Io Saturnalia! – Celebrating ‘The best of days’ in Ancient Rome

Happy Saturnalia, everyone! Or, as the Romans said, Io Saturnalia!

December 17th was the official start of Saturnalia in the Roman Empire, and for seven days the Roman world, and especially Rome itself, experienced what can only be described as a carnival atmosphere.

Just as Christmas is a time of year that many people look forward to, so too was Saturnalia for Romans, free and slave.

Today we’re going to take a brief look at some of the customs that surrounded this ‘the best of days,” as the poet Catullus called it.

The God Saturn

Saturnalia was basically a winter solstice festival in honour of the god Saturn, the chthonic (of the earth) Roman god of seed sowing, who was often equated with the Greek god Cronus. As an agricultural deity, his symbol was a scythe.

The primary temple for this Roman deity was at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, across from the Rostra, the Temple of Concord, and the arch of Septimius Severus.

The festival of Saturnalia was originally a single day, but eventually ran from December 17th to December 23rd, ending on the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. The three days from December 17th to the 19th were considered to be legal holidays on which no work was done. Schools, gymnasia and courts were closed, and no war was waged.

The Temple of Saturn (centre)in the Forum Romanum, Rome

Saturnalia was a sacred time of year in the Roman calendar, but oddly enough, there is no single, full description of the festival. What we know comes from various references in ancient sources, mainly Macrobius whose work on Roman religious lore is set during the festival.

So, what do we know about the festival of Saturnalia, and what traditions did people keep at that time of year?

A bit of public gambling during Saturnalia!

In ancient Rome, we know that the festivities began on December 17th with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Forum, in which the priest performed the ceremony in the Greek fashion, ritus Graecus, with his head uncovered. In the temple, the feet of Saturn’s statue were normally bound up with wool, but for Saturnalia, the wool was removed, and some believe this symbolized the liberation that many felt during the festival.

After the sacrifice, which may have been a suckling pig, there followed a grand public banquet, or convivium publicum, which was paid for by the state. A statue of Saturn was placed upon a couch for this event so that the god could preside over the festivities.

Candles, or cerei were a big part of Saturnalia

As a festival of light, or the solstice, wax candles, or cerei, were lit everywhere and given as gifts. The light may also have been considered a symbol of the quest for knowledge and truth, something to go along with this season of hope for many in the dark days of winter.

Another symbol of the season was holly, which was considered sacred to Saturn. Sprigs of this were also given as token gifts. Many other gifts were given at this time of year, mainly on December 19th, which was the day of the sigillaria, the day of gift-giving.

Holly was sacred to Saturn

In addition to wax candles, gifts could include pottery, writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, combs, toothpicks, hats, knives, lamps, balls, perfumes, and toys for children. If you were among the rich, exotic animals or slaves might even be given!

Figurines were also a gift that was given, and these have something of an interesting history. One thought is that this particular gift stemmed from the giving of toys to children. However, another, darker possibility for the giving of figurines is that they were intended as substitutes for the human blood offerings that may have originally been offered to the earth god Saturn, in the early days of Rome, perhaps in the form of gladiatorial combat to the death.

Sigillaria were similar to the gift we get in Christmas crackers today, but they could be much more elaborate too.

In addition to the public celebrations of Saturnalia, the festivities continued at home.

On December 18th and 19th, domestic rituals of the family were observed, such as bathing, and the common sacrifice of a suckling pig to Saturn.

Gifts were given among the family on the day of the sigillaria, but also in the days to come.

One interesting tradition was that the usual clothes worn by Romans, such as the toga or plain tunica, were discarded during Saturnalia in favour of colourful clothes known as synthesis, which were a mish-mash of patterns and colours. They were the Roman party clothes of Saturnalia! Along with the synthesis, Roman men also wore a felt or leather conical cap known as a pileus.

The pileus was a conical felt or leather cap worn by men during Saturnalia

Saturnalia was a time of role reversal, a time when the opposite of normal was acceptable.

For instance, during Saturnalia gambling was permitted in public, with the stakes being either coins or, oddly enough, nuts!

