I’m in the process of updating my site to WordPress.org and getting rid of the ads that have been on it. I’ll be adding old content back to the site and putting new posts on about my latest trip to Belgium, the Netherlands and a day trip to the Archeological Park in Xanten, Germany.
In the meantime, enjoy a photo of Roman lamps in the shape of feet from the museum in Xanten.
Here is a repost of my Saturnalia story with some added photos of mosaics. “But you, Saturn, cast off your fetters and come near. You, too, December, tipsy from so much wine, and laughing Good Cheer and wanton Joviality, come and be present.”
In the cold dark days around the winter solstice, when the sun stops traveling away from us and begins its return, we have always chosen to make merry. We have brought light to the darkness by giving gifts, spending time with family and friends, being kind to those less fortunate, and by overindulging. Long before Christmas these traditions began.
December 17 was the festival day of Saturnalia for the ancient Romans. In the early days, when Rome was just a small city-state, they celebrated with a free public banquet followed by a religious ceremony at the temple of Saturn in the forum. Generosity and gift-giving extended even to slaves, as Cato the Elder, in the second century BC, prescribed just how much extra wine to give to slaves – almost twice as much as usual.
Saturnalia was the celebration in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and seed sowing. Saturn was equated with the Greek god, Cronus, the father of Zeus. Cronus, himself was often depicted as an old man with a beard and a scythe, much like our Father Time. But I wonder if somewhere along the way he might have met up with Saint Nicholas and morphed into Santa as well.
As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, their Saturnalia traditions spread too. But even over thousands of years and the advent of Christianity, which absorbed a lot of Roman traditions, we can still see many vestiges of Roman customs and symbols in our own modern winter solstice celebrations.
Romans greeted each other with “Io Saturnalia” on the day. Businesses and stores closed. Often slaves were given a day off and there was a tradition of role-reversal, when masters would serve their slaves and give them gifts. Everyone wore freedman caps (felt hats given to slaves when they were freed), to show the freedom of the festivity and to represent equality, even if it was only for one day a year.
Gifts were given to friends and family, sometimes by lot (something like secret Santa exchanges). Beeswax candles were popular gifts. In the late first century AD, Martial wrote about Saturnalia gift-giving in his Epigrams. “At this time of year, when the equestrians and senators show off their party clothes, and even the emperor wears a freedman’s cap, and the home-bred slave is not afraid to look straight at the aedile and shake the dice box (even though he sees the icy tanks so nearby), accept the gift you have drawn, whether from a poor or a rich man. Let everyone give his guest an appropriate gift.
“Accept this parasol which can block even the intense sunlight. Even when it is windy, you will by protected by your own awning. This pig will make your Saturnalia merry. He was fed acorns and pastured with the foaming boars. If your clothing has been soiled by yellow dust, this little oxtail brush will clean it with a light whisk.”
Martial continues with a wry observation on the behaviour of those with new money during his day, a time when expansion was bringing an influx of wealth into the empire and changing people’s values.“On wintry cold days of Saturnalia, Umber used to give me, when he was poor, a cape as a gift. Now he gives me a drink, because he has become rich.”
Not all Romans embraced the spirit of the season. One of Martial’s contemporaries, Seneca the Younger, a Stoic, was somewhat disapproving of the excesses of the season. But we can certainly relate to his feelings a little when Christmas decorations and ads start appearing in October. “This is the month of December, when the whole city is aglow with excitement. License has been given for intemperate behaviour by the general public. Everywhere you can hear the sound of elaborate preparations, as if there were some differences between the Saturnalia and regular business days. The distinction is fading. I think that man was quite right who said, ‘December used to be a month; now it’s the whole year.’”
By looking back, we can see our primeval need to celebrate at this time of year, just as we have been doing for longer than we can remember. We discover that the real reason for the season, when we dig past the greed and the intemperate behaviour, is to rejoice in light returning to the earth.
Whether we believe that that light is a baby saviour, a miracle that provided oil that kept lamps lit for eight days or simply the sun’s return; when our days are dark and cold, we are compelled to celebrate by bringing light and lightness into our lives and the lives of others.
 Statius, Silvae, translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.
There were 5 wineries on our tour and every one had a Viognier wine. I hadn’t heard of it before but my ears perked up when the man at the last winery gave us a brief history of the Viognier grape as he was pouring some for us to taste. He said that this grape is very old, believed to have been grown by the Romans.
