The cult of Dionysos Bakcheios took root in Sicily and Southern Italy when the region was heavily colonized by the Greeks. It swiftly spread to Rome, Tuscany and the cities of the north so that a few centuries later Sophokles could refer to Dionysos in the choral ode from Antigone as “the Lord of all Italy.” Though the Etruscans were especially devoted to the god, the heart of the cult remained in the mystic South which was also the home of Pythagorean and Orphic communities.
As the Bacchic cult was welcoming to women, effeminate males, foreigners, slaves and other disenfranchised minorities — who together formed an overwhelming majority of the population — the Roman authorities grew suspicious and moved to put an end to their perceived revolutionary aspirations. They found a prostitute who had been initiated into the cult and threatened and bribed her until she gave damning testimony against her fellow initiates. She alleged that the cult had committed all manner of lewd and indecent acts and had branched out to murder, forgery, extortion and other serious crimes.
In order to corroborate her scandalous charges they sent out spies, paid informants and strongmen who terrorized the communities of Southern Italy for months. Many chose suicide rather than give false confession under torture, but eventually the Roman authorities had enough information to act upon. They declared the Bacchic cult illicit and with their justly earned reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency, the Romans made war upon the devotees of the god.
And war it was too, as the sober historian Livy recounted. He claims that over seven thousand men and women were found guilty of association with the Bacchanalia, and whole cities were depopulated in the suppression.
But so great were the numbers that fled from the city, that … the praetors Titus Maenius and Marcus Licinius were obliged to adjourn their courts for thirty days, until the inquiries should be finished by the consuls. Since the law-courts were closed and those who had charges brought against them often had fled, the consuls were forced to make a circuit of the country towns where they made their inquisitions and held the trials. Those for whom the only crime was initiation were left in prison while those that they could prove had committed a host unspeakable crimes were punished with death. A greater number were executed than thrown into prison; indeed, the multitude of men and women who suffered in both ways was very considerable. The consuls delivered the women, who were condemned, to their relations, or to those under whose guardianship they were, that they might inflict the punishment in private; if there did not appear any proper person of the kind to execute the sentence, the punishment was inflicted in public. A charge was then given to demolish all the places where the Bacchanalians had held their meetings; first in Rome, and then throughout all Italy; excepting those wherein should be found some ancient altar or consecrated statue. (History of Rome 34:18)
Once they had broken the cult’s base of power in Italy they appointed their own officials to operate the few remaining temples and strictly organize small, private religious associations. Anyone who attempted to honor the god outside of this system of control was severely punished. Dionysos did not remain gagged and straight-jacketed for long however. On the eve of one of his festivals Dionysos came to the assistance of a young soldier, helping him to gain victory and through that distinction and power. His generosity was not forgotten. Once that young man — known to history as Julius Caesar — had the whole country under his control one of the first things he did was lift the ban on the Bacchanalia.
The massacre of the Bacchic Martyrs is one of the few instances of Roman religious intolerance (along with the suppression of the Druids, the destruction of the temple of Isis and the expulsion of Sabazius-worshipers from the city) before the Christian era. Unlike those other instances, however, the Bacchic persecution came with a body count that would not be equaled until the time of Decius and Diocletian.
For contemporary Dionysians these are our ancestors, our predecessors, men and women who paid the ultimate price to be counted among the mystai of the god. They must be remembered.
We who are engaged in the revival of our ancestral traditions must remember those who came before us and include them in our labor if we are to see the fruit of success. They possess wisdom that we, with our sundered traditions, do not. They understood the importance and sacredness of these traditions since they were willing to lay down their lives for the sake of them. We, especially those of us who live in Western secular societies, have it easy and that has led to apathy and complacency. We must take inspiration from their examples and devote ourselves to honoring the holy powers and strengthening our traditions so that we have something of worth to pass on to the generations that follow.