Holidays: Yo, Saturnalia! (Roman, unknown – 5th century CE)

“Saturnalia, the very best of days!”
~ Gaius Valerius Catullus, Catullus 14, 1st century BCE

From the 17th to the 23rd of December, Romans greeted each other with a hearty “Io Saturnalia!” (pronounced yo). It was the most important Roman holiday, a time of feasting and fun when the normal order of things was upended and social divides temporarily erased. During Saturnalia, people dressed in clashing colors that would have been laughed at any other time of year. Gambling, usually outlawed, was practiced openly, as revelers bet on games of dice and trivia and went bobbing for corks in tubs of water. Masters waited on their slaves, and everyone wore the felt cap that usually distinguished freedmen (former slaves) from born citizens. Friends and family exchanged gifts, including toys for children, gag gifts between close friends (the famed poet Catullus once received a book of “the worst poems of all time”), and sigillariae, wooden or clay luck charms in the form of tiny faces. Saturnalia is sometimes called the Ancient Roman Christmas, although Christmas itself was first-celebrated in 4th-century Rome. Saturnalia continued to exist as a secular holiday alongside Christmas for at least another century, until the new religion gradually eclipsed the older and adopted some of its traditions, just as Saturnalia had adopted elements of earlier Greek and Roman festivals.

Although it evolved over time, Saturnalia remained at its core a celebration of the harvest. Saturn, the festival’s namesake, was a deity associated so strongly with agriculture that the hollow ivory statue in his temple in Rome was filled with olive oil. Saturn was said to have ruled on earth in the distant past during a “Golden Age,” when food came freely from the land without labor and everyone lived in peace. The abundance and license of Saturnalia was meant to imitate the utopian conditions of the kingdom of Saturn.


We don’t know of specific dishes unique to Saturnalia, but we do know that eating was an important part of the festival, rooted as it was in the agricultural calendar. In general, ancient people followed seasonal eating patterns out of necessity. Based on our knowledge of the festival and the Roman winter diet, we can guess what the menu of a Saturnalia feast may have looked like:

  • Wheat bread was served at every meal, for Romans of every social status. The Roman government often distributed free bread to the people on holidays like Saturnalia. Most Romans did not have an oven at home, and would either buy fresh bread from bakeries or bake homemade dough in communal ovens. For religious holidays and festivals, Roman bakers shaped their wares into a variety of forms: animals, people, gods, even human genitalia (for good luck).

  • Pork was the favorite Roman meat, and in the words of the poet Martial, “a pig will make you a good Saturnalia.” Live pigs and pork sausage were given as gifts during Saturnalia, and pigs were the traditional sacrifice offered to Saturn and other “chthonic” deities (gods of the earth and Underworld). Sacrifice in Roman times was a bit of a racket. The buyer of a sacrificial animal would share the meat with the temple priests who performed the sacrifice, and priests would examine the animal’s entrails for omens, a practice called extispicy (yes, that’s a real English word). If the extispicy showed ill fortune, a new sacrifice would have to be provided; at the buyer’s expense, of course.
    A Roman heading home from the Temple of Saturn with their share of fresh pork would have had many options for preparing it. They might stew it with apricots, roast it with figs on a bed of barley, or boil it in milk.
  • Winter vegetables like leeks, turnips, onions and beets, as well as pickles, formed an important part of the Roman diet, especially for the many who could not afford a sacrificial pig. Parsnips and carrots were fried in oil and drizzled in a savory, salty wine sauce (check out my recreation of this recipe here).

    A still-life of fruit from the home of a Pompeiian woman named Julia Felix.

  • The final course of the meal, dubbed secunda mensa (second plate), consisted of honeyed desserts and seasonal fruit. Desserts might include savillum, a cheesecake topped with poppy seeds, or crunchy candy made from honey and nuts. Affluent Romans enjoyed fried dough drizzled with honey and dusted with imported black pepper. As for fruit, apples were a Roman favorite, served at the end of meals so frequently that the expression ab ovo usque ad mala, “from eggs to apples,” was used to mean “from start to finish” (compare English “soup to nuts”). Pears were also very popular; the natural historian Pliny described 40 different cultivars in the 2nd century CE. Just like people today, Romans sometimes cooked their fruit. Apicius gives a recipe for a baked pudding (patina) of mashed pears with cumin, honey and a sweet raisin wine called passum.
  • Nothing is better on a cold December day than hot mulled wine, and the Romans boiled leftover wine with honey, dates and spices to make a beverage similar to the modern one. Wine in general was an important part of the Saturnalia atmosphere; unless you happened to be Pliny, who describes himself retreating Scrooge-like to his private rooms “during the Saturnalia, when the rest of the house is noisy with the license of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don’t hamper the games of my people and they don’t hinder my work or studies.”

Roman holidays like Saturnalia served an important social function. Relaxing social boundaries released social tension, enabling the Romans themselves to relax; sharing food reminded them to be thankful to the gods, and conjured up a vision of Saturn’s lost paradise that would sustain them through the hardships of winter. So don’t be a Pliny this holiday season. Remember the Romans, and how they made December merry. Io!


This mulled wine is made using Roman ingredients: honey, grains of paradise (known to the Romans as “African pepper”), long pepper, and mastic (a kind of pine resin). Being a Sagittarius myself, I thought it would be fitting to drink it out of my battered-but-still-serviceable Sagittarius mug, and place it on a coaster made out of zebra hide.

Ancient Recipe: Parsnip Fries with Wine Sauce (Roman, 5th Century CE)

“Then there is the carrot. ‘This vegetable,’ says Diphilus, ‘Is harsh, but tolerably nutritious, and moderately good for the stomach; but it passes quickly through the bowels and causes flatulence. It is indigestible, diuretic, and not without some influence in prompting men to amatory feelings, on which account it is called a love-philtre by some people.” ~ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae [The Philosophers’ Dinner-party], 2nd century CE 


The Ancient Romans didn’t eat fries in cones of wax paper, but they should have.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: carrots are orange, parsnips are white. But it wasn’t always that way.

