The Dionysian Thiasus on Garden Oscilla: a Roman “assembly line” to Attain Fertility – Sarah Gilboa-Karni (Tel-Aviv)

It is not clear why the Romans, so careful in appeasing the correct deity on each and every occasion, positioned the Dionysian entourage (thiasus) in their gardens. Dionysos- Bacchus and his retinue of satyrs, nymphs, old Silenus, Pan, Priapus and Amor, already appear as a group in the Hellenistic world. By the early Empire these deities seem to have been chosen over a host of other Roman vegetation deities to preside over the gardens. What then was the Roman sense of the Dionysian thiasus?

In the present study, three catalogues encompassing 450 marble oscilla, a typical garden ornament, were surveyed. The images on each oscillum were sorted into iconographic groups. Dionysian images were found on 88% of the oscilla.  However, Bacchus was depicted on only 7% of the oscilla; satyrs predominate, appearing on 33% of the items, followed by nymphs, Silenus and Pan (18%, 14% and 10%, respectively).

The scant direct representations of Bacchus can be ascribed to cult constraints; the abundance of satyrs is in line with Pliny’s remark about “saturica signa” in gardens. I propose that members of the Dionysian thiasus were positioned in Roman gardens as indicators, signaling the multiple steps necessary towards attaining fertility. This accords with St. Augustine’s description of the concerted way Roman deities performed their tutelage; an “assembly line” of multiple deities, in Robert Turcan’s phrase. The oscilla, and presumably other garden ornaments, called for the intercession of Bacchus and his entourage, as a dedicated ensemble to sustain fertility.

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