Sunday, 22 December 2013

Gifts and Greetings for Saturnalia

As promised, here are some of the specific gifts that were offered for Saturnalia, together with the greetings that accompanied them. They are taken from the 14th book of Epigrams by the poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis - 40-c104 AD), the full text of which can be read in English translation at He lists a total of 223 possible gifts, each with an appropriate greeting to the recipient.

The greetings find parallels both in the messages that we write today in Christmas cards, and in the jokes that are found in Christmas crackers. Some of the gifts are valuable, others trivial, and humour clearly played a part in the choices made.


Nuts seem a small risk, and not likely to be attended with much loss, yet such risk has often robbed the young of honour.

XXV Combs

Of what use will be this piece of box-wood, cut into so many teeth, and now presented to you, seeing that you have no hair.

XXXIX A Night-Lamp

I am a night-lamp, privy to the pleasures of the couch. Do whatever you please. I shall be silent.

XLIV A Wooden Candle-Stick

You see that I am a piece of wood. Unless you are careful of the flame, a great lamp will be made out of your candle-stick.

LXIX A Priapus of Pastry

If you wish to appease your hunger, you may eat this Priapus of ours. Even though you consume every part of it, you will not be the less pure.


The pig fed on acorns among foaming wild boars will afford you a merry Saturnalia.

LXXII A Sausage

The sausage which comes to you in mid-winter came to me before the seven days of the Saturnalia.


I am a parrot, and am taught by you the names of others. I have learned of myself to say "Hail Caesar!"

CLXXIX Minerva in Silver

Tell me, fierce maiden-goddess, why, since you have a helmet and a spear, you have not also an aegis? "Caesar has it!"

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, and Omphalos are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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