In 186 AD, Ancient Rome, which had been notably tolerant, began violently persecuting followers of the cult of god Bacchus. Something of the sort had never before been witnessed in Ancient Rome, and it wouldn’t come about again until the beginnings of Christianity.
Bacchus was a Roman god associated primarily with wine, agriculture, and fertility. He was also a patron of the arts and the protector of the theater. His festivals, the Bacchanalia, were widely celebrated and frequently involved wild, ecstatic revelry.
Religious tolerance, a Roman value
The same culture that had built the Pantheon would now start persecuting religious followers. It was a culture that had established a temple to all pagan gods so that its subjects would come to the capital of the empire, where they could have a place of worship. This was despite the fact that the city did not have a temple as a testament to its openness to many religions. However, that same culture would then start persecuting its citizens who dared be devout followers of Bacchus or Dionysus.
The consuls Marcius and Philippus would begin one the hardest and most notorious religious persecutions of Roman history. Yet this was not enough to dissuade the cult’s observers. Many cult leaders were killed rather than jailed.
The cult of Bacchus, as old as Rome itself
Livy considered the cult of Bacchus to be a plague that had spread from the Etruscan world, considered degenerate by Romans, who saw their women as being too free and mocked them for it.
This led to their being scapegoated when Roman society saw the cult of Bacchus spreading and including men for the first time, leading to a response on matters of morality.
The Etruscans, who had inhabited Italy since before the founding of Rome and had extensively traded with Greece since the very beginnings, later became one of the first sources of Hellenization in Rome. This was even prior to the encounter of the Romans with Greek Southern Italy, which then led to a refinement in Roman culture and taste, as Greek culture was highly regarded as superior.
However, the Bacchus cult had actually always been quite popular, and its spread was in fact not much different to the spread of other religions which, originally Greek, had been Romanized. The Etruscans were actually not to blame for the spread of the cult as Livy liked to believe.
Religion was a much more politically organized affair in aristocratic Rome. Priests came from noble Roman families, and holidays were a state affair, during which priests and priestesses would be especially nominated to officiate. Thus, certain cults that spread unchecked from democratic city-states in Greece were ill-suited to Roman religion.
In particular, it seems that the cult of Bacchus became a problem when it spread in the city of Rome by a priestess from the nearby Greek city of Naples. Paculla Annia had changed the ritual, including men in it. This was quite new because, for millennia, the secret Dionysiac parties had only ever been for women, called bacchae or maenads. They could drink themselves into a frenzy and any man caught spying would likely be killed.
Compared to Dionysus, this new incarnation of Bacchus had been purged of his femininity, which had been split into the figure of the goddess Libera. Roman followers of the cult thus worshipped the triad Libera-Bacchus-Demetra. The cult had widely spread amongst the newly rich plebeians of Rome, and their triad stood in distinct opposition to the patrician triad Jupiter-Juno-Minerva.
Violent repression of the Dionysian Mysteries
While Bacchus had always been popular in Greek Southern Italy even after conquest, the spread to Rome itself became a political problem when rich and plebeian Romans began participating and using the Bacchanalia rituals to conspire in secret.
The rituals were carried out in secret in the woods and the cult was organized into mysteries, which would be revealed only to the initiated. The new cult of Pacullia Annia, who officiated accompanied by her two male sons, started the scandal that would lead to the edict.
Livy reports the first and most violent repression:
And the kind of crimes were many, violence struck free men and women with no distinction; and false witnesses, falsification of seals, testaments and proof would come out of a workshop, and they were so secret that sometimes there wouldn’t even be bodies to bury. Much can be done with ill will, more can be done with violence.
After some time, the senators who had gathered decided to issue an edict limiting the proliferation of shrines dedicated to the god. They took all measures necessary to wipe out the cult and its following for good.
The series of laws were known as Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus and were issued on October 7, 186 AD. A bronze plate, reproducing the entire edict, was recently found in the South of Italy, but Roman historian Livy recalls the story of scandal. It seems that the repression was so violent the cult would only survive in the South of Italy. The region was still culturally Greek and would remain so for a long time even after the fall of the empire, holding onto its traditions far from the political turmoil of the capital.