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.

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.


Today’s new Latin poem is from Virgil’s Aeneid. It sets the scene for Aeneas, as an honoured guest at the court of Dido, Queen of Carthage, to describe the fall of Troy. He is a Trojan prince, and the story he tells will be first-hand, vivid and full of drama, and a rarer subject in ancient literature than you might suppose – Homer’s Iliad ends before Troy falls. As Book 2 begins, Aeneas’s superhuman dignity and charisma are meant to remind us of his descendant, the Emperor Augustus.