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October 23 – The Feast of Bacchus, Liber Pater

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It’s no secret that the ancient Roman calendar was chock-full of holidays, feast days, and festivals. Any excuse for a party, I suppose. However, determining which days are truly authentic dates for celebrations within the ancient Roman calendar, and which ones are the fictional conjurings of 18th and 19th Century antiquarians, can be a bit tricky.

One example concerns a feast day which was supposedly held on October 23. Numerous secondary sources claim that this was a one of several days in the ancient Roman calendar dedicated to the veneration of the god Bacchus. Although he is commonly thought of as being the god of wine, the Roman parallel of the ancient Greek god Dionysus, Bacchus had other divine associations and attributes as well. As two examples Bacchus was also the god of dancing and divination (1).

Bacchus’ feast on October 23 was specifically known as the Feast of Liber Pater, “the Free Father”. This was a title that the wine-god Bacchus was known by. According to the Dictionary of Polite Literature, published in 1804, “LIBER, LIBER PATER. Epithets of Bacchus, from λυω, [meaning] to unloose, or set free, because he frees men from constraint, and puts them on an equality” (2). The Roman historian Plutarch asked why Bacchus was known by the title of Liber Pater as part of his series known as Roman Questions. In the words of the 17th Century scholar Robert Burton, “It makes the mind of the king and of the fatherless both one, of the bond and freeman, poore (sic) and rich it turneth all his thoughts to joy and mirth, makes him remember no sorrow or debt, but enricheth his heart, and makes him speak by talents…It gives life itself, spirits, wit, &c. For which cause the Ancients called Bacchus Liber Pater…and sacrificed to Bacchus and Pallas still upon an altar” (3).

For this reason, it is stated in two sources that Bacchus’ feast on October 23 was known as the Liberalia, the Feast of Freedom, a care-free celebration devoted to ridding one’s self of one’s troubles, accompanied by a liberal consumption of alcohol. After all, to paraphrase the Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene, wine was given to Man as a gift from the gods to help people forget about their problems (4).

However, there is a problem with this claim. There was another festival known as the Liberalia, dedicated to Bacchus Liber Pater, which was held on March 16 or 17, a day dedicated to both Bacchus and Mars. You can read about this day in more detail by clicking here. By all accounts, this festival in mid-March was the ONLY day that was officially known as the Liberalia. As to why these 19th Century authors also gave that title to the festival on October 23, I think that it is largely to do with grammatical inferencing. Liber or Liber Pater were two of the titles that Bacchus was known by, according to Plutarch, and “-alia” is a suffix which means “festival of…”. Therefore, a feast day dedicated to Bacchus under this cognomen should read as Liberalia, “the Festival of Liber”. From a linguistic standpoint, this makes perfect sense. However, from a historical and anthropological standpoint, it’s wrong. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that the ancient Romans referred this this feast day by this title. It is an assumption which is being presented as indisputable fact.

A silver denarius coin dated to the 190s AD, during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, shows Bacchus under the persona of Liber Pater (the inscription reads LIBERO PATRI) carrying a thyrsus staff and accompanied by a cat. This coin was minted from 194 to 198 AD (5).

Sacrifices were made to Bacchus on October 23, and William King states that people wore crowns of fir branches when making sacrifices to him. As to the offerings that were made, the most common sacrifices offered to Bacchus consisted of goat meat, wine, honey, and honey cakes (6).

The celebrations conducted on October 23 seem to be of a more subdued nature than the Bacchanalia festival of September 3. The Bacchanalia is frequently associated with debauched hedonism, a day devoted to drinking, feasting, and sex. By contrast, the feast held on October 23 seems to have been just your basic run-of-the-mill ancient Roman religious feast day – a day that began with sacrifices and ended with a party.

“A Harvest Festival”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1880).

Source Citations

  1. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 136.
  2. Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804.
  3. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1638. Page 386; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #104; Thomas Ignatius Forster, The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824. Page 579; Rev. Edward Smedley, Rev. Hugh James Rose, and Rev. Henry John Rose, eds., Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge. Volume XVI. London: 1845. Page 150.
  4. Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804; Seth William Stevenson, C. Roach Smith, and Frederic W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889. Page 514.
  5. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 42-43.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17; William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.

 

Bibliography

  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1638.
  • Dictionary of Polite Literature, or Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes, Volume II. London: Scatcherd and Letterman, 1804.
  • Forster, Thomas Ignatius. The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack. London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1824.
  • King, William. An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #104. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
  • Rowan, Clare. Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Smedley, Rev. Edward; Rose, Rev. Hugh James; Rose, Rev. Henry John, eds. Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge. Volume XVI. London: 1845.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, C. Roach; Madden, Frederic W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.

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