The bacchanalia were wild and mystic festivals of the Greek and Roman god Bacchus (or Dionysus). The word has since come to describe any form of drunken revelry.
The bacchanalia were originally held in secret and only attended by women. The festivals occurred in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill on March 16 and March 17. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men, and celebrations took place five times a month. According to Livy, the extension happened in an era when the leader of the Bacchus cult was Paculla Annia — though it is now believed that some men had participated before that.
Livy informs us that the rapid spread of the cult, which he claims indulged in all kinds of crimes and political conspiracies at its nocturnal meetings, led in 186 BC to a decree of the Senate — the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Apulia in Southern Italy (1640), now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna — by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree (Livy claims there were more executions than imprisonment), the Bacchanalia survived in Southern Italy long past the repression.
Some modern scholars
doubt Livy's account and argue that the Senate acted against the Bacchants for one of the following reasons:
- Women occupied leadership positions in the cult (contrary to the patriarchical Roman values of the time).
- Slaves and the poor were the cult's members and were planning to overthrow the Roman government.
- According to a theory proposed by Erich Gruen, as a display of the Senate's supreme power to the Italian allies as well as competitors within the Roman political system, such as individual victorious generals whose popularity made them a threat to the Senate's collective authority.
In Empires of Trust: How Rome Built—And America Is Building—A New World by Thomas Madden, the author cites the words of a Roman investigative consul in his report to the Roman Senate:
there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was committed 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 sum total 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 disheveled, rushed down to the Tiber River with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished because they were made of sulfur mixed with lime. Men were fastened to a machine and hurried off to hidden caves, and they were said to have been taken away by the gods. These were the men who refused to join their conspiracy or take part in their crimes or submit to their pollution.
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