Bacchanalia

Bacchus

The bacchanalia [bak-uh-ney-lee-uh] were wild and mystic festivals of the Greco-Roman god Bacchus (or Dionysus), the wine god. The term has since come to describe any form of drunken revelry.

The bacchanalia were rites originally held in ancient Greece as the Dionysia. The most famous of the Greek Dionysia were in Attica and included a festal procession, a drinking feast, and dramatic performances in the theatre of Dionysus. The rites spread to Rome from the Greek colonies in Southern Italy where they were secret and only attended by women. The festivals occurred in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill on March 16 and March 17. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men, and celebrations took place five times a month.

Livy informs us that the rapid spread of the cult, which he claims indulged in all kinds of crimes and political conspiracies at its nocturnal meetings, led in 186 BCE to a decree of the Senate – the so-called ‘Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus,’ inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Apulia in Southern Italy in 1640, now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna – by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree (Livy claims there were more executions than imprisonment), the Bacchanalia survived in Southern Italy long past the repression.

Livy, reporting the evidence given by a woman who had been involved in the rites to a Roman investigative consul, writes: ‘there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was committed by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim. To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the sum total of their religion. The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies; the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, their hair disheveled, rushed down to the Tiber River with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished because they were made of sulfur mixed with lime. Men were fastened to a machine and hurried off to hidden caves, and they were said to have been taken away by the gods. These were the men who refused to join their conspiracy or take part in their crimes or submit to their pollution.’ Erich Gruen suggests that the prohibition was a display of the Senate’s supreme power to Italian allies as well as competitors within the Roman political system, such as individual victorious generals whose popularity made them a threat to the Senate’s collective authority.

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