I organised a small banquet at home on the occasion of the Saturnalia festival. I absolutely love ancient Roman food and for this banquet I tried a few more ancient recipes. Once again, everything was delicious!
December 17, marks the beginning of the Saturnalia, a festival held in honour of Saturn that lasted for between 3 and 7 days. It was celebrated in Rome for the first time in 497 BC when the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum was dedicated. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days” – Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!.
The holiday began with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn. After the rituals, the celebrants shouted ‘Io, Saturnalia’ (Macrobius I.10.18). It was followed by several days of feasting and fun.
“It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business. … Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga“ (Seneca, “Letters“)
To celebrate the festive season in style, I made my own Saturnalia shrine.
Hadrian is wearing the pileus, as was the tradition during the festival. These pointy hats were traditionally worn by freedmen but during Saturnalia, all men, regardless of status, wore the pileus. Hadrian is set among foliage, ivy, holly (sacred to Saturn), images of the god Saturn, candles and terracotta figurines (sigillaria). Romans also decorated their houses with greenery. Garlands and wreaths of ivy and holly were hung over doorways and windows. Images of the god Saturn were placed around the altar, candles were lit and a suckling pig was sacrificed to the god.
The image of the god Saturn I placed on my Saturnalia shrine is a fresco from the House of the Dioscuri in Pompeii.
In addition to the large-scale public feasts at the Temple of Saturn, there was lots of eating and drinking at home, and slaves were allowed to join in. There was a tradition of role-reversal as slaves became masters for at least one banquet.
Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at best frowned upon, were permitted for all but children usually used nuts as as gambling tokens.
On the first day of Saturnalia, a Lord of Misrule was appointed by throwing the dice. The King of the Saturnalia presided over and could command people to do things like to prepare a banquet or sing a song. The young Nero played that role and mockingly commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing (Tacitus, Annals, 13.15). The last day of Saturnalia was a day of gift-giving when candles, writing tablets, knucklebones as well as small terracotta or wax figurines (sigillaria) were exchanged as gifts (Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.10.24).
“At the Saturnalia and Sigillaria he [Hadrian] often surprised his friends with presents, and he gladly received gifts from them and again gave others in return.”
Historia Augusta – The Life of Hadrian
On Saturday I will be cooking a Saturnalia feast. During this banquet, the best of Roman food and Roman wine will be served!
To learn more about Saturnalia here are some interesting links:
- A Roman Christmas by Caroline Lawrence
- Saturnalia Practices of Nova Romans
- On the Feast of Saturnalia, my master gave to me…
In 2012, Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) profiled the work of the Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland Project. The central aim of this project was to characterize the environment, settlement patterns, social structures, and ritual practices of the people who lived and died in Ireland during the first five centuries CE. It also surveyed the nature of Ireland’s interactions with the Roman Empire — especially with Roman Britain — in order to reconstruct a more holistic archaeological narrative for the later Irish Iron Age. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) speaks again to Dr. Jacqueline Cahill Wilson about the findings of this unprecedented archaeological project.
Agrippina the Younger was the first empress of the Roman Empire, but almost no modern sources remember her as such. In fact, she is not often remembered at all. Unlike her predecessor, Augustus’s wife Livia, she has slipped out of history. Where she has left a mark it has been only as Claudius’s last wife and the mother of Nero. But Agrippina was so much more than simply the consort and mother of men. She was a powerful, public woman in her own right, as is abundantly clear in the ancient sources that record her life, who express boundless horror at her refusal to stay in her appropriate feminine place. Agrippina the Younger’s life is characterised by her arrogant refusal to adhere to these accepted standards of femininity and to take for herself the overt power that she thought she deserved.
It appears that I will not be the only one celebrating next year: the Archaeological Museum of Seville in southern Spain is planning to host an exhibition in 2017 to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of the accession of Hadrian to the imperial throne.
Thanks to our partnership agreement with the EAGLE Portal, Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) will be republishing select EAGLE stories, on a periodic basis, which illuminate special topics pertaining everyday life and culture in ancient Rome. We hope that you enjoy these ancient vignettes, and we also encourage you to explore EAGLE’s massive epigraphic database.
This story is based on an original story (in Italian) by M. Blasi. A playful inscription from Isernia welcomes you to one of the funniest inns in the whole Roman Empire! Meet the innkeeper, Mr. Erotic (Callidius Eroticus), and his wife Ms. Pleasure (Fannia Voluptas). At the check-out, if you have any question on your itemized bill, don’t forget to ask the landlord!
This month’s sculpture from Hadrian’s Villa is a dark grey limestone relief decorated with mythological scenes. The Lansdowne Relief was unearthed in 1769 during excavations undertaken by the art dealer and archaeologist Gavin Hamilton, who sold it to Lord Lansdowne. The latter was an avid collector of antiquities who owned a fine collection of classical sculptures until most of it was sold and dispersed in 1930 (including the Lansdowne Antinous, the Lansdowne Amazon and the Lansdowne Hercules).
Roman mosaics decorated luxurious domestic and public buildings across the empire. Intricate patterns and figural compositions were created by setting tesserae — small pieces of stone or glass — into floors and walls. Scenes from mythology, daily life, nature, and spectacles in the arena enlivened interior spaces and reflected the cultural ambitions of wealthy patrons. Introduced by itinerant craftsmen, mosaic techniques and designs spread widely throughout Rome’s provinces, leading to the establishment of local workshops and a variety of regional styles.
Drawn primarily from the Getty Museum’s collection, Roman Mosaics across the Empire at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, California, presents the artistry of mosaics as well as the contexts of their discovery across Rome’s ever growing empire — from its center in Italy to provinces in North Africa, southern France, and ancient Syria. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Alexis Belis, assistant curator in the Department of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, about the various kinds of mosaics found within the former Roman Empire.
In the heart of southern England, the city of Bath emerges from the countryside with picturesque stone buildings and neoclassical Georgian architecture. I recently visited the city’s Roman baths, which were built nearly two millennia ago and continue to impress over a million visitors each year.
Roman glassware includes some of the finest pieces of art ever produced in antiquity and the very best were valued higher than wares made with precious metals. However, plain glass vessels such as cups, bowls, plates, and bottles were also used as everyday containers, in particular, for storing and serving food, drinks, and perfumes. The Romans also used glass for its decorative qualities and could be incorporated in mosaics and decorative panels in both walls and furniture. The material was also used for windows, to create jewellery, mirrors, game pieces, magnifying glasses, sculpture and, in the form of powder, even as a medicine and toothpaste. The sheer quantity of Roman glass would not be matched until the boom in Venetian glass in the 15th century CE.
These cups, bottles, and perfume containers all date to the 1st and 2nd century CE.