Pathfinder, Magic and Religion in Antiquity

Check out my new page, a path finder for ancient magic and religion in the Mediterranean!




Sean Doherty ©

While many bee enthusiasts avow that honeybees lead a strange and secretive life within their hives, beekeepers themselves have a tendency to be quite strange to say the least; but it’s an oddity that they’re all proud of. Beekeeping is both sought after by businessmen commercially, as well as by hobbyists, who are known as backyard beekeepers. Beekeeping isn’t particular to any ethnicity, gender, or age, but knows an immense variety of membership. From the perspective of an average beekeeper named Turlough, he responds to The Independent article on beekeeping,

For generations, beekeeping has been one of the most genteel of pastimes – a world of flower meadows, village fêtes and white-veiled enthusiasts pottering around, puffing smoke into hives.[1]

“What a load of twaddle. As my late uncle used to say: beekeeping is all about sex, violence and daylight robbery.”[2] Turlough’s uncle was a very sensible man. Each of the three descriptions of beekeeping is rooted in fact. Daylight robbery implies the stealing of honey and other goods, the violence deals with the time of year in northern climates that the female worker bees tear off the wings, bite, and drive off the males in the hive before winter, the sex, is just that, the female queen flies high into the air, and the males mate with her in the air, in doing so further violence is committed as the queen rips out the genitalia of the male bee, having it plummet to the ground to its death, absorbing the sperm into its body allowing it for the production of millions of bees.

Many cultures from across the span of time have indulged in keeping an apiary. According to Thaindian News[3], the earliest beekeeping operation to ever be archeologically uncovered was in Tel Rehov located in northern Israel which was revealed remnants of human-made beehives that supported as many as 200 hives; this find was nearly an astounding 3,000 years old. This finding dates back to the biblical accounts of King David and King Solomon. It also notes that “the earliest known depiction of beekeeping appears on a carving from an Egyptian temple[4] that dates to circa 4,500 years ago.’

Local beekeepers supply their area with fresh honey and become intimate with their customers knowing which types of honey to set aside for whom. Many apiarists like Norman Charpentier of Leominster, MA are backyard beekeepers. I had the unique opportunity to interview him for this paper. They usually have no more then three to five hives, which produce a surplus of anywhere between eighty to a hundred pounds of honey. This is only working on a very low scale production. Many individuals of this group have learned the trade of keeping bees from an older relative. Norman learned it from his great uncle at the age of thirteen, while his father learned along side him. Community based beekeepers have a wide variety of options that they can sell. Everything in a beehive is useable, from honey to wax.

The most famous byproduct of keeping bees is the honey. The things that usually aren’t obvious are the other products associated with having an apiary are beeswax, pollen, and propolis. The first product that bees produce in abundance is beeswax, which can be made into candles. The second item is pollen. Norman told me that some customers request the bees to be set up in their yard; the bees’ hive is then fitted with a pollen grain collector. As the thousands of bees enter the hive, they have to hyper extend and half the time their pollen baskets drop the pollen into the grate that collects it. The customers then eat the pollen and their allergies are no more. The third product is propolis. This is a mixture of tree saps. It has many uses in the hive, as well as many uses in the medical/dentistry field. Propolis, although is time consuming to collect the minimum pound of it, the pay off is eighty dollars a pound.

Going to see the bees is always an interesting experience.

“You always get stung several times, it just comes with the territory,” Norman said as we suited up. The netting draped around my face, and tucked into my collar. Norman said that the first place the bees will try and sting if agitated are the face and neck. Somehow I wasn’t sure about a simple net blocking the way to my face. His son watched from the back porch.

“Don’t worry!” he said with a grin, “the only thing you have to really watch out for is when the bee gets inside with you and can’t find her way out!” That sounds reassuring.

“Why are beekeepers outfits white?”

“They are white to distinguish us from the would be attackers of beehives, which are normally brown and furry,” Norman said, “although there aren’t many bears around here.”

As we neared the hives I began to become nervous. My only thoughts were on the stinging. Apparently this suit wasn’t full proof against bees, any part that was pulled taunt they could sting through.

“If you get stung, don’t pull it out, brush it away. The bee toxins only are fully released when you pinch at the poison sac that is attached with the stinger.”

The bees began to hum as we opened the hives. Norman sprayed a mixture of burlap and pinecones.

“The bees normally can communicate with the use of pheromones and can be alert to an attacker in seconds. The smoke calms them and blocks the pheromones from spreading through the hive, or if we slip and kill a few worker bees, that wont be noticed,” he said as he slowly lifted out a honey super.

This is what we put in to extract the honey. When this is filled up, we replace it with another. We keep a couple extras so we can rotate.

As I stood surrounded by bees, I realized that I too wanted to become part of the world that is beekeeping.

Norman, told me that beekeepers, as a group are generally a strange bunch; as he recounts when his bees stung his wife and she was rushed to the hospital. The police asked him if he had taken out a hefty insurance policy on her, as she is deathly allergic to the sting of honeybees! Of course he hadn’t but needless to say his wife is extremely cautious of his hobby. As for his children, they have been brought up to respect the bees, with the mantra, “if you leave them alone they will leave you alone”. They played with the drones, the males, who have no stinger, getting them to race back and forth across the carpet. His wife tells me how their son at age five sat and let bees that were swarming[5] completely cover his face and neck. Many people who do not understand bees or their nature would rather die then to have their face plastered by a couple thousand of the vivacious females. Swarming is something that happens when bees either lose their queen[6], or it becomes too crowded within the hive.

