Ancient Roman Holidays & Festivals
Last updated XXVI Martius 2012

Compitalia – Late December or Early January Originally the Compitalia was a movable feast, one of the most important of the Feriae Conceptivae, whose dates were fixed by various presiding authorities including the consuls, praetor, priestly colleges or minor religious or political dignitaries. During the early Empire, its dates were fixed at Januarius 3rd to 5th. The president of each insula would sacrifice a hen on a temporary altar at the local crossroads. This signaled the beginning of three days of celebration.

But it was in the country, where the festival probably had its origin, that each landowner would build a small shrine with altar at the boundary with his neighbor. There he placed a plough and a wooden doll for each person in his household. The festival the next day was inaugurated by a sacrifice which purified the farm for the coming year. As part of the celebration, slaves were given extra rations including wine and the foreman in charge of the estate (the vilicus) and his wife deigned to dine with them. In this it shared characteristics with the Saturnalia and it may be that originally the landowner would celebrate Saturnalia with his slaves in Rome and then Compitalia with the slaves on his estate. Later the vilicus probably came to represent the master.

That the Compitalia was one of the most important festivals can be seen from the fact that it was one of the few that Macrobius reported as still being observed in the fourth century AD. It may have a more modern successor in ceremonial blessings of the fields.


Latin Festival – Early in the year This was one of the more important Feriae Conceptivae, whose dates were fixed by various presiding authorities including the consuls, praetor, priestly colleges or minor religious or political dignitaries. The Latin Festival lasted 3-4 days and had to take place early in the year since it required that the consuls still be in Rome prior to leaving on campaign.
Agonalia – January 9 Festival to Janus, god of gates and doorways. There seem to be many different legends about the history of Janus. One has him the son of Uranus and Hecate. Another says he had a son named Tiberinus whose accidental drowning named Roma's river. According to another he was a son of Apollo and the first king of Latium. His colony near the Tiber is supposed to have given the name to the Janiculum Hill. Another story says that Janus welcomed Saturn to earth after the latter was driven out of Olympia by Zeus.

Janus was very important in Rome because the weakest point in any building or municipality is its doorway. Anything from human enemies to evil spirits could enter via that route. So strong was this feeling that Romans always carried corpses out of buildings feet first so that the departed spirits would be less likely to find their way back in.

In 260 BC the Romans built an important gateway temple to Janus after a victory against the previously unbeatable Carthaginian fleet. This was left open in times of war and closed when the armies had returned to the city.

This seems puzzling since one would think that during war the gate would be closed for protection and left open for peacetime. But the meaning of this can be seen in that the gateway was not used on a regular basis, but only for generals marching out to war and when returning in a triumphal procession. During the time the gateway was open, Janus was out fighting for Rome while when it was closed it meant that the god would not abandon Rome.

Januarius was not always the first month of the year. Earlier it had begun, perhaps more sensibly, in March (Martius) with the onset of Spring. Januarius and Februarius were added by Numa Pompilius, one of Rome's kings in the pre-Republic days. He also moved the beginning of the year to Januarius and set the number of days equal to 29 because Romans considered odd numbers lucky. Notice that all of the festivals are held on odd-numbered days. Centuries later Julius Caesar set the length to 31, as well as adding days elsewhere to fix the problem of the months no longer corresponding to the seasons, a result of the fact that the Roman year was shorter than the actual solar year.

If the first month is seen as the gateway to a new year, naming it after Janus (the -ary means "pertaining to") actually makes sense. His most common depiction is of a head with two faces, one looking back, the other forward.

This was a festival originally for the protection of the king. A ram was the usual sacrifice victim. Probably originally held on the Quirinal Hill.


