Monday, August 06, 2012

Livy and the Bacchanalia

In 186 BC, the Roman Senate passed the senatus consultum (S.C.) de Bacchanalibus, a law that, so it is said, "suppressed" the cult of Dionysus – the Bacchanalia – in Rome and Italy. We know this because of an inscription found in Bruttium that contains the S.C.,2 which confirms Livy's narrative in Ab Urbe Condita 39.8-19. It features one of the consuls of 186, Spurius Postumius Albinus, who conducted a quaestio ("investigation") into a coniuratio ("conspiracy") that had allegedly arisen out of the Bacchanalia. These events, though a minor episode in Livy's text, have received a lot of attention from scholars, partly because of their relevance to later persecutions of Christians. Scholars often question Livy's account, pointing out literary embellishments, offering historical explanations about why Rome would suppress the Bacchanalia, and describing how Livy uses the text to achieve its moral purpose, but rarely taking seriously his description of the cult. In particular, the allegations of debauchery, forgery, poison, and murder cannot be substantiated in any of the other evidence concerning the cult of Dionysus.