Tonight, we’re gonna party like it’s 600 B.C. — or, on second thought, maybe that’s not the best idea.
Greco-Roman cult parties, called the Bacchanalia, are some of the most wild ancient gatherings recorded in history. Throughout the third and second centuries B.C., the Romans hosted uncontrollably extravagant, loud parties that spanned several days and honored the god of wine, Bacchus. These festivals often got out of hand, including some rumored occurrences of poisoning and murder.
It’s likely that Bacchanalia started in Greece as a fertility ritual, or possibly a celebration of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. It was later brought to the Romans around 650 B.C. In the early days of the three-day festival, only women were invited to the annual party — think of it as an early history version of a girls’ night out, if you will.
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Later, after men were included in the celebration, Bacchanalia parties began to take place up to five times a year. History.com reports that the parties widened to include members from every group in society. In addition to excess imbibing, it’s said that the wine god’s commemorations included feasts, animal sacrifices, and the occasional orgy.
The exact details of what happened during the often-secretive celebration remain slightly hazy, but Roman historian Livy wrote a bit about it in “The History of Rome.” He isn’t regarded as the most accurate storyteller — some sources warn that his retellings might be exaggerated — but it’s one of the few accounts from this time that detail the secret rituals.
As for the wine itself, it’s highly likely that consumers today enjoy some of the same types of vino that were present at the Bacchanalia. Archaeological research tells us that many of today’s most prominent grape varietals, including Syrah and Pinot Noir, are genetically linked to those consumed in ancient Roman society.
Ancient Romans regarded wine as a basic right and necessity, as alcohol killed bacteria in otherwise unclean water. Considering the important role that wine played in Romans’ everyday lives, it’s no wonder they would launch such extravagant parties in Bacchus’s honor.
The uninhibited partying had a last call, though. In what was perhaps the biggest buzzkill before the Common Era, the Roman Senate voted to cease all Bacchanalia celebrations in 186 B.C. The multi-day celebrations grew a reputation for limitless debauchery, which the government didn’t particularly like. That didn’t stop the revelers, though — celebrations continued throughout southern Italy for years after.
Who knows? If our TikTok explore pages are any indication, the rowdy celebrations might even be popping back up this summer.