“Beekeeping was more fun when there wasn’t the added steps of taking chemical strips to fight various diseases such as varroa mites. Back when I first started, there was none of that and it was pretty laid back,” says Norman. This is the general consensus between beekeepers, that the added measures and checks to insure that their bees are healthy has been a proverbial ‘stinger’ in beekeepers’ side.

The benefits of beekeeping are not only fiscal, but nutritional as well. New beekeepers have set up in the White House. They have installed a new beehive into the garden. The current first lady, Michelle Obama wanted her children to eat healthier, and learn about the benefits of honey over sugar are far from infinitesimal. The new presidential apiary was not only installed for its benefits, but also for bee awareness. Beekeepers around the country are hoping that with the rising awarness of beekeeping, the government will stop spraying chemicals that have been suspect to CCD

CCD also known as Colony Collapse Disorder has decimated countless numbers of beehives. This frightening disease has left many beekeepers out of business. Those hit hardest are those who move their vast hives to California for almonds, Florida for melons, and Pennsylvania for apples and Maine for pollination. With the shifting of hives and the bees being exposed to chemicals that have tested hazardous towards pollinators, the safety of many of the worlds hives have been severely compromised. The strange disease causes bees to dissapear from their hives, so instead of having plenty of dead bees in the hives which is characteristic of other diseases, the bees are nowhere to be found.

Norman believed that many local beekeepers, himself included, have not had to deal with hit CCD first hand because of the nature of their production and source of pollen.

It’s amazing that many people wear the masks of an average everyday person, but come bee season they put on a different mask, one with fine netting of course. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United States alone produced roughly 70,000 metric tons of the golden treat, and consumed a whopping 159,000 metric tons of it. America has an insatiable appetite for honey, consuming over twice as much as it makes domestically. Beekeepers are a very important group and not many people realize their significance to their food stores. For example, if you were to sit down for breakfast and have mixed nuts and granola, toast with jam, cranberry juice, coffee with milk, eggs and a lovely fruit salad, you would be sorely disappointed to look at your plate without the help of bees’ pollination. The same breakfast with out the help of pollinators would consist of black coffee, toast with butter, eggs and granola. With a 3/4th of crops in your diet requiring pollination, beekeepers are an extraordinary group. They don’t only provide honey and the like, but provide you with fruits and veggies. It is by no mistake that in the Bible, the Jews were going the land of milk and honey. As you cannot have one with out the other, for you see, alfalfa the feed that cows that produce milk eat needs bees to pollinate it. To put it simply, life without beekeepers would be extremely dour.

Being a beekeeper is many things, a hobby, a business, even a way of life. But what it will always remain as a source of interest for humanity. It can be anywhere from a eight year old boy in a monastery, to the sixty-five year old grandmother in Albania, nothing will change no matter what the human element is added to the equation. The secret life of bees is one thing, but the odd life of the innumerable beekeepers is something that is to be found out by entering into their world; suited up and ready for the inevitable sting.



[3] ANI, “Oldest known archaeological example of beekeeping discovered in Israel.” Thaindian News. 01 SEP 2008. Thaindian News. 28 Apr 2009 <;.

[4] Egypt sites identifies not as a carving from an Egyptian Temple, but from the Tomb of Pabasa near Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri.

[5] Bees swarm for a variety of reasons, generally, the drone supers are filled and the bees feel cramped, so the queen lays a couple eggs and the workers feed them royal jelly to make them into queens, the first queen out kills the others and takes over, the old queen takes half the hive to form a new hive elsewhere.

[6] Bees realize that their queen is gone in a matter of an hour when her pheromone scent disappears. They immediately find 10 developing bees that are no more then 3 weeks old and feed them ‘royal jelly’ which helps them develop their reproductive organs.


Ὄρθρου, ὅταν δυσόκνως ἐξεγείρῃ, πρόχειρον ἔστω ὅτι ἐπὶ ἀνθρώπου ἔργον ἐγείρομαι: τί οὖν δυσκολαίνω, εἰ πορεύομαι ἐπὶ τὸ ποιεῖν ὧν ἕνεκεν γέγονα καὶ ὧν χάριν προῆγμαι εἰς τὸν κόσμον; ἐπὶ τοῦτο κατεσκεύασμαι, ἵνα κατακείμενος ἐν στρωματίοις ἐμαυτὸν θάλπω;

                                                          -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1

“Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for? Or was I created for this, to lie in bed and warm myself under the blankets?’”

This section of Meditations inspired me to write the following passage.

I wake up each morning with torpor, feeling pleasant warmth radiating around my body. The sun cuts through the slits of the windows and illuminates the dwelling. The place where one rests is sacred and should be dark and quiet like a sealed sarcophagus. The light causes me to stir inside my cocoon, angrily.

This cocoon is the temple of rejuvenation, it is a brilliant canvas for the imagination, and is sacred to many ancient deities.

And thus to be dragged out against your will and taken across the most holy pomerium, the lines that demarcate the boundary of this glorious place within and the world without, is the most vile deed known to mankind.

This cocoon is made entirely of blankets, shielding its singular oneironaut1 from the light and chilly air, and must be bravely set aside. The journey of the previous night is over and although its warmth beckons for surely what would be another amusing jaunt, one must get up and resist such a strong opiate.

