If the ancient Greeks and Romans were still around today, we might say they “know how to party.” With dozens of gods and goddesses to celebrate, plus birthdays and other religious holidays like Saturnalia, the Greeks and Romans had many opportunities for revelry and merrymaking throughout the year. And they sure took advantage! Modern party-goers would feel right at home among many Greek and Roman party traditions, like drinking wine, enjoying cake, and giving gifts. Then again, ancient customs like animal sacrifices probably haven’t been on your party agenda.
With the holiday season upon us, we wanted to know more about how ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated special occasions. We asked you to share what questions you have about ancient holidays on our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages; then we turned them over to Judith Barr and Nicole Budrovich, curatorial assistants at the Getty Museum. Check out their answers below to find out all the foods, gifts, and customs you might find if you showed up to a Greek or Roman party.
What were ancient Romans doing around this time of the year? Is it true that Roman Saturnalia traditions were inspired by Scandinavia?
Romans were getting ready for Saturnalia! Buying gifts and stocking up on wine and food. The holiday lasted seven days, starting December 17. Some Saturnalia traditions, like gift-giving, hanging garlands, and lighting candles, likely were absorbed into the celebration of Christmas. Timed to coincide with the winter solstice, there may be some similarities with Scandinavian traditions, but Saturnalia had its origins in ancient Italy and shared some customs with ancient Greek festivals.
Saturnalia celebrated the hope of a spring harvest and started with a religious ceremony in the Temple of Saturn followed by a public banquet. Businesses, schools, and law courts were closed. Families and friends gathered to drink, eat, and be merry. The normal social order was overturned, gambling (normally restricted) was allowed and dress codes were loosened. According to some sources, on one day of the festival, enslaved people could trade places with their masters and be waited on. At the very least, all Romans, enslaved and free, would dine together. It was also a time for gift giving—candles and oil lamps were common gifts and used to light the nighttime celebrations.
Would Romans recognize modern Christmas as Saturnalia?
Perhaps! The big dinners, gift giving, and lighting of candles would be familiar. But Saturnalia lasted a whole week, not just one day, and was a bit wilder, like Mardi Gras and Carnival, with people gambling, drinking, and cavorting in the streets, while shouting “Io Saturnalia!”
What other holidays did ancient Greeks and Romans celebrate? Birthdays? Anniversaries?
One of my favorite ancient artifacts is a “postcard” from the Roman site of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall. It’s dated about A.D. 97–105, and its author, Claudia Severa, invites a friend, Sulpicia Lepidina, to visit on her birthday! Romans might celebrate by leaving offerings of cake, incense, and wine on their domestic altars for protection in the year to come as well as celebrating with friends and family. Some imperial birthdays were also celebrated as religious festivals. There was even a birthday festival for the city of Rome!
What cakes did they eat and which wine?
Honey cakes were popular in the ancient Greek and Roman world and were also connected to specific festivals—during the Roman holiday Liberalia, priestesses made honey cakes as offerings. There are also recipes for honey cakes with pine nuts, sweet wine (passum), pepper, and hazelnuts. Greeks and Romans loved wine and drank lots of it, traditionally diluted with water, and depending on the vintage, sometimes mixed with honey and spices.
Did ancient Greeks and Romans have beer?
Beer was a part of a lot of celebrations across the ancient world, especially in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, although it wasn’t especially popular in many areas of the Roman world. Without hops, ancient beer might taste a lot different from modern brews! Learn about a recent discovery of Iron Age beer.
Did slaves participate in celebrations? Did they have their own?
Enslaved people were only allowed to take part in certain holidays like the Kronia, a Greek festival held in the summer that celebrated a mythical Golden Age, before agriculture and slavery. Social restrictions were lifted, the enslaved were temporarily free, and everyone could drink, feast, and play games, like dice and knucklebones, together. Many aspects of the Kronia were likely adopted into the Roman holiday Saturnalia. Another role-reversal holiday, the Greek Anthesteria, a winter celebration of the wine vintage, was also open to all, including slaves, women, and children (Learn more about it here!).
In Rome, enslaved people could also participate in the Compitalia, a festival for the Lares Compitales(guardian deities of crossroads), who protected local neighborhoods. Like Saturnalia, all were at liberty. Slaves and freedmen served as the official ministers of festival, and in this capacity were allowed to wear a toga with a purple stripe (a garment and status symbol reserved for senators, magistrates, and religious officials). Another festival, the Nemoralia, had a special significance for enslaved people. Held in mid-August, it celebrated the goddess Diana, whose temples, according to early Roman tradition, offered sanctuary to slaves seeking freedom.
What gifts did they give in ancient times?
Saturnalia was a time of gift giving among friends and family. Lamps, candles, and clay dolls were popular, as were some food items like wine, nuts, and fattened pigs, and more extravagant gifts like rings and silver drinking cups.
Not tied to a specific holiday, ancient Greek hospitality (xenia) was shown through exchanging gifts between a host and guests. This important and sacred tradition plays a central role Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey!
How did they go about choosing and killing sacrificial animals?
Animal sacrifices were governed by a number of religious practices in both the Greek and Roman worlds, which had both economic and regional influences. Species, sex, condition, and fur color might all be considerations, and the answer might vary depending on the god being honored. Zooarchaeological evidence can help us understand how sacrificial practice differed from idealized depictions in art or in ancient literature. You can dive into some more reading about animal sacrifices.
I would think their celebrations were all centered on their gods. When did both civilizations stop celebrating their many gods?
Very true, most Greek and Roman holidays celebrated the gods, often with connections to the harvest, fertility, and the city, but there were also holidays to commemorate the dead and important days. With the rise of Christianity, pagan holidays gradually disappeared or were absorbed into Christian traditions.