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What were Bacchanalia?

During the reign of Julius Caesar, much of the Bacchanalia celebrations were revived.
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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2014
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Bacchanalia were celebrations in honor of the god Bacchus in ancient Rome. They involved heavy drinking and wild behavior, as Bacchus is the god of wine. Originally open only to women and held in secret for three days every year, Bacchanalia later become open to men and were celebrated five times a month.

Bacchanalia evolved in Southern Italy and had spread to Rome by the second century BCE. They had their origin in even older religious ceremonies celebrating a nature god. Central to the ceremonies throughout their history was the sacrament of wine and a trance state induced by drunkenness and ritual dance. Other mind-altering substances were likely consumed as well. Bacchanalia included initiation rites that newcomers had to undergo in order to participate, and elements of the rituals were kept secret from those who had not been initiated.

Shortly after the Bacchanalia spread to Rome, in 188 BCE, priestess Paculla Annia opened the celebrations to men and increased their frequency. The celebrations soon became overtly sexual in nature and the initiation ritual was frightening, meant to symbolize a descent into the underworld and a rebirth. Secular authorities found the Bacchanalia to be a threat to the status quo. Outrageous crimes were attributed to the cult of Bacchus, such as child molestation and ritual murder, in a backlash similar to the medieval European witch scare.

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The Roman Senate banned Bacchanalia in 186 BCE, except under certain circumstances and approved by the Senate. The penalty for breaking the ban was execution. However, the Bacchanalia continued to exist underground.

Bacchanalia were revived around 50 BCE, during the reign of Julius Caesar. Famed general Mark Antony became a devotee of Bacchus, making the cult more popular and accepted. Bacchanalia continued to be celebrated for at least 400 year in the Roman Empire, but they lost much of the sense of mystery that initially characterized them. In their later incarnation, Bacchanalia included a festive street procession.

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