Saturnalia and The Romans

Georgette McCready takes a look at the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia and finds links with modern-day Christmas festivities – although flamingo for a seasonal meal might be taking things a bit far…

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there is a scene when the occupied British people are complaining about their Roman invaders and ask each other “apart from sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” They might also have added ‘the Christmas spirit’ to that list because there are so many links to the way the ancient Romans celebrated the festival Saturnalia to how we enjoy the Christmas period today.

Boy, did those Romans know how to party! Their Saturnalia was a week-long period of over-indulgence where workplaces such as courts shut, people gave each other presents and there was a good deal of debauched behaviour as a result of excess alcohol. There was even dancing in the streets. And as we prepare for our own Christmases, this does sound familiar. As the Roman Empire settled down after years of fighting tribes in Britain, Bath was a settlement where the Romans enjoyed peaceful times and were able to celebrate their own culture. In around 70ad the Romans had built a holy temple on the site of the natural hot water springs here in the south west of Britain before building the impressive complex of baths that we’re lucky enough to see today.

In a tactful gesture to their British neighbours, who had originally built their shrine by the spring and dedicated it to Sulis their goddess of healing, the Romans named their baths The Waters of Sulis, or Aquae Sulis. Religion was an important aspect of Roman culture but they cunningly made sure that having a good time was built into the worship of their gods. The Roman calendar is full of festivals and holidays – at least one for every month of the year – and it’s here that we find the early roots of our modern-day Christmas celebrations. Lots of cultures like to mark the darkest days of winter by bringing families and friends together for feasts, to light fires and banish the cold and the Romans were no exception. Saturnalia was a hugely popular mid-winter festival which took place over a week between 17 and 23 December.

During this holiday period it was traditional for wealthy people to give their slaves and servants presents and time off. They quite often swapped clothes with their servants and waited on them, reversing roles even for a brief time. It was customary to bring berries and greenery into the house as a tribute to Saturn, the god of agriculture, and gifts often took the form of small statuettes or ornaments, which were hung in the greenery – decking the halls with boughs of holly. And then there were the banquets… In her book Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking, Kate Colquhon explains how Roman food and dishes would have been such a revelation to the indigenous British people. It would have been the equivalent of the 1960s in the UK when most people had a bland diet which did not include ginger, garlic or chilli and they were suddenly introduced to the highly flavoured cuisine of curries and Chinese dishes.

While the British in pre-Christian times cooked with butter, milk and ale, the Romans used olive oil and wine. They brought with them their secret recipes for a pungent, dark, salty fish sauce which they used to flavour their dishes. It was said that soldiers who had been stuck on distant outposts guarding the Roman Empire used to stand in the British rain or mists dreaming of the tasty fish relish of home.

Religion was an important aspect of Roman culture but they cunningly made sure that having a good time was built into the worship of their gods

If you were invited to a Saturnalian feast in Bath what might you expect? The diners would eat lounging on couches, the most important guests nearest to the host. And dishes were announced before being brought to the table, served in a series of courses as we do now. The food would have been an expression of the host’s wealth and they prided themselves on beautiful glassware and decorative bowls. We might recognise a sort of early pasta and we would almost certainly enjoy the fresh breads made from oats, rye, wheat or barley, although we might find a sausage stuffed with a mixture of meat and fish rather odd. The Romans brought many innovations to Bath. They roasted meat in ovens and liked to keep their food hot as it was brought to table. In the kitchens they introduced the three-legged metal cauldron, ladles and spatulas. They enjoyed watercress, lettuce, bacon and beans and their range of herbs and spices, including fennel, dill and aniseed, must have been a shot of flavour for their British guests. The Romans were farmers as well as warriors. They fenced in wild deer for venison meat and kept wild ducks which they domesticated for food. There was also the habit of keeping dormice in pottery vessels where they were fattened up on chestnuts and acorns, before being roasted for the feast.

One of history’s earliest recipe books was written by a Roman gourmet, Apicus. One recipe begins: ‘take and pluck a flamingo’ and ends ‘the same recipe can be used for parrot.’ It’s unlikely that cooks in Bath could get their hands on either of these, but weknow that grapes were grown for wine in terraces on the sunny slopes of Walcot, where the name Vineyards on the Paragon remains as a reminder of that time.

