Ancient Roman holidays are good subjects for clerihews! They can add weight at the start of the verse, and many of them correspond (more or less) to our own holidays.
The Roman Saturnalia was a series of celebrations held on or near the winter solstice (December 23) and has a lot in common with our Christmas, albeit without the Christian emphasis. There was a lot of gift-giving and visits to friends and relatives, and parties that were held at Saturnalia turned social conventions upside down.
The clerihew illustrates what may have happened on such an occasion…
Romans frankly considered the statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero a bit staid and boring. He wasn’t a glorious general like Pompey the Great; he wasn’t a charismatic aristocrat like Julius Caesar; he wasn’t even fabulously wealthy like Marcus Licinius Crassus. He was what was known as a novus homo – a self-made man who had worked his way up from the lower ranks to become consul, the highest civilian post in the Roman Republic. Marcus Tullius Cicero liked writing about himself as much as Julius Caesar did, and many of his works have survived.
As have many of his sayings, of which “O tempora! O mores!” is only one. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable long-windedly translates the phrase as:
“Alas! how the times have changed for the worse! Alas! how the morals of the people have degenerated!”
How much more concise Cicero himself was…
“There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.”
– Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC)