Io Saturnalia



Io Saturnalia

Despite the scattered ruins so beloved of tourists – the huge triumphal arches, the gigantic fallen pillars, or the looming hulk of the Colosseum – the remains of the original Rome of the ancients survive surprisingly intact but completely hidden beneath today’s city pavements.

Saturnalia 1 (1)

Across much of today’s buzzingly hyperactive Roma Centrale, the long-dead Rome of the ancients lies right beneath your feet. It’s about twelve feet down lurking in caverns or winding laneways. Ghostly marble or brick residues peep out of weathered sink-holes, old 19th Century buildings’ foundations, the edges of roads, or as a high wall running untrammelled through a basement arcade at Roma Termini railway hub, plus other unexpected eruptions into modern life. The spectral debris of the past lays everywhere, but its ruins, its catacombs, and whole subterranean laneways of ancient brick are veiled from view by the accumulations of dusty time. Two thousand years is a weighty burden for a city to carry.

Saturnalia 6 - Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun) - 2nd Century

Similarly, the ancient Roman origins of our seasonal cultural events such as Advent and even Christmas also lie buried behind a concealing façade. Advent has had a colourful history, and not always a charming one. It is one of history’s dirty little secrets.

If you’re a writer of gay or m/m historical fiction, as I try to be, you’re supposed to know your chosen era’s cultural stuff, yes? Unless you’re writing total fantasy your readers will assume you are situating your fiction within the plausible realities of recorded history. In short, you are supposed to be familiar with the historical facts or cultural niceties of your chosen era so you can communicate a believable degree of cred.

For example, if your novel is set in ancient Rome and incorporates the Christian season we call ‘Advent’, which didn’t enter the lexicon of Roman life until as late as the Fourth Century, then you should probably go back and do your homework.  Advent had a long birth of over a thousand years, long before Jesus had even been born and the Christ Mass was an annual festival.

Saturnalia 4 - Christ as The Good Shepherd - 4th Century

The imperial era of ancient Rome prior to Constantine’s shift of his capital of his empire to Byzantium (modestly re-named Constantinople) runs from 27BCE at the time of the first ruling Caesar, Augustus, until 318CE fifty-four Caesars later, under Constantine. The imperial period was 339 years where the Christian season of Advent hadn’t yet become part of Rome’s official festive furniture. Yet its predecessor pagan festival had already existed for a thousand years. That earlier festival was known as The Saturnalia.

For those who write fiction about Rome’s imperial era this fact then places their plots firmly in a pre-Christian era. This is where a very large range of social circumstances existed which differed greatly from those influenced by Christians after 318CE. The previous circumstances included a widely diverse range of exuberant and immoderate sexualities, especially among the elites, despite Rome’s official patriarchal conservatism.


The annual winter solstice of late-December in the ancient Mediterranean world provided festive opportunities for everything from simple family celebration to occasions of voluptuous public sensuality, and had been doing so for a very long time. They had laws and official morals of stern rectitude yet had actual practices of wild abandon.

Romans and Greeks, too, did not possess the stringent demarcation of the sexes as objects of desire which tacitly underpins Christian culture. Males were allowed to be attracted to either gender, but within strict restraints of age and active/passive distinction. It has been only over the past century that Western culture is perceived to be returning to a similar gender license.

Saturnalia 9 - Dionysus celebrating Brumalia - Roman mosaic

Surviving sources suggest the annual 7-day Saturnalia saw the normal order of society turned upside down. It was certainly a time for wine, women, and song …  plus a loosening of morals accompanied by colourful gender novelties. Merriment prevailed for everyone, including slaves, who were a quarter of the population. It is said all sexual prohibitions were lifted; Dionysian sexual rituals and erotic dances were embraced; while orgiastic revelry and licentious behaviour flourished. Transvestism and nudity coupled with a temporary levelling of social rank made light of conventional tradition. It was a time of free love and chaotic behaviour  … well, for a week anyway.

