Monday, December 1, 2008

Io, Saturnalia!

It may not have been Christmas exactly, but the ancient Roman Saturnalia (17th-23rd. December) was certainly an opportunity for feasting and gift-giving. Over the years, this time of merry-making, sacrifices and gift-giving expanded to a week and the poet Catullus - who knew a thing or two about parties - called it 'the best of days'.

In many ways this ancient festival was rather like Christmas:

Schools were on holiday.

Gambling was allowed.

Shopping at special markets was encouraged.

Holiday clothes were worn - the informal, colourful 'dining clothes' instead of the plain, bulky toga.

Presents were given - parrots, wax candles, dice, combs, perfumes, little pottery dolls.

Feasting was indulged, with Saturn himself in charge as Lord of Misrule.

People wished each other a merry Saturnalia with the evocation, 'io Saturnalia!' ('Yo Saturnalia!')

My ancient Roman historical romance Flavia's Secret has its climax and ending during the Saturnalia - have you entered my competition yet, by the way? Here's an excerpt to tempt you:

Flavia was as quick as she could be, but there were queues everywhere
in the food shops and spice and trinket stalls as slaves and even
citizens shopped for last minute items for the Saturnalia. It was the
first time she had been in the city this close to the festival. In
other years, Lady Valeria had given her people small gifts of pickled
fish and nuts, but had otherwise ignored the Saturnalia, insisting
that her servants remain indoors and serve her, rather than follow
the tradition that at the Saturnalia the household slaves for one day
at least were waited on by their masters.

`The Saturnalia is a rowdy, vulgar, drunken festival, little more
than an orgy,' Lady Valeria had complained. `I will have no part of
it in my house.'

Her words may have been true, but as the morning progressed, Flavia
saw little to alarm her. The people in these snowy streets were
intent on their money or goods. A few roughly-dressed men were
crouched over gaming tables and she passed a group of giggling young
slave girls, all waving napkins given to them as presents, but there
was no sign of drunkenness or of wild orgies. Many workshops were
shuttered and closed and houses the same. There was a distant grumble
of noise coming from the theatre, close to the great bathing complex,
but no raised voices.

Unsure whether to be glad or disappointed, Flavia swapped her basket
from one arm to the other and sped on through the slushy snow. She
longed to stay and find some gifts for Gaius and the others—
especially for Marcus, her heart whispered—but she still had not
enough money of her own. With a sigh, her final purchase haggled for
and bought, she turned to make her way home, avoiding the wine shops
and taverns and drawing her shawl over her blonde hair each time she
crossed a busy street.

She was close to the blank front entrance of the deserted villa where
she had taken Marcus to see the secret garden and pool when she heard
the sounds of flutes and drums approaching from a narrow, snow-filled

`Ow!' She put a hand to her ear, which had just begun to sting. A
small apple lay at her feet in the snow and as she stared at it, she
realized that it must have been thrown down at her from the upper
living quarters over one of the shuttered shops.

`To Saturnalia!' roared a good-natured male voice overhead. More
small apples and nuts and then a cluster of sweetmeats rained down on
Flavia and others in the street. People scrambled on hands and knees
to pick up the fruit and other foods, while the racket of the flutes
and drums drew nearer.

Then she spotted them, at the back of the parade. Three beggars, in
rags, slinking along the alley. They carried walking sticks and their
cloaks were torn but they moved too smoothly for men wracked by pain
or ill health. Now that she looked more closely, she thought she
recognised the small, skinny one. She had seen him before, walking
past the villa, twice, no three times. But he had never called with
his begging bowl.

A prickle of alarm, cold as an icicle, shot down the length of
Flavia's back. Trusting her instincts, honed by years of slavery, she
flattened herself into the nearest shadowy doorway, glad of her
inconspicuous brown gown as she veiled her face with one end of the
shawl. Scarcely breathing, she waited for this parade to go by.

They were all men. At least a score of brightly-dressed young men,
several puffing cheerfully on long flutes or banging on drums and all
with the rich, sleek look of Roman aristocrats and the free-born.
These were revellers: quite a few clutched jugs of beer or wine which
they carelessly drank from. Flavia prayed they would not notice her.
The last stragglers swayed past her hiding place. One, stumbling in
the snow with heavy deliberateness, dropped to his knees close to
where she was. He did not see her, but his two friends, slithering
over the slush and ice to haul him up, spotted the small, wary figure
in the shadows and shouted.

`Hey, girl, join us!'

`Let me give you something,' the second leered, making a crude
gesture with his hand.

Flavia darted away before the two men trapped her in the doorway.

`Hey, come back!'

`Party time!'

`We have the wine and you are the orgy!'

Backing along the street, Flavia heard an ominous silence descend
among the flute players and drummers. Walking as rapidly as she could
in a clumsy, sideways fashion, she did not speak, or run. She did not
want to provoke them.

From the corner of her eyes, she saw the three beggars echoing her
own movements, clearly following her. Who were they?

Under her fear, her mind was still working. If she could only reach
the crossroads, she would take the short-cut down the street of the
fullers and make for the shrine of the goddess Sulis at the Roman
baths. She was Christian, but these men were pagans. Surely they
would respect their own sacred place? Surely the goddess would
protect her?

None of the other bystanders or shoppers raised a word against the
rich, spoilt Romans or these creeping, silent beggars. Flavia knew
she was alone and would have to deal with them herself. She thought
of Marcus, going into battle, facing down his enemies. He had not
turned and run, and she would not.

Yo, Saturnalia!

Lindsay Townsend

The Pompeiian partygoers in the picture come from the BBC's Ancient Rome pages.


Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, this is so fascinating ~ talk about a time travel trip I'd like to take...

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Savanna! There's lots of interesting stuff in the ancient world and lots that shows us where we have developed our ideas.
I'd love to borrow your time machine! Shall we go off somewhere together? Where first?

Savanna Kougar said...

Back to the beginning of humanity on Earth, then we'll have to spin the wheel of travel fortune...