Initially, Roman gods and goddesses were conceptualized as divine manifestations without a face or form, but with immense power. With Greek and Etruscan influence, Roman gods were eventually anthropomorphized as beings. The Romans worshiped a pantheon of six gods and six goddesses: Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Vesta, Venus, Neptunus, Mercurius, Apollo and Volcanus. While there were 12 major gods and goddesses, there were many gods that the Romans chose to worship, one of whom was Bacchus.
Who was Bacchus?
Bacchus, the Roman counterpart of the Greek Dionysus, was the Roman god of wine, mirth and revelry. Bacchus was the son of Jupiter, the supreme Roman god who was called “shining father,” and Semele, a mortal woman. Bacchus was associated with mostly female followers and was sometimes described as feminine or “man-womanish.” The artwork that depicts Bacchus covers his life from childhood to adulthood: he was a curly-haired young child drinking wine, as a young man he was imagined as a nude man with a crown of vine leaves and grapes on his head and sometimes he was illustrated thoroughly inebriated and being put to bed by the nymphs and satyrs (goat-men) that followed him.
Secret Rites of Bacchus
March 15th and 16th were the dates on which the festival for Bacchus, also known as Bacchanalia, was held. This festival was introduced sometime during the third century and was held in the grove of Simila, near the Aventine Hill in Rome. Initially, the secret rites of Bacchus were open only to women, who were known as Bacchantes, but eventually, men were welcome as well. Bacchanalia celebrations were held five times a month, and were huge parties where partygoers could indulge their every whim. Bacchanalia festivals were famous for their intense debauchery and crime, and it was thought that Bacchanalia festivals were a place of severe political corruptness and conspiracies. Because of this poor reputation, the Roman Senate issued a decree in 186 B.C. that strictly prohibited the Bacchanalia throughout Italy. There were certain exceptions made, but the senate reserved the right to allow or disallow these festivals to occur.
Bacchus married Ariadne and had four children with this wife: Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylos and Pepartheus. Bacchus had an additional three children with the goddess Venus: Charites, Priapus and Hymenaios. His symbol was a bunch of grapes and a wine cup, though the bull, serpent and ivy are also associated with the Bacchian atmosphere.
Anywhere there was revelry, fun and hedonism, it was typically attributed to the dramatic and genial god, Bacchus. The Romans built many temples in which to worship Bacchus, and to offer up sacrifices to the god. Pigs were typically the offering, because swine are known to be destructive to the vine. Bacchus was not without his critics, but many Romans loved and worshiped his fun-loving ways and festivals.