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 ‘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.
In Numismatics there are coins of Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54). The only other historical reference I know to Saturnalia is when the Roman legions were about to embark to invade Britain. The nervous soldiers were not very keen about serving overseas 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 archaeology ‘joke’ when I was asked to be the stand up comedian at a student evening held at the Museum a few years ago. Talk about tumbleweed moment. I died out there as my good friend Louise will tell you. Talk about taking one for the team.
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 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.
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 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…