Home Bibliografia/Bibliography Why so many misinterpretations?
Why so many misinterpretations? Stampa E-mail

Why so many misinterpretations?


After years of study on this document, I realized that on it there have been many mistakes, some almost inexplicable. I want to start looking into the problem by examining briefly some misinterpretations repeated obsessively on websites.

This document is not a decree of the Senate.

Is in fact well known that the senators, as a rule, could not issue a decree (the executive power (ius edendi) was the exclusive competence of the magistrates). They could only give an opinion (censere) that alone had no legal value, if the magistrates requesting the opinion did not make it executive through an edict. In fact, the consultum of the Senate was never intended to be binding, but it was always subject to the proviso “if it seems appropriate to the magistrates” «si magistratibus videbitur.

This document is a consular edict about the Bacchanalia.

This is very evident, if one interprets correctly the phrase de Bacanalibus quei foideratei esent ita exdeicendum censuere (ll. 2-3), with that the consuls introduce the bans for the followers of Bacchus advised by senators. They specify clearly: the senators “advised (censuere) them who sought the advice (consoluerunt) that it was necessary to issue an edict (exdeicendum) to those who were partners (quei foideratei esent) about the Bacchanals (de bacchanalibus) with these measures (literally: ita). The adverb ita “so” is clearly a key word: it tells us that the document is the edict of the consuls, in which they incorporate what the senators have recommended. Livy then confirms that the consultum of the Senate was followed by an edict of the consuls and it is surprising that no critic has noted this.

Livio, XXXIX, 17, 4: Terror magnus urbe tota fuit, nec moenibus se tantum urbis aut finibus Romanis continuit, sed passim per totam Italiam, litteris hospitum de senatus consulto et contione et edicto consulum acceptis, trepidari coeptum est.

The Bacchanalia are not feasts in honor of Bacchus, but the meeting places of the Bacchae.

The term Bacchanal both singular and plural in the edict indicates always a place of worship that is a sanctuary of the Bacchae. This is also confirmed by Livy when he speaks of De bacchanalibus sacrisque nocturnis “about the Bacchanalia and the nocturnal ceremonies”, ie the shrines and the ceremonies that took place in them. It is logical that the two expressions do not mean the same thing.

We must add that the word "bacchanal" both singular and plural in all the texts that we have received, from Plautus to Juvenal, always means a place of worship. This confirms the opinion of Schwyzer (KZ, 37, 1904, p. 149) and of the authors of the Thesaurus (II, 166, 68). In their opinion the word is derived from baccha, not from Bacchus. This thesis is based mainly on a comparison between bacchanal and lupanar, two place names that refer to two categories of women on whom weighs the same negative judgment: Bacchae and lupae. The suffix of the two words was the same -al, only when it was  joined to a theme that already contained a l the l of the suffix by dissimilation was replaced by r that became so -ar (lupanal > lupanar).

The Senate and the Roman consuls did not eliminate the worship of Bacchus. They have not even dreamed of doing it.

This is evident if you read carefully the edict of the consuls. It provides: - the sanctuaries that have a long tradition of reverence can be kept, others must be demolished. - The Bacchae may meet in sanctuaries preserved for their ceremonies, but they can accommodate each other only men allowed by the authorities. - All charges are abolished, except for that of priestess. - The associations cannot have a common fund. - Ceremonies cannot take place in secret. - The ceremonies mixed with less than five people (three women and two men) shall not be allowed. Exemptions are granted to the limitations on the participation in the ceremonies.

But the most interesting thing is that worship is not even touched. Respecting the limitations posed by the authorities, the followers of Bacchus could continue to worship their god as they always had.

I cannot understand on what basis obsessively so many continue to assert that the document has abolished the worship of Bacchus. Certainly they have not even tried to read the text of the edict.

I wondered why such errors in this document over time instead of being slowly eliminated have become absolute truths.

Probably one of the reasons is due to the fact that almost all studies on this topic have been interventions on individual and partial aspects. Now when you deal with a single problem, you must necessarily accept all the basic ideas, without having the time to check if they are exact. The research hardly achieves its purposes; the inaccuracies are perpetuated and become gradually incontrovertible truth.

Another reason is due to the fact that many elements of the edict are mixed improperly with other derivatives from the history of Livy on the Bacchanalia. It came out a heterogeneous mixture of inaccurate data that often mystify reality.

It is important to note that the two documents are very different, also because they refer to two different phases of the Bacchanalian affair. Livy relates primarily to the first phase, the acute phase of the affair: the violent repression of the followers of Bacchus, implemented certainly not for religious reasons, but for purely political purposes. It was an instrument of political struggle through which the Conservatives and the senatorial class were able to reverse their position, to take possession of political power and defeat your opponents.

