Saturnalia - serious Roman festival or free for all?

Saturnalia was THE most important Roman festival. Heavy on feasting, fun and gifts, it was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day around 17 December, but it was so popular it expanded into a week or even longer, despite Augustus’ efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula’s, to five.

Like today’s Christmas, this holy day (feriae publicae) had a serious origin: for the Romans it was to honour the god of sowing, Saturn. And if nothing else, Romans were a superstitious lot; like many ancient cultures, religious ceremonies and observances held an important place in their lives.

But also like modern Christmas, it was a festival day (dies festus). After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. Afterwards, according to the poet Macrobius, the celebrants shouted ‘Io, Saturnalia‘ at a riotous feast in the temple.

Pottery and bronze figurines 3rd century BC and 1st century AD - sigillaria?

Pottery and bronze figurines 3rd century BC and 1st century AD – sigillaria? (British Museum)

Modern mid-winter habits echo Roman ones – increased, often extravagant shopping, conspicuous and over-indulgent eating and drinking, visiting friends, receiving visits from not-particular-friends who are only after a drink, and exchanging gifts, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria).

Everybody dressed in bright clothes, masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed freedoms of leisure and gambling. A member of the familia (household) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly equivalent to the Lord of Misrule. Of course, it often got completely out of hand…

Terracotta sheep, Greek, 4th century BC. (British Museum) Would make a lovely sigillarium!

Terracotta sheep, Greek, 4th century BC. (British Museum) Would make a lovely sigillarium!

The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as ‘the best of days’ while Seneca complains that the ‘whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’. Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated. Sound familiar?

Macrobius described a banquet of pagan literary celebrities in Rome which classicists date to between 383 and 430 AD. So  Saturnalia was alive and well under Christian emperors, but no longer as an official religious holiday.

But alongside ran the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the ‘unconquerable sun’), a festival celebrating the renewal of light and the coming of the new year and which took place on 25 December. By the middle of the fourth century AD,  the dominant Christian religion had integrated the Dies Natalis into their celebration of Christmas.

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet


Ever since the end of the Roman Empire, but especially when Roman texts were rediscovered and all things Roman became fashionable again from the Renaissance onwards, people have speculated about what Saturnalia really looked like.

Just how wild was it? This painting by Callet is one of the less explicit images, but while the party-goers are having a good time, it seems more in line with what it could have been like than the bacchanalian depictions by some painters then and  film-makers now.

Or were the paintings and stories just a reflection of the artists’ vivid imaginations of the  in their own time?

Io Saturnalia!


You can read the short story ‘Saturnalia Surprise‘ about how the Mitelae were surprised one year in ROMA NOVA EXTRA.
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Updated 2022: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

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