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Dionysian ecstatic cults in early Rome

June 21, 2010

A new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that, in contrast to traditional scholarly claims, Dionysian cultic activities may very well have occurred in archaic Rome in the decades around 500 BC.

A strong scholarly tradition rooted in the 19th century denies the presence of Dionysian ecstatic rites, cults, and satyr plays in Roman society. Although people in nearby societies evidently engaged in such behaviour around the same time in history, the Romans simply did not, according to early scholars. British scholars often stressed how much their people had in common with the Romans, not least as statesmen and colonists.

'They even claimed that they had the same mentality. This perception is reflected in modern research on the Roman society and religion as well', says the author of the thesis Carina Håkansson.

Religious research has also been influenced by the Christian tradition. For example Dionysian cults have had problems gaining acceptance as a 'real' religion since the possibility that religion could ever be connected with bawdy behaviour and drunkenness has generally been rejected. This argument alone was enough to make early scholars neglect and reject the thought of Dionysian cult as religion proper.

Alternative interpretations

Our modern secularised view of the world offers alternative interpretations, and this is something Håkansson is eager to stress.

'However, there is no doubt that this secularised perspective will sooner or later be criticised and questioned - that's the nature of research', says Håkansson.

While Dionysos is associated mainly with the Greek region, various forms of wine gods were worshipped across the entire region of Greece-Etruria-Rome. Håkansson therefore uses findings from the Greek and Etruscan areas for comparative purposes.

Satyrs are strongly linked to the Dionysian cult, and Håkansson shows that satyrs presumably were present in archaic Rome, and furthermore formed a link between ritual and theatre/performance. Håkansson concludes that the Dionysian sphere in Rome may very well constitute the seed of the subsequent Roman dramatic tradition.

Cross-disciplinary theories and methods

The study is designed as a case study and is of a multidisciplinary nature; Håkansson used theory and methods from for example iconography, archaeology, philosophy and religious studies. The sources upon which the study is based include texts by the Roman historian Livius and the Greek writer Dionysius from Halicarnassus and iconographic material such as vase paintings and architectonic terracottas.

'My thesis targets an international research association and aims at contributing to the debate on how a paradigm shift in religious research may change our view of the Romans and their contemporary society', says Håkansson.
-end-
Title of the doctoral thesis: In search of Dionysos. Reassessing a Dionysian context in early Rome

University of Gothenburg

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