The Bacchanalia: The Year 186 BCE


  • The consuls Spurius Postumius Albinus and Quintus Marcius Philippus suppress the Bacchanalia in Rome and the rest of Italy;
  • The Senate adopts the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, which allows the Bacchanalia to continue under very strict conditions only;
  • The consul Quintus Marcius Philippus is heavily defeated by the Ligurian Apuani;
  • Victories against the Celtiberians and Lusitani in Spain are marred by the death of the propraetor of Hispania Ulterior, Gaius Atinius.

This year, the Romans had to deal with trouble in Spain, where the Celtiberians and Lusitani were up in arms and attacked Roman allies in the two provinces, Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior. Another challenge was a group of Celts that had crossed the Alps and had migrated into the region where the Veneti lived, a people that were on friendly terms with Rome (see 225 BCE). The Celts occupied land and tried to found a city near what would later become Roman Aquileia. The Romans sent envoys across the Alps to inquire about the migrants’ motives in their original homeland. But the biggest problems that the Romans had to solve this year were to be found in Rome itself. Both consuls, Spurius Postumius Albinus and Quintus Marcius Philippus, were actively involved in suppressing ‘a conspiracy at the heart of the state’, as the historian Livius put it. I am referring to the suppression of the Bacchanalia, the secretive festivals of the Greco-Roman god of wine Bacchus. These were felt to have a corrupting influence on especially young men, prompting a response by the magistrates and Senate that was swift, ruthless and determined.

The Bacchanalia

The Romans had traditionally adopted a relatively tolerant attitude with regard to foreign religious influences. The Roman pantheon was large, and there seems to have always been room for a few more gods here and there. In fact, only 18 years ago, the Romans had imported a new goddess from Phrygia in the East, the goddess Cybele or Magna Mater (Great Mother). The mission to collect the sacred stone representing the goddess from her sanctuary in Pessinus had been actively sponsored by the state, although at the same time the authorities had made sure that the priests of the Great Mother were always foreigners – Phrygian eunuchs called Galli – and not Romans. The Bacchanalia, however, were something different. It was probably a combination of elements that made the Roman elite view the cult of Bacchus as a threat to and a conspiracy against the state itself. These elements will be discussed below.

Mosaic of the grape harvest.

The cult of Bacchus – based on that of the Greek god Dionysos – had been introduced in Italy several decades previously, probably via the Greek colonies in the south of the peninsula. It had quietly found a place in Rome, where it went largely unnoticed because of the sheer size of the city. Soon however, stories began to circulate about the secret meetings of the worshippers in the middle of the night, about the large quantities of wine that were consumed and about the ecstatic rituals with an explicit sexual nature that were performed. It seems clear that many of the rituals were misunderstood because the Romans were simply unaware of their precise nature and meaning. But since they were interpreted as leading to debauchery and even murder, the rumours were taken very seriously. The fact that the cult of Bacchus was a mystery cult of foreign origin, only open to those who had been initiated, that both men and women participated in mixed ceremonies and that these ceremonies took place in secret when everyone else was asleep only added to the Romans’ suspicion.

According to Livius, the backlash against the cult was prompted by the testimonies of two people. One was Publius Aebutius, the son of a Roman knight (eques). The other was a freedwoman named Hispala Faecinia, who was both a prostitute and Aebutius’ lover. Hispala had had first-hand experience of the Bacchic rituals. When she was still a slave, she had been present at the ceremonies with her mistress, and both had been initiated into the cult. Hispala had warned her lover against joining the cult, and when he had heeded that warning, his mother and stepfather – who wanted him to be initiated – had kicked him out of their home. Aebutius then reported to the consul Postumius what had happened, and the consul subsequently heard Hispala as a witness. Putting immense pressure on the woman, he made her confess what really happened during the nightly rituals in the so-called ‘grove of Stimula’, a sacred location between the river Tiber and the Aventine Hill perhaps named after the Roman equivalent of Semele, who was Dionysos’ mother.

