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Excerpt from "The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Mysterious Roots of Modern Music"

The Bacchanalia

by Christopher Knowles

Note: The Bacchanalia were rites dedicated to Dionysus aka Bacchus, god of wine and resurrection and much more besides. The Bacchanalia were a constant irritant to ancient authorities and inspired several brutal crackdowns over the years. This is the story of one of the bloodiest.

Having scandalized Greece, the Bacchanalia migrated over to Rome, where they became even more notorious. The seditious counterculture of the Roman Bacchants resulted in a moral panic in 186 BC, inspiring the Senate to unleash a terrifying wave of repression, which was luridly documented by the conservative historian Livy (59 BC-17 AD) in his landmark History of Rome.

As Livy tells it, things got so out of hand that instead of being celebrated three times a year as in Greece, the Roman cults were whooping it up five times a month. Stoking up the outrage like an ancient Fox News host, Livy darkly reports that “more uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women.” Stoking up the outrage like an ancient Fox News anchorman, Livy claims that anyone who refused to take part in all of the debauchery was then sacrificed to Bacchus; “To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the very sum of their religion,” he fumes.

All of this was especially outrageous in the macho days of the Republic. But to the conservative Roman male, effeminate behavior was the problem, not necessarily homosexuality itself. Many powerful Roman men kept male slaves or teenaged boys as “catamites,” although it was taboo (illegal, actually) for a free-born adult man to act as a passive sex partner- Roman men were always on top. Losing that control is what Livy rails against in the Bacchanalia when he writes that “the males, the very counterparts of the women” had been “committing and submitting to the foulest uncleanness.” In one passage, he recounts that Maenads carried torches treated with sulfur and lime that wouldn’t extinguish when dipped into water. Interesting to see that all of the sex, drugs and rock and roll were accompanied by pyrotechnics.

Aside from the sodomy allegations, Livy is equally outraged that their behavior was hysterical and unmasculine, describing them as “frantic and frenzied, driven out of their senses by sleepless nights, by wine, by nocturnal shouting and uproar.” Livy then compares the male Bacchae to traditionally-female oracles observing that “the men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies.” Sure enough, the same kind of allegations would be made against the early rock n’ rollers, as were the same accusations of unmanly sexual appetites.

For a Roman chauvinist like Livy, the ultimate outrage of the Bacchic Mysteries was that “women form(ed) the great majority, and this was the source of all the mischief.” Working himself into a lather, Livy then declares that “never has there been such a gigantic evil in the commonwealth, or one which has affected greater numbers or caused more numerous crimes,” a laughably bold statement seeing this is ancient Rome he was talking about (in his defense, Livy died just before Tiberius and Caligula came along).

Livy then has the cavalry swooping in on this evil conspiracy, and here he relies on records of magistrates for the fate of the cult. It’s a pretty grim account: “Many names were handed in, and some of these, both men and women, committed suicide.” Shocking considering that over 7,000 people were reportedly arrested. “The number of those executed exceeded the number of those sentenced to imprisonment, Livy recounts, “there was an enormous number of men as well as women in both classes.” Women found guilty “were handed over to their relatives or guardians to be dealt with privately; if there was no one capable of inflicting punishment, they were executed publicly.” Which is to say that hundreds of men were forced by the Senate to execute their own wives and daughters.

Even though Romans were much more extreme in their decadence than the Greeks, historians today don’t put a lot of stock in Livy’s overheated account of the Bacchanalia themselves, and generally write them off as politically motivated hysteria. His account of a massive cult that sprung up out of nowhere and took the country by storm is an historical fiction, meant to titillate his audience. The Bacchic cult had been around - and been tolerated - for some time in Italy, and many believe that the witchhunt was whipped up more for political reasons than moral or criminal ones.

The ultimate accusation against the Bacchanalia was of conspiracy against the Republic. The fear among the elite was that “another people were about to arise” and supplant the existing order. Indeed, the greatest boogieman to the Roman aristocracy was the Demogogue, meaning anyone who could rally women, slaves and other non-citizens against the landowning families who controlled the Senate.

Given the incredible socioeconomic inequities even in the fabled Republic, rebellion was always a clear and present danger that could be whipped up at any time, and often was. But contrary to Livy, the Bacchanalia weren’t prohibited and its shrines weren’t destroyed, but rather tightly regulated and controlled by law. Fifty years later a revolt would rise up in Sicily, under the banner of the ‘Syrian Goddess’ (roughly analagous to Isis). Roman reaction would be brutal then, too.

Though they never again reached the fever pitch of the Republican era, the Bacchanalia would be revived in a new, more socially acceptable form by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Known as the Liberalia after another one of Dionysus’ epithets, the new Bacchic holiday would be a more family-oriented kind of street fair, with honey cakes and sweet meats replacing all of the boozing and screwing. Various rituals and entertainments made it a popular holiday. At some point in time the boozing and screwing snuck back in, but in less scandalous ways.

The Liberalia are still very much with us - in fact, our modern version is celebrated on the exact same day that the Romans did. In our modern version, people still march and drink and stuff themselves and play flutes and drums and all the rest of it. We still pig out on beer, beef and cabbage, a practice which dates back to the Osirian blowouts in Egypt (where cabbage was thought to delay over-intoxication). We even still dress in the color of Osiris-Dionysus-Bacchus, whom the Celts knew as the ‘Green Man’.

Yes, the Liberalia lives on to this day. We just changed the festival's name to ‘St. Patricks Day’.

Excerpted from The Secret History of Rock ’N’ Roll: The Mysterious Roots of Modern Music from Christopher Knowles (Viva Editions, October 2010). Used with permission.


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