. Public Domain
Lovers. Herculaneum Fresco. Public Domain
Italian version

As we have said in the first post regarding Sex and the city of Rome the ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude towards sex and enjoyed a sensuality open to possibilities whose variety can confuse contemporary people (in spite of what we Westerners think of our sexual liberation) to the extent that what we are about to narrate could offend people’s feelings. We therefore ask for pardon but we also make known to minors and prudish people to please not read any further.

God Priapus' weighing his phallus. House of the Vettii, Pompeii
God Priapus ‘weighing himself’. Fresco from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Click for credits and to enlarge

Open sensuality? Yes, since for example the sacred poet Virgil probably sighed for Alexis, a beautiful boy; Horace celebrated incest, adultery and sex with female slaves; Ovid, Petronius and Catullus went a lot further (we might see later); not to mention the Roman phallic festivals like the Liberalia, held on the 17th of March …

“… where a monstrous phallus was carried in procession in a car… and the most respectable of the matrons ceremoniously crowned the head of the phallus with a garland”, or festivals like the Bacchanalia where similarly a huge phallus was carried and “as in the Liberalia, the festivities being carried on into the night, as the celebrators became heated with wine, they degenerated into the extreme of licentiousness, in which people indulged without a blush in the most infamous vices.”

This is Victorian Thomas Wright‘s opinion (1810-1877, English antiquarian and writer), not Man of Roma’s (see the Wright’s original text where our two quotes are from.)

Auguste (Maurice François Giuslain) Léveque (1864-1921). Bacchanalia. Public Domain
Auguste (Maurice François Giuslain) Léveque (1864-1921). Bacchanalia. Public Domain

Before trying to understand what is left today of these distant habits (the post title actually refers to survivals of ancient behaviours in today’s world, we’ll see why), we are going to provide a few detailed illustrations of this freer (or different, in any case) attitude .

So we’ll start by mentioning a Roman goddess, Dea Bona (‘Good Goddess’) and a scandal occurred at the time of great Julius Caesar.

Roman Dea Bona

Roman Bona Dea (Good Goddess)
Roman Bona Dea (Good Goddess)

In Roman religion Dea Bona (Latin for ‘Good Goddess’) was a “deity of fruitfulness, both in the earth and in women … The dedication day of her temple on the Aventine was celebrated May 1. Her temple was cared for and attended by women only, and the same was the case at a second celebration, at the beginning of December, in the house of the Pontifex Maximus [the chief Roman Priest, today’s Pope being still the Pontifex Maximus of Rome], where the Pontifex’s wife and the Vestal Virgins ran the ceremony.” (Bona Dea. 2007. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.)

I wonder if the online Britannica is exact here, since the December celebration was conducted “by the wife of the senior magistrate present in Rome in his home” (any senior magistrate then: Pontifex, consul etc.). In fact, according to Plutarch (2nd cent. A.D., Life of Cicero 19.3, 20.1-2) when Cicero was consul, the day he made the famous speech which is known as his third Catiline oration, he was escorted in the night “to the house of a friend and neighbour; his own being occupied by women who were celebrating the secret rites of the goddess whom the Romans call Bona.”

Dea Bona’s Image
Roman Bona Dea

The December festival was more interesting than the May one since “it was not held in the goddess’ temple … it was an invitation-only affair and pretty exclusive”. The wife of the magistrate managed the whole thing during the night, all was secret and occurred in a context of classy luxury (quote from here.)

What was happening during these secret-sacred rites from which men were strictly excluded? Surely it was something like a mystery cult, hence little we know about it (maybe you can find something in Macrobius’ Saturnalia). According to the Latin poet Juvenal, who wrote his satires many generations later (but who was also probably a bit of a misogynist), the Bona rites included drunken orgies among women (Juvenalis Sat. vi, l. 314):

“Well known to all are the mysteries
of the Good Goddess,
when the flute stirs the loins
and the Maenads of Priapus sweep along,
frenzied alike by the horn-blowing and the wine,
whirling their locks and howling.
What foul longings burn within their breasts!
What cries they utter as the passion palpitates within!
How drenched their limbs in torrents of old wine!
Saufeia challenges the slave-girls to a contest….”

(See a complete version in English prose of Juvenal Satire 6, plus the same passage in Latin verses).

