As much as I love Christmas, Antonius Trilogy is set in pre-Christian Rome. So much for wishing Marc Antony a Merry Christmas! But Romans had plenty of festivals—times of celebrations, visiting temples, and making religious sacrifices. Sometimes, their festivals had nothing to do with religion at all, but honored birthdays, triumphs, or successful generals—as in triumphs.
So was there a Roman celebration during the month of December? In a useful compilation of facts on Roman life, compiled by Lesley and Roy A. Adkins, the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome includes a fantastic listing of festivals celebrated annually by the Romans. In December alone, there were at least fourteen holidays.
One of them was Saturnalia.
To the Romans, Saturnalia was considered to be one of the feriae stativae—festivals given a fixed date on the calendar. Celebrated originally on December 17th, it was a major festival, probably observed all over the Empire. It’s believed that by the end of the Republic, Antony and family would have been celebrating it for more than just one day. The party was extended from December 17th thru 23rd. Originally, dedicated to the deity Saturn, it celebrated the sowing of seeds.
How was it celebrated?
In most intriguing ways! Naturally, it began with sacrifices and offerings at the Temple of Saturn, the remains of which are still in the western part of the Forum Romanum.
|Temple of Saturn (c) Brook Allen
Considered to be a “jolly” sort of festival, slaves were allowed to temporarily be “free”. In fact, social mores were completely inverted, for all servants in a household dined before their owners and were even allowed to act “insolently”. This even included slaves dressing as their masters—probably using their very clothes. Hey, I can’t make this stuff up, and it’s all recorded by ancient sources.
Saturnalia was also a time of gift-exchanging and the usage of wax candles. In what context these items were given or used isn’t necessarily clear. Typically, oil lamps were used for lighting households, so candles may have been used simply for their loveliness, adding ambience to the holiday, much like today. Or, perhaps they were used in the religious part of the festival’s observance.
|John Reinhard Weguelin – The Roman Saturnalia (1884). Public Domain.
Like me, you’re probably thinking that Saturnalia sounds an awful lot like Christmas, save for it being a pagan festival. Well, you’re right. And it was eventually replaced by Christmas. To keep disgruntled non-Christians as happy as possible, customs like gift-giving, the use of candles, and merry-making remained. The date changed only slightly.
A late-Imperial cult dedicated to the deity Sol Invictus celebrated the winter solstice on December 25th, according to the Julian calendar. This pagan event was also discontinued, but since it was so close to the dates of Saturnalia, the Christian holiday of “Christmas” was given that date, which has continued to the present.
Therefore, I’ll wish everyone a Merry Christmas and use the words of the Roman poet Catullus (14.15), to describe his festival of Saturnalia, wishing all of my readers “the best of days”!
After young Marcus Antonius’s father dies in disgrace, he yearns to restore his family’s honor during the final days of Rome’s dying Republic. Marcus is rugged, handsome, and owns abundant military talent, but upon entering manhood, he falls prey to the excesses of a violent society. His whoring, gambling, and drinking eventually reap dire consequences.
After a series of personal tragedies, Marcus must come into his own through blood, blades, and death. Once he finally earns a military commission, he faces an uphill battle to earn the respect and admiration of soldiers, proconsuls, and kings.
Desperate to redeem his name and carve a legacy for himself, he refuses to let warring rebels, scheming politicians, or even an alluring young Egyptian princess stand in his way.
Author Brook Allen has a passion for ancient history—especially 1st century BC Rome. Her Antonius Trilogy is a detailed account of the life of Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony, which she worked on for fifteen years. The first installment, Antonius: Son of Rome was published in March 2019. It follows Antony as a young man, from the age of eleven, when his father died in disgrace, until he’s twenty-seven and meets Cleopatra for the first time. Brook’s second book is Antonius: Second in Command, dealing with Antony’s tumultuous rise to power at Caesar’s side and culminating with the civil war against Brutus and Cassius. Antonius: Soldier of Fate is the last book in the trilogy, spotlighting the romance between Antonius and Cleopatra and the historic war with Octavian Caesar.
In researching the Antonius Trilogy, Brook’s travels have led her to Italy, Egypt, Greece, and even Turkey to explore places where Antony once lived, fought, and eventually died. While researching abroad, she consulted with scholars and archaeologists well-versed in Hellenistic and Roman history, specifically pinpointing the late Republican Period in Rome. Brook belongs to the Historical Novel Society and attends conferences as often as possible to study craft and meet fellow authors. In 2019, Son of Rome won the Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award. In 2020, it was honored with a silver medal in the international Reader’s Favorite Book Reviewers Book Awards and also won First Place in the prestigious Chaucer Division in the Chanticleer International Book Awards, 2020.
Brook is currently working on a new project spotlighting history from a little closer to home. Her upcoming work will take place in early 19th century Virginia and it’s been a delight to research her characters and their period throughout southwest Virginia and into Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, and Idaho. She hopes to launch this project sometime in 2022 or 2023.
Though she graduated from Asbury University with a B.A. in Music Education, Brook has always loved writing. She completed a Masters program at Hollins University with an emphasis in Ancient Roman studies, which helped prepare her for authoring her present works. Brook teaches full-time as a Music Educator and works in a rural public-school district near Roanoke, Virginia. Her personal interests include travel, cycling, hiking in the woods, reading, and spending downtime with her husband and big, black dog, Jak. She lives in the heart of southwest Virginia in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.