Saturnalia: The World Turned Upside Down

Though it’s Jupiter who Holst named the Bringer of Jollity, it was Saturn who brought the Romans into the streets and taverns. Here, a less gastronomical description of one of the merriest celebrations in classical Rome.

Antoine-François Callet’s vision of Saturnalia in 1783, Winter or Saturnalia (L’Hiver ou les Saturnales), the Louvre. The air of mirth is obvious!

After hearing the same set of Christmas songs over and over again and driving by miles of lights, I’m inclined to find the whole idea of “holiday cheer” stale. Don’t get me wrong, I like this time of year. But if I’m being completely honest, it can grow awfully predictable.

Why don’t we think about going from door to door shouting, “Io Saturnalia!” or playing knucklebones in public? That’d be something totally new, but most people would think you’ve gone around the bend. Even if my better judgment has prevented me from spicing up the modern holiday season with pagan revelry, it’s still fascinating to think about.

On December 17, the Romans would kick off their largest festival of the year — Saturnalia. Originally meant as a literal and symbolic liberation of Saturn, priests would enter his namesake temple in Rome to cut off the wool that bound his statue’s feet. By “releasing” Saturn, the world was seen to return to its primeval state of innocence and plenty.

Following the Punic Wars, the holiday changed and slowly began to grow from one day to a whole week, stretching from December 17-23. The religious foundation of Saturnalia seems, more often than not, to be overlooked in favor of more exciting and frivolous things. It is true, though, that the private face of this festival would have been loud and raucous. This fact was something Pliny the Younger, nephew of Pliny the Elder, didn’t enjoy:

…I find it delightful to sit there [in the villa], especially during the Saturnalia, when all the rest of the house rings with the merriment and shouts of the festival-makers; for then I do not interfere with their amusements, and they do not distract me from my studies.

Side note: he sounds like a killjoy, but Pliny’s dourness wasn’t totally in vain. His preoccupation with reading was what saved him from the same fate as his uncle, Pliny the Elder — being swallowed by a pyroclastic flow from Mt. Vesuvius.

What caused the shouts Pliny preferred to steer clear of? One of the activities permitted on Saturnalia was gambling. Usually banned by taboo, all Romans were allowed to play during this week, including slaves. Games like these were overseen by the King of Saturnalia, a figure chosen in each household by drawing lots. Whoever was selected would have the job of ruling (or misruling) by insulting dinner guests, chasing people around the house, and stirring up debauchery.

Other rules were also loosened and roles were reversed. During the topsy-turviness of Saturnalia, slaves could insult their masters without fear of punishment, masters served their slaves food, and all ate together at the same table. Aristocrats sported the Greek synthesis, a colorful robe less cumbersome than the traditional toga but viewed as too gaudy for daily wear. Everyone would also don the pileus, a funky, pointed felt cap that was usually reserved for freedmen.

Another activity was the delivery of sigillaria. Usually made from wax or clay, these figurines were customarily traded during Saturnalia. I’ve read that they could have either been treated as reminders of the extinct practice of human sacrifice or that they were children’s toys (I’m hoping not at the same time). A golden statuette of Victoria, a terracotta Hercules, a silver Minerva, and a marble Leander (the guy who legendarily drowned swimming across the Hellespont to see his lover) are among the sigillaria Martial describes in his work Epigrams.

The exchange of sigillaria was part of a much larger system of gift-giving on Saturnalia. Whether party-goers were thanking their hosts or hosts were giving presents to their guests, it seems this constituted a large part of Saturnalian spirit. Martial wrote short poems about lots of these party favors (apophoreta), a large portion of which are food.

Among the many things given by Umber and Sabellus, two guests at Martial’s Saturnalia party, were Libyan figs, mulled wine from Syria, Picene olives, and sausage from Lucania. Though we can’t say conclusively if these goodies would’ve been eaten specifically for Saturnalia (as, say, stuffing is for Thanksgiving today), it becomes clear from ancient sources that food and ritual were intertwined on this holiday.

Photos of the Temple of Saturn in Rome, a Greek plate showing a man wearing the pileus, bone dice, and a clay statuette of a gladiator at the Met in New York City (perhaps a sigillarium?).

By digging around through Latin texts, we’re able to determine that dining was an important aspect of a festival that was old, even by Roman standards. Food here wasn’t just used for sustenance, but symbolically as a reminder of the land’s bounty as the nights grew longer and the weather colder.

Food and holidays, broadly speaking, are both a social glue, things that have bound people and cultures together for millennia — when the two are combined and partying is added into the mix, it’s clearly even better. Sadly, there’s no real excuse nowadays to take off work or school to gamble and feast for a week. But we can celebrate Saturnalia in jest. Grab a carafe of conditum paradoxum, a handful of Libyan figs, and a loaf of libum, and you should be set! Io Saturnalia!

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