Saturnalia - serious Roman festival or free for all?

Imperial forums - 60_Saturn_sm

Temple of Saturn, Rome

Saturnalia was THE most important Roman festival. Heavy on feasting, fun and gifts, it was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day around 17 December, but it was so popular it expanded into a week or even longer, despite Augustus’ efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula’s, to five.

Like today’s Christmas, this holy day (feriae publicae) had a serious origin: to honour the god of sowing, Saturn. And Romans were a superstitious lot; like many ancient cultures, religious ceremonies and observances held an important place in their lives.

But also like modern Christmas, it was a festival day (dies festus). After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. Afterwards, according to the poet Macrobius, the celebrants shouted ‘Io, Saturnalia‘ at a riotous feast in the temple.

Pottery and bronze figurines 3rd century BC and 1st century AD - sigillaria?

Pottery and bronze figurines 3rd century BC and 1st century AD – sigillaria? (British Museum)

Modern mid-winter habits echo Roman ones – increased, often extravagant shopping, conspicuous and over-indulgent eating and drinking, visiting friends, receiving visits from not-particular-friends who are only after a drink, and exchanging gifts, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria).

Everybody dressed in bright clothes, masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed freedoms of leisure and gambling. A member of the familia (household) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly equivalent to the Lord of Misrule. Of course, it often got completely out of hand…

Terracotta sheep, Greek, 4th century BC. (British Museum) Would make a lovely sigillarium!

Terracotta sheep, Greek, 4th century BC. (British Museum) Would make a lovely sigillarium!

The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as ‘the best of days’ while Seneca complains that the ‘whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’. Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated. Sound familiar?

Macrobius described a banquet of pagan literary celebrities in Rome which classicists date to between 383 and 430 AD. So  Saturnalia was alive and well under Christian emperors, but no longer as an official religious holiday.

But alongside ran the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the ‘unconquerable sun’), a festival celebrating the renewal of light and the coming of the new year and which took place on 25 December. By the middle of the fourth century AD,  the dominant Christian religion had integrated the Dies Natalis into their celebration of Christmas.

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet

Ever since the end of the Roman Empire, but especially when Roman texts were rediscovered and all things Roman became fashionable again from the Renaissance onwards, people have speculated about what Saturnalia really looked like.

Just how wild was it? This painting by Callet is one of the less explicit images, but while the party-goers are having a good time, it seems more in line with what it could have been like than the bacchanalian depictions by some painters then and  film-makers now.

Or were the paintings and stories just a reflection of the artists’ vivid imaginations of the  in their own time?

Io Saturnalia!


You can read the short story ‘Saturnalia Surprise‘ about how the Mitelae were surprised one year in ROMA NOVA EXTRA.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Black Friday? Cyber Monday? Wind back 2000 years to Ancient Rome

Campus Martius Rome, AD 300 (reconstruction)

Shopping is a national obsession in many countries and December is the peak of the frenzy. In a way it’s a sign of the relative wealth of 21st century people, but in another it plays to the instincts of acquisition and somewhere in the lizard brain, survival. Everybody dreads being poor, but it seems that comparative or relative poverty plays a larger part in that we must have the ‘stuff’ that others have in order to hold our heads up and never more so than in mid-winter, it seems.

Christmas markets which now spring up in every self-respecting town and city may have their modern origins from those in Germany – a throwback itself to medieval winter markets and fairs – but December markets were a tradition in ancient Rome.

From the 17 December for a varying number of days, Romans of many centuries celebrated the festival of Saturnalia in honour of the god Saturn. Formal dress like the toga was abandoned for brighter, (the brighter the better) and looser tunics; eating and drinking increased as did gambling; masters, mistresses and slaves swapped places in the pecking order (even if for only a day); and family members and friends exchanged presents.

Terracotta sigillarium

After days of public festivities, family parties, raucous horseplay and general laxity, the quieter festival of Sigillaria around 23 December was a quieter day, not just to get over hangovers, but to exchange gifts of sigilla, small clay figurines, small pieces of jewellery, scarves and candles. Sometimes, the gifts were rather more sumptuous.

In the run-up to the festival season, traders sold gifts at all price ranges from temporary stalls and booths in the Campus Martius, in the centre of what would later become the medieval city, or earlier in the Porticus Argonautarum, built by the Agrippa in 25 BC.

Juvenal complains that women, always anxious to keep up with their neighbours, demanded crystal vases and diamond rings from the stalls in this market. But Juvenal was always moaning about women…

December markets would have added to the holiday atmosphere in the city, with adults giving children money to spend, probably to slake some of the latter’s mounting excitement or simply to get them out of the house. Nothing new, then.

Was Ancient Rome a shopping paradise?

