“Well (since our ancestors would have it so), use the freedom of December [and] speak on.” – Horace to his slave, Davus, on the Saturnalia (Satires, II, 7.4)
I’m writing this up on the Sigillaria (December 23rd), the last day of the best known of the Roman festivals, the Saturnalia. The Sigillaria was devoted to gift-giving, specifically the giving of sigillaria (sigilla), small figurines typically made of pottery or wax. The figures were often of heroes or the gods, but they could also be simply made up people. While Macrobius (c. 400 AD) would claim these figures were substitutes for earlier human sacrifice, this wasn’t accepted by all ancient and early modern scholars. Indeed, even as Macrobius talked about the tradition in a fictional dialogue, he has one of his speakers argue that the figures are simply “meant to amuse infants who haven’t yet learned to walk” (Saturnalia, 1.11.1).
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that, like usual, possibly no one was less informed about the origins of their own religious practices than the Romans, even with a festival as popular and widespread as the Saturnalia. And much like the general parameters of Roman mythology and religion, even the Romans themselves seemed to believe that many of their rituals originated from another time or culture (the perils of believing that your people largely descended from Trojan immigrants). So rather than retreading the well-worn ground of the Saturnalia itself, and because Ovid didn’t get this far in his de Fasti, I thought we’d take a look at some other ancient festivals that the Romans might have cribbed some of their Saturnalia traditions from.
The most obvious source for the Saturnalia is the Greek Kronia (Κρόνια), the festival of the Greek god Kronos, whose Roman equivalent was Saturn. Both Kronos and Saturn were agricultural deities, as well as kings of the gods before they were usurped by their sons Zeus/Jupiter. While most of us associate Kronos with his poor gustatory decisions regarding his offspring (see the Goya painting below), the ancient Greeks and Romans both associated his reign with a lost golden age for humanity. Since Kronos was the god of agriculture, while he was king of the gods crops grew out of the ground without requiring human labor. Because the earth spontaneously provided and toil was unnecessary, humanity was also thought to be entirely egalitarian at this time as well, with no man needing to be the master of another. While the victorious Jupiter was obviously respected by the Romans, they had a special affinity for Saturn, who they believed—as reported by Virgil in the Aeneid—had fled to Italy after his defeat by the Olympians and ruled Latium for many years as a mythic king and lawgiver (Book VIII, pp 323 ff).
Unlike the late December Saturnalia, the Kronia was traditionally celebrated by the Greeks in late July/early August (12th of Hekatombaiōn (Ἑκατομβαιών) in the Attic calendar), which makes sense to honor a agricultural god during the summer harvest. The change of the time of year for the Romans is largely unexplained, but since “Saturn” existed in Roman religion before his association with Kronos, it is likely there simply was a winter festival in place for him already in December that no one was brave enough to move. The oldest Roman religious calendar was supposedly established by Romulus himself at the founding of the city and the Romans, like most ancient people, believed that only the proper execution of ritual would ensure prosperity. So if Romulus says that Saturn’s festival was to be held ante diem xvi Kalendas Ianuarias (sixteen days before the kalends (the first day) of January), that’s when you have his festival.
Not that the Romans eschewed all changes to their worship. Indeed, much of Rome’s adoption of foreign cults and practices can be attributed to another common ancient mindset, which is the search for the most advantageous divine aid. The gearing of the Roman Saturnalia toward the Greek Kronia can even be fairly reliably dated to around 217 BC, where like so many things in Republican Roman culture, the Saturnalia got caught up in the city’s fortunes vis à vis the Second Punic War with Carthage (218-201 BC). In 217, Rome had just suffered one of its worst defeats of the war at the Battle of Lake Trasimene. As with any time of crisis, the augurs consulted the mythic Sibyllene Books—three oracular books in which the future history of Rome was supposedly written. The books were what remained of a reported nine offered to the last Roman king, Tarquinius (ruled 534-509 BC) by the legendary Cumaean Sibyl, who offered to sell the books to him at an outrageous price. When he balked, she burned three of the books in front of him and offered the remaining six at the same price. Tarquinius, indignant, refused again and she burned another three before offering the last three at the original price. By then, the Senate was freaking out, and succumbing to a masterful use of FOMO, Rome bought the last three books from the Sibyl.
Anyway, the Sibylline Books were consulted by the Punic-beleaguered Romans, and the books suggested that to right the Latin ship of state, the Saturnalia rites should be celebrated in “the Greek manner.” We’re not exactly sure which of the Saturnalia traditions are Greek in origin and which are the Roman rites, but usually when rites are described as ritus graecus in Roman literature, it is in details like the priests offering the sacrifices wore Greek-style clothing rather than a toga and kept their heads bare rather than the typical Roman custom of covering one’s head in the presence of the gods. The custom of a lavish public banquet (convivium publicum) might have also come from the 217 reforms, particularly if the cult statue of Saturn was taken out of his temple and fêted at said banquet, which is a common Greek rite. As adverse as ancient people sometimes were to changing rituals, which carried an element of risk, the Romans might have been more willing to do things so differently for Saturn because one feature of the Kronia/Saturnalia seems to have always been the idea that the festival was a time of sanctioned role-reversal. In honor of the bygone golden age, social restrictions were relaxed during both festivals. Slaves celebrated by either dining with their masters, or even being served by them, while being allowed to speak their minds and make jokes at the expense of their betters without reprisal. Similarly, slaves and free people also gave gifts and played games together (including the often verboten dicing and gambling games of chance), while anyone could be elected the “king” of the feast—the origin of the modern Twelfth Night and Feast of Fools traditions.
