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date: 22 July 2017

Saturnus, Saturnalia

Saturnus is one of the most puzzling gods in Roman cult. His festival (below) was part of the ‘Calendar of Numa’ (see pompilius, numa), and its position, 17 December, midway between Consualia and Opalia, is intelligible if we suppose, as has commonly been done (e.g. by Wissowa, RK204) that his name (Sāturnus, also Saeturnus) is to be connected with sătus and taken as that of a god of sowing, or of seed-corn. Other historians derive the god from the Etruscan Satre. But neither of these explanations resolves the difficulties raised by the cult of Saturn. The god, whose temple was sited by the NW corner of the forum Romanum, is now considered as an Italo-Roman deity (his name is mentioned in the Carmen Saliare) who underwent a Hellenizing i.e. Greek interpretatio (see interpretatio romana) from the end of the 3rd cent. bce. The difficulty arises from the fact that the cult was celebrated according to the Greek rite, i.e. with the head uncovered (FestusGloss. Lat.416; see sacrifice, roman). To account for these facts, along with the other rites of the Saturnalia of 17 December, notably the fact that the statue of Saturnus, bound for the rest of the year, was freed for this day, as well as other inversion-rituals, the god's function has been defined as that of liberation, one which the obscure Lua Saturni might amplify.

Of the early history of his festival nothing is known: Livy (2. 21) speaks as if it originated in 496 bce, which is obviously not so. At most, some modification of the ritual in the direction of Hellenization took place then. In Cicero's day, at any rate, the festival lasted for seven days. Augustus reduced it to three, but from the reigns of Gaius (1) and Claudius it attained five days, despite the fact that everyone continued to celebrate for seven days. The Saturnalia were celebrated down to the Christian age and beyond (under the name of Brumalia). In the Chronographer of ce 354 the vignette characterizing the month of December represents a person celebrating the Saturnalia, and it is in this context that the famous work of Macrobius entitled Saturnalia must be placed. The Saturnalia were the merriest festival of the year, ‘the best of days’ (Catull. 14. 15). Slaves were allowed temporary liberty to do as they liked, presents were exchanged, particularly wax candles and Sigillaria (Macrob.Sat. 1. 7. 18 ff.; see Versnel, Inconsistencies 2. 148 for more refs.). There was also a sort of mock king, Saturnalicius princeps, ‘leader of the Saturnalia’, who presided over the feasts and amusements (Sen.Apocol. 8. 2; Epict. diss. 1. 25. 8; Lucian, Saturnalia 2 and 4). As a general rule, Romans at this time adopted a comportment inverting their normal conduct. Slaves dined before their masters and could allow themselves a certain insolence, leisure-wear (synthesis) was worn instead of the toga, as well as the felt bonnet proper to slaves (pilleus), and the time was spent eating, drinking, and playing. There is a debate about the claims of Christian writers that gladiators were linked to Saturn and that they were a form of human sacrifice (Wissowa, RK207; Versnel, 210 ff.).


H. Versnel, Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion, 2. Transition and Reversal in Myth and Ritual (1992), 136 ff.Find this resource:

M. Nilsson, Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. Saturnalia (1921).Find this resource:

P. Pensabene, Tempio di Saturno (1984).Find this resource:

M. Meslin, Collection Latomus (1970)Find this resource:

(on the 4th–5th cents. ce).

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