Roman Shipwrecks, page 6
Dionysos is the most frequently represented god in all art. He was adopted by the Romans as Bacchus as early as the third century B.C. Dionysos was first and foremost the god of wine who produced both drunkenness and divine ecstasy. Participants in his cult worship included wild maenads and satyrs.48 At his popular festivals performances of tragedy and comedy were featured. In fifth century Athens, Dionysos was honored with at least five festivals a year. The most important of these was the Anthesteria celebrated at the beginning of spring and lasting three days. In the Roman world, the festival of the Bacchanalia spread over southern Italy and Etruria and into Rome. These festivals over time, so deteriorated into orgies that in 186 B.C. the Roman senate passed a law prohibiting these celebrations on penalty of death.
But Dionysos was also a benign god, who like Osiris answered the human search for meaning beyond this life. In fact, many aspects of the Osiris/Dionysos symbolism were to be assimilated several centuries later into Christian thought and art.49 Worshipers in the Dionysiac cult, after initiation that included suffering and a mystical marriage with the god, were promised resurrection. A unique document illustrating the secret inititation rites into the Dionysiac cult are the great Second Style wall paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, dating about 50 B.C.50 This cult room in the home of a patrician family is a precious document of these rites as well as the refined taste of the domina of the house who undoubtedly commissioned the paintings. The room is decorated with almost life- sized figures set in a shallow space and placed against a vibrant red, undecorated wall. The focus of the room is the image of Dionysos and his consort Ariadne who decorate the east wall opposite the entrance. Surrounded by both mythological and human figures, the secret initiation rites for young women are revealed, including: reading from a sacred text, purification, the flagellation of the initiate with ecstatic dancing, the revealing of the sacred phallus and finally, the reward of a mystical marriage to the god. The veiled domina of the house who must have been a member of the Dionysiac cult watches from the corner wall. Adjoined to her marriage chamber, the room, with is large figures who do not cast shallows and are set against a flat, red background, gives an atmosphere of both mystery and majesty in keeping with the secret rites. The artist also draws on human features in the painting of the faces of the south Italian women shown here. Myth and reality are intertwined in this original masterpiece of a Campanian artist.
The Dionysiac cult spread over the Graeco-Roman world as far east as India in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great.51 In myth, the triumphal return of the god to Europe after his victorious travels to the far corners of the world were celebrated in the spring festivals. The triumph of the fertility of nature, of good over evil, of immortality over death are popular themes on Roman Dionysiac sarcophagi. One of the finest of these is the Severan sarcophagus in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore showing the Triumph of Dionysos.52 The god appears on the far left being crowned by Victory in a chariot drawn by panthers. The crowning motif in funerary art also symbolizes for the deceased the triumphal fulfillment of his courageous life. Satyrs and dancing maenads are also interwoven with the historic figures of the captured barbarians who ride on elephants. Ever since the age of Alexander the Great, the oriental triumphator, these powerful animals become associated with his cult. It was Alexander who brought the cult of Dionysos with him as he crossed over the east to ancient Bactria, modern Afghanistan, and as far east as the Indus valley. Alexander married Roxane, the daughter of a Bactrian baron who helped him subdue the wild mountainous district. But Alexanders soldiers were exhausted having marched for eight years over 17,000 miles. When they reached the Beas River they mutinied and forced him to turn back.53
Alexander left in his wake great Hellenistic cities, today largely destroyed. He died in Babylon in 323 B.C., but his body was hijacked by Ptolemy I and removed to Alexandria, the port city that Alexander founded in 331 B.C. and the first to bear his name. At the mouth of the Nile, under the Ptolemies and the Romans, Alexandria became the main port of the eastern Mediterranean for state and private shipping and the second largest city in the Roman empire. Rome depended upon wheat from Egypt to feed her masses and luxury items from the east were in great demand by the wealthy. It was from this great entrepot, that our Skerki Wreck F must have sailed around the mid-first century A.D. Loaded with both granite, probably from the quarries at Aswan and wine jars and ceramics from both the eastern and western Mediterranean, the Roman wrecks from Skerki Bank document Mediterranean-wide trade throughout Rome's long history. It is tantalizing to wonder what other treasures lie below in the depths of the wine-dark sea.
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48. For illustrations on Greek vases, see, for example: Lissarrague 1999, figs. 161 and 162, Attic red-figured cup, unattributed, in the Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, ca. 520 B.C., showing satyrs gathering and pressing grapes; ibid., figs. 164 and 165, Attic red-figured cup by the Brygos Painter, Cabinet des Medailles, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, ca. 490 B.C. showing in the interior, the bearded god in ecstasy, singing with his head thrown back, his plectrum in hand surrounded by satyrs and grape vines; or ibid., fig. 172, for the erotic side of Dionysiac iconography see the amusing representation of curious satyrs peaking at a sleeping maenad on a hydria by the Kleophrades Painter in the Archaeological Museum in Rouen, ca. 500 B.C.
49. For example, see the beautiful silver chalice from Antioch in the Cloisters Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, dating in the first half of the sixth century. Christ sits in a grape arbor with his apostles around him. Here, in the ceremony of the eucharist, wine is the symbol of the blood of Jesus. K. Weitzmann, ed., Age of Spirituality (The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Princeton University Press, New York 1979) pp.606-608, no. 542, color pl. XV.
50. For colored plates see A.Maiuri, Roman Painting (Skira, Lausanne, n.d.) pp. 50-63; R. Ling, Roman Painting (Cambridge 1991) 101-104, with bibliography.
51. For the popularity of the cult in Macedonia and with the family of Alexander the Great, see the famous bronze krater from Dervini, probably the product of a Macedonian artist for a Macedonian client who was a member of the Dionysiac cult and the court of Philip II, Alexander's father. B. Barr-Sharrar, "Dionysos and the Derveni Krater," Archaeology Nov./Dec.,1982, 35, no.6, pp. 13-19.
52. K. Lehmann-Hartleben and E. C. Olsen, Dionysiac Sarcophagi in Baltimore, (Baltimore 1942) pp. 26-33, figs. 5-8, dated 180-200 A.D.
53. For an excellent discussion of Alexander and his conquests see P. Green, Alexander the Great (New York and Washington 1970) and map on p. 193 for his route over ancient Bactria to India.