The Cult of Bacchus and Pliny’s Christian Conundrum

This is my last post in a series on the cult of Bacchus, the first can be found here: A Critical Review of the Bacchae of Euripides by Wole Soyinka and the second one here: Bacchic Vindication.

MET Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos, Late Imperial, Gallienic, ca. AD 260-270, accession number 55.11.5

Figure 1. MET Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos, Late Imperial, Gallienic, ca. AD 260-270, accession number 55.11.5

Introduction:

Titus Livy’s narrative of the Bacchanalian Conspiracy in 186 BCE primarily showed a religious persecution that set a precedent. This watershed moment would impact how Romans would view and prosecute Christians in later centuries. Those persecutions were founded on four criteria set forth by Livy and reiterated nearly three centuries from the event in a correspondence between the Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger.[1] The account of the Bacchanalian Conspiracy is only to be found in Livy’s narrative which describes only those who are most closely associated with the event. These individuals are the consul Postumius, the prostitute Hispala, her lover Aebutius, his mother Duronia, and his stepfather Sempronius.  The motivation for the Bacchanalian persecution is argued extensively by scholars but can be simplified for the purpose of this discussion between two schools of thought. Namely, the balancing of the pax deorum and the shocking uncovering of vile acts of stuprum.[2] The first school suggests that because the Bacchanalia was practicing covert rituals at night, the equestrian class feared the unbalancing of the pax deorum. While the other believes that the testimony of Hispala, which described the violent homosexual penetration of the male citizens unwilling to participate in the Bacchanalia, was cause for the swift and ruthless action by the senate.[3] This was considered a moral outrage since the 180’s were marked by “a preoccupation with anxiety about public morality.”[4]

Although the sources dealing with this intriguing event are minimal, their quality is exceptional. There are five primary sources that will be analyzed. Each of these sources are further removed from the initial event; yet, showing its far reaching effects over time in which it ultimately portrays the affects on Christianity. The first source is a surviving bronze copy of the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus, a decree by the Roman senate which was created at the time of the incident.[5] The second, a narrative composed by Livy, is the earliest surviving work describing the event. His account was written sometime during the end of the first century BCE, nearly a hundred years later. According to Walsh, Livy most likely used a variety of sources that do not survive, one of these being from an early annalist who was a relative of the consul Postumius.[6] The third are frescos in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. Since it was annihilated in a violent eruption, the wall paintings offer us a rare glimpse into the daily life of a provincial city which generally reflected the ideology of a culture as a whole.[7] Next is the second century correspondence between Pliny the Younger, a Roman provincial governor, and the Emperor Trajan concerning the procedures for the prosecution of Christians within his jurisdiction. The final source is a statue commissioned by Hadrian in 130 CE of his lover Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris. An adequate analysis of the surviving sources is needed to understand why Christians were so heavily persecuted.

Part 1: TheSenatus Consultum

The Bacchanalia was a landmark event that had dire consequences for adherents of Christianity who would be eventually persecuted. Christianity carried similarities that mirrored the cult of Bacchus. So the Romans believed them to be equally dangerous, not only to the pax deorum, but to Rome’s societal structure as well. During the time that Christianity had first appeared, it was systematically persecuted and ostracized by the Romans for reasons similar to the Bacchae. In order to understand the harsh resistance towards Christians, one must first be aware of the precedent which was created under the context of the Bacchanalian Affair. Furthermore, the cause for Roman opposition to Christianity can be found in Livy’s portrayal of the depravity in the Bacchanalia which carried an important description:

“At night both men and woman, their minds having been set aflame with wine, of greater tender youths, had destroyed all distinction of shame, all kinds of corruption began to happen, since at the time they were prone to obtaining their natural pleasure. There was not only one kind of crime; but here was a great deal of arbitrary rape of females, also false witnesses, forged signing of wills and evidence, all were issued from the same place: from the same place also came poisoning and internal assassinations, so that not even bodies existed for burial…The violence was covered because of the howling and crash of drums and cymbals so no citizens cries were to be heard during their violent rape and slaughter.” [Translation mine.].[8]

This startling evidence is later rephrased as the testimony given by Hispala who reluctantly spoke to the senators. After they were sufficiently disturbed by what they had heard from the witness, the senators quickly sought to repress the illicit and perverse cult. Even before Hispala spoke to the senators, the consul Postumius first had to uncover the organization which operated throughout the Italian peninsula and within Rome herself.

In 1640 the Senatus Consultum was found on a bronze tablet in Tiriolo, Italy and is a facsimile of a letter which contained the senatorial decree. This document was the piece of legislature that set the precedent that would later impact the persecution of early Christians. Since we will frequently reference the Senatus Consultum in the discussion that follows, it is worth reproducing it here:

The consuls Quintus Marcius, son of Lucius, and Spurius Postumius, son of Lucius, consulted the Senate on October 7 in the Temple of Bellona.

