Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on the 17th of December of the Julian calendar, originally, 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 official religion, 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 innocence. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age.
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. 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, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs have influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year. But it is a common mistake to think of Christmas as no more than Saturnalia redux. Obviously there is a degree of borrowing and syncretism, as is only natural because both are midwinter celebrations. But there are also underlying themes that are quite different.
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 stories, 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. In fact, in my own writing I call such role reversal “safety valves” because they allow “letting off steam” in a “pressure cooker” culture. When the Puritans tried to ban “safety valves” in England there were grave social consequences.
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, though. 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 license 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 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 an ancient altar (ara) even before the building of the first temple in 497 BC.
The Romans regarded Saturn as the original and autochthonous (indigenous) 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.
Roast pork is the most obvious dish to celebrate the Saturnalia since it was the most common meat at festivities in Rome. A whole suckling pig would be perfect. But there were a lot of sweet dishes too for the festivities. Here’s must (young wine) rolls that I have adapted from a description by Cato. They can be used as savory or sweet. The recipe contains no leavening, so the rolls tend to be a bit tough, like ship’s biscuit. You can add some baking powder to make them lighter. Leaving the anise seeds whole or grinding them is your choice. I prefer whole. Obviously you can replace the lard with a “healthier” fat, but lard was the original choice. Spelt flour would also be a bit more “authentic.”
500g wheat flour
300ml young wine or grape juice
2 tbsp anise seeds, fresh ground or whole
2 tbsp ground cumin
50g grated sheep’s cheese
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Pour some wine over the flour, add the anise and cumin, the lard and cheese. Work it together with your hands until you have a pliant dough, adding wine as needed. Form the dough into small rolls, then put one bay leaf under each of them on a greased baking tray.
Bake 30-35 minutes or until golden. Serve warm.