Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Roman Christmas

[This is a version of a lecture I gave at the British Museum in December of 2009]

Q. What do Christmas crackers, mulled wine, Santa hats, office parties, mistletoe, greenery, presents and candles have to do with ancient Rome?
A. Everything!

English "Christmas crackers"
The Saturnalia was one of the most popular festivals in Roman times, possibly going back to Etruscan times. A sacrifice of piglets was made to the god Saturn along with other rites, and there followed several days of feasting and fun. It was the custom to greet one another with the phrase YO SATURNALIA! One of my books takes place in Ostia, Rome's port, during the festival of Saturnalia. It is called The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina.

Here are 12 THINGS about the SATURNALIA which might seem familiar:

I. WINTER SOLSTICE - The Saturnalia began on December 17, a few days before the WINTER SOLSTICE. That’s when the days are shortest. It was essentially a pagan festival to bring back the sun. And some Romans celebrated the birth of a god at this time, a god of light called…

Mithras in the British Museum
II. BIRTH OF A GOD - Some scholars believe that the Persian god Mithras and/or the Roman god Sol Invictus had birthday celebrations on the winter solstice, which fell on 25 December in the Roman calendar. It wasn’t until about AD 400 that church leaders decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on this day, possibly in an attempt to overlay and obliterate these ‘pagan’ holidays. We don’t really know when Jesus was born. It may have been in December. Or it may have been in the spring or autumn. That doesn’t mean we still can’t celebrate it.

III. GREENERY - Romans decorated their houses with greenery. One of my favourite TV shows is Big Bang Theory. Sheldon says ‘In the pre-Christian era, as the winter solstice approached and the plants died, pagans brought evergreen boughs into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic, intended to guard the life essences of the plants until spring. This custom was later appropriated by Northern Europeans and eventually it becomes the so-called Christmas tree.’ That’s certainly where the custom of Christmas wreaths and mistletoe come from.

Flavia & Nubia by lamplight
IV. HOUSE DECORATED WITH LIGHTS - Romans also decorated their houses with extra lights at this darkest time of the year. Again, this was a pagan attempt to bring back the sun. Torches, tapers, candleabra and oil-lamps flickered throughout the houses of the rich. Because of this Rome was a particular fire hazard in the winter. One historian estimates that a hundred fires broke out daily in the Eternal City, which had its own entire corps of firemen – they were called Vigiles and we get the word ‘vigilent’ from them. Ostia, the port of Rome, had its own vigiles.

V. FEASTING! In mid-winter instinct tells us to build up a nice layer of fat, to feast in preparation for lean times ahead. A bit like a bear before hibernation. But we must take a moment to pity the Romans. Sadly, they did not have chocolate.

Flavia Gemina with a wreath
VI. DRINKING! It has been medically proven that a small amount of wine added to water will kill off most known bacteria. For most of the year Romans drank diluted wine, but during the Saturnalia they often drank neat wine, heated and spiced. Go easy this year or you might need the VOMITORIUM! (NB a 'vomitorium' is an exit, NOT a room where you go to be sick!) When your mum has her Bailey’s Irish Cream after Christmas dinner, just think, that custom goes back to the Saturnalia.

VII. PARTYING AND HIJINKS - and Role Reversal, too. For the five days of the Saturnalia, slaves didn't have to work. They could eat, drink and be merry, and some even switched places with their masters, especially in more relaxed homes. In theory the masters could wait on reclining slaves and the slaves could tell the masters what they thought of them. Most masters probably just left the slaves to themselves, like Pliny the Younger, who retreated to an annex of his seaside Laurentum Villa.: ‘during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the licence of the holiday and festive cries. This way,’ he says, ‘I don't hamper the games of my people and they don't hinder my work or studies.’ (I don't think HE was the life of the party.) DID I MENTION THAT KIDS DIDN’T HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL? During the Saturnalia, children were allowed into the amphitheatre. There was also lots of music and dancing. Today in the twenty first century, office employees find Christmas the time when they are tempted to take the most liberty. Be careful. Once the Saturnalia is over, you have to go back to being a slave again

a bone die
VIII. GAMBLING! In first century Rome, gambling was illegal... EXCEPT for the Saturnalia. For those few days in mid-winter, anyone could gamble: children and slaves included. Children usually gambled with nuts. In Italy and some other Mediterranean countries this practice lives on in the seasonal Tombola and Bingo games, only held at this time of year. When you get out the Monopoly board or the Wii, take a moment to consider that the Romans played games during the Saturnalia.

