It’s the Greater Dionysia and, appropriately enough, I just finished reading a collection of official royal correspondences from the Hellenistic monarchs. I picked it up because it had a bunch of letters and decrees from the Ptolemies, but as I’d feared I was already familiar with all of them. Likewise I’d already read all of the material on the Attalids, especially as relates to the dynastic cult of Dionysos Kathegemon, nor were any of the documents pertaining to the Technitai Dionusou or “Artisans of Dionysos” new to me. However, I learned quite a bit about the Guild from the footnotes and commentary that the editor provided!
Basically, what I’d known about them previously was this: they formed around the time of Alexander the Great and were an international group of actors, dancers, musicians, carpenters, costume-makers, stage-hands, etc., whose express purpose was putting on elaborate celebrations during festivals. Although they were especially dedicated to the God Dionysos they could be hired for religious and political pageants honoring Kings, cities, successful military campaigns, athletic victories and assorted other deities (most notably the Mousai, Pythian Apollon, Artemis Leukophryne, etc.) Any time you wanted a kick-ass show you contacted these guys and they’d give you your money’s worth and then some. As you can imagine they became extremely wealthy, prestigious and politically connected since this was an era when popular perception was shaped by spectacle much as we get a great deal of our information about the world today from our television sets or internet. Assorted Hellenistic monarchs curried their favor by granting them tax exemption, special rights, cash and other benefits such as the ability to cross borders even during times of armed conflict, freedom from conscription into the military or coerced participation in public works, etc. All of this continued well into Roman times under the philhellenic Emperor Hadrian.
All this, as I said, I was previously aware of. What I learned from the editor’s commentary is that the Guild essentially functioned as a semi-autonomous city within the various cities where they were headquartered. They had their own legislative body, members were not bound by the rules that the rest of the community had to adhere to and separate diplomatic embassies were sent to the Guild for various religious and political purposes. As you can imagine this often caused conflict with those cities and they had to relocate their headquarters several times. At one point they were even granted their own plot of land with right of asylum and other political benefits. In other words the Guild of Dionysiac Artists formed their own Papal State like Vatican City! At some point I shall have to write an article on this, citing all of the sources he mentioned.
And actually, come to think of it, this sheds some interesting light on the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus and Livy’s discussion of the reasons why the Bacchanalia was so forcibly repressed which is basically that the Romans feared the devotees of Bacchus were growing too numerous and powerful, to the point of becoming almost a separate nation within the nation. Also, they were going to turn everyone gay and force them to have the butt-sex. I’d always assumed it was just paranoia and the standard set of charges lobbed against any minority religion … but ya know, what if it wasn’t? What if there was a Bacchic conspiracy to take over Rome? What if they had succeeded? Now that’d make for a truly fabulous bit of alt.history fiction!