One of the first religious persecutions we know of is the persecution of the followers of Dionysus, and more specifically Roman Bacchus – the god of wine and ecstatic frenzy. They took place in the second century BCE, and as a result thousands of young people were killed and the practices of Bacchanalia (celebrated on March 16-17) were forbidden.
Rome’s extensive contacts with the east and Greece led to the fact that foreign customs and beliefs appeared in Roman lands – sometimes very exotic. Observing the morality of Roman society, the authorities looked with increasing concern at the growing cult of Dionysus. Celebrating Bacchanalia behaved in a way very different from the canons of Roman morality. Ecstatic dances, drunkenness, nudity and moral freedom had a demoralizing effect on young generations.
One of our sources about Bacchanalia is Livy, who claims that they were initiated in Great Greece, from where they got to Etruria, and then to Rome and spread especially in southern Italy. They were associated with numerous condemned abuses, which eventually turned into dissolute orgies.
Livy also presents the testimony of a liberator who, acting out of revenge, caused the disclosure of rites and waves of arrests among their participants:
At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. Paculla Annia, a Campanian, when she was priestess, made a complete change, as though by divine monition, for she was the first to admit men, and she initiated her own sons, Minius Cerinnius and Herennius Cerinnius. At the same time she made the rite a nocturnal one, and instead of three days in the year celebrated it five times a month. When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim. To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the very sum of their religion. The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies; the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, their hair dishevelled, rushed down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished, as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime. Men were fastened to a machine and hurried off to hidden caves, and they were said to have been rapt away by the gods; these were the men who refused to join their conspiracy or take a part in their crimes or submit to pollution. They formed an immense multitude, almost equal to the population of Rome; amongst them were members of noble families both men and women. It had been made a rule for the last two years that no one more than twenty years old should be initiated; they captured those to be deceived and polluted.
– Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 39.3
The contemporaries also claimed that worshipers of Bacchus were often associated with ordinary crimes, counterfeits, murders and political conspiracy.
The leaders of Rome were most worried about the state of the army and the morale of young recruits. The young people were introduced to the mysteries of Dionysus at the age when they should wear a men’s robe, take a military oath and serve in the legions. Senators believed that the military oath of a citizen who had previously sworn an oath to god has no value. Hence the repression of such cruel and almost complete extermination of Dionysian associations1.
The Roman Senate finally on October 7, 186 BCE issued an order prohibiting Bacchanalia and meetings of its worshipers. The pretext was concern for citizens’ morality and public religion. The ban even applied to the Hellenistic population in Great Greece, later it also included the provinces. In Rome in the 2nd century BCE bloody terror reigned. Consuls and their ministers were looking for followers of Bacchus, 7,000 were captured in the city itself people, most of the extraordinary tribunals sentenced to death. Women predominated among the victims of persecution. It was customary for their relatives to kill them. If no one in the family wanted to take on the macabre task, the unfortunates were handed over to the state-paid executioner. Many of them committed suicide to avoid shameful execution.
In the work De legibus Cicero claims that the persecution lasted five years and required military involvement. Later, when new, “dangerous” followers of Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the Empire, the Romans, in order to discredit them, compared them to the criminal worshipers of Dionysus and accused of orgies. In this way, all persecution was argued.