Io, Saturnalia!

Happy Saturnalia to all!

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 Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, Rome. Saturnalia
The Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, Rome

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.

My homemade Saturnalia shrine. Saturnalia
My homemade 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.

Saturn with head protected by winter cloak, holding a scythe in his right hand, fresco from the House of the Dioscuri at Pompeii Naples Archaeological Museum. Saturnalia
Saturnus with head protected by winter cloak, holding a scythe in his right hand, fresco from the House of the Dioscuri at Pompeii. Naples Archaeological Museum

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.

Dice players fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio (VI 10,1.19, room b), in situ wall fresco, Pompeii. Saturnalia
Dice players fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio (VI 10,1.19, room b), in situ wall fresco, Pompeii

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).

Replicas of terracotta figurines in the form of animals. Saturnalia
Replicas of terracotta figurines in the form of animals

“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!

Io, Saturnalia!

To learn more about Saturnalia here are some interesting links:


Culture Education

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Sparta

Sparta was one of the most important cities in ancient Greece, and the stories of its heroic warriors continue to be retold through modern films and stories. However, the popular image of Sparta propagates a version of Sparta, our version of Sparta, and this is often quite removed from the ancient sources and idealised. As such, this post includes some interesting facts (and theories) about ancient Sparta that you might not know, enjoy!


Agrippina the Younger: Unofficial First Empress of the Roman Empire

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.

Cast of Agrippina the Younger in reflection. Pushkin Museum. Image © Shakko; CC-A-3.0.
Cast of Agrippina the Younger in reflection. Pushkin Museum. Image © Shakko; CC-A-3.0.

An Educational Web Portal for Cypriot UNESCO Monuments


Digital Heritage Research Lab, Cyprus University of Technology[1]

At the beginning of the 21st century, technology had reached a point where the digitization of Cultural Heritage (CH) and massive storage of CH data was economically efficient and, on the other hand, due to human thread and massive environmental destruction there was a need for massive CH digitization. This fact has led to the formation of a high interest in turning the material into digital, for the information to be easily detected and retrieved and the knowledge to be widely and equally accessible. At the same time the Digital Agenda for Europe, promotes the creation, production and distribution of digital content and services for a creative, vibrant single market. [1] Reuse of Digital CH content is taking place now in Europe, characterized by the Europeana projects (Europeana Creative, E-Space, Europeana Food & Drink etc.), where experimental business models, innovative approaches and services are developed using Europe’s biggest -in digital items- library. [2] The concept of “use and reuse” of Digital CH Data has been established, while at the same time a demand developed for the further evolution of the technology in order to facilitate the exponential growth of the created content (big data) and their preservation.


A Sliver Statue and a Golden Mouth

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.

A statue base with two inscriptions carved on opposite sides, one in Greek, one in Latin, stands in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, where it receives very little attention from passing tourists, but sixteen hundred years ago it was at the centre of a row between a high-spirited empress and an equally determined bishop.


Roman Inns Are Not For Free!

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!

Behind the Scenes Education

AHE Launches History et cetera Video Series

A new series of entertaining and educational videos created by Ancient History Encyclopedia, in co-production with Past Preservers, will expand and enhance the availability of online resources pertaining to the study of the ancient world.

AHE-Logo-TM-265px PP

Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE), a nonprofit, digital humanities website focused on global ancient history, announced today that they are launching a series of videos under the title History et cetera with Past Preservers. This new series will bring fresh and engaging video content to Ancient History Encyclopedia, offering the “YouTube generation” expert knowledge on a variety of topics related to history, archaeology, and much more. This video series is designed to appeal to students, educators, and history enthusiasts alike.


The Summer Solstice and its Celtic Traditions

In 2016, the Summer Solstice will be celebrated on the 20th of June in the Northern Hemisphere. The Summer Solstice occurs when the axial tilt of the earth is at its closest to the sun. It has more hours of daylight than any other time of the year, making it the longest day of the year.

People across the world will mark the event in various ways. While different ancient cultures had different traditions, some of the most time-honoured and world-famous were those undertaken by the Celtic people.

The Summer Solstice was one of eight sacred Celtic days where the Celts would take time to celebrate through a variety of customs. They used ‘Natural Time’ taking their lead from the Solstices and Equinoxes to determine the seasons. This is in contrast to the Gregorian calendar that has been adopted today.


