Saturnalia on 17 December was the Roman’s midwinter party festival. It had a definite topsy-turvy element, with masters waiting on their slaves, as shown in the illustration, and a generally indulgent attitude towards high jinks.
Today’s poem was written for a different occasion: it is an extract from one of Virgil’s pastoral poems, or Eclogues, written in 40 BCE and looking forward to a birth which will herald the start of a new golden age. It is appropriate to the run-up to Christmas because, though few if any would agree today, a strong current of opinion among early Christians and in the middle ages interpreted it as a prophesy of the birth of Christ. Hear the Latin and follow in English here.

Omens and prophecy are everywhere in classical literature, as this selection from the work of Virgil shows.

In Book 2 of the Aeneid, the priest, Laocoon, foretells here all too correctly that misfortune will follow if the Trojans bring the wooden horse left by the Greeks into their city.

As Troy falls, Aeneas’s father, Anchises, at first prefers death to escape until omens from the Gods persuade him here that his descendants can be saved and achieve great things.

Thwarted by Aeneas and the Trojans, the leader of the monstrous Harpies predicts here that they will meet hardship so severe that they will gnaw their tables (fortunately the threat will turn out to be exaggerated).

The priest-King Helenus prophesies during Aeneas’s travels here that a white sow will show him the site of the future city of Alba that his son, Ascanius will found.

As Aeneas prepares for his journey to the underworld, the terrifying Cumaean Sibyl prophesies here that his path to settlement in Italy will lie through suffering and war.

As Aeneas arrives in Italy at last, his coming is heralded here by omens involving a swarm of bees and an alarming accident to Princess Lavinia as she sacrifices with the King, her father.

Finally, the prophecy here in one of Virgil’s Eclogues, or pastoral poems, of a birth heralding a future golden age, seen by later Christian ages as possibly foretelling the nativity of the Christ, may be a celebration of a great dynastic marriage.

Acting as a priest, the Trojan Helenus, now by a favourable reverse of fortunes the ruler of Achilles’s former kingdom, makes a curious prophecy that centres on a white sow with thirty piglets. Perhaps he had covered his head to officiate at the sacrifice, as was the later Roman custom. The Roman shown here is the Emperor Augustus, dressed as the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest). Hear the poem in Latin with an English translation here.

As Hercules sets sail in the bowl of Helios, enjoy this selection of Latin (and Greek) poems about travel, starting with the voyage and later retirement of

Catullus’s brave little yacht.

A pioneering flight comes to a sad end for

Icarus and his father Daedalus.

At the end of another sad journey,

Catullus says farewell to his brother.

At the beginning of the greatest classical epic of travel,

Homer introduces Odysseus.

As he prepares reluctantly to part from Dido, preparations are in hand for

Aeneas’s departure from Carthage.

Ovid describes an unexpected journey for


Aeneas embarks on his most challenging trip, his

journey to Hades.