Saturnalia Remembered, Briefly

From Saturnalia by Ernesto Biondi in Buenos Aires

At about this same time for the past two years I posted briefly about Saturnalia, the week-long ancient pagan festival that turned Roman society upside down.  I see no reason to stop that remembrance now, can you? Any holiday during which masters provided table service for their slaves, one that the poet Catullus called “the best of days”, needs to be remembered.

For more than four centuries it was among the most popular of Roman festivals. Gifts were exchanged, goodwill expressed and generosity shared. Peace was waged. From History Today:

From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought to restrict it to five days, with little success.

And social roles were reversed. In his poem Saturnalia, the poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180) has the God Cronos (aka Saturn) say:

“During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

According to many scholars, it was later replaced by the more subdued holiday today known as Christmas.

Saturnalia by Ernesto Biondi in Buenos Aires

Saturnalia by Ernesto Biondi in Buenos Aires - detail

Above is part of the atmosphere as captured by Ernesto Biondi in his 1900 sculpture named for the holiday. It’s among his most famous works, one that New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art refused to exhibit because of its “immorality”. He sued the museum for breach of contract but the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of the museum.

The copy pictured above, cast in 1909, rests in raucous peace in the Buenos Aires Botanical Gardens. They look like red wine drinkers to me. A few more shots of the sculpture are here.

During one extended period of its existence, the holiday was set to conclude on 23 December. So if your masters haven’t served you yet, you might want to nudge them gently from their slumber. Another year is a long time to wait.


Today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 719th straight, was snapped on 25 January 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.




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  1. pattimoed says

    Red wine? Definitely. 🙂

  2. Manja Mexi Movie says

    “According to many scholars, it was later replaced by the more subdued holiday today known as Christmas.”

    Hihih, va bene! Greetings from Roma, we shall see if there are any true Romans still around.

    1. Bob R says

      I’m sure you’ll find a few. Enjoy!

  3. ladieswholunchreviews says

    Nothing says holiday like drinking, naked singing and cancelled executions! 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Indeed — and not necessarily in that order. 🙂

      1. ladieswholunchreviews says

        Too true! You almost never disappoint me!

  4. lyart says

    residues from the “master serve slaves” concept might be the x-mas parties, where companies invite their staff for a good night out.

    1. Bob R says

      That’s interesting. For some that’s probably quite true.

  5. Anonymous says

    Too bad that these were the ONLY days off the slaves got all year.

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