The Bacchanalia: A Greek Dionysian Mystery Cult in Ancient Rome
The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus based on various ecstatic elements of the Greek Dionysia.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Bacchanalia seem to have been popular and well-organised throughout the central and southern Italian peninsula. They were almost certainly associated with Rome’s native cult of Liber, and probably arrived in Rome itself around 200 BC. However, like all mystery religions of the ancient world, very little is known of their rites.
Livy, writing some 200 years after the event, offers a scandalised, extremely colourful account of the Bacchanalia. Modern scholarship takes a skeptical approach to his allegations of frenzied rites, sexually violent initiations of both sexes, all ages and all social classes, and the cult as a murderous instrument of conspiracy against the state. Livy claims that seven thousand cult leaders and followers were arrested, and that most were executed.
Senatorial legislation to reform the Bacchanalia in 186 BC attempted to control their size, organisation, and priesthoods, under threat of the death penalty. This may have been motivated less by the kind of lurid and dramatic rumours that Livy describes than by the senate’s determination to assert its civil and religious authority over Rome and her allies, after the prolonged social, political and military crisis of the Second Punic War ( 218-201 BC ). The reformed Bacchanalia rites may have been merged with the Liberalia festival. Bacchus, Liber and Dionysus became virtually interchangeable from the late Republican era ( 133 BC and onward ), and their mystery cults persisted well into the Principate of Roman Imperial era.
Background and Development
The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. They were based on the Greek Dionysia and the Dionysian mysteries, and probably arrived in Rome c. 200 BC via the Greek colonies in southern Italy, and from Etruria, Rome’s northern neighbour. Like all mystery cults, the Bacchanalia were held in strict privacy, and initiates were bound to secrecy; what little is known of the cult and its rites derives from Greek and Roman literature, plays, statuary and paintings.
Livy, the principal Roman literary source on the early Bacchanalia, as he reports a major political incident involving one form of the cult, names Paculla Annia, a Campanian priestess of Bacchus, as the founder of a private, unofficial Bacchanalia cult in Rome, based at the grove of Stimula, where the western slope of the Aventine Hill descends to the Tiber. The Aventine was an ethnically mixed district, strongly identified with Rome’s plebeian class and the ingress of new and foreign cults. The wine and fertility god Liber Pater (“The Free Father”), divine patron of plebeian rights, freedoms and augury, had a long-established official cult in the nearby temple he shared with Ceres and Libera. Most Roman sources describe him as Rome’s equivalent to Dionysus and Bacchus, both of whom were sometimes titled eleutherios (liberator).
Livy claims the earliest version as open to women only, and held on three days of the year, in daylight; while in nearby Etruria, north of Rome, a “Greek of humble origin, versed in sacrifices and soothsaying” had established a nocturnal version, added wine and feasting to the mix, and thus acquired an enthusiastic following of women and men; Livy says that Paculla Annia corrupted Rome’s unofficial but morally acceptable Bacchic cult by introducing the Etruscan version, with five, always nocturnal cult meetings a month, open to all social classes, ages and sexes—starting with her own sons; the new celebrations and initiations featured wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals. Those who resisted or betrayed the cult were disposed of. Under cover of religion, priests and acolytes broke civil, moral and religious laws with impunity. Livy also claims that while the cult held particular appeal to those of uneducated and fickle mind (levitas animi), such as the young, plebeians, women and “men most like women”, most of the city’s population was involved, and even Rome’s highest class was not immune. An ex-initiate and prostitute named Hispala Faecenia, fearing the cult’s vengeance for her betrayal but more fearful for her young, upper class client and protegé, told all to the consul Postumius, who presented it to a shocked Roman senate as a dire national emergency. Once investigations were complete, the senate rewarded and protected informants, and suppressed the cult “throughout Italy”—or rather, forced its reformation, in the course of which seven thousand persons were arrested, most of whom were executed.
Legislation of 186 survives in the form of an inscription. Known as the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, it brought the Bacchanalia under control of the senate, and thus of the Roman pontifices. The existing cult chapters and colleges were dismantled. Congregations of mixed gender were permitted, but were limited to no more than two men and three women, and any Bacchanalia gathering must seek prior permission from the Senate. Men were forbidden Bacchus’ priesthood.
Despite their official suppression, illicit Bacchanals persisted covertly for many years, particularly in Southern Italy, their likely place of origin. The reformed, officially approved Bacchic cults would have borne little resemblance to the earlier crowded, ecstatic and uninhibited Bacchanalia. Similar attrition may have been imposed on Liber’s cults; his perceived or actual association with the Bacchanalia may be the reason that his Liberalia ludi of 17 March were temporarily moved to Ceres’ Cerealia of 12–19 April. They were restored when the ferocity of reaction eased, but in approved, much modified form.
Livy’s account of the Bacchanalia has been described as “tendentious to say the least”. As a political and social conservative, he had a deep mistrust of mystery religions, and probably understood any form of Bacchanalia as a sign of Roman degeneracy. Though most of his dramatis personae are known historical figures, their speeches are implausibly circumstantial, and his characters, tropes and plot developments draw more from Roman satyr plays than from the Bacchanalia themselves. Paculla Annia is unlikely to have introduced all the changes he attributes to her.
For Livy, the cult’s greatest offences arose from indiscriminate mixing of freeborn Romans of both sexes and all ages at night, a time when passions are easily aroused, especially given wine and unrestricted opportunity. Women at these gatherings, he says, outnumbered men; and his account has the consul Postumius stress the overwhelmingly female nature and organisation of the cult. Yet the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus itself allows women to outnumber men, by three to two, at any permitted gathering; and it expressly forbids Bacchic priesthoods to men. Livy’s own narrative names all but one of the offending cult leaders as male, which seems to eliminate any perceived “conspiracy of women”. Gender seems to have motivated the Senate’s response no more than any other cause.
