Bacchus: The Roman God of Wine
Like many Roman gods, Bacchus was inspired by both Greek and native influences.
While many Italian gods were forgotten, however, Bacchus never replaced his native counterpart. Instead, the two existed side by side as different versions of the god of wine.
Bacchus, like Dionysus before him, was noted for the revelry and frenzy that he brought with them. While the Greeks saw this as an only occasional menace, however, many Romans thought Bacchus could destroy their entire society.
The Bacchanalia and the mystery cults long associated with Dionysus/Bacchus posed a threat to the structured, moralistic Roman world. In a culture built on propriety and a tightly-controlled social structure, the revels of Bacchus were terrifyingly uncontrolled.
Bacchus and his cult earned a reputation, perhaps not entirely deserved, for dangerous excess. The immorality and debauchery of their rituals were so shocking that some of Rome’s greatest writers decried the cult as a threat to the state.
Bacchus’s worshippers would be brought under control by one of Roman history’s most draconian measures. Less than a decade later, however, the god would show that he still had importance as a model for heroic conquest.
In Roman mythology, Bacchus was the god of wine. Like most of the Roman pantheon, he had a Greece source.
The Romans were influenced by the Greek god Dionysus in the creation of their own god of viticulture. The mythology, iconography, and worship of the Roman Bacchus were virtually identical to what it had been in Greece.
The Romans, however, had access to some of the more extreme aspects of the god from the beginning. Festivals and associations that had developed over hundreds of years in Greece were brought in immediately to Rome.
Therefore, when the Romans first introduced Bacchus to their pantheon, he was already a god of extreme behavior.
Dionysus had become known in Greece as a god of revelry, immorality, and even violence. His followers, the Maenads, were said to be driven to such a state of frenzy in their drunken worship of him that they could rip a man to shreds with their bare hands or lay waste to huge swathes of the forest.
The Greeks had also come to view Dionysus as a chthonic figure.
The god of wine played a major role in the mystery cults of ancient Greece. Focused on the secrets of death and the afterlife, these cults operated outside of the official temples and authority structures of Greece.
Thus, when Bacchus first came to Rome he was already painted as a potentially wild and dangerous god.
Even his name reflected this. Bacchus did not come from a Roman word, but from the Greek bakkheia, a term used to describe a state of frenzy and intoxication.
Roman legend claimed that the god was first brought to the city in 200 BC. Even then, his cult was kept largely a secret.
Bacchus had no original temple and his Roman cult was not established by a great leader from legend. Instead, a single priestess from Campania established his worship in a grove where his followers could practice their rites in secret.
When the southern priestess introduced Bacchus, however, there was already a god who filled a similar role.
Like Dionysus, the god Liber Pater, or the Free Father, was a god of wine. He had been indirectly inspired by the Greek god through earlier Greek influence on Eleutherios, the Liberator, who was worshiped elsewhere in Italy.
Liber Pater, however, took a much different tone than Dionysus had.
While the Greek god embraced revelry and madness in his worship, Liber Pater was seen as a protective god.
He was less involved in the intoxicating aspects of wine than he was in its growing. He watched over the grapes and encouraged them to grow.
This made him a fertility god. He was the patron of the plebians, the lower classes.
Liber Pater was also a distinctly noble deity. In addition to establishing the practice of buying and selling, which would later be more closely identified with Mercury as a merchant god, Liber Pater was also thought to have invented symbols of royal authority such as the diadem.
Liber Pater’s cult embraced intoxication only in connection to his domain of freedom and release. The worship of Liber Pater was seen as a natural respite from the worries and stresses of everyday life, but the excess of Dionysus was not encouraged.
With the introduction of the Greek tradition, Bacchus soon supplanted Liber Pater in popularity. Whether because of the excesses of his cult or the air of mystery surrounding it, Bacchus quickly became Rome’s favored god of wine.
Some, however, fought against this association. Cicero, for example, insisted that Bacchus and Liber Pater were entirely separate entities and that they should not be mistaken for one another.
Thus, the Romans continued to worship Liber Pater alongside Bacchus. The two represented two different forms of intoxication – the gentleness of moderate consumption and the potentially violent excesses of overindulgence.
The indulgence embodied by Bacchus is most famous in his festival. The Bacchanalia is thought of as the celebration of drunkenness, depravity, and immorality.
