On This Day – 17 December

The Ancient Romans celebrated the beginning of the Saturnalia with a festival in honour of Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing.

The festival itself was celebrated over a number of days. In Cicero’s time the festival lasted seven days from December 17 to 23 inclusive. Augustus limited the holiday to three days so the civil courts would not have to be closed for the full seven days, Caligula extended it while he was emperor to five days, but the celebrations seem to have continued for the whole week nonetheless.

The first day of festivities was devoted to public events and would see a sacrifice followed by a public feast, for which the statue of the god Saturnus would be brought out from the temple with his feet wrapped in wool so that he could attend the festivities ‘in person’. It was a holiday from work of all kinds, schools were closed and no declarations of war could be made. Public gambling was permitted with even slaves being allowed to participate.

The private festivities would continue after the public feast and saw the normally strict social order of Rome inverted for a short period of time with slaves not having to work, and being allowed to insult their masters without fear of punishment.

The Saturnalia, in its prime, was clearly characterised as an unrestrained party. Catullus described the Saturnalia as ‘the best of days’ whereas Seneca (who was obviously not in touch with his inner party animal) complained that the ‘whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’. The date of the Saturnalia seems to have been recognised as late as AD 448 when it could still be found noted on the ecclesiastical calendar.