In the late 3rd and early 2nd century BCE, the Roman Republic had been already in effect an empire, reigning over Greeks in the South of Italy, Carthaginians in Africa, and Iberians in Spain. Of all these peoples, the Greeks were the most notable and famous; the extreme renown of Alexander’s military victories were backed by the cultural influence of Athens, Pergamon and Alexandria. Alexander’s empire had indeed brought about a Hellenistic age in which Greek culture was preeminent throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. The traditional Romans were naturally jealous of the Greeks , but they were also alarmed at the looseness that began to creep into their lands. The Greeks, by that time, unfortunately suffered often from a decline of tradition; many corrupt philosophies, all rejecting tradition, were in competition and growth, taking advantage of Hellenistic multiculturalism. The Greeks in South Italy and beyond thus had a bad reputation among the Romans, and not without reason; hedonism and cultural innovation, at the expense of tradition, were marks of the Hellenistic age that the Greeks were promoting. The generally traditional structure of Roman law and culture was therefore in some danger, but never did the alarm go so far as in 186 BCE.
The Roman historian Livius reports that a freedwoman and courtesan by the name of Hispala Faecenia exposed to the senate a shocking new form of religious mysteries that were spreading throughout Italy. The story unfolded as follows. Hispala was genuinely in love with a young Roman called Aebutius, who had a stepfather greedy for his money. In order to corrupt Aebutius’ morals, he found a pretext to get him initiated into the Bacchic mysteries. When Hispala heard of this, she begged him not to go, and being asked why, she few details out of fear, but swore the mysteries were vile and immoral. Aebutius protested at home, and he was expelled by his stepfather and complicit mother, who accused him of disrespect and weakness under the influence of a whore. He then went to his aunt, who advised him to bring the matter to the consul. This being done, and the matter appearing serious, the consul called for Hispala to give testimony, but she fainted with fear and afterwards said she feared the Gods as well as revenge if she was to break silence, for she herself had been an initiate in the mysteries. Only after the consul’s assurances did she testify, and what she exposed was worse than anything the Christians had ever practised to deserve persecution for. The Bacchic mysteries were then harshly suppressed throughout Italy, and forbidden thereafter unless with express permission of the Senate and with a limited congregation of five. Hispala was granted a large sum of money for her service, and given the privilege of controlling her property as she pleased and marrying any free born person without shame. This was the due reward of a good woman, who acted out of sincere love, and this is proof that even a prostitute could be pious enough to become a good polytheist.
Dionysus, sometimes called Bacchus, was a divine figure known to the Greeks from ancient times. He was regarded as a Hero, son of Zeus and Semele, but another tradition (in Eleusis) held him to be a God, son of Zeus and either Demeter or Persephone. Of all the Deities worshipped among the Hellenic peoples and regions, the cult of Dionysus suffered the most interpolation and corruption at the hands of those who pretended to be pious. Although he was a divine Patron of wine and fertility, degenerate fanatics began to reinterpret him as a symbol of universal martyrdom and licentious freedom. Firstly, it was the Thracian seer Orpheus (discussed before as a bad polytheist) who established mysteries to a syncretic Dionysus Zagreus, mainly consisting of the σπαραγμος (sparagmos), a ritual dismemberment of an animal with bare hands and then eating its raw flesh, in memory of the supposed martyrdom of Dionysus at the hands of the Titans, and in acknowledgement of the innate sin of mankind, who were said to have been born from the bloodshed. The historian Diodorus Siculus notes that Orpheus had imported the idea from the mythology of Osiris in Egypt, the God that was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set. By this means, in the guise of religion, Orpheus established an ideology of fanaticism and innovation in Greece, that later spread and diversified at the hands of his followers, who wrote their own forms of cosmogony and zealously promoted their teachings, among which was the unfounded, supreme blasphemy that Dionysus was to become the successor of Zeus. The second corruption of the cult of Dionysus occurred later, probably sometime in the Hellenistic period, but we first hear of it in 186 BCE, namely, nocturnal processions with torches and ritual orgies of wild drunkenness and unrestrained lewdness, also held overnight but secretly performed indoors. The Romans had known and worshipped Liber, their own native God of wine and fertility, quite similar to Dionysus, but now the new and wild ceremonies not only threatened to subvert their native cult and traditions, but also corrupt the people (whether Roman or Greek) by spoiling their morals, families, civil participation, and life. Paculla Annia was the priestess in Campania (in South Italy) who first put in practice this impious innovation.
According to Hispala’s testimony, who had been an initiate, the rituals were at first generally traditional and open to women only, three times a year. But Paculla Annia then admitted men, young and old, to join with the women, and gradually increased meetings to five times a month. The customary procession and dance of males dressed as Satyrs and females dressed into Maenads, turned into a ritual orgy where drunk participants all joined together in a wild frenzy of lust. The initiates and followers soon increased very quickly, even as far as Rome, since many were interested in the unheard of experience. What they did not know, however, was that all participants were forbidden to give out the secret of the mysteries, on pain of being sacrificed in the name of Dionysus. When the consul heard of these things, he convened with the magistrates and assembly of the people and said, among other things, the following “In no meeting of the Assembly has this solemn appeal to the Gods been so proper and, I would add, so necessary. For it reminds you that it is these Gods whom your ancestors ordained that we should worship, reverence, and pray to… There is nothing which wears a more deceptive appearance than a depraved superstition. Where crimes are sheltered under the name of religion, there is fear lest in punishing the hypocrisy of men we are doing violence to something holy which is mixed up with it. But from these scruples you are delivered by numberless decisions of the pontiffs, resolutions of the senate and responses of the augurs.” The holy and civil officials of Rome determined that the best course to take was to suppress the rituals, arrest everyone associated with the rituals, burn books that contain supposed prophecies, and institute that all religious practice be in accordance with Roman tradition; an edict was to be published to that effect. Rewards were given for those who produced participants or names of those who participated in Bacchic orgies, in order for them to stand trial. Some committed suicide to avoid capture and others escaped. In all, 7000 men and women were implicated and Livius reports that more were executed than imprisoned. Sentence of death was given to those who led rituals, participated willingly in them, or took part in murders, forgery and other crimes. Although this punishment imposed by the Roman Senate was very harsh, it does not by any means justify the horrible actions of Paculla Annia and her ringleaders; by establishing an expansive cult of lust, intoxication and death, they ruled over and corrupted the lives of many, and (what is worst of all) did so falsely and heinously in the name of a divine figure. Her fate in life is unknown, but her lot in the underworld is easy to guess.