This grape comes from the Rhone region in Provence, France. An area very popular with the Romans. However, by the 1960s it was almost extinct and limited to French wine from Condrieu. It has made a resurgence and is now popular in new world wines made in Australia, New Zealand, South America, the United States, and here in Canada in the Okanagan Valley.
I’ve since done a little internet research and, though I haven’t found a primary source for this information, the story that is repeated is that Roman Emperor Probus brought the Viognier vines from Dalmatia to the Rhone valley around AD 281.
I wasn’t expecting to find a viticultural Roman footprint on this year’s annual getaway with my daughter. This year we chose Naramata, close to Penticton, British Columbia. Our tradition began when we hiked Hadrian’s wall in 2012 where Roman footprints abound, continued in Montana in 2013 where they don’t, and last year took us to Lucca, Italy where we naturally found quite a few.
The wine industry has really boomed here in the last 20 years. In the 90s there were just a handful of wineries on the 16 km Naramata Bench, and now there are more than 24, many producing award-winning wine. Unfortunately, very few of these small wineries are able to export their wine out of Canada. We drink it all ourselves. Sorry.
A votre santé.
Recently, amidst the flashing neon, jostling crowds and all-round sensory overload of the Las Vegas Strip, I found a few Roman footprints. And like most everything else in Vegas, they were unreal. I’m not sure that Augustus is altogether happy overlooking Las Vegas Boulevard as he points to the half-size Eiffel Tower across the street.
Caesar’s Palace has an assortment of Roman and Italian architecture and statuary, including a closed-up mini Colosseum and a mall called the Forum Shops.
What gods are worshipped in the New Rome (aka Caesar’s Palace)? The twin gods, Corvettes and Cash, of course.
On the sidewalk in front of Caesar’s Palace I found a copy of the Apollo Belvedere.
Last year in the Vatican Museum I saw the real statue, which itself is a 2nd century AD marble copy of a bronze original dating from 330-320 BC by Leochares, one of the artists who worked on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. A lot of Roman statues are copies of Greek originals. Caesar’s Palace is just following the Roman tradition of paying homage to the past through imitation. Right?
There are also copies of Bernini’s Baroque works, including the Trevi Fountain and the Triton Fountain from Palazzo Barberini.
Continuing down the Strip, after I walked through the Excalibur and the vague time of King Arthur and the Nights of the Roundtable, I went back many centuries to the time of the Pyramids at the Luxor. Finally a chance to see what the inside of a pyramid looks like. You’d be surprised, someone put an obelisk inside the pyramid!
With the desert setting, palm trees and the hot weather, I could almost pretend I was in Egypt.
This was my first trip to Las Vegas and I came away feeling that it is like a Disneyland for adults, with Romeland, Veniceland, Parisland, New Yorkland and Egyptland, just to name a few.
Traveling in search of Roman sites sometimes takes me off the beaten track. But in Britain, no matter how far off the beaten track one gets, there is always a pub there.
Not only did I happen upon the spot where a bronze head of Emperor Claudius was found in Rendham, Suffolk but I also discovered the White Horse. I visited twice – once for a quick pint and back again for dinner a few weeks later. The food was great!
Also in Suffolk, I went to Bury St. Edmunds and had a pint in the smallest pub in Britain (in Guiness Book of Records), the Nutshell.
Norfolk – Visiting the Roman forts of Burgh Castle and Caistor-on-Sea led me astray into the Norfolk Broads and to a delightful afternoon stop watching pleasure boats docking at the Ferry Inn in Stokesby.
Poking around London for evidence of Romans is best done in museums. After a visit to the British Museum, chock full of Roman artifacts, I nipped into the Museum Tavern across the street. And after a morning at the Museum of London and an afternoon discovering bits of Roman wall and finding the temple of Mithras (when it was still there to find), I had supper at the Old Bell Pub in Fleet Street.
Further west in Hampshire, lunch was needed after a visit to Silchester Roman Town and the Red Lion Pub in Mortimer West End supplied a venison and cranberry baguette along with some local ale.
Lunch at the Rose and Thistle in Rockbourne, near Rockbourne Roman villa, was a smoked salmon sandwich accompanied by a gin and tonic.
Over in the Cotswolds, I visited Chedworth Roman villa and the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. In the evening a trip along the old Roman road, the Fosse Way, took me to the Inn at Fossebridge.
The little Welsh town of Caerwent is surrounded by high Roman walls and interspersed among the modern houses are the remains of the Roman town of Venta Silurum. At the north gate is, naturally, the Northgate Inn where I stopped for a pint. Is it me, or does that Roman legionnaire look a little fuzzy?