Marcus Claudius, son of Marcus, Lucius Valerius, son of Publius, and Quintus Minucius, son of Gaius, assisted in drafting the decree.

Regarding the Bacchanalia the senators proposed to issue a decree as follows to those who are allied with us:

“No one of them shall have a place devoted to the worship of Bacchus: and if there are any who say that they have a need for such a place, they shall appear in Rome before the urban praetor; and when the pleas of these men have been heard, our Senate shall make a decision regarding these matters, provided that not less than 100 senators are present when the matter is discussed. No Roman citizen or man of Latin rights or anyone of the allies shall associate with the Bacchae, unless they have appeared before the urban praetor and he has given permission, in accordance with the opinion of the Senate, delivered while not less than 100 senators were present when the matter was discussed.”

The proposal passed.

“No man shall be priest of, nor shall any man or woman be master of, such an organization; nor shall anyone of them have a common fund; nor shall anyone appoint any man or woman to be master of such an organization or to act as master; nor hereafter shall anyone take common oath with them, shall make common vows, shall make stipulations with them, nor shall anyone give them surety or shall take surety from them. No one shall perform their rites in secret; nor shall anyone perform their rites in public, in private, or outside the city, unless he has appeared before the urban praetor and he has given permission, in accordance with the opinion of the Senate, delivered while not less than 100 senators were present when the matter was discussed.”

The proposal passed.

“No one in a company of more than five persons altogether, men and women, shall perform such rites; nor in that company shall more than two men or three women be present, unless it is in accordance with the opinion of the urban praetor and the Senate, as has been written above.”

You shall publish these decrees in public assembly for not less than three market days, that you may know the opinion of the Senate. For the opinion of the senators is as follows: “If there are any persons who act contrary to what has been written above, it is our opinion that a proceeding for a capital offense must be made against them”; and you shall inscribe this on a bronze tablet, for thus the Senate voted was proper; and you shall order it to be posted where it can be read most easily; and, as has been written above, you shall provide within ten days after these tablets have been delivered to you that those places devoted to the worship of Bacchus shall be dismantled, if there are any such, except in case something sacred is concerned in the matter.

To be dispatched to the Ager Teuranus.”[9]

Several instances with in this document illustrate the restrictions and punishments that are used for those following Bacchus and are reused against those practicing Christianity nearly two centuries later. When looking at paragraph six of the Senatus Consultum in the context of Christianity it is quite clear how many Romans believed that it was a threat to the pax deorum. In order to prevent opposition to the emperor the senate decreed that “No man shall be priest of, nor shall any man or woman be master of, such an organization;”. This also directly applies to Christianity as well. Both religions had similar internal structure that made Romans suspicious of them. The next line important restriction applies directly to the Bacchae, whereas “nor shall anyone appoint any man or woman to be master of such an organization or to act as master;” the distinction of woman was a direct attack on the Bacchae whereas the distinction of man was later used to persecute Christians.

Part 2: The Narrative of Livy

In reference to the document under analysis, Livy’s account reflects and agrees with the inscription “although no evidence of the language gives an indication that he saw it.”[10] His account agrees with the number allowed to meet, a common fund, and neither a master of sacrifices nor a priest was to be allowed.[11] It is believed that these demands are meant to discourage large orgiastic gatherings that the senators feared, yet would allow for the continued individual worship of Bacchus. This continued worship was important because they still believed in the pax deorum and would not chance angering Bacchus.

Although concerning the narrative of Livy,  P. G. Walsh is “sceptical of the wicked stepfather…of the mother’s vow…the role of Aebutius’ aunt…and above all sceptical about the content of Hispala’s revelations,”[12] it is clear that Livy’s account does in fact carry some weight. The tale begins with the introduction of a fatherless Aebutius, who was under the protection of his mother and stepfather. The mother told him of a vow she had made to the gods, that when he became well, she would initiate him into the cult of Bacchus. She continued, telling him that for ten days he must practice continence, where on the tenth day, she would conduct him to the shrine where he would be inducted into the cult.[13] Upon hearing the vow taken by his mother, he agreed to be inducted. This induction into the cult which was infamous for its corruption was key in the plan of his stepfather to steal his inheritance. While in a conversation with his lover[14] Hispala, about not being able to have intercourse with her for ten days, she became cognizant of Aebutius’ plans of induction. She “exclaimed in great distress” at this, telling him:

“They would lead him to a place, which resounded on every side with the howling and harmony of singing and cymbals and the beating of drums, your voice calling for help will not be able to be heard clearly, while they inflict violence by means of forced penetration.” [Translation mine.].[15]

