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Ancient Roman Holidays & Festivals


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 preRepublic 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.
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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).

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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.

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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
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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 form of Mars in his role as a protector. 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.

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.

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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.

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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 sacrificial animals.

56

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
57

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 Disappearance of the Saturnalia Silver" by Steven Saylor
Saturnalia (in German, Tdliche Saturnalien) by John Maddox Roberts
Saturnalia by Danila Comastri Montanari
Saturnalia by Lindsey Davis
Solid Citizens by David Wishart
The event has been depicted in this image of a painting by Antoine-Franois 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
58

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.

59

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PS

http://www.kaftoun.com/documents/Baalbek-book-web.pdf

204