The motif of festive role-reversal is common in many ancient Greek religious celebrations, and these other various festivals might have also been sources for the ritus graeci of the evolving Roman Saturnalia. Our old buddy Athenaeus of Naucratis tells us that the custom of masters dining with their slaves was a popular component of both the Athenian festival of Anthesteria(Ἀνθεστήρια) in honor of Dionysus, and of the Spartan Hyacinthia (Ὑακίνθια) in honor of the mythological Hyacinthus, the Spartan prince and lover of Apollo. This element in the Hyacinthia is perhaps especially surprising, given the extremely lowly status of helots in Spartan society, but Athenaeus states that the festival banquets were open to them, as well as any foreigners present at the time, and Xenophon tells us that the celebration was important enough that even the martial Spartans would suspend their military campaigns so they could return home for it (Hellenics IV, 5, 11). The sacrifices to Hyacinthus and Apollo during the festival were always goats, which would be the preferred sacrifice of vintners in Rome during the Saturnalia (goats being considered a menace to growing grapevines).
As for the Anthesteria, disregard for the normal social order is much less shocking, given Dionysus’ usual role as the cosmic disrupter in Greek religious thought. Perhaps ancient writers connected the Anthesteria with the Saturnalia because both were winter festivals, the former being held at the full moon of either January or February, as well as because of its loosened restrictions. Though because of the god’s journey to the underworld to save his mother, the Anthesteria was also a festival of dead, just like the Roman Parentalia. The departed, as well as the usually-feared Keres (violent death goddesses), were invited to roam freely in the city and given offerings. But thus placated, everyone was expected to go when the festival was over. A common proverb to admonish pushy friends was to tell them, “Out of doors, Keres! It is no longer the Anthesteria!”
Another Greek festival that might have influenced the place-swapping in the Saturnalia is the Hermaea (Ἔρμαια) in honor of Hermes, especially as it was celebrated by the inhabitants of Crete, where masters were specifically mentioned as waiting upon their slaves during the festival. Additionally, the Arcadian and Athenian versions were largely seen as a rowdy festival during which the youths (ephebes) were allowed to do as they pleased and hold unregulated athletic competitions without the usual restrictions of the lyceum and gymnasium. Apparently things usually got so out of hand at the Athenian festival that the statesman Solon once tried to bar adults from attending the events. But like how Dionysus’ worship permitted women and slaves to experience more freedom than they usually were allowed day to day, the trickster god Hermes, who once stole Apollo’s cattle as a baby, gave young people a chance to let their hair down too.
But maybe the most intriguing outside source for the Saturnalia’s customs is Athenaeus’ mention of an unnamed Babylonian festival. Our modern understanding of specific Babylonian religious celebrations or their rites is fairly limited, but one of the few we do know of is Akitu, an ancient Babylonian/Assyrian spring festival held in Araḫ Nisānu (𒌚𒁈) in honor of the god Marduk (𒀭𒀫𒌓) who was the patron god of the city of Babylon and eventually became the head of the Babylonian pantheon as the empire expanded.
Like many of the Mesopotamian gods, Marduk’s origins are so ancient that his character is fairly opaque, as are his original attributes, but two of the things he was believed to control was judgment and vegetation, which would connect him to Saturn and Kronos as both a god-king and an agricultural deity. Akitu, held in March or April, was designed to mark the beginning of the barley-sowing season in the Mesopotamian farming calendar. Marduk was also held as the god of magic, and as one of the earliest agricultural societies, farming must have felt divinely inspired at the time. The festival is thought to have been twelve days long, and we are told that, like the Saturnalia, all classes participated in it, unlike many ancient festivals that would have probably been restricted to offerings made by the king or the priesthood.
Many of the individual celebrations held on each day have been lost to us, but a couple of the traditions we do know about are intriguing regarding a possible connection to the Saturnalia. One is that on the third day, craftsmen would make special puppets that would be burned in a sacrifice to the god on the sixth day to ward off chaos and misfortune for the year, a potential parallel to the sigillaria exchanged among the Romans. The other being that after the puppet sacrifice, a certain amount of general lawlessness was staged in the city, along with a mock battle, to demonstrate to Marduk that his people would be powerless to maintain order without his intervention. Presumably, this organized disorder would have naturally led to a relaxation of the usual rules for everyone that might have evolved into the festive misrule that became the hallmark of the Saturnalia. This might seem like a stretch, that Rome could be influenced by a cult as old as Marduk’s, but the Akitu festival was still being celebrated by priesthoods in Parthia, as well as in Syria under the Greek Seleucids, during a time when Rome would have been aware of them. This would continue after Syria became a Roman province and the emperor Elagabalus, a native, would specifically bring the rites to Italy during his reign in the 3rd century.
In short, we’re used to thinking of the Saturnalia as a beginning point for many of of our modern holiday traditions, be it gift-giving, parties, or a certain level of breathing out as the old year ends and a new one starts. But in fact the Saturnalia exists on a continuum between the ancient past and the very ancient past. Whether it was a celebration based in the spring, summer, or winter; whether it was honoring Saturn, Dionysus, or Marduk—this set of festivals served the same purposes. Expressing thanks for services given, remembering the past, blessing the future, renewing ties between both people and the gods—these were the covenants that held the ancient world together. The Saturnalia might have longed for a mythic past that never was, but its loosed joy, and that of its predecessors, was meant to shine a light of hope toward the year to come as much as put the passing year to bed, ritually speaking. And that’s something that makes it easy to see why it’s survived in its hundreds of forms so successfully through the millennia. Io Saturnalia!