Saturnalia: Pagan Rome’s
By Brook Allen
As much as I love Christmas, my novels are set in pre-Christian Rome. So much for wishing Marc Antony a Merry Christmas! But Romans had plenty of festivals—times of celebrations, visiting temples, and making religious sacrifices. And sometimes, their festivals had nothing to do with religion at all, but honored birthdays, triumphs, or other ostentatious celebrations.
So what exactly did the Romans celebrate during the month of December? In a useful compilation of facts on Roman life, compiled by Lesley and Roy A. Adkins, the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome includes a fantastic listing of festivals celebrated annually by the Romans. In December alone, there were at least fourteen holidays.
One of them was Saturnalia.
To the Romans, Saturnalia was considered to be one of the feriae stativae—festivals given a fixed date on the calendar. Celebrated originally on December 17th, it was a major festival, probably observed all over the Empire. It’s believed that by the end of the Republic, Antony and family would have been celebrating it for more than just one day. The party was extended from December 17th thru 23rd. Originally, dedicated to the deity Saturn, it celebrated the sowing of seeds.
How was it celebrated?
In most intriguing ways! Naturally, it began with sacrifices and offerings at the Temple of Saturn, the remains of which are still in the western part of the Forum Romanum. Considered to be a “jolly” sort of festival, slaves were allowed to temporarily be “free”. In fact, social mores were completely inverted, for all servants in a household dined before their owners and were even allowed to act “insolently”. This even included slaves dressing as their masters—probably using their very clothes. This is all recorded by ancient sources (since I couldn’t make this stuff up!). However, because of the Spartacan revolt at the end of the 1st century BC, I chose to depict this practice as frowned upon by some in my book, Antonius: Son of Rome.
Saturnalia was also a time of gift-exchanging and the usage of wax candles. In what context these items were given or used isn’t necessarily clear. Typically, oil lamps were used for lighting households, so candles may have been used simply for their loveliness, adding ambience to the holiday, much like today. Or, perhaps they were used in the religious part of the festival’s observance
Like me, you’re probably thinking that Saturnalia sounds an awful lot like Christmas, save for it being a pagan festival. Well, you’re right. It was replaced by Christmas, so to keep disgruntled non-Christians as happy as possible, customs like gift-giving, the use of candles, and merry-making remained. The date changed only slightly. A late-Imperial cult dedicated to the deity Sol Invictus celebrated the winter solstice on December 25th, according to the Julian calendar. This pagan event was also discontinued, but since it was so close to the dates of Saturnalia, the Christian holiday of “Christmas” was given that date, which has continued to the present.
Therefore, I’ll wish everyone a Merry Christmas and use the words of the Roman poet Catullus (14.15), to describe his festival of Saturnalia, wishing all of my readers “the best of days”!
Antonius: Son of Rome
By Brook Allen
For over two-thousand years, Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony—has been one of history’s most controversial men. His story was buried with him and written by his enemies. Now his entire saga is revealed in a compelling trilogy by Brook Allen.
After young Marcus Antonius’s father dies in disgrace, he yearns to restore his family’s honor during the final days of Rome’s dying Republic. Marcus is rugged, handsome, and owns abundant military talent, but upon entering manhood, he falls prey to the excesses of a violent society. His whoring, gambling, and drinking eventually reap dire consequences. Through a series of personal tragedies, Marcus must come into his own through blood, blades, and death. Once he finally earns a military commission, he faces an uphill battle to earn the respect and admiration of soldiers, proconsuls, and kings. Desperate to redeem his name and carve a legacy for himself, he refuses to let warring rebels, scheming politicians, or even an alluring young Egyptian princess.
Brook Allen is a Music Educator in a rural community near Roanoke, VA. Aside from her regular classes, she teaches two ensembles, a Chorus and Recorder Consort. Born in Salt Lake City, UT, Brook was raised in Omaha, Nebraska and has lived all over the U.S., from the Pacific Northwest, all the way down to Florida. She graduated with a B.A. in Music Education and has a M. A. in Liberal Studies, with an emphasis on Roman History. Brook is happily married and has two energetic Labrador Retrievers. Voraciously active, she cycles, hikes, and loves to travel.