Livy’s insistently negative account of the cult’s Greek origins and low moral character—not even Bacchus is exempt from this judgment—may have sought to justify its suppression as a sudden “infiltration of too many Greek elements into Roman worship”. The cult had, however, been active in Rome for many years before its supposedly abrupt discovery, and Bacchic and Dionysiac cults had been part of life in Roman and allied, Greek-speaking Italy for many decades. Greek cults and Greek influences had been part of Rome’s religious life since the 5th century BC, and Rome’s acquisition of foreign cults—Greek or otherwise—through alliance, treaty, capture or conquest was a cornerstone of its foreign policy, and an essential feature of its eventual hegemony. While the pace of such introductions had gathered rapidly during the 3rd century, contemporary evidence of the Bacchanalia reform betrays no anti-Greek or anti-foreign policy or sentiment.
Gruen interprets the Senatus consultum as a piece of realpolitik, a display of the Roman senate’s authority to its Italian allies after the Second Punic War, and a reminder to any Roman politician, populist and would-be generalissimo that the Senate’s collective authority trumped all personal ambition. Nevertheless, the extent and ferocity of the official response to the Bacchanalia was probably unprecedented, and betrays some form of moral panic on the part of Roman authorities; Burkert finds “nothing comparable in religious history before the persecutions of Christians”.
- One of the earliest sources is Greek playwright Euripides’s The Bacchae, which won the Athenian Dionysia competition in 405 BC.
- “No other location approaches [its] concentration of foreign cults”: see Eric M. Orlin, “Foreign Cults in Republican Rome: Rethinking the Pomerial Rule”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 47 (2002), pp. 4-5.
- Only official introductions, controlled by Rome’s ruling elite, conferred legitimacy on foreign cults in Rome; see Sarolta A. Takács, “Politics and Religion in the Bacchanalian Affair of 186 B.C.E” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 100, (2000), p. 302.
- Robert Rouselle, Liber-Dionysus in Early Roman Drama, The Classical Journal, 82, 3 (1987), p. 193.
- Sarolta A. Takács, Politics and Religion in the Bacchanalian Affair of 186 B.C.E., Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 100, (2000), p.305: the “Greek of humble origin” (Graecus ignobilis, in Livy, 39.8.3) may be understood as an ethnically Greek, itinerant priest of Dionysus.
- Overview in Erich S. Gruen, “The Bacchanalia affair”, in Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, University of California Press, 1996, p. 34 ff.
- For Livy’s account, see Livy, The History of Rome, Vol 5, Book 39, IX. Modern scholarly sources offer various estimates on the number executed.
- See Sarolta A. Takács, Politics and Religion in the Bacchanalian Affair of 186 B.C.E., Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 100, (2000), p.301. 
- Beard, M., Price, S., North, J., Religions of Rome: Volume 1, a History, illustrated, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 93–96.
- T.P. Wiseman, Remus: a Roman myth, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.133.
- Eric M. Orlin, “Foreign Cults in Republican Rome: Rethinking the Pomerial Rule”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 47 (2002), p. 2.
- Walsh, P. G., “Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia”, Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 43, No. 2, Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association, 1996, p. 190. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/gr/43.2.188
- The plots and stock characters of Greek-based Satyr plays would have been familiar to Roman audiences from around the 3rd century BC, as they certainly were in Livy’s day, 200 years on. See Robert Rouselle, Liber-Dionysus in Early Roman Drama, The Classical Journal, 82, 3 (1987), p. 191.
- Eric M. Orlin, “Foreign Cults in Republican Rome: Rethinking the Pomerial Rule”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 47 (2002), University of Michigan Press, p. 2.
- For the changes attributed to Paculla Annia as unlikely, see Erich S. Gruen, Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, University of California Press, 1996, pp 48–54: Hispala Faecina is the standard “golden-hearted prostitute” whose courage and loyalty outweigh her low origin and profession, and her fear of reprisal, see Victoria Emma Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History, University of Texas Press, 2004, pp. 61–65.
- …”the Bacchic passages in the Roman drama, taken over from their Greek models, presented a pejorative image of the Bacchic cult which predisposed the Romans towards persecution before the consul denounced the cult in 186.” Robert Rouselle, Liber-Dionysus in Early Roman Drama, The Classical Journal, 82, 3 (1987), p. 193.
- cf later descriptions of Liber’s “aged priestesses” who offer sacrifice at the Liberalia festival.
- Gruen, E. Studies in Greek culture and Roman policy, University of California Press, 1996, Ch. 2.
- Schultz, C., Women’s religious activity in the Roman Republic, UNC Press Books, 2006, p. 93.
- Orlin, Eric (2007). In Rüpke, J (ed.). A Companion to Roman Religion. Blackwell publishing. p. 64.
- Eric Orlin, “Urban Religion in the Middle and Late Republic”, in Jorge Rüpke (editor), A Companion to Roman Religion, Blackwell, 2007, pp. 59–61.
- Erich S. Gruen, Studies in Greek culture and Roman policy, University of California Press, 1996, Ch. 2.
- Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Religions, Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 52.
- During the Punic crisis, some foreign cults and oracles had been repressed by Rome, but on much smaller scale and not outside Rome itself. See Erich S. Gruen, Studies in Greek culture and Roman policy, BRILL, 1990, pp.34-78: on precedents see p.41 ff.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 02.09.2014, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.