Overeating and drunkenness were common, as was guising, which was the wearing of masks or costumes to take on another persona.

Thou knowest not what evening may bring.
(Macrobius. Saturnalia)

However, perhaps the most commonly known tradition of Saturnalia was the role reversal of masters and slaves. Traditionally, masters would serve their slaves a meal of the sort that they would usually enjoy, sigillaria would be given, and the slaves were even at liberty to insult their masters without fear of retribution.

Citizens or slaves might even be elected the ‘King of Saturnalia’ at the banquet at which time they could give absurd orders that had to be obeyed.

Guising and the wearing of masks occurred during Saturnalia

If this seems like a hectic summary with myriad different traditions and goings on, you’d be right. Just as with Christmas today, everyone likely had their own unique take on the traditions of the season. Roman religion was highly customizable!

You’d also be correct in assuming that some of the traditions of Saturnalia feel very familiar. At Christmastime, people eat and drink more than is usual (if they are so fortunate), there are a couple of days off work, gifts are given, holly (and perhaps ivy) is hung, candles are lit, and more.

Around the winter solstice, it seems that many cultures and religions find cause to celebrate.

So, from December 17th this year and in the run-up to Christmas, spare a thought for the Romans who certainly knew how to through a good party this time of year.

Thank you for reading, and Io Saturnalia!

Io Saturnalia!

For a bit of fun, check out this video and song by from the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions Project and members of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics:



Writing the Past – A.D. 2015 to 2016

winter light

Happy New Year, dear readers!

I hope you all had a lovely holiday season, whatever you are celebrating.

I enjoyed myself, though the celebrations were all too fleeting.

Oddly enough, I received some complaints on social media for saying ‘Happy Holidays’ in the photo I posted, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’.

I would just like to say that, even though I celebrate Christmas, I know for a fact that many of my Eagles and Dragons, and Writing the Past, readers are of different faiths, and that is a wonderful thing.

My readers here, and across social media, are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Wiccan and more, and I am honoured that each and every one of them should take the time to read my words and interact with me during their busy schedules.

This time of year is sacred to many faiths, so whether you celebrate the Winter Solstice, Yule, Hanukah, Saturnalia, Christmas or another celebration of life and faith, these are indeed Holy Days for many of us.

So, a heartfelt Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Looking ahead to an exciting year!

Looking ahead to an exciting year!

I wasn’t going to do a post about the year to come at the beginning of 2016, but I reconsidered. It’s a good thing to review what has gone before, and set goals for what is to come. And all of you will keep me accountable!

To be honest, 2015 got off to a rough start for me. It was certainly a year of contrasts.

In mid-January, my father passed away suddenly and that plunged me into realms of despair that I had never experienced before. I know losing a loved one is a trial that we must all face, but I had expected to face that trial much later in life.

It was a difficult time, but we banded together and got through it. I also discovered that my writing was a big part of the healing process, and that the plumbed depths of those difficult emotions did indeed enrich my storytelling.

Then there was the History Channel.

Yes, that History Channel.

At the end of November 2014, a New York casting director contacted me to ask if I would be interested in screen testing for a show on ancient ingenuity for the international H2 Network. She said they were looking for an ancient history expert, and that they had seen my books and this blog, and thought I would be a good fit to be the host of the upcoming show.

I said yes right away. Then I panicked.

After a lot of prep, I did a half hour screen test over Skype with the casting director asking me about twenty questions. It was fun and nerve-wracking all at once. She then asked me to send loads of photos of me from my travels around the world so that she could put together a package for the executives at History Channel.

For a couple months I waited, but then in mid-January I got the call that even though the folks at the casting agency liked me a lot, the executives wanted to go in a different direction.

I have no regrets about that though. I left everything I had in the arena, so to speak, and had a fantastic new experience. When the casting director asked me if I would be interested in future projects, I said ‘Yes!’ and I meant it.

Ready for Writing!

Ready for Writing!

I reviewed my post from last New Year to see what I said I wanted to accomplish in 2015. Of course, I didn’t know the year would start the way it did, but I did get a lot done.

