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Can an orgy be a sin?

The Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder (234–149 BC) was a strict man.

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Can an orgy be a sin?

The Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder (234–149 BC) was a strict man. Not only that his demand that Carthage must be destroyed has become a timeless bon mot. Rather, as a censor who had to watch over morals, he did not shy away from throwing aristocrats out of the Senate because they had kissed their wives in public. Only a few days a year did Cato forget his moral rigor and even gave his slaves an extra portion of wine: a whole Congius, about 3.2 liters.

These beautiful days were Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival celebrated from December 17th that turned the world upside down for seven days. At the Saturnalia everything was different – ​​and almost everything was allowed. The masters served their slaves and let them boss them around. The people played tricks with senators, and all together flouted good manners and indulged in gambling, drinking and sex. Wine and bodily fluids ran freely even in noble households.

"I am not permitted to do anything serious or important, but merely to drink, make a racket, joke and play dice, elect feast kings, entertain the slaves, sing naked, and smeared with soot into one to be dipped in cold wells”, was how the Greek Lucian described the exuberant festival marathon in the 2nd century AD. Although drastic descriptions of its course have been preserved, neither the origin nor the aftermath have been conclusively clarified. It was even argued that Saturnalia was the model for Christian Christmas.

The name Saturnalia refers to the ancient god Saturn, whom the Romans equated with the Greek Kronos. That wasn't entirely true. As is well known, Kronos ate his children in order not to be overthrown by them, but overlooked Zeus, who finally emasculated and overthrew him. Saturn, on the other hand, has been the god of crops since ancient times. His distinguishing marks were a farmer's hat and a sickle, and the time in which he ruled before his son Jupiter was considered the golden age, a distant, heavenly paradise. Some authors even saw him as the creator of human civilization.

The Romans, who feared little more in the world than the gods, saw a kind of progenitor in Saturn. Therefore, the state treasury was kept in his temple, one of the oldest buildings in the Roman Forum, the center of Roman power. The festival, which was originally only celebrated on December 17, was correspondingly venerable. At the end of the field work, the provision that they had brought should probably be honored and its protection from the god asked for.

Rome's better circles had left that to the peasants for a long time, until 218 BC. tidings came to the city almost as frightening as the wrath of the gods. The Carthaginian Hannibal had crossed the Alps with his army and overran a Roman army on the Trebia, a tributary of the Po. The following year, two consular armies at Lake Trasimeno fell victim to Hannibal's superior martial arts. Finally, in 216, at Cannae, the Romans experienced the heaviest defeat they had ever suffered. Almost 80,000 legionnaires are said to have fallen.

At the same time, the ominous signs multiplied. A rift is said to have divided the sky, flaming torches fell from the sky, and in Rome the statue of the god of war Mars began to sweat, reports the Roman historian Livy. Oracle priests then gave the advice to appease the gods with a feast. On this occasion, according to Livy, “the Saturnalia were proclaimed in Rome for one day and one night”.

"Whenever there was a crisis, the Romans turned to the gods," says Bamberg ancient historian Hartwin Brandt, explaining the mobilization of the immortals. "For months people sacrificed and prayed as much as they could." In the case of the Saturnalia, however, the command was not limited to "celebrating this day" (Livy). Rather, the bucolic folklore was elevated to a status of state action that included all groups in society. A general guest bid was imposed on senators.

Apparently that had an effect. It was not until 201 that Rome was able to win the Second Punic War. But Saturnalia, now declared an official holiday by the Senate, continued to be celebrated in its elaborate manner. The “instrumentalized collective fear management”, as the Erfurt religious scholar Jörg Rüpke interpreted the ordered partying, had become a “social valve with which ordinary people could vent their pent-up anger at the authorities and the passage of time for a few days,” says Hartwin brand. And because this "channeling turned out to stabilize the system", the festival grew longer and longer during the imperial period, until it finally mutated into an anarchy lasting seven days.

For the poet Horace, this “December freedom” was based on the motto: “Talk what you want.” Even slaves were allowed to mock their masters. They took over the office of judge in the household and were served by the master and mistress to their heart's content. They took off their elegant toga and wore the felt caps of the freedmen. A Saturnalis princeps (Prince of Saturnalia) – more aptly called Rex bibendi (King of Drinkers) – was elected, who was not afraid to ask notables to take off their clothes before serenading the people.

So aroused, the scene could quickly degenerate into a cross-class orgy. "Masked prudery and moral standard, away with you," declaimed the satirist Martial. He tells of wine-rich feasts, where the slaves dined on the senators' couches and scantily clad flute players provided music and other entertainment, "madidi dies" just, wet days. After all, no one wanted to get the smell of angering the mighty god Saturn and his fellow immortals.

Numerous ancient authors note the happy circumstance that for a few days the forbidden game of dice was no longer pursued by the aediles, who were responsible for the supervision of public order. The custom of giving gifts to friends, relatives, and strangers could prove far more expensive. The poet Juvenal ridiculed men from whom their wives expected "heavy crystal, largest agate shells, and brilliants" before they were willing to share their beds.

Beyond their days, the Saturnalia also entered the repertoire of elaborate insults. The philosopher Seneca called the weak Emperor Claudius a "Saturnalicius princeps". Everyone could tell that this meant the year-round celebration in the palace.

The festival was extensively celebrated until late antiquity. Around 400 AD, the philosopher Macrobius wrote his "Saturnalia", a scholarly dialogue in which high-ranking guests exchange views on God and the world. By then, the "great days" had long since become a highly developed ritual in better circles, in which people nevertheless continued to drink wine and gave each other gifts.

From the similarity with the Christian Christmas, scientists have developed the thesis that the Saturnalia were a model for the birth festival of Jesus. After Emperor Aurelian had set the feast of Sol invictus, the victorious sun god, on December 25 in 274, Pope Liberius (r. 352–366) is said to have reinterpreted the popular date in a Christian sense. However, the fact that these pagan festivals were a thorn in the side of clerics, writes the ancient historian Theodor Kissel, speaks against this.

Christian authors of the 2nd century, for example, do not know Christmas, which has been demonstrably celebrated only since the 4th century. Tertullian, for example, one of the most influential theologians, vigorously polemicized against Saturnalia because it undermined decency and discipline. Origines even scoffed at the custom of celebrating birthdays. Hartwin Brandt also disagrees with Christians appropriating the Saturnalia: “On the dark days around the winter solstice, there were many reasons to celebrate a luminous festival. It didn’t need the orgiastic masquerade of the pagan Romans to found it.”

But perhaps the Roman festival calendar, whose holidays also promised freedom from work. But even Christianity could not drive out the tendency to dress up and let morality be morality from its followers. They simply postponed their boisterous hustle and bustle a few weeks before Lent and called it carnival.

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