Saturnalia - the Roman winter solstice orgy

Masters and slaves switch roles

Saturnalia was the Roman mid-winter festival. It became hugely popular and extended beyond its original single day at the middle of winter, the drinking and debauchery started on the shortest day and continued through the longest night.

Saturnalia was in celebration of Saturn, the god of the Seed and Sowing. Saturn was father of Jupiter and the ruler of the Golden Age of Man. Note the distinction between Saturn the god of Protector of the Sowers and the Seed and Priapus, the god of fertility or Liber, God of fertility and nature.

Saturnalia is celebrated around the winter solstice. The festival harks back to the Golden Age of Man when Saturn ruled; then all men were equal, there was no work, and everyone enjoyed peace and happiness. So Saturnalia the festival is a time of celebration, visits to friends, and the giving of gifts such as candles and small clay figures. The poet Martial in Epigrams Book 14 lists various presents, some expensive, some very cheap. For example: writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, 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.

The Romans offered sacrifices at the temple of Saturn in the Greek style with uncovered heads. The statue of Saturn was released from woollen bonds. The temple rituals were followed by festive banquets where people dressed informally, not wearing the togas that signified Roman Citizenship and wearing paper hats or the the peaked woollen cap that symbolise a freed slave.

There was a period of relaxation at home, and masters waited on slaves at meals. This temporary reversal of roles allowed slaves sit at table and to gamble. The whole household chose Saturnalicius princeps (the Lord of Misrule) who duty was to order others to do his work and to summon the Master to his own table.

Slaves were exempt from punishment at Satunalia and traditionally they treated their masters with disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet, before with, or served by the masters. This lead to misbehaviour including widespread drinking, orgies and debauchery; the Christians used the word "saturnalia" to mean "orgy" but the midwinter festival, eating and drinking with friends was renamed Christmas when the Romans adopted Christianity.

Josephus, a London classics scholar, comments: The Saturnalia was originally 17 December, and gradually extended to three days (late Republic), to four (AD 40) and eventually (AD 100) seven (from 17 to 23 December). Everything seems to have been back to normal on 25 December (see Martial V 84). But revelling broke out again for the Compitalia on 1 - 5 January (with another dinner where slaves and masters dined together.

25 December was the Dies Solis Invicti (Feast of the Unconquered Sun), which was (if memory serves me right) more of a Mithraic feast than an ancient Roman one. It is this which was adopted by the Christians

Cicero "refers to the high-spirited celebration of Saturnalia by his army" at the end of 51BC, when Cicero was governor of Cilicia. Letters to Atticus VII 7/3.

Tacitus refers to the fondness of the Roman army for Saturnalia (Histories III 78).

Even the elder Cato gave extra wine to slaves for Saturnalia Cato (de Re Rustica 5)

Martial's list of gifts is supposed to be a complaint about how poor they were (I've not got a Martial text handy to check this)

As for what people got up to, Lucian's Saturnalia seems to be the best source. I haven't time to check, but it seems to include the quotation saying that the Saturnalia involved "“drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water.

The last sounds as though it could be military in origin!

Chris from Dublin writes
Reminds me of an ancient burial ground about 40 miles outside Dublin (Newgrange, Co Meath), which was discovered 50 years ago by a farmer. When it was excavated, a large burial chamber (the size of an average living room) was found in the centre of the mound. The mound is made of very large stones, some more than 5 ton weight, that are local to mountains 70 miles away. The mound predates the pyramids in Egypt. How did they get those stones from the mountain to the mound? No one knows.

Most interesting of all, is that on 21st Dec (winter solstice), the rising sun shines into the passageway and illuminates the central chamber. It is spectacular (I'm told). A select few people are chosen from the early arrivals in Newgrange to go into the chamber before sunrise to witness the event. How did they more that 5000 years ago work out the angle, timings, dates? (I don't know what the mobile coverage was like then).

Nothing Saturanlia-like was uncovered though, but that's not to say there were not goings-on.

John from NYC writes
Thanks for the Saturnalia bit. You know that Saturn was also the “Bringer of Old Age” which to some extent probably accounts for the fact that Saturn was the god celebrated at the time – the year was ageing.

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