Carmentalia – January 11-15 Festival to Carmentis or Carmenta, the prophetess and mother of Evander, later seen a goddess of childbirth. Devotees, usually women, visted her temple atop the Capitoline Hill.
Ides – January 13, February 13, March 15, April 13, May 15, June 13, July 15, August 13, September 13, October 15, November 13, December 13 Festival to Jupiter.
The March observance had originally been the New Year's Day, festival to Anna Perenna, the goddess of the year, and was a general holiday. People would lay about on the river bank north of the city or in tents and drink heavily. It was said that one should have a drink for each further year of life one wanted to live.
The May observance also saw merchants paying homage to Mercury as it was the founding day of his temple. Water was sprinkled to ask forgiveness for past lies and to ask for the success of new deceits in the future. They were also supposed to pay ten per cent of their profits to the shrine.
On the June Ides, flute players had a feast in the temple of Jupiter and then roamed the city wearing masks while intoxicated.
For several years starting in 304 BC and then revived under Augustus, the July Ides featured the Transvectio Equitum. This was a mounted procession of the Equites Equo Publico through the Forum and ending at the Capitol.
The October Ides featured a two-horse chariot race on the Campus Martius and slaughter of the October Horse, i.e. the outer horse of the winning pair. Its tail was cut off and carried to the Regia where blood was dropped on the hearth while the head was also removed and taken elsewhere. This festival perhaps harkened all the way back to the days of the Indo-Europeans.
Parentalia – February 13-21 During the Dies Parentales, Romans remembered their dead, especially parents, including in the process some heavy drinking. On the 21st, they visited cemeteries outside the city and placed flowers, milk and wine on the graves of their parents. By doing this, they hoped to stop the dead from feeling hungry and returning to plague the living. Later on these days were followed on the 22nd by the Caristia, the day of Cara Cognatio which was a sort of family re-union of members still living. Quarrels were patched up, offenses forgiven and a sacred, but joyful meal to which everyone brought something was shared in the presence of the household Lares to whom offerings were made. It was not inappropriate either to offer a toast to the Emperor's health. So eventually it was nine days and called the parentalia novendialia. It's possible that Christianity "baptized" this practice as the "novena".
Lupercalia – February 15 To Lupercus or Faunus. This started at the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where by legend the wolf had reared the twins Romulus and Remus. Cakes made by the Vestal Virgins from corn of the previous year were offered. Goats and one dog were sacrificed for the occasion. Two teams of youths, each having a captain, dressed in goat skins and blood. The blood was wiped with wool dipped in milk. The youths would have a magnificent meal, then, laughing, a footrace around the base of the Palatine whipping onlookers with goatskin strips, februa, that which purifies. A woman hoping to produce a male heir might try get struck by the leather strap of the Lupercus (wolf).
This festival was later taken over by Christians as St. Valentine's Day.
Quirinalia – February 17 To Quirinus, originally a Sabine war god, to whom they erected an altar on one of the seven hills of Rome known as the Quirinal. When the Romans took over the hill, they decided Quirinus was another name for Romulus, the founder of Rome. Thus, along with Mars (in those days the agriculture god) and Jupiter (king of the gods), he was one of the most important of the state gods. The god was associated with myrtle (though the name probably means "oak spear") and his appointed chief worshipper was called the Flamen_Quirinalis.
Feralia – February 21 To the gods of the netherworld and the souls of the deceased, in particular dead ancestors. Romans brought offerings to their tombs including wreaths and bread soaked in wine. There they sprinkled grain, salt, and violet petals. When once the Romans ignored the festival because of preoccupation with war, it was said that the dead ancestors roamed the streets as angry ghosts. To mark the mournings, marriages were prohibited on this day, magistrates did not wear their insignia and all temples were closed for business. According to the writer Ovid, on this day an old drunken woman would sit in a circle with other girls performing rites in the name of the Mute Goddess, Tacita. The woman would place three bits of incense, with three of her fingers, beneath a threshold where a mouse is unknowingly buried. She then rolled seven black beans in her mouth and smeared the head of a fish with pitch, impaling it with a bronze needle, and roasting it in a fire. After that she formally declaimed the purpose of her actions, saying "I have gagged spiteful tongues and muzzled unfriendly mouths" (in Latin "Hostiles linguas inimicaque uinximus ora" and then departed intoxicated.