XI. KING OF THE SATURNALIA. On the first night of the festival in some families, the paterfamilias threw dice to determine who in the household would be the King of the Saturnalia. The 'King' could then command people to do things, eg prepare a banquet, sing a song, run an errand. During his reign, the depraved Emperor Nero used shaved dice to ensure that he would be chosen King of the Saturnalia, even though he was already the most powerful man in the known world. In The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, Flavia is grounded by her father, so she uses one of Lupus’s shaved dice to make sure she becomes King of the Saturnalia. I believe the paper crown in our Christmas cracker reminds us of this charming custom. Kids, why don’t you ask your parents if you can throw dice on one day to be King of the Saturnalia? But if you are chosen use your power wisely, next year someone else might be King!

X. SANTA HATS! During the festival the toga was discarded in favour of the more comfortable synthesis, the dinner suit, and on their heads men - and sometimes women - wore the felt cap, pileum (or pileus), the mark of freedom. These hats were traditionally worn by slaves who had been set free. This showed that they were "free" from the usual restrictions and laws. "Freedom has loosed the bonds for all..." said one Roman author about the Saturnalia. These "freedmen's hats" were conical in shape and made of colourful felt, perhaps fur-trimmed in the winter. In The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, Lupus wears a red felt pilleum, trimmed with white fur! Remind you of anything?

XI. GIFTS! Some people think the best part of Christmas are the presents. The Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia: traditionally candles, silver objects, preserved fruit and especially sigilla, small clay or wooden figures, often with moveable joints. Action figures from Barbie to Spiderman are the modern equivalent. And all the other gifts we give. The Saturnalia was a time of great SHOPPING. The first century philosopher Seneca sounds very modern when he grumbled about the shopping season: "Decembris used to be a month; now it's a whole year."

Roman writing materials
XII. EPIGRAMS! In Roman times they didn’t stick a little elf tag on their presents. They often composed two-line poems called EPIGRAMS to accompany their Saturnalia gift. The epigrams didn’t have to rhyme; they were in meter. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes in the form of a riddle, sometimes just descriptive. In Holland, people still compose poems to go with their presents. That’s another SATURNALIA CUSTOM you might like to start in your house.

What are some of the gifts people gave and some of the epigrams Romans wrote?

Marcus Valerius Martialis, AKA Martial is one of my favourite Roman poets. He lived during Flavia’s time and he wrote hundreds of epigrams. From these we know what kinds of gifts people gave each other. For example, they gave each other

FOOD like pepper, beans, lentils, flour, barley, lettuces, asparagus, grapes, figs, pine cones, jar of figs, jar of plums, smoked cheese, onions, sausages, box of olives, eggs, sucking pig, pomegranates, sow’s udder, chickens, early peaches, mushrooms, truffles, a hoop of little birds, ducks, ham, goose liver, Rhodian hardbake and the famous dormice. Here is Martial's poem about the gift of dormice:

DORMICE - The winter is for sleeping so I feed on sleep and grow fat for you. XIII.59

silver memento mori cup
CONDIMENTS and CUTLERY People also gave each other condiments, wine, cutlery and cups: garum, (fish sauce), honey, mulsum (honeyed wine), raisin wine, retsina, Falernian wine, Surrentine wine, vinegar, antique cups, golden bowl, arretine ware, a basket, mushroom pots, a strainer for snow, a flagon for snow, jewelled cups, a drinking flask, crystal cups, murrhine cups (a semi precious stone that gives flavour to wine), small table jugs, an earthenware jug, glass cups, silver spoons, snail spoons, etc