Every morning, now and hereafter I must metamorphose by bursting violently forth from my warm fibrous cocoon and face the day boldly. For  today I am still alive, this is what one is brought into this world for.  There still remains much knowledge to be gained, wonders to be seen and a life to live outside this cocoon of bedclothes. Mors aurem vellens: “vivite,” ait, “venio.”2

1 A person who travels in dreams.
2 “Death is plucking at your ear: ‘Go on and live,’ he says ‘I’m coming.'” – Copa, Appendix Virgiliana

Ecce! Caecilius (fuscopterus) est in horto.

Bronze bust found in the home of Caecilius and is thought to be of him.

Figure 1. Bronze bust found in the home of Caecilius and is thought to be of him.

Today, I came across an insect with the name Caecilius fuscopterus and immediately smiled. If truth be told, the reason I took Latin in the first place was my passion for insects and my desire to become an entomologist.  Although as far as I know it is not named after the illustrious character from the first book in the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), nonetheless, I was delighted. The title of today’s post is a nod at the first sentence you encounter when taking CLC, “Caecilius est in horto,” translated it reads Caecilius is in the garden.

Lucius Caecilius Iucundus lived in the doomed city of Pompeii. Although records indicate that the real Caecilius died in an earthquake on 5 February 62 CE, seventeen years prior to the 79 CE  eruption of Vesuvius. His altar to the lares, household gods, show scenes from the earthquake. In the text book however, Caecilius’ fate is different:     (spoiler alert) “Caecilius in tablino moribundus iacebat. murus semirutus eum paene celebat…Caecilius, postquam Clementi anulum suum tradidit, statim expiravit.”(210)

According to the fourth North American edition of CLC book one, “his house was preserved along with his strong box which kept records of his business dealings, which were salves, cloth, timber, and property. He also ran a cleaning and dying business, graze sheep and cattle on pastures outside of town, and sometimes won the contract for collecting the local taxes. He may have owned a few shops as well and probably lent money to local shipping companies wishing to trade overseas.”(10)

From Peristyl l - North wall of Caecilius' house. Now in the Museum of Naples

Figure 2. Peristyle l – North wall of Caecilius’ house. Museum of Naples.

Among the other things discovered were beautiful frescoes (Fig. 2). Such scenes were quite common place in wealthy Roman homes and even the Suburban baths exhibited similar frescos. Though by modern standards this one is quite tasteful compared to the others. I say this in italics because sexual tastes are a culturally constructed concept, so what may be scandalous for us, is not quite the same for the Romans. There was also two graffiti found, one which discussed the merits of love “quis amat valeat pereat qui nescit amare bis tanti pereat quisquis amare vetat” (C.I.L. IV 4091).


Whoever loves, let him flourish, let him perish who knows not love, let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.

In the stories he is referred to as an argentarius, a banker. Some of the main characters included his wife Metella, their son Quintus and their slaves. The slaves Grumio, Clemens and Melissa play the most active role in the plot. Oh and let us not forget the dog Cerberus! Grumio was always my favorite. Always getting away with all sorts of things such as eating and drinking his master’s food while Caecilius and his guest slept in a drunken stupor in the triclinium.

Figure 3. Caecilius fuscopterus
(Photo: Bob Saville)

But enough about Caecilius, back to his namesake. According to the website for Biological Records Center, the insect in Figure 3 is a species of Psocoptera from the family Stenopsocidae that can be found in Great Britain and Ireland. It is also common in countries like Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg. They are blackish-orange and are similar to Elipsocus abdominalis. They are colloquially referred to as bark lice and feed on trees such as hawthorns, oak, sallow, and rhododendron.

It was first described by the French entomologist, Pierre André Latreille in 1799, but I have learned that there seems to be a taxonomic squabble between two branches of science. Similarity exists between the names of the family group based on the spelling of the genera, and thus the identity of the stems, for Caeciliidae in current use for the insect under discussion and the other  being an order Gymnophiona of similarly named amphibians that superficially resemble earthworms or snakes. The text is quite an interesting read, although I dare not chase the tangent in this post, but you can certainly read more here.

That being said, let us come back to the entomology and look at the etymology of our little friend. Caecilius is the Roman family gens which is derived from the word caecus, which means blind. The word fusco is a Latin adjective meaning “dark, swarthy, dusky; husky; and hoarse.” The the noun combining form “-pterus” means “one having (such) wings or winglike structures,” and comes from the Greek word πτερος, πτερους. So, the translation would be “blind, having dark wings.”

I see now after writing this that the path that I have gone has granted me insights that I never would have had if I had strictly becoming an entomologist. Although at times I wish that I had majored in this field, I am quite content with history and its requisite linguistics. Though entomology shall always be placed highest among my many passions. And perhaps someday I shall pursue it academically.

A Simple Word Can Open Many Doors

Plate from An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus by R. P. Knight. 1786

Plate from An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus by R. P. Knight. 1786

Today I was searching for references to the Latin word terriculum, for the sake of curiosity. The word  primarily means “means to create terror” but can also be taken to mean “scarecrow” and “bugbear.” Since the term bugbear was used as well, I think the term scarecrow in this instance means “an object of baseless fear.”  Romans did seem to have some sort of scarecrow in the sense that we understand the word. The speculation that keeps cropping up while research the word is that they copied the Greek herms statues which depict the god Priapus and used them to scare birds. Priapus was related to Venus, however, he was extremely ugly and always depicted ithyphallic. Now this brings us to the above picture. In my search for archeological images of a garden Priapus, I came across a book which is verbosely entitled  An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus. Lately Existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples: in Two Letters; One From Sir William Hamilton to Sir Joseph Banks and the Other From a Person Residing at Isernia; to Which is Added, a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its Connexion With the Mystic Theology of the Ancients, published in 1786 and authored by Richard Payne Knight. The image above has an entertaining bit of  squeamishness concerning things of a sexual nature where he writes:

