The Dionysiac Scandal in Italy

(Livy History of Rome Book 39. 8-19: 186 B.C.)

"During the following year, the consuls Spurius Postumius Albinus and Quintus Marcius Philippus were diverted from the army and the administration of wars and provinces to the suppression of an internal conspiracy.... A lowborn Greek came first into Etruria [Tuscany], a man who was possessed of none of the numerous arts which [the Greeks] have introduced among us for the cultivation of mind and body. He was a mere sacrificer and a fortuneteller–not even one of those who imbue men’s minds with error by preaching their creed in public and professing their business openly; instead he was a hierophant of secret nocturnal rites. At first these were divulged to only a few. Then they began to spread widely among men, and women. To the religious content were added the pleasures of wine and feasting–to attract a greater number.

When they were heated with wine and all sense of modesty had been extinguished by the darkness of night and the commingling of males with females, tender youths with elders, then debaucheries of every kind commenced. Each had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust to which he was most inclined. Nor was the vice confined to the promiscuous intercourse of free men and women! False witnesses and evidence, forged seals and wills, all issued from this same workshop. Also, poisonings and murders of kin, so that sometimes the bodies could not even be found for burial. Much was ventured by guile, more by violence, which was kept secret, because the cries of those calling for help amid the debauchery and murder could not be heard through the howling and the crash of drums and cymbals.

This pestilential evil spread from Etruria [Tuscany] to Rome like a contagious disease. At first, the size of the city, with room and tolerance for such evils, concealed it. But information at length reached the Consul Postumus.... Postumus laid the matter before the Senate, setting forth everything in detail-first the information he had received; and then, the results of his own investigations. The Senators were seized by a panic of fear, both for the public safety (lest these secret conspiracies and nocturnal gatherings contain some hidden harm or danger) and for themselves individually (lest some relatives be involved in this vice). They decreed a vote of thanks to the Consul for having investigated the matter so diligently and without creating any public disturbance. Then they commissioned the consuls to conduct a special inquiry into the Bacchanalia and nocturnal rites. They directed them to see to it that Aebutius and Faecenia suffer no harm for the evidence they had given, and to offer rewards to induce other informers to come forward; the priests of these rites, whether men or women, were to be sought out not only in Rome but in every forum and conciliabulum, so that they might ‘be at the disposal of’ the consuls. Edicts were to be published in the City of Rome and throughout Italy, ordering that none who had been initiated into the Bacchic rites should be minded to gather or come together for the celebration of these rites, or to perform any such ritual. And above all, an inquiry was to be conducted regarding those persons who had gathered together or conspired to promote debauchery or crime.

These were the measures decreed by the Senate. The consuls ordered the Curule Aediles to search out all the priests of this cult, apprehend them, and keep them under house arrest for the inquiry; the Plebeian Aediles were to see that no rites were performed in secret. The Three Commissioners (Tresviri Capitales) were instructed to post watches throughout the City, to see to it that no nocturnal gatherings took place and to take precautions against fires. And to assist them, five men were assigned on each side of the Tiber, each to take responsibility for the buildings in his own district....

The Consuls then ordered the Decrees of the Senate to be read [in the Assembly] and they announced a reward to be paid to anyone who brought a person before them, or, in the absence of the person, reported his name. If anyone took flight after being named, the Consuls would fix a day for him to answer the charge, and on that day, if he failed to answer when called, he would be condemned in absentia. If any person were named who was beyond the confines of Italy at the time, they would set a more flexible date, in the event that he should wish to come to Rome and plead his case. Next, they ordered by edict that no person be minded to sell or buy anything for the purpose of flight; that no one harbor, conceal, or in any way assist fugitives.... Guards were posted at the gates, and during the night following the disclosure of the affair in the Assembly, many who tried to escape were arrested by the Tresviri Capitales and brought back. Many names were reported, and some of these, women as well as men, committed suicide. It was said that more than 7,000 men and women were implicated in the conspiracy.

.... Next the Consuls were given the task of destroying all places of Bacchic worship, first at Rome, and then throughout the length and bradth of Italy–except where there was an ancient altar or a sacred image. For the future, the Senate decreed that there should be NO Bacchic rites in Rome or in Italy. If any person considered such worship a necessary observance, that he could not neglect without fear of committing sacrilege, then he was to make a declaration before the Praetor Urbanus, and the Praetor would consult the Senate. IF permission were granted by the Senate (with at least one hundred senators present), he might perform that rite–provided that no more than five persons took part in the ritual, and that they had no common fund and no master or priest...."

January 26, 2010 12:55 PM

John Paul Adams, CSUN

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