In Greco-Roman religion, any of the festivals of the wine god Bacchus (Dionysus), which probably originated as fertility rites. The most famous Greek festivals included the Greater Dionysia, with its dramatic performances; the Anthesteria; and the Lesser Dionysia, characterized by simple rites. Bacchanalia were introduced from lower Italy into Rome, where they were at first secret, open only to women, and held three times a year. They later admitted men and became as frequent as five times a month. In 186 BC their reputation as orgies led the Senate to prohibit them throughout Italy, except in special cases.
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Livy informs us that the rapid spread of the cult, which he claims indulged in all kinds of crimes and political conspiracies at its nocturnal meetings, led in 186 BC to a decree of the Senate—the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Apulia in Southern Italy (1640], now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna—by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree (Livy claims there were more executions than imprisonment), the Bacchanalia survived in Southern Italy long past the repression.
Modern scholars hold Livy's account in doubt and believe that the Senate acted against the Bacchants for one or more of three reasons. First, because women occupied leadership positions in the cult (contrary to the current patriarchical Roman values). Second, because slaves and the poor were the cult's members and were planning to overthrow the Roman government. Or third, according to a theory proposed by Erich Gruen, as a display of the Senate's supreme power to the Italian allies as well as competitors within the Roman political system, such as individual victorious generals whose popularity made them a threat to the Senate's collective authority.