Rich or poor, young or old, Romans loved raising a glass to the god of wine.
Today, the term “bacchanal” is bandied about at almost any gathering where the guests get a bit tipsy and mildly frisky, but it originally referred to a specific ancient Roman celebration — the frenzied rites of Bacchus, god of wine and intoxication. Unlike the formal banquets so beloved by Roman aristocrats, these were essentially outdoor rave parties — anarchic romps held after dark in remote forest settings, where the quest for mania (a total festive abandon) could proceed unfettered beneath the stars. Luring hundreds of young initiates, the gatherings were as free-spirited and sexually charged as San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and even in ancient times they scandalized the prudish and disturbed the authorities. Today, those first Bacchanalia still echo through the ages as the prototypical legless debauch, where participants can achieve a pitch of euphoria that hovers between divine ecstasy and the oblivion of death.
The Romans knew a good idea when they saw it, and here they had adapted a festival begun by the Greeks and took it to its logical extreme. Starting around 700 B.C., those very first rites of Bacchus, who was known to the Greeks as Dionysus, had only been held semi-annually, in the middle of winter on the sacred mountain Parnassus. Not only was this rather uncomfortable to attend, especially if you happened to be naked, it was one of the only Greek religious events reserved entirely for women and girls. By the time the party was exported to southern Italy around 400 B.C., the rituals had opened up considerably. Men were invited to join in — after all, Bacchus was an androgynous type, depicted as a beautiful youth wearing a fetching sort of dress. The drinking became heavier and the behavior more raunchy. But when the Romans took Bacchus up around 200 B.C., the party’s potential for excess was exploited to the full. Although the city was still relatively small, controlling only Italy and parts of Spain, its citizens liked a good time. Bacchanalia quickly became so popular that they were held five times a month.
Despite their notoriety, the Bacchic rites have always been shrouded in mystery, the evidence blurred perhaps by the fact that the eyewitnesses tended to be blitheringly drunk. But scholars have pieced together fragments from ancient plays, histories, and legal reports, and can fairly well describe the progress of the genuine Roman article.
Scoring an Invitation: Bacchanals were the original guerilla events: The party date and location were closely guarded secrets, whose details were whispered around the streets of Rome from one worshiper to the next. (You heard it through the grapevine, as it were; the fans of Bacchus appear to have been organized into “cells” around the city, with individuals bound to their leaders by sacred oath). The priests and priestesses chose a spot in the very thick of nature — usually one of the many forest glades by the banks of the Tiber within walking distance of the city, where privacy for the debauchery was guaranteed — and the invitations filtered through luxury villas and slums, involving all social classes. Unlike the rites of Apollo, which were snooty, upscale events, Bacchus’ worshipers were drawn from the rich and poor, young and old — to the horror of more traditional Romans, even slaves would be allowed to attend and mingle with free citizens. The god did prefer his guests to be young and attractive. Many were barely in their teens: In 188 B.C., a religious by-law for Bacchanals was even passed making the maximum age 20, but it was largely ignored by the lewd old satyrs who liked to trawl the events.
Pre-party Preparation: Celebrants were also supposed to abstain from sex for 10 days beforehand — another by-law that was conveniently ignored. Guests should prepare a white goat for the ceremony, cleaning its coat and painting its horns gold, and gather their special torches made of pine branches dipped in sulfur and charcoal.
What to Wear: As a back-to-nature event, total nudity was always acceptable, but many celebrants wore some gesture at a skimpy costume made of fawn skin decorated with strands of white wool, possibly to emulate forest animals. Cotton tunics could be worn so long as the material was artfully torn to reveal a little flesh. Few people bothered with footwear; most crowned their disheveled hair with wreaths of vine-leaves and flowers. As for accessories, women would carry suggestive wands made of fennel stalk with a pinecone tied to its tip, while men might bring along a wooden phallus in a container — the original dick in a box, 2,200 years before Justin Timberlake’s hit.
Party Progress: After dark, groups of friends carrying torches and leading goats would gather at the fringes of the city, then proceed to the appointed site, playing flutes, cymbals, and drums with increasing excitement. The revelers would have heard the party before they saw it: In a forest clearing lit by flickering flames, hundreds of Bacchic worshippers were dancing, leaping, and guzzling wine from leather gourds. As new arrivals entered this bright, charmed circle, they poured a splash of their own wine on the ground as an offering to Bacchus and chanted the god’s sacred names (“The Loud One, the Deliverer from Sorrow, Son of Thunder…”) before throwing themselves into the writhing mosh pit. From this point on, the paltry laws of Man no longer applied.
The Menu: In between spasms of contorted dancing and frolicking, celebrants could sample hot cakes coated with warm honey and drink gallon after gallon of fresh red wine. We know that the ancient vintages were more syrupy and potent than ours today, and were usually diluted with water, 50/50; but Bacchic revelers would have drunk theirs neat to achieve an alcohol-induced frenzy. (A close approximation of ancient wine that can be sampled today is the Galioppo grape, a varietal that was first cultivated by Greek settlers in southern Italy and is still grown in Calabria). At the point of blind intoxication, celebrants would apparently turn on the sacrificial goats, tear them to pieces limb from limb and devour the raw meat, rejoicing that the consumption of divine flesh and blood signified Bacchus’ mythic death and rebirth. The blood-smeared participants would then run down to the banks of the Tiber with their torches. They dipped the flames into the black water, but because the torches were doused with sulfur and charcoal, they emerged from the river still miraculously alight — a symbol of the god’s potency.
Etiquette Tip: Those who signed on for a Bacchanal could not hold anything back, or fellow revelers might turn savagely violent. This dark underlying current was totally unpredictable. If you refused to submit to someone’s carnal pleasures, they might attack you on the spot, your cries drowned out by the clash of cymbals. The bodies of murder victims tended to mysteriously disappear, as if carried off by Bacchus himself.
High Point: The successful Bacchanal involved pagan ecstasy, wild sex, and communion with the deity.
Low Point: All this festive abandon provoked an eventual crackdown by the military killjoys. In 186 B.C., the Roman Senate became concerned at the boom in Bacchic parties — not because of the event’s evident depravity, despite the reports of rampant homicide and pedophilia, but because the drunken crowds included the lower classes and slaves, a subversive mix that might become politically dangerous if left uncontrolled. The army was called in, and some 7,000 celebrants were arrested; many of the males were executed. In fact, that was the end of the genuine Bacchanals in Rome.
From that date onwards, Bacchus could only be worshipped with a maximum of three women and two men present, and even then only with an official permit. But in the remoter forests of rural Southern Italy, where the Greek influence had always been strongest, the rites continued for centuries. • 23 July 2008
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Dalby, Andrew, Bacchus: A Biography (London, 2003); Livy, The History of Rome (Loeb Classical Library, 1924); Caroline C. Young, “Recipe for a Bacchanal,” in Hosking Richard (ed.), Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking, 2004.
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.