Archaeologists working in the Roman Forum have unearthed a large marble head of what is believed to be the god Dionysius. The 2,000-year-old head would have belonged to a large statue and dates to the Roman imperial period. The paleness of the white marble, which was probably once brightly painted, obscures the fact that in Roman times Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he is often known) was a pretty colorful guy. This god of dance, wine, religious ecstasy, and fertility was very much the bad boy of the pantheon of gods. The cult of Bacchus scandalized ancient Romans so much that in the second century B.C. it was outlawed and his followers were persecuted.
So who was Dionysius? In Greek drama, Bacchus is described as an effeminate, long-haired, and dangerous deity who brought Asian magical practices into Greece. It’s his effeminacy that allowed scientists to identify the head. A statement issued by the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum noted that, “The face [of the statue head] is refined and gracious, young and feminine. All of which makes us think this could be a depiction of Dionysos.”
The primary and most popular outlet for the worship of Dionysius was the cult of Bacchus, one of a number of secretive mystery cults that migrated to and subsequently became popular in ancient Rome. Adherents of Bacchus, or Bacchants, were known for throwing wild parties that involved dancing, religious ecstasy, possession, and loud music. The ancient musicologist Aristides Quintilianus described the appeal of the cult in the following way, “This is the purpose of Bacchic initiation, that the depressive anxiety of less educated people…be cleared away through the melodies and dances of the ritual in a joyful and playful way.” It’s an insulting way to describe people, but easy to see how celebrations to honor the god of wine could turn out to be joyful and raucous affairs. But in 186 B.C. things came to a head, scandalous information about their practices came to light, the cult of Bacchus was investigated, and participants were strictly punished.
According to the Roman historian Livy (who wrote a century and a half after the events), sex and alcohol were just the gateway drugs. The Bacchants, he charged, had brought to Rome a whole host of more serious crimes. Livy’s soap opera-style story of the discovery of their true nature and the subsequent investigation describes how at celebrations, after everyone had had their fill of wine and bawdy conversations, people would indulge in every kind of pleasure depending on where their interests lay. Gay sex between men is prominently mentioned in these descriptions, but Livy wasn’t talking just about the orgies. “From the same place, too,” he writes, “proceeded poison and secret murders, so that in some cases, not even the bodies could be found for burial. Many of their audacious deeds were brought about by treachery, but most of them by force; it served to conceal the violence, that, on account of the loud shouting, and the noise of drums and cymbals, none of the cries uttered by the persons suffering violence or murder could be heard abroad.” The music, he says, which could be heard throughout Rome in the evenings was intended to drown out the noise of people being murdered.
Livy goes on to tell us a story at the end of which a former Bacchant describes the secret mysteries of Bacchus to the consul of Rome. Apparently men who would not submit to sexual congress with other men were sacrificed to the gods, and the cult initiated people only under the age of 20 in order to win converts who were still young and impressionable. Comparatively pedestrian crimes like perjury and forging wills were also being committed. When these crimes were discovered the Roman senate agreed, without debate, to take action: many practitioners were killed or imprisoned, places of worship were destroyed, and a decree was leveled against the cult of Bacchus. This decree, passed in 186 and known as the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, restricted gatherings to a mere handful of attendees who could meet only with a special license. Apparently many members committed suicide to avoid punishment.
The crimes of the Bacchants seem a great deal like improbable slander. The idea of ritual murders taking place regularly in Rome is shocking but it doesn’t seem particularly believable. Surely those who were murdered would be missed? Given that most of the accusations seem to be sensationalized we have to ask, what went wrong for the Bacchants? Why were the Romans troubled by their existence and why did they suddenly decide to take unprecedented steps to suppress the cult after centuries of happily tolerating them?
At least part of the problem for historians studying this question is that Livy is writing long after the events and with his own agenda in mind. Part of Livy’s motivation appears to have been a xenophobic fear about foreign corruption. As Timothy Luckritz Marquis has argued in Transient Apostle, those who wrote about Dionysiac rituals emphasized the “foreignness” and “Easternness” of the religion. For Livy, who believed that foreign influences had infected and morally corrupted the otherwise pristine Roman Republic, the cult of Bacchus was a prime example of the dangers of foreign influences. Among other concerns, Livy worries that men initiated into the cult of Bacchus would grow “soft” and unfit for military service. This is a theme for Livy throughout his history; foreign luxuries corrupt and undermine the moral fabric of society.
For those in the senate who actually outlawed the cult, there may have been other motivations. It was not just the cult of Bacchus’s chaotic nature, but also its sophisticated organizational structures, that made it worrisome to the authorities. The Bacchants had a common fund, multiple administrative ranks, several meeting places, and swore oaths of allegiance. A well-organized independent organization like this made the authorities uneasy. To be sure there were other kinds of organizations that served as vehicles for religious practice, but unlike, say, a group of artisans or merchants, the cult of Bacchus drew indiscriminately from every strata of society and walk of life. A nationwide foreign organization that held regular meetings (apparently five a month) and could subvert public morality was inherently threatening.
A number of prominent classicists describe the investigation into (and subsequent legislation restricting) the cult of Bacchus as something of a set-up. It was an example of realpolitik in which the Bacchants were used to make a statement to rivals in the region. As distinguished classicist Erich Gruen has written “it was a staged operation” in which the senate attempted to “claim new prerogatives in the judicial sphere, in the regulation of worship, and in the extension of authority in Italy.” In other words, Roman authorities knew the basic character of the cult of Bacchus long before they decided to ‘investigate’ them on exaggerated charges. To be sure they were protecting their society from decay, corruption, and immorality but they were also using the Bacchants to assert and extend their power. Targeting small religious groups as a display of power can help solidify a government’s authority and power.
Some 300 years later, the Romans would find themselves in a similar situation. A new, increasingly popular, and somewhat secretive ‘eastern’ religion with cross-class appeal would come to the attention of Roman authorities. Like the followers of Bacchus, the members of this group met at night and were accused of the heinous taboo-breaking crimes like child sacrifice, cannibalism, and incest. They were Christians, even if modern Christians rarely recall that they were accused of such crimes. Even though the rumors were baseless, they were widespread and the shocking nature of the accusations greased the wheels of the prosecutorial process. It was easier to execute Christians as traitors when there was a vague suspicion that they might also be cannibals. The Bacchants were the first group to be targeted by the Romans in this way, but they weren’t the last and the Romans were not the only ones. All of which goes to show how dangerous accusations of “foreignness” and amorphous claims of immorality are to small religious groups.