When the consuls ask for an opinion to the Senate (October 7 de 186 BC), the political struggle of the conservatives and the senatorial class was completed successfully. The repression of the Bacchantes was served well for the purpose that they wanted to achieve. The opposite party had been whopped. Authorities then return to greater caution. The senators recommend the consuls to issue an edict with a set of rules that were aimed not to eliminate the worship of Bacchus but simply to regulate the practice of cult and make it fit in the tradition of Roman religious. They just wanted to avoid that the problem of Bacchanalia recurred in the future. The rules of the edict are concise, focused and neutral feedback. The speech remains strictly administrative legal and there appears none of the elements of moral, political, or psychological which abound in Livy's account. The decisions of the consuls do not to mention the crimes or vices of the Bacchae in such detail highlighted by Livy.

We must add that even in the first phase Livy repeatedly stresses that the repressive action of the authorities is not against the cult, nor against the god Bacchus (Note that throughout the history of Livy, which lasts for eleven chapters, the name god is never cited). The action of the authorities is conducted against a good number of criminals who under the guise of celebrating the secrets of God commit the most atrocious crimes and seek to overturn the order constituted of the state. The clearer words to demonstrate this aspect are those of the consul in his speech (contio) to the people: haec uobis praedicenda ratus sum, ne qua superstitio agitaret animos uestros, cum demolientes nos Bacchanalia discutientesque nefarios coetus cerneretis. omnia diis propitiis uolentibusque [ea] faciemus. He points out that repression is not against the God, but against common criminals and the Bacchanalia are not true sanctuaries but places where they commit the greatest atrocities. Destroy these places was therefore not an action against a God but something that the gods would no doubt be appreciated. Livy greatly amplifies the facts that relate to the first phase of the deal, but at the same time wishes to emphasize that a degeneration of the Roman cult of Bacchus took place at the hands of common criminals. True worship of God for Livy is not in question.

I finally realized that errors proliferate when the problems are not addressed by the right point of view, the critical neutral and unbiased.

Livy (XXXIX, 8-18) only is our source on the first phase of the Bacchanalian affair. He describes all the events about two centuries after they happened. Already the distance between the events and the time in which they were described, made impossible an objective description. The historian had to use extracts from existing sources, all from elements of the ruling classes.  These had certainly had an interest to justify in any way the repressive action of the authorities of 186 towards the followers of the cult of Bacchus and put this religion in a bad light. We must add that he writes in the Augustan age. Thus he considered the foreign cult of Bacchus dangerous and in conflict with the attempt of Augustus to restore the mos maiorum. He exploits all opportunities in order to highlight the dangers of its spread and to justify the repressive action by authorities.

We must therefore be very careful to what he tells us. He is reliable enough only when gives us historical information. When he talks about the way how the scandal was uncovered, speaks of the followers of Bacchus or mentions their rituals, his credibility is quite low, sometimes close to zero. He represents the followers of the God as common criminals who committed serious crimes under the cloak of religion, describes the elements of the cult of Bacchus in a clearly hostile and biased. He takes advantage of every opportunity to put the bacchantes in a bad light. The preliminary hostility towards all foreign cults induces Livy to represent the various elements of the Bacchic worship in a distorted way. The repression of the authorities is clearly amplified to the maximum. Robinson (Penal Practice, p. 28) rightly observes that “Livy gives us a much better chance of understanding the senatorial propaganda of the period than of reconstructing what actually happened.” Therefore all the information he gives us must be evaluated with great care and caution, but also with objectivity and without preconceived thesis.

Instead some scholars use his history in an instrumental way: if the news go in the direction proposed by them are true, otherwise they are deemed to be false or worse yet are passed over in silence. Someone does not hesitate to affirm what Livy has not even dreamed.

As an example, I want to bring a misinterpretation of an expression of Livy which has long led to a distortion of historical reality. Many scholars, to defend the thesis that the foideratei (CIL I² 581, l. 2) are the Italic allies, have continued to strongly support that repressive actions took place in allied territory even in the first phase. To demonstrate the Roman intervention in the localities allied during the persecution of followers of Bacchus, they took into account only the fact that Livy (XXXIX, 14.7, 17.4, 18.7) tells us that the operations took place not only in Rome but throughout Italy, and, in their opinion, even in places allied. One should add, to be exact, that Italy then still included not only Roman territories and allies, but also several places that were not allied and had not been entirely subdued, such as the territory of the Apuan Ligurians which, the same year, heavily defeated the army of the Roman consul Marcius Philippus (Livy, XXXIX, 20, 4-5). This and other reasons suggest that Livy indicates with the expression tota Italia only the Italy property of the Roman people, in practice Rome and the fora and conciliabula, scattered throughout Italy.