A fpecimen of thefe was brought from the Ifland of ELEPHANTA, in the Cumberland man of war, and now belongs to the Mufeum of Mr. TOWNLEY. It contains general figures, in very high relief: the principal of which are a Man and Woman, in an attitude which I fhall not venture to defcribe, but only obferve, that the action, which I have fuppofed to be a fymbol of refrefhment and invigoration, is mutually applied by both to their refpective Organs of Generation, the emblems of the active and paffive powers of procreation, which mutually cherifh and invigorate each other. (81)

One has to wonder why he published such an image which obviously made him feel uncomfortable either culturally or personally. As you may have noticed, the use of the f or as it’s called, the medial s is used in place of the “s.” I always found this to be an interesting trend. The function of the medial s was that it was used in the middle of the word and the regular s we recognize today was placed at the end. Although this wasn’t as cut and dry as it would appear as some words seem to break this rule. This isn’t the only case of this mode of typography. We also see this in ancient Greek with the letter sigma Σ σ, the upper and lower case letters respectively, where the lower case σ is used in the middle of words and the letter ς is used to end words. The obvious similarities between the English letter s and Greek letter ς is quite evident.

To finish on a good note here is an image of our belovéd Priapus for your amusement, because you should know, the images of the phallus, which were ubiquitous in the Mediterranean, were depicted macrophallic or ithyphallic and were apotropaic by nature. The bottom line was that there were used to incite laughter!

Fresco showing Priapus weighing himself, House of the Vettii, Pompeii

Fresco showing Priapus weighing himself, House of the Vettii, Pompeii

The Cult of Bacchus and Pliny’s Christian Conundrum

This is my last post in a series on the cult of Bacchus, the first can be found here: A Critical Review of the Bacchae of Euripides by Wole Soyinka and the second one here: Bacchic Vindication.

MET Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos, Late Imperial, Gallienic, ca. AD 260-270, accession number 55.11.5

Figure 1. MET Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos, Late Imperial, Gallienic, ca. AD 260-270, accession number 55.11.5


Titus Livy’s narrative of the Bacchanalian Conspiracy in 186 BCE primarily showed a religious persecution that set a precedent. This watershed moment would impact how Romans would view and prosecute Christians in later centuries. Those persecutions were founded on four criteria set forth by Livy and reiterated nearly three centuries from the event in a correspondence between the Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger.[1] The account of the Bacchanalian Conspiracy is only to be found in Livy’s narrative which describes only those who are most closely associated with the event. These individuals are the consul Postumius, the prostitute Hispala, her lover Aebutius, his mother Duronia, and his stepfather Sempronius.  The motivation for the Bacchanalian persecution is argued extensively by scholars but can be simplified for the purpose of this discussion between two schools of thought. Namely, the balancing of the pax deorum and the shocking uncovering of vile acts of stuprum.[2] The first school suggests that because the Bacchanalia was practicing covert rituals at night, the equestrian class feared the unbalancing of the pax deorum. While the other believes that the testimony of Hispala, which described the violent homosexual penetration of the male citizens unwilling to participate in the Bacchanalia, was cause for the swift and ruthless action by the senate.[3] This was considered a moral outrage since the 180’s were marked by “a preoccupation with anxiety about public morality.”[4]

Although the sources dealing with this intriguing event are minimal, their quality is exceptional. There are five primary sources that will be analyzed. Each of these sources are further removed from the initial event; yet, showing its far reaching effects over time in which it ultimately portrays the affects on Christianity. The first source is a surviving bronze copy of the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus, a decree by the Roman senate which was created at the time of the incident.[5] The second, a narrative composed by Livy, is the earliest surviving work describing the event. His account was written sometime during the end of the first century BCE, nearly a hundred years later. According to Walsh, Livy most likely used a variety of sources that do not survive, one of these being from an early annalist who was a relative of the consul Postumius.[6] The third are frescos in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. Since it was annihilated in a violent eruption, the wall paintings offer us a rare glimpse into the daily life of a provincial city which generally reflected the ideology of a culture as a whole.[7] Next is the second century correspondence between Pliny the Younger, a Roman provincial governor, and the Emperor Trajan concerning the procedures for the prosecution of Christians within his jurisdiction. The final source is a statue commissioned by Hadrian in 130 CE of his lover Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris. An adequate analysis of the surviving sources is needed to understand why Christians were so heavily persecuted.

Part 1: TheSenatus Consultum

The Bacchanalia was a landmark event that had dire consequences for adherents of Christianity who would be eventually persecuted. Christianity carried similarities that mirrored the cult of Bacchus. So the Romans believed them to be equally dangerous, not only to the pax deorum, but to Rome’s societal structure as well. During the time that Christianity had first appeared, it was systematically persecuted and ostracized by the Romans for reasons similar to the Bacchae. In order to understand the harsh resistance towards Christians, one must first be aware of the precedent which was created under the context of the Bacchanalian Affair. Furthermore, the cause for Roman opposition to Christianity can be found in Livy’s portrayal of the depravity in the Bacchanalia which carried an important description:

“At night both men and woman, their minds having been set aflame with wine, of greater tender youths, had destroyed all distinction of shame, all kinds of corruption began to happen, since at the time they were prone to obtaining their natural pleasure. There was not only one kind of crime; but here was a great deal of arbitrary rape of females, also false witnesses, forged signing of wills and evidence, all were issued from the same place: from the same place also came poisoning and internal assassinations, so that not even bodies existed for burial…The violence was covered because of the howling and crash of drums and cymbals so no citizens cries were to be heard during their violent rape and slaughter.” [Translation mine.].[8]

This startling evidence is later rephrased as the testimony given by Hispala who reluctantly spoke to the senators. After they were sufficiently disturbed by what they had heard from the witness, the senators quickly sought to repress the illicit and perverse cult. Even before Hispala spoke to the senators, the consul Postumius first had to uncover the organization which operated throughout the Italian peninsula and within Rome herself.