Remains of the temple of Bellona.

After hearing her testimony, Postumius brought the case before the Senate. The meeting took place at the Temple of Bellona on 7 October according to the Roman calendar. Shocked by what they had heard, the senators immediately charged the consuls with investigating the Bacchanalia, not just in Rome, but in all of Italy. The consuls in turn instructed the curule aediles to track down the priests of the cult and arrest them, while the plebeian aediles were ordered to make sure that no more rituals took place in public during the day. Finally, lower magistrates known as the triumviri capitales were assigned to prevent any more nightly meetings. The consul Postumius himself addressed the Roman people from the Rostra, and his speech left them frightened and – quite frankly – hysterical. All of Rome was now captivated by the alleged ‘conspiracy’, in which over 7.000 men and women were said to be involved. The ringleaders were arrested, as were dozens of their followers. Livius claims that more people were executed than put in prison, but the exact number of arrests and executions can no longer be established.

To sum up, several factors played a role in the Roman decision to suppress the Bacchanalia. Social conservatism, xenophobia and an aversion to foreign influences on Roman culture and religion were relevant, but much more important was probably the fact that the cult of Bacchus was a mystery cult. The meetings took place in secret and only initiates were allowed to participate. This on the one hand meant that the Roman authorities were unable to exercise control over the rituals, and on the other that soon distorted rumours began to circulate about what went on during the nightly ceremonies. The Bacchanalia were felt to have a corrupting influence on young people, especially now that stories were circulating that only men and women under the age of twenty were allowed to join the cult. Young men of military age were the backbone of Roman society and the Roman army, and therefore these corrupting influences were considered very dangerous.

Pentheus torn apart during the Bacchanalia (fresco in Pompeii).

It should be noted, however, that the cult of Bacchus was not entirely rooted out. The surviving senatorial decree – the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus – shows that the rituals were allowed to continue under specific conditions. Worshippers had to report to the praetor urbanus if they wanted to engage in religious ceremonies, and this praetor had to consult with the Senate, which had to decide in a session in which at least 100 senators were present. Only small ceremonies of no more than two men and three women were allowed and no one was allowed to act as a priest (sacerdos) or a leader (magister). Common treasuries were also prohibited. Violations of the senatorial decree were considered capital offences. All in all, the Roman response to the Bacchanalia can be seen as a blunt attempt to bring the cult of Bacchus under government supervision. This fierce response by the authorities was certainly unprecedented.

Military campaigns

The consul Quintus Marcius Philippus spent much of his term suppressing the Bacchanalia, so he arrived in his province of Liguria late in the year. Little time remained for campaigning against the Apuani and the consul’s expedition furthermore ended in disaster when he found himself surrounded in a narrow mountain pass. The Romans were thoroughly defeated, losing perhaps 4.000 men and several standards. Livius claims that the pass where the consul’s army had been crushed was henceforth known as the Saltus Marcius, the ‘Marcian pass’.

Map of Northern Italy (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

The Romans achieved mixed results in Spain this year. The propraetor of Hispania Ulterior, Gaius Atinius, won a resounding victory against the Lusitani and then proceeded to invest a stronghold known as Hasta. The name means ‘spear’ in Latin, but it most likely refers to a Celtic word for a hill (cf. Asti in Piedmont, Italy). The location of the stronghold is unknown, but the Lusitani offered little resistance. The only serious setback was the death of the propraetor, who had approached the enemy defences carelessly and had been critically injured by a missile. Fortunately for the Romans, the governor of Hispania Citerior, Lucius Manlius Acidinus, won a splendid victory over the Celtiberians. After a first battle had ended in a draw, a second battle was fought near Calagurris (modern Calahorra in Northern Spain). Even though the casualties given by Livius can be considered exaggerations – 12.000 Celtiberians were said to have been killed and a further 2.000 captured – the Roman victory was total.


Primary sources


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