In truth, few sources give a clear and accurate depiction of the Bacchanalia. Unlike the festivals of other gods, it was not celebrated in public but by a closely-guarded cult.
The first centers of the wine god’s worship followed the tradition of the Greeks. Like the Maenads, the Bacchanals forbade men from taking part and operated within the shadows of Roman society.
Because the followers of Bacchus themselves said little about their rites, most knowledge of the Bacchanalia comes from its detractors.
Despite the modern view of Rome as a city that embraced revelry and excess, many members of Roman society were conservative in their beliefs. To them, the Bacchanalia was a dangerous celebration.
This was especially true after the cult of Bacchus began admitting male members. While more conservative outsides had been willing to overlook the excesses of single-sex rituals, the mixing of genders in nighttime bouts of drunkenness was an affront to their morality.
Whether fully deserved or not, the Bacchanalia became synonymous with every kind of debauchery and wickedness imaginable. Stories circulated about massive alcohol-fueled parties in which the followers of Bacchus broke every rule of morality and propriety.
One of the greatest opponents of the Bacchanalia was Livy. Already suspicious of mystery cults, rumors of the excesses of the Bacchanalia prompted the historian to decry the practice as a threat to the Roman way of life.
In his History of Rome, Livy recounted the reaction of a freedwoman who learned that the man she loved had been promised to the cult of Bacchus by his immoral mother and stepmother:
She knew it to be a sink of every form of corruption, and it was a matter of common knowledge that no one had been initiated for the last two years above the age of twenty. As each person was brought in, he was handed over to the priests like a victim and taken into a place which resounded with yells and songs, and the jangling of cymbals and drums, so that no cry from those who were suffering violation could be heard. She then begged and implored him to get out of the affair in whatever way he could, and not to rush blindly into a place where he would first have to endure, and then to commit, every conceivable outrage. Until he had given his word to keep clear of these rites she would not let him go.
-Livy, History of Rome (trans Butterfield)
Livy makes the young woman’s reaction more astonishing by including the fact that she had been a concubine before earning her freedom. Although she had been exposed to levels of immoral behavior far beyond what a well-bred young woman would have known, the Bacchanalia was still so extreme to prompt terror in her.
According to Livy, the original Bacchanalia had been limited to a small group of women and held just five times a year. After the introduction of the Greek mystery cults, however, both sexes met up to five times a week.
Livy and those who shared his beliefs saw the Bacchanalia as more than just improper. The multitude of sins committed at these festivals violated Roman laws meant to keep the peace and ensure that society functioned.
The Bacchanalia, to conservative thinkers, was disgusting not only in what occurred in secret. The cult of Bacchus as a nearly revolutionary group that threatened the very foundations of Roman society.
Livy was inspired, in large part, by his existing distrust of the Greek mystery cults.
These cults had always operated outside the established norms of their society. Their organization, beliefs, and teachings ran counter to those of the official temples.
While these secretive groups had been outside the norm in Greece, under Rome they ran dangerously close to being against the law.
The Roman religion was one of the state, meaning that the gods and their roles were officially part of the government. A shared belief in the gods and the appropriate way to worship them was a central pillar of Roman society.
Without this shared belief, many Romans feared that their culture would fall apart. Rome held many territories incorporating several ethnic groups and races, but they were all unified in the shared worship of the state religion.
The mystery cults operated outside of this religion and, in many ways, contrary to it. Their legends were often different than those of the official religion.
One example of the differing views of the mystery cults was the way in which they portrayed the birth of Dionysus/Bacchus. What was once a birth story like many others was changed by the mystery cults to reflect their focus on death and the Underworld.
Myths gave several conflicting legends of the god’s birth and parentage. These included:
- Birth to Proserpina (Persephone) – The Orphic Mysteries taught that Dionysus/Bacchus was the son of Jupiter and his daughter, Proserpina.
- Birth to Semele – In the most common myth, Bacchus was the son of a Theban princess. When Juno found out about her pregnancy, she tricked Semele into seeing Jupiter in his full glory and the girl was burned to death.
- Egyptian Origin – A few writers claimed that Bacchus had originated in Egypt, likely as a form of Osiris.
