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 p1009  Saturnalia

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on p1009 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SATURNA′LIA, the festival of Saturnus, to whom the inhabitants of Latium attributed the introduction of agriculture and the arts of civilized life. Falling towards the end of December, at the season when the agricultural labours of the year were fully completed, it was celebrated in ancient times by the rustic population as a sort of joyous harvest-home, and in every age was viewed by all classes of the community as a period of absolute relaxation and unrestrained merriment. During its continuance no public business could be transacted, the law courts were closed, the schools kept holiday, to commence a war was impious, to punish a malefactor involved pollution (Macrob. Sat. I.10.16; Martial, I.86; Suet. Aug. 32; Plin. Ep. VIII.7). Special indulgences were granted to the slaves of each domestic establishment; they were relieved from all ordinary toils, were permitted to wear the pileus the badge of freedom, were granted full freedom of speech, partook of a banquet attired in the clothes of their masters, and were waited upon by them at table (Macrob. Sat. I.7; Dion Cass. LX.19; Hor. Sat. II.7.5; Martial, XI.6, XIV.1; Athen. XIV.44).

All ranks devoted themselves to feasting and mirth, presents were exchanged among friends, cerei or wax tapers being the common offering of the more humble to their superiors, and crowds thronged the streets, shouting Io Saturnalia (this was termed clamare Saturnalia), while sacrifices were offered with uncovered head, from a conviction that no ill-omened sight would interrupt the rites of such a happy day (Catull. 14; Senec. Ep. 18; Suet. Aug. 75; Martial, V.18, 19, VII.53, XIV.1; Plin. Ep. IV.9; Macrob. Sat. 1.8, 10; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. III.407).

Many of the peculiar customs exhibited a remarkable resemblance to the sports of our own Christmas and of the Italian Carnival. Thus on the Saturnalia public gambling was allowed by the aediles (Martial, V.84, XIV.1, XI.6), just as in the days of our ancestors the most rigid were wont to countenance card-playing on Christmas-eve; the whole population threw off the toga, wore a loose gown, called synthesis, and walked about with the pileus on their heads (Martial, XIV.141, VI.24, XIV.1, XI.6; Senec. Ep. 18), which reminds us of the dominoes, the peaked caps, and other disguises worn by masques and mummers; the cerei were probably employed as the moccoli now are on the last night of the Carnival; and lastly, one of the amusements in private society was the election of a mock king (Tac. Ann. XIII.15; Arrian, Diss. Epictet. I.25; Lucian. Saturn. 4), which at once calls to recollection the characteristic ceremony of Twelfth-night.

Saturnus being an ancient national god of Latium, the institution of the Saturnalia is lost in the most remote antiquity. In one legend it was ascribed to Janus, who, after the sudden disappearance of his guest and benefactor from the abodes of men, reared an altar to him, as a deity, in the forum, and ordained annual sacrifices; in another, as related by Varro, it was attributed to the wandering Pelasgi, upon their first settlement in Italy, and Hercules, on his return from Spain, was said to have reformed the worship, and abolished the practice of immolating human victims; while a third tradition represented certain followers of the last named hero, whom he had left behind on his return to Greece, as the authors of the Saturnalia (Macrob. Sat. I.7). Records approaching more nearly to history referred the erection of temples and altars, and the first celebration of the festival, to epochs comparatively recent, to the reign of Tatius (Dionys. II.50), of Tullus Hostilius (Dionys. III.32; Macrob. Sat. I.8), of Tarquinius Superbus (Dionys. VI.1; Macrob. l.c.), to the consul­ship of A. Sempronius and M. Minucius, B.C. 497, or to that of T. Larcius in the preceding year (Dionys. VI.1; Liv. II.21). These conflicting statements may be easily reconciled, by supposing that the appointed ceremonies were in these rude ages neglected from time to time, or corrupted, and again at different periods revived, purified, extended, and performed with fresh splendour and greater regularity (cf. Liv. XXIII.1 sub fin.).

During the republic, although the whole month of December was considered as dedicated to Saturn (Macrob. I.7), only one day, the XIV. Kal. Jan. was set apart for the sacred rites of the divinity: when the month was lengthened by the addition of two days upon the adoption of the Julian Calendar, the Saturnalia fell on the XVI. Kal. Jan., which gave rise to confusion and mistakes among the more ignorant portion of the people. To obviate this inconvenience, and allay all religious scruples, Augustus enacted that three whole days, the 17th, 18th, and 19th of December, should in all time coming be hallowed, thus embracing both the old and new style (Macrob. I.10). A fourth day was added, we know not when or by whom, and a fifth, with the title Juvenalis, by Caligula (Dion Cass. LIX.6; Sueton. Cal. 17), an arrangement which, after it had fallen into disuse for some years, was restored and confirmed by Claudius (Dion Cass. LX.2).

But although, strictly speaking, one day only, during the republic, was consecrated to religious observances, the festivities were spread over a much longer space. Thus while Livy speaks of the first day of the Saturnalia (Saturnalibus primis, Liv. XXX.36), Cicero mentions the second and third (secundis Saturnalibus, ad Att. XV.32; Saturnalibus tertiis, ad Att. V.20); and it would seem that the merry-making lasted during seven days, for Novius, the writer of Atellanae, employed the expression septem Saturnalia, a phrase copied in later times by Memmius (Macrob. I.10), and even Martial speaks of Saturni septem dies (XIV.72), although in many other passages he alludes to the five days observed in accordance with the edicts of Caligula and Claudius (II.89, XIV.79, 141). In reality, under the empire, three different festivals were celebrated during the period of seven days. First came the Saturnalia proper, commencing on XVI. Kal. Dec., followed by the Opalia, anciently coincident with the Saturnalia (Macrob. I.10), on XIV. Kal. Jan.; these two together lasted for five days, and the sixth and seventh were occupied with the Sigillaria, so called from little earthenware figures (sigilla, oscilla) exposed for sale at this season, and given as toys to children.

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