BMCR 2021.10.43

Dionysus and Rome: religion and literature

, Dionysus and Rome: religion and literature. Trends in classics, supplementary volumes, volume 93. Berlin; Boston: Walter De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. 238 . ISBN 9783110671568 €99,95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

[With apologies for the lateness of this review.]

Just shy of a decade after the publication of the essential volumes A Different God? Dionysos and Ancient Polytheism (2011) and Redefining Dionysos (2013), De Gruyter has again delivered a collection of papers dedicated to that most popular and fascinating of Greek gods: Dionysus and Rome: religion and literature. Edited by Fiachra Mac Góráin, the book is made up of eight papers with an extensive introduction, most of which were presented at the conference “Dionysus and Rome” at UCL in 2015. What sets this volume apart from its predecessors is the sustained focus on the local and generic specificity of the reception of the god across the Roman world and in different media. The subtitle also nods to the volume’s aim of approaching the Roman manifestations of Dionysus through the integrated study of literature and religion. “Rome”, however, turns out to be quite broad, with some of the most stimulating papers examining the Italian peninsula under the Roman Republic, as well as Christian authors working in Latin up to the fourth century A.D.

Mac Góráin’s introduction sets the programme for the volume, placing the emphasis on the study of Dionysus at the intersection of Greek and Roman worlds. A brisk survey of the history of Dionysus (or Bacchus, Fufluns, Liber, etc.) in Italy usefully plots a path between the different chapters by framing the Roman reception of Dionysus in terms of moments of “accommodation” and “resistance”. In brief, Mac Góráin argues that Dionysus was a figure of contestation that helped to work out the borders between Greek, Roman, Italian, and eventually also between traditional religion and Christianity. Since this is the most wide-ranging of the papers, its bibliography is also the fullest. For this reason alone it will be invaluable.

The next chapter, by Simon Perris and Mac Góráin, surveys the reception of Euripides’ Bacchae from its initial performance up to the Christus Patiens. This chapter covers a impressive array of texts, which will be of great interest to students of the Bacchae, while a sizable appendix cataloguing moments of reception will be a mine for future research. The chief contention is that the reception of the Bacchae was tied closely to contemporary attitudes to Dionysus and Dionysian ritual. The authors claim further that the long durée view of the play’s reception therefore exposes specifically Roman responses to the god. The basic claim is sound, but a clearer definition of what counts as Greek or Roman is needed. In the section on “Narratives”, for example, the Cynegetica is examined in terms of Greek language and literature, while the Dionysiaca is seemingly “Roman”, treated alongside Ovid and later Christian authors. It remains to be seen, however, what such a distinction could mean in the Imperial context of the two poems. Is the Cynegetica’s censoriousness towards Euripides related to disapproving “Roman” responses? And even if the Dionysiaca does respond to the New Testament, how is this not “Greek”?

Stéphanie Wyler argues that Dionysian images in the archaic and Augustan periods were engaged fundamentally in the construction of a “Roman” Dionysus. Despite sparse evidence, Wyler demonstrates that the earliest available representations of Liber reflect the complexity of his visual identity. Rather than having a fixed iconographic type, the Roman god acted as a site for the dynamic processes of interpreting and adapting Greek and Etruscan visual languages to Roman contexts. In an engaging discussion of Liber’s beard and the origins of the double name Liber Pater, Wyler underscores the coexistence of multiple iconographic schemes and the relatively late attestations for the double name, hypothesizing that Pater only became the norm under Augustus. Wyler is not entirely successful in casting doubt on the antiquity of Liber Pater: Lucilius 24-27 Warmington suggests that the double name was familiar in the second century however we read it. Nonetheless, the examination of Augustan sacro-idyllic landscapes that follows supports the idea that the character and role of Liber were reimagined in connection with the religious programme of the new regime. Here Wyler argues that the period witnessed the taming of earlier, wild Dionysian landscapes, analogous to the domestication of the god in Augustan poetry.