From a botanical standpoint, the two plants are different enough to keep them out of the same genus (they belong to Pastinaca and Daucus, respectively). Most modern people simply use color to tell them apart. But ancient people tended not to differentiate between these two tapered, edible roots, in spite of the fact that parsnips seem to have been first cultivated in northern Europe and carrots in Persia. In Old English, for example, both were called by the same name, moru. The Romans had two different words but used them interchangeably, just as the roots were used interchangeably in their cuisine. Apicius, the compendium of all things Roman and culinary, offers recipes for carotae seu pastinacae, carrots or parsnips. The ancient confusion hints at the carrot’s biggest secret: it wasn’t always orange.

Farmers selectively breed their crops, encouraging desirable traits like size, productivity, and sweetness to create new cultivars and strains. Our modern food plants have been genetically manipulated for so long by human beings that they look extremely different from their ancient ancestors (who says GMOs are a recent phenomenon?) Ancient fruits and vegetables had more of the “bad” qualities that have been bred out in the centuries since: you can bet that the Romans never heard of a seedless grape. Color is a trait that can be selected for just like any other, and Roman carrots, in addition to being smaller and less sweet than our modern ones, only came in purple or a very parsnip-like white. So where did orange carrots, rich in the same beta-carotene that gives everything from pumpkins to flamingos their color, come from?

Scientists believe that a genetic mutation in the purple carrot resulted in the first yellow carrots around the 11th century, which was then selectively bred to create our modern orange. A popular legend asserts that orange carrots were developed in the 17th-century Netherlands as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The Orange in that family’s name refers to the French principality of Orange, a transformation of the Latin place-name Aurasio that came to be associated with both the color and the fruit. But should we believe the carrot-as-political-tribute story? Maybe. It’s true that the Netherlands was known for its carrot production in the 17th century. It’s also true that a century later, “carrots sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative” by the Dutch Patriot party who forced out the House of Orange. But whether the orange carrot was actually developed in tribute to the House of Orange is unknown, though it’s the kind of unqualified claim that frequently gets presented as fact in places like tourist guides and bar trivia.

All this means that when reconstructing a Roman recipe in your modern kitchen, orange carrots are to be avoided at all costs, but parsnips or carrots in other colors will do just fine. The Roman love for both vegetables is well-documented. In the first century BCE, they were demanded as tribute from the tribes of Germany by the Emperor Tiberius; two hundred years later, the Roman-Greek writer Athenaeus records their health benefits in the text quoted above, including the ability to rouse sexual desire in men.* Any aphrodisiac qualities attributed to carrots and parsnips by the Romans are likely due to their phallic shape. In ancient medicine, this was the plant’s “signature”, the physical resemblance between a plant and the part of the human body it could cure or affect. This belief continued well into the Medieval period, when for example walnuts were believed to be good for brain health because a walnut looks like a tiny, wrinkled brain.

In this simple and delicious recipe from the Roman cookbook Apicius, the roots are fried in olive oil and dressed with a pungent savory/salty sauce called oenogarum, a reduction of red wine, fish sauce (garum) and pepper. We might consider this recipe an antecedent of French fries with ketchup. The parallel is a surprisingly close one; the South American potato would eventually dethrone the parsnip as the favorite starchy vegetable in Europe, while ketchup arose from the same origins as Roman garum.


  • 3 large parsnips or (non-orange) carrots
  • Enough olive oil to fill a pot about two inches deep
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1/3 of a cup fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons ground black or long pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch

Wash and peel the parsnips and cut them into small pieces. I did half-circle wedges, but you could also try a traditional French fry shape. Dry the parsnip pieces thoroughly with a paper towel.



This is what happens when you put moist, fresh vegetables into hot olive oil. Be careful!

Fill a pot with olive oil up to around two inches and raise the heat to medium-high. After a few minutes, drop a small piece of parsnip in to test if the oil is hot enough to fry. When the oil is ready, fry the parsnips a few pieces at a time (they are moist and will produce a lot of bubbles). Move the parsnips around with a wooden spoon or other tool to prevent them sticking.


When the parsnips are golden brown on the outside, remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Next, make the oenogarum. Bring the red wine to a low boil in a saucepan. When it has reduced by about one-third, add the fish sauce and pepper. Mix the cornstarch and about half a cup of water into a slurry in a separate bowl, Slowly add this to the wine while stirring with a spoon to prevent clumping. Reduce the mixture another third. The end result should have the consistency of barbecue sauce, thicker than water but liquid enough to pour.

Serve as you would French fries and ketchup, with the wine-sauce drizzled on top of the parsnips or on the side for dipping.


These pastinacae are ready to prompt men to amatory feelings.


I feel like with every ancient recipe I make, I claim that it’s the best one ever. I’d better start on that rose-and-lamb-brain patina, or the dish invented by Emperor Vitellius that contained fish semen. This one really is good though! The parsnips are soft on the inside and crunchy outside, and the oenogarum has a powerful blend of flavors that provide the salt and other seasoning. I wouldn’t want to eat the oenogarum on its own, but it’s perfect when balanced against the bland starchiness of the parsnips. This is one of the first Roman recipes I could genuinely imagine someone ordering from a modern restaurant (or a food truck, for that matter, which inspired the photo above). X out of X.

* The aforementioned Emperor Tiberius was accused by his enemies of the most extreme sexual perversion. One wonders if his documented love of a vegetable considered to be an aphrodisiac is purely coincidental.