Temple of Saturn and the Ancient Festival Saturnalia

While the Forum was the center of Roman life, it was also home to the Temple of Saturn, one of the oldest temples in Rome. As is obvious from the name, the Romans built the temple to honor and celebrate Saturn, who was Zeus’ father in Greco-Roman mythology. Although the Temple of Saturn today is in ruins, as only its fragments exist now in the form of some columns, the temple is still one of the most important cultural sites in Europe.

temple of saturn in the forum
Carla van Kampen

The Temple of Saturn was built in the 4th CE, nearly 1700 years ago. It is on the north side of the Forum and was even the public treasury of Rome at some point. While it is not possible to completely deduce what it looked like, the columns and their height make it clear that it was a huge temple.

temple of saturn ruins
Robert Owen-Jones

The temple’s construction story goes back to an ancient cult and festival that started in Rome thousands of years ago. When Rome had paganistic beliefs, they had various cults celebrating various deities from Roman mythology. One of these cults was the cult of Saturn. Many sources believe that Saturn was the Roman version of Kronos in Greek mythology. Kronos was Zeus’ father who was disposed by his son after a fierce war between the titans and the gods. In some stories, Zeus imprisons Kronos, or Saturn. Therefore, the statues of Saturn t always wore some kind of brace on his ankles. However, they believed that towards the end of December, Kronos became free and they celebrated this in a festival called the Saturnalia.

temple of saturn and the columns
Glenn Marcus

As Rome became more and more Christianized in the following centuries, the Roman Church appointed Jesus’ birth as December 25th. This allowed both celebrations, the Saturnalia and the birth, to merge and take elements from each other. Many Christmas traditions such as giving gifts to others, singing in a chorus, and lighting candles actually come from the Saturnalia Festival.

temple of saturn columns close up
temple of saturn columns from below
the columns in the forum
another set of columns
entrance in ruins in forum
Shannon Wettstein Sadler