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τὰ Διονύσια). A celebration in honour of Dionysus (q.v.), which was held in Athens in a special series of festivals, namely:


The Oschophoria, supposed to have been instituted by Theseus on his return from Crete. This was celebrated in the month of Pyanepsion (October to November), when the grapes were ripe. It was so called from the shoots of vine (ὄσχοι) with grapes on them, which were borne in a race from the temple of Dionysus in Limnae, a southern suburb of Athens, to the sanctuary of Athené Sciras , in the harbour town of Phalerum. The bearers and runners were twenty youths (ἔφηβοι) of noble descent whose parents were still living, two being chosen from each of the ten tribes. The victor received a goblet containing a drink made of wine, cheese, meal, and honey, and an honorary place in the procession which followed the race. This procession, in which a chorus of singers was preceded by two youths in woman's clothing, marched from the temple of Athené to that of Dionysus. The festival was concluded by a sacrifice and a banquet.


The smaller (τὰ μικρά), or rustic Dionysia. This feast was held in the month of Poseideon (December to January), at the first tasting of the new wine. It was celebrated, with much rude merriment, throughout the various country districts. The members of the different tribes first went in solemn processions to the altar of the god, on which a goat was offered in sacrifice. The sacrifice was followed by feasting and revelry, with abundance of jesting and mockery and dramatic improvisations. Out of these were developed the elements of the regular drama (see Drama), for in the more prosperous villages, pieces—in most cases the same as had been played at the urban Dionysia—were performed by itinerant troupes of actors. The festival lasted some days, one of its chief features being the Ascoliasmus, or bag-dance. The point of this was to dance on one leg, without falling, upon oiled bags of inflated leather. (See Ascolia.) The Ἁλῷα, Harvest-home (or Feast of Threshing-floors), was celebrated at Athens and in the country in the same month to Demeter and Persephoné in common.


The Lenaea (Λήναια), or Feast of Vats. This was held at Athens in the month of Gamelion (January to February), at the Lenaeun, the oldest and most venerable sanctuary of Dionysus in the city. After a great banquet, for which the meat was provided at the public expense, the citizens went in procession through the city, with the usual jesting and mockery, to attend the representation of the tragedies and comedies at the theatre.


The Anthesteria. Celebrated for three days in Anthesterion (February to March). On the first day (Πιθοιγία, or opening of casks) the casks were first opened, and masters and servants alike tasted the new wine. On the second (Χόες, or Feast of Beakers), a public banquet was held, at which a beaker of new wine was set by each guest. This was drunk with enthusiasm, to the sound of trumpets. The most important ceremony, however, was the marriage of the Basilissa, or wife of the Archon Basileus, with Dionysus, the Basilissa being regarded as representing the country. The ceremony took place in the older of the two temples in the Lenaeun, which was never opened except on this occasion. The last day was called Χύτροι, or the Feast of Pots, because on this day they made offerings of cooked pulse in pots to Hermes, as guide of the dead, and to the souls of the departed, especially those who had perished in the flood of Deucalion.


The great urban Dionysia (τὰ μέγαλα). This festival was held at Athens for six days in the month of Elaphebolion (March to April) with great splendour, and attended by multitudes from the surrounding country and other parts of Greece. A solemn procession was formed, representing a train of Dionysiac revellers. Choruses of boys sang dithyrambs, and an old wooden statue of Dionysus, worshipped as the liberator of the land from the bondage of winter, was borne from the Lenaeum to a small temple in the neighbourhood of the Acropolis and back again. The glory of this festival was the performance of the new tragedies, comedies, and satyric dramas, which took place, with lavish expenditure, on three consecutive days. In consequence of the immense number of citizens and strangers assembled, it was found convenient to take one of these six days for conferring public distinctions on meritorious persons, as in the case of the presentation of the golden crown to Demosthenes.