Terminalia – February 23 To Terminus, possibly another name for Jupiter. It was a festival to the god of boundaries and probably originated in the country where farmers would meet their neighbors at the borders to their lands, agree on them and leave small sacrifices that their lands would not be invaded by any form of evil.
Regifugium – February 24 To Terminus. Later Romans thought it commemorated the expulsion of Rome's last king, but like most of the festivals, it probably had its origin well before that.
Kalends – March 1 Originally this was the day to re-kindle the perpetual fire representing the life of Rome at the Temple of the Vestals. Fresh laurels were hung on public buildings. At the same time it was festival to Mars with dances of the priestly college (Salii) continuing for nineteen days. The dancers held sacred shields during the ceremony and dined out at a different house each night. These multiple festivals to Mars make sense not just because the month, Martius, was named for him, but also because this was the time of year when the soldiers were called up for the year's campaigns.
Equirria – March 14 A race of two-horse chariots on the Campius Martius in honor of Mars with the intention of supporting the army and boosting public morale. Priests purified the army with rituals. A scapegoat was driven out of Rome
Liberalia – March 17 To Liber and Libera, a celebration of freedom from evil, burdens, care and folly. Also a continuation of the celebration for Mars during his month. This was the day for boys, who still wore the toga praetexta to assume the toga virilis – manly gown – and declare their adulthood, pending the permission of the paterfamilias, of course, usually on the occurrence falling nearest their sixteenth birthday.
Quinquatrus – March 19 To Mars and Minerva. As Minerva was a goddess of learning, this was chiefly observed by students and teachers, but was also important to doctors and artisans like dry cleaners and dyers.
Tubilustrium – March 23 To Mars. To bring success in the coming campaigns, the war trumpets were cleaned. In the Hall of the Shoemakers a female lamb was sacrificed and Salii, the twelve youths who were leaping priests of Mars, danced through the streets.
Ludi Megalenses – April 4-10 Originally celebrated on March 27 when the statue of the Great Mother was washed. This single day was in the second century AD expanded to several days when games were held in honor of Cybele, the Great Mother, a goddess represented by a large stone brought to Rome in 204 BC by instruction of the Oracle of Delphi. Transported all the way from Pessinus in Asia Minor, its arrival must have seen auspicious as it coincided with Rome's final victory over Hannibal. The holiday seems to have entered the calendar on a regular basis ten years later. Usually only the last day featured chariot racing.
Ludi Ceriales – April 12-19 April was a popular month for games as these games dedicated to the goddess of the harvest, Ceres, show. The first evidence for them is in 202 BC. A special feature of these Ludi was the release of foxes which had lit torches tied to their tails. This was probably supposed to avert danger to the crops. Usually only the last day featured chariot racing. Nor were they the last games in April.
Parilia – April 21 Originally a country festival on which sheep were ritually purified against disease. Later also a commemoration of the birthday of the city of Rome. Each area in Rome had its own festivities, including bonfires and a large outdoor feast. In the second century AD, such was the popularity of games that they began to be held on this day. A special feature of these Ludi was the hunting of roes and hares in the Circus.
Vinalia – April 23 To Jupiter and Venus. This was known as the Vinalia prima (first) or Vinalia urbana (urban). In August there was another Vinalia, known as the Vinalia rustica. To celebrate, both men and women sampled the previous year's vintage and made a special offering of wine to Jupiter to ensure good weather for the upcoming wine crop. The wine was blessed by the priest of Jupiter and poured into a ditch outside Venus' temple on the Capitoline temple. Girls and prostitutes offered myrtle, mint and rushes concealed in roses to the temple of Venus at the Colline Gate. They asked the goddess for beauty, popularity, charm and wit.
