Let’s rewind to May 24, 2019, in Rome. The sun is beating down, and archaeologists in the heart of Italy’s culture-rich capital are about to excavate a new structure. In fact, they’re planning to hack away at a wall that dates back to the latter part of the medieval period. But before they begin, they notice something. There’s a section of this construction that stands out – and once uncovered, its wonders will be fully revealed.
The sight in question initially appears to be just another brick in the wall. However, on closer inspection, swirls of marble emerge from the layers of soil and dust. And it’s this that provides the first clue as to what exactly is lodged between the other rough stones that complete the structure.
So, clump by clump, the archaeologists begin pecking away at this oddly shaped brick. Their suspicions are then confirmed: it’s no ordinary piece of building material. As hunks of soil crumble at their feet and in turn reveal the object, what emerges are the smooth yet intricate facial features of a large marble head.
After finally managing to dislodge their find from the rest of the structure, the experts tilt it on its side to get a better look. And what the team then see is a young, feminine face that they suspect represents the ancient Greek god of wine, fertility and ecstasy: Dionysus.
Of course, you may well be wondering why the head of a Greek god was unearthed in Rome. Well, Dionysus was among the many gods that the Romans worshiped – but there he went by the name Bacchus instead. What’s more, his worship among the Romans is thought to have commenced as early as 200 BC.
This is because in 146 BC the Romans invaded and overcame the Greeks, which in turn led to the former going on to worship a number of Grecian deities. But before we take a look at Bacchus’ following, let’s first delve a little deeper into the ancient mythology and origin surrounding this popular figure.
Myth has it that Bacchus – originally Dionysus in ancient Greece – was born twice. His mother, Princess Semele of Thebes, was a human while his father, Zeus, was a god. And Zeus wasn’t just any deity, either – he reigned over both humans and the rest of the gods to boot.
The problem was, however, that Zeus’ spouse, Hera, caught wind of the unborn baby and coaxed Semele into doing the unthinkable – summoning a god to appear before a human. Hera approached the princess disguised as an elderly woman and subsequently earned her friendship. And when Semele revealed that she was pregnant with Zeus’ child, Hera pretended that she thought it was a lie.
As a result, Semele feared that Hera wouldn’t be the only one who thought she was lying. So she wanted Zeus to prove to the rest of the world that he was, in fact, her baby’s father. And as to what happened next, there are two different versions of the story.
In one rendition, Semele asks Zeus to appear before the people so that he can then explain their baby’s true parentage. Zeus refuses and consequently becomes enraged at the princess for suggesting such a thing. He then summons up flashes of lightning that kill her.
In the second, more widely known version of the story, Semele merely asks Zeus to expose his true identity to her. Zeus then appears but is unable to control the lightning bolts that form part of his true self. The princess’ death either comes as a result of these or as a consequence of her viewing a god in their original shape.
In both strands of the myth, however, the unborn Dionysus is shielded from death. He’s retrieved by Zeus, in fact, and the lightning god then implants his son into his thigh – where he stays until he’s ready to be born. And this is why Dionysus is often described as being “twice-born.”
The young Dionysus would go on to have quite a primitive upbringing. He was first handed over to Seilenos – the god of insobriety and turning grapes into wine – and the nature goddesses on Mount Nysa. The aim was to protect him from Hera and, as time would tell, this was a necessary precaution.
You see, the tale goes on to describe how Dionysus eventually went to live with his mother’s sister, Ino, and her spouse. And once Hera had caught onto this development, she led his guardians to murder their other offspring and subsequently commit suicide.
Later, it seems Dionysus took after one of his original father figures and perfected the art of viticulture. He then traveled to Asia to share his knowledge of wine-making with the people there. This ability – among others – would go on to stand the test of time for Dionysus. Drinking wine, you see, is still one of the main things that people associate with the god today.
Dionysus apparently spent a lot of time exploring India, and some sources even say that it was on his travels there that he first introduced humans to his particular rituals. While people normally frequented man-made religious structures to worship gods, they instead followed Dionysus to more rural settings such as forests.
Indeed, you might say that these natural settings reflected much that Dionysus stood for, namely casting off human inhibitions. As we’ve already seen, Dionysus was and remains to this day associated with the consumption of wine. And he also encouraged his people to reject social norms.
At first, it seems as though these sessions of worship, or “mysteries,” were mainly for women, who predominantly made up Dionysus’ following. Those who came together supposedly succumbed so fully to his power that it brought them into a trance-like state. This has since been dubbed the “Bacchic frenzy,” and it would have no doubt been enhanced by the consumption of wine.
Moreover, on his return to Greece, Dionysus would stop at nothing to encourage people to adopt his form of worship. Thankfully for us, the classical Greek writer Euripides dramatized the god’s efforts in a play called The Bacchae. The plot sees Pentheus, who was the leader of Thebes – Dionysus’ place of birth – believe that the god’s divine parentage is a lie.
In the play, Dionysus subsequently harnesses his supernatural abilities to force Pentheus into a state of madness. He then encourages Pentheus to observe the “mysteries” among the trees. And after the Maenads – Dionysus’ female followers – are driven into a rage by Dionysus, they see Pentheus watching from the sidelines.
