Celebrating Saturnalia

By meriel jeater on 12 Dec 2014

Roman motto beaker of black colour-coated ware

The Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia started on 17 December each year and lasted for seven days. In many ways the Roman festivities were similar to our modern Christmas traditions, featuring drinking, eating, decorating houses, present giving, singing and playing games. I wondered whether it would be possible to celebrate Saturnalia using objects from our Roman collections. I had a little hunt and here’s what I found…

This lovely beaker would have been perfect for drinking wine at a Saturnalia banquet. It is even decorated with the word ‘PIE’, meaning ‘DRINK’ in ancient Greek so you know exactly what it’s for. ‘Drink’ you say? Why, yes, I think I will…

Roman ceramic mortarium

Many of the rich flavours that we associate with Christmas were introduced to Britain by the Romans. They brought herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme with them, and imported spices such as cinnamon, pepper and saffron. These were ground up in big bowls called mortaria and added to food and drinks. Here is a nice example of a Roman mortarium, found in the City of London in 1949. The spout was very useful for pouring out the contents and the surface of the bowl was rough and gritty to help grind the ingredients.

Roman basalt lead and silver letter cube

Gambling games using dice were part of Saturnalia celebrations and even children were allowed to play, though they gambled with nuts instead of money. This unusual die was found at Borough High Street and has letters on it instead of numbers. The letters are: P (perhaps the initial of a name) opposite ITALIA (‘Italy’); VA (perhaps two name initials) opposite VRBIS (‘of a town’) and EST (‘is’) opposite ORTI (‘born’). Several dice like this one may have been thrown at once as part of a word game. I like to imagine a Roman family playing this together, much like we might play Boggle or Scrabble at Christmas.

This is just a taster of the many wonderful things in our Roman collection that could have been used during Saturnalia. While I’m sipping my festive mulled wine and getting slightly cross with my family for beating me at board games, I shall think of the Romans and how they celebrated at this time of year in London, nearly 2000 years ago.

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