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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM GEORGE GARDINER
Did you know today is the fourth day after the Kalendae of December? That is, it’s the 5th Dec as the Romans saw it. On this day prior to Christian times the ancient Romans celebrated this particular day as the Faunalia in honour of the horned god, Faunus, who we tend to equate with the Greek god Pan. I know this because when you’re writing a novel with pretensions to a claim on reasonable historical accuracy in communicating the nature of the society you’re writing about, you’re supposed to know this stuff, aren’t you?
During the four years I was scribbling away at The Hadrian Enigma: A Forbidden History, my novel about the life and times of the emperor Hadrian and his handsome, buff boyfriend Antinous, I was seriously obliged to get much (most? all?) of my ancient world historical detail right. If I didn’t, then critics would revel in my obvious faux pas and take the opportunity to dump on me and my tale of two grown men being intimately involved. Fortunately, being a history nerd by temperament, I had invested over time in a fine library of relevant works about the Greco-Roman era, so I already had a useful resource to plumb. In the process I learned a great deal about the contradictory layers of ‘tone’ in Roman society.
The Roman Empire was a culture where at least a third of the population were slaves, wealth was concentrated within a few hundred privileged families, only the very wealthy had the right to rule as Senators, most of Rome’s citizens were unemployed, stern patriarchy forced women to find their own values, half the population didn’t survive childhood, and marriages tended to be property contracts not love stories. An official philosophy of stern high-toned stoicism, often declaimed grandly by well-known hypocrites, was subverted by a raunchy, ribald, earthy, public morality with a taste for chariot-racing, blood sports, executions, multi-sex prostitution, molto vino, and criminality.
This subsistence economy ensured Rome was a dangerous place at night for the unwary. It adds up to a picture of a wild Heironymous Boschian or Hogarthian dystopia with few of the tidy charms of a Hollywood epic. Roman festivals often reflected this dark, visceral temper.
Advent, the annual Christian season preceding the celebration of the birth of Jesus on 25 December, is a festival with a 1600 year history. Yet prior to the mid-4th Century when Christianity began to take hold of Rome, December was a month when ancient Romans made time to celebrate several divinities. There were Bona Dea rites for women on the 4th Dec, the Agonalia on the 11th, the Consualia on the 15th, the Saturnalia, and several other ‘…alias’ through the month. December ended with the Brumalia on the 25th. The famed celebration of the sun god Sol Invictus’s “birth” on 25 Dec wasn’t inaugurated until 274CE by sun-worshipper emperor Aurelian, with the Christian claim of the same date for JC not being evident in records until as late as 354CE, almost 400 years after the happy event.
Pagan Roman festivals had some novel observances, some of which have lingered. Today’s Faunalia (5 Dec) in honour of Faunus was where peasants brought rustic offerings to the horned god and enjoyed themselves in eating, drinking, and dancing merrily. The rites of the Divalia (21 Dec) were so confidential even the goddess’s statue had to be gagged to keep the secret, so I can’t tell you about these. Then at the end of the month the Brumalia (25 Dec) was a shortest-day solstice festival honoring Dionysus. Naturally, it too included feasting, drinking, and much merriment.
The Saturnalia (17 Dec) is not to be confused with the Lupercalia on the 13-15 Feb, or the Bacchanalia on 16 & 17 March. February’s Lupercalia was an ancient pastoral celebration which transformed in Rome to a fertility purification ceremony whose true meaning baffled even antiquarians. In it, naked noble youths wielding strips of goat skin raced around the Palatine Hill and the Forum’s Sacred Way to lash passers-by with their goat fronds. This thereby endowed the lucky ones touched with guaranteed fertility in child-bearing. The Lupercalia was celebrated right up until the 5th Century, well into Christian times until pagan rites were banned outright.
One of Rome’s most popular festivals, the Saturnalia, honored the god Saturn. It became so popular it extended from 17 Dec to the 23rd. Besides public temple rites there were a series of holidays. It included a school holiday for youngsters, the giving of small presents, and gambling was allowed for all including slaves. It was yet another time during December for even more eating, drinking, and being merry. Are you getting the picture? Sounding familiar?
Many of Rome’s 80-or-so religious festivals were opportunities for chariot races, arena blood sports, theatrical performances, and other spectacles which are probably no more action-crazed than what we ourselves portray today in movies and tv. It’s true ours are synthetic CGI-magic illusions, not actual blood-letting. But our motives are not at all dissimilar.
However, one festival we might have difficulty digesting was the Bacchanalia. Over two days on 16 and 17 March in a grove near Rome’s Aventine Hill wild and mystic celebrations of the god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek) were performed. It was a festival to convince the god to give a good grape harvest later in the year, coupled with much hearty consuming of the god’s last vintage.
These jolly religious rites of the wine god, known as orgia, were the source of the word orgy. And some writers portray the Bacchanalia in precisely snuff-movie terms :- “When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty, then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced… there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was committed by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim … From this same place, too, proceeded poison and secret murders, so that in some cases not even the bodies could be found for burial … on account of the loud shouting, and the noise of drums and cymbals, none of the cries uttered by the persons suffering violence or murder could be heard abroad…”
Some gay old bacchanal?! However the Bacchanalia, which had become a weekly affair, was suppressed by the Senate as early as 186BCE. Historians today doubt the views of the later Roman commentators. They see the cruel suppression of the festival as a strategic act by patriarchic authorities to keep women in their place, control slaves, and show the power of the Senate to rising-fame generals and several other competitive Italian communities.
Except for committed Christians, these days we tend to think of celebrations like Advent to be commemorative leftovers from earlier times which were a peculiar but charming novelty of our development history. We see them on a par with wicca rites at Stonehenge, May-time morris dancing, or a secularized Mardi Gras parade. But we forget how across the globe so many ancient festivals still retain considerable religious potency. Hindus congregate together as 3-million pilgrims at a particular confluence of astrological signs near a meeting-point of rivers at Hardwar, India, for their 4-yearly Kumbha Mela. A similar number of Muslims journey to the Hajj at Mecca each year. Meanwhile a billion television viewers tune in to the oldest surviving festival of all, the Olympic Games, which started in Greece in 776BCE as a religious festival. It still retains a semi-religious subtext as praise for athletic achievement and in worship of the human form.
But for Speak Its Name readers, even if you’re the only gay in the village, it is perhaps the array of annual Gay Pride Parades across the globe which carries the tradition of commemorative festivals into contemporary times, and which most compare with Rome’s Saturnalia or Bacchanalia. That’s if you should get so lucky!
“THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History”
George is a resident of Sydney, Australia, with an extensive career in television production and related media.
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this - just save them up for Christmas Eve.)
5. Which Disney film had a follow-up/prequel called The Enchanted Christmas?