Sunday 9 December 2018

What to Bring to a Saturnalia Feast

Our Saturnalia host, Steve Cockings
by Caroline Lawrence

For many years, my motive for studying Classics and writing historical fiction has been an intense desire to know what it would really have been like in the ancient world of Greece and Rome. So when I was invited to a Saturnalia banquet in Bedford around this time last year, I jumped at the chance. 

Steve Cockings is a re-enactor who loves to collect real and replica artefacts. He is a stickler for detail and has read several early drafts of my books, always coming back with valuable corrections.

Alisa, Simon, Caroline and Elizabeth

Alisa fights in many countries
There were five of us in all. Steve, his wife, gladiatrix Alisa and her husband Simon, also a re-enactor. We all dressed up in Roman garb. Although we didn't recline and there were no frescoes on the walls, we ate recipes from Apicius off real Samian plates with antique Roman spoons to the flickering light of oil-lamps. Roman music played softly in the background and Steve had prepared Saturnalia gifts for each of us: epigrams of the poet Martial, translated into English, written on papyrus, wrapped around a candle and tied with a thin strip of red-dyed leather.  

hard boiled eggs in sauce
The three course meal consisted of:
1) Gustatio (Starter)
• Hard boiled eggs in a sauce of honey, fish sauce, ground pepper, celery seed and chopped almonds.
2) Mensa Prima (Main Course)
• Chicken in Thyme (chicken, ground pepper, thyme, cumin, fennel, mint, rosemary, wine vinegar chopped dates, honey and olive oil)
• Leeks with Celery in a pepper honey sauce.  
• Mushrooms with a Rich Sauce of honey, olive oil, ground pepper and celery seed.
3) Mensa Secunda (Dessert)
• Poached Pears in a sauce of cinnamon, cumin, honey, sweet white wine, olive oil, egg yolks and nutmeg
• Walnut Cake
• Figs, grapes and apples

pears poached in sauce of honey, wine, olive oil and spices

The experience was illuminating in many ways. 

I saw what felt right. 

I saw what was very un-Roman.

I saw what might have been improved. 

It is traditional to give gifts on the Saturnalia. Next time I attend such a dinner I’ll know what gifts to bring. 

a thirsty bronze double-flame oil-lamp
I. Olive oil 
Oil-lamps guzzle oil and need to be refilled fairly often. I took one of my own replica oil-lamps one with a chariot design bought from the British Museum gift shop perhaps a decade ago. I had a piece of twine in it but Steve said it should be plaited linen. The thicker the wick, the brighter the flame. At one point I tried to ‘trim the wick’ with a tiny pair of real Roman tweezers and sent a shower of angry embers onto the linen tablecloth. 

linen wicks
II. Linen wicks
I should have brought some proper linen wicks. You can order them on Amazon, mainly in cotton. They are intended for use with kerosene lamps. 

III. A fan 
Every time a wick was replaced or oil replenished I got a lungful of smoke. A papyrus or silk fan would have discreetly dispersed the offending miasma.  

A loom woven linen napkin from Naples
IV. A napkin
Even using my dual-purpose Roman spoon (one end pointy, one end spoonish), my fingers quickly became very sticky. Most ancient Romans carried a napkin down the front of their tunics. This multi-purpose item can be spread over your clothes to avoid stains, used to wipe mouth and fingers, as a handkerchief for a runny nose and as a personal doggy bag. 

real and replica glass vessels
V. Wine
You need wine to wash down those strange Roman dishes. I bought the cheapest, blackest wine I could find: a £4 bottle of Australian Shiraz from my local Co-op. It was fabulous. 

VI. A replica beaker or jug  
In Roman times it was considered barbaric to drink wine neat. What with watering down the wine, you need as many beakers and jugs as possible. 

Saturnalia scene from The Roman Mysteries TV series
VII. Pillei 
Professor Llewelyn Morgan, an illustrious Oxford Latinist, saw my tweets and asked, ‘Where are your pillei?!’ And he’s right. We should be wearing the conical hats that show we are free from the usual restrictions. A real pilleum would have been made of coloured wool or felt. For a cheap one buy a Santa hat at Poundland and take off the fake fur trim. After all, the origin of Santa hats are the Saturnalia. 

clay figurines of girls dicing
VIII. Dice
I should have brought dice. They can make everything fun. Roll the dice to see who gets the real Samian ware plate. Roll the dice to see who gets the antique Roman spoon. Roll the dice to see who gets the last poached pear in a sauce of honey, cinnamon and olive oil. 

CD of Roman Music
IX. Music
Ideally a live performance of lyre, tambourine, pan-pipes and aulos. But re-imagined Roman music will do nicely. Our host was playing the very well-researched CD Musica Romana Pugnate on a vintage boom box hidden behind a tapestry. But you could play tunes curated by Armand D'Angour as well, easily found on YouTube. 

X. Epigrams of Martial 
It is my personal theory that these were the origins of the mottoes in Christmas crackers. A little two-line poem that also served as a gift tag. Ideally on papyrus in both Latin and English.

Epigram of Martial on papyrus

And speaking of Martial, here is one of his Saturnalia poems: 

Unctis falciferi senis diebus
regnator quibus imperat fritillus
versu ludere non laborioso
permittis, puto, pilleata Roma. 

In these well-oiled days of scythe-bearing Saturn
When the dice box is king of all
I pray that all you cap-wearing Romans
Will permit me some playful poems... 

(Martial XI.6)


Marjorie said...

How wonderful! The meal sounds delicious and I learned about the Pillei, which are new to me!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Marjorie!

abigail brieson said...

Origin of the Santa cap! I had no idea. In a bit of research it seems when a slave was freed he was given a Pillei - just as a House Elf is pronounced free, by a gift of clothing? J.K. Rowling knows her classics!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like a wonderful time was had by all. Were you really eating from genuine Roman antiques? Awk! What if you broke something? I do have two Roman coins, now I’m glad neither of them will end up in someone’s change... I wonder if you can get a translation of Apicius?

I’ve always thought that the Twelfth Night revels were very much Saturnalia, with everything turned upside down, especially the Lord of Misrule thing...

Abigail, JKR does indeed know her classics, though I assumed the House Elf clothing thing was connected with the fairy tale “The Cobbler And The Elves” where the cobbler and his wife give the helpful but naked elves clothes to thank them and never see them again.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, we really ate off antiques... I didn't even talk about the food, which was strange like the music. There are many fun translations of Apicius but I recommend The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger.

Anonymous said...

My word, all that just down the road in Bedford and I was not invited? Shame, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. I hope you will write a little more about it.

Andrew Preston said...

With all that honey in just about every dish, there must have been billions of bees.