Io Saturnalia! Roman Midwinter Festivals

Claudia Vanzo, Volunteer, Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

"Io Saturnalia!" Two thousand years ago this was the seasonal greeting which would have chimed out across most of Europe, not "Merry Christmas". The Roman mid-winter festival of misrule has heavily influenced many Christmas traditions - including the time of year we celebrate.

Saturnalia was a Roman festival which was held between the 17 and 23 of December each year followed by Sol Invictus Dies Natalis celebrated on the 25 of December. Saturnalia was dedicated to the God Saturn, a God who was thought to have ruled when the world enjoyed an age of prosperity and happiness. The festival originated from earlier agricultural rituals and it came to include around of gift giving, merry making and role reversal becoming one of the most popular celebrations on the Roman calendar.

Livy claimed that the Saturnalia festival began at the beginning of the 5th century BCE and it enjoyed great longevity, as described by Macrobius in the 5th century AD. It started as a one-day holiday and eventually it expanded to cover a week by the Late Republic. In the early 4th century BC, it was running into and incorporating a number of other Roman festivals. These included the Opalia, the festival day for Saturn’s consort Ops on the 19 December and the Sigillaria, the day of present-giving on the 23 December. On this day gifts exchanged were often pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made especially for the day. A child’s grave near Colchester contained a set of sigillaria, such as were given to children at this time. Candles and a variety of other gifts such as combs, toothpicks, a hat, lamps and perfumes, were exchanged. Was this pipe-clay figurine showing a person wearing a theatre mask a Sigillaria gift?

A grey small pipe figure with a large exaggerated smiling mouth, eyebrows and nose. The hands are crossed over the waist and below that the clay figure is broken.
Front of pipe clayfigure of comic actor, provenance unknown. © The Trustees of the British Museum

During Saturnalia a King would be chosen for the occasion known as the Saturnalicius princeps or 'leader of the Saturnalia’. Whilst in a role reversal of social conventions enslaved people were allowed to gamble, to get drunk in public, masters would wait on their slaves who were permitted to do as they wished. Freed men might have worn the pilleus, a floppy hat worn as a symbol of their emancipation. There would be a round of feasts, game playing and more informal clothes would be worn by citizens instead of the toga. Saturnalia meant also lots of drinking and eating at home as seen in one of the handwritten tablets from Vindolanda where one slave was writing to another about a food order for Saturnalia.

Two brown rectangular pieces of wood, separated in the middle. With faint black symbols written.
Wood writing tablet with a letter written in ink, making reference to the Saturnalia festival. © The Trustees of the British Museum
“Regarding the … for the Saturnalia, Iask you, brother, to see to them at a price of 4 or six asses and radishes to the value of not less than ½ denarius.” Al etter from one slave to another, from Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall inv. 87.748

Two days after the end of Saturnalia, on December the 25th, the Romans celebrated the birthday of Sol Invictus, the unconquered God Sun. This celebration was dedicated to the God Mithras identified with the Roman God Sol and it was established by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD. It was an important celebration in the Roman calendar as the God symbolised victory; he was also the patron of Roman soldiers and he presided over chariot races in Roman circuses. Chariot races were probably held in honour of Sol Invictuson the 25th of December.

A pencil outline drawing of castle ruins with one large round tower complete with two round windows and a broken roof, set in a countryside background.
Ruins of the circus of Maxentius in Rome by Geoffrey Fletcher, © Guildhall Art Gallery
A shiny round gold coin, One side shoes the profile of a mans face wearing a small crown with angular features and writing on the sides. The other side of the coin shoes a naked stature of a man with a shawl and crown on, holding a ball in his right hand, the coin has writing all around its edges.
Aureus coin of Severus II from AD 305 depicting Sol Invictus on the reverse ©The Trustees of the British Museum

In 330 AD with an Imperial decree, Constantine I introduced the celebrations of the Christian Christmas replacing the pagan holiday of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. In the fourth century AD Pope Julius I formally established that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated on the 25th December. As the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, it has been speculated that Constantine and Pope Julius chose this date in order to attract more converts to Christianity by identifying the figure of Christ with the Sun. Scholars have also argued that Pope Julius was also influenced by the idea that Jesus had died on the anniversary of his conception. The Roman Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus dated Jesus’ conception to March 25, which, after nine months in his mother’s womb, would result in a December 25 birth.

A pencil drawing outline of a pewter ingot, stamped with written symbols.
Pewter ingot, stamped. The stamps include Christian devices, such as a Chi-Rho monogram (the first two letters of Christ in the Greek alphabet) with 'SPES IN DEO' (Hope in God), and the mark of Syagrius. Found in the Thames at Battersea © The Trustees of the British Museum

The formalisation of the date of Christmas was documented in the calendar of Philocalus, a calligrapher, who mentions the games of the“unconquered one” on December the 25; he also mentions on another section that “VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae” (“the Chris twas born in Bethlehem in Judea on the 25th of December”).


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Crummy P. “The story of Colchester, Britain First Roman Town”, Colchester Archaeological Trust, (1997)

Eckardt H. “The Colchester Child’s Grave”,Britannia vol. 30 (1999)

Halsberghe G.H “The cult of Sol Invictus”, Brill Archive (1972).