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


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. (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. (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.


Ancient Executions, Most Unpleasant [Part 3 of 3]

The word crucifixion is a Latin derived word crucifigo a third conjugation transitive verb meaning to crucify, or attach to a cross. Although other cultures have used this method of execution such as the Persians and the Phoenicians, the Romans are particularly found of this form of torturous death reserved only for the lowest of the low. Pirates, deserters, and traitors are given this punishment whereas more proper Romans were given the option of suicide such as Petronius during the time of Nero, or beheading.
One of the most common misconceptions about crucifixion is due in part of the historical account of Jesus. Artistic depictions of his death depict the location of the nails in his palms, which is simply false. Victims of crucifixion would have the nail driven through the wrist which would support their bodily weight and cause extreme pain due to the median nerve that runs through the arm. Had someone been crucified with the iron nails passing through the palms, then they would have to have their arms somehow lashed to the cross itself since the palms would not hold the weight load. The majority of depictions of Jesus do not show these lashings, but if the Synoptic Gospels hold any truth to the account, then he most certainly would have been bound to the cross before the nails were driven into his flesh.

It is nearly impossible to find a picture of anyone being crucified that isn’t Christ, he has a monopoly on this execution. However, one of my favorite etchings of a Roman graffito is the Roman perspective of the self proclaimed Messiah.

Alexamenos worships his god

Alexamenos worships his god. 3rd century CE

According to a study done by Maslen and Mitchell,1 some possible causes of death for this method range from  cardiac rupture, heart failure, hypovolemic shock, asphyxia  and pulmonary embolism. Death could result from any combination of those factors or from other causes, including sepsis following infection due to the wounds caused by the nails or by the whipping that often preceded crucifixion, dehydration was also a factor depending on the environment and the length of time the victim was left upon the cross. 

In short, although this torture pales in comparison to others that I have discussed the past few days, this one is the most recognizable. Even today, in the Philippines there are people who preform live crucifixions in celebration for the Easter holiday. This practice is most unpleasant, and the worship of this painful execution is quite disturbing. If you really take a moment to pause and think about the grotesque imagery that is found in the Passion of Christ, it is enough to turn your stomach.

But this is why religion is so interesting, the rituals are what make it unique. This alone allows me to continue writing about it in complete fascination.



 1 Maslen, Matthew; Piers D Mitchell. “Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion”. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99 (4): 185.

Ancient Executions, Most Unpleasant [Part 1 of 3]

Capital punishment has always been cause for debate. Should the state be allowed to murder its citizens?  In the modern age, only forty of the 163 countries still have some form of the death penalty, including China, India, The entirety of the Middle East, and of course the United States. But by no means does the modicum of death meted out by the modern state even remotely close to some ancient methods of execution. Although one can assume that the way we execute prisoners today are “humane”, hanging, firing squad, electric chair, lethal injection, these all pale in comparison to the three forms of execution I will be looking at these three bizarre and unique forms of execution, namely the brazen bull, scaphism, and crucifixion.

The first of these that I will be talking about is the brazen bull. This method of death was first used by the tyrant Phalaris of Acragas in Sicily c. 570-554 BCE. The creator of the invention was Perillos of Athens. This invention was a large bronze cast bull, hollow on the inside with a door. The condemned were bound and shut inside the bull and a fire lit underneath. The mouth of the brazen bull was left open and the escaping steam and screams were meant to sound like an angry bull.
tumblr_m8w6gkqtQ41qme7gno1_400Fast forward to the persecution of Christians, it is reported that some saints of the church met their end by this particularly nasty form of execution. Makes being fed to the lions seems like a cake walk. There were three saints mentioned to have been killed by this. Saint Antipas in 92 CE by the Emperor Domition, Saint Eustace in 118 CE by Emperor Hadrian, and a woman by the name of Pelagia of Tarsus in 287 CE by Emperor Diocletian. However, the Catholic Church discounts the martyrdom of Saint Eustace according to the Martyologium Romanum (ISB 8-820-97210-7).
I think that the three reported cases of its use to kill Christians (and possibly Jews) could in fact, aside from the obvious death, be a theological attack. Although scholars in the early 20th century have linked it to the golden calf from Exodus, and then summarily dismissed the idea, I think they should no be so hasty. The imagery of a Christian being sacrificed within a large bull, the golden calf grown into adulthood is striking. Perhaps these emperors had a sick sense of humor and made this connection, or maybe not.

