The First Mass Hunt

The storm was preceded by evil omens. The Capitoline temple of Ops was struck by lightning. There were prodigies: a rain of stones, spectral fires, and a hermaphrodite was found—and killed—in Umbria. [Pouthier, 139] Not ten years had passed since the female insurrection against the Oppian laws, and women were exercising greater freedom. Suddenly, leading patricians were accusing female-led mystery sodalities of poisoning, ritual murder, sexual deviance, and treason. As Livy tells it, the celebrants feasted, drank wine and

... all feelings of shame extinguished, they abandoned themselves to all kinds of debauchery... not limited to faceless coupling of male and female... also poisonings and internal murders, to the point that sometimes the body could not even be found for burial... This violence was hidden by the shouts and noise of the drums and cymbals so that none of the cries for help could be heard... There is no crime or misdeed which they have not committed. There is more debauch between men than with women.

Already, in the second century BCE, major elements of the European witch hunt are already being used to suppress a subversive religion: secret nocturnal meetings; with women in the leading roles; who initiate their children into the cult; in ecstatic rites with music, dancing and cries; and a feast followed by debauched orgies; the highlighting of gay sex; allegations of ritual murder and other terrible crimes.

The only missing ingredients are the devil—Christianity had not yet come into being—and cannibalism, shapeshifting and flight. These last three already existed in Roman stereotypes of the strix (screech-owl-witch) and were being used to persecute individual witches. But they had yet to be fused into the emerging ideology of a massive social conspiracy. The female-led Mysteries, however, were already being cast as a fast-growing sect threatening society and morality itself.

Livy assured his readers that this scourge had spread like a contagious plague from Etruria to Rome. The numbers of the Bacchanals were growing rapidly, so that they had become “an immense multitude, already almost a second people...” Worst of all, Roman youth were being initiated into this cult, and even patricians participated in it.

Incredibly, the official story shows this extensive and dangerous cult being discovered only by accident, and under the most suspicious circumstances. The accusations originate with the youth Aebutius and his concubine Hispala, a freedwoman. His stepfather had wasted his inheritance and his mother had thrown him out of the house after he refused her plans to initiate him (so he said) into the Bacchanalia. One possible scenario is that the step-father was plotting to cast Aebutius as a furiosus (possessed) in order to gain legal control of his paternal estate. [Pailler, 586-7] In any case, the youth had ample motivations for revenge. Livy claims that his mistress had warned him not to join the Mysteries, saying that terrible depravaties went on there. Aebutius went to his father's sister, who advised him to take his story to the consul Postumius. The consul's sister summoned Hispala, who almost fainted from terror when she saw the officials waiting for her.

Again, Livy's account has an uncanny resemblance to 16th-century witch trial transcripts: the officials order the trembling Hispala to “never fear, tell the truth, tell what goes on in the sacred wood of Stimula, during the nocturnal ceremonies of the Bacchantes.” She remained speechless for some time. Finally she told them that she had only gone as a child many years ago. She refused to say more, but the consul said that she would not be pardoned if she didn't tell. The combination of coercion, fear, and the admonition to “tell the truth” is chillingly similar to medieval inquisitorial procedure, which in fact followed a Roman model. The account that Livy presents that demanded by Hispala’s determined patrician interrogators. So the terrified prisoner’s story of the Bacchanals unfolds under severe duress; she says that in the mysteries those who won't stand for infamous crimes “are immolated as victims,” and the highest mark of devotion is not to hold anything as evil.

Elements of the true rites are visible here and there, though presented in a negative light. The matrons “predict the future with frenetic contortions” and rush down to the Tiber river, plunging their torches into the water and taking them out still burning (a feat accomplished by mixing chemicals into the tar). The leader is Paculla Annia, a priestess from Campania. Livy claimed that she had changed policy in 188 by admitting men—though it seems clear that some men had participated before that—and increasing the frequency of the rites.

Hispala fell at the officials' feet and begged them to let her go, but they locked her in a room in the house of the consul’s sister, removing the outside staircase to prevent her escape. The consul brought the matter before the senate, which ordered an “extraordinary investigation” into the nocturnal assemblies and “clandestine conjurations.” The quaestio extra ordine permitted torture and stripped defendants of any right to appeal. (This same provision of Roman law, resurrected by medieval canonists, was a major force in fueling the later European witch craze.) [Ibid, 253-7]

The Senate offered a reward to anyone who denounced participants in the Bacchanalia. Officials were ordered to “seek out the priests of these cults, whether men or women,” in Rome and in the provinces. Edicts outlawed any meetings of initiates of the mysteries “or any religious ceremony of the same kind.” Devotees were to be arrested, and vigilant watch kept for secret rites or meetings.

