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17 December: On this day in history

What events happened on 17 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: December 17, 2021 at 6:06 am
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17 December 497 BC: Romans celebrate the first Saturnalia

The agricultural festival gives way to dancing and debauchery

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Sometimes described as the Roman inspiration for Christmas, the festival of Saturnalia was first celebrated on 17 December 497 BC, to mark the inauguration of Rome’s new Temple of Saturn.

In its early years, Saturnalia was essentially an agricultural festival, to thank the god Saturn for the bounties of the earth. But a major change came in 217 BC, after Rome’s traumatic defeat by Carthage at the battle of Lake Trasimene. Clearly divine inspiration was needed, and the organisers decided to import religious customs from Greece. So in came large public banquets, sacrifices, dances and public chanting. And over time, it grew ever more elaborate.

By the first years of the Roman empire, Saturnalia had become a three-day affair, and later it sprawled over seven days. The usual strict formalities were abandoned, people exchanged gifts of dolls and candles, and slaves wore their masters’ clothes. Under the emperor Domitian, there were even gladiatorial games in which women and dwarves took centre stage. “During my week,” says Saturn in a poem by the second-century writer Lucian, “the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping... an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

So is Christmas partly a disguised Saturnalia? Perhaps. Feasting, drinking and presents all sound very familiar!

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

17 December 1362 
Henry le Despenser was ordained a priest. Eight years later he was appointed bishop of Norwich. Known as the Fighting Bishop, Despenser helped suppress the Peasants' Revolt and was victorious at the battle of North Walsham in 1381.
17 December 1559
Matthew Parker was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. He had been elected in August but the upheavals surrounding Elizabeth's accession had made it difficult to find the four bishops needed to consecrate him.
17 December 1631
Stuart lawyer Sir Thomas Fanshawe died in London's Inner Temple. As surveyor-general to Charles I, Fanshawe had been closely involved in the attempts to improve the king's revenues, notably through the financial exploitation of royal forests.
17 December 1830
Simon Bolivar died of tuberculosis at Santa Marta, Columbia, aged 47. Bolivar had played a key role in Latin America's successful bid for independence from Spain, and served as president of Gran Columbia from 1819 until shortly before his death.
17 December 1967 
The Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappears while swimming off the coast of Victoria.

17 December 1903: The Wright brothers fly into history

The ‘impossible’ is achieved

On the North Carolina coast, Thursday 17 December 1903 was a cold and very windy day. When Orville and Wilbur Wright awoke that morning, they thought it was almost perfect. Three days earlier, after years of trials, they had tried to get their primitive powered ‘airplane’, with its 40ft wingspan, into the air. But no sooner had Wilbur got it off the ground, than the aircraft stalled and plunged back down into the sand. Now it was Orville’s turn.

By conventional standards the two men made implausible historical icons. Born in 1867 and 1871 respectively – the sons of an evangelical Christian clergyman – the story goes that they were first smitten by the principle of flight when their father bought them a helicopter toy. After working as commercial printers, the pair opened a bicycle shop, capitalising on the craze for cycles but all the time tinkering with schemes to get an aircraft into the sky.

Just after 10.30am, Orville climbed into the Flyer. Disappointingly, his diary fails to capture the excitement he must have felt. “The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles, 27 miles according to the government anemometer at Kitty Hawk,” he wrote. “On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably seven or eight miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks... A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped).”

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It was the first of four flights made that day, each longer than the one before. On the fourth trial, Wilbur guided the world’s first plane through the air for a distance of 852 feet in 59 seconds. For the first time, mankind had the power of flight. It was a genuinely extraordinary moment.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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