Io Saturnalia!

Io Saturnalia! Happy Saturnalia to all.

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.”[1]

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.

Winter Mosaic from Bignor Villa
Winter Mosaic from Bignor Villa, Britain

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.[2]

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.” 

Mosaic of Pig from Vatican Museums
Mosaic of Pig from Vatican Museums

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.”[3] 

Depiction of Winter from Chedworth Villa
Winter Mosaic with Cape from Chedworth Villa, Britain

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.’”[4]

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.

Io Saturnalia!


[1] Statius, Silvae, translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.
[2] Cato the Elder, On Agriculture.
[3] Martial, Epigrams, Translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.
[4] Seneca the Younger, Letters, Translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.

Io Saturnalia! Read More »

Fiesole near Florence

Overlooking Florence and the Arno plain, the town of Fiesole offered me some breathing space to poke around its Roman footprints of a theatre, a bath complex and temples. In its museum I found artefacts of the town’s Etruscans and Romans, and I was blown away by a collection of stunning Greek black figure and red figure ceramics from the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

View of Florence from Fiesole
View of Florence from Fiesole

I left the bustling crowds of Florence and traveled a half hour by bus to Fiesole, and back to the ancient town of Faesulae. Faesulae was an Etruscan site from the 4th century BC until 90 BC when the Roman consul Porcius Cato conquered the town. During Roman times it became a colony for Roman veterans and was renowned for its school of Augurs, religious officials who observed natural signs to determine divine approval.

Faesulae’s Roman theatre was built in the late 1st century BC and then redecorated in the 3rd century AD. It is well preserved after being excavated and restored in the 19th century.

Roman Theatre Fissile
Roman Theatre Fiesole

Not far from the theatre are the remains of the town’s bath complex.

Bath Complex Fiesole
Bath Complex Fiesole

With reconstructed hypocaust/underground heating for the caldarium and tepidarium/hot & warm rooms.

Bath Complex Hypocaust Fiesole
Bath Complex Hypocaust Fiesole

Across from the bath complex on the other side of the theatre, there are remains of an early Etruscan temple and a later Roman temple.

Etruscan and Roman Temples Fiesole
Etruscan and Roman Temples Fiesole

In 1985 Professor Alfiero Constantini donated a large collection of ancient ceramics, including Corinthian vases, Attic red and black figure pieces, Etruscan and black ware pieces. They are some of the best I have seen.

Red Figure Amphora Fiesole
Black Figure Amphora Fiesole
Red Figure Amphora Fiesole
Red Figure Amphora Fiesole
Red Figure Amphora Fiesole
Red Figure Amphora Fiesole
Seafood Dish Fiesole
Campanian Seafood Dish with bowl for sauce Fiesole

Before heading back into the fray of Renaissance Florence, I wandered around the modern town of Fiesole. In the main piazza I admired a modern bronze equestrian statue showing the meeting of Guiseppe Garibaldi and Vittorio Emanuele II in 1860 during the unification of Italy.

Meeting of Garibaldi and Emanuele Fiesole
Meeting of Garibaldi and Emanuele Fiesole

Fiesole near Florence Read More »

Ancient Roman Grapes, New World Wine

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.

Viognier Wine
Viognier Wine

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.

Our little place in the vineyard overlooking Lake Okanagan.
Our little place in the vineyard overlooking Lake Okanagan.

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.

Grape Escapes Wine Tours
Grape Escapes Wine Tours

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.

Ancient Roman Grapes, New World Wine Read More »

Augustus Has Left the Building


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.

44 Caesars Palace PP Augustus
Copy of Prima Porta Augustus

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.

Caesar's Palace Forum Shops
Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops
Interior of the Forum Shops
Interior of the Forum Shops

What gods are worshipped in the New Rome (aka Caesar’s Palace)? The twin gods, Corvettes and Cash, of course.

38 Caesars Palace
On the sidewalk in front of Caesar’s Palace I found a copy of the Apollo Belvedere.

Apollo Belvedere in Vatican Museum
Apollo Belvedere on the Vegas Strip

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?

Apollo Belvedere in Vatican Museum
Apollo Belvedere in Vatican Museum

There are also copies of Bernini’s Baroque works, including the Trevi Fountain and the Triton Fountain from Palazzo Barberini.

Trevi Fountain copy
Trevi Fountain copy
Bernini's Triton Fountain
Bernini’s Triton Fountain

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!

Interior of the Luxor Hotel Lobby
Interior of the Luxor Hotel Lobby

With the desert setting, palm trees and the hot weather, I could almost pretend I was in Egypt.

