I’m delighted to welcome a guest writer to the blog on this special day – G Petrieus Ruso, Medicus.
When I first asked him to say a few words about Saturnalia, he was characteristically reticent and referred me to his friend Valens, claiming that “He knows more about parties than I do.”
Indeed, Valens thought the article was a splendid idea. Unfortunately he was on his way out to dinner and didn’t have time to write anything, but he assured me Ruso would be secretly pleased to help. I have to say the good doctor managed to hide his pleasure very successfully, but I’m grateful to him for taking the time to write this piece. It’s reproduced in full below.
Ruso: I’ll do my best here, but I don’t think it’s really what the editor was hoping for. Readers might like to know that I offered to write her a piece on “Interesting injuries sustained by drunks,” or “the consequences of persistent overeating,” or “how one celebration can be stretched out for seven days despite official attempts to curb it.” I also offered “deciding how much cash to give your dependants so that they can buy presents”. All to be followed by the usual warning from the Vigiles about the dangers of unsupervised candles.
She wasn’t keen on any of them. Apparently twenty-first century people can work this sort of thing out for themselves. What people want to know, she said, is what the Romans did that was different. Perhaps I would like to write about the relief of flinging off the toga for casual dress? The cries of “Io Saturnalia”? The brief exchange of status, whereby slaves are waited upon by their masters? The sharing of candles and cheap pottery gifts?
The problem, as I tried to explain to her, is that no sensible person wears a toga anyway if it can possibly be avoided. It’s hot, cumbersome, and prone to sliding off in all directions. So in that respect it’s Saturnalia almost all year round in the Petreius household.
The cries of “Io Saturnalia!” can indeed be heard throughout our streets, although during the late watches of the night the response can vary from a cheerful echo to suggestions about where the revelers can go and what they should do when they get there.
As for the exchange of status: my wife, who as friends may know was once a slave herself, insists that this an important tradition to maintain. Unfortunately neither of us has the skills required to prepare a suitable feast. Obviously I’ve always had more important things to do than study the art of cooking. Curiously, it seems so has my wife. In this respect I fear we’re a sad disappointment to the few staff we’ve managed to acquire over the years. Still, it does allow them to take full advantage of the other freedom on offer: that of being rude to one’s master.
With regard to the candles and the pottery gifts – I suspect most readers already know about the last-day-of-Saturnalia rush to the shops in the hope of finding bargains. And it’s clear from the above picture that the editor herself is no stranger to cheap pottery gifts. This offering was found in a charity shop by friends who had heard her complaints about the local badgers wrecking her garden vegetable patch. See how they’ve thoughtfully given the bears’ faces a personal touch with tipp-ex and black pen?