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By the beginning of December, writes Columella, the farmer should have finished his autumn planting (De Re Rustica, III.14). Now, with the approach of the winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian calendar), Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing (Latin satus) was honored with a festival. The Saturnalia officially was celebrated on December 17 (XVI Kal. Jan.) and, in Cicero's time, lasted seven days (counting inclusively), from December 17 to 23. Augustus limited the holiday to three days, so the civil courts would not have to be closed any longer than necessary (Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.10.4), and Caligula extended it to five (Suetonius, Life of Caligula, XVII; Dio, Roman History, LIX.6.4), the fifth day restored by Claudius after it once had been abolished (Dio, LX.25.8). Still, everyone seems to have continued to celebrate for a full week, extended, says Macrobius, by celebrating the Sigillaria on the last day of Saturnalia, so named for the small earthenware figurines (sigillaria) that were sold then (I.10.24).

In the Saturnalia, Macrobius creates an imaginary symposium among pagan intellectuals in which he offers an explanation for the varying length of the holiday. Originally, the festival was celebrated on one day only, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January. With the Julian reform of the calendar, however, two days were added to December, and the Saturnalia was celebrated sixteen days before the Kalends (December 17) "with the result that, since the exact day was not commonly known—some observing the addition which Caesar had made to the calendar and others following the old usage—the festival came to be regarded as lasting for more days than one" (I.10.2). The original day was given over to the Opalia, honoring Ops, who personified abundance and the fruits of the earth, and was the consort of Saturn. As the two deities represented the produce of the fields and orchards, so they also were thought to represent heaven and earth. It was for this reason, says Macrobius, that the two festivals were celebrated at the same time, the worshipers of Ops always sitting in prayer so that they touched the earth, mother of all (I.10.20).

In the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were performed. Saturn, himself, was identified with Kronos, and sacrificed to according to Greek ritual, with the head uncovered. The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia, and the woolen bonds which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue within were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god. It also was a festival day. After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, as well as a lectisternium (in which an image of the god was placed as if in attendance), which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. "For a day and a night the cry of the Saturnalia resounded through the City, and the people were ordered to make that day a festival and observe it as such for ever" (History of Rome, XXII.1.19). Afterwards, according to Macrobius, the celebrants shouted Io, Saturnalia at a riotous feast in the temple (I.10.18).

The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus describes it as "the best of days" (Poems, XIV), and Seneca complains that the "whole mob has let itself go in pleasures" (Epistles, XVIII.3). Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for visits to friends and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria. Martial wrote Xenia and Apophoreta for the Saturnalia, both of which were published in December and intended to accompany the "guest gifts" that were given at that time of year. Aulus Gellius relates that he and his Roman compatriots would gather at the baths in Athens, where they were studying, and pose difficult questions to one another on the ancient poets, a crown of laurel being dedicated to Saturn if no-one could answer them (Attic Nights, XVIII.2).

During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted in public, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season (Martial, Epigrams, XIV.1). Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen, a role once occupied by a young Nero, who derisively commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.15).

Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian has the god himself declare that "During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside." Statius recounts a "December tipsy with much wine, and laughing Mirth and wanton Wit," remembering "the glad festival of our merry Caesar and the banquet's drunken revel" (Silvae, I.6.1ff; also Suetonius, Life of Domitian, IV.1; Dio, LXVII.4.4). Figs, nuts, dates and other dainties were showered on the people, women and children, men and senators alike, and bread and wine served while guests were entertained by women fighting in the arena and cranes were hunted by dwarfs.

This equality was temporary, of course. Petronius speaks of an impudent slave, who had burst out laughing, being asked whether it was December yet (Satyricon, LVIII). And Dio writes of Aulus Plautius cajoling his troops in his invasion of Britain, who hesitated, "indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world" (LX.19.3). Only when they were entreated by a former slave dispatched by Claudius did they relent, derisively shouting Io, Saturnalia at the freedman who acted like an emperor.

If a time of merriment, the season also was an occasion for murder. The Catiline conspirators intended to fire the city and kill the Senate on the Saturnalia, when many would be preoccupied with the celebration (Cicero, The Third Oration Against Catiline, X). Caracalla plotted to murder his brother then (Dio, LXXVIII.2.1), and Commodus was strangled in his bath on New Year's eve (Herodian, History of the Empire, I.17.11).

At the end of the first century AD, Statius, besotted from Domitian's Saturnalian feast, exulted: "Who can sing of the spectacle, the unrestrained mirth, the banqueting, the unbought feast, the lavish streams of wine? Ah! now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep. For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue" (Silvae, I.6.98ff). And the Saturnalia did continue to be celebrated as the Brumalia (from bruma, "the shortest day," winter solstice, cf. Varro, De Lingua Latina, VI.8) down to the Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century AD, its festivities were becoming absorbed in the celebration of Christmas.