- Birth to Ceres (Demeter) – Romans believed that Liber Pater was the son of Ceres. As the cults were conflated, this story sometimes became confused with his birth to Proserpina, her daughter.
Even in Greece, the stories were so varied that attempts were eventually made to reconcile them.
A belief grew, particularly among the mystery cults, that Bacchus had been born several times.
Some believed that the Egyptian version of the god had been born first. The son of Ammon, or Amun, he had inherited the horns often shown on his father.
The Romans likened Amun to Jupiter, so those who followed this belief thought that he had been born in a foreign land to an aspect of the father usually given.
No stories recount the fate of this incarnation of Bacchus. It is usually believed that he was associated with Osiris and, like him, was killed.
Next came the birth to Proserpina, which is named first in many other accounts. This story originated in the Greek mystery cults, and taught that Jupiter had descended to the Underworld to impregnate Pluto’s wife.
Jupiter named this child his favored son and even seated him on his throne. Juno was so jealous of the preferential treatment that she called on the Titans to rip the child to shreds.
Another version of this story said that this incarnation of Bacchus was born shortly before the war between the Titans and the gods. He was killed in the conflict rather than because of Juno’s jealousy.
In some versions of the story, Jupiter or Minerva gathered up enough pieces of the child’s body to remake him. In later stories, it was often Ceres who acted in a chthonic role.
These stories of multiple births ended with Jupiter impregnating Semele to create Bacchus anew. In many of these stories, he fed her a potion instead of having a more traditional affair.
After Semele’s death, Jupiter sewed the premature baby into his own thigh to carry him to term.
Ovid further complicated the story by claiming that it was actually Juno who made Semele fall in love with Jupiter. Although the end result was the same, the god’s birth had been a result of Juno’s manipulations rather than Jupiter’s desires alone.
The many contradictory origin stories of Bacchus were never fully reconciled. This posed a problem for the state religion of Rome, which used the gods to reaffirm their own social structure and values.
While Bacchus was a recognized god in the Roman pantheon, his position was never as clear as others. Even in his birth story, the god of wine was seen as dangerously unpredictable and unclear.
Prominent men like Livy and Cicero called for the revels of Bacchus to be brought under control. The wild Bacchanalia, they argued, was a threat to common decency and social stability.
In 186 AD, the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, or senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia, was issued.
The cult of Bacchus had become popular among Rome’s elite, furthering the risk it posed to public order. One of the senate’s own members, Publius Aebutius, put forth evidence of the Bacchanalia’s dangerous excesses.
The result was a moral panic among the city’s elite. The fear was that the cult of Bacchus was plotting to destabilize Roman society by corrupting its highest authorities.
The extent of the senate’s decree was broad. In an unprecedented move, the Roman government all but outlawed Bacchus’s celebrations throughout Italy.
The decree stated that it was illegal to own any property for the purposes of celebrating the Bacchanalia, no man or woman was allowed to hold officers in a Bacchanalian cult, and no agreements or promises were to be made between followers of Bacchus.
No version of the Bacchanalia could be held unless it was first given permission by a senate vote with at least one hundred members present. Even under senate approval, no more than two men and three women were allowed to gather together to celebrate the Bacchanalia.
The punishment for disobeying this decree was death.
According to Livy, many celebrants chose to commit suicide rather than be captured. Even then, executions far exceeded other punishments.
Some sources claimed that up to 7,000 people were arrested, the majority of whom were put to death, for violating the prohibition on the Bacchanalia.
Even under this harsh decree, the cult was not entirely eliminated. Surviving sects remained in the countryside, where they celebrated in large numbers far enough away from Roman authorities to go unnoticed.
To allow for more controlled worship of the god, the festival of Bacchus was officially incorporated into that of Liber Pater. While the two gods had been associated with one another throughout Roman history, the senate officially declared that the gods of wine would be honored together.
The Liberalia, which also marked the coming of age ritual for young men, was a far more controlled affair. While off-color humor and inebriation still featured, the depravity that was rumored to take place as the feasts of Bacchus was not allowed.
Once the panic over the Bacchanalia subsided, the god’s worship in the Roman Empire was less concerning. The festivities that had horrified Livy and Cicero were relegated to the past and to secretive nighttime meetings far outside the confines of Roman society.
