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(17-23 December)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!, Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
It was a day of reconciliation and equality. At the time, the running of all economic activity was suspended, and the slaves celebrated with free people.

Saturnalia was the annual oldest and most popular Roman festival. This was celebrated in honor of the god of agriculture, wealth, freedom – Saturn and lasted from 17 to 23 December. It was a day of reconciliation and equality. Saturnalia lasted only a day in the early period, but then was celebrated for seven days.

On the first day of Saturnalia, the running of all economic activity was suspended; was free from work, public duties, and citizens resigned from their everyday attire to ordinary tunics. Thus, everyone: slaves, freedmen and citizens were dressed the same, which proved equality for the duration of the festival. In addition, everyone wore special leather hats (pileus), which every day were worn by freedmen to show that they were free people. The time was filled with official and home ceremonies in honor of the gods, lavish banquets, family feasts, giving away gifts.

December 17 commemorated foundation of the temple of Saturn in Rome, the equivalent of the Greek Kronos. At the beginning of Saturnalia, in front of the Temple of Saturn on the Capitol Hill, a crowd of Romans gathered. Before the entrance to the temple was a statue of Saturn, who had his feet tied around with woolen bonds. At the time of Saturnalia the bonds were loosened to symbolize the god’s liberation and beginning of the holiday. There are also messages that the statue was hollow and filled with olive oil. Next, the priests made a sacrifice from the pig in front of the temple, and the senators entered the building, took out a wooden statue of Saturn and carried it on the forum, where it was placed on a special Roman sofa, which was usually rested in the households. Behind the statue was a whole crowd of amused Romans who was going to take part in a big banquet on the forum. After the feast there were gladiator fights that saw all the social strata together. Often there were dwarfs or women in the arena, and the fights did not have a rather bloody course, which proved that Saturnalia had a cheerful character.

The most important rite of the day was that masters and slaves turned into one day roles – the owners served slaves. It seems, however, that the more likely scenario is that the slaves just ate dinner with their master at one table, and the food was not served, and the owner himself had to bring them to the table. Naturally, the food still had to be prepared by a slave. It is worth adding that the slaves also had the right to say what they like about their masters, without worrying about repercussions. What is certain, however, is that, rather on the time of Saturnalia, both parties simply talked to each other freely, avoiding unpleasantness. It should be remembered that a slave owner after Saturnalia could punish him for behavior, if he would overdo it with jokes.

The streets of Rome were well-lit during the holidays; candlesticks and torches were placed (they were usually dark and dangerous at night). Many Romans used these facilities and spent whole nights playing. The processions of joyful people were moving all over the city to feasts and parties, and people meeting were greeted with a shout: Io Saturnalia!

In the evenings, when the sun had already set in, guests were invited. During the event, a person was chosen as a Saturnalicius Princeps, or the “King of Saturnalia”. Usually, according to the custom of equality, the child or slave was chosen as the party’s king. During play every decision of Saturnalicius was accepted without a word of opposition by other entertainers. This Saturnalicius decided when to drink, dance or sing. During the event, gambling took place, which was legalized for the duration of the festival. The owner and the slave played at one table, and if the players did not have the money, nuts were assumed.

Wall painting from Pompeii showing the play with dice.

During the feast of Saturn, sacrifices were made, and piglets were slaughtered in the sacrifice, and the next day those were eaten at dinner. The fathers of the families received gifts – mainly wax candles and clay figurines (as a symbol of the sacrifices of the people folded to Saturn in earlier times).

On December 19 the festival Opalia, took place to celebrate the wife of Saturn – Ops – a goddess of harvest that was supposed to take care of the wrestling in pantries that were heavily fired during Saturnalia.

The last day of the holiday – December 23 – was called Sigillaria (literally: “the festival of statuettes”). On that day, the so-called sigillaria, the aforementioned clay or wax figurines from which children set scenes depicting the life of their ancestors. The person who sold such products was called sigillarius; the Roman markets were full of figurines. What’s more, the sellers offered the service of making a figurine on order, according to the customer’s needs. A short note or poem was often added to the gift. Other giftswere toys, kitchen utensils, books or exotic food.

Similar to Saturnalia was feast of Brumalia, celebrated twice a year, in connection with the autumn and spring equinox (Saturnalia was celebrated during the winter solstice; there is also an interpretation according to which Brumalia took place at other times); these events have in time been confused and identified.

  • Jaczynowska Maria, Religie świata rzymskiego, Warszawa 1987
  • Zieliński Tadeusz, Religia Rzeczypospolitej Rzymskiej

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