Daniele Miano questions assumptions about a standard, unified, Roman or Italian version of Dionysus by drawing attention to the variety of names for Dionysus and the multiplicity of local interpretations up to the second century BC. In the first half of the chapter he explores the evidence for the Etruscan Fufluns at Vulci, highlighting the way in which the Etruscan deity is associated directly with the Greek god, even as inscriptions also underscore his local character. Miano then considers the situation in Latin Praeneste, where the wealth of Dionysian images had led T. P. Wiseman to argue that it was home to a cult of Liber.[1] Miano instead connects the variety and variability of names and images to the influence of different communities (Etruscan, Greek, Latin) active in Praeneste, suggesting plausibly that Praeneste lacked any such cult, which would have constrained interpretations of the god.

Julietta Steinhauer revisits the so-called SC de Bacchanalibus and Livy’s account of the events. Steinhauer sets the events of 186 BC in their Hellenistic context, where the nature and organisation of Dionysian worship were more diverse than suggested by anachronistic comparison with Imperial collegia. Her examination of the SC draws attention to the senate’s relatively favourable treatment of women. It is unfortunate that Steinhauer does not engage here with Harriet Flower’s study of gender roles in the SC, despite coming to similar conclusions.[2] The main difference in Steinhauer’s approach lies in her reading of Livy.  While women do not appear to have been targeted by the SC, in Livy’s account, it is precisely a (foreign) woman who is responsible for the scourge of the Bacchanalia. The discrepancy, Steinhauer argues, reflects the cultural memory of the Bacchanalian affair, telling us more about the concerns and prejudices of the Augustan period than about Dionysian religion in the Middle Republic.

Gesine Manuwald investigates the references to Dionysus, his other Greek and Latin names, and related terms in a single author: Cicero. Cicero’s view of the god, as Manuwald uncovers, is difficult to pin down. In De Natura Deorum, Cicero speaks of “many Dionysi” who differ in genealogy and rites. Elsewhere in the same work, he distinguishes the Greek “Liber”, the son of Semele, and the Roman “Liber”, the son of Ceres and worshiped as part of the Aventine Triad. In other works, however, the division between Greek and Roman is obscure or absent. Nonetheless, “Liber” seems generally to have more positive connotations, evoking the specifically Roman aspects of the god, while “Bacchus” and its derivatives can evoke the negative aspects of the raving, foreign god.

John F. Miller offers a detailed commentary on Ovid’s Tristia 5.3, in which the exiled poet appeals to Dionysus on the occasion of the Liberalia. After discussing the poem’s intertextual links to Fasti, Metamorphoses, and Propertius 4.6, Miller concentrates on the place of Dionysus in Tristia 5.3. The god emerges as a counterpart for the poet. Like Dionysus, Ovid has been exiled to barbarian lands. By implication, then, Augustus is cast in the role of Pentheus, leaving the god’s temple in ruins (Miller connects this to Augustus’ apparent neglect of the Aventine temple), and preventing the god’s follower, Ovid, from participating in his rites at the Liberalia. Unlike Dionysus, however, Ovid is powerless to return to home. He might well pray for the god’s intercession, but the sudden appearance of Apollo at the end of the poem is a veiled reminder of the ultimate patron of arts in Rome.

Alessandro Schiesaro examines the role of Dionysus in Statius’ Thebaid. On Schiesaro’s reading, Statius casts Dionysus as a pale shadow of god of the Bacchae and the earlier Latin tradition, a feeble force of delay who fails to prevent the war or save Thebes. Indeed, Venus appropriates aspects of Dionysus’ traditional role in her punishment of the Lemnian women in Thebaid 5. The crux of Schiesaro’s chapter turns on the metapoetic function of this new Dionysus. Statius’ god emerges as a stand-in for the Thebaid, its poetics, and its relationship to literary forebears. Thus the Dionysian furor that motivated Vergil’s Amata or, more importantly on Schiesaro’s view, the matron’s prophecy at the end of Pharsalia 1, yields to a self-conscious aesthetic that pointedly refuses to tread the same path as its models by instead subverting the force of Dionysian inspiration.