How Many Lives Could an Inscription Live?

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.

When we think of ancient inscriptions we instinctively associate them with the idea of a message engraved in stone meant to be delivered to eternity. In theory, it was so also in the mind of the ancient Romans, but, as we know, theory does not always match practice: evidences from the whole of the Roman empire show that inscriptions suffered in antiquity a surprisingly high mortality rate, in some instances even higher than that of the Romans themselves.

Headless statue of a togate man from the theater of Lepcis Magna

The 115 AD Earthquake in Antioch

Exactly 1900 years ago¹, Hadrian survived a violent and devastating earthquake while wintering in Antioch during Trajan’s campaign in the east. Hadrian had been in Syria since January 114 AD as imperial legate (envoy to the emperor), and as such, had taken up residence in Antiochia ad Orontem (Antioch on the Orontes). The city served as headquarters for the Parthian wars. Trajan had returned from a campaign in Armenia when disaster struck in the morning of December 13th of 115 AD.
The earthquake in the Orontes valley, of an estimated magnitude of 7.5 on the Moment Magnitude scale (MMS), almost totally destroyed Antioch, Daphne and four other ancient cities including Apamea. It was felt all over the near East and the Eastern Mediterranean up to Rhodos and triggered a tsunami that hit the harbour city of Caesarea Maritima in Judea.

The 115 AD Antioch earthquake
The 115 AD Antioch earthquake.

Antioch on the Orontes was one of the most important cities of the Graeco-roman period. It was founded in 300 BC by Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and became the Seleucids’ capital city. The ancient city stood on the eastern side of the Orontes River. It is currently partly covered by the modern city of Antakya (Turkey). Its location destined Antioch to be a mixture of diverse cultures as well as a trading centre. Caravans from Asia Minor, Persia, India traveled through the city where exchanges on a large scale were conducted. After Rome conquered Syria in 64 BC, the city became a Roman stronghold. Roman culture added to the city’s luxury with a forum, an amphitheatre, baths, a hippodrome, a theatre, a great colonnaded street (Via Triumphalis) and an aqueduct carrying water to fountains, public buildings and villas. The city was thriving and was known as the “Queen of the East.” At the time of the earthquake of 115 AD Antioch had a population of about 500,000.

Map of Antioch, capital of Syria.
Map of Antioch in Roman and early Byzantine times. Image © Wikipedia author Cristian94.


The most vivid description of the catastrophe came from the Roman historian Cassius Dio. In his Roman History (Book LXVIII), he described how Antioch was crowded at the time of the earthquake due to the emperor Trajan overwintering within the city.

While the emperor was tarrying in Antioch a terrible earthquake occurred; many cities suffered injury, but Antioch was the most unfortunate of all. Since Trajan was passing the winter there and many soldiers and many civilians had flocked thither from all sides in connexion with law-suits, embassies, business or sightseeing, there was no nation of people that went unscathed; and thus in Antioch the whole world under Roman sway suffered disaster.

He then painted a dramatic picture of the destruction witnessed by the population.

First there came, on a sudden, a great bellowing roar, and this was followed by a tremendous quaking. The whole earth was upheaved, and buildings leaped into the air; some were carried aloft only to collapse and be broken in pieces, while others were tossed this way and that as if by the surge of the sea, and overturned, and the wreckage spread out over a great extent even of the open country.

Soldiers and civilians were killed by falling debris while many others were trapped. The aftershocks that followed the earthquake for several days killed some of the survivors, while others, trapped in collapsed buildings, died of starvation.

And as Heaven continued the earthquake for several days and nights, the people were in dire straits and helpless, some of them crushed and perishing under the weight of the buildings pressing upon them, and others dying of hunger.

Trajan survived and escaped with only minor injuries but was forced to take shelter in the circus as the aftershocks continued for several days (see an aerial photo of circus of Antioch here).

Trajan made his way out through a window of the room in which he was staying. Some being, of greater than human stature, had come to him and led him forth, so that he escaped with only a few slight injuries; and as the shocks extended over several days, he lived out of doors in the hippodrome.

