The Cult of Liber Pater and Dionysus in the Lower Danubian provinces during the Late Roman Period

The Cult of Liber Pater and Dionysus in the Lower Danubian provinces during the Late Roman Period


Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Archaeology Department   
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Abstract: This article examines the evidence for the cult of the gods Liber Pater and Dionysus in the Roman provinces of Lower Danube during the Late Roman period. Surviving monuments indicate that the gods were worshipped by the primipilarii, civilians responsible for supplying the army with food provisions following the accomplishment of its mission.   

Keywords: Paganism, Lower Danube, Liber Pater, Dionysus

The Greek god Dionysus and the Roman god Liber Pater were often closlye related and even identified to each other during the Roman imperial era, yet the two gods have different origins, histories and somewhat different roles. Dionysus has been worshipped throughout the Mediterranean and his cult used to have numerous aspects. He is the god of wine, revelry, patron of agriculture and also a fertility-giving god. He is related to the theater and the world of the dead. On the other hand, the Roman Liber Pater has more limited roles, he is mostly related to the patronage of vineyards and wine, but only the profane use of wine, while the wine intended for religious needs is under the protection of Jupiter.[1] Distinguishing the two deities, if we have any right to do so, is only possible according to an inscription. In the case of votive tables and statuettes this is almost impossible, because Liber Pater has borrowed entirely the iconography of Dionysus.[2] In Lower Moesia, the cult of Liber Pater was relatively weak. It was mainly seen in and around major settlement centers and military camps such as Oescus, Novae, Tropaeum Traiani and Iatrus. A certain number of monuments also originates from the vicinity of Pavlikeni town. The dedicators were both civilians and military personnel, while the latter were Roman citizens from Italy or Western Europe and have been considered the agents of Romanism in the provinces of Danube.[3] Among the civilians there were also those of Eastern origin, as well as Romanized natives.[4] As a whole the situation was similar in the Balkans – the supporters of the cult were Roman soldiers, veterans as well as Romanized local population.[5] The cult of Dionysus was more widely spread in the interior of Lower Moesia. Centers of this cult have been emerged in the area of the West Pontic Greek colonies, the territory of Nicopolis ad Istrum (with Veliko Tarnovo, Pavlikeni, Butovo and Suhindol), the surroundings of Vratsa and Montana.[6]

During the Late Roman Era, Liber Pater did not play a particularly important role in the official religious propaganda of the empire. Following Diocletian’s rise to power (284-305) along with his co-rulers, Hercules as well as Mars and Sol Invictus, were brought to the fore. It was their images that dominated the rulers’ coins, while the popular in the early 3rd c., Liber Pater was not present. The god’s popularity in the first decades of the third century was due to his veneration along with Hercules as Dii patrii of the hometown of Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) – Leptis Magna in North Africa.

In the research literature, it has been proposed that Galerius (293-311), Diocletian’s successor, worshipped Dionysus as his patron alongside the principal patron deities of the Tetrarchy. The above theory is supported by the following facts. In the palace of Galerius at Thessalonica fragments of a marble arch have been discovered, probably situated over the emperor’s throne. Beneath the soffit of the arch a bust of Dionysus amidst vine bracts is depicted. Dionysus is represented among the decoration of two other palace complexes of the period directly associated with the rulers. A scene from the myth of Dionysus and Lycurgus is depicted on one of the mosaics of the villa in the Piazza Armerina in Sicily, which is considered the residence of Maximian Herculius. Other mosaics in the premises depict scenes related to the heroic acts of Hercules, patron of Maximian, and to the giants struck down by the lightning of Zeus/Jupiter. Dionysus mounted on a leopard is also depicted on the mosaics of the palace at Felix Romuliana, the private residence of Galerius.[7] As O. Nicholson points out depictions of Dionysus are common on the mosaic floors of that period, but in the case of palace decoration one should also look for a connection with the religious propaganda of the rulers. The myth of Dionysus’s conquest of the East was very popular in antiquity, and it was probably the victories of Galerius over the Persian king Narses that underpinned the Caesar’s desire to be identified with this particular deity.[8]

