With Christmas almost upon us I’ve been looking for objects related to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia in the archaeology collection, although it can be difficult to find things that are directly associated.
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 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 a spoof?)
The Emperor Augustus apparently was a great fan of what would now be referred to as ‘joke or gag-gifts’: the equivalent of our kitchen aprons with breasts on them, whoopee cushions, fake poo and the like. Which must have made the first Roman emperor’s Saturnalia parties an absolute hoot, if you like that kind of thing. Personally, I’ve always been more of an Antony fan. The closest I can get to a ‘gag gift’ in the collection is 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 panto associations (Norman Collier and his chicken act or Rod Hull and Emu). But we don’t know they are definitely related to Saturnalia.
I also tried the lamps drawers and sure enough there are 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 seem to do the job, even though I cannot be sure they are necessarily linked to Saturnalia.
Talking about A Christmas Carol, it turns out that that Charles Dickens’ famous tale, which did so much to establish Christmas as we know it today, was inspired by a Roman story. Classicist Daisy Dunn noticed a similarity between Dickens’ description of the ghost of Jacob Marley and a story recorded by Pliny the Younger about 2,000-years-ago. In the story a man called Athenodorus thought he’d got himself a bargain when he bought an old property in Athens. He soon found out why the villa was so cheap: on his first night, he heard the rattling of chains and saw the ghost of a man shaking his shackles over his head. Athenodorus followed the ghost to the courtyard of the villa here it disappeared. The next day Athenodorus had the courtyard dug up and found the remains of a slave in chains. The skeleton was given a decent burial and the ghost was never seen or heard again. In an article in The Daily Telegraph (22nd December 2020), Daisy Dunn suggests that Dickens was probably inspired by this story. She says that Dickens could have come across it in W.C.Dendy’s The Philosophy of Mystery which was published in 1841, two years before A Christmas Carol. Daisy Dunn’s article also featured in the Editorial Comment section.
Further evidence that the origins of Christmas may be traced back to Roman times can be found in accounts of Saturnalia. There is a reference to This mid-winter festival when the Roman legions were about to embark to invade Britain in the reign of Claudius in AD 43. The nervous soldiers were not very keen about voyaging over the Channel so Claudius sent one of his freedman, Narcissus, to inspire them. When the influential former slave turned up on the rostrum with the soldiers’ commanding officer, 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 celebrations.
I tried out this classical ‘joke’ when I was asked to be the stand up comedian at a student evening held at the Museum a few years ago and discovered it was way past its shelf-life. Talk about tumbleweed moment. I died out there as my good friend Louise will tell you. Talk about taking one for the team.
During Saturnalia, people wore a distinctive floppy cap known as a pileus or cap of liberty (see photo above) or Phrygian cap. It was worn by ex-slaves to symbolise their freedom. The custom of slaves and masters swapping places made the pileus the customary head ware 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.
Another link between our Christmas customs and ancient Roman times is putting coins in food. There’s nothing so quintessentially Victorian as putting a silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding you might think but there is a painted fresco at Herculaneum clearly showing Roman coins inserted in fruit in a glass bowl.
Several Roman emperors extended the Saturnalia holidays but Claudius cut back on the number of days. Funny, I never had Claudius down as a Roman Oliver Cromwell and all-round party pooper. I don’t remember Derek Jacobi behaving like that in I Claudius. 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…