To take a brief look at the account of Pelagia’s death, here is an excerpt from the martyrdom of Pelagia of Tarsus.

Diocletian sentenced Pelagia to be burned in a red-hot bronze bull. Not permitting the executioners to touch her body, the holy martyr signed herself with the Sign of the Cross, and went into the brazen bull and her flesh melted like myrrh, filling the whole city with fragrance. St Pelagia’s bones remained unharmed and were removed by the pagans to a place outside the city. Four lions then came out of the wilderness and sat around the bones letting neither bird nor wild beast get at them. The lions protected the relics of the saint until Bishop Linus came to that place. He gathered them up and buried them with honor. Later, a church was built over her holy relics.

This account if full of typical imagery of a Christian martyrology. Her courage and stalwart faith the hallmark of any proper martyr. Most important is the mention of the whole city being filled with fragrance, some accounts specify the scent of myrrh, which is a motif I am currently exploring in other documents of this period. The cooperation of lions also has a storied history such as in the Old Testament book of Isaiah 11:6 or in the story of Daniel in the lion den.  On a final note, it would be interesting to so some forensic archeology and exhume the bones of this martyr for signs of her death.

Tomorrow I will be discussing the insanity that is scaphism.

Saint Antipas being roasted alive in a Brazen bull at Pergamon.

Saint Antipas being roasted alive in a Brazen bull at Pergamon.

What Does Adpragmalic Mean?

Mosaic black bath –attendant. From Timgad, northwestern baths (at entrance to room, between two tepidaria.) 82 x 70 cm. Timgad, Musée Archéologique

Mosaic black bath –attendant. From Timgad, northwestern baths (at entrance to room, between two tepidaria.) 82 x 70 cm. Timgad, Musée Archéologique

At the heart of my current research titled Forging “Christian Rome”: Cultural Shifts of Late Antiquity  is the treatment of the image of the black African or Aethiopes. In one section of this paper I begin by looking at the treatment of the image of the black African by Romans as apotropaic which other scholars such as John Clarke, Katherine Dunbabin and others have. To be apotropaic meant having the power to avert evil influences of the Evil Eye. As the ubiquitous mosaic images found in bathing complexes showed black Africans not sexualized but simply ithyphallic, having an erect phallus or macrophallic, having an obviously large phallus. This leads to the monastic images of the Ethiopian demon found in their writings that changed the representation from a defense against evil to one of fornication and sexual evil, a demon of tainted lust.
So in the course of writing I created a new word to describe this unique and ironic change taking place during this period. This constituted the apotropaic image of the black African changing into something that monastic writers considered to be evil. In short, I present this neologism adpragmalic here and has been defined below.

ad•prag•mal•ic |ədpragˈmalik|


an ironic change to something that is contrary to the previous attribute of an object


adpragmalically |ədpragˈmali’k(ə)lēadverb

adpragmalism |ədpragˈmalizemnoun

In a sentence: The interpretation of the black african by monastic writers in the fourth century was adpragmalic.

ORIGIN: Late 20th cent.: from Latin malus ‘evil’ and Greek pragma ‘thing’, literally  “change to an evil thing.”

