Fast approaching is the time when the Romans celebrated the Bacchanalia, a festival of drunken revelry and debauched behavior that began on March 16. The feast has its roots in Greek religion, but Greek contact with the Romans brought it to Latin shores. Some knowledge of the festival is useful to the student of the Bible and of ancient history in general, as it was celebrated throughout the Roman world eventually. Here is a brief essay on Bacchanalia from the erudite classicist William Smith.
The worship of Dionysus, whom the Romans called Bacchus, or rather the Bacchic mysteries and orgies (Bacchanalia), are said to have been introduced from southern Italy into Etruria, and from thence into Rome (Liv. XXXIX.8), where for a time they were carried on in secret, and, during the latter period of their existence, at night. The initiated, according to Livy, did not only indulge in feasting and drinking at their meetings, but when their minds were heated with wine, they indulged in the coarsest excesses and the most unnatural vices. Young girls and youths were seduced, and all modesty was set aside; every kind of vice found here its full satisfaction. But crimes did not remain confined to these meetings; for false witnesses, forgeries, false wills, and denunciations proceeded from this focus of crime. Poison and assassination were carried on under the cover of the society; and the voices of those who had been fraudulently drawn into these orgies, and would cry out against the shameless practices, were drowned by the shouts of the Bacchantes, and the deafening sounds of drums and cymbals.
The time of initiation lasted ten days, during which a person was obliged to abstain from all sexual intercourse; on the tenth he took a solemn meal, underwent a purification by water, and was led into the sanctuary (Bacchanal). At first only women were initiated, and the orgies were celebrated every year during three days. Matrons alternately performed the functions of priests. But Pacula Annia, a Campanian matron, pretending to act under the direct influence of Bacchus, changed the whole method of celebration; she admitted men to the initiation, and transferred the solemnisation which had hitherto taken place during the daytime to the night. Instead of three days in the year, she ordered that the Bacchanalia should be held during five days in every month. It was from the time that these orgies were carried on after this new plan that, according to the statement of an eye-witness (Liv. XXXIX.13), licentiousness and crimes of every description were committed. Men as well as women indulged in the most unnatural appetites, and those who attempted to stop or to oppose such odious proceedings fell as victims. It was, as Livy says, a principle of the society to hold every ordinance of god and nature in contempt. Men, as if seized by fits of madness, and under great convulsions, gave oracles; and the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, with disheveled hair and burning torches in their hands, ran down to the Tiber and plunged their torches into the water; the torches, however, containing sulphur and chalk, were not extinguished. Men who refused to take part in the crimes of these orgies, were frequently thrown into dark caverns and despatched, while the perpetrators declared that they had been carried off by the gods. Among the number of the members of these mysteries, were, at the time when they were suppressed, persons of all classes; and during the last two years, nobody had been initiated who was above the age of twenty years, as this age was thought most fit for seduction and sensual pleasure.
In the year B.C. 186, the consuls Spurius Postumius Albinus and Q. Marcius Philippus were informed of the existence of these meetings; and after having ascertained the facts mentioned above, they made a report to the senate (Liv. XXXIX.14). The senate, alarmed by this singular discovery, and although dreading lest members of their own families might be involved, invested the consuls with extraordinary power, to inquire into the nature of these nocturnal meetings, to exert all their energy to secure the priests and priestesses, to issue a proclamation throughout Rome and Italy, forbidding any one to be initiated in the Bacchic mysteries, or to meet for the purpose of celebrating them; but above all things, to submit those individuals who had already been secured to a rigid trial. The consuls, after having given to the subordinate magistrates all the necessary instructions, held an assembly of the people, in which the facts just discovered were explained to the public, in order that the objects of the proceedings which were to take place might be known to every citizen. A reward was at the time offered to any one who might be able to give further information, or to name any one that belonged to the conspiracy, as it was called. Measures were also taken to prevent any one from leaving Italy. During the night following, a great number of persons were apprehended; many of them put an end to their own lives. The whole number of the initiated was said to be 7000. The trial of all those who were apprehended lasted thirty days. Rome was almost deserted, for the innocent as well as the guilty had reason to fear. The punishment inflicted on those who were convicted, varied according to the degree of their guilt; some were thrown into prison, others were put to death. The women were surrendered to p414their parents or husbands, that they might receive their punishment in private. The consuls then were ordered by the senate to destroy all Bacchanalia throughout Rome and Italy, with the exception of such altars or statues of the god as had existed there from ancient times. In order to prevent a restoration of the Bacchic orgies, the celebrated decree of the senate (Senatus auctoritas de Bacchanalibus)a was issued, commanding that no Bacchanalia should be held either in Rome or in Italy; that if any one should think such ceremonies necessary, or if he could not neglect them without scruples or making atonements, he should apply to the praetor urbanus, who might then consult the senate. If the permission should be granted to him in an assembly of the senate, consisting of not less than one hundred members, he might solemnise the Bacchic sacra; but no more than five persons were to be present at the celebration; there should be no common fund, and no master of the sacra or priest (Liv. XXXIX.18). This decree is also mentioned by Cicero (De Legg. II.15). A brazen table containing this important document was discovered near Bari, in southern Italy, in the year 1640, and is at present in the imperial Museum of Vienna. A copy of it is given in Drakenborch's edition of Livy (vol. VII p197, &c.).
We have in our account of the Roman Bacchanalia closely followed the description given by Livy, which may, indeed, be somewhat exaggerated; but considering the difference of character between the Greeks and Romans, it cannot be surprising that a festival like the Dionysia, when once introduced among the Romans, should have immediately degenerated into the grossest and coarsest excesses. Similar consequences were seen immediately after the time when the Romans were made acquainted with the elegance and the luxuries of Greek life; for, like barbarians, they knew not where to stop, and became brutal in their enjoyments. But whether the account of Livy be exaggerated or not, this much is certain, that the Romans, ever since the time of the suppression of the Bacchanalia, considered these orgies as in the highest degree immoral and licentious, as we see from the manner in which they applied the words derived from Bacchus, e.g. bacchor, bacchans, bacchatio, bacchicus, and others. But the most surprising circumstance in the account of Livy is, that the Bacchanalis should have been celebrated for several years in the boisterous manner described by him, and by thousands of persons, without any of the magistrates appearing to have been aware of it.
While the Bacchanalia were thus suppressed, another more simple and innocent festival of Bacchus, the Liberalia (from Liber, or Liber Pater, a name of Bacchus), continued to be celebrated at Rome every year on the 16th of March (Ovid. Fast. III.713). A description of the ceremonies customary at this festival is given by Ovid (l.c.), with which may be compared Varro (Varr. De Ling. Lat. V.55, ed. Bipont.). Priests and aged priestesses, adorned with garlands of ivy, carried through the city wine, honey, cakes, and sweet-meats, together with an altar with a handle (ansata ara), in the middle of which there was a small fire-pan (foculus), in which from time to time sacrifices were burnt. On this day Roman youths who had attained their sixteenth year received the toga virilis (Cic. ad Att. VI.1). That the Liberalia were celebrated with various amusements and great merriment, might be inferred from the general character of Dionysiac festivals; but we may also see it from the name Ludi Liberales, which is sometimes used instead of Liberalia; and Naevius (ap. Fest.) expressly says that persons expressed themselves very freely at the Liberalia. St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, VII.21) even speaks of a high degree of licentiousness carried on at this festival.