Robigalia – April 25 To Robigus, one of the Roman household gods, who personified agricultural disease. The festival was observed at the fifth milestone from Rome on the Claudian Way. The blood and entrails of an unweaned puppy were sacrificed to protect grain fields from disease and avert crop failure. Two- and four-hourse chariot races were also held. A priest recited a prayer which has been quoted by the writer Ovid. Young male sex workers may also marked the day as a special occasion.
Ludi Floriales – April 28 - May 3 To Flora, goddess of flowers, and thus a fertility celebration. Dating from 173 BC, these games were known for being licentious. Later Maypole (a rather phallic symbol) festivities are probably a successor. Presumably the crops should have been sown just prior to this and warm weather arriving, so it would be a good time for a festival. Usually only the last day featured chariot racing. There was also a strip-tease performance by prostitutes. Once Cato the Younger left the theater rather than view this scene. Also featured tables piled high with flowers and people wearing bright garlands. Important for vine growers.
Lemuria – May 9, 11, 13 The days when the ghosts of the dead were out and about and Romans tried to keep them happy by walking barefoot and throwing black beans over one's shoulder at night. The head of each household had to do this nine times at midnight. The rest of the household would clash metal pots and tell the ghosts of the ancestors to go away. The writer Ovid contended that this begin as a date of guilt for Romulus and what the had done to his brother Remus (Remuria). Steven Saylor wrote a story set in this time, "The Lemures". May 11 was also the birthday of Constantinople.
Agonalia – May 21 To Vediovis, a god either so primeval or so obscure that even in the Late Republic period little about him was known. Or perhaps the god was adopted from Bovillae when Rome conquered it and thus not of much interest to Romans, save those who like the Julii hailed from there. This festival seems to have been about protection, or perhaps war. A ram was the usual sacrifice victim and the sacrifice had to be performed by the highest religious official. Probably originally held on the Quirinal Hill.
Tubilustrium – May 23 To Vulcan, who is responsible for the making of the sacred war trumpets (tubas). In the Hall of the Shoemakers a female lamb was sacrificed and Salii, the twelve youths who were leaping priests of Mars, danced through the streets.
Ludi Piscatorii – June 7 These were a private celebration of games by the fishermen of the Tiber River. Fish caught on this day were sacrificed by burning at Vulcan's temple.
Vestalia – June 9 To Vesta. The married women of Rome took gifts to Vesta's temple. It was also a holiday for bakers as the Vestal Virgins produced special loaves from a salted flour.
Matralia – June 11 To Mater Matuta, virgin goddess of the Dawn and matrons. Offerings were taken to Matuta's temple for blessings on children and nephews/nieces.
Black Day: Anniversary of Trasimene – June 21 or 23 A day considered unlucky since it was the anniversary of the defeat to Hannibal in 217 BC.
Fors Fortuna – June 24 Festival to Fortuna. Sacrifices were made at two shrines outside Rome near the Tiber River.
Poplifugia – July 5 Festival to Jupiter. Like most of the festivals, probably had its origin in the time of Rome's kings. The name means "Flight of the People" and probably refers to an event dimly remembered even in Republican times. Perhaps an early republican movement?
Ludi Appollinares – July 6-13 In 212 BC, some years after Hannibal and his Carthaginians had inflicted a horrible defeat at Cannae and Syracuse and Macedon had joined Rome's enemies, the prophecies of one Marcius came to light, according to Marcius. This prophecy had two parts, the first, to avoid battle at a place called "Canna". Romans were all too ready to identify this with their recent horrendous defeat at Cannae. The second said that to avoid such problems the Romans must have a special festival for Apollo in the Greek fashion. The Sibylline books were consulted to determine the correct rites. In 208 BC there was a biological plague so the Ludi Apollinares were repeated. Like the Ludi Romani these games proved so popular that they were instituted in the calendar as a regular event. Usually only the last day featured chariot racing. One wonders though whether the prophecies of Marcius were written before or after Cannae and what role the priests of Apollo had in their publication.