As this revelation was quite disturbing to Aebutius, when he returned home he announced that he would not be initiated into the Bacchanalia. His mother and stepfather, furious at his insolence, chased him from the home “his mother on one side, his stepfather with four slaves on the other.”[16] Aebutius sought refuge with his aunt Aebutia, who was later summoned by Sulpicia the mother-in-law of her nephew in the coincidental presence of the consul Postumius. When Aebutia told the consul what she had heard; believing he had the information he sought, he sent her away asking for Hispala. [17]

Hispala arrived visibly shaken being summoned to such important company, and when she saw the consul, she nearly fainted from fright. When she came to her senses, Hispala supplicated to him for her safety; only then did she speak to Postumius about what she had previously spoken to her lover. After she had finished she again begged for safe exile. Postumius, when he was able to call together the senators, had Hispala speak what she knew to them, causing the senators to become disturbed and fearful.[18] After the testimony of Hispala, Postumius gives a rousing rhetorical speech to the gathered members of the senate in which he convinces them unanimously to persecute those who seek to undermine the Roman state.[19]

The account of Livy is quite unbelievable at times. One can not comprehend that those in Rome were as oblivious to the Bacchanalian movement within their city. Walsh raises that point quite humorously:

We are asked to believe that the consuls and the senate had no inkling of the Bacchic ritual until this dramatic revelation by Hispala. So in the puritanical Roman society of the early second century, a demonic cult had been flourishing for several years undetected. Drums had been beating, trumpets blaring…individuals disappearing, and massive crowds, amongst them prominent noblemen, were participating. Yet the eyes of the consul and senate were opened only when Hispala broke her vow of silence.[20]

Although the existence of dramatics which regularly occur in his account, the basics seem to be mirrored in the Senatus Consultum. This at least bolsters its initial credibility, perhaps why it is involve in many scholarly debates.

Part 3: The Proliferation of the Cult of Bacchus and Christian Conundrum

After the preliminary persecution took place in 186, the cult of Bacchus remained as the evidence shows in the Villa of Mysteries. This villa was “decorated sometime during the first century BCE,

Depiction of Bacchus, presumably the goddess Venus laying on him.

Figure 2. Depiction of Bacchus, presumably the goddess Venus laying on him.

and the majestic Dionysiac frieze (Figure 1.) was commissioned at the same time.”[21]  Naturally, as Bacchus is the god of wine, this villa was in the business of manufacturing and selling that product. The room that this villa is named for has near life sized frescos of a woman who is undergoing marital initiation rights. This colorful and high quality artistry exemplifies the endurance of this cult which had experienced brutal persecution that no other religion had previously underwent. This resilience is reproduced in the followers of Christianity in the centuries to come.

In 79 CE Pliny the Elder, because of his exceedingly curious nature, perished along side the town of Pompeii during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. His nephew Pliny the Younger inherited his uncle’s property and wealth. This new found wealth allowed young Pliny to become the important figure he is. His numerous epistles between the emperor Trajan shed light not only on the workings of governmental procedure, but views towards Christians of the Roman Empire during 110 CE. If you briefly look back at Livy, he describes the Bacchanalia as coniuratio[22] rather than a superstitio.[23] He makes this distinction with the four following criteria:

  1. New, strong links within the group instead of the ancient ones which connected the members to their traditional social structure.
  2. An oath of initiation to respect the own laws of the new community.
  3. Animosity against the State.
  4. The large numbers of followers.[24]

Pliny believed that Christians had three of the four and for this reason they had remained a superstitio praua[25]. However, not all Romans were able to distinguish them from each other and as a result, they believed it was a real threat to their traditional society’s existence—and deserved to be punished accordingly.[26] These similarities are what produced the hostility that the Christianity encountered for the first three centuries of its existence, and the conundrum that Pliny faced as governor. Christians most certainly severed their old ancestral ties by becoming an believer of Christ. To become initiated into this new religion, you had to undergo rituals such as communion and baptism and then respect a new set of moral and social codes. Because of the construct of its faith, many people joined which satisfied the third criteria for becoming a coniuratio. Similarly, those who followed Bacchus severed their ties with their father’s religion, they also partook in the feasting of wine and bread. They made sure to respect a new set of moral codes, and there were many followers. The fourth one which consisted of animosity to the state was said by Pliny to be found in the Bacchae but not in Christianity.

Pliny writes to the emperor asking him what he should do with Christians aside from killing those who did not sacrifice to the emperor. He remarked that he “he found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”[27] Which clearly shows how little Romans thought about Christianity. So too did Romans speak about the cult of Bacchus as degenerate and perverse. Trajan responded that what he was doing was “the right course of procedure…in your examination of the case of persons charged with being Christians.”[28] His straightforward and official standpoint was completely against Christianity, while during this time, the cult of Bacchus flourished unabated.

