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First came the sound, a loud slow regularly timed booming, the constant beat of a drum. Shortly after this rhythmic cacophony of the beat, a clatter and rattle is heard. A blended mixture of clinking and clanging, the sound of metal on metal and within this tumult of sounds the shout “Io Saturnalia” echo's out. Then from around the street corner an armoured figure in ancient dress appears, followed by another and another. Roman legionaries in single file, marching in full armour, rain dripping off their helmets and soaking into their cloaks as they march. Each carrying a lantern or banging a drum, echoing the proclamation “Io Saturnalia” as their hob nail sandals slam down hard onto the modern streets tarmac.

Anywhere else this sight might be considered unusual, not however for Caerleon, the small village on the banks of the Usk, outside Newport. Home to the National Roman Legionary Museum and former Fortress home to the Roman, second Augustan legion. There the sight of Roman legionaries or museum staff dressed as Roman soldiers is practically an everyday occurrence (so much so that people hardly stop for selfies anymore).   
In this instance the staff of the NRLM were recreating the celebrations for the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, in honour of the Roman god Saturn last December. 

Romans believed Saturn ruled the world during a golden time, they celebrated Saturnalia at the darkest and coldest time of the year in December in the hope that he would bring back the sun and usher in a new golden age for the coming spring harvest. Romans would hold large feasts, decorate their homes with greenery, place Janus tablet heads on garden trees, visit friends and family and even give presents. We have inherited many of our own Christmas traditions from this festival. Romans would also wear hats, Phrygian caps (or freeman hats) were worn and slaves were even given a day off. 
This year we’ll be celebrating Saturnalia in the museum on the 9th of December. With traditional Saturnalia celebrations such as a shrine to Saturn offering good fortunes to the Gods, off duty Roman legionaries eating and drinking in honour of the festival. Explaining the holiday and also showing off their armour.   

And of course the day will finish with our legionaries marching around the Fortress e.g modern day Caerleon to insure Saturn brings back the light and to usher in a good new year with the traditional Roman saying of “Io Saturnalia”." 

You can find out more about Saturnalia by watching this short film, made last year for the museum for a take over day.


David Howell

Museum Assistant

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