Yet this was a society deeply entranced by issues of fertility, bawdy imagery, and ribald sexual magic. Lusty phallic symbols and penis-shaped household artefacts were a commonplace, while decors of people in multiple variations of sexual activity were regarded as cheery endorsements of life’s joyfulness. It was a lifestyle which would easily make readers of Fifty Shades of Grey blush.

The thousand-year Saturnalia was the precursor festival of the ‘Feast of Fools’ and other Mardi Gras-like public excesses which survived well into the Middle Ages of Christian times.

Authorities have also suggested Rome’s Saturnalia was generally the fore-runner of the more sober Christmas we celebrate today. They recall it was a time when one’s chosen divinity was honoured in public or domestic ceremonies, gifts were exchanged with family members, the home was decorated with wreaths and garlands, special fires and lamps were lit in bright celebration, feasting occurred with family and friends, and festive dress or silly hats were popular. Much of it sounds very familiar to us today.

Across a thousand years the festival was probably celebrated in many differing ways. Ancient Rome was by no means a static society, plus it tended to possess a volatile temper which sought its satisfactions in lusty, earthy experience .

The calendar details as the Romans saw them were: – today is the 16th of Decembris, which to their world meant the three days after the full-moon day at the Ides (the month’s middle day, the 13th) of the tenth month after New Year. New Year for Romans began in the month of Martius. That’s our March at this period of history, not January, so as its name implies Decembris was the tenth month not the twelfth.

Late in Decembris is the time when winter’s declining daylight hours first show a glimmer of a return to lengthening days. The priests and astrologers joyfully discerned how the gods’ promise of spring-will-be-sprung, and life’s sunnier days of fun, were beginning all over again. Today’s 16th is the eve of the start tomorrow of the Saturnalia, the year’s most popular holiday season. The Saturnalia promised leisure, celebration and partying … and when Rome partied, the Romans really partied!

Saturnalia 3 - ancient Rome, underground catacombs

The holidays from the 17th to the 23rd of Decembris had something for everyone. It was originally a solstice festival to honour Saturn as the god of seed sowing and its forthcoming agricultural abundance. With this hope of future fecundity, fulltime work ceased briefly, school lessons stopped, slaves relaxed and pretended to be equal to their masters for the week (fat chance, in reality); status clothing was exchanged to visibly prove their equality (merely a token fancy, I’d say); gifts were made by the wealthy to the poor in honour of a golden age of Saturn (very small gifts, I’d imagine); and much dancing, feasting, boozing, and naughtiness prevailed. Naughtiness was very high on the public agenda, complete with gender role-reversals and all manner of permissible excess. Despite being winter, shameless nudity also had a place too.

In earlier more-savage centuries a slave was chosen to be dressed as King of the Festival and paraded around as a mock monarch for a few days, but who was ritually slaughtered at the end of the festival. Several hundred years later by imperial times the Saturnalia had evolved to being a celebration of the sun overcoming the power of winter to promise life’s annual renewal. Subsequently the 24th and 25th of Decembris were given over to celebrations which acknowledged renewal.

The Brumalia on the 25th had long been a Greek celebration of Dionysus (‘Bacchus’ to the Romans) whose gift of wine to humanity flowed plentifully.  Romans imbibed equally enthusiastically. Later, it was also the date of the birth of Mithras, an imported Persian saviour god of renewal whose mythology increasingly appealed to many Romans in direct competition with Christian belief. Mithraic renewal declared the re-birth of the sun on the 25th, and therefore to be ritually celebrated as Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun).

As the “atheistic superstition” of Christianity slowly received a wider acceptance by Rome, the figure of Jesus now grew to be identified as ‘Christ the Sun of Righteousness’. In 336, under the first Christian convert emperor Constantine, Christ’s unknown birth date (despite the questionable nativity tales in the Gospels) was calculated to be the same as Sol Invictus on 25 December. The Birth of Christ on 25 December was then decreed in 349 as a Church doctrine by Pope Julius I, the thirty-fifth Christian pope after Saint Peter. It had taken more than three centuries since the original event for the date to be theologically determined and stabilized to the one we still celebrate today.