In 1640 the Senatus Consultum was found on a bronze tablet in Tiriolo, Italy and is a facsimile of a letter which contained the senatorial decree. This document was the piece of legislature that set the precedent that would later impact the persecution of early Christians. Since we will frequently reference the Senatus Consultum in the discussion that follows, it is worth reproducing it here:

The consuls Quintus Marcius, son of Lucius, and Spurius Postumius, son of Lucius, consulted the Senate on October 7 in the Temple of Bellona.

Marcus Claudius, son of Marcus, Lucius Valerius, son of Publius, and Quintus Minucius, son of Gaius, assisted in drafting the decree.

Regarding the Bacchanalia the senators proposed to issue a decree as follows to those who are allied with us:

“No one of them shall have a place devoted to the worship of Bacchus: and if there are any who say that they have a need for such a place, they shall appear in Rome before the urban praetor; and when the pleas of these men have been heard, our Senate shall make a decision regarding these matters, provided that not less than 100 senators are present when the matter is discussed. No Roman citizen or man of Latin rights or anyone of the allies shall associate with the Bacchae, unless they have appeared before the urban praetor and he has given permission, in accordance with the opinion of the Senate, delivered while not less than 100 senators were present when the matter was discussed.”

The proposal passed.

“No man shall be priest of, nor shall any man or woman be master of, such an organization; nor shall anyone of them have a common fund; nor shall anyone appoint any man or woman to be master of such an organization or to act as master; nor hereafter shall anyone take common oath with them, shall make common vows, shall make stipulations with them, nor shall anyone give them surety or shall take surety from them. No one shall perform their rites in secret; nor shall anyone perform their rites in public, in private, or outside the city, unless he has appeared before the urban praetor and he has given permission, in accordance with the opinion of the Senate, delivered while not less than 100 senators were present when the matter was discussed.”

The proposal passed.

“No one in a company of more than five persons altogether, men and women, shall perform such rites; nor in that company shall more than two men or three women be present, unless it is in accordance with the opinion of the urban praetor and the Senate, as has been written above.”

You shall publish these decrees in public assembly for not less than three market days, that you may know the opinion of the Senate. For the opinion of the senators is as follows: “If there are any persons who act contrary to what has been written above, it is our opinion that a proceeding for a capital offense must be made against them”; and you shall inscribe this on a bronze tablet, for thus the Senate voted was proper; and you shall order it to be posted where it can be read most easily; and, as has been written above, you shall provide within ten days after these tablets have been delivered to you that those places devoted to the worship of Bacchus shall be dismantled, if there are any such, except in case something sacred is concerned in the matter.

To be dispatched to the Ager Teuranus.”[9]

Several instances with in this document illustrate the restrictions and punishments that are used for those following Bacchus and are reused against those practicing Christianity nearly two centuries later. When looking at paragraph six of the Senatus Consultum in the context of Christianity it is quite clear how many Romans believed that it was a threat to the pax deorum. In order to prevent opposition to the emperor the senate decreed that “No man shall be priest of, nor shall any man or woman be master of, such an organization;”. This also directly applies to Christianity as well. Both religions had similar internal structure that made Romans suspicious of them. The next line important restriction applies directly to the Bacchae, whereas “nor shall anyone appoint any man or woman to be master of such an organization or to act as master;” the distinction of woman was a direct attack on the Bacchae whereas the distinction of man was later used to persecute Christians.

Part 2: The Narrative of Livy

In reference to the document under analysis, Livy’s account reflects and agrees with the inscription “although no evidence of the language gives an indication that he saw it.”[10] His account agrees with the number allowed to meet, a common fund, and neither a master of sacrifices nor a priest was to be allowed.[11] It is believed that these demands are meant to discourage large orgiastic gatherings that the senators feared, yet would allow for the continued individual worship of Bacchus. This continued worship was important because they still believed in the pax deorum and would not chance angering Bacchus.

