Conqueror of Death: A Study of Bacchic Imagery on Roman Sarcophagi
Dr. Stephen Maiullo
The Roman counterpart to the Greek god Dionysus, Liber Pater, invited his worshippers to free themselves from their inhibitions and social conventions. In festivals such as Liberalia, boys donned their adult togas for the first time, actors danced across the stage in celebration, and phalluses were revered and worshiped by all. And yet, even as this vibrant form of worship fell out of style after the second century BCE, there seemed to be a resurgence of this Roman Bacchic tradition carved all over sarcophagi from the mid‐first century to the late third century CE, across the Roman empire. So why would a god who was so closely associated with life, fertility, and coming of age and whose popularity had dwindled during the Roman republic come to be depicted on sarcophagi centuries later in the Roman empire? In this project, I will examine depictions of the Ariadne myth on sarcophagi in particular which, as I will argue, reorient Liber worship toward Greek identifications of Bacchus as a figure who can conquer the finality of death. Ariadne is an ideal figure for such an occasion because, according to the tradition surrounding her, she was saved from death twice: first when Dionysus carried her off from Naxos then again at her apotheosis after her death. Although many versions focus on Bacchus’ marriage, in Fasti 495-520, Ovid imagines Ariadne wishing she were dead after Liber brings home a new wife and that her unfaithful husband had never saved her from that fate Theseus left her to. Despite this, Ovid tells us, Ariadne would be renamed Libera and take her place as an immortal among the stars. Stemming from the Ariadne-Bacchus marriage myth all other depictions of Bacchus on sarcophagi start to represent the want for the deceased to live on, immortalized in stone. Through his depiction on sarcophagi, Liber is transformed into the best representation of what we want our loved ones to have: eternal life, happiness, and freedom.
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