The Changing Notions of Serpents in Antiquity


Throughout ancient history, snakes have been venerated in some way. The ancient Greek cult of Ἀσκληπιός (Asklēpiós) flourished and its most famous temple was found in Epidaurus. Healing the sick was the main component to this religion. In light of the medical utility of this deity it is of no surprise that Romans established a temple to their latinized version, Aesculapius. According to Eric Orlin, in response to a dire plague that was ravaging the city, the Senate consulted Sibylline Books a set of oracles. They did this twice, the first time in 295 BCE, which elicited no clear course of action and the second in 293. The books dicated that “Aesculapius must be brought to Rome from Epidaurus.”2 So, the snake, who was housed in was in a temple at Epidaurus, as a representation of the god was taken and brought to his new temple in Rome in 291.

In the second century of the common era, there is the notorious cult of Glycon. The literary source for this is the satirist Lucian of Samosata. His work is titled “Alexander the False Prophet.” This biting account of the charlatan Alexander of Abonoteichus comments that he reportedly used a black snake from Macedonia, famous for their non-venomous and docility in his hoax. In short, Alexander created a cult to a snake deity, who he said was the son of Aesculapius and named him Glycon. The archeological evidence supports the prevalence and longevity of the cult long after the death of its founder. The most famous statuary was found in Tomis, Romania along with other statues and they are believed to have been buried for safekeeping.


 However, to the proponents of Christianity, serpents are usually associated with evil, particularly Satan. Although a Syriac saint named Simeon (390-459 CE) who became known as Simeon Stylites lived out his life atop a pillar. David Frankfurter of Boston University wrote an article entitled “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria.”1 This article discusses at great length the rise of this unique form of Christian asceticism. Simeon’s hagiography survived in both Syriac and in Latin. In one of the Latin codices, a scene takes place where the main characters are in fact a snake couple.

25. A large growth came upon a female serpent and, because of her sufferings, she tried to leave for about one mile when the male, suffering her pains with her, took hold of the female, and they came to lord Simeon. When they arrived at his pillar, they separated from one another, for the female did not dare to be seen by the righteous man, but went into the the woman’s section. The male  came in the midst of that crowd and prostrated himself before the pillar, shaking his head up and down, and prayed to the righteous man. When the crowd saw the huge size of the snake, they ran away from it, but when he saw this holy Simeon said to the crowds, ‘Do not run away, brethren, for he has truly come here to pray. His female is very ill and has gone into the women’s section.’ He said to the snake, ‘Take up clay from the ground and carry it to your wife. Place it on [her] and breathe on it, and it will heal her.’ The snake took some clay and went to his wife. When the crowds saw it they followed him to see what he would do. They saw the female standing  upright outside the barrier, and she had a large growth. The [male]   snake took the clay, placed it on [her] and breathed on her and, in the presence of all, it healed her. He then took her and went away, and when the crowds saw this mystery, they glorified God. 3

This interesting story breaks with the tradition that genesis laid down with the snake in Eden. The symbolic nature of these snakes could be taken to illustrate the holy man’s authoritas, his power, over evil. God punished snakes for all time in Genesis 3:14 by saying “Because you have done this,[Tricked Eve into eating the apple] you are cursed more than all animals, domestic and wild. You will crawl on your belly, groveling in the dust as long as you live.” However, Simeon seemingly converted the evil creature, who went to him in supplication and asked for a miracle for his snake wife.

In summation, snakes have been a source of religious veneration, scorn, and allegory in antiquity. Even within one religion, such as Christianity, the notion that snakes are either good or bad remains somewhat fluid. From serious cults devoted to healing the sick, to the puppet-like Glycon, and in Judeo-Christiain mythology, snakes played an integral role in shaping religious doctrine in antiquity.

1. David T. M. Frankfurter, “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religion in Late Antique Syria,” Vigiliae Christianae 44.2 (June 1990).

2. Eric M. Orlin, Temples, Religion, and Politics in the Roman Republic, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 1997), 23.

3. The Lives of Simeon Stylites, Trans. Robert Doran. (Spencer Massachusetts: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 227.