While Bacchus was often at odds with the Roman state, his position as a major god of Olympus was never forgotten. As a favored son of Zeus, he still had a place within Roman society.
Less than ten years after the passage of the senate’s most oppressive religious decree, the cult of Bacchus would be officially promoted by the emperor himself.
Septimus Severus was a native of Leptis Magna, a Roman city in Libya. Local legend held that Bacchus was the city’s founding hero.
The new emperor retained close ties to the city of his birth, so promoting its patron god was another way for him to honor his homeland. The cult of Bacchus under the imperial influence, however, was much different than the wild Bacchanalia that had frightened the senate just a few years before.
A late addition to the mythology of Greece, the story of the win god’s travels to India made him a proper god for the emperor and the state religion of Rome.
Legends claimed that the Greek god Dionysus had been sent to India on his father’s orders to introduce the people there to the Olympian gods. Part of this was bringing them wine, which they had not cultivated themselves before the god’s arrival.
After a series of wars against a variety of fantastic people, with an army of satyrs and nymphs making up the majority of the Greek forces, the people of India were finally conquered. Dionysus returned triumphantly.
To the Greeks, whose own knowledge of the world to the East was expanded by both increased trade and the real-life conquests of Alexander the Great, the story of the Indian War was a way to bring this new land into their mythology. To the Romans, it also made Bacchus a fitting patron for Rome.
The story of the Indian War was one of military strategy and conquest, themes that played heavily in Roman history. The Empire saw Bacchus as the model for a Mediterranean leader who triumphed in foreign lands.
The Indian War spread the gods of Olympus, and with them Greco-Roman culture. Marked by wine in the story, this fit with the Roman view of themselves as a civilizing and stabilizing force in the lands under their control.
Bacchus also set the tone for how a victorious leader should be presented to his people.
The Roman Triumph was the end of every great military exercise. The winning general, later the Emperor, would be paraded through the city with his troops to show the people their might and the spoils of war that had been brought back to enrich Rome’s coffers.
The Triumph was a public celebration that cast the victor in the role of a god for a day. As such, he was modeled after Bacchus.
In Greek stories, Dionysus had been famous for the processions his followers held through the countryside. Every day was like a parade in which satyrs, nymphs, and maenads sang, danced, and feasted around the god.
The image of this procession was incorporated into the story of the god’s victory in India. He supposedly came back to Greece in a chariot drawn by tigers, displaying the riches he had won from far-off lands.
This procession was said to be the model for the Roman Triumph.
The inspiration for the Triumph was another example of how the cult of Bacchus was intertwined with that of Liber Pater, as well.
Liber Pater was said to have invented the royal emblems of pre-Republican Rome and set the standards for how the royals should be celebrated. This included the Triumph, which served to show the wealth and military power of Roman rulers.
By the time of Septimus Severus, the image of the Triumph was firmly associated with the return of Bacchus from India. Amid the pomp and ritual that marked Liber Pater’s royal associations, Bacchus made the event a celebration.
The Roman god of wine, Bacchus, was based on two sources. Liber Pater, the Italian god of viticulture, and the Greek Dionysus were part of his origin.
Liber Pater continued to be worshipped in Rome as a protective god of fertility and agriculture. The worship of Bacchus, however, brought increased excess to the Greek frenzies and mysteries of Dionysus.
The Greek god had long been established with mystery cults in Greece, so his worship had always been somewhat secretive and against the established order. The drunken revels that had marked these celebrations became almost mythically debauched in Rome.
The Bacchanalia was so secretive, and reportedly filled with such immoral behavior, that prominent men such as Livy and Cicero denounced it. Rumors spread about the dangerous behavior of the cult of Bacchus until the senate felt compelled to take action against potentially revolutionary behavior.
In the 2nd century, the Bacchanalia was all but outlawed in Italy. While in continued in secret in the country, the senate’s extreme measures against it led to over 7,000 arrests and many executions.
Bacchus’s celebration was officially combined with that of Liber Pater, a coming-of-age festival that valued a greater level of restraint in its celebration.
Bacchus, however, continued in Rome because he had another function.
He was seen as the model of a victorious leader, whose legendary return from India inspired the Roman Triumph. As a god of the state, Bacchus continued to represent celebration and excess, but in a way that was more acceptable to the people and values of Rome.