Saturnalia, in Roman times, was the annual festival on 17th December celebrating the end of winter, which quickly expanded into a week of Misrule, feasting, partying, gambling, drinking, playing card games, and general cavorting around the town ...
|Ruins of the Temple of Saturn|
(eight columns to the far right) in 2010
They even dressed down – togas came off and bright tunics appeared with silly hats. Misrule was a very debauched affair ... masters serving servants ... lawlessness prevailed briefly ...
... Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no-one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration.
The festivities began when the Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule” – this poor victim was subjected to some rather unpleasant ‘pranks’ ...
|Saturnalia by Ernesto Biondi (1909) in the|
Buenos Aires Botanical Gardens
... at the festival’s conclusion the Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent – represented by gingerbread men biscuits today.
Surprisingly during Saturnalia the Romans did not over indulge – our main tradition the lavish and luxurious eating of a fine feast developed over the centuries as we relinquished Saturnalia, paganism and embraced the Christian faith.
However quite a few of the Roman traditions make their appearance in our Christmas of today ... gift giving (sometimes with little verse cards attached), carol singing, gingerbread men biscuits –as we know those had devilish connotations.
|Dice players in a wall painting|
Christians adopted the Pagan tradition of tree worshiping, decorating their homes with greenery – ivy and mistletoe ... our Christmas tree today.
The forum was the town’s main meeting place where people would mingle, the theatre would show a variety of theatrical entertainments ... with street performers adding to the mix.
Although feasting did not occur – the wealthier Romans ate well ... banquets would consist of a variety of courses – but normal life was as we know it today ... revolving around the rhythms of manual labour (in the fields).
Breakfast was bread and fruit, a light lunch in the middle of the day consisting of thick porridge, bread, cheese, cold fish, meat and with humble vegetables ...
... while the main meal of the day was a three course dinner served in the late afternoon in the Triclinium, where diners reclined on three couches, arranged around a low dining table, and served from the kitchen within the villa.
|A Roman Dinner|
The wealthy, patriarchs and plebeians, would have kitchens, but most people, the freedmen (general plebeians), lived in apartments and they had to eat cold meals or buy hot food from the many take-away food shops.
The slaves would get handouts of grain which they made into a porridge type gruel, while the freedmen ate this staple porridge supplemented by oil, the simpler vegetables and salt fish.
|Stuffed Roasted Boar|
Cooks in the homes of the wealthy patricians were valued household slaves – as it was exceedingly hard work - the evening meal often taking all day to prepare ... food being cooked in a brick oven, and was either boiled in a pot or roasted on a griddle over the flames.
Food was quite varied but depended on the seasons and availability – roasted meats: pigeons cooked inside chickens, wild boar or pigs stuffed with sausages made from extra meats and innards – waste not want not ...
Richer classes had starters of eggs, seafood or snails ... supplemented with cheeses, olives, lentils, sea urchins, molluscs, shrimp, salted anchovies ... with extra vegetables: kale, chard, nettles and sorrel.
|Foods from plant sources|
Pickled vegetables were readily available ... olives, chicory, cardoons, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, leeks, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, peas, green beans, radishes, cauliflower, cabbages, lettuces and field greens, onions, cucumbers fennel, capers – early varieties of the types we eat today ...
The main dish usually consisted of meat – pork was the most popular – all parts being eaten; beef wasn’t very popular – cattle were working animals; geese, duck, chickens, peacocks and swans all featured ... sausages of various sorts were made. Hares and rabbits were bred and eaten – hares less successfully.
|Chickens hanging in a shop in Mexico|
Fresh fish was usually only found at lunch times – they were difficult to fatten up ... though freshwater and saltwater ponds existed. Fish sauce was the universal sauce added to everything ... when it was being made the production of garum was banned in the towns ... as the stench was unbelievable!
The small sealed amphorae were distributed throughout the Empire and totally replaced salt as a condiment. The remaining solids were sold as a kind of savoury spread ...
|"The Mullus" harvesting pepper taken from a|
French edition of The Travels of Marco Polo
Spices were imported on a large scale and used copiously ... pepper, saffron, cinnamon, herbs, cloves, nutmeg, ginger ...
Desserts would include plenty of fruits – fresh or dried – grapes, figs, dates, pomegranates, quinces, apples, apricots et al ... and the Romans loved walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts and pine nuts ...
|Roman Honey Cakes|
Roman bakers were famous for the many varieties of breads, rolls, fruit tarts, sweet buns and cakes ... cakes made of wheat and usually soaked in honey were often served.
Drinks were early types of wine, mixed with herbs and honey, early mead, strong raisin wine, matured spiced wine; beer was known but considered vulgar. Sour wine mixed with water and herbs was a popular drink for the lower classes.
In some ways the Romans had the same choices we have today for our Christmas feast ... and our foods have evolved from those early beginnings.
Their entertainment was similar to ours today – even in this technological age – musicians, acrobats, poets or dancers .... dances were not usual, as it was considered improper and would not mix well with table manners ... although during the comissatio (a round of drinks) this habit was often disregarded.
Times have not really changed that much in two millennia ... different countries have evolved their own cultures out of those early beginnings ...
|Our Christmas Pudding complete with holly|
sprig - if the Romans had invented matches
- then they too would have flamed it
Thankfully we don’t have to choose a Lord of Misrule – except as a revival of those early traditions enacted to remember our roots ... and I love that we don’t forget our history ... it’s made who we are ...
Happy Christmas preparations ... though I’ll still be around!
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