Unfortunately nothing is reported on how Plotina, Trajan’s wife, or Hadrian managed but they obviously survived unscathed. Many soldiers, including members of the imperial entourage perished. One of the most prominent victim was the consul ordinarius Marcus Pedo Vergilianus. In total 260,000 are said to have died during or in the aftermath of this event. The population of Antioch was reduced to less than 400,000 inhabitants and many sections of the city were abandoned.

Mosaic of the Judgment of Paris, 115 - 150 AD, from Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey), Louvre Museum
Mosaic of the Judgment of Paris, 115 – 150 AD. It was discovered in 1932 in Antioch in the Atrium House. This panel was placed in the floor of a dining room which was redone shortly after the earthquake of 115 AD. Now in the Louvre, Paris. Image © Carole Raddato.

Soon after the disaster Trajan started to restore the city. Since the 6km long aqueduct running between Daphne’s springs and Antioch was seriously damaged, Trajan began the construction of a new aqueduct or repaired an existing one he had built earlier (see an image showing the masonry on the aqueduct of Trajan here). As Trajan did not live to finish the project, work on the aqueduct was completed by Hadrian.

According to the 6th century AD chronicler John Malalas, a native from Antioch, Trajan commemorated the rebuilding of the city by erecting a gilded copy of the Tyche of Eutychides in the theatre. Tyche was the patron deity of Antioch. She was a goddess who presided over the prosperity of the city, bringing hope and good fortune to its citizens. The most renowned sculpture of Tyche was a bronze statue by the Greek sculptor Eutychides, a pupil of Lysippos, created for the city of Antioch in the early 3rd century BC, the best extant version of which is in the Vatican Museum (see below). It shows the goddess, crowned with towers, seated on a rock, symbolic of Mount Silpius, with her feet resting on the river Orontes, depicted as a swimming youth.

The Tyche (Fortune) of Antioch. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Eutychides of the 3rd century BC. By Jastrow (2006) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Tyche of Antioch. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Eutychides of the 3rd century BC. Image by Jastrow (2006) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Like his predecessor, Hadrian improved the water supply to Antioch. In addition to the completion of the repairs done on the aqueduct, Malalas records the building of a theatron (a theatre-like water reservoir that may have resembled the Hadrianic reservoir at Zaghouan, as suggested by Richard H. Chowen) and a Temple of the Nymphs at the springs of Antioch’s suburb Daphne which contained a great statue of Hadrian.

One year and eight months after the earthquake, on August 11 of 117 AD, Hadrian was proclaimed emperor by the army in Antioch. He remained  in the city until September 117 when he set out to reach Rome.

Antioch will be the start of my Hadrian1900 project. Unfortunately, not much is left to see of ancient Antioch. However I will make sure to visit the archaeological museum, which has one of the best collections of ancient mosaics in the world (see loads of beautiful images here).

Antiochia ad Orontem (Antioch)
Antiochia ad Orontem on the Tabula Peutingeriana.
¹ The date of December 115 AD appears to be established by John Malalas as well as in the Fasti Ostienses as restored by Vidman – [ID(ibus) Dec(embres) terrae m]otus fuit. However the date is subject to debate among scholars. Anthony R. Birley believes the earthquake took place in January 115 AD.


  • Cassius Dio, Roman History, 68.24.1-25.6 (link)
  • Birley, Anthony R. (1997). Hadrian. The restless emperor. London: Routledge. p. 71
  • Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. (2002). Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Priceton: Princeton University Press. p. 136-139
  • Chowen, Richard H. “The Nature of Hadrian’s Theatron at Daphne”. American Journal of Archaeology 60.3 (1956): p. 275–277
  • Glanville Downey. — A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest. p. 221-223
  • National Geophysical Data Center. “Comments for the Significant Earthquake”
  • Reinhardt, E.G.; Goodman B.N., Boyce J.I., Lopez G., van Hengstum P., Rinnk W.J., Mart Y. & Raban A. (2006). “The tsunami of 13 December A.D. 115 and the destruction of Herod the Great’s harbor at Caeserea Maritima, Israel”
  • Blog: Antiochepedia (Musings Upon Ancient Antioch) by Christopher Ecclestone (link)

Originally published at Following Hadrian; republished with permission.