Although concerning the narrative of Livy,  P. G. Walsh is “sceptical of the wicked stepfather…of the mother’s vow…the role of Aebutius’ aunt…and above all sceptical about the content of Hispala’s revelations,”[12] it is clear that Livy’s account does in fact carry some weight. The tale begins with the introduction of a fatherless Aebutius, who was under the protection of his mother and stepfather. The mother told him of a vow she had made to the gods, that when he became well, she would initiate him into the cult of Bacchus. She continued, telling him that for ten days he must practice continence, where on the tenth day, she would conduct him to the shrine where he would be inducted into the cult.[13] Upon hearing the vow taken by his mother, he agreed to be inducted. This induction into the cult which was infamous for its corruption was key in the plan of his stepfather to steal his inheritance. While in a conversation with his lover[14] Hispala, about not being able to have intercourse with her for ten days, she became cognizant of Aebutius’ plans of induction. She “exclaimed in great distress” at this, telling him:

“They would lead him to a place, which resounded on every side with the howling and harmony of singing and cymbals and the beating of drums, your voice calling for help will not be able to be heard clearly, while they inflict violence by means of forced penetration.” [Translation mine.].[15]

As this revelation was quite disturbing to Aebutius, when he returned home he announced that he would not be initiated into the Bacchanalia. His mother and stepfather, furious at his insolence, chased him from the home “his mother on one side, his stepfather with four slaves on the other.”[16] Aebutius sought refuge with his aunt Aebutia, who was later summoned by Sulpicia the mother-in-law of her nephew in the coincidental presence of the consul Postumius. When Aebutia told the consul what she had heard; believing he had the information he sought, he sent her away asking for Hispala. [17]

Hispala arrived visibly shaken being summoned to such important company, and when she saw the consul, she nearly fainted from fright. When she came to her senses, Hispala supplicated to him for her safety; only then did she speak to Postumius about what she had previously spoken to her lover. After she had finished she again begged for safe exile. Postumius, when he was able to call together the senators, had Hispala speak what she knew to them, causing the senators to become disturbed and fearful.[18] After the testimony of Hispala, Postumius gives a rousing rhetorical speech to the gathered members of the senate in which he convinces them unanimously to persecute those who seek to undermine the Roman state.[19]

The account of Livy is quite unbelievable at times. One can not comprehend that those in Rome were as oblivious to the Bacchanalian movement within their city. Walsh raises that point quite humorously:

We are asked to believe that the consuls and the senate had no inkling of the Bacchic ritual until this dramatic revelation by Hispala. So in the puritanical Roman society of the early second century, a demonic cult had been flourishing for several years undetected. Drums had been beating, trumpets blaring…individuals disappearing, and massive crowds, amongst them prominent noblemen, were participating. Yet the eyes of the consul and senate were opened only when Hispala broke her vow of silence.[20]

Although the existence of dramatics which regularly occur in his account, the basics seem to be mirrored in the Senatus Consultum. This at least bolsters its initial credibility, perhaps why it is involve in many scholarly debates.

Part 3: The Proliferation of the Cult of Bacchus and Christian Conundrum

After the preliminary persecution took place in 186, the cult of Bacchus remained as the evidence shows in the Villa of Mysteries. This villa was “decorated sometime during the first century BCE,

Depiction of Bacchus, presumably the goddess Venus laying on him.

Figure 2. Depiction of Bacchus, presumably the goddess Venus laying on him.

and the majestic Dionysiac frieze (Figure 1.) was commissioned at the same time.”[21]  Naturally, as Bacchus is the god of wine, this villa was in the business of manufacturing and selling that product. The room that this villa is named for has near life sized frescos of a woman who is undergoing marital initiation rights. This colorful and high quality artistry exemplifies the endurance of this cult which had experienced brutal persecution that no other religion had previously underwent. This resilience is reproduced in the followers of Christianity in the centuries to come.

In 79 CE Pliny the Elder, because of his exceedingly curious nature, perished along side the town of Pompeii during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. His nephew Pliny the Younger inherited his uncle’s property and wealth. This new found wealth allowed young Pliny to become the important figure he is. His numerous epistles between the emperor Trajan shed light not only on the workings of governmental procedure, but views towards Christians of the Roman Empire during 110 CE. If you briefly look back at Livy, he describes the Bacchanalia as coniuratio[22] rather than a superstitio.[23] He makes this distinction with the four following criteria:

  1. New, strong links within the group instead of the ancient ones which connected the members to their traditional social structure.
  2. An oath of initiation to respect the own laws of the new community.
  3. Animosity against the State.
  4. The large numbers of followers.[24]

Pliny believed that Christians had three of the four and for this reason they had remained a superstitio praua[25]. However, not all Romans were able to distinguish them from each other and as a result, they believed it was a real threat to their traditional society’s existence—and deserved to be punished accordingly.[26] These similarities are what produced the hostility that the Christianity encountered for the first three centuries of its existence, and the conundrum that Pliny faced as governor. Christians most certainly severed their old ancestral ties by becoming an believer of Christ. To become initiated into this new religion, you had to undergo rituals such as communion and baptism and then respect a new set of moral and social codes. Because of the construct of its faith, many people joined which satisfied the third criteria for becoming a coniuratio. Similarly, those who followed Bacchus severed their ties with their father’s religion, they also partook in the feasting of wine and bread. They made sure to respect a new set of moral codes, and there were many followers. The fourth one which consisted of animosity to the state was said by Pliny to be found in the Bacchae but not in Christianity.

Pliny writes to the emperor asking him what he should do with Christians aside from killing those who did not sacrifice to the emperor. He remarked that he “he found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”[27] Which clearly shows how little Romans thought about Christianity. So too did Romans speak about the cult of Bacchus as degenerate and perverse. Trajan responded that what he was doing was “the right course of procedure…in your examination of the case of persons charged with being Christians.”[28] His straightforward and official standpoint was completely against Christianity, while during this time, the cult of Bacchus flourished unabated.

