The Romans stood out amongst the civilizations of antiquity in taking birthdays seriously. Important public figures launched festivities on the day of their birth and the deceased were often memorialized on their birthdays.
Although Romans did commemorate each-others birthdays which they referred to as dies natalis (birthday, anniversary in Latin), it is not clear if they wished each other happy birthday the way we do in contemporary culture. However, if one were to wish a happy birthday in Latin, their best bet would be to exclaim “Felix sit natalis dies!”
The term natali was also used to commemorate the founding of cities or temples. Banquets and public celebrations could be commissioned on these occasions as well. Depending on the period and local custom, birthdays were sometimes celebrated on the first day of the birthday month, rather than on the day of the birth itself.
Though we are unsure about the greetings, in some ways the Romans commemorated birthdays similarly to us. This is particularly notable in their custom of gift-giving.
Birthdays were often marked by banquets in which gifts were given to the celebrating individual. Most commonly immediate family members awarded each other with gifts. It was also the custom for slaves to give the children of their owner’s gifts for their birthdays.
Roman society was highly patriarchal. Therefore, it is not surprising that the gifts given on these occasions were strictly divided by gender. Female celebrants were often given expensive jewelry or precious stones. Meanwhile, men would often receive weapons or togas on their special day.
Romans would sometimes write or commission birthday poems. This was a unique tradition, which had no equivalent in Greek culture.
Politically Significant Birthdays
When the person in question was socially important, the day of their birthday could have wider social implications. Here is an example of a quote from a birthday poem for a local notable:
“Come, let pious Rome mark the birthday of eloquent Restitutus: Let every tongue be reverent; let all prayers be favorable. We are performing birthday rites; let litigation cease.”
The richer families in Rome celebrated with lavish banquets, featuring dancers and singers as entertainment. We also know that these banquets’ homes were decorated with flowers and the scent of special incense was in the air.
The practice of making a birthday cake specifically as the centerpiece of the celebration was a German custom. However, the Romans also included cakes amongst the refreshments served at birthday banquets.
Several surviving letters indicate that when one was unable to attend the birthday celebrations of a close relative, it was expected that they would mark the occasion independently.
This seems to have been a common practice, it is not clear exactly what it entailed. The famed poet Ovid, writer of the epic Metamorphoses, made sure to celebrate his wife’s birthday every year in her absence while in exile. In his letter to her, Ovid mentioned that he had put on white clothing, set up an altar for sacrifice, burned incense, and had his share of wine.
These occasions had strong religious connotations. The central event of the banquet was a sacrifice to the patron saint or angel of the clan to which one belonged. The saints were known as either the genius of the housefather (for a male) or the juno of the housemother (for a female).
The religious significance of the date made one’s birthday a holy day for them. One of the biggest compliments a supplicant could give to his superior was to say “your birthday is as holy to me as my own.” Indeed, we have more than one example of a slave or employee writing that specific greeting to their social betters. In some cases, free and high-ranking men would express this sort of sentiment to their elders.
During the years of the Roman Republic, these natali celebrations had been confined to the celebration of individuals one knew personally.
This changed when the Republic fell. The Roman Emperors used this cultural predilection to commemorate birthdays and anniversaries to their political advantage. Augustus made his birthday an official holiday marked on the imperial calendar.
Over time, these cults of personality defining celebrations became some of the widest celebrated and most popular holidays in the Roman Empire. These celebrations were also useful in cementing Roman domination over eastern territories such as Egypt and Syria, where ruler birthdays had long been celebrated as large-scale political events.
The Romans had long celebrated birthdays as a sign of personal ties of affection and loyalty. However, the Emperors used it in a new way, as a grand political spectacle designed to foster obedience to the Empire.