Saturnus was a mythical king of Italy, whom the Romans invariably identified with the Greek god Cronus. Hence, he was held to be the father of Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno, and so forth. Saturnus, whose name refers to the sowing of seed, was reputed to have introduced agriculture to the people, along with morality and civilization, and his reign was considered to be the "Golden Age" of Italy. As agriculture was the source of wealth, his wife Ops was regarded as the representative of plenty.

The story ran that the god came to Italy during the reign of Janus, by whom he was well received. He founded a settlement on the Capitoline hill, taught the people agriculture, and changed their savage way of life. The resulting land was called "Saturia", or the land of plenty. The area later became known as "Latium" (Latin lateo = "to be concealed") from the sudden disappearance of Saturnus from earth.

The temple of Saturn was dedicated on December 17, probably in one of the early years of the Republic. It contained a hollow statue of Saturnus that was filled with oil, possibly to denote the fertility of Latium in olives. In his hand was a crooked pruning knife, and his feet were surrounded with woollen bonds. The temple was used as the state treasury and the depository of many of its laws.

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