The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 2, Orgies in Cults and Mystery Religions)

couture1-1024x640

From the onset, it is important to remember that ancient texts are often hyperbolic, slanderous, and misogynistic documents. Their claims about the past cannot be accepted uncritically. An interesting argument can and has been made that these sources are so fundamentally flawed that they should not be interpreted as objective historical evidence per se. During the Roman Republic, insults about the sex lives of political enemies were par for the course, and this tradition of character assassination survived during the Roman Empire.[1] To make matters worse, since ancient authors often resorted to caricature in their portrayals of the Other, some scholars believe that there exist only limited possibilities of “extracting substantive information” from these writers at all.[2] We aren’t time travelers, so we can never decisively test the accuracy of ancient descriptions of people engaging in sexual activity. It is thus for good reason that Walter Scheidel warns against taking literary evidence about the sex lives of powerful Romans at face value:

For a literary critic, the actual conduct of Roman emperors may be of secondary importance or even irrelevant, and it is perfectly feasible to dissect the biographical tradition as a patchwork of complementary stereotypes that could be re-arranged in a limited number of constellations in keeping with the biases of the observer.[3]

Despite all of these problems, however, authors like Scheidel remain committed to employing ancient texts as documentary evidence rather than relegating them once and for all to the realm of imaginative fiction. While Scheidel denies L. Betzig’s view that the internal consistency of stories about sexual excess is in itself evidence for their potential veracity, he suggests that given what we know about human reproduction, evolution, and the behavior of absolute monarchs from other civilizations, traditions about the Roman emperors’ sex lives should perhaps be taken seriously. This point is well taken. But how can we tell when hostile invective begins and accurate reporting ends?

It is clear that in whatever context we consider the plausibility of the historiographical tradition, the evidence for the existence of Roman sex parties needs to be evaluated with great sensitivity and attention to detail. It might be the case that orgies are just as fictitious as witches’ gatherings in the seventeenth century, and that the chorus of primary sources attesting to their existence tells us nothing about the state of reality. Alternately, it might be the case that certain ancient people really participated in orgies just as certain ancient people presumably really engaged in passive homosexual activity. It would be wrong to assert that every ancient reference to passive homosexuality was probably a fantasy of each author’s imagination simply because such a charge inherently spoke to social taboos.[4] The only way to extract fact from fiction is, as if in a courtroom, to examine the evidence as a whole, to question the reliability of each individual witness, to attempt to find corroborating physical (in this case, archeological) data, and, finally, to come to a conclusion about the facts of the matter suggested by the preponderance of evidence. Operating under the premise that we cannot reject every ancient depiction of orgies on face simply because the idea of frequenting them might have been inherently scandalous, this is precisely how we will now proceed.

My survey of ancient evidence for group sex revealed that it comes up persistently but almost exclusively in three contexts—alleged cultic ceremonies, rendezvous with prostitutes and slaves, and certain kinds of aristocratic parties. I shall examine each of these in turn.

The first major line of evidence involves group sex in cultic contexts. Originally, an orgia was a religious rite in honor of the god of wine, Dionysos, called Bacchus by the Romans.[5] Because the god’s ceremonies were held at night and in secret, it is unclear just what went on at these gatherings, though we know that they were originally exclusively attended by women and were said to culminate in ecstatic revelries. During the early second century BC, popular rites associated with the worship of Bacchus spread throughout Italy attended by both men and women simultaneously, which was a novelty. In 186 BC, a scandal broke out of such magnitude that the Roman Senate itself became involved. Livy, the tutor to the emperor Augustus’ grand-nephew and one of the most eminent of all Roman historians, describes the problem in book 39.8 of his Ab Urbe Condita.

When (the orgy-goers) were heated with wine and the nightly commingling of men and women, those of tender age with their seniors, had extinguished all sense of modesty, debaucheries of every kind commenced; each had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust he was most prone to. Nor was the mischief confined to the promiscuous intercourse of men and women; false witness, the forging of seals and testaments, and false informations, all proceeded from the same source, as also poisonings and murders of families where the bodies could not even be found for burial. Many crimes were committed by treachery; most by violence, which was kept secret, because the cries of those who were being violated or murdered could not be heard owing to the noise of drums and cymbals.[6]

At 39.13, Livy again underscores the sexual nature of the ceremonies in addition to their violence:

When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim… amongst them were members of noble families both men and women.

