December 05, 2007

Semper Saturnalia agunt

In English: They are always celebrating Saturnalia.

Since the Christmas season is upon us (as I know from a visit to the shopping mall this very morning!), I thought I would post this proverb about the Roman winter holiday of Saturnalia. You will find the saying in Petronius's Satyricon. There's also a similar, more pessimistic saying from Seneca: non semper Saturnalia erunt, "It will not always be Saturnalia-time." In other words: party-time will come to an end, sooner or later. Some people, of course, are on a kind of permanent vacation; semper Saturnalia agunt, as in today's saying.

The Roman festival of Saturnalia is connected with Saturn, the Roman god of the harvest and of agriculture. We preserve his name today in the weekday "Saturday" (Latin dies Saturni), the only one of the days of the week to have kept its Roman name in English. Saturn supposedly ruled the world during the "Golden Age" of complete peace and perfect prosperity.

The festival of Saturnalia was originally celebrated on December 17, but it later extended into a week-long festival due to its enormous popularity with the Roman people. During the Saturnalia, many of the typical social rules were reversed (particularly the roles of master and slave), and activities that were normally forbidden were permitted. Feasting, gambling and gift-giving were all strongly associated with this holiday.

It seems possible that the merry-making of Saturnalia may have contributed to the establishment of the establishment of the Christmas holiday on December 25, although this is not absolutely certain. Another important Roman religious holiday, the festival of Sol Invictus ("The Undefeated Sun"), took place on the winter solstice, December 25 in the Julian calendar, when the days again began to lengthen after the longest night of the year. This festival of the sun cult was officially established by the emperor Aurelian in 274 C.E. Some time after this, the Christian holiday of Christmas was established in the fourth century. (Although some scholars have argued that the Christian holiday was already established in popular practice long before being officially sanctioned in the fourth century and that, in fact, it was the Christian practice which influenced Aurelian's establishment of his solar holiday.)

As regards today's saying, of course, the point is that Saturnalia was a holiday associated with a particular time of the year. To "always be celebrating Saturnalia" would be out of place and inappropriate - a foolish thing to do. The society of the Romans was governed by extremely strict rules and a tremendously strong work ethic; it was precisely because their moral code was so rigidly enforced during the rest of the year that Saturnalia acquired such a special value, marking out a time of extraordinary license and indulgence.

So, exactly because it is different from the rest of the year, I hope you are enjoying the holiday season while it lasts! We know, of course, unlike the foolish people in today's proverb, that "Christmas comes but once a year," as the English saying goes.

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1868. Semper Saturnalia agunt.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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