A public assembly was called. Consul Postumius reminded the men of Rome that the only true gods were those of their ancestors, not “those of perverse foreign ceremonies which, as if under the furies' goad [here he refers to Stimula, goddess of trance ecstasy] prompt their minds to every crime and sexual depravity.” He added that his description could only hint at the abominations that the Bacchanals had committed.
In the first place, most of them are women, and this was the source of the evil; then, men resembling women, violators and rapists [!] and fanatics hardened by sleeplessness, tumult, and nocturnal shouts.

Postumius said the conspiracy was still small enough to crush, but growing day by day. He deplored the mixing of males and females at these gatherings, and the initiation of Roman boys. How can youth enrolled under such a banner be made into soldiers? Should debauched men from an obscene sanctuary be the ones to fight for women and children's chastity? “It would be less serious if their turpitude had only made them effeminate,” but they were guilty of much more. The consul summed up with a staggering accusation:

“All the crimes committed in these last years, whether sexual, treasonous, or criminal, came from this sanctuary, and from it alone.”

The only remedy, urged Postumius, was the harshest repression: a hunt for the wicked devotees of the Mysteries, followed by mass executions. Roman men must reject any members of their families who had “fallen into this debauch and madness.” Long ago, Postumius reminded the assembled men, their forefathers had ordered the judges to keep foreign rites and diviners out of Rome. These “depraved” alien religions are the cause of “every form of crime and lust.” So Romans should not be disturbed by religious sentiments when they see the Bacchanals under attack. Nor are their assemblies lawful: “Your ancestors did not wish you to come together without a legitimate authority in control of the crowd.” The repression about to take place has received the gods’ blessing, and every good citizen must carry out its orders.

Panic swept Rome, then all Italy. The night of the speech, many people trying to flee the city were arrested by guards posted at its gates. Thousands more were denounced. Some known initiates, male and female, killed themselves. Others succeeded in escaping from Rome; many of those denounced could not be found. Officials staged dragnet searches and inquests in the suburbs. There were rumored to be more than 7,000 conjurari (sworn conspirators). Recent initiates were imprisoned, but all the rest—thousands of people—were condemned to death. The state followed the old policy of allowing men to punish female relatives in the privacy of the home [Robson, 40; Pomeroy, 160]:

The convicted women are turned over to their relatives or to those in whose hands they are [male guardians], so that they will punish them in private; if there is no one to carry out the execution, it will be done in public.

A bloodbath ensued of which no further details were recorded, carried out in secret by the paterfamilias against sisters, daughters, wives, and slaves. Those who hesitated to put their female kin to death faced the certainty that the state would do it for them, disgracing their manhood.

No mention is made of Paculla's fate, though she must have been executed or died under torture. Her sons were arrested as leaders and tortured into denouncing others, who were duly executed. The senate erected a stone forbidding all secret assemblies and empowering the authorities to stamp them out. They further enacted a proscription of diviners and foreign magicians. Senators rewarded Aebutius and Hispalla out of the public treasury, and promoted her to a higher social rank so the couple could legally marry.

Instead of being cowed by collective punishment, the survivors seem to have retaliated. In the years that followed, (184-80 BCE) numerous matrons were accused of poisoning their husbands. This was not the first time such charges were brought in Rome—similar accusations had been raised in 331—and it was far from being the last. A few decades later, another spate of accusations of husband-poisoning broke out (in 153 BCE). [Scheid, 399] The threat was real: Agrippina used the poisoner Locusta to kill Claudius so that her son Nero could become emperor. [Tacitus, Annals,, 12.66] Husband-poisoning was still considered a problem in 17th-century Italy, at the height of the witch hunts.

Rome extended its repression of the mystery cults into the provinces. In Apulia, Toynbee writes of a “witch-hunt of bacchanals on the run” in 185-4 BCE. The crackdown triggered riots of slaves and shepherds, linked to “remnants of the Bacchanalia.” The Roman consul's severe reprisals were not enough to prevent a recurrence. Thousands fled for their lives. Rome was still stamping out the last embers of southern resistance in 181 BCE. [in Pailler, 301-6, 276-7, 298. He cites C. Gallini's theory that the Bacchic cult was a liberation movement of the marginalized, from “below.” She ties it to “slave conspiraces” in Etruria. R. Turcan brings in Osco-Campanians’ rage at the Roman conquest in 211. Ibid, 107]

With all the killings, the rulers of Rome failed to wipe out the Mysteries. Eventually they were forced to concede legal status and citizenship to the priestesses of Ceres, in return for their acting on the state’s behalf. They became the only females, other than the Vestals, in charge of a state-supported cult. [Pomeroy, in Spaeth, 105] But the price of this concession was a diminished sphere of unsupervised female ritual action. Cicero's treatise on Laws (2. 21) lays out the official position:

Let there not be nocturnal sacrifices by women, except those which are made on behalf of the people according to proper form; nor let anyone initiate anyone [female], except as is customary to Ceres in the Greek ritual. [Spaeth, 105]



© Max Dashu 2004

Suppressed Histories Archives | Articles | Catalog