In the 1st century CE, the Roman poet Martial wrote an invitation to a Saturnalia banquet:
“You will dine nicely at my house, Julius Cerealis. If you have no better engagement, come! Come at the eighth hour; we will bathe together–you know how near to me Stephanus’ baths are.
As a first course you will be served lettuce to stimulate the appetite, fillet cut from leeks, then a tuna in brine bigger than a mackerel and covered with eggs and arugula. There will be other eggs turned under a thin layer of ash and cheese curdled by a Velebran hearth, and olives that felt the Picenian cold. These foods are sufficient as a starter.
Do you want to know the rest? I will lie to entice you to come: fish, shellfish, sow’s teats, poultry pies, marsh birds, which even Stella is not used to serve except at special dinners.”
– Marcus Valerius Martialis, Epigrammi, XI, 52
The Saturnalia, celebrated on December 17th and the following days, originally were a festival celebrating the end of the winter sowing season. Since the late 3rd century BCE, excessive eating and drinking bouts deep into the night have been documented. It was customary to give each other small gifts, called sigillaria, at Saturnalia. A Saturnalia prince was elected, who was also called rex bibendi, the king of drinking. In other respects, too, the otherwise strict morals relaxed considerably during the holidays. The temporary abolition of class distinctions was an important aspect of the Saturnalia: slaves were supposed to be treated as equals by their masters on this day or even served by the latter.
Leave a Reply