Above: Saturnalia by Antoine Callet, 1783

Our Saturnalian celebrants would finish their convivium (another name for a dinner party) with puddings sweetened with honey. Some guests would have brought napkins to wipe their greasy fingers but it was perfectly acceptable for guests to run their fingers through the serving boys’ hair to clean them for the next course. Throughout the meal wine would have been served and in wealthier households there would have been entertainment between courses in the form of short theatrical scenes, juggling, singing or poetry. And at the end of the feast everyone would enjoy the chance to gossip over more wine, or to play backgammon, dice or draughts. The Romans were happy with nudity, they were at ease naked in the baths, where business and pleasure were conducted with flesh on show. They were also relaxed about sex and the festivities of Saturnalia saw some debauched behaviour take place, much as it can today when Christmas parties get out of hand and the mistletoe and red wine loosen inhibitions. Who knows what stories the walls of the Roman baths would tell if they could talk.

Well every party has to end, and by 312ad the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine started to clamp down on Saturnalia as its orgies and loose behaviour didn’t sit comfortably with Christian values. Within generations the British Christian Christmas had become all about prayer and solemnity, but lay the spark of those good times, buried in our collective subconscious and now we like to think the Romans of ancient Bath would have approved of our 21st-century fun-filled holiday.

Keep reading for a Roman style menu, and some extra feasting-facts…

Apicius, the collection of Roman cookery recipes thought to have been compiled in the 1st century ad, is cited by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (77ad). Here are a some recipes from Apicius that are likely to have been used for feasting:

Stuffed dormouse (Glires)
Lobster or crabmeat croquettes (Isicia de scillis vel de cammaris amplis)
Brain Sausage (Isicia de cerebellis)
Minutal of hare’s livers (Minutal leporinum)
Boiled ostrich (In struthione elixo)
Dish of sow’s matrix (Vulvulae botelli)
Cuttle fish croquettes (Isicia de lolligine)
Rose wine (Rosatum) and violet wine (Rosatum sine rosa)
Roman vermouth (Absinthium Romanum)
Varro beets (Beets a la varrobetaceous varronis)
Dish of sea-nettles (Patina de urtica)
Rose pie, rose custard or pudding (Patina de rosis)
Homemade sweets (Dulcia domestica)Notes from Roman writers on banquets and cooking:

Notes from Roman writers on banquets and cooking:

  1. Plautus (254 BC–184bc) wrote about cooks whose seasonings were like “screech owls to eat the entrails out of living guests”. Columella (4–70ad) recorded that thrushes were reared on millet and on figs pre-chewed by slaves.
  2. As the cult of the kitchen emerged, Pliny (23–73ad) complained that cooks had begun to cost more than horses.
    At Trimalchio’s feast, described by Petronius (26–77ad), one course was introduced with Laconian hounds bursting into the room, followed by a large platter on which lay a wild boar and date-filled baskets hanging from its tusks.A slave stabbed the wild boar with a hunting knife and out flew a number of thrushes, then caught in nets and offered to the guests.
  3. Suetonius (69–122ad) recorded a feast given by Emperor Vitellius, the centrepiece of which was a dish called The Shelf of Minerva, made of pike livers, pheasant and peacock brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey milt [the sperm and reproductive organs of male fish].
  4. One extravagant Roman banquet saw Heliogabalus (204–222ad) serving his guest with 600 ostrich brains, peas mixed with grains of gold; lentils with precious stones; and other dishes mixed with pearls and amber.
    The most distinctive of all ingredients in Roman cuisine was liquamen or garum, which resembles anchovy essence.
  5. Geoponica XX (a 10th-century collection of agricultural lore) says, “The best garum is made by taking the entrails of tunny fish and its gills, juice and blood, and adding sufficient salt. Leave it in a vessel for two months at most, then pierce the side of the vessel and garum, called Haimation, will flow out.”

Featured image: Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti in Pompeii; all images sourced from Wikimedia Commons