In the process the increasing expansion of Judeo-Christian social ethics saw an intense philosophical and moral restraint arise among the more exuberant expressions of Roman behaviour, especially sexuality. Yet such changes were slow to overcome habitual Roman enjoyments. Gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum did not cease until as late as 435CE, while animal hunts in the arena continued for another century. It seems the less-temperate pleasures of the Romans, including their sexual adventurism, had very great staying power despite the declining influence of pagan beliefs or the increasing influence of Christianity.

For a writer of novels with a gay or m/m theme, that thousand-year pre-Christian period offers plentiful examples of gay or m/m relationships in both Greek and Roman public life, at least among males. It’s true the private lives of women have tended to remain veiled from view, concealed by the patriarchal structures, social conventions, and general misogyny of the era. Yet scholarship over recent decades has brought much to light about the role of women in Roman times.

In my novel “THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History” I have tried to communicate the relaxed sexual climate of Rome and Greece prior to the full flowering of Christian influence in the following centuries. My novel and a forthcoming sequel highlight the range of sexualities the Romans engaged upon, while also accenting the curious limits they imposed too. Though their sexual culture differed in many odd ways from our own, it seems in our increasingly post-Christian climate we are returning on tiptoe to the license and personal freedoms of that earlier era. Or at least we are progressing to a general mindset which respects human diversity, individuality, personal aspiration, and accepts us in the liberating terms of two recent US television series as today’s Modern Family and The New Normal. So, Io Saturnalia!!

George Gardiner

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

George is giving away either an electronic or a paperback (via gift card) copy of his book The Hadrian Enigma so please comment to be in with winning a copy.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)

7. What was the name of the dreadful Christmas Shopping Adventure movie that Arnold Schwarzenegger made?

16 Responses

  1. Cracking post George! *bookmarks* Io Saturnalia to you too.

  2. Merry Saturnalia to you all…and it’s time we learned what we’re really celebrating!

  3. Hmm – note to self – beware people asking you to pretend to be a king for a few days. The ending might leave a little to be deserved.
    Very interesting post, George!

  4. Recent travels in Spain and France had me discovering many Roman influences on local cultures that complimented the already exiting local beliefs, that were later systemically destroyed by the incoming Christian horde. This piece was a delight to read and gives hope that this too shall pass and we will return to a time of humanity accepting the way we are made. Looking forward to reading this authors work(s).

  5. I’m loving all the interesting posts with different aspects of this time of year. This one was very interesting – just goes to show, there is nothing new in the world!

  6. No one ever really spelled out the whole Saturnalia extravaganza to me before…fascinating!

  7. Fascinating stuff there.

    I do love Rome and shall be thinking about what’s under the modern streets next time I visit.

  8. Poor slave that got crowned King of Saturnalia. Fascinating about the underground city of Rome and Saturnalia.

  9. What a fascinating post, thank you. And Happy Festivus and Merry Saturnalia to you!

  10. I’ve always found the history of the Christmas holiday to be quite fascinating—thanks for the post. No wonder the rather dour Puritans banned the holiday—there’s actually nothing particularly Christian about it!

    (To those folks today who keep going on about the supposed secularization of the holiday, and say “keep Christ in Christmas,” I always reply—guess what, he was never there to begin with!)

  11. Really interesting post, George. I’m learning so much about how our Christmas evolved. Thank you. 😀

  12. This Advent series of posts has been very educational. Interesting stuff, George.

  13. Penis-shaped household decor? Somehow I don’t think I ought to revive that tradition just yet!

  14. And I was just reading a Washington Post article today on the increasing amount of people giving gifts to themselves at this time of year. A wonderful post, and I like the idea of penis shaped household decor. Certainly a conversation starter!

  15. This was very interesting to read and something I’d like to study more about. Thanks for sharing! Happy Holidays!

  16. I didn’t realise that Dec 25th was a significant date in Mithraic tradition, I thought it was used because it was nearly-but-not-quite solstice. Thank you for such an entertaining and educational post.

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