We are talking about Rome, where the concept of the halftime show was not only developed but almost immediately reached the heights of gruesome bad taste, and where even poets knew the value of money.
Forget the hockey game: a mere three hours and very little blood. How pale that looks in comparison to a day, a whole day, of carnage at the Colisseum. The morning began with warmup bouts between, say, a bull and an elephant, followed, perhaps, by a match between a rhinoceros and a buffalo. Then hunters entered the arena to slay herds of gazelles while spectators chatted under the sun.
Midday was intermission – time for the Roman equivalent of a hot dog and a beer. No insipid cheerleaders and marching bands for these halftime shows. Instead, the authorities chose this time to organize public executions in the arena, often dressing up the condemned criminals as famous villains or doomed characters from mythology – just to add an artistic touch.
Then an exciting afternoon watching the gladiators in single combat. A long, satisfying day but not yet over. Under the Emperor Domitian there was more blood to be spilled even after the sun set. Female gladiators did battle with dwarves by torchlight. The Romans could hardly complain they didn't get their money's worth.
But, of course, they did. The Romans were just as obsessed with getting and spending as we are. The poet Horace laid down the golden rule about money: 'si possis recte, si non, quocumque modo rem.' If you can, get it by fair means. If not, by any means at all.
Let us not get the wrong idea about Horace. He was not a grasping, Scrooge-like soul. He wasn't even particularly ambitious; he turned down a well-paid job as the emperor's secretary. He did, however, understand the customs and desires of the time. And he wasn't hesitant about offering advice: 'sapias, vina liques, … carpe diem, quam mininum credula postero.' Be wise, strain your wine…seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.
But few were wise at this time of year in Rome. It was the winter solstice, the time of Saturnalia. And the winter solstice, under the old Julian calendar, fell on Dec. 25. It was a time for sacrifices and feasting. The sacrifices were to the god Saturnus, the patron of seed and sowing. The harvest was in and the new crop had been planted. Now it was time to enjoy oneself.
And so, as far back as 217 BC, after a sacrifice at the temple of Saturn, there was a public banquet. A century and a half later, the public banquet had become a seven-day blowout. The first emperor, Augustus Caesar, tried to limit the festival to three days. Caligula caved in to public demand and extended the partying to five days.
It was the most popular holiday among the Romans, although it provoked differing reactions among the intelligentsia. "The best of days", one pleasure-loving poet wrote. "The whole mob has let itself go and is devoting itself to pleasure", sniffed a philosopher.
It was a time for parties, visits to friends and gift-giving. Public gambling was tolerated, even by slaves. And they weren't required to work. Indeed, in many families the social order was temporarily inverted. A so-called Lord of Misrule was chosen, slaves treated as equals, allowed to wear the clothing of the masters and mistresses, and even waited on at meals. All this was designed to recall a golden age ushered in by the rather democratic god.
In this time of good cheer, the customary greeting was "Io, Saturnalia". ('Io' was pronounced 'Yo').
Thus it went, down through the years. "For how many years shall this festival endure!," cried the happy Roman writer Statius. "Never shall age destroy so holy a day. While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while Rome stands, it shall continue." That was in the first century AD.
By the fourth century, with Christianity the dominant religion in the Roman world, there were other rites to celebrate – the birth of a child in Bethlehem. And there was a made-to-order period in which to celebrate it. Saturnalia was quietly dropped from the schedule and Christmas seamlessly took its time slot.