The Luxor Hotel
The Luxor Hotel

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.

Augustus Has Left the Building Read More »

Three Thousand Years in Nine Days – Day Nine

My last day in Rome. I had originally planned to go out to Hadrian’s Villa for the day but after my relentless eight days of sightseeing it was time to take it a little easier. Besides I had to leave a few things for my next visit to Rome.

So I walked across the Tiber via Insula Tiberina to Trastevere.

Bridge over Tiber to Isola Tibertina
Bridge (Ponte Fabricio) over the Tiber to Insula Tiberina

During a plague in 293 BC, the Romans wanted to build a temple to the god of healing, Aesculapius, so they sent a delegation to Epidauros in Greece to bring back a statue of the god and one of his snakes. Upon their return, while journeying up the Tiber to Rome, the snake escaped onto the island, Insula Tiberina. They believed this was the god’s choice for the location of his temple and that is where they built it. For over 2300 years the island has been associated with healing and there is still a hospital there today.

Streets of Trastevere
Streets of Trastevere

Trastevere is a great neighbourhood for restaurants. I began my walking tour by stopping at a cafe for a latte and croissant.

Santa Cecilia
Santa Cecilia

I visited the church of Santa Cecilia. She was an early Christian woman who was martyred. The columns are recycled from Roman temples. The first church here dates from the 3rd century and this church was built in the 9th century.

Mosaics in Santa Cecilia
Mosaics in Santa Cecilia

The mosaic dates from the 9th century and Cecilia is on the far right. The canopy is from the 1200s.

Tomb of Santa Cecilia
Tomb of Santa Cecilia

The tomb of Santa Cecilia is said to hold her remains. Since she was beheaded her face is turned and hidden from view.

Church of Santa Maria Trastevere
Church of Santa Maria Trastevere

The next stop on my walking tour of Trastevere was one of the oldest churches in Rome. The day I was there people were crowded into the church of Santa Maria Trastevere for Sunday Mass.

Trattoria de Lucia
Trattoria de Lucia

Time for a special Sunday lunch. I stopped at Trattoria de Lucia and had some delicious roast lamb.

View of Victor Emanuele Monument and Spanish Embassy in foreground
View of Victor Emanuele Monument and Spanish Embassy in foreground

After lunch, I climbed up the hillside and found some great views of the city of Rome. Spending my day in the neighbourhood of Trastevere was a relaxing way to enjoy my last hours in Rome.

Trastevere street
Trastevere street

Three Thousand Years in Nine Days – Day Nine Read More »

Three Thousand Years in Nine Days – Day Eight

Day Eight was a cloudy/rainy day. I started out early to get to my 9 am reservation at the Borghese Gallery. I had two hours in the museum and no photos were allowed.

I was impressed by Bernini’s Baroque statues of classical myths – Daphne and Apollo, Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, Rape of Proserpina, and David. Also his self-portraits and portraits of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. These date from the 1600s and are in Cardinal Borghese’s villa from that period. After my museum visit I wandered through the Borghese Gardens.

Borghese Gardens
Borghese Gardens

Below the gardens is the Piazza del Popolo. The obelisk in the piazza was built by Ramses II in Egypt in the 1200s BC. It was brought to Rome by Augustus in 10 BC and was erected by him in the centre of the Circus Maximus. In subsequent centuries it was buried among the ruins until it was unearthed and moved to Piazza del Popolo in 1589.

Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo

In Piazza del Popolo there are three churches to Santa Maria – Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto.

Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto
Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Rome looking at various sites, including the Mausoleum of Augustus.

Mausoleum of Augustus
Mausoleum of Augustus

The Ara Pacis, or altar of Peace built by the Roman Senate to honour Augustus, was reconstructed by Mussolini and since 2006 has been sheltered in a modern building.

Ara Pacis
Model of the Campus Martius
Model of the Campus Martius
Column of Marcus Aurelius
Column of Marcus Aurelius
T-Shirt Shop near Trevi Fountain
T-Shirt Shop near Trevi Fountain
Temple of Hadrian
Temple of Hadrian in Piazza Pietra
Temple of ?
Temple A (probably dedicated to Girturna)
Round Temple of ?
Round Temple B (dedicated to goddess Fortuna of the Present Day)

At the corner of the site is the edge of Magnus Pompey’s theatre known as Pompey’s Portico. It was here where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

Pompey's Portico
Pompey’s Portico

I ended my meandering tour of Rome at the Campo de’ Fiori market.

Campo de' Fiori
Campo de’ Fiori

Three Thousand Years in Nine Days – Day Eight Read More »