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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 (2). 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 (3).

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 (4).

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 (5).

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 (6).

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 (7).

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 (8).

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 (9). 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 (10).

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 (11).

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 (12).

In ancient Athens, the wine-god 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”. (13). As the philosopher Plato reported, the whole population of Athens fell into a state of drunkenness (14).

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” (15).

“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, to the point where things got so out of hand that in 186 BC the Roman Senate abolished the festival entirely. However, it 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 (16).

 

Source Citations

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