The cult of Bacchus still remained prevalent during the time when Christianity was struggling under Roman persecution. The statue of Antinous (Figure 3) is a colossal marble statue of the emperor Hadrian’s lover. The emperor chose none other then the god of wine for the deification of Antinous. This interesting choice illustrated the general acceptance of the Bacchic cult. As Roman attitudes towards the Bacchae shifted, so too would they regard Christianity in a different light. The intervening years from the persecution of 186 BCE and the creation of this statue, an elapsed time of 316 years, the bacchanalia thrived and eventually was accepted. Christianity too reflects this resilience in the face of annihilation.

 

Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris 130 AD Vatican Museum, Pio-Clemintine Museum, Round room Inv. No. 256.

Figure 3. Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris 130 AD Vatican Museum, Pio-Clemintine Museum, Round room Inv. No. 256.

[29]If you are to acknowledge the death of Jesus Christ dated at 33 CE, as the flashpoint, and the acceptance process beginning with the death of the first Christian emperor, Constantine I  in 336 CE; at this proposed chronological framing, it can be theorized that within a close approximation of  years Christianity too became accepted as a religion.

In conclusion, the sordid cult of Bacchus, although heavily persecuted, managed to survive and flourish in later centuries. It’s religious persecution that set a precedent was establish with the advent of the Senatus Consultum. One can trace the influence of the Bacchanalia throughout Rome’s history after 186 BCE as illustrated by figures 1 through 3. These artistic achievements attest to the proliferation of the cult. Likewise, Christianity was similar by being persecuted and their rituals. However, though the Bacchae thrived, it was unlike Christianity since ultimately it became the state religion of the later Roman Empire. When discussing Christianity, if one is not well versed in the past persecution of the Bacchae, then you are unaware of Rome’s reasoning for its persecution.


[1] Pliny the Younger was legatus Augusti of the province of Bithynia et Pontus, and as such, he wrote extensively to the Emperor seeking governmental advice sometime during 110 CE ff.

[2] Stuprum is the Latin word that Livy used to describe the raping of the male citizenry as it signifies the illicit penetration associated with homosexual intercourse.

[3] Victoria Emma Pagàn, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History (Austin: University of

Texas Press, 2004). 58.

[4] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 200.

[5] Allan Johnson, Paul Coleman-Norton and Frank Card Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 27

[6] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 193.

[7] Umberto Pappalardo, The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting (J. Paul Getty Trust: Los Angeles, 2009), 7.

[8] Titus Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 39.8.6-8. Cum vinum animos incendisset, et nox et mixti feminis mares, aetatis tenerae maioribus, discrimen omne pudoris exstinxissent, corruptelae primum omnis generis fieri coeptae, cum ad id quisque, quo natura pronioris libidinis esset, paratam voluptatem haberet. Nec unum genus noxae, stupra promiscua ingenuorum feminarumque erant, sed falsi testes, falsa signa testamentaque et indicia ex eadem officina exibant : venena indidem intestinaeque caedes, ita ut ne corpora quidem interdum ad sepulturam exstarent… Occulebat vim quod prae ululatibus tympanorumque et cymbalorum strepitu nulla vox quiritantium inter stupra et caedes exaudiri poterat.

[9] Allan Johnson, Paul Coleman-Norton and Frank Card Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 27.

[10] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 272.

[11] Ibid., 273-274.

[12] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 199.

[13] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 243.

[14] Hispala Faecenia was a prostitute of high repute, who was manumitted but continued in the profession as such. She become quite entangled with Aebutius, even denoting him as the heir of her fortune.

Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 247.

[15] Titus Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 39.10.7 Eos deducere in locum, qui circumsonet ululatibus cantuque symphoniae et cymbalorum et tympanorum pulsu, ne vox quiritantis, cum per vim stuprum inferatur, exaudiri posit.

[16] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 249.

[17] Ibid., 249.

[18] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 255, 257.

[19] Ibid., 259-267.

[20] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 198-9.

[21] Umberto Pappalardo, The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting (J. Paul Getty Trust: Los Angeles, 2009), 46.

[22] coniuratio, coniurationis—conspiracy, plot, intrigue; band of conspirators, taking an oath.

[23] superstitio, superstitionis—superstition, irrational religious awe.

[24] Àgnes A. Nagy, “Superstitio et Coniuratio,” International Review for the History of

 Religions 49, no. 2 (2002): 178. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270481 (accessed May 10, 2010)

[25] prauus, praua, prauum—perverse, corrupt.

[26] Àgnes A. Nagy, “Superstitio et Coniuratio.” International Review for the History of Religions 49, no.2 (2002): 178. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270481 (accessed May 10, 2010)

[27] Gaius Plinius, The Letters of Younger Pliny, Translated by Betty Radice. (London:

Penguin Group, 1969), 295.

[28] Ibid., 295.

[29] Sergey Sosnovskiy, Guide to  the Vatican Museums and City. Pontifical Monuments, Museums and Galleries (Vatican: Vatican Press, 1986), 48.


 

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