How the Roman Army in Britannia celebrated Christmas.
The Roman Army in Britannia at its maximum strength, had around 16,000 legionaries and around the same number of auxiliary troops. The soldiers came from all over the Roman Empire and would have worshipped a wide range of gods and goddesses, before Christianity became the Empire’s official religion. Some may have worshipped Sol Invictus, the ‘Unconquered Sun’ after the Emperor Aurelian made it an official cult in 274ad. The Emperor Constantine, had decreed in 321ad the dies Solis, the day of the Sun, and declared Sunday as the Roman day of rest. The birthday of the ‘Unconquered Sun’ was celebrated, with calendars dating the celebration to the 25th of December.
Saturnalia had long been celebrated in the Roman world. Described as a festival of light leading up to the Winter Solstice (21st or 22nd of December), which itself was celebrated by many. Indeed, some writers described Saturnalia as being the merging of three winter festivals and the length of the festival varies in accounts from 2 to 7 days. All agreed however that Saturnalia took place during the period of 17th to 25th of December.
Constantine the Great was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The son of a Roman Army Officer, Flavius Valerius Constantius, who had become Caesar in the Western Empire in 293ad and later Augustus (senior western emperor) in 305ad. Constantine had served in the Roman Army and had campaigned with his father in Britain. In 306ad after his father’s death, Constantine had been proclaimed Emperor at Eburacum (York) by the Army in Britain.
When Constantine converted to Christianity and the Edict of Milan extended tolerance to Christians and ended their persecution, it was natural that the Christians would want to celebrate the birth of Christ. Unfortunately, due in part to the schisms in the Christian Church a date for this couldn’t be decided upon. The actual date of Christ’s birth wasn’t known, and a range of dates, March 28th, September 11th and November 18th had been put forward.
By the 4th century, Christianity was becoming the more dominant religion and the edicts of the Emperor Theodosius which had made pagan religious ceremonies capital offences and by 392ad had prohibited all pagan worship, had left the Christian leaders with something of a dilemma. They were wise enough to know that banning a popular festival like Saturnalia would cause unrest. Also, many pagans had converted to Christianity on the understanding that they could still celebrate Saturnalia. So, there was only one thing that could be done, Saturnalia was adopted as a Christian festival and became in time Christmas.
So how did the late Roman Army celebrate the new festival of Christmas? As with all armed forces, a soldier’s duties do not cease with any holiday and for the Roman troops based on Hadrian’s Wall, the Saxon Shore and the Welsh frontier, it would have still been a time of vigilance, especially as in the later Empire, barbarian raids were becoming more common. For many of the troops and especially those from sunnier climates, the British winter, especially in the north of Britain, would have been an unpleasant shock. Anything which relieved the tedium of the short, dark winter days would have been welcomed and we can surmise that any festival would have been welcome.
Gift giving had been a part of the Saturnalia celebrations and as we know it also became part of the celebration of Christmas. For those soldiers based on Hadrian’s Wall I think socks might have been a welcome gift. Indeed, correspondence on writing tablets found at Vindolanda one of the Roman Auxiliary Forts, located just south of the Wall contains requests for such items of clothing. Feasting and drinking were also Saturnalia customs, which again became part of the Christmas tradition. Correspondence recently found at Vindolanda contains requests from someone called Masclus for more beer to be supplied to his outpost. Gambling was another of the Saturnalia traditions and whether it too continued with Christmas taking precedence is unknown, but bone dice have certainly been found.
By the late fourth century the families of the soldiers based in Britain would have accompanied them and this is evidenced by the amount of material found such as women’s and children’s shoes, hair pins and brooches. Wooden swords obviously made as children’s toys have also been found and it begs the question as to whether they were made as Saturnalia, or Christmas gifts for a soldier’s children. The soldiers may also have exchanged their military helmets for the a pointed felt hat called a pileus during the celebrations. This had been a tradition of the Saturnalia celebrations, when it was traditional for all men regardless of status to wear them. The traditional Saturnalia greeting of “io Saturnalia” would no doubt in time have become “merry Christmas”, but it seems a lot of the ancient customs were maintained and continue to be maintained today.
About Brian J. Kitchen
Brian Kitchen lives in Burton upon Trent, England and enjoys walking in the countryside, photography, reading, writing, visiting museums and historic sites & buildings and supporting Burton Albion. He first became interested in the history of Roman Britain as a child and loved the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy of novels by Rosemary Sutcliff. The first of the Flavius Vitulasius novels, Divided Empire is his first published novel.