STATIONERY and FURNITURE were also popular gifts. Martial mentions wax tablets, ivory tablets, three leaved wax tablets, parchment tablets, small Vitellian tablets for love letters, ivory cashbox, dice, dice box, nuts (for gambling), gaming board, gaming pieces, case for writing materials, stylus case, bookcase, bundle of reed pens, oil lamp for the bedroom, candle, multi wicked lamp, wax taper, candelabrum, horn lantern, lantern made of a bladder, incense, smokeless wood, peacock-feather fly whisk, ox-tail fly-swat, place-keeper for scroll (like a bookmark), palm leaf broom, peacock couch, semicircular couch, citrus wood table, maple table, tablecloth, feather stuffing for a mattress, marsh reed stuffing for a mattress & hay for a mattress if you are really strapped for sesterces.

Roman bathing accessories
OBJECTS FOR GROOMING and BEAUTY - Martial mentions such gifts as a toothpick, an ear scoop, a hair pin of gold, combs, hair, wigs, hair dye, a parasol, a hair-cutting kit, a bath-set, a strigil, dentifrice (dentifricium) for polishing teeth, bean meal for folds in your stomach, opobalsam (a balsam type perfume for men), a breast band, a sponge, wool lined slippers, a horn oil flask, a medicine chest of ivory, an ivory back scratcher in the shape of a hand, unguent, a garland of roses, an earthenware chamberpot, rings, a ring case, a toga, a wrapper for after a workout, a broad-brimmed hat, a hooded cloak, a leather overcoat, a pilleum (freedman's hat), a girdle, an apron, a bath wrap, white wool, purple wool, amethyst wool, etc. Here's a poem about the gift of a red cloak:

SCARLET CLOAK Careful if you support the Blues or Greens at the races, this cloak might make you a traitor! XIV.131

sigillum from the BM
THINGS FOR BOYS and GIRLS - a hunting knife, hunting spears, a belt and sword, a dagger, a small shield, a small hatchet, a feather-stuffed ball, a ball for trigon, dumbbells, a leather wrestling cap, a rattle, a parrot that says ‘Ave Caesar’, a ‘talking’ crow, a nightingale, an ivory cage, a lyre, a plectrum, a hoop, jewellery and of course SIGILLA or little clay or wood figures.

SIGILLUM of a HUNCHBACK – I think Prometheus was drunk when he made hunchbacks from the earth, he was fooling around with Saturnalian clay. XIV.182

LUXURY GOODS - If you were really rich, you could give opulent gifts of silver, gold, jewels, animals and - in an age of slavery - even people! Martial composes epigrams for a gold statue of Victory, various figures in Corinthian bronze, paintings of different mythological characters, a clay theatrical mask, Minerva in silver, Homer in parchment notebooks, Virgil, Livy or Cicero on parchment, works by poets such as Propertius, Ovid, Lucan and Catullus – (books were luxury items in those days) - a hawk, dwarf mules, a Gallic lapdog, a greyhound, a monkey, a wrestler, a dancing girl, a scribe, an idiot, a cook, a confectioner, and a dwarf!

Caroline in a Saturnalia cap
DWARF - If you only saw his head, you would think he was Hector; if you saw him standing up, you’d think he was Astyanax. XIV.212

(That epigram was the inspiration for the baddie in my tenth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes)

The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
So as you celebrate Christmas this year, think about the ancient Romans and how many customs they passed down to us. And try this easy Saturnalia Quiz.


The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, and book 6, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, is even set during the Roman Saturnalia. That episode is also in the DVDs of the BBC TV series. Grown-ups might enjoy The Xenia and The Apophoreta, two commentaries on Martial's Saturnalia poems by T.J. Leary. A book for younger kids is The Thunder Omen, which features an ex-beggar-boy, a silly soothsayer and dancing Saturnalia chickens. 


  1. "a parrot that says ‘Ave Caesar’" .. Now that is an original gift! Sadly, no results on Amazon. :(

  2. So much good information here. Saturnalia is quite the celebration. I love the idea of including poems with a gift or gambling. It's very much like family Rummy...with stakes! I love your blog, thank you for such informative articles Caroline!

  3. Tullius6:46 PM

    Huc Fortuna meum gressum suavissima duxit;
    Quantas delicias hic Carolina dedit!