Weekend Wind Down – Saturnalia Optima!

They left the house as one party – with the addition of Cariad’s two children, who Julia was pleased to find were both quite delightful, taking after their mother in looks, but seeming to have their father’s easy-going disposition. They had an escort: servants carefully sanding the paving in front of them and a ceremonial guard clearing a path through the seething crowd. Julia craned her neck to look at the three Llewellyn boys, who walked hand in hand with Baer behind them like an anxious mother hen. She smiled at the girl and gave her a thumbs up. Then they were in the great open atrium of the temple of the Divine Diocletian where the brazen gongs were just sounding. Caudinus excused himself to join the group of officials at the steps of the sanctuary.
The service droned on and on. Julia was very glad of woollen stockings and fleece-lined boots as the marble floor struck like ice underfoot. As the priests reached the loudest part of the invocation, she slipped one hand into the pocket of her cloak and came out with chewy caramel sweets, which she passed quietly to the children. Enya looked a question.
“About now,” Julia whispered, “my grandmother always gave me a sweetie, otherwise I started to flag and fidget. So I thought…”
Enya smiled radiantly. “Genius.”
Eventually, the long religious ritual was over, punctuated by chants and hymns everyone knew. Traditional shouts of ‘Salve Diocletian!’ and ‘Diocletian Invictus!’ and from the less religious: ‘Saturnalia Optima!’ rang around the crowd.
Julia was relieved when Caudinus’ soldiers escorted them to a reserved table at the edge of the atrium, where they could sit and sip mulled wine sheltered by a colonnade and wait for the Magistratus to join them once the final formalities were completed. An outside heater warmed the air enough to take the chill, but not enough to actually warm anyone. Julia thought the children looked cold and tired, even Baer.
“We may have to stay,” she said decisively, “but the children should be indoors.” She deputised a group of soldiers to take the little ones back to the Magistratus house, where the family was due to dine, asking that they be given a hot drink when they got there. The children left under escort, Baer gripping the hands of the youngest Llewellyn boys. Julia wished she could go with them. She cupped her hands around her mug of mulled wine and sighed.
“Domina?” Julia looked up to see one of Caudinus’ guard of honour standing with a respectful expression on his face. “Domina, the Magistratus asks if you would be willing to deputise for your husband in the gift-giving ceremony.”
So it was that Julia found herself a reluctant participant in the ceremonial at the temple, joining the select group of Romans who were presenting the official gifts from the City of Viriconium to the Divine Diocletian on his dies natalis to show their love and appreciation for his beneficence and to bribe him into keeping it going for another year. She tried to suppress such impious thoughts as she stood in line, breath frosting the air in front of her. She had been asked to present a small silver boar, symbolic of a prophecy made to Diocletian by a druidess about how he would come to power. Julia wondered if that was why the Druids were largely left alone by the Roman authorities even today. Not acknowledged, but not actively persecuted unless they openly declaimed anti-Roman theology. It was the only religion she knew of in all the Empire that did not bend knee to the divinity of Diocletian and yet it was permitted to practice its rites unhindered. Then it was her turn to step up and place the statuette on the table of offerings, bow her head in respect and walk carefully backwards to her place as the rest of the gifts were given and long speeches of thanks were made by lesser city luminaries.
Even Caudinus had to put a hand up to his mouth to smother a yawn. But then Julia knew he had been attending endless civic functions, ceremonies and receptions over the last four days of Saturnalia. Far from being a holiday in the sense people usually thought of one, like most other feriae stativae, Saturnalia was a five-day round of official appearances for the Magistratus. Dai had deputised at two such, uncomfortably toga clad with Julia in jewels and stola.
After a final blessing, the doors of the sanctuary were closed behind the shivering priests, who scuttled inside bearing with them the expensive offerings of a grateful city.

From Dying as a Druid by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook.

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