In the Julian reform of the Roman calendar on January 1, 45 BC, Caesar added two additional days to the end of December. But, because they fell between the Ides and the next Kalends, Caesar was confronted either with having the Saturnalia celebrated on the same "day" (i.e., the same number of days after the Ides) or on the same "date" (its position in the month relative to the following Kalends). He chose to leave the festival on the same day, even though this meant changing its date.

Macrobius says that the Saturnalia occurred on "the fourteenth before the Kalends of January" in the Republican calendar. In a month that then had only twenty-nine days, a.d.XIV.Kal.Jan. is December 17. This also was its "day" in the Julian calendar, with its thirty-one day month, although the "date" now is a.d.XVI.Kal.Jan., just as Caesar had intended in his reform of the calendar. 

Feeney provides an intriguing example of the consequences of the new calendar in the person of Mark Antony, who was born in 83 BC on the day after the Ides of January (January 14). In the Republican calendar, January had twenty-nine days and Antony's birthday, since he was born after the Ides, was counted down to the next Kalends. That day was the seventeenth before the Kalends of February. In the reformed Julian calendar, two days were added to January, which now had thirty-one. In 45 BC, celebrating his thirty-eighth birthday for the first time under the Julian calendar, Antony had to chose whether to recognize it on the same date (the seventeenth day before the Kalends), as he always had done—even though that date now was two days later (on the third day after the Ides)—or on the same day (the day after the Ides). He chose to observe his birthday on the same day.

But this date did not exist in the calendar of the Republic. When Antony was born, there was no nineteenth day before the Kalends of February, since only seventeen days could be counted back. Nineteen days would be the day before the Ides of January, not the day after. Antony's birthday is the anniversary of the "day" he was born, but it is not the "date" of his birth simply because that day did not exist in the Julian calendar.

When Antony committed suicide in 30 BC, dying in Cleopatra's arms, his memory was damned by the Roman Senate (damnatio memoriae). He already had been declared a public enemy (Suetonius, Augustus, XVII.2) and his statues torn down when Octavian entered Alexandria (Plutarch, Antony, LXXXVI.5). The Senate also ordered that monuments to Antony be defaced or dismantled, his honors rescinded, his descendants forbidden to use the praenomen Marcus, and "the day on which he had been born accursed" (dies nefastus), a day unfit for public business (Dio, LI.19.3; Plutarch, Cicero, XLIX.6).

And yet the greatest damnation was accidental. Not only was his natal day condemned but, with the reform of the Roman calendar by Julius Caesar, it no longer even existed. It was as if Mark Antony had never been born.

The first reference to December 25 as the Nativity of Jesus occurs in a section of the Chronography of AD 354 known as the Calendar of Philocalus, which, even by this late date, still identified December 17 as ludi Saturnalia.

Half a century later, when Macrobius wrote the Saturnalia, he placed the celebration in the house of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a pagan aristocrat who once had served as praetorian prefect during the reign of Valentinian II and been consul designate before his death. A correspondent of Symmachus (Letters, I.44-55), he was characterized by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus as "a senator of noble character and old-time dignity" (Roman History, XXII.7.6.), an honest and upright man who, "although he did nothing to gain favour, yet everything that he did was looked upon with favour" (XXVII.9.8-10).

When Praetextatus died in AD 384, his death was scornfully dismissed by Jerome (the translator of the Latin Vulgate). "A few days ago the highest dignitaries of the city walked before him as he ascended the ramparts of the capitol like a general celebrating a triumph; the Roman people leapt up to welcome and applaud him, and at the news of his death the whole city was moved. Now he is desolate and naked, a prisoner in the foulest darkness, and not, as his unhappy wife falsely asserts, set in the royal abode of the milky way" (Letters, XXIII.3). He is referring to a eulogy that the wife of Praetextatus, Aconia Fabia Paulina, herself the daughter of a consul, had written for her husband of forty years and later had inscribed on his funeral monument. Rather, Jerome asserts, he is "in Tartarus [hell]" (XXIII.2).

December 17 was recognized as the date of the Saturnalia as late as AD 448, when it was notated in the ecclesiastical calendar or laterculus ("list") of Polemius Silvius. But now, deprived of its pagan significance, it is identified only as feriae servorum ("festival of the slaves").

The picture above may seem a strange accompaniment to an essay on the Saturnalia, but this carving of a jolly fellow on a Mosel wine ship, which is in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum (Trier, Germany), seems to capture the spirit of the celebration as well as any. A more familiar image is the painting by Antoine-François Callet (1783).

References: Caesar's Calendar (2007) by Denis Feeney; Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture (2004) by Eric R. Varner; "Fabia Aconia Paulina and the Death of Praetextatus—Rhetoric and Ideals in Late Antiquity (CIL VI 1779)" by Maijastina Kahlos (1994), Arctos, 28, 13-25; Statius: Silvae, Thebaid (1928) translated by J. H. Mozley (Loeb Classical Library).

See also Ides of March.

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