My novel “Aqueduct to Nowhere” takes place in ancient Tarraco (modern day Tarragona) during the wild 7-day Roman festival of Saturnalia. Research told me the basics of the festival. Saturnalia began on 17-Dec and ran until 25-Dec. The festival paid tribute to Saturn, the agricultural God of Sowing and Husbandry.
The final day, December 25th was the birthday of Sol Invictus whose light the ancients hoped would soon return. (Interestingly this date was also the birthday of Mithras, the God of Soldiers who bears an uncanny resemblance to someone else whose birthday many moderns celebrate on the same day.)
Sol Invictus, the Roman Sun God.
Feasts, firelight, gift giving and the wearing of pointed red hats are other notable parallels with Christmas. The similarities don’t include the complete suspension of public morality. Unlike our modern solstice festivals, Saturnalia was a time of lawless abandon. Social order was inverted: Slaves were masters and masters, slaves. Anything went, and often did. The historical record suggests enough public nudity, sexual license, gambling and drunken abandon to make a modern Rio de Janeiro carnival look like a puritanical church picnic.
To bring my story to life, I needed more than just the facts. I wanted to express in writing what Saturnalia might have felt like to a young couple experiencing it for the first time. I wanted to capture what it smelled, sounded and looked like.
To conjure the opening night in the provincial capital—a place that I had designated as the worst backwater in the Roman Empire—I invoked imagery and emotion from many of the fiestas I experienced during the 5 years I lived near Barcelona, Spain. In particular, I leaned heavily on the Correfoc or “Fire Run” that often accompanies Catalan street festivals.
The Correfoc Festival, Barcelona.
The Correfoc is a wild and dangerous event that starts with drumming and parades of people dressed as all manner of demons and horned creatures. People pour into the town center, usually a walled plaza from which escape is nearly impossible. This became the central forum in the open scenes of my novel, though to add a bit of tension I turned an angry bull loose in my fictional crowd.
All at once, the street lights are extinguished and the explosions start. Fireworks overhead and underfoot fill the plaza with opportunities to burn holes in the protective clothing you hopefully wore. Demons run through tunnels of flame. Beasts leap and dance in the spark and smoke. The drumming builds and echoes off the stone walls. In one festival I remember, a group of men with blunderbusses shot off deafening charges to reinforce the sense that we had entered a festive antechamber of hell.
I don’t claim that the ancients did exactly this, but there is an ancient, pagan feeling to the Correfoc that informed my depiction of the opening night of Saturnalia. Fires, costumes, crowd frenzy and pounding rhythm would not have been unknown to my characters in A.D. 123.
It was a Saturnalia tradition to designate a Lord of Misrule who, among other duties, was expected to encourage licentiousness and speak truth to power. This dovetailed nicely with the Catalan tradition of Versots del Diable. In these “demonic verses” a young, powerless member of the community skewers the civic leaders with sharp satirical poems. I gave this honor to my character “Carbo the Kitchen Slave” whose lyrical indictment of the corrupt governor provokes the crowd to rebellion and sets “Aqueduct to Nowhere” in motion.
The Lord of Misrule, at a Saturnalia Festival.
Over the centuries, the emerging church coopted Saturnalia, but the rebellious spirit of the festival and the need to light a big fire and turn the world upside down never completely disappeared.