My October 17, 2020 ZOOM presentation, “Italy’s Wine Mystique in History and Art” included – logicamente! – an exploration of the cult of the Roman god Bacchus, so often depicted in triumph as in the 3rd-c. A.D. Roman mosaic of Setif, Algeria (see above).
Wine flourished in the Greek and Roman worlds with the Greek Dionysius and his Roman counterpart Bacchus.
Although Dionysius‘ following – as of the 6th-c B.C.- was enormous, his image was varied: first rugged and masculine and later, benevolent, gentle and bearer of wine and good cheer as in this 150 A.D. marble statue of the god (today in the Prado, Madrid):
The Greek god of the grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, Dionysius was originally an archaic god of vegetation linked to the vital lymph flowing in plants. He later becomes the god of orchards and fruit, and fertility, celebrated with religious ecstasy and ritual madness.
The 5th-c. A.D. ivory pisside (a box for precious objects) in Bologna’s Archaeological Museum depicts the religious ecstasy he inspired:
Around 200 B.C., Romans begin celebrating his counterpart, Bacchus, whose cult merges with the Roman deity Liber Pater, already celebrated by Italic tribes and another god of fertility and wine.
The Roman Bacchus was generally figured as more genteel than his aggressive Greek counterpart, Dionysius, and depicted as described by Ovid (1st-c. B.C. Latin poet ): “young this god, a boy forever.” Ovid’s “boy- forever” Bacchus is immortalized in this 3rd-c A.D. Roman mosaic of a villa floor, conserved today in the Museo Nazionale di Roma….
…and in this 2nd-c. A. D. mosaic of Cherchel, Algeria:
The young Bacchus is protagonist, too, in the stunning mosaic of the floor (the mosaic work almost contemporary) of a Roman villa in Antiochia Turkey:
And of course, in the vast Roman villa of Interamnia (present-day Teramo, Abruzzo), Domus Bacchus, Bacchus will star for this is his “home”. His image is in the center of the mosaic floor of a vast room:
And do note that Bacchus’ crown is of ivy leaves in these Roman mosaics, for ivy symbolized continuity and fidelity. Considered a plant sacred to Bacchus (and Dionysius), the Romans and Greeks believed that a crown of ivy on the brow would stop any unpleasant effects of inebriation.
An antidote to negative effects of inebriation would be essential during the celebration of the Baccanalia, orgiastic rituals celebrating Bacchus in mid-March (as of the 2nd c B.C.) – and most particularly in Magna Grecia and Etruria (which you can see depicted on the map below):
The Romans celebrated wine with verve and passion, song and dance, liberating freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. In Italian, “Non fare baccano,” meaning “Don’t make a racket,” is literally translated, “Don’t act like a baccano” (i.e., a participant in the Baccanalia).
On this Roman sarcophagus of about 200 A.D., a rousing Baccanalia is depicted:
A crowned Bacchus on his chariot drawn by tigers is preceded by a nymph playing a tambourine in the Baccanalia depicted in a Sousse, Tunis, 2nd or 3rd-c. A.D. floor mosaic of the Roman villa called by archaeologists “la Casa della Processione”:
And here are other images of the exquisite mosaics of the Sousse, Tunis, Casa della Processione:
The Roman Baccanalia – celebrated in mid-March – lives on today in the pre-Lenten Carnevale celebrations all over Italy, especially in Venice.
Mardi Gras, too, is rooted in the euphoric celebrations in honor of the Roman god.
Bacchus lives on.
Read more about ancient uses of wine
Read about the Assisi-to-Montefalco Sagrantino wine quest
Click here for rural wine lore
Read about that “holy wine,” vin santo
(Roman terracotta mask, 1st-c. A.D.)