The Bacchanalia, 186 bc

The Greek cult of Bacchus (Dionysus) and its rites spread from southern Italy to Rome via Etruria (Figure 3.13), and by the early second century had reached such a degree

A denarius issued by C

Figure 3.13 A denarius issued by C. Vibius Varus at Rome in 42 bc depicting the head of Bacchus and a springing panther. On the obverse the young Bacchus, wearing a wreath of ivy and grapes; on the reverse a springing panther, with a garlanded altar on the left surmounted by a bacchic mask and thyrsus (staff).

Source: Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

of popularity that the senate felt it had to step in. The comedies of Plautus in the early second century, nine of which mention Bacchic rites, show that he and his audience were familiar with the cult, and that in the popular imagination it involved secret meetings and ritual floggings, as well as rumours of human sacrifice. As the cult had been present in Rome for some time, Livy’s account of the consuls’ and senate’s sudden ‘discovery’ in 186 of Bacchic worship is clearly unreliable, but it was in that year that, for whatever reason, the senate took action. Possibly the cult’s practices were simply too public (such as the women plunging their torches in the Tiber), while the holding of the Bacchic rites at night in the presence of both sexes could easily have led to the accusations of promiscuous sexuality (both homoerotic and heterosexual). The participants were said to have been involved in crimes of all kinds, including perjury, forgery, and poisoning and assassination (Livy 39.8-18: doc. 3.65). The severe penalty visited upon those involved indicates that the senate and many Romans were convinced that ‘vices’ were being practised in the rites and that it was inappropriate for Romans to participate in them.

Livy’s account of how the cult came to the attention of one of the consuls, Sp. Pos-tumius Albinus, is rather dramatic and not entirely credible (particularly the role of the prostitute Hispala Faecenia in informing on the cult). The details, however, of the senate’s treatment of the cult must be relatively accurate. Factors behind this religious persecution, the first in the Roman state, were the cult’s popularity and the emergence for the first time of a group of readily identifiable devotees formed into an association. The senate did not react against the cult merely because it was foreign - after all, it was less than 20 years since the Magna Mater had been officially welcomed - but because of the secret nature of the cult, its reputedly unacceptable practices, and the involvement of women.

Livy attributes much of the corruption in the cult to a Campanian priestess named Paculla Annia, who was the first to admit men (her own sons), and who changed the celebrations from day to night-time. It was this nocturnal intermingling of the sexes, Livy alleges, that led to the debauchery and crime of which participants were accused, while young people under the age of 20 years were particularly targeted by the cult (Livy 39.13.14). When the senate took action, 7,000 men and women were charged with involvement, many of whom committed suicide, while others tried unsuccessfully to escape from Rome. Those known to have been initiated in the cult were rounded up and put in prison, while those convicted of debauchery and murder were put to death. Where women were subject to the death penalty, they were handed over to their families for punishment; if there were no suitable guardian to oversee this, their punishment was the responsibility of the state (Livy 39.18.6: doc. 7.16). Livy comments that more were killed than imprisoned, and that there were an immense number of men and women in both categories. From that point the cult was strictly controlled, not only in Rome, but throughout Roman Italy, with only ancient altars or statues exempted.

The letter of the senate written to the magistrates of the Ager Teuranus in Brut-tium, which quotes the senate’s decree, the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, is preserved on a bronze tablet, one of many dispatched throughout Italy for display in public places (ILS 18: doc. 3.66; Figure 3.14). This is the oldest preserved senatus consultum. Throughout the decree it is made clear that, for any exemptions to the decree that were to be allowed, the permission of the praetor urbanus had to be confirmed by a vote of the senate with a quorum of 100 members present. Maintenance of a place devoted to the worship of Bacchus (a Bacchanal) was prohibited; no man, Roman or Latin, should attend a meeting of Bacchant women, and no secret rites were to be held either publicly or privately, and no rites outside the city; no man was to be priest and no man or woman president (magister) in charge of the administration of the association, nor was there to be any common fund for Bacchic worship; a mutual pledge of loyalty between worshippers was prohibited; and should a meeting take place no more than a total of five people (two men and three women) could engage in the celebration.

The decree also laid down that all places devoted to Bacchus were to be demolished within ten days of the receipt of the senate’s letter. Should anyone act contrary to the senate’s decree, proceedings for a capital crime were to be taken against them. It is interesting that even at this early date the senate obviously felt that it had the power and the responsibility to interfere in matters relating to crime and conspiracy in allied states, and to regulate religious practices that it saw as being problematic and profane.

A comparison of Roman and Greek religious practices

In attempting to conceptualise for his Greek readership the differences in practice between Greek and Roman religion, Dionysius stresses the decorous and controlled nature of Roman rites, and the fact that Roman religion allowed fewer avenues for spontaneous religious expression. His comment that ‘there is a reverence in all their words and actions in respect of the gods, which is not seen among either Greeks or barbarians’ contrasts Greek mystery cults with Rome’s staid ritualistic practices (Dion. Hal. 2.19.2-5: doc. 3.67). The Romans did not, in his view, celebrate mystery religions, like those of Persephone, Adonis, and Dionysus, and there were no examples in Roman cults of worshippers who exhibited divine possession, engaged in Corybantic frenzies and religious begging rituals (typical of the Magna Mater), or participated in Bacchic

The Bacchanalia decree

Figure 3.14 The Bacchanalia decree (senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus) from Calabria. This bronze tablet engraved in 186 bc records the oldest surviving senatorial decree in Latin (CIL 12 581). The baroque frame is made of tortoise-shell inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold, with a dedication to Emperor Charles VI dating to 1727.

Source: Photo © KHM-Museumsverband. Vienna. Austria

rites, secret mysteries or all-night vigils shared by men and women; he is here presumably referring to the senate’s suppression of the Bacchanalia.

Although the city had attracted tens of thousands of immigrants, new religions were celebrated according to Roman custom and not that of the imported deity, as in the case of the Magna Mater: the praetors performed sacrifices and put on games for the goddess annually, but in Roman fashion. Her priest and priestess, who were Phrygians, took part in the dancing, music, and begging typical of the cult, but no native-born Roman participated, and this was prohibited by the senate. In this way, Dionysius commented, the Romans were able to appropriate new gods and foreign cults, but without altering their own traditional practices, while Rome was extremely cautious regarding alien religious customs, rejecting ‘all pomp and ceremony which lacks decorous behaviour’.

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