A Roman festival in honour of Saturnus
It was held late in December at the end of the vintage and harvesting, and was in early times
the prototype of the English Harvest Home and the American Thanksgiving Day. At all periods it
was a season of absolute relaxation, of merriment, and even license. While it continued, no
business could be transacted, the law courts were closed, the schools kept holiday, to
commence a war was impious, and even to punish a malefactor involved pollution (Macrob.
Sat. i. 10, 16
; Pliny , Epist.
viii. 7). Special
indulgences were granted to the slaves of each domestic establishment; they were relieved from
all ordinary toils, were permitted to wear the pilleus
, the badge of
freedom, received full license of speech, and partook of a banquet attired in the clothes of
their masters, and were waited upon by them at table (Macrob.
Sat. i. 7
; Dio Cass. lx. 19; Athen. xiv. 44). All classes devoted
themselves to feasting and mirth, presents were interchanged among friends, wax tapers (cerei
) being the common offering of the more humble to their superiors, and
crowds thronged the streets, shouting Io Saturnalia!
), while sacrifices were offered with uncovered head, from a conviction
that no ill-omened sight should interrupt the rites of such a happy day. Many of the peculiar
customs of this festival exhibit a remarkable resemblance to the sports of our own Christmas
and of the Italian Carnival. Thus on the Saturnalia public gambling was allowed by the
aediles, just as in the days of our ancestors the most rigid were wont to countenance
card-playing on Christmaseve; the whole population threw off the toga, wore a loose gown,
(q. v.), and walked about with the pilleus
on their heads, which reminds us of the dominos, the peaked caps, and other
disguises worn by masques and mummers; the cerei
were probably employed
as the moccoli
now are on the last night of the Carnival; and lastly,
one of the amusements in private society was the election of a mock king (Tac. Ann. xiii. 15
; Lucian, Saturn.
4), which at once calls to recollection the characteristic ceremony of Twelfth Night.
During the Republic, although the whole month of December was considered as dedicated to
Saturn, only one day, the XIV. Kal. Ian., was set apart for the sacred rites of the
divinity. When the month was lengthened by the addition of two days upon the adoption of the
Julian Calendar, the Saturnalia fell on the XVI. Kal. Ian., which gave rise to confusion and
mistakes among the more ignorant portion of the people. To obviate this inconvenience, and
allay all religious scruples, Augustus enacted that three whole days, the 17th, 18th, and 19th
of December, should in all time coming be hallowed, thus embracing both the old and new style
(Macrob. i. 10). Under the Empire the merry-making lasted for seven days, and three different
festivals were celebrated during this period. First came the Saturnalia proper, commencing on
XVI. Kal. Dec., followed by the Opalia (from Ops, the wife of Saturnus), anciently coincident
with the Saturnalia, on XIV. Kal. Ian.; these two together lasted for five days, and the sixth
and seventh were occupied with the Sigillaria (Epist.
xii. 3), so called from
the little earthenware figures (sigilla, oscilla
) exposed for sale at
this season, and given as toys to children. See Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung
iii. 586 foll.; Preller, Röm. Myth.