September 3 – The Bacchanalia: The Feast of Bacchus, God of Wine

“Today is a day to drink and dance! Let us rival the priests of Bacchus with feasts to deck the couches of the gods!” – Aristarchus of Athens, Greek orator, 1st Century BC

The quotation that you see above are the first two sentences of a grandiose speech which was delivered in the first episode of the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius. The speech was performed for Caesar Augustus and his companions during a dinner party commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Actium, fought on September 2, 31 BC, which is regarded as one of the most important battles of ancient history. The person who delivered this speech was a certain Greek orator named Aristarchus of Athens, who, in the words of Augustus himself, was “the greatest orator of our time”.

In reality, almost everything about this is pure make-believe. There was no such orator named Aristarchus of Athens who lived during the 1st Century BC – the character is entirely fictional. Likewise, too, is the speech that he makes commemorating Caesar Augustus’ victory over Antony and Cleopatra. However, the above quote makes an interesting reference to the god Bacchus, the ancient Roman god of wine, and this is because the Battle of Actium was fought on the day before this god’s primary feast day.

September 3 was the date of the Bacchanalia, the Feast of Bacchus. Although this god had several other feast days dedicated to him, some of which fell on March 16 or 17, October 23, (perhaps) and November 24, the Bacchanalia festival of September 3 was the most important day held in his honor.

“A Dedication to Bacchus”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1889). Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

Bacchus, it is said, was born in the city of Thebes within the Greek region of Boeotia. He was the son of Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, and Semele, the beautiful daughter of the Phoenician hero Cadmus. The story goes that Jupiter lusted after Semele, and Juno, the queen of the gods, learned of this. Rather than dissuade her husband from pursuing an affair, she appeared to Semele and told her to request Jupiter to have sex with her, and to make him swear by death itself that he would make love to her with all of the passion that he did with his wife. However, this divine hook-up would lead to Semele’s death. The act of a mortal woman having sex with a god ended up killing her, and she was consumed by fire and burned into nothing but ashes. However, the act had made her pregnant, and her conceived child was transferred into Jupiter’s body to keep the baby from being burned as well. It was his father Jupiter, therefore, who gave birth to Bacchus – thus, he was born of both a man and a woman as his two mothers (1).

Bacchus’ status as being conceived by a woman and given birth to by a man might have something to do with his outward appearance. Bacchus was said to be a hermaphrodite, or at least to have an androgenous appearance, being “both male and female” at the same time. He is frequently represented in Roman art as a young man without a beard, and sometimes his facial features and even his body as a whole bear an effeminate appearance. Bacchus is traditionally shown wearing a crown made of ivy or grape leaves. Sometimes, in one of his hands, he holds a javelin or spear called a thyrsus with a vine garland wrapped around it (2).

Bacchus was attended by a group of women, and these priestesses were referred to by many titles. Mostly, they were known as Bacchae, because they served Bacchus, but also because, like their wine-guzzling master, they were prone to excessive drinking. For that reason, they were also sometimes called the Mimallones, “the mimickers” because they copied the drunkenness of their divine lord. Sometimes, they were known by the name Maenades, because their ecstatic devotions were mistaken for madness. Other times, they were called Thyades due to their forceful nature. There’s a story that when a Theban woman named Alcithoe mocked these female servants, Bacchus was so offended that he turned her into a bat. Even nowadays, “bat” is a metaphor that is sometimes applied to loud-mouthed women who are difficult to deal with (3).

Roman mythology tells that Bacchus performed many miracles. For example, he once struck the earth with his staff, and out sprang rivers of milk and honey. On another instance, he cut a sheep into pieces, and then put it back together again, whereupon the sheep continued to graze in the fields as if nothing had happened (4).

Bacchus was also a bringer of knowledge. He taught to Mankind the arts of how to plant crops, how to collect honey, how to make wine, and gave them knowledge of astronomy, and also instructed them as to how to conduct sacrifices to the gods. Like the Egyptian god Osiris, he traveled the world bestowing this knowledge on all of the people that he encountered. Thus, Bacchus was regarded as a bringer of civilization to the furthest parts of the world. In fact, it is stated that the Bacchanalia festival of September 3 was meant to commemorate Bacchus’ arrival in India, which to the Romans must have been seen as the opposite side of the world (5).

In official religious processions, Bacchus was clothed in a leopard pelt and drawn in a chariot. Beside him, he was accompanied by satyrs and other entities of the rustic countryside, playing flutes and beating cymbals and making lofty exclamations about him and his glory, while huge tigers and leopards prowled around his chariot. Also in his retinue were the entities of the forest – the nymphs, lenae, and naiades – crowned with wreaths of ivy, their hair hanging down loose, and wearing only animal pelts for clothing, and carrying staffs garlanded with ivy. One source said that they had snakes in their hair and had snakes wrapped around their waist. However, this might be better interpreted as wearing headbands and waistbelts made of snakeskin (6).