After the Senate intervened, the orgies were effectively banned.[7] At 39.18, Livy sums up the fate of the Bacchic revelers:

Those who had polluted themselves by outrage and murder, those who had stained themselves by giving false evidence, forging seals and wills and by other fraudulent practices, were sentenced to death. The number of those executed exceeded the number of those sentenced to imprisonment; there was an enormous number of men as well as women in both classes.

So, according to Livy, the Bacchantes’ ceremonies had become associated with indiscriminate sexual intercourse among individuals of both high and low socio-economic status, rape, the forging of wills, and even the murder of unwitting initiates.[8]

But can Livy be trusted? Blanshard suggests that his narrative is “embroidered” and reminiscent of conventions of “Hellenistic drama.”[9] Walsh calls it a “soap opera.”[10] Although Livy mentions at 39.19 that specific witnesses were rewarded by the Senate for their testimony, we have no way of knowing whether or not they were lying. Fortuitously, the actual senatorial resolution against the Bacchantes survives in an inscription, proving that there was indeed some kind of a scandal in 186 BC, whatever its nature. The allies of Rome were required to forbid unauthorized meetings of the Bacchantes in public and private on pain of death. Exceptions could only be granted by the Roman Senate provided that no less than one hundred senators and the urban praetor agreed to the dispensation, and that no more than five people would be present at the revelries at any one time. Livy’s account is consistent with these details. Yet the legislation described on the inscription is not contextualized. The only hint as to the reason for the Senate’s decree is the phrase “let them not make conspiracies among themselves.”[11] The nature of the conspiracies is not specified. Beyond Livy’s explanation, the comic plays of Plautus which are contemporary with the senatorial legislation include many scattered references to bacchanals and the followers of Bacchus in general. They are invariably portrayed as insane, violent, and promiscuous, though the fact that so many of the playwright’s jokes involve explicitly hyperbolic fear of their violence might be taken as a subtle critique of exaggerated fears of the threat that they posed.[12] Whatever the case, the extant evidence never contradicts Livy’s account and even confirms certain aspects of it like the technical specifications of the senatorial restrictions and the association between the worship of Bacchus, sex, and violence. But the fact remains that the whole affair might have been a giant witch hunt. So, where do we go from here?

In general, we have cause to be suspicious of any body of writing dedicated to the activities of secret religious organizations. Because the rites were deliberately kept under wraps, it is impossible to know exactly what they involved. Historians have emphasized the fact that Livy’s account is highly embellished and modeled on age-old literary tropes.[13] At the same time, Livy admittedly does not consider the anti-Greek sentiment marking aspects of Roman politics at the time, or deep-rooted political divisions among prominent aristocratic families which might have inspired a witch hunt.[14] But what is important to note is that even if everything about the orgies of Bacchus was fabricated, there existed in the popular consciousness the idea and even the expectation that people who met by night for secret ceremonies might be engaging in group sex. In fact, the idea of group sex as a feature of secret nocturnal meetings was so prominent in the psychological landscape of multiple Roman authors that it attached itself to many different cults over time. In his Satires, the poet Juvenal mentions aristocratic matrons competing with slave girls in sexual feats at the celebrations of the rites of the Bona Dea.[15] The novelist Apuleius describes catamite priests of a secret cult participating in a homosexual orgy.[16] Early Christian groups were often accused of holding orgies. In the late third century AD, for example, Minucius Felix described a Christian feast in which lamps were overturned and indiscriminate sexual escapades took place in the dark, though the charge was admittedly categorically denied.[17]  In fact, the Agape, or Christian love feast, was interpreted and described so often as a sex party that Justin Maryr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Theophilus, and Terturllian all took the time to write against the charge.[18] Interestingly, however, Christian sects often accused each other of holding orgies. Writing in the early third century AD, Hippolytus Romanus said of the Simonists that they believed “all earth is earth, and there is no difference where anyone sows, provided he does sow. And they congratulate themselves on their intercourse with strange women, asserting that this is the perfect Agape.”[19] And in the late fourth century Epiphanius described orgiastic feasts among the Gnostic Phibionites in which semen and menstrual blood were used as ceremonial fluids.[20]

Admittedly, many of these details seem highly fanciful, and some of the evidence like the satirical remarks of Juvenal and the diatribes of Christian sects writing against each other is overtly hostile or comical in nature. No accounts survive from antiquity of religious sects openly admitting to holding sex parties. It is invariably described as a taboo practice that the Other arranges and enjoys. But it also must be said that in the whole of extant ancient literature, no voices survive denying that such parties ever took place at all. If all of the descriptions of orgies were fabrications, one would think that after so many centuries, at least a few authors would comment on the fact that all of these accusations were fundamentally groundless. But as we have seen, even Christian apologists did not deny the reality of orgies in all contexts. They simply accused heretics of being the ones to hold them.