The palace of Galerius at Felix Romuliana provides also more arguments in support of the relation of rulers with Dionysus/Liber Pater. Part of the architectural decoration of the buildings of the complex (cantilevers, pilasters, etc.) has images of vines combined with canthаrus, craters and Sileni. Some of the capitals are also decorated with Sileni heads. This kind of decoration is undoubtedly related to Dionysus. The marble relief with the images of the sleeping Ariadne indicates also a connection with the deity. During the archaeological excavations of the complex, several purple color sculptured ears of wheat have been uncovered, which were considered as part of a statuary depiction of Liber or Libera. The inclusion of gods such as Dionysus, Hercules and Asclepius in the decoration of the palaces conveys the meaning of apotheosis. The mothers of the three gods, as of Galerius, are mortal women, while their father is the supreme god Zeus/Jupiter. Following their heroic feats on earth they have been included among the gods.[9]

From the Lower Danubian provinces, three offerings to Liber Pater and two to Dionysus are known with a date in the 4th c. What they have in common is that they were all offered by primipilarii following the accomplishment of their official duties to provide the army with food products. The monuments were found at Oescus and Novae, where during this period the Fifth Macedonian and First Italian legion had their camps.

Only one dedication, inscribed on a limestone altar, or we can consider it by analogy as a base for a statue (height 1.20 m, width 0.48 m, depth 0.68), was found in Oescus. On one side there is an inscription in Latin in honor of Diocletian dated to 285 and erected by the praetorian prefects Afranius Hannibalianus and Iulius Asclepiodotus.[10] This is most likely to be the earlier inscription, while the monument has been also reused for a second time for the dedication to Liber Pater. In the second inscription the god is called guardian, savior (conservator) of the two Augusti. The consecrator was Flavius Zosimus the primipilarius, a native of the city of Ephesus in the province of Asia.[11] The text of the dedication to Liber Pater does not allow for a more precise dating and that is the reason why the hypotheses of the researchers differ. B. Gerov dates the monument to the beginning of the 4th c. Taking into account, however, that the dedicator bore the name Flavius, which gained popularity during the era of Constantine the Great and his sons, the idea of assigning the inscription to a late period – possibly in the years 337–350[12] or even later – is more plausible.[13] Two other Latin inscriptions of primipilarii originate from Oescus.[14] The first of these lacks the first part of the text and it is possible that this is also a dedication to a deity, which, however, has not been preserved. P. Lungarova assumes that the monument to Liber Pater was placed in the shrine of the banners in the principia of the legion and that this is an evidence of the official character of Liber Pater cult.[15] The erection of the altar/statue in the principia is perfectly permissible as the examples from Novаe indicate.

            Two dedications to Liber Pater and two to Dionysus come from Noаve, the camp of the First Italian Legion. The earliest monument, like the Oescus inscription already discussed, is dedicated to Liber Pater. It represents a reused base for a limestone statue (height ca. 2 m). In the text under consideration the god is called Conservator (guardian, savior), but in addition to this he bears the adjectives Deus (god) and Sanctus (sacred). In contrast to the Oescus dedication, here Liber Pater is the guardian not only of the Augustans and Caesars, but also of the entire First Italian Legion. The statue of the god was dedicated by Aurelius Porphyrius of the Phoenicia province. The part of the inscription in which his office has been inscribed is damaged, but it may be assumed with great certainty that he was a primipilarius. Here again, there are no any clues for a more precise dating of the monument. As the god is the guardian of the two augusti and two caesars the publisher of the inscription T. Sarnowski suggests that it dates from the period 293–311.[16]

The second dedication to Liber Pater from Novаe has not been published. It is known to have been dedicated by a person with the name Valerius Chaereas, a native of Phoenicia. Like the three examples discussed so far, he also held the office of primipilarius.[17] It is not clear whether Liber Pater bears the adjective conservator in this case too.

