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Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita XXXIX: Hispala Faecenia

bacchic masks
Relief of Bacchic masks, 20 BCE-50 CE

Women are central to the story Livy tells at length in AUC Book 39, but they remain very much in the background, working through men who were the public actors in the state effort to outlaw the "Bacchanalian Conspiracies" in 186 BCE. The cult was supposedly started by a Greek immigrant in Etruria and quickly spread through Italy. Its secret rites - night-time celebrations involving both sexes and the use of wine - and rumored practices - murders, forgeries, and stolen wills - were considered a major threat to Rome's security. Whether history or legend, Livy's tale illustrates the interplay of forces that were frequently in opposition in Roman life - civic and domestic, privileged and voiceless, male and female. Describing the cult as originally a "woman's religion" (13.8), Livy presents two very different women: the vicious mother of Publius Aebutius, Duronia, who put her son's life in jeopardy for the sake of her second husband, Titus Sempronius Rutilus, and Hispala Faecenia, whom Livy calls scortum nobile libertina, a timid heroine who reveals the cult secrets first to her lover for his safety and then to the consul Albinus under threat of punishment. Other women who are credited for their assistance are: Aebutia, the paternal aunt of Aebutius, proba et antiqui moris femina (11.5 ), who directs her nephew to report the conspiracy to the consul; Sulpicia, the consul Albinus' mother-in-law, nobilis et gravis femina (12.2), who questions Aebutia on behalf of the consul and assists his interview with Hispala Faecenia; and finally Paculla Annia, the Campanian priestess responsible for turning the Bacchic rites into violent orgiastic celebrations with young male initiates.

Chapter 9: Although Livy treats the episode as a serious threat, the depiction of Hispala Faecenia is reminiscent of the stereotype of the "golden-hearted courtesan" of New Comedy. She takes the young Aebutius under her wing, reversing the usual male-female roles, and, although he is her tutor under law (Gaius, Institutiones 1.144 ff. ), she proves to be his protector.
(5) Scortum nobile libertina Hispala Faecenia, non digna quaestu, cui ancillula adsuerat, etiam postquam manumissa erat, eodem se genere tuebatur.
(6) huic consuetudo iuxta vicinitatem cum Aebutio fuit, minime adulescentis aut rei aut famae damnosa: ultro enim amatus appetitusque erat, et maligne omnia praebentibus suis meretriculae munificentia sustinebatur.
(7) quin eo processerat consuetudine capta, ut post patroni mortem, quia in nullius manu erat, tutore ab tribunis et praetore petito, cum testamentum faceret, unum Aebutium institueret heredem.

Chapter 10: Aebutius tells Hispala that his mother has pledged his initiation into the Bacchic mysteries in gratitude for his recovery from an illness. Horrified, Hispala tells him he would be better off dead; reluctant to accuse his mother of malice toward him, she insists that his stepfather, who has been the guardian of his estate, is certainly trying to destroy him. Aebutius' disbelief requires her to explain how and what she knows about the cult as she begs the gods' forgiveness for revealing their secrets.
(5) Ancillam se ait dominae comitem id sacrarium intrasse, liberam numquam eo accessisse.
(6) scire corruptelarum omnis generis eam officinam esse; et iam biennio constare neminem initiatum ibi maiorem annis viginti.
(7) ut quisque introductus sit, velut victimam tradi sacerdotibus. eos deducere in locum, qui circumsonet ululatibus cantuque symphoniae et cymbalorum et tympanorum pulsu, ne vox quiritantis, cum per uim stuprum inferatur, exaudiri possit.
(8) orare inde atque obsecrare, ut eam rem quocumque modo discuteret nec se eo praecipitaret, ubi omnia infanda patienda primum, deinde facienda essent.
(9) neque ante dimisit eum, quam fidem dedit adulescens ab his sacris se temperaturum.

Chapter 18: Aebutius reports the cult to Albinus, the consul, who asks Hispala to give testimony that leads to the implication of more than seven thousand men and women. The cult practices were ruthlessly suppressed through a combination of punishments and decrees enacted in 186 BCE by a shocked Senate, with the approval of the Roman assembly and under the joint leadership of the consuls Spurius Postumius Albinus and Quintus Marcius Philippus. Some committed suicide as soon as the popular assembly approved the Senate's ban. An effective round-up of cult members followed. Men and women were imprisoned or killed, depending upon the extent of their participation in the corrupt practices. Men were punished by the state, women by male relatives who had authority over them. A bronze copy of the decree Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus (CIL I.2.581), the oldest surviving decree of the Roman Senate, was found in Calabria in the 17th century.
oldest senatus consultum

(6) mulieres damnatas cognatis, aut in quorum manu essent, tradebant, ut ipsi in privato animadverterent in eas: si nemo erat idoneus supplicii exactor, in publico animadvertebatur.

Chapter 19: Hispala Faecenia and Publius Aebutius were rewarded for their service to the state. By decree of the Senate, confirmed by the popular assembly, each was given an amount of money equal to the first census class (100,000 copper asses). In addition, Aebutius was exempted from military service and Hispala was awarded extraordinary citizen woman privileges that had been closed to her by reason of her former lifestyle, and received the protection of the state.
(5) utique Faeceniae Hispalae datio, deminutio, gentis enuptio, tutoris optio item esset, quasi ei vir testamento dedisset; utique ei ingenuo nubere liceret, neu quid ei qui eam duxisset ob id fraudi ignominiaeve esset;
(6) utique consules praetoresque, qui nunc essent quive postea futuri essent, curarent, ne quid ei mulieri iniuriae fieret, utique tuto esset.

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Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta
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April 2006