Black Day – July 18 A day considered unlucky since it was the anniversary of the near extinction of the Fabius clan at Cremera in 477 BC and defeat by the Gauls at Allia in 390 BC which led to the later sacking of Rome itself.
Lucaria – July 19, 21 Commemorates the day of defeat of the Roman army by the Gauls in 390 BC. Romans hid in the woods (lucus) and legendarily returned to defeat the Gauls on their way back home. The festival was celebrated in a large grove, said to be where the Romans had hidden, between the Tiber and the Salarian Way.
Ludi Victoriae Caesarae – July 20-July 30 Following the example of Sulla, in 46 BC Julius Caesar established games to celebrate his Roman Civil War victory over Pompeius at Pharsalus. The four last days featured chariot racing.
Neptunalia – July 23 To Neptune. The men who worked on the barges and docks of the Tiber River celebrated. In the heat of the summer Romans they would build huts out of branches and leaves and inside eat, drink and amuse themselves. It seems there were also games held. This was also a day on which citizen committees could vote on civil or criminal issues.
Furrinalia – July 25 To Furrina. Furrina had a priestess dedicated to her and a sacred grove where the festival may have been celebrated. This very early goddess was associated with water and this may have been a festival meant to ensure there was no drought in the heat of the summer.
Portunalia – August 17 To Portunus, originally the god of keys, doors and livestock, who because his name sounded like the words for gate and harbor became a god of these things. Celebrations included solemnly throwing keys into a fire for good luck. Probably there were also sacrifices at his temple in the Forum Boarium.
Vinalia – August 19 To Jupiter and Venus. This was known as the the Vinalia rustica. In April there was another Vinalia, known as Vinalia prima (first) or Vinalia urbana (urban). Important for vine growers, corresponding to the times of harvest and crushing of grapes. This day was also a holiday for gardeners. Kitchen- and market-gardens were dedicated to Venus. A female lamb was sacrificed to Jupiter by his priest.
Consualia – August 21 To Consus, god responsible for protection of the harvest. His temple was underground similar to a grain storage vault. This is one of two festivals to this god. The underground stored grains were uncovered on this day, probably to be blessed. Donkeys and mules were adorned with flowers and paraded through the streets, not being allowed to do their normal work. Chariot races were also held. In Roman history this was said to be the day on which Romulus abducted the Sabine women.
Volcanalia – August 23 To Vulcan, god of life-sustaining fire. This was celebrated to avoid fire burning the almost ripe crops. Curiously, bonfires were made and live fish or small animals were thrown in to be consumed instead of humans. People would also hang out their clothes and fabrics under the sun and start the day working by a candle to demonstrate a beneficial use of fire. Later in the empire, a red bull calf and a red boar were sacrificed to a new altar to Vulcan on the Quirinal Hill.
Opiconsivia – August 25 To Ops Consiva, goddess of the earth, agricultural resources and wealth, and also wife of Saturn. Vestal Virgins held rites to give thanks for the fertility of the earth and the flamines or priestesses of Quirinus also participated. The main priestess wore a white veil, horses and mules wore chaplets of flowers and there was a chariot race in the Circus Maximus.
Volturnalia – August 27 To Volturnus, god of the Tiber River. Celebrations included feasting, wine and games.
Ludi Romani – September 5-19 In the early days of Rome, prior to battle a desperate general would make a solemn vow to Jupiter to hold games in the god's honor if only the Romans might win. If this happened and the state granted him a triumph, the general would hold ludi magni, votivi. The triumphal procession would lead from the Capitoline Hill to the Circus, where the chariots were raced on the last five days of the festival. The prior days were given to theatrical performances, i.e. pantomimes, comedies and tragedies. One day was given over to the Epulum Iovis and one to the Transvectio Equitum, the parade of the Equites. The popular idea that the games were always gladiatorial combats is a myth for Republican times and even during the early empire, certainly up to 169 BC. Hunting, venatio and combat were not part of the Ludi, but of the Munera, originally an Etruscan religious tradition, practiced at the death of a chief, where it was thought that spilling blood would give strength to his spirit. The Ludi Romani proved so popular that they were instituted in the calendar as a regular event, as early as 366 BC when the office of aedile may have been created to regulate them. These games were later extended by a day because of a proposal by Marcus Antonius to honor the dead Julius Caesar, never mind that he already had games in his honor. By the late Republic, many of Rome's most prominent persons, e.g. Cicero, avoided the associated crowds by escaping to the comforts of a rustic villa, perhaps in a cooler clime near the sea. The last chariot races at the Circus Maximus were held in AD 549 under a German chieftain.
Ludi Augustales – October 3-12 Following his predecessors Sulla and Caesar, games were held in Augustus' honor starting in 11 BC. It became a ten-day event under Tiberius. Usually only the last day featured chariot racing.
Black Day: Anniversary of Arausio – October 6 A day considered unlucky since it was the anniversary of the defeat to German tribes in 105 BC.
Meditrinalia – October 11 To Jupiter, in his form as the wine-god, and Meditrina, goddess of healing and medicine. This was the first occasion on which Romans tasted the year's new vintage.
Fontinalia – October 13 To Fons or Fontus, god of fountains, springs, and wells. Fountains and wellheads around the city of Rome were decorated with garlands.
Equus October – October 15 A race of two-horse chariots on the Campius Martius in honor of Mars. The right hand horse was sacrificed to the god with the tail being taken to the regia where its blood was left to drip on the hearth. The head was fought over between the residents of the Via Sacra (the rich and powerful) and the Subura (the poor). This festival and the next represented the usual close of the military season.
Armilustrium – October 19 To Mars. This marked the end of the military campaigning season. Soldiers' weapons were ritually purified and stored for the winter on the Aventine Hill. The assembled army was garlanded with flowers and reviewed in the Circus Maximus. Trumpets were played. There was a procession with torches and sacrificial animals.
Ludi Victoriae Sullae – October 26 - November 1 Sometimes modern readers are puzzled about why Sulla's contemporaries complain so much about him. It should be realized that some of the things he did could be rather offensive to the traditional Roman. For example, after he won the battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BC to restore his control of Rome from the Marian faction, he chose the first anniversary to institute annual games in honor of the victory and by implication of course, himself. Now what had once only been done for gods, was being done on behalf of a mere man. This set a precedent for Caesar. Usually only the last day featured chariot racing.
Ludi Plebeian – November 4-17 The second greatest games, for the people, after the Ludi Romani seem to have started in 216 BC and held on a regular basis starting four years later. One day was given over to the Epulum Iovis and one to the Transvectio Equitum, the parade of the Equites. Only the last three days featured chariot racing.
Agonalia – December 11 Another day sacred to Janus, the bookend to that of January 9. Later also a day sacred to Sol Indiges. This was a festival originally for the protection of the king. A ram was the usual sacrifice victim. Probably originally held on the Quirinal Hill.
Consualia – December 15 To Consus, god of Time, whose presence is obviously connected with the end of the year. This is the start of the Halcyon Days, the seven days preceding and the seven days following the Winter Solstice. This is one of two festivals to this god. The underground stored grains were uncovered on this day, probably to be blessed. Donkeys and mules were adorned with flowers and paraded through the streets, not being allowed to do their normal work. Chariot races were also held. In Roman history this was said to be the day on which Romulus abducted the Sabine women.
Saturnalia – December 17 At first lasting only one day, Saturnalia was the Roman midwinter celebration of the Solstice* and the greatest of all the Roman annual holidays. In the late Republic it was extended to two or three days, celebrated over three days in the Augustan Empire and in the reign of Caligula extended to four. By the end of the first century AD, it was technically a five-day holiday celebrated in seven.

