Surrealism in Ancient Rome: Saturnalia & Fellini's Satyricon

December 9, 2009

A Roman partygoer stops to scrutinise the audience in Federico Fellini's Satyricon

The impending holiday season can be a time of contemplation. Whilst some are concerned with the purchase of gifts, celebration of family and engorgement, others may ponder.... how did things get to be this way?

Who started this end of year party and for how long has it been going on? It is a misrepresentation to say it is an entirely Christian phenomenon, and even a brief exploration of Ancient Roman festivals will shed some more light on the origins of this party, and reveal some interesting creative works on the subject.

Saturnalia was an Ancient Roman festival, believed to have been started in 217 BCE to boost public morale. Whilst dedicated to the commemoration of the Temple of Saturn, it was a bustling 7 day social phenomenon - involving games and festivities and the performance of a role reversal for slaves and their wealthy masters. Slaves partied hard and got to poke fun at their masters(within limits).

This is demonstrated very cleverly by Victorian Era Neo-Classicist Lawrence Alma Tadema in Ave Caesar, Io Saturnalia painted in 1880. This work currently resides at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris.

Caligula in a dress, dead and propped against the bust of a predecessor

It is a fascinating image, depicting a gruesome event in Roman History - the assassination of the allegedly crazed Emperor Caligula by his supposed protectors, the Praetorian Guard, and their subsequent proclamation of Caligula's 'idiot' uncle Claudius as Emperor in 41 CE.

As described in accounts by Roman writers, in particular Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus in The Twelve Caesars the Praetorians found a terrified Claudius cowering behind a curtain. Fortunately for him - the Senate and Military wanted him in charge, and Claudius went on to be one of the most effective Emperors of Rome.

One of his most notable achievements was the occupation of the British Isles, chiefly for resources such as lead and iron. Not unlike other Imperial regimes in History - the occupiers displayed a willingness for tolerance as long as taxes were payed and some credence payed to Roman deities. Outright opposition, such as that demonstrated by Queen Boudica was dealt with brutally.

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor (1867)

This accession of Claudius was a pet subject of Tadema's, with him producing 3 different paintings on the subject. Whilst two of these take a more literal approach to the depiction - another places the events within the context of the Saturnalia period. This cannot be implied by looking at the painting, but simply from the title chosen by Tadema. "Ave Caesar, Io Saturnalia!" means "Hail Caesar, Ho Saturnalia!"

It is not common to combine these two phrases - akin to saying "Long Live The Queen, Merry Christmas!" It must also be noted, the date of Caligula's assassination is stated as January 14, 41 CE, whereas Saturnalia, even in Caligula's time - had concluded by 24 December 40 CE.

In this case, Tadema is not aiming for historical accuracy, but using Saturnalia as a metaphor for the events depicted. Just like the role reversal that occurred during Saturnalia, servants of the Emperor were now dictating terms.

Caligula - dead and propped against the bust of a predecessor...

Interestingly, nearly a decade earlier, Tadema had painted the same scene in "A Roman Emperor" (1871). Close inspection reveals that this and the 1880 Saturnalia are an eerie mirror image of one another. The central figure is the Praetorian Guardsman, revealing Claudius behind some drapery. Lying dead on the floor is Caligula, attired in female garb - as he was apparently quite fond of doing. In both images, there are reminders of previous, greater emperors, of which Claudius did a far better job emulating than poor Caligula strewn on the floor. This wonderfully executed painting is on display at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, USA.

This was a tumultuous time in Roman History, and has been given some spectacular coverage in art, film and literature.

Robert Graves legendary books I, Claudius (pub. 1934) and Claudius The God (pub. 1935) takes the accounts of Suetonius (and others) and weaves them into a dramatic tale of murder and political intrigue. This was made into a superb miniseries by the BBC - originally aired in 1976 and now widely available on DVD. A superb cast featuring Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus, and John Hurt as a very disturbed Caligula.

Roman decadence has been a central theme of many famous films - such as Quo Vadis (1951), featuring an amazing performance by Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero or the famous Cleopatra (1963) featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Indeed, most Hollywood offerings depicting ancient Rome seem to have an element of Roman decadence as a standard - which can be quite distracting from Rome's many other achievements in the fields of Engineering, Science and public hygiene.

The greatest depiction of merriment in Ancient Rome was undeniably in Federico Fellini's Satyricon (1969). Based on a work of fiction written by Gaius Petronius (27-66 CE) during the time time of Nero (late 1st century CE), it outlines the adventures of narrator Encolpius and his sixteen year old lover Giton.

The most famous part of the novel is Cena Tremalchionis, or 'Trimalchio's Dinner.' It outlines the extravagant celebrations hosted by the now wealthy former slave Trimalchio. Historians find this chapter in particular gives a valuable insight into the lives of ordinary Romans and the class of wealthy citizens outside nobility. It is because of this famous chapter that the word 'satire' and 'satirical' have endured through the ages for creative works exposing the folly of human behaviour.

The unforgettable and bewildering: Trimalchio's Dinner from Fellini's Satyricon

Fellini himself read Petronius work and became fascinated by the large missing fragments between the episodes described. He found this fragmentary nature to be akin to a recollection of a dream, and filmed his Satyricon as such. In a style that was a direct precursor to the dream state works of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, Fellini and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno created amazing imagery with music and dialogue to accentuate a dreamlike presentation.

A surreal mindscape from Ancient Rome, Fellini Style

You can obtain a free copy of Petronius' Satyricon from Project Gutenberg. It is recommended reading before watching the film. This makes some of the absurdity of the scenes stand out, as you see they are derived from a 2000 year old novel, and not just the mind of a modern Arthouse director. Fellini's masterpiece is of course widely available on DVD from MGM.


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