It was a day of gift giving in the Scipio house. Little Julia got a doll. Father gave Mother a pretty silver necklace. Wreaths with star shaped goodies hung on the walls and doors, just waiting for a child to gobble them up. There was plenty of food and drink for everyone around. It wasn't Christmas; it was Santurnalia.
Saturnalia was a Roman festival dedicated to the harvest god Saturn, considered equal to the Greek god Cronos. The holiday honored Saturn and his wife Op, Goddess of Plenty. The Romans held the first recorded Satunalia festival on December 17, 497 B.C.E. and its length varied. Throughout the late Republic time, the festival lasted seven days. Throughout the Empire, it lasted anywhere from three to five days.
|Temple of Saturn, Rome|
The festival was like a modern federal holiday. All businesses and schools shut down, government buildings closed, and no battles were fought. It was a time of relaxation and rampant partying. First there was an optional ceremony at the temple of Saturn. The people filled his empty statue with olive oil and unbound his feet from chains. Then everyone went home shouting “Io Saturnalia!” and the real fun began.
Saturnalia was a day of reversals. While Saturn reigned, parents acted like children and vice versa. Slaves were treated like freemen, wore freemen clothes, and were treated to a large luxurious meal in which they either dined with or were served by their master. They were also allowed protection for any verbal abuse they sent their master’s way. Horace plays on such scenarios for a comic poem in his book Satires when he has a slave tell his master on Saturnalia, “Davus (the master) is a scoundrel and a loiterer!”
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People wore masks gambled in the streets. Large feasts were prepared and eaten. More than one ancient author joked there were so many drunken revelers, that to be sober during Saturnalia was the exception rather than the rule. One popular tradition began in the days of the Empire where Romans elected a mock king, a Saturnalicius princep, who “ruled” over the city for the duration of Saturnalia. The figure is like the Fool’s King in Disney’s A Hunchback of Notre Dame except with far better intentions. Any commands given by the King of Saturnalia were obeyed as if he was the emperor. The commands were usually silly, like to sing naked or push a reveling comrade into a pond.
|Depiction of Ancient Rome|
Even after the rise of Christianity, Saturnalia was still a popular secular tradition. It lasted for hundreds of years as a harvest festival. Many modern Christmas traditions, especially gift giving, came from Saturnalia. In fact, Romans had many of the same frustrated feelings we do toward the holiday season. A manuscript was recently unearthed during building work in Rome that provides a first-century guide to etiquette during Saturnalia.
Guests learned about Saturnalia at December's Coffee with the Curator program. Want to learn more about this time period in history? Visit the Museum of World Treasures to see a Roman exhibit. For more information, visit our website or call 316.263.1311. Merry Christmas and Io Saturnalia!