Friday, 19 December 2008

Io Saturnalia!

Sorry it's a bit late, but can I just wish you all a happy Saturnalia!

I seem to recall mentioning Saturnalia in passing a few posts back; mainly in connection with Christmas, and the fact that the latter festival's timing owes something to the pagan festival held in Rome. But I didn't really go into much detail, did I? Otherwise I'd have been off at a tangent (nothing unusual for me) and would have found it quite impossible to get back on track.

Saturnalia commemorated the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest. In Rome's mythology, when Jupiter ascended the throne of the gods, Saturn is said to have escaped to Rome and ruled the city, presiding over a period of unprecedented peace and harmony - a so-called Golden Age. It was in honour of this period that Saturnalia was celebrated at around the time of the winter solstice - December the 17th.

Originally, Saturnalia, like Christmas, was a single day of celebration, but it became such a popular festival (for obvious reasons, of which more later) that it ended up being a full week long, despite the attempts of emperors to reduce its length. As with all Roman festivals, there were 'official' celebrations; the emperor, in his role of Pontifex Maximus (high priest) would make sacrifices to the god, and priests of the temple would perform other rituals. The feet of the statue of Saturn, bound with woollen thread for the rest of the year, were unbound to symbolise liberation, and the image (which was hollow) was filled with fresh olive oil - one of Rome's agricultural bounties.

For the general population, Saturnalia was a family holiday; a chance to let the hair down and have some fun. Schools were closed, official government business was suspended, and prisoners on death row were spared...but only until the festival ended! Roman armies fighting abroad suspended all hostilities for the duration of the festival, although whether they played football with their enemies in Gallia or Germania is not recorded. The rather formal toga was abandoned in favour of a colourful 'dinner suit' (the synthesis), and everyone wore a pileus - a little pointed hat - which was symbolic of freedom (slaves were traditionally given one of these on being freed). Some sources say these hats were made of, what does that remind you of?

Families got together to eat and drink, and to exchange gifts. Houses were decorated with boughs and other greenery brought in from outside, and lamps were lit. In those households with slaves (in other words, most households except the poorest), the social order was turned upside-down. The master was expected to both cook, and serve, dinner to his slaves, whilst the slaves were allowed to treat the master with a kind of jokey contempt. Personally, I think it fairly unlikely that there were many masters in Rome who could even boil water, so I suspect the slaves prepared the food for the master to serve it up. The slaves were also exempt from punishment at this time of year, and were allowed to gamble with dice. Romans lived in constant fear of slave revolts, or of being murdered in their beds by their own household slaves, so were probably a bit wary of their slaves getting too much of a taste for freedom during this season of laissez-faire. A slave who was less than respectful to his master at some other time of year would be asked sarcastically, 'Is it December already, then?'

Of course, there were always a few that went over the top. The streets of some parts of Rome, albeit patrolled by the Vigiles (a cross between a police force and a fire brigade), were still extraordinarily dangerous by modern standards, and some used Saturnalia as an excuse for getting extremely drunk and performing random acts of violence upon innocent passers-by. Two such individuals who put on disguises, got drunk, and wandered around Rome's red light district picking fights and beating people up were emperors - Caligula and Nero. Although we cannot be sure that these acts were perpetrated during Saturnalia, it seems pretty likely with Nero. His birthday fell upon the 15th December; two days before the start of the festival. In his twenty-second year he had his mother killed, and celebrated his birthday by shaving off his beard. How better to round the year off than to dress down and inflict a bit of ultra-violence on your people?

Well, I hope your winter celebrations involve something a little less confrontational. Io Saturnalia!


Comedy Goddess said...

That bit about being the master and having to do all the work while being ridiculed, please, sounds like my every day!

But I am a merciful soul. I forgive them. Sigh.

chris hale said...

Yes, it does have a familiar ring, doesn't it?

Gorilla Bananas said...

Very informative. Nero - what a motherfucker!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

Thought I'd drop in before I shut up shop.

Sounds like a fun time - I've got my pointy hat at the ready. Meet you on the corner!

WV - taurcath: these are getting harder! Not sure my brain is up to it.

Anonymous said...

Chris, if Derrick thinks taucath is hard, try this one stenequa...

I just linked you story Blogger Me! on Tomus, I only found it today, loved it.


Jeane said...

nothing like a family holiday with a bit of violence thrown in - thanks so much for stopping by my blog.

chris hale said...

GB - Hi, and welcome to my humble blog, but I'm a little worried by your comment about Nero. Why don't you say what you're really thinking!

Derrick - Mine's a flagon of Falernian, please! Taurcath - A bull with a lisp!

AV - Thank'ee. Stenequa - pronounced steenkah - the flatulence induced by over-indulgence in chili.

Jeane - Yes; alcohol, violence, aggression...sounds just like the British soaps at Christmas! Enjoying the blog; I'll drop by again soon.

willow said...

Heh,heh! I like what Jeane said!

Thanks for the comment about the syrup and the wigs...intriguing. :)

chris hale said...

Hi Willow.

Cockney rhyming slang. Now there's an interesting idea for a post in the not too distant future! Note that a cockney would just say, 'Look at that geezer's syrup!' He wouldn't use the 'of figs'. With this in mind, here's three more for you. See if you can guess the second bit of the rhyme:

Whistle = suit (ie tuxedo)
Trouble = wife
Skin = sister

Good luck!

Vodka Mom said...

holy crap.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Just escaping from the saturnalian revelry for a quiet blog: following your Liverpudlian thread; how about the famous group The Coleopterae, and their Album album?

Anonymous said...

Suffered from stenqua over the weekend, capont!


chris hale said...

VM - Why, yes!

Raph - They were always my favourite. Always intended to buy the album album but never got round to it. I especially liked (deep breath) Grex Solidati Cordum Solitariorum Ducis Piperi.

AV - Ouch. I trust you have now recovered?

Madame DeFarge said...


I am always impressed by your erudition, so lightly worn, but admirably pressed.

I can never think of Nero without thinking of Peter Ustinov, which I find rather worrying. I'm clearly not according the proper respect to such a significant historical figure.

I look forward to your next post, as always

Simplicity said...

The whole master/slave concept eludes me. I can't even imagine saying, 'Is it December already, then?'!!

chris hale said...

MDF - Funny, that. I always thing of Ustinov too! As for my erudition, well...I think the ointment will sort that out.

Simplicity - Slaves were the backbone of the Roman economy. Not all of them led miserable lives; some were very highly regarded. But there were downsides. A slave could give evidence to a court of law, but the evidence was only admissible if he/she had been tortured in order to get it!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Yes - the tunix were great too!

Jyoti said...

Quiet an interesting post, Chris !

Here is my bit -
"Is it December already, then?"
"Oh yes it is!"
"My maid, though, is not playing a reversal of roles. But yes, definitely she is playing a truant these days" :(

I will be lurking around your blog to find more interesting stuff ;-)

WV: chlet - reminds me of Chicklet ; a chewing gum strip I remember when I was in school.


Jyoti at Me Versus My Soul's last blog post..A Great Week Start

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Greetings of the Season, Wordsmith of Middenshire!

There's a card on today's post at my blog - feel free to print it off if you wish, (the resolution may be low because of blog compressions).

Have a great Christmas, and happy blogging 2009!

chris hale said...

Jyoti - Please feel happy to lurk for as long as you like! And as for the maid...let's hope she comes back soon!

Raph - What a great card! Thanks for your good wishes, and a happy Christmas to you and yours!