By the late first century BC, there were a million inhabitants in Rome, an urban population not reached again in the western world until early Victorian times with London. Like most urban residents, the people of Rome relied on retailers to provide them with food, clothing and other goods. Both documentary and archaeological evidence point to a complex and flourishing retail trade; the sheer number of retailers and shoppers must have been one of the most striking aspects of the city.

Trajan's Market with medieval additions above

Trajan’s Market with medieval additions above

Trajan’s Market, built AD 100-110 as an integral part of Trajan’s forum, was thought to be the world’s oldest shopping mall, but the surviving arcades are now believed by many to be administrative offices for Emperor Trajan. The shops and apartments were built in a multi-level structure and it is still possible to visit several of the levels. Highlights include delicate marble floors and the remains of a library.

Temple of Hercules on the edge of the former Forum Boarium

Temple of Hercules on the edge of the former Forum Boarium

Markets were the backbone of retail and were found in every district of the city, even in the poor ones where basics such as fruit, vegetables, pulses and chickens were sold daily.

The forum was a meeting place, marketplace and political centre of any town, generally rectangular, surrounded by public buildings, often with a colonnaded portico with shops and offices. In larger towns and, of course, the city of Rome itself, additional specialist fora such as forum boarium (meat), forum piscarium (fish) and forurum cuppedinis (‘dainties’) existed as did the macella – purpose-built shopping centres crammed with more expensive food luxuries from home and across the empire.

At the mundane level, shops sold food, spices, shoes, wool, books, household goods, clothes, tools. Interspersed were barber shops, blacksmiths, copper beaters, scribes, laundries, bars, eateries and the odd brothel.

Street in Pompeii

Shops were more often than not single-units, often single rooms, usually occupying most of the frontage of townhouses or apartment blocks. Sometimes shops fronted the street with workshops and storage behind and living quarters above. For example, a bakery would have milling area, ovens and storage to the rear, away from the front counter.

Retailers were found in the busiest areas of the city. The shops had to have a licence which was engraved on a piece of marble which was displayed publicly. Small shops and workshops lined the main thoroughfares, spilling out over their thresholds into the streets and colonnades. The poet Martial remarked that until the emperor Domitian issued an edict banning this practice, Rome looked like one big shop. (Remind anyone of a giant modern equivalent retail entity?)

Looking down to street bar, Pompeii

Looking down to street bar, Pompeii

Market traders, street sellers and ambulant hawkers tended to be found in central areas around temples, bathhouses, forums, circuses, amphitheatres and theatres, attracted by the commercial opportunities offered by good footfall. Perishable items that could be eaten straight away – bread, hot sausages, pastries, and chickpeas – were perfect for a busy Roman on the run. Lindsey Davis’s Roman detective Falco is always picking up street food to munch while on an investigation.

The economic divide

Men and women mixed freely in the Roman retail environment as both buyers and sellers at all levels. At one end, street traders sold everyday food and cheap products at low prices, probably catering for customers of limited means. Many of these traders would probably have themselves been poor, retailing home-produced or grown items on a small, sometimes part-time, basis in order to survive.

At the other end, wealthy shoppers who wanted to buy exotic food to impress their dinner guests could visit a macellumto bag a turbot or red mullet at eye-watering prices, or perhaps a few dormice or dozen songbirds.

Enterprising retailers would visit wealthier citizens in their own homes, sometimes speculatively, bringing silks, ivory combs, gold jewellery, jade and amber for the ladies of the house. No ready cash? Sellers would be happy to take a credit note knowing the pater familias would pay up when he got home or when the trader genteelly threatened to foreclose or expose profligacy and debt incurred by the household. Modern plastic, anyone?

As with today, retail trade in Ancient Rome was one of the most visible sectors of the urban economy, with retailers locked in a fierce competition to relieve customers of their limited and taxed money. So either we are responding to a basic human instinct when we over-shop or Rome was a very modern metropolis indeed.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

How far is the road to Rome, or even Virunum?

Roman horseman (Author photo)

Roman horseman (Author photo of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline)

Travelling in the ancient world was different, fundamentally different. Young (and not so young) men were by far the most mobile in the Ancient Rome over the whole period whether you count it to AD 476 (west) or 1453 (east) because they fought in armies. Next came the administrators, posted in a similar way to the military, to freeze their extremities off in Germania or Britannia for boil their brains in the provinces of Syria or Egypt. Both would be served by official couriers, messengers and supply chains speeding along the famous Roman roads serviced by way stations with basic personal resupply and accommodation facilities (mansiones).

Merchants, of course, were very familiar with trade routes; the same ones were used for hundreds of years. Wealthier individuals made journeys for education and recreation and their households (free or slave) went with them. 