In the final chapter, Francesco Massa builds on previous work on Dionysus and Christianity to examine the role of Dionysus and Liber in Latin Christian writers, including Tertullian, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Firmicus Maternus. Like Greek authors, Latin authors engaged in debates concerning similarities between Dionysian cult and Christian doctrine, variously adapting or condemning aspects of traditional myth and ritual. In many cases, the Latin discourse is drawn from or responds to earlier Greek sources, making a distinctly Roman attitude to Dionysus difficult to discern. In other cases, however, the authors clearly draw on Roman practices and tradition, channelling, for example, the controversy surrounding the Bacchanalia in order to denounce the old religion. In both cases, as Massa argues, the Christian authors are engaging with the discursive function of Dionysus rather than with the ritual reality of the Imperial era.

The book has been produced to a high standard. I noticed only a few typos and errors of formatting, in no case serious. I spotted two bibliographic errors.[3] My one complaint about the layout is that the drawing of a Praenestine cistadiscussed by both Wyler and Miano is printed twice, but in each case is too small to be legible. Presumably this fault lies with the press rather than the editor and authors. In any case, a single, full-page figure or plate would have made the image much more accessible.

Overall, this is a collection of strong papers, each shedding new light on important if overlooked aspects of Dionysus. Judged by the aims outlined in Mac Góráin’s introduction, the volume as a whole is less successful. The sequence of chapters on the early history of Rome (Wyler-Miano-Steinhauer) form a coherent set that do successfully integrate the study of Dionysus in Roman religion and literature. The same level of dialogue is missing from the remainder of the chapters, which are more literary in focus. A fuller discussion of Dionysian ritual in the empire, to complement Schiesaro’s passing reference to the association between Dionysus and the emperor in Statius, or Massa’s observations about the assimilation of Dionysus and the Devil after the reign of Constantine, is a notable omission.

Yet this is perhaps an inevitable criticism of a conference collection. It might raise as many questions as it answers, but Dionysus and Rome also points forward to promising avenues of study. It will therefore be read with profit by any student of Dionysus.

Table of Contents

Preface – v
List of illustrations – ix
List of contributors – xi
Fiachra Mac Góráin. Introduction. Dionysus in Rome: accommodation and resistance – 1
Simon Perris and Fiachra Mac Góráin. The ancient reception of Euripides’ Bacchae from Athens to Byzantium – 39
Stéphanie Wyler. Images of Dionysus in Rome: the archaic and Augustan periods – 85
Daniele Miano. Liber, Fufluns and the others: rethinking Dionysus in Italy between the fifth and the third centuries BCE – 111
Julietta Steinhauer. Dionysian associations and the Bacchanalian affair – 133
Gesine Manuwald. Dionysus / Bacchus / Liber in Cicero – 157
John F. Miller. Bacchus and the exiled Ovid (Tristia 5.3) – 177
Alessandro Schiesaro. Alius furor. Statius’ Thebaid and the metamorphoses of Bacchus – 193
Francesco Massa. The shadow of Bacchus: Liber and Dionysus in Christian Latin literature (2nd-4th centuries) – 219
Index rerum et nominum – 239
Index locorum – 245
Index of inscriptions and visual artefacts – 247


[1] T. P. Wiseman 2000. ‘Liber: myth, drama and ideology in Republican Rome’. In C. Bruun ed. The Roman Middle Republic: Politics, Religion, and Historiography c. 400-133 B.C. Rome: 265-99. (Reprinted in T. P. Wiseman 2008. Unwritten Rome. Exeter: 84-139).

[2] H. I. Flower 2002. ‘Rereading the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus of 186 BC: Gender Roles in the Middle Roman Republic’. In V. B. Gorman and E. W. Robinson eds. Oikistes: Studies in Constitutions, Colonies, and Military Power in the Ancient World. Offered in Honor of A. J. Graham. Leiden/Boston/Köln: 79-98.

[3] Mills 2006 (p. 40 fn. 1) is missing from Perris and Mac Góráin’s bibliography. Turcan 1982 appears in Massa’s bibliography for Turcan 1989 (cited correctly on p. 220 fn. 3).