In this tale we are going to talk about a pretty unknown Roman god, Saturn, who left us a very popular custom.
Who was God Saturn ?
Saturn was one of the most ancient and important divinities of the Roman religion, the legendary king who, according to the tradition, ruled Italy in the Golden Age. Archaic Roman society was a rural one, hence this Golden Age was strictly related with agriculture, and this was exactly Saturn’s field. Inside his temple was an ivory statue of him which was empty and filled with olive oil – related with agriculture: Lazio was (and still is) rich in olive trees – and whose legs were fettered with woolen strings.
Saturnalia, something familiar
After the end of the autumn planting, Saturn was celebrated with a feast, the Saturnalia, that officially lasted from December the 17th until the 23rd. In the first day the woolen strings were loosened and the priest sacrificed a sow that was later eaten in a sacred banquet.
Saturnalia were the most loved feast of the Roman year. During this holiday week people used to invite friends and relatives for private banquets, offering them food and small gifts, such as candles, food, small clay figurines, usually accompanied by greeting cards … Does it sound familiar? Of course it does! The Saturnalia were so popular among the Romans that when the empire became Christian (in the 4th century AD) all those habits were handed over to Christmas!
So… blame Saturn, next time you’ll be in a hurry for last minute Christmas gifts!
This feast had also another peculiarity, during those days social norms were reversed and restrictions were relaxed: gambling was allowed and masters would serve their slaves. This general sense of freedom was considered to be a memory of the Golden Age ushered by the God. People used to wear the pileus, a cap normally used by the freed slave, that was more or less like the Smurfs’ hat (I swear!).
Because of the laxity this period was perfect for murders and conspiracies and many famous episodes happened during it: Catilina’s conspiracy, murder of Geta by Caracalla and also that of Commodus. Latin writer Seneca complains that because of the Saturnalia “the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures”.
The Temple of Saturn, was built a long long time ago in the very heart of Rome, the Roman Forum. It was dedicated exactly in 498 B.C.: that’s why I said long long time ago! It’s not only old, not exactly the oldest one, but is the oldest temple officially recorded by the Pontiffs, a kind of pagan priests who were in charge of recording the most important events. According to tradition, to myth, it was erected on the same spot of an older altar built by God Saturn himself, when he founded the first village on the Capitoline Hill.
This temple, as most of Roman ones, was also used as a kind of public office: public documents were displayed on its walls. And here was also the Roman Treasury, where coins and ingots were stored, and also the official scale used for coins.
Don’t be surprised by the fact that the treasury was in this temple: as mentioned above, Saturn was a god linked with fertility and rural world and for the archaic Romans wealth consisted of harvests and cattle: the Latin word pecunia, “wealth”, comes from pecus, “sheep“… and, despite you’re not a farmer, you still preserve a memory of this link when use the English word pecuniary!
- The temple of Saturn – All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
- Painting “Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!” – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1880 – Akron Art Museum (United States)
- “Mithra killing the bull” – 2nd-3rd century AD – National Museum in Warsaw