Roman travelling coach carpentum (reconstruction), in the Römsich-Germanischen Museum in Cologne, Germany

Travel could be on horseback, ox cart, litters, travelling coaches, ship, barge, mules or Shanks’s pony (on foot). Soldiers just yomped with baggage trains trailing behind them, although to keep these baggage trains from becoming too large, in 107 BC General Gaius Marius made each man carry his own armour, weapons, personal equipment and 15 days’ rations, about 50–60 pounds (22.5–27 kg) in total.

Legionaries were issued with a forked stick to carry their load on their shoulders and were nicknamed Marius’ Mules (muli mariani in Latin) due to the amount of gear they had to carry themselves.


Officers like my tribune Lucius Apulius in ‘The Girl from the Market’ would have ridden a horse, had a servant riding a mule and made use of the mansiones if travelling away from his unit or between postings. At a fort, they would be lodged with other officers and even dine with the commander. Which is what happens to Apulius on his long journey from Britannia to Virunum in Roman Noricum (approximately modern Austria). But he was rained on and hated sleet and snow like any other serving soldier and was pleased to be wearing his paenula scortea, leather poncho as he rode along.

So what route did Apulius take in AD 370?
Firstly, he took a ship (military transport) across the Oeanus Britannicus from Dubris to Bononia (called Gesoriacum until the end of the third century), then on to Durocortorum (Rheims) and Vesontio (Besançon) on horseback. Apart from his own horse and the mule his servant rode, Apulius hired a travelling cart with driver and relief driver for his belongings and equipment.

Then it started to get sticky…

Apulius's journey

Apulius’s journey (Original map

The Roman Empire’s effective northern border (limes) in AD 370 ran along the line of the the Rhine and Danube rivers. Today, the passage along the upper Rhine valley via Basel is an important transalpine route with a multi-lane motorway and railway line; in Apulius’s time it was a vital axis between Gaul and the East. If control of that passage was lost, the empire would be split in two.

The city of Augusta Raurica to the east of today’s Basel was a prosperous trading town whose innkeepers and traders probably made a tidy profit from passing trade. However, about AD 300, following the loss of  the right bank of the Rhine, the Roman army built a fort nearby called Castrum Rauracense. During the 4th century, it grew in strategic importance; emperors Constantius II and Julian assembled their armies at the Castrum Rauracense before marching to battle against the Alemanni, the ‘barbarians’ to the north. Given its physical vulnerability after its sacking by the Alemanni in 260 AD, Augusta Raurica was resettled on a much smaller scale on the site of the castrum (modern Kaiseraugst).

Augusta Raurica (Kaiseraugst, Google Maps extract)

Augusta Raurica (Kaiseraugst, Google Maps extract)

Here, Apulius was forced to change to mule trains and military escort. By 370 AD, slow moving carts and sole travellers (servants not counted) would have been easy pickings for any raiding parties. But the route was still relatively safe to Brigantium (Bregenz) where a Roman fleet was based to patrol Lake Constance. Not the easiest command with the ferocious Alemanni across the water, just waiting…

For the next stage, he needed a larger escort as he was crossing an open frontier zone where the risk of conflict with Alemanni war parties was almost inevitable, but once in Cambodumum (Kempten), he was back in Roman territory and relative safety on his way to Iuvavum (Salzburg) and Virunum, his posting in Noricum.

Conveying belongings is easy for us today; we chuck them in the car, or a strong suitcase, a high tech backpack with Wi-Fi connectivity and take a plane or train. Luggage in Apulius’s time was roped packs, panniers on mules, wooden chests on carriages or wagons, none of which was guaranteed waterproof unless covered by leather. (My sincere thanks to fellow scribe Ruth Downie for sending me copies from Lionel Casson’s ‘Travel in the Ancient World’ and Ann Hyland’s ‘Equus: the Horse in the Roman World’ to clarify this.)

And time, it took time. Using Stanford University’s ORBIS and the Italian, I calculated the journey time by each form of transport, double checking  distances and physical landscape. And the more obvious routes in the area were starting to be inaccessible, not only from the weather, but as the empire literally lost ground. Apulius took about six weeks altogether. 

Virunum today (Photo: Wikipedia)

Virunum today (Photo: Wikipedia)

Today, to get to Maria Saal (nearest place to the site of Virunum), you can hop on a plane to Vienna, then one to Klagenfurt, hire a car and be there the same day seeing the same mountains Apulius would have seen. He may even have watched games in the amphitheatre being excavated in the photo above.

You can read about more Apulius’s journey and what happened to him in this backwater posting in ‘The Girl from the Market’ in ROMA NOVA EXTRA.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is now available in print and ebook.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.