The Roman god of wine and viticulture, Bacchus was the bringer of ecstasies and inducer of frenzied states such as creativity and religious devotion. Also known as Eleutherios (“liberator,” in Greek), Bacchus represented the spontaneous and unrestrained aspects of life. The Romans believed that Bacchus operated through inducing a state of drunkenness into his vessels; this state freed the inebriated from social conventions and allowed new ways of thinking and acting.
The figure of Bacchus emerged from the blending of two distinct deities: Dionysus, a Greek deity who lent his mythology to Bacchus in the second century BCE, and Liber (“The Free One”), an Italian wine god who would later appear as part of the “plebeian” Aventine triad.
Ultimately, the Roman version of Bacchus was a freewheeling lover of revelry who gave wine and granted drunkenness to all who wished for it.
The Latin name “Bacchus” descended from the Greek word Bakkhos, an epithet of the god Dionysus. That word Bakkhos was itself derived from the term bakkheia, a Greek word used to describe the frenzied, ecstatic state that the god produced in people. In appropriating the name “Bacchus,” then, the Latins were claiming an aspect of Dionysus for their own god.
“Bacchus” could also be related to the Latin word bacca, meaning “a berry” or “the fruit of a tree or shrub.” In this context, such a word could be referencing grapes, the key ingredient in wine.
The god of wine, the great reveler, and the paragon of drunkenness (among other titles), Bacchus was the deity that bestowed the gifts of inebriation and altered states upon humanity. He controlled the growth of grapevines and guided viticulturalists through the wine-making process.
Bacchus was always depicted as a young man who was usually beardless and often drunk. He sometimes carried a thyrsus—a staff wound with ivy and covered in honey.
In the mythological traditions surrounding him, Bacchus was born twice. His first father was Jupiter, and his first mother was Proserpina, Ceres’ daughter who was famously abducted by Pluto. Bacchus was later reborn with the help of Jupiter and Semele, a woman often described as his second mother.
As the son of Jupiter, Bacchus was directly related to many Roman deities. His aunts and uncles included Ceres, Juno, Vesta, Pluto, and Neptune, while his siblings included Mercury, Vulcan, Minerva, and even his mother Proserpina.
In Roman mythology, the stories of Bacchus were neither as common nor as richly told as those of Dionysus in the Greek traditions.
The Birth and Rebirth of Bacchus
The mythology of Bacchus centers on his birth, death, and unlikely rebirth through the figure of the mortal Semele. The first birth happened in a conventional manner for the gods. Jupiter became smitten with Proserpina, who was usually presented as the daughter of the great king of the gods. Assuming the form of a snake, Jupiter slithered into the Underworld and made love to Proserpina. During this encounter, they conceived a child: Bacchus. In the Roman tradition, this first incarnation of the god was called Liber. This detail was an acknowledgment of the Italian wine god whom the Romans worshipped prior to adopting the cult of Dionysus.
Bacchus (or Liber) was among the early Roman gods who fought in the cataclysmic struggle known as the Titanomachy. This struggle pitted Jupiter’s kin against the defenders of this father, Saturn. In one of the conflict’s epic battles, Bacchus was killed and his body torn to pieces. With a heavy heart, Jupiter gathered up the remains of his son and placed Bacchus’ mangled heart into a potion. Jupiter then gave the mixture to Semele, the mortal wife of the king of Thebes, who promptly drank it and became pregnant.
Before she could give birth, however, Semele was murdered through Juno’s treachery. Jupiter’s ever jealous wife managed to entice Semele into desiring Jupiter sexually. As Gaius Julius Hyginus wrote in his Fabulae:
Liber, son of Jove and Proserpina, was dismembered by the Titans, and Jove gave his heart, torn to bits, to Semele in a drink. When she was made pregnant by this, Juno, changing herself to look like Semele’s nurse, Beroe, said to her: ‘Daughter, ask Jove to come to you as he comes to Juno, so you may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god.’ At her suggestion Semele made this request of Jove, and was smitten by a thunderbolt. He took Liber from her womb, and gave him to Nysus to be cared for.1
A variant of this myth was found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this version, Juno similarly tricked Semele into wanting Jupiter. When Jupiter came to satisfy Semele, however, the mortal could not bear the god’s embraces:
The mortal dame, too feeble to engage
The lightning’s flashes, and the thunder’s rage,
Consum’d amidst the glories she desir’d,
And in the terrible embrace expir’d.2
When Semele died, Jupiter took the growing Bacchus from her womb and sewed the infant into his thigh, where he was nourished for the rest of his development. The baby emerged some time later and was raised in the company of nymphs near Mt. Nysa. Ovid described these events in detail:
But, to preserve his offspring from the tomb,
Jove took him smoking from the blasted womb:
And, if on ancient tales we may rely,
Inclos’d th’ abortive infant in his thigh.
Here when the babe had all his time fulfill’d,
Ino first took him for her foster-child;
Then the Niseans, in their dark abode,
Nurs’d secretly with milk the thriving God.3
Bacchus and the Roman State Religion
Bacchus was inaugurated into Roman state religion with the adoption of the mystery cult of Dionysus (or the Greek Bakkhos) in the late third century BCE. The Roman iteration of Bacchus was an outgrowth and reincarnation of Liber, an ancient Roman wine god. Liber was a member of the Aventine Triad—a popular cultic trio among Romans of low social standing. Dionysus’ death and rebirth proved convenient, as it allowed the Romans to explain the ouster of Liber and the importation of Bacchus in a way that conformed to established mythology.
The chief festival held in Bacchus’ honor was the infamous Bacchanalia. Though specific details surrounding the Bacchanalia are scarce—partly due to a lack of sources, and partly due to the distortions of ancient authors such as Livy, who scandalized Bacchic cults—the festivals were known to feature drinking, carousing, and reveling, among other activities. Bacchanalia festivals were often held in the countryside, far from unnatural and stiff city life. Versions of the festival were held several times a year in southern Italy and, following their conquest, in the Near East and Greek regions of the Roman Empire.
Though Bacchus has seldom been featured in modern popular culture, his reputation has survived thanks to its association with bacchanals and bacchanalia—torrid parties bearing the wine god’s name.
Hyginus, Gaius Julius. Fabulae. Translated by Mary Grant. Topos Text. Accessed November 3, 2019. https://topostext.org/work/206.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated By Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on November 4, 2019. http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.3.third.html.
Hyginus, Fabulae, translated by Mary Grant, 167. https://topostext.org/work/206. ↩
Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by Samuel Garth and John Dryden, Book III, http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.3.third.html. ↩
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III. ↩