A cry of Io Saturnalia! and a sacrifice of young pigs at the temple of Saturn inaugurated the festival. They were served up the next day when masters gave their slaves – who were temporarily immune from all punishments – a day off and waited on them for dinner. After dinner there was plenty of clowning and merriment with wine as a social lubricant, sometimes degenerating into wild horseplay. Dice were used to choose one person at the dinner as Saturnalian King – it could be a slave – and everyone was forced to obey his absurd commands to sing, dance or blacken their faces and be thrown into cold water and the like for the entire period. The dice may have been loaded in 54 AD, when Nero was so chosen. He used the opportunity to humiliate Claudius' son Britannicus, apparently a poor vocalist, by forcing him to sing.

It was traditional to deck the halls with boughs of laurel and green trees as well as a number of candles and lamps. These symbols of life and light were probably meant to dispel the darkness.

It was also traditional for friends to exchange gifts and even to carry small gifts on one's person in the event of running into a friend or acquaintance in the streets or in the Forum. Originally the gifts were symbolic candles and clay dolls – sigillaria – purchased at a colonnaded market called Sigillaria which was located in the Colonnade of the Argonauts, later in one of the Colonnades of Trajan's Baths. Something similar is still practiced in Rome's Piazza Navona today. Gifts which could also include food items such as pickled fish, sausages, beans, olives, figs, prunes, nuts and cheap wine as well as small amounts of money grew to be more extravagant over time – small silver objects were typical – as did their acquisition. How modern the first century writer Seneca sounds when he complains about the shopping season: "Decembris used to be a month; now it's a whole year." At the same time, Martialis may have been the first sage to remark "The only wealth you keep forever is that which you give away."

