Gods and goddesses were everywhere and their support was critical for the success of any task from the waging of war to the finding of a lost broach. Every home had an altar, whether it was an elaborate structure occupying several square meters of space in the courtyard of a large villa, a niche in the wall of an apartment, or an inexpensive figurine standing on a napkin and set in the corner of a one room flat, and these altars were used on a daily basis, either by an individual or by the family as a group, for no one wanted to be out of favor with the divine. There were several thousand gods and goddesses, and each family employed its own cultic form of worship as well as offering obeisance to the better known domestic deities. Since all gods and goddesses required and were worthy of worship, and since there were no organized churches with dogmas of their own that set them apart from the others, there was never a claim that one could be  better than another, and so when a newly married woman moved from her father’s home to that of the groom, she quite simply and unhesitatingly switched her forms of worship and was accepted into the cult of her husband.

       Roman religion seems to have largely involved a contractual relationship whereby the deities received sacrifice, praise and worship and committed in return to protect the people and keep them out of trouble. This worked well enough for many generations, but eventually it became little more than a mechanistic exchange of services, offering little personal comfort. Romans worshipped many gods and goddesses, and while different men, women and families might have their favorites, the modern notion of denomination did not exist, leaving people free to participate in any religious activity the circumstances demanded. As the empire spread to far away lands, Rome came into contact with new religious ideas that had a more emotional basis and offered a measure of solace to  worshippers that had been missing from previous views of the divine. An important component of all of these so-called “mystery religions” was the idea that worshippers had first to be initiated into the cult. If nothing else, membership provided a sense of belonging and suggested that the relevant deity was taking an interest in them as individuals. As we will see in a moment men were not immune to the lure of the mystery religions, but their greatest appeal was to women.

       A Greek, professing to be a priest in charge of night-time rituals, introduced one such cult, the Bacchanalia, where religious observances were combined with food and wine, leading to one of the greatest public scandals in all of Ancient Rome. At first membership in the Bacchanalia was restricted to women, but when a High Priestess changed the rule in order to allow in her sons the whole nature of the cult changed. Whether or not the founders and first matronly initiates were innocently looking for nothing more than an emotionally satisfying relationship with the divine, the food and wine soon changed to partying and the partying provided passion and passion quickly led to licentiousness and, so the charges went, every form of immorality imaginable. Women dressed as Bacchanites ran through the streets at night carrying torches that could be plunged in and out of the Tiber River without being extinguished. Apparently many frauds and forgeries were committed under the guise of cult business, and men who refused to participate after having been admitted to the ceremony were allegedly murdered.

       Rules requiring initiates to maintain secrecy worked for awhile, but when membership exceeded seven or eight thousand men and women, it was inevitable that word would leak out. When the Senate had completed its investigation a number of members were put to death and many others committed suicide. Women who were convicted were turned over to their guardians for punishment in modest privacy, while those without a guardian were executed publicly.

       Most of our knowledge of the Roman Bacchanalia comes from the First Century BCE historian, Livy. [1] In writing his 142-volume history of Rome, he included a few questionable sources, so the vague, unsubstantiated references to fraud and murder are problematic, but those charges could easily have been dealt with in the normal operation of the courts. We are entitled to ask, then, why the Romans, normally prepared to endorse the worship of any god or goddess, objected so strenuously to the Bacchanalia. The fact is that almost everything associated with the sect ran counter to traditional Roman values. Ceremonies took place at night, implying a desire to have the darkness cover up their activities, and indeed initiates did make a vow of secrecy. Unrelated men and women dined, drank, and partied together. Women dressed in special costumes ran unguarded outside at night. One commentator felt that the men who participated were behaving “like women” and were therefore unfit to serve in the army or government. The consul in charge of rooting out the members and shutting down the Bacchanalia argued that as the cult was growing in size and operated in secrecy at night it would soon be in a position to seize control of the government. It certainly began as an all woman cult but we have no idea of the gender balance at the end nor do we have any way of telling whether the charges of fraud and murder were legitimate or how serious was the threat to the state posed by the Bacchanalia. If we are to believe Livy the Senate took the matter seriously enough to execute more than half of the membership.



[Livy, Annals of Rome, 39.8-18]