By Jean Marie Carey

The Roman god Saturn’s feast began being celebrated in Rome on 17 December 497 BCE. The seven-day celebration in December called the Saturnalia has come to be associated with any revel-based celebration marked by licentiousness and the temporarily allowed breaking of taboos.

Roman festivals (feriae) were both holy days and holidays. At public feasts the specified magistrates and priests performed religious rites in honor of the gods. These might include sacrifices, prayers, banquets, and games. Individual citizens were free to attend the rituals at temples, the processions through the streets, and the spectacles in the theater and the circus, and on occasion citizens may have been able to receive a part of the sacrificial meat, but they were under no obligation to participate in the public festivities.

The Romans spoke of three classifications of public feast days. Most common were fixed festivals (stativae), those celebrated on the same day each year — the Terminalia (for Terminus, god of boundaries) on 23 February, Liberalia (for Liber) on 17 March, Vinalia (festival of wine) on 23 April and 19 August, Fontinalia (in honor of Fons, deity of springs) on 13 October, and so forth. Those of greatest antiquity were marked in capital letters on the calendars set up in public places, but as a matter of practice each month on the nones (the fifth or seventh day, according to the month) a state priest called the rex sacrorum formally established by proclamation that month’s sacral agenda. Such feasts usually occurred on odd-numbered days and had names ending in –ia in the neuter plural form.

The Romans saw the history of their city embedded in their festivals, even if a historical explanation does not always reflect actual origins. The habit of thought can be seen in the differing ancient interpretations of the Poplifugia (flight of the people) on 5 July — supposedly recalling either the frightful popular reaction to Romulus’ mysterious apotheosis or the citizens’ attempt to escape centuries later when neighboring Latins threatened Rome after the disastrous defeat by the Gauls. The priestly brotherhood called Luperci who celebrated the Lupercalia was traced back to young Romulus and Remus. The Regifugium (flight of the king) on 24 February was taken to memorialize the expulsion of King Tarquin the Proud (Tarquinus Superbus) and the consequent inauguration of the Roman Republic.

Saturnalia was one of the most popular Roman festivals, initially taking place only on 17 December but then extending for seven days in the late Republic, trimmed to five or three under the Empire. Here coincide the annual worship of an ancient deity and the general merrymaking found in many cultures at the time of the winter solstice — compare the similar celebratory confluence at the same time of year in Christmas. Public events consisted of sacrifice to Saturn at his temple in the Forum and a senatorial banquet. Throughout the city people exchanged gifts and exuberantly reveled in a carnivalesque manner that pointedly inverted societal norms—public gambling was allowed, masters waited upon their slaves at meals, parties continued day and night. The spirit of release thus merrily expressed among the population found its counterpart in the rituals at the divinity’s national shrine: the woolen bonds normally wrapped around the feet of Saturn’s cult statue were removed during the Saturnalia.

Reference: David Leeming. “Saturnalia.” In The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Scene VII from the Frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, First Century. Women flogged each other during the Dionysiac festival, and at the Roman Lupercalia women were lashed by the celebrants so as to expel from them the demon of sterility.

Statue of a Woman Dressed for Saturnalia, c. 50. The woman wears a thin elegant dress, thong sandals, and a crown of Dionysiac ivy leaves. The birds and basket of fruit she carries are festival offerings. Her garment has slipped off her shoulder, a detail often seen in representations of old women that hints at the liberation of the elderly from the restrictions imposed on women of childbearing years. The figure seems to have been deliberately damaged, probably in the late antiquity, when such a pagan image would have provoked hostility. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr. 09.39.

Cybele, with mural crown on head, c. 200 BCE, Sardinia. Cybele is a goddess of fertility, but also cures (and sends) disease, gives oracles, and, as her mural crown indicates, protects the Anatolians in war. Cybele is also mistress of wild nature, symbolized by her attendant lions. Ecstatic states inducing prophetic rapture and insensibility to pain were characteristic of her worship. When Cybele became associated with the Roman Ceres, the excesses of her festival worship were removed. Considering that worship of Cybele in Anatolia went back to the earliest times, this was an outstanding example of Roman ability to absorb and reshape other religions. By 204 BCE Cybele was installed in Rome in a temple on the Palatine. For the remainder of the Republican Period save for the public games, the Megalesia and processions, she was limited to her temple and served only by priests. Romans were not to join the priesthood. Finally under Claudius (50-54) the cult was accepted, and Romans flocked to join. Photo: The Archive for Research on Archetypal Symbolism, Nr. 23378.

Attributed to Titian and his apprentices. Allegory of Prudence, c. 1565. The human heads represent Prudence, in the terms of scholastic moral theology, composed of three faculties – Memoria, Intelligencia and Praevidentia – with the respective functions of conserving the past, knowing the present and foreseeing the future, presented in opposition to the Saturnalian statue of Serapis. The National Gallery, London, Nr. 5Gb.080.

Head of the Diadoumenos, c. 150, Roman copy of an original attributed to Polykleitos. The original statue commemorated an athlete’s victory in the games, expressed by tying a ribbon (diadem) around his head. The calm introspection of the victor at the otherwise decadent festival games implies his humble though self-confident awareness of the divine. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Nr. 1991.003.

Further Reading: J. Rasmus Brandt and Jon W. Iddeng. Greek and Roman Festivals Content, Meaning, and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 

Michael Lipka. Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach. Boston: BRILL, 2009. 

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