The last two monuments from Novаe are dedicated to Dionysus. Both are bases for statues of the deity. The first of them is a reused limestone slab (height 1.23 m, width 0.455 m., depth 0.26 m). The name of the venerated deity has not been preserved, its identification with Dionysus is without any doubt due to the adjectives: son of Semele, crowned with ivy wreath and twice-born. The primipilarii Theodore and Palladius of the province of Helespontus took care of the erection of the statue. The monument was dedicated following the accomplishment of their duties of providing the army with food for the victories of the two emperors. As a dating element, the inscriptions mentions the indiction during which the above-mentioned primipilarii performed their services. On this basis and because of the mention of two Augusti and at the same time due to the lack of a consular date, the monument has been dated to the years 348/349 or 363–364.[18] The last monument, a statue of Dionysus again, has been erected by Flavius […]an[19] a primipilarius of the already mentioned province of Hellespontus. As in the previous inscription, the god is defined as bestowing victories, but also fruits.[20]

During the period of the Principate, the primipilarii were the former first centurions of a legion. During Late Antiquity, however, their role changed considerably. By the reign of Diocletian and his colleagues, the primipilarii have been already civilians charged with the task of supplying the army with food products. They organized and carried out the transport of the already collected annona from each province to the borders of the empire.[21] In the case of Oescus and Novаe, the supply of the army came mainly from inland provinces such as Asia, Hellespontus and Phoenicia, where all the primipilarii knows to us originate from. The inscriptions commented on the text are dedicated following the execution of their tasks, namely providing food products to the troops. The choice of the god in whose honor the statues have been erected was not accidental. As has already been pointed out, Dionysus/Liber Pater is the god of wine, but in this case especially of fertility, something, which is particularly important for the accomplishment of the tasks assigned to the dedicators.[22] For the above reasons, when we deal with the worship of Dionysus and Liber Pater during the 4th century we should not look for the influence of the official religious propaganda of the empire and emperor Galerius in particular. Almost all inscriptions date after the death of the latter, when this god had no place in imperial politics. If we take into account the interpretation of T. Sarnowski in relation with the phrase in vultu Dionysi meaning “at the opposite side of the statue of Liber Pater” at least one of the statues of Dionysus/Liber Pater erected by the primipilarii may have remained in place in the court of the principia of Novae until the early thirties of the 5th c.[23]


[1] Tomas 2015, 267 с лит.; Шопова 2017, 117–120.

[2] Александров 2010, 104; Лунгарова 2012, 212; Tomas 2015, 267.

[3] Александров 2010, 105.

[4] Лунгарова 2012, 217.

[5] Tomas 2015, 267.

[6] Шопова 2017, 115.

[7] On the mosaic Živić 2011, 133, fig. 99.

[8] Nicholson 1984, 257-275.

[9] Živić 2011, 109, 111, 116–117, 123.

[10] ILBulg 8a.

[11] ILBulg 8b.

[12] Иванов 1999, 130.

[13] Bresson, Drew-Bear et al. 1995, 141.

[14]ILBulg 9–10.

[15] Лунгарова 2012, 208.

[16] Sarnowski 2013, 135–141.

[17] Łajtar 2015, 283.

[18] Łajtar 2021, 122–124.

[19] Гочева 2013, 196–197.  

[20] Łajtar 2015, 282.

[21] Łajtar 2013, 105–106.

[22] Łajtar 2015, 284.

[23] Sarnowski 2013, 144.




ILBulg = Gerov, B. (1989) Inscriptiones Latinae in Bulgaria repertae. Inscriptiones inter Oescum et Iatrum Repertae (Sofia).


Александров, О. (2010) Религията в римската армия в провинция Долна Мизия (IIV в.) (Велико Търново)/ (Aleksandrov, O. (2010). Religiata v rimskata armia v provincia Dolna Mizia (IIV v.) (Veliko Tarnovo).

Гочева, З. (2013) „Постамент с два надписа: на латински и гръцки език от сектор Х в Нове,“ Birnacki, A. B., Czerner, R. (eds) Biskupstwo w Novae (Moesia Secunda) IVVI w. Historiaarchitektura – życie codzienne