Among this group of Maenads are some of Pentheus’ female relatives, but that doesn’t mean they hold back. Using nothing but their own brute strength, they tear the mortal to shreds. What’s more, it’s the leader’s own mother who places his head on a spike as a memento.
Thankfully, though, non-mythical celebrations of Dionysus aren’t known to have been as gruesome. Instead, ancient Greece held a grand annual festival called “Greater Dionysa” as part of the god’s worship. It took place in Athens during the spring and was largely based around theater performances. Given the importance of women in both Euripides’ myth and the worship of Dionysus more generally, it may come as a surprise that females sadly weren’t allowed to watch these stage productions.
As you may expect, a lot of wine would have been consumed by the festival’s attendees. And people wouldn’t have felt the need to repress their sexual desires, either. So much so, in fact, that during processions it was the norm for participants to be seen chanting hymns while holding large phallic objects.
So, you may now be wondering how Dionysus came to be worshiped in Rome, given that that’s where his impressive marble head was found. Well, after he joined the Roman pantheon of gods under the new moniker of Bacchus, the people of Italy’s capital started throwing their own festivals as well.
In Italy, the festival was called Bacchanalia. And it appeared to include activities that were a little more extreme than those that had taken place in Greece. The party-goers would apparently dismember live animals and consume the flesh uncooked, for example. And despite the events being more graphic and outrageous, women were now reportedly involved, too.
In fact, an account from a Roman historian called Titus Livius states that some celebrations in Rome were originally exclusive to women. But over time they came to be influenced by the more male-centered Greek festivities and eventually included both genders. As with the Grecian tradition, Roman events also placed an emphasis upon sexual liberation.
For the authorities, though, these celebrations became too frequent – and they reportedly tried to put a stop to the revelry. Some accounts state that many thousands of participants were incarcerated, with the majority then being sentenced to death. However, historians today think that state leaders merely instituted a ban – and there was a way of getting around it, too.
Indeed, the residents of Rome could still organize these Bacchic rituals, as long as they received official permission beforehand. In addition, only five people would be allowed to attend – two men and three women, to be specific. And anyone who failed to comply with these rules was at risk of execution.
So the festivities continued – in moderation, of course. As you may already know, the Romans held their gods in extremely high regard. And over the years, archaeologists have unearthed various artifacts that constantly reinforce just how important these divine beings were to the functioning of Roman society.
That could explain why experts happened across another incredible find in 2019, namely the aforementioned great marble head of Dionysus that was lodged in a wall in close vicinity to the old Roman Forum. And even before it had been properly cleaned, archaeologists were able to make some interesting predictions.
Not only, for example, did they predict whom the head represented, but they also pin-pointed it as being from the Imperial period. According to the director of Rome’s archaeological museums, Claudio Parisi Presicce, the head would have been sculpted sometime from the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD.
What’s more, Presicce went on to elaborate about the statue’s origin. “The hollow eyes, which were probably filled with glass or precious stone, date it to the first centuries of the Roman Empire,” he told The Daily Telegraph in May 2019. And that’s not all. Upon first seeing the marble head, the archaeologists pieced together a number of clues that led them to think it was a representation of the infamous god of wine and ecstasy.
More specifically, the Archaeological Park of The Colosseum described the discovery as being “refined and gracious, young and feminine.” And a Facebook post by the organization added that on the head, the hair was “thick and wavy” as it flowed down to the shoulders.
The statue also demonstrates the Roman love of sculpture, and Dionysus is even seen to be wearing a headband containing sprigs of ivy. “The surface is not completely visible because we haven’t yet given it a thorough clean,” Presicce explained.
That, then, is exactly what’s next in store for the marble head. Afterwards, it will be exhibited so that the public will be able to view the artifact in all its glory. Archaeologists are excited about what cleaning the object will reveal, too. Indeed, Presicce went on to point out that “there could still be traces of the original color conserved in the band around the hair.”
Archaeologists weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the discovery, either. The mayor of the capital Virginia Raggi also weighed in, saying, “Rome continues to surprise us every day. The head of the statue…is in excellent condition.” And she went on to describe it as a “marvel.”
But let’s answer the burning question that you have bound to have been asking – just what is the head of such a popular and widely worshiped god doing in among the bricks of a wall? Well, here’s a clue: the answer relates very closely to what many of us should be doing more of today.
Yes, it’s probable that the head of Dionysus was found here due to some forward-thinking Roman behavior. Recycling, you see, was a common practice in the era, and Dionysus’ head would simply have been used as a piece of building material. Some might say, therefore, that society today needs to take a leaf out of medieval Rome’s book.
What’s more, since there are currently more than ten active archaeological sites in the city, it’s likely that a new discovery could lie – literally and temporally – just around the corner. Also in May of 2019, for example, experts came across a never-before-seen underground chamber beneath what was once the palace of the Roman Emperor Nero.
These discoveries are therefore proof that we never really know what might be hidden among rocks or underneath layers of mud. And, as we’ve seen from the unearthing of Dionysus’ marble head, these objects and spaces don’t just provide us with a plethora of information about times gone by – they can also teach us how to better our lives in the present.