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The Cult of Bacchus


"Bacchus I saw on distant crags teaching hymns, and I beheld nymphs as his pupils, and the goat-faced satyrs with their pointed ears...." (Horace, Odes II.xix)

There can be little doubt that the influx of foreign peoples into the Italian peninsula, and particularly into Rome itself, was what so dramatically changed the complexion of Roman society time and again over the centuries. The Roman fascination with, and appreciation of, foreign ideas assured the success of many oriental cults during the Republican era, not least that of the Greek wine-god, Dionysus, whom the Romans transformed into Bacchus. 

The initial intrusion of Dionysic ideas into Roman culture probably occurred during the early 3rd century B.C., as Rome took control of the areas of southern Italy which had been colonized by Greek farmers some three hundred years before. Its initial presence is now imperceptable: perhaps it was sustained only by word-of-mouth description among Rome's slave population. Ancient texts indicate clearly enough, however, that by 186 B.C. the Bacchic cult had gained sufficient popularity to be regarded as a threat to the stability of the State. It was then that an official purge was ordered.