The truth remains elusive, though at least in the case of the worship of Bacchus and Priapus, a chaste and sober get-together seems somehow inappropriate as a celebration of the gods of wine and the male libido, respectively. The Roman conception of an orgia as a potential venue for group sex is the very origin of the modern term “orgy,” with all its connotations. In the opinion of Albert Henrichs, one of the most important scholars on the rites of Dionysos, the idea that the originally chaste ceremonies became associated in Italy with “sexual liberation” seemed plausible enough to be stated categorically and without reservation.[21] Whatever the case, the Romans were sure enough about the reality of group sex to have recourse to referencing it often, and religiously inspired sex parties existed firmly in the realm of popular discourse for centuries. If even a handful of sects indeed engaged in group-sex, it might explain the longevity of the rumors associated with the movements at large more plausibly than five hundred years of hysterical slander. The very fact that such celebrations were so fundamentally taboo and counter-cultural might have attracted certain elements to these cults in the first place.

***

[1] For a description of the effectiveness of innuendo about sexual transgressions as a form of character assassination, see Anthony Corbeill’s article on “Dining Deviants in Roman Political Invective” in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, Roman Sexualities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Pp. 99-128.

[2] See the introduction to Suzanne Dixon, Reading Roman Women : Sources, Genres, and Real Life (London: Duckworth, 2001).

[3] See http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/050603.pdf Pp. 47.

[4] For the argument that even Roman cinaedi (passive male homosexuals “who preferred to be penetrated by other men and/or to service women orally”) might have been a “fabulous construct” without “material existence,” see Marilyn B. Skinner’s analysis of the work of H. N. Parker’s work in Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, Ancient Cultures (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005). Pp. 252.

[5] For an account of the history of the worship of Dionysos, see Albert Henrichs, “Greek Maenadism from Olympias to Messalina,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82, no. ArticleType: research-article / Full publication date: 1978 / Copyright 1978 Department of the Classics, Harvard University (1978).

[6] See http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy/Livy39.html.

[7] Commentators who point out that the ceremonies could still technically be held at the specific discretion of the Senate are missing the point that the Senate would likely never agree to such terms given the general severity of the legislation against the Bacchic rites.

[8] See Livy 39.8-19.

[9] Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity. Pp. 59.

[10] Walsh, P.G. “Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia.” Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct., 1996), 188-203. Pp. 202.

[11] See (CIL i2 2, 581).

[12] See American journal of philology, Volumes 31-40 By Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, Charles William Emil Miller, Benjamin Dean Meritt, Tenney Frank, Harold Fredrik Cherniss, JSTOR (Organization), pp. 243 onward. Plaut. Am. 703-705 has a joke about the insanity of the Bacchae; Au. 408-411 has a joke about their violence; Cas. 978  professes comic fear of the Bacchae; Mi. 855 associates them with drunkenness; Mi. 1016 has a request for a Bacchic password (“a certain man loves a certain woman”); the title of the play Bacchides is a play on “Bacchae,” and involves courtesans; Bac. 53 expresses fear of a “bacchanal,” as does Bac. 371; the speech beginning at Men. 835 associates the worship of Bacchus with violence and insanity.

[13] See P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 43, no. 2 (1996).

[14] Cato is traditionally held to have opposed the phil-Hellenic Scipionic circle. For a discussion of the intricacies of Roman politics in this time period, see H. H. Scullard, Roman Politics, 220-150 B.C (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981).

[15] Juv. 6.315-346.

[16] Apuleius 8.30.

[17] Min. Fel. Oct. 9.6-7.

[18] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.,: Cornell University Press, 1972). Pp. 90-91.

[19] Elench. 6.19, 5.

[20] Epiphanius Panarion haer. 26.4-26.5. For the idea that “Epiphanius made up his accounts…creating bizarre ritual activities,” see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities : The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Pp. 201.

[21] Albert Henrichs, “Greek Maenadism from Olympias to Messalina,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82, no. ArticleType: research-article / Full publication date: 1978 / Copyright 1978 Department of the Classics, Harvard University (1978).

Advertisements

One thought on “The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 2, Orgies in Cults and Mystery Religions)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s