Well, what happened in the house of Julius Caesar according to Plutarch seems to confirm Juvenal’s opinion. Let’s see why.

Sacrilege in Julius Caesar’s house

Two Roman Women. Fair use

Dramatis personae

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The scandal broke during the Dea Bona December ceremonies in 62 BC, when Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus. This is why the celebration took place in his house. Caesar of course was absent, being a man. The way it all developed seems to confirm Juvenal’s view, as we have said.

As Plutarch writes, our great source of the Ancient world (Life of Caesar 9-10):

“(9.1) Publius Clodius was a man of noble birth and notable for his wealth and reputation, but not even the most notorious scoundrels came close to him in insolence and audacity. Clodius was in love with Caesar’s wife Pompeia, and she was not unwilling. But a close watch was kept on the women’s apartment, and Caesar’s mother Aurelia followed the young wife around and made it difficult and dangerous for the lovers to meet.”

“(9.3) The Romans have a goddess whom they call Good… It is unlawful for a man to approach or to be in the house when the rites are celebrated. The women, alone by themselves, are said to perform rites that conform to Orphic ritual during the sacred ceremony.”

“(10.1) At the time [when the incident occurred] Pompeia was celebrating this ritual; Clodius did not yet have a beard and for this reason thought that he would escape detection if he were dressed up as [woman] lyre-player, and went into the house looking like a young woman. He found the doors open and was led in without difficulty by a slave-woman who was in on the plot; this woman went to Pompeia and told her, and some time passed, but Clodius could not bear to wait, and as he was wandering around the large house and trying to avoid the lights, one of Aurelia’s [female] attendants got hold of him, and asked him to play with her, as one woman might with another, and when he refused, she dragged him before the others and asked who he was and where he came from.”

“(10.3) Clodius said that he was waiting for Pompeia’s slave Abra (which happened to be the woman’s name), and gave himself away by his voice. The [woman] attendant dashed away from him towards the lights and the crowd, shouting that she had caught a man. The women were terrified, and Aurelia called a halt to the rites of the goddess and hid the sacred objects; she ordered the doors to be shut and went around the house with torches, looking for Clodius. He was found in the room that belonged to the girl where he had gone in an attempt to escape. When he was discovered, he was taken through the doors by the women and thrown out of the house. That night the women went right off and told their husbands about the affair, and during the day the story spread through the city that Clodius had been involved in sacrilege and had committed injustice against not only those he had insulted, but the city and the gods.

“(10.5) Clodius was indicted for sacrilege by one of the tribunes, and the most influential senators joined forces against him and testified about other dreadful outrages he had committed and his incest with his sister.”

[Her name was Clodia – prob. the slutty Lesbia loved by Catullus – a perpetual scandal like her brother Clodius. We’ll probably talk about her again, it is important in our view of Roman sex. In the painting below you can see Catullus visiting aristocratic Lesbia’s mansion, a nice work by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912,) an interesting painter of late nineteenth century Britain]

Catullus at Lesbia’s by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema. 1836-1912. 1865

[Online Britannica: “In December 62, when the winter ceremony of the Bona Dea (from which men were excluded) was celebrated in the house of Julius Caesar, a man believed to be Clodius was discovered disguised as a female harpist among the participants. Charged with incestum he was tried before the Senate…Caesar divorced his wife in suspicion that she had admitted Clodius to the ceremony….Clodius maintained he had been at Interamna, 90 miles (145 km) from Rome, on the day in question, but Cicero, who abused the defendant intemperately, presented evidence to the contrary. Clodius was acquitted, perhaps because the jury had been bribed, but immediately began to devise ways to revenge himself on Cicero.” (Clodius Pulcher, Publius. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 9 Dec. 2007) ]

Plutarch (10.6): “Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, but when he was summoned as a witness in the trial said that he knew nothing about the accusations against Clodius. The prosecutor asked him about the apparent contradiction: ‘why then did you divorce your wife?’ He answered, ‘because I thought my wife should be above suspicion’….Clodius was acquitted because most of the jurors handed in their opinions in illegible writing, so that they would not endanger themselves with the common people by voting against him, or disgrace themselves with the nobility by letting him off.”

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I think the reason Caesar supported Clodius was because they belonged to the same common people (democratic) party. Clodius was popular and influential therefore deemed useful by Caesar for his own political career.

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Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)