The cult of Bacchus still remained prevalent during the time when Christianity was struggling under Roman persecution. The statue of Antinous (Figure 3) is a colossal marble statue of the emperor Hadrian’s lover. The emperor chose none other then the god of wine for the deification of Antinous. This interesting choice illustrated the general acceptance of the Bacchic cult. As Roman attitudes towards the Bacchae shifted, so too would they regard Christianity in a different light. The intervening years from the persecution of 186 BCE and the creation of this statue, an elapsed time of 316 years, the bacchanalia thrived and eventually was accepted. Christianity too reflects this resilience in the face of annihilation.


Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris 130 AD Vatican Museum, Pio-Clemintine Museum, Round room Inv. No. 256.

Figure 3. Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris 130 AD Vatican Museum, Pio-Clemintine Museum, Round room Inv. No. 256.

[29]If you are to acknowledge the death of Jesus Christ dated at 33 CE, as the flashpoint, and the acceptance process beginning with the death of the first Christian emperor, Constantine I  in 336 CE; at this proposed chronological framing, it can be theorized that within a close approximation of  years Christianity too became accepted as a religion.

In conclusion, the sordid cult of Bacchus, although heavily persecuted, managed to survive and flourish in later centuries. It’s religious persecution that set a precedent was establish with the advent of the Senatus Consultum. One can trace the influence of the Bacchanalia throughout Rome’s history after 186 BCE as illustrated by figures 1 through 3. These artistic achievements attest to the proliferation of the cult. Likewise, Christianity was similar by being persecuted and their rituals. However, though the Bacchae thrived, it was unlike Christianity since ultimately it became the state religion of the later Roman Empire. When discussing Christianity, if one is not well versed in the past persecution of the Bacchae, then you are unaware of Rome’s reasoning for its persecution.

[1] Pliny the Younger was legatus Augusti of the province of Bithynia et Pontus, and as such, he wrote extensively to the Emperor seeking governmental advice sometime during 110 CE ff.

[2] Stuprum is the Latin word that Livy used to describe the raping of the male citizenry as it signifies the illicit penetration associated with homosexual intercourse.

[3] Victoria Emma Pagàn, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History (Austin: University of

Texas Press, 2004). 58.

[4] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 200.

[5] Allan Johnson, Paul Coleman-Norton and Frank Card Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 27

[6] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 193.

[7] Umberto Pappalardo, The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting (J. Paul Getty Trust: Los Angeles, 2009), 7.

[8] Titus Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 39.8.6-8. Cum vinum animos incendisset, et nox et mixti feminis mares, aetatis tenerae maioribus, discrimen omne pudoris exstinxissent, corruptelae primum omnis generis fieri coeptae, cum ad id quisque, quo natura pronioris libidinis esset, paratam voluptatem haberet. Nec unum genus noxae, stupra promiscua ingenuorum feminarumque erant, sed falsi testes, falsa signa testamentaque et indicia ex eadem officina exibant : venena indidem intestinaeque caedes, ita ut ne corpora quidem interdum ad sepulturam exstarent… Occulebat vim quod prae ululatibus tympanorumque et cymbalorum strepitu nulla vox quiritantium inter stupra et caedes exaudiri poterat.

[9] Allan Johnson, Paul Coleman-Norton and Frank Card Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 27.

[10] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 272.

[11] Ibid., 273-274.

[12] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 199.

[13] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 243.

[14] Hispala Faecenia was a prostitute of high repute, who was manumitted but continued in the profession as such. She become quite entangled with Aebutius, even denoting him as the heir of her fortune.

Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 247.

[15] Titus Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 39.10.7 Eos deducere in locum, qui circumsonet ululatibus cantuque symphoniae et cymbalorum et tympanorum pulsu, ne vox quiritantis, cum per vim stuprum inferatur, exaudiri posit.

[16] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 249.

[17] Ibid., 249.

[18] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 255, 257.

[19] Ibid., 259-267.

[20] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 198-9.

[21] Umberto Pappalardo, The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting (J. Paul Getty Trust: Los Angeles, 2009), 46.

[22] coniuratio, coniurationis—conspiracy, plot, intrigue; band of conspirators, taking an oath.

[23] superstitio, superstitionis—superstition, irrational religious awe.

[24] Àgnes A. Nagy, “Superstitio et Coniuratio,” International Review for the History of

 Religions 49, no. 2 (2002): 178. (accessed May 10, 2010)

[25] prauus, praua, prauum—perverse, corrupt.

[26] Àgnes A. Nagy, “Superstitio et Coniuratio.” International Review for the History of Religions 49, no.2 (2002): 178. (accessed May 10, 2010)

[27] Gaius Plinius, The Letters of Younger Pliny, Translated by Betty Radice. (London:

Penguin Group, 1969), 295.

[28] Ibid., 295.

[29] Sergey Sosnovskiy, Guide to  the Vatican Museums and City. Pontifical Monuments, Museums and Galleries (Vatican: Vatican Press, 1986), 48.


Bacchic Vindication: A Character Analysis of Dionysus in Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite 

Attic Red Figure Painting by the Kleophrades Painter who lived from 510-470 BCE.

Attic Red Figure Painting by the Kleophrades Painter who lived from 510-470 BCE.

This article is two of three in a series on Bacchus/Dionysus, you can read the first one here, and the next one here.