The Dionysia were celebrated at Rome under the name of Bacchanalia. The circumstances of their introduction are given in detail by Livy , (xxxix. 8-19). According to his account, a Greek priest brought into Etruria the secret nightly celebration of this worship. It was not only accompanied by all manner of licentious excesses, but was also made the occasion for planning the most revolting crimes—perjury, forgery, false accusations, poisoning, and assassination. From Etruria the contagion spread to Rome. According to Livy , at first the rites were comparatively innocent. Women only were initiated, and that by day, three times in the year, and the priesthood was held by matrons in turn. It is quite possible that in this statement Livy has in view the worship of Stimula or Simila, an early Italian deity, afterwards identified with Semelé, whence Ovid ( Fast. vi. 503-515) regards her rites as of a Bacchanalian character. Possibly Vergil is thinking of the same when ( Aen. vii. 385) he speaks of the Bacchic rites as existing in Italy in the time of Aeneas. In any case it is hardly conceivable that the corrupt Etruscan cult should have so much changed its character in passing into Rome as Livy 's account would require us to believe. He goes on to tell how a certain Pacullia Annia, a Campanian priestess, claiming to be acting under the inspiration of the gods, changed the whole character of the worship. She was the first to admit men, by initiating her own sons; she altered the time of celebration from the day to the night, and held initiations five times every month instead of three times a year. The promiscuous admission of men and women and the license of night opened the way to all manner of debauchery and crime. The most horrible immoralities were practised, the wildest frenzy indulged in. Men flung themselves about as if possessed, and uttered frantic prophecies; women dressed as Bacchanals, with dishevelled locks, ran down to the Tiber and plunged into the water torches which, composed of a mixture of sulphur and lime, were not extinguished in the waves. The initiated were a vast number, including many of high birth, both men and women. To secure the complete subjugation of the votaries a rule was made that none should be admitted who were not under twenty years of age, a time at which the judgment is weak and the passions strong. For some time, although the existence of these rites was generally known, not only by report, but also by the clanging of cymbals and the howlings of the devotees by night, their real nature was not suspected. But in B.C. 186, the lewd and criminal character of the meetings was brought to the knowledge of the consuls. P. Aebutius, the orphan of a Roman knight, had been left by the death of his guardians to the charge of his mother Duronia and his stepfather Sempronius Rutilus. The latter had embezzled his property, and in order to escape punishment desired either to make away with the youth or to get him wholly into his power. Duronia, who was entirely devoted to her husband, determined to avail herself of the Bacchanalia for the corruption or destruction of her son. She informed him that at a time when he was ill she had vowed that he should be initiated into the Bacchic rites if he recovered, and that now was the time to discharge the vow. Aebutius, taking the matter lightly, mentioned it to a freed woman, Hispala Fecenia, with whom he had a liaison; but she, in the utmost terror and distress, warned him of the dangers that he was incurring—she, when still a slave, had accompanied her mistress to the orgies, and had seen the vile practices of the votaries. Aebutius, returning to his mother, refused to be initiated, without disclosing his reasons. She, in a fury, drove him from the house. He took refuge with his father's sister, and at her advice laid the whole facts of the case before the consuls. Hispala was induced by them to confess all that she knew. The Senate was consulted and full powers given to the consuls to investigate the matter. Prompt measures were taken to secure evidence and to prevent the escape of the guilty. The inquiry led to the belief that more than 7000 men and women were implicated in the affair. Those who were merely initiated, and had taken the oath binding them to every kind of crime and lewdness, were punished with imprisonment; those against whom actual guilt was found—and these, we are told, were the majority—received capital punishment. The women for the most part were handed over to their relations, or to those who were responsible for them, for private execution; the rest were put to death in public.

One of the most ancient and precious records of the old Latin language preserved to us is the bronze tablet, commonly called the Senātus Consultum de Bacchanalĭbus, containing the letter in which the consuls communicated to the magistrates in agro Teurano (Tirioli, in the country of the Bruttii) part (as Mommsen thinks) of the decree of the Senate passed on this occasion (cf. Mommsen, C. I. L. i. 196; Ritschl, P. L. M. E. tab. xviii.; Allen's Early Latin, pp. 28-31 [Boston, 1880]; and Cortese, Latini Sermonis Vetustioris Exempla, p. 9 [Turin, 1892]). Doubtless it is only a specimen of many which mutatis mutandis were sent throughout Italy. The Bacchanalia are rigidly prohibited: if any one, Roman, Latin, or ally, considers himself under a religious obligation bacanal habere, he can only do so by obtaining permission from the praetor urbanus, confirmed by a vote of the Senate in which not less than one hundred have taken part. No priest, president, or common purse is allowed, nor any kind of common vow. Not more than two men or three women (five in all) may celebrate the rites, except by special permission. These regulations were carried out with unflinching rigour, apparently not without the use of military force (De Leg. ii. 15, 37); but it was some years before the Bacchanalian rites were completely extinguished in southern Italy (Liv.xxxix. 41, xl. 19). The Liberalia (q.v.) were of an entirely different character. The bronze tablet mentioned above is now preserved at Vienna.

hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 7.385
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 41
    • Ovid, Fasti, 6
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