Io, Saturnalia! A Roman holiday and the dedication of the Temple of Saturn

17 December in 497 BCE, the temple of Saturn was dedicated in Rome, marking the beginning of the annual Roman festival of the Saturnalia.

“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“ (Seneca, “Letters“)


Antoine-François Callet's (1741 – 1823) late baroque interpretation of the Saturnalia (1783)


Saturn is certainly one of the most ambiguous deities in the Roman pantheon. Antiquity usually associated him with the Greek Cronus, a being that castrated his own father with a scythe to achieve power as supreme being and ate five of his children after a prophecy foretold that he would suffer the same fate as his old man. A sixth child, Jupiter, was hid by his mother Ops on the island of Crete and finally took over from Saturn. However, Saturn’s rule was viewed as a golden age, when humans enjoyed the bounties of the earth, living in something of a classless society. He was viewed as something of an agricultural deity, his scythe retaining its meaning of being a harvest tool and Saturn himself getting associated as Father Time with becoming and passing away and the waning of the old and the beginning of the new year. His temple on the forum between Palatine and Capitoline Hill is Rome’s oldest recorded sacral building and his festival, the Saturnalia, the best-known Roman festivity.



The Forum Romanum as imagined in 1866 - the Temple of Saturn is the one to the left


Besides being a NP day in the Roman calendar, a Nefas Piaculum when expiatory sacrifices were offered up in public, the Saturnalia, extended to five days around the turn of eras, were public holidays when work was put down, public institutions were closed and general merrymaking took place. Gift-giving was customary and sensible Roman citizens left the city and withdrew to their country estate, because during the Saturnalia, the place was literally turned upside down. In remembrance of Saturn’s bygone golden age, all class distinction was declared null and void, masters served their slaves and, probably a satiric response to the principate, a saturnalicus princeps, a master of ceremonies, was elected, probably in every household, who could demand all sorts of mischief from his subjects and was supposed to be obeyed. Sometimes, the saturnalicus princeps was called “rex bibendi”, the “king of drinking” as well, a revealing feature in regards to the amounts of alcoholic liquors consumed during the Saturnalia with the rallying cry: “Io, Saturnalia!”.



Partying Romans, as imagined by Thomas Couture in "Romans during the Decadence" (1847)


Especially the customary gift-giving during the Saturnalia around the time of midwinter gave rise to the idea that the Roman festival had influenced our own Christmas customs and the Middle Ages had a convention similar to the saturnalicus princeps, the election of the “Lord of Misrule” or “King of Fools” and there are rumours that the “saturnalicus princeps” might have been sacrificed once at the end of the festival as a scapegoat victim, later replaced by gladiatorial games and finally the alleged martyrdom of Saint Dasius, who was killed because he refused to follow the commandments of the princeps during a heathen festival. Since we don’t have any coherent descriptions over the period of a thousand years of celebrations of the Saturnalia in Rome, every approach is highly speculative, but the advice of Pliny the Elder for holidays stands true to this day, withdrawal if one is actually not in a festive mood, “especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the licence 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“.


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