The Bacchanalia Affair

What was the Bacchanalia?

Bacchanalia was established c.200 BC in the Aventine grove by a priestess from Campania, near the temple where Liber had a State-sanctioned cult. Liber was a native Roman god of wine, fertility, and prophecy, patron of Rome's plebeians and a close equivalent to Bacchus-Dionysus.

The Liber Pater never had his own major temple in Rome, but was a part of the Aventine Triad – with Ceres and Libera – temple founded in 493BC. Liber and Libera originally a pair concerned with seeds – therefore the promotion of fertility (agriculturally and human). The festivals were seen as a child’s transition into fertility. Liber Pater is identified with Dionysus, and therefore Bacchus (Bacchus Roman name for Greek god Dionysus) – much discussion over origins and supposed relation to Jupiter Liber (sovereign god of the Romans) – etymology identical to Zeus’. No doubt he was an independent god in Rome by time festival calendar became fixed (5th Century BC).
Livy's Account of the Bacchanalia Affair, 39. 8-14
  • 8 - The consuls Postumius and Philippus diverted their attention to the necessity of putting down a domestic conspiracy. We are told that a hedge-priest from Greek travelled to Etruria and created this nocturnal cult, spreading to Rome like a plague. Debaucheries of every kind were committed during these events, such as orgies and the murdering of families.
  • 9 - Knowledge of this cult was brought to the Consul Postumius by P. Aebutius. Aebutius was introduced to the Bacchic mystery by his stepfather and mother who wanted him to be initiated, once having recovered from illness. We are then introduced to the Freedwoman, formerly a courtesan, Hispala Fecenia, who was Aebutius' lover.
  • 10 - Aebutius reveals to Fecenia that he will be initiating into the Bacchic mysteries. Fecenia was distraught and cursed his family for making him join. She told him that while a slave she was initiated into the Bacchanalia by her mistress. She begged him not to join.
  • 11- Aebutius goes home and tells his family that he will not join the Bacchanalia. Kicked out of the house, Aebutius goes to his Aunt Aebutia and she tells him to report this to the Consul. After hearing his report, the Consul wanted to speak to Aebutia, who verified his story.
Consul Postumius Albinus - plays a central role in Livy's story of the Bacchanalia Affair. This account demonstrates the power of the Consul in terms of domestic affairs.
  • 12 - The Consul Postumius asks Aebutia to send for Hispala. Hispala was petrified that the consul wanted to see her and she fainted. Eventually she composed herself and was willing to speak, and states that she was initiated into the Bacchanalia years ago and doesn't remember much. However, the Consul warned her to tell the full truth.
  • 13 - Worried for her safety, she throws herself onto the consul's mother-in-law Sulpicia, who was present with them and begs for asylum if she was to confess. After being promised safet-housing, Hispala revealed to the Consul the origins of the cult and what it entailed.
As “the liberator", his wine, music and dance free his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subvert the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Something which is interesting when you reflect on Livy’s narrative.
From Hispala's perspective, we learn that the Bacchanalia was originally a cult confined to women, and that they would submit new initiates on 3 given days of the year during the day. Matrons would act as priestesses. However, under the leadership of Paculla Annia, the group now allowed the membership of men and that initiations would occur 5 times a month. Now as a night-time event, the mingle of genders led to orgies. Those that refused to participate in these sexual acts would be sacrificed as victims to the Bacchus. Matrons would dress up as Bacchae. This heavy emphasis on gender, gives us an insight into the lives and roles of women during the Early Roman Republic.
  • 14 - Postumius, after housing both Hispala and Aebutius, went to the Senate to report this affair. The Senate thanked Postumius for his report and were deeply worried for the public safety of Rome. They granted Postumius the power to carry out an inquiry into the proceedings of the Bacchanlia and its nocturnal rites.
In Livy's account, the new Bacchic mysteries were restricted to women and held three times a year; but were corrupted by the Etruscan-Greek version, and thereafter men and women of all ages and social classes cavorted in a sexual free-for-all five times a month. Livy relates their various outrages against Rome's civil and religious laws and morality; a secretive, subversive and potentially revolutionary counter-culture.

Most modern scholarship takes a sceptical approach to Livy’s accounts of Bacchanalia – frenzied rites and sexually violent initiations, and the cult seen as a murderous instrument of conspiracy against the state. Eric Orlin describes Livy’s account as “tendentious to say the least.” Livy was political and social conservative and so held a deep mistrust of mystery religions – any form of Bacchanalia was understood by his as Roman degeneracy.

This led to the creation of the Bachhanlia Decree on 7th October at the Temple of Bellona in 186 BC. The Bacchanlia Decree is preserved on an inscribed bronze tablet, which was found in Southern Italy. As part of the decree, all Bacchic shrines were to be dismantled, unless given permission to still stand by senatorial decree. Members of the cult would have to put forward their case to the Urban Praetor in Rome. This was also the case for male members of the Bacchanalia which were also now banned from attending ceremonies with its female members. If people went against the terms of this decree, they were to be tried for a capital offence.

The surviving decree concentrates on the structure of the cult, suggesting it was the power of the cell-leaders over worshippers that disturbed the senate as it cut across the traditional patterns of family and authority – rather than the alleged criminal actions and sexual deviance of the cult. But used all allegations to help discredit the powerful cult. The senate’s persecution was successful in removing the cult from prominence, but artistic evidence shows long-sustained influence. Later evidence (Bacchus inscription of Agripinilla) shows a domestic family version of the cult that was well subordinated to elite authority.

The Bacchanalia Affair is an example of the various religious practices that took place under the Early Roman Republic, and demonstrates the government's attempts to regulate religion. Livy, Plautus’ plays and archaeological evidence show the Bacchic cult was widespread in Italy – both centrally and south – decades before the senate chose to vote against it. Bacchic cult differs from other Hellenistic cults as admitted both men and women, and in increasing the frequency of their meetings – still very much debated as to how far the cult’s followers were forming a movement to protest against the Roman authorities.


Created with images by takomabibelot - "Detail, Sarcophagus with Triumph of Dionysus (Boston, MA)"

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