I stayed late last Friday for the student social gig so I didn’t come in on Saturday for the Saturnalia event that was led by the Youth Board. Even so I prepared some objects for the event from the archaeology collection, although I was struggling to find things with a direct link to this mid-winter Roman festival.
Perhaps predictably when I searched on the documentation system using the term ‘Saturnalia’ I got no responses. Instead I tried to find out what actually happened at Saturnalia. All I could remember was that the masters swapped places with the slaves and the slaves became masters for the day. But what about objects? I found out that people exchanged gifts of wax or fired clay figurines called sigillaria, decorated their houses with garlands and generally indulged themselves with food, drink and good cheer.
The usual prohibition against gambling was relaxed at Saturnalia but many of the Roman gaming pieces from Manchester are on display in the third table in the Ancient Worlds archaeology gallery. However, we do have some leg bones from fighting cocks complete with spurs that the label says are Roman (or is this another example of a gag gift but to the Museum collection?). I got them out for the Youth Board event just in case.
The Emperor Augustus apparently was a great fan of what would now be referred to as ‘gag-gifts’: the equivalent of our kitchen aprons with breasts on them, whoopee cushions, fake poo and the like. Which must have made Augustus’ Saturnalia parties an absolute hoot, if you like that kind of thing. The closest I could get to this in the collection was a terracotta apple of uncertain provenance.
I also searched the documentation system for the fired clay figurines that were exchanged at Saturnalia using the term ‘sigillaria’ but this didn’t take me any further so I went into the store to look at the collection of terracotta figurines. The head of a woman wearing a garland and an Eros riding a goose seemed like reasonable candidates, more because of their assocations (Rod Hull and Emu anyone?) than because I knew they were definitely related to Saturnalia. I also tried the lamps drawers and sure enough there were lamps depicting garlands and cornucopiae or horns of plenty. Doesn’t the second spirit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol turn up with a cornucopia? Again they seemed to do the job, even though I couldn’t be sure they were necessarily linked to Saturnalia.
Fortunately Keith in Numismatics let me have some coins of Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54). The only other thing I knew about Saturnalia is that when the Roman legions were about to invade Britain they took fright at the prospect of going overseas. Claudius sent a freedman, Narcissus, to inspire them. When the influential former slave turned up on the rostrum with the soldiers’ commander, a man called Aulus Plautius, one of the legionaries couldn’t help shouting ‘Yo Saturnalia!’, this being the traditional greeting during the Roman mid-winter festival, when slaves swapped roles with their masters for the duration of the festivities.
One of the things I discovered in my research is that people wore a distinctive the floppy cap at Saturnalia known as a pileus or cap of liberty (see photo above, coin on the left). It was worn by ex-slaves to symbolise their freedom. The custom of slaves and masters swapping places made the pileus the customary headware during the Saturnalia festivities. The pileus presumably is where Santa’s cap comes from. The next time you see revellers wearing the red and white Christmas hat think about the ancient Romans and their slaves.
Several Roman emperors extended the number of days devoted to Saturnalia but Claudius cut back on the days of thanksgiving. In the same way that British Industry always complains about the number of working days lost over Christmas and New Year, the ancient Romans felt that there was too much time spent celebrating. Which all goes to show once again that there really isn’t anything new under the sun.
Andrea Winn, Curator of Community Exhibitions, popped by earlier and told me that the event had gone well although the Museum had been a bit quiet on Saturday, probably because visitors were off doing their Christmas shopping.