Nor did the fun stop there. During the entire festival, the laws against gambling were relaxed so that everyone including slaves and children could gamble at dice and other games of chance, children using nuts for wagers. Men stopped wearing their uncomfortable togas in favor of the synthesis (a tunic with a small cloak both brightly-colored and also wearable by women) for the entire period and simply donned a felt cap, pilleum to show they were not slaves.

Away from Rome, Romans still commemorated the festival. In Athens, academy students such as Aulus Gellius and his friends dined together for the occasion, much as American students in a European university may dine together on Thanksgiving Day.

Roman mysteries featuring the Saturnalia festival:

The event has been depicted in this image of a painting by Antoine-François Callet.

The Saturnalia can be seen as just one version of many different midwinter festivals created by various cultures around the world (could they all have a distant ur-origin in man's distant past?). To early cultures lacking electric lighting, the daily length of the daylight would be a much more significant issue than it is for our modern one. It is no wonder that the end of the shortening of days was greeted with exuberance and associated with the god Saturn who to the Romans signified abundance. This probably also explains why the Romans decided to locate the state treasury in his temple. Also, as part of the festivities, the normally-bound statue of Saturnus in the Forum was unfettered for the duration of the festival.

The rites of the Saturnalia seem strange and difficult to explain. As Saturn was bequeathed to the Romans by the Etruscans, this calls into question their own origins. Many have identified them with the Pelasgians or Sea-Peoples of Asia Minor who were said to have migrated to the Italian peninsula. It is possible that the Etruscans were not even Indo-European speakers, although it is also possible that these migrants cohabitated with Indo-European groups which may have already been in Etruria. In any case these people founded the town of Saturnia in Etruria and were probably responsible for the introduction of Saturn to the Italian peninsula. Were they also responsible for the festival? Some have assumed that the festival was bequeathed, like so much else, to Rome by the Greeks, whose god Kronos was equated with Saturn. But the evidence for this is scanty as there is little in the Greek record to indicate a Saturnalic tradition. Note also that the name of the festival itself seems to indicate a non-Greek origin. In my opinion, it is more likely that we should look to the Etruscans for the perpetuation of the festival.