This is clearly demonstrated by the only passage of Livy (XXXIX, 17. 4) where the expression tota Italia refers indirectly even to the allies. This tells us that at the end of the contio of consul a "great dismay filled the whole city, and it did not remain within the walls of the city and the Roman borders, but the fear spread in all directions (passim) per totam Italiam, when arrived, by means of letters from people who lived in Rome, news on the senatus consultum, the meeting and the edict of the consuls." It seems clear that here tota Italia means all Italy not only that Roman, but only because Livy in this case feels the need to add a clearer expression to specify it: Nec (terror) moenibus se tantum urbis aut finibus romanis se continuit and the adverb passim (= in each direction), for further confirmation. From this we can easily deduce that, when Livy speaks of tota Italia without adding other elements, the facts mentioned were maintained within the Roman borders (finibus Romanis). We must highlight that Livy is credible enough when, as in this case, only gives us news. Well, this passage so clear and obvious, from this point of view has been completely ignored by all scholars.

The other document that we possess about the affair (CIL X 104) is much more interesting in that it is an original copy of the edict of the consuls of 186, Marcius and Postumius on the Bacchanalia. It is not only original and contemporary to the affair, but is also very complex. It is a regulatory edict, a real law, which was intended to regulate the practice of the worship of Bacchus in the future. But it was a law passed in an irregular manner, an unlawful act because had not been met the normal procedure for the approval of the Roman law that became enforceable only after approval by the people in the comitia. In fact, the consuls, after consulting the Senate, share the recommendations of the senators and make them executive through an edict. The people is completely put aside, has no role with this new procedure, clearly arbitrary, a real abuse of power.

However, it is certainly a legal document that has its own characteristics that must be kept in mind in the interpretation, if you do not want to misunderstand the meaning of the speech. The language used is that bureaucratic of senatorial and consular chancelleries, much and from all points of view (graphic, phonetic, morphological, syntactic and lexical) very backward from that current. Fortunately, we know very well the Latin language current in the first decades of the second century BC, through the twenty-one plays of Plautus. They in fact, with the exception of the Casina (165 BC), were composed in the years prior to the affair of the Bacchanalia. From the analysis of the language of Plautus we can deduce that the current Latin language was quite close to that of the classical period. Instead if you read the text of the edict you can immediately notice that the Latin used contains various linguistic phenomena that are no longer present in the comedies of Plautus. This shows that the text maintains formal characteristics that go back more than a half century before.

E.g. the classic Bellonae is written in the edict as Duelonai with du instead of the usual b. Now the passage of initial du to b happened in the middle of the third century BC.

Therefore, a good interpretation of the text presupposes an adequate knowledge of the history of the Latin language, and in particular of legal language.

This document must therefore be analysed from different points of view, not only historical, but also legal and linguistic. It would therefore be necessary, for a correct interpretation, a work group with suitable skills that, unfortunately, is a phenomenon not very common.

In fact, I could ascertain that many scholars stubbornly defend, in this document, theses indefensible and yet if they took into account the legal nature of the document, they would immediately understand their mistake. Sometimes I think that in many scholars there is a kind of removal of anything that might contradict their views.

Let me now briefly show how very difficult problems have a solution almost obvious if problems are dealt in the right way. First, we must emphasize that the document is a legal text, a true law, whose language is characterized by the use of words with a meaning precise, technical so that it avoids misunderstandings and make as clear as possible the message you want to communicate. For this reason, in a legal document, are never used two words that mean the same thing, because this would make ambiguous the message. If the word sacra is used in the Tiriolo document three times, to indicate the meetings of the Bacchantes,  give the same meaning to the term bacchanalia (l. 2) is a mere heresy. In the second prohibition the consuls order the men, whether they are Roman citizens, Latins or allies, not to participate in the meetings of the Bacchae, unless they have been authorized to do so. The allies of the Romans in this prohibition are indicated by the precise term of socii, this means that in the document it is the technical word choice to indicate them. When many scholars argue that word foideratei (l. 2) means the Italic allies, it is clear that they commit another macroscopic mistake. This error is even more serious because they do not take any account that in the formulation of a criminal law always and everywhere the addressees are never the communities, but the individual members of the community who have to abide the rules (Albanese, «Iuris vincula», Napoli 2001, pp. 1-34, p. 8-9). Therefore, a law regulating the practice of the cult of Bacchus was necessarily addressed to the individuals who had to respect it. Such an error is not committed by the great expert of the Latin language, Lavency (La proposition relative, Paris 1998, p. 62) that translates correctly, unfortunately without comment, the phrase De Bacanalibus quei foideratei esent ita exdeicendum censuere: «Décision a été prise de rendre le présent édit à propos des Bacchanales à l’égard des gentes y affiliés». The translation correctly points out that the document is an edict (consular) and foideratei are the affiliated to the cult of Bacchus. And it is not a coincidence that already more than a century ago, Mommsen, great connoisseur of Roman history but especially of Roman law, understood that the addressees of what he called epistula consulum ad Teuranos were the conspirators united by oath, that is the followers of Bacchus.

I want to finish with a suggestion: Before jumping to any conclusion on this document, it is imperative that you read the text carefully; you cannot make claims on hearsay.