Friday, 16 December 2011

Hannibal and Christmas

Christmas is a great time of year - even if you are not religious. But here's a thought: would it have become such a big celebration without Hannibal's victory at Lake Trasimene?

Saturnalia was a festival for the god of agriculture, Saturn, and was the Roman midwinter celebration of the Solstice* and the greatest of all the Roman annual holidays. It began on December 17th.

At first it lasted only one day, but - arguably thanks to Hannibal - it was to become the precursor of modern Christmas. In the wake of the enormous and unexpected disaster of Lake Trasimenus, Rome extended the festival to lift the morale of its citizens.

During the festival the courts and schools closed and military operations were suspended so that soldiers could celebrate. It was a time of goodwill and jollity that included visiting people, banquets and the exchanging of gifts.

In the late Republic it was extended to two or three days, celebrated over three days in the Augustan Empire and in the reign of Caligula extended to four. By the end of the first century AD, it was technically a five-day holiday.

A cry of Io Saturnalia! and a sacrifice of young pigs at the temple of Saturn inaugurated the festival. They were served up the next day when masters gave their slaves - who were temporarily immune from all punishments - a day off and waited on them for dinner. After dinner there was plenty of clowning and merriment with wine as a social lubricant, sometimes degenerating into wild horseplay. Dice were used to choose one person at the dinner as Saturnalian King - it could be a slave - and everyone was forced to obey his absurd commands to sing, dance or blacken their faces and be thrown into cold water and the like for the entire period.

The dice may have been loaded in 54 AD, when Nero was so chosen. He used the opportunity to humiliate Claudius' son Britannicus, apparently a poor vocalist, by forcing him to sing. It was traditional to deck the halls with boughs of laurel and green trees as well as a number of candles and lamps. These symbols of life and light were probably meant to dispel the darkness.

It was also traditional for friends to exchange gifts and even to carry small gifts on one's person in the event of running into a friend or acquaintance in the streets or in the Forum. Originally the gifts were symbolic candles and clay dolls - sigillaria - purchased at a colonnaded market called Sigillaria which was located in the Colonnade of the Argonauts, later in one of the Colonnades of Trajan's Baths. Something similar is still practised in Rome's Piazza Navona today.

Gifts, which could also include food items such as pickled fish, sausages, beans, olives, figs, prunes, nuts and cheap wine as well as small amounts of money grew to be more extravagant over time - small silver objects were typical - as did their acquisition. How modern the first century writer Seneca sounds when he complains about the shopping season: "Decembris used to be a month; now it's a whole year." At the same time, Martialis may have been the first sage to remark "The only wealth you keep forever is that which you give away."

Nor did the fun stop there. During the entire festival, the laws against gambling were relaxed so that everyone including slaves and children could gamble at dice and other games of chance, children using nuts for wagers. Men stopped wearing their uncomfortable togas in favour of the synthesis (a tunic with a small cloak both brightly-coloured and also wearable by women) for the entire period and simply donned a felt cap, pilleum to show they were not slaves. Away from Rome, Romans still commemorated the festival. In Athens, academy students such as Aulus Gellius and his friends dined together for the occasion, much as American students in a European university may dine together on Thanksgiving Day.

* "Solstice" is a Latin word, by the way, coming to English from Old French and then Middle English, and originally derived from sol sun + status, the past participle of sistere to come to a stop, cause to stand. This makes sense if you think about the solstice as the sun's path reaching an endpoint and then turning around and going the other way. During the few days during which this direction change is occurring, it will appear that there is actually no movement at all.

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