I came, I saw, and even though I didn’t necessarily conquer, I certainly put up a good fight and won a few battles in the war of art.

I did manage to finish the first draft of Thanatos (Third and final part of the Carpathian Interlude) which will be going to the editor very soon.

I also finished a prequel novel to the Eagles and Dragons series. It is with the editor now and is called A Dragon among the Eagles. That should be out this winter, so stay tuned.

Warriors of Epona (Eagles and Dragons Book III) is still being edited but I absolutely want to have that out in 2016. I’m afraid I didn’t meet my rewrite goals on that this past year, but it has turned out to be a gripping story!

I said that I wanted to write more in the Mythologia series, and I have outlined a couple of stories, but not yet set them down on paper. They are coming!

The big project in 2015 was Heart of Fire: A Novel of the Ancient Olympics. Reading back over my post from a year ago, I said that I probably wouldn’t finish that book in 2015, though I did think (perhaps in a delusional way?) that I would finish that during my five weeks in Greece. Seems like my original prediction was more accurate, as at the moment, I’m nearing the end of writing Heart of Fire, and it promises to be a great read! I’m really excited about it, and hope to have it out before summer 2016.

The Holy Thorn in Glastonbury Abbey blossoms only around Christmas and Easter

The Holy Thorn in Glastonbury Abbey blossoms only around Christmas and Easter

Two other things I did not get to this year were Isle of the Blessed (Eagles and Dragons Book IV) and the final two thirds of the Killing a God series about Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the east. I have mass of notes on both, and a lot of first draft material, so they are coming. I hope to get back into them both later in 2016.

In hindsight, I think I was probably overly optimistic as far as my writing schedule for 2015. But that’s ok! We roll with the sword thrusts.

This year I also made some changes in my process that have allowed me to be more efficient as an author and publisher.

The first thing is that I stopped writing first drafts long-hand. Even though this felt good as far as creativity, it was really slowing down my production, so I’ve started writing on my phone with a wireless keyboard. It’s making a world of difference!

Piles of Books on the Way!

Piles of Books on the Way!

I also started creating much more detailed outlines of every story and chapter before I start writing. Whereas before, I was more of what they call a ‘pantser’, now I’m outlining, and it’s helped me to move quickly through my stories without leaving any gaps. That’s not to say things don’t change along the way. Of course they do! The outline is not chiseled in stone, but it does provide me with a reliable guideline and sketch of the story arc.

The great thing about this year, and something which I really needed after last winter, was my trip to Greece.

I hope you all enjoyed the photos I was posting on Instagram. It had been six years since I’d been there to see family, friends, and the historical sites that have inspired me for years.

I had almost forgotten how important a part of my creative process the travel, research, and inspiration of site visits are.

Yes, I did set an unrealistic goal of finishing a full-length, historical novel in just a few weeks. It was more important to reconnect with the people and places that mean a lot to me. I even went to an all-night Greek wedding where I made my best attempt at Greek dancing. Opa!

The pressure I did put on myself to get writing done actually held me back from the relaxation I needed for the first half of the trip. But, once I let go and began to absorb and chill out, I felt a lot better. I enjoyed myself more, and in the background of my creative brain, the ideas were percolating more smoothly than ever.

Next time, I’ll be sure to relax from the get-go and let inspiration seep into every one of my senses so that I can use it later when I sit down to write. Needless to say, I’m not waiting another six years before I head overseas!
IMG_3902 (1)2016 is going to be the year of publishing.

In the coming months I hope you and others will follow along with the releases of Heart of Fire, Thanatos, A Dragon among the Eagles, and Warriors of Epona, as well as a discussions about a lot more history here on the blog.

Who knows what the future will bring?

Whatever happens in 2016, I want to thank you all for following, and for taking the time to read, comment, and review.

I hope that 2016 is a year of brilliance, peace, and inspiration for all of us.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Thank you for reading.


What are your goals and aspirations for 2016? Any new books you want to read, or periods of history you want to explore? Are there any historical places you want to try and visit this year?

Be sure to share in the comments below!