Perpetuation rather than origination because it is clear that in ancient Mesopotamia there were traditional practices which pre-dated those of the Etruscans and Romans. There, over four thousand years ago, it was believed that the nadir of daylight was the weakest moment in an annual struggle between the chief god Marduk (or sometimes his predecessor, Enlil) and his enemies, monsters of chaos. The way of the world in their belief was sort of like a wind-up clock which by the end of year began to run down as seen by the dying harvested fields and waning sunlight. Death might overwhelm the world if Marduk did not rejoin and re-win his fight with the monsters below the earth.

It is also apparent that the Saturnalia tradition did not arrive whole, but rather had a number of different antecedents, which themselves were changed and adapted over the centuries before it reached Rome. This should not come as any surprise for consider how much Saturnalia has been changed and adapted in comparison with the Christmas celebrations of our own day. I think that these many different traditions help to understand why some of the Saturnalia traditions, e.g. the unfettered god, are so contradictory or inexplicable. Again like our own Christmas, bits and pieces from a number of traditions from different times and places have been combined together, often without much conscious understanding or memory of their original purposes.

In any case, Marduk's struggle was not to be performed by the god alone. Ordinary people, it was felt, had a threefold role to play as well: (1) they were required to purify themselves of the evil that the past year had brought upon them, (2) they needed to renew the strength that the year had drained away and (3) if they failed in either of these, they would play it safe and try to find a scapegoat who could take the consequences.

These roles had special significance for the king whose household represented the fortunes of the entire people. Under the direction of the priests there would be re-created the story of the creation of the world, at the end of which the king was supposed to die so as to accompany Marduk into the underworld and battle at his side. Among kings, unsurprisingly this was an unpopular ritual and the eventual inspiration for the idea of dressing a criminal as a "mock king" for a short time before killing him in the real king's place. At the same time, it was also tradition for another criminal to be set free. Perhaps this act of forgiveness and generosity lay behind the tradition of the unfettered god?

Another of the traditions was the festival called Zagmuk. It included huge bonfires and burning of Marduk's enemy in effigy. Bonfires are a logical development it seems of a festival held during the waning of the light. It was this festival also which seems to have inaugurated the exchange of gifts.

In Persia and Babylon, the festival was called Sacaea. This appears to be the original tradition in which masters and slaves traded roles and in which one of the slaves was appointed head of the household.

As played out in ancient Babylon, in proper season the king would repair to the temple dedicated to Marduk, be stripped of his insignia by the chief priest and swear that in the past year he had done nothing wrong. The chief priest then would speak for Marduk and re-invest the king with his kingdom. We can see how the priestly class simultaneously protected its power and provided an explanation for terrifying, unexplainable natural events.

The Roman rationalization of the Saturnalia by the contemporary writer Macrobius can be found at De Saturno & Jano Tractatus (in English).

The excesses of the Saturnalia were targeted by Christian writers from the second century, but its celebration survived well into the fifth.

*  "Solstice" is a Latin word, by the way, coming to English from Old French and then Middle English, and originally derived from sol sun + status, the past participle of sistere to come to a stop, cause to stand. This makes sense if you think about the solstice as the sun's path reaching an endpoint and then turning around and going the other way. During the few days during which this direction change is occurring, it will appear that there is actually no movement at all.


Opalia – December 19 To the mother goddess Ops, also known as Cybele or Rhea.
Divalia – December 21 To Angerona. Priests performed sacrifices in the temple of Voluptia or Angerona, goddess of joy and pleasure, who had the power to drive away sorrow and chagrin.
Larentalia – December 23 To Jupiter and Larenta (Larunda) also called Lupa for her loose morals. This was actually the municipal goddess of Larentum, which Rome imported upon its conquest. It became a day of licentiousness.
Festival of the New Sun – December 25 Originally not an official festival, but celebrated by adherents to Mithraism as the birth of the new sun. The Emperor Aurelian was devoted to a single sun god and during his reign it became a public festival complete with chariot-racing in the Circus. He erected a temple to Sol Invictus in AD 274.
Bibliography

The above accounts were based on the following references:


Copyright © 1994-2012 by Richard M. Heli.
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