Although Dionysus initially draws out sympathy from the reader, his vindictive nature over rules his actions. All the while his inclination for revenge, however macabre it may be, gestates. When you first meet the god Dionysus, he explains to the audience how the people of Thebes have done injustice against him; he then begins to lay out his revenge. Each line in his opening speech contains a wealth of subliminal information into his malicious tendency to those who were not initiated in his Bacchic mysteries. In his opening dialogue with the audience he states:

“Thebes taints me with bastardy; I am turned into an alien, some foreign outgrowth of her habitual tyranny,” [i]

Dionysus hints at his ill fated birth and the stigma behind it. The city of Thebes does not accept his deified birthright from Zeus, and, portrayed later in his introductory lines, is the Thebans attitude towards his mother Semele; “…bringing vengeance on all who deny my holy origin and call my mother—slut.”[ii] (This line also outlines to whom he will seek his revenge.) His mother was struck by a thunderbolt for looking upon the divine form of Zeus.[iii] But her death was taken by those in the city of Thebes as a sign of her infidelity to her husband as well as outlandishly claiming that Zeus fathered her son.  Zeus, being the god of oaths, punishes those who are unfaithful to their spouses; so it was right to assume the cause of Semele’s punishment. His status as an alien stems from his origins. This alienation angers Dionysus and further marks his status as simply a mortal born out of wedlock rather then being the son of Zeus. The rumor of his birth was misconstrued as him being taken by Zeus, who then sewed Dionysus into his thigh.[iv] This may be eluded to the description of “foreign outgrowth”. Later, the play pokes fun at this aspect with humorous, yet insightful vulgarity. :


“…Is the man

Not fully present in the seed? And the offspring

Of the son of Ichion, are they not even now ensconced

Within that dangling pouch between your thighs?

Offsprings whose genesis you now endanger

By sharp tongue wagging impiously?

It’s not for me to say if Zeus had his scrotum

Sewn to one side of his thighs or

In—between like – presumably – yours.”[v]

With this scene in mind, the “outgrowth” that Dionysus was from  Zeus’ scrotum. Such a concept is visited in the text once before, “a seed of Zeus was sown in Semele my mother”[vi],  it is obvious that the seed of Zeus dwells between his thighs. The “outgrowth” is simply talking about Dionysus as Zeus’ son, growing out of him becoming a “foreign” body shows his separation from Zeus.

Although the last part of the first sentence is contained as such, I feel that it relates to the prevenient sentence which reads:

“…her habitual tyranny. My followers daily pay forfeit for their faith.”[vii]

“her” in that portion is referring to the city of Thebes, and the tyranny of Thebes institutes edicts often against the followers of Dionysus; and because of that, they pay dearly. But in all cases they seem to have been set free, “In was no Human hands that snapped those chains, no/ Human cunning picked the locks on those/ Iron gates.”[viii];  they’re set free by none other then Dionysus himself.

The following sentence seems to be the most vindictively geared statement for his case of revenge on the city of Thebes:

“Thebes blasphemes against me, makes a scapegoat of a god.”[ix]

Being a god from the seed of Zeus, Dionysus feels he is due what is owed to him. Namely, the pouring out of libations, the wearing fawn skins, waving the thyrsus, and dancing in homage to him.  The fact of the matter is that the city of Thebes disregards his birth as divine from Zeus, so therefore, sees no reason to worship him. Their blaspheme is simply their refusal to worship and acknowledge him. For this reason, he becomes vengeful and takes on this vindictiveness.

In the second half of that sentence, he attributes the people of Thebes into making a scapegoat of him, which is only worsened as an insult because he is a deity. The occurrences of the Theban women heading for the hills to “frisk” each other and indulging in the many inebriated orgies in honor of Dionysus causes King Pentheus to blame Dionysus for their promiscuous activities, rather than the women for their own immorality.[x] Granted, they’re in a trance because of the influence of Dionysus, but the blame still rests on them for they had not willingly accepted Dionysus as a god.

This line is where he starts to portray that he is plotting against the inhabitants of Thebes, and they will not be able to refute his rightful place in the Pantheon. Dionysus says:

“It is time to state my patrimony—even here in Thebes.” [xi]

and within this statement, he portrays his worldliness and authoritative abilities that he will flex within Thebes. His “patrimony” refers directly back to how he is rightly apt to receive the mantle of godhood. He had inherited powers that he now wields vindictively against mortals who dare question his legitimate power. The portion that says “—even here in Thebes” shows that he has already been accepted as a god in other parts of the world, and when he is through, he will be god in the eyes of those dwelling in Thebes, or,  if need be, while they dwell in Hades.

The revenge of Dionysus is most keenly felt on the house of Pentheus, ruler of Thebes. The twisted and disturbing manner that he achieves his regicidal revenge  shows his vindictive, rather than a sympathetic persona. It is hard to be sympathetic to someone who is ruthless and hell-bent at decimating those who would dare scoff at his godly status. To be worthy of sympathy, he would have to be less malevolent and far more pitiful of a character. As it is, he does not require pity, but projects fear into the those who view him.


[i] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 1.

[ii]Ibid., 2.

3 “Semele, daughter of Cadmus king of Thebes, being beloved by Zeus, was beguiled by the jealous Hera into asking him to visit her, as he visited Hera herself, in the full glory of his god-head. He accordingly appeared before her in all his majesty as the god of thunder ; Semele, over- powered by his presence, was struck dead by his thunderbolts.” (see John Edwin Sandys The Bacchae of Euripides: With Critical and Explanatory Notes and with Numerous Illustrations From Works of Ancient Art. 3rd ed. (London: C. J. Clay And Sons, 1892), ix.

[iv] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 30.

[v] Ibid.,31.

[vi] Ibid.,2.

[vii] Ibid.,1.

[viii] Ibid.,40.

[ix] Ibid.,1.

[x] Ibid., 23.

[xi] Ibid., 1.