Interestingly, Bacchus’ chariot was pulled not by horses, but by large cats (mostly tigers, but sometimes lions, and other times leopards) – some records state that it was pulled by two cats, while others say it was four. Cats were frequently associated with Bacchus, especially big cats. It has even been claimed that tigers were sacred to him, based upon the writings of Seneca and Martial (7).

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 type of coin was minted from 194 to 198 AD (8). Another example of a silver denarius made during the reign of Severus’ successor Caracalla, dated to the year 206 AD, depicts Bacchus riding in a chariot being pulled by a team of four big cats (9).

It is said that in the war between the gods and the titans, Bacchus actually transformed himself into a lion and fought ferociously in battle. However, he was overwhelmed and the titans hacked his body into pieces. When the battle was over, Pallas gathered together all of the pieces and brought them to Jupiter, who fused them back together and brought Bacchus back to life (10).

According to William King, ivy, fir, oak, ropeweed, and daffodils were associated with Bacchus. By contrast, according to William Burder and Joel Parker, ivy, fir, pine, and fig were sacred to Bacchus. William King says that people would wear daffodil flowers in their hair during Bacchus’ feasts because of a Roman superstition that the flowers would induce a drunk-like state. However, he also says that people would wear crowns of fir branches when making sacrifices to Bacchus (11).

The Roman god Bacchus is based heavily upon the Greek wine god Dionysus. In ancient Athens, Dionysus was celebrated in two festivals: one in Spring and another in Autumn. Originally a stately affair, in later times, it descended into a depraved orgy of earthly pleasures. “Vice, debauchery, and licentiousness became their distinguishing characteristics”. (12). As the philosopher Plato reported, the whole population of Athens fell into a state of drunkenness (13).

The rituals of the ancient Greek Dionysia eventually made their way into Italy as the Etruscans came into contact with the Greeks, and from the Etruscans it became known to the Romans. Under the Romans, the feast became known as the Bacchanalia, derived from the secret religious sanctuary of Bacchus known as the Bacchanal. Here, the sacred rites to the wine-god were performed in secret. Originally, it was a purification festival which was intended to admit new priestesses into Bacchus’ service. For nine days, the selected women feasted and drunk excessively, and on the tenth day, they underwent a purification. These rituals were known as “orgies” (14).

“Roman Orgy” by Vasily Alexandrovich Kotarbinsky (1898). The State Russian Museum, Moscow, Russia.

The ceremony changed from a private affair and took on a more public nature during the 2nd Century BC. For this, we have to thank Pacula Annia, a woman from the southern Italian region of Campania. Claiming to be acting under the direct command of Bacchus himself, she became the chief priestess of his service and began changing nearly everything about the rites and ceremonies concerning the wine god. Previously served only by women, she admitted men into the Bacchan priesthood. Also, she changed the Bacchanalia from being held annually to being held for a five-day period every month. During this time, the conduct of the orgies hit new heights of excess and immorality (15).

The Roman poet Ovid provides us with some information concerning Bacchus, but it largely pertains to the rituals held on his behalf in mid-March. The person who provides us with the most information about the cult of Bacchus and the Bacchanalia rituals is the Roman historian Titus Livius, known more commonly by his Anglicized name Livy. In the 39th book of his majestic History of Rome, he writes that in the year 186 BC, during the consulship of Spurius Postumius Albinus and Quintus Marcius Philippus, a new secret cult had appeared within Rome’s domain which threatened to up-end the established order of society. Apparently a low-born Greek who presented himself as a priest and sorcerer had appeared within Etruria, and he quickly established a clandestine cult within those parts dedicated to the god Bacchus. During “the Bacchic mysteries”, all sorts of hedonistic, debauched, and criminal activities were carried out at night. Accusations abounded of excessive feasting and drunkenness, the co-mingling of men and women, sexual orgies, rape, and murder. It is likely that some of the reports were exaggerated. Livius remarks that not long after establishing itself within Etruria, it soon spread into Rome “like a contagious disease”. Both of the consuls were commanded to investigate these activities. One report however, seemed more credible than the rest. A female servant had accompanied her mistress, who was a devotee of Bacchus, to the place where these secret night-time rituals were carried out and she was horrified at what she had experienced, calling it “a sink of every form of corruption”. When her lover told her that he was about to be initiated into the cult of Bacchus, she implored him not to go through with it, for she had seen with her own eyes the sort of things that went on there. Horrified at this revelation, he told his parents, who were devotees of Bacchus themselves, that he would not go through with it. Angered, they threw him out of their house. He fled to his aunt and told her what had happened, and she straight-away went to the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus, for it was known that he was looking for information concerning this secret organization, and told him everything. This was the lead that he was looking for, and he interrogated the people who were named. (16). One of them, named Hispala, gave an account of the sort of activities that went on there. This is what she had to say…

“At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. Paculla Annia, a Campanian, when she was priestess, made a complete change, as though by divine monition, for she was the first to admit men, and she initiated her own sons, Minius Cerinnius and Herennius Cerinnius. At the same time she made the rite a nocturnal one, and instead of three days in the year celebrated it five times a month. When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought 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 very sum 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 dishevelled, rushed down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished, as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime. Men were fastened to a machine and hurried off to hidden caves, and they were said to have been rapt away by the gods; these were the men who refused to join their conspiracy or take a part in their crimes or submit to pollution. They formed an immense multitude, almost equal to the population of Rome; amongst them were members of noble families both men and women. It had been made a rule for the last two years that no one more than twenty years old should be initiated; they captured those to be deceived and polluted” (17).

When he had gathered all of these testimonies, Consul Spurius Postumius Albinus presented all of this information before the Senate, who were greatly alarmed at these reports and feared for the public’s safety. The senators thanked the consul for investigating these matters so diligently and for uncovering all of this information. “Then, arming the consuls with extraordinary powers, they placed in their hands the inquiry into the proceedings at the Bacchanalia and the nocturnal rites. They were to take care that Aebutius and Fecenia suffered no injury for the information they had given, and they were to offer rewards to induce other informers to come forward. Those who presided over these mysteries were to be sought out not only in Rome, but everywhere where people were in the habit of assembling, so that they might be delivered up to the consuls. Edicts were published in Rome and throughout Italy forbidding any who had been initiated from meeting together to celebrate their mysteries or performing any rites of a similar character, and above all, strict inquiry was to be made in the case of those who attended gatherings in which crime and debauchery had occurred. These were the measures which the senate decreed. The consuls sent orders to the curule aediles to search out all the priests of those rites and, when they were arrested, to keep them in such custody as they thought best until their trial. The plebeian aediles were to see that no rites were performed in open day; the police commissioners were instructed to post watches throughout the City and take care that no nocturnal gatherings took place; and as a precaution against fires, five men were appointed to assist the commissioners and take charge of the buildings assigned to them on this side the Tiber” (18).

Afterwards, the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus publicly addressed the people, for he deemed the cult of Bacchus to be so dangerous that the felt it was imperative to inform the population about what this mysterious cult was and what sort of activities that they performed, and to be on their guard. Then, the resolutions of the Senate pertaining to the suppression of the cult of Bacchus were read aloud, and the public was warned about the punishments which they might suffer if they continued carrying on these practices or allowed any of the practitioners to escape. Yet despite guards being posted at all of the gates with orders to apprehend anyone who attempted to flee, many had managed to escape from the city. Informants provided names of suspected or known members of this cult, and several of those who were accused chose to commit suicide rather than be arrested. All in all, over 7,000 men and women were implicated, although the actual number of cult members was probably much higher. The Senate made every effort to seek out and arrest the ringleaders first, and this they did, and upon the arrest of these four men, all of them made a complete confession of their organizations scandalous activities. Many of those who carried out criminal activities in Bacchus’ name were sentenced to death. In fact, the number of men who were sentenced to be executed far outnumbered those who were sentenced to prison. As for the women who were found guilty, they were delivered to their family or guardians to be punished in whatever manner they deemed appropriate. In addition to arrests, the authority also busied themselves in seeking out the places where these abominable rituals took place. Only official temples or shrines to the god Bacchus were spared – as for the rest, those secret secluded places where such hedonistic rites were carried out, they were all destroyed. Finally, the Roman Senate passed a resolution which outlawed the Bacchanalia (19).

Despite being outlawed by the Roman Senate in 186 BC, the Bacchanalia festival was simply too popular to be outlawed forever, and it was brought back. The drunken hedonistic celebrations of the Bacchanalia were carried out with full fervency during the imperial period, as noted by authors such as Virgil, Livy, and Juvenal. It would not be until the moralizing of the Christian era that the Bacchanalia and other pagan rituals were again outlawed and eventually faded into history (20).

Source Citations

  1. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 131.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, “March 17”; William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 133; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, “March 17”; William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Pages 133, 134.
  4. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 133.
  5. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 136; W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  6. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 73.
  10. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Pages 134-135.
  11. William King, An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731. Page 134; William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  12. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  13. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114.
  14. Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854. Page 120.
  15. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114; Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854. Page 120.
  16. Livy, History of Rome, book 39, chapters 8-13.
  17. Livy, History of Rome, book 39, chapter 13.
  18. Livy, History of Rome, book 39, chapter 14.
  19. Livy, History of Rome, book 39, chapters 15-18.
  20. W. T. Brande and Joseph Cauvin, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852. Page 114; Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854. Page 120.

Bibliography

  • Brande, W. T.; Cauvin, Joseph, eds. A Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1852.
  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • Livy. History of Rome. Translated by Reverend Canon Roberts. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905. https://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy/Livy39.html.
  • King, William. An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, 5th Edition. London: 1731.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 3, “March 17”. Translated by A. S. Kline, 2004. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
  • Rowan, Clare. Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Smith, Sir William; Anthon, Charles. A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, C. Roach; Madden, Frederic W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell & Sons, 1889.


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