“He gives to mortals the vine that puts an end to grief.”
—Euripides, The Bacchae (c. 410 B.C.)


The veneration of the divine being who brought mankind the gift of wine extends back thousands of years and throughout countless civilizations. The ancient Greeks worshipped the god Dionysus, who frequently appears in painted scenes on vessels for mixing, serving, and consuming wine made during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. He is often depicted as a draped, bearded man of solemn bearing whose coterie includes maenads (ecstatic, often-frenzied female followers) and satyrs (creatures that are part human and part horse or goat). The deity’s followers represent the untamed nature of man, which is unleashed by the intoxicating power of wine. Dionysus is also occasionally portrayed as young and naked, though he typically wears an animal skin and wreath of ivy, and carries a thyrsus (ivy-entwined staff with a pinecone finial) and drinking vessel. Sometimes he rides a donkey or is pulled in a chariot by panthers.

By the second century B.C., the Romans had conflated the figure of Dionysus with a local god to create Bacchus, the name by which he is most widely known. The Roman deity was worshipped at Bacchanalia (outdoor festivals) and, like Dionysus, had a retinue of unrestrained female followers (bacchantes) and composite human-animals, mostly sileni (minor deities with a horse’s ears and tail) and fauns.

Karen Manchester
Elizabeth McIlvaine Curator of Ancient Art and the Pritzker Chair of the Department of Asian and Ancient Art

Pair of Busts of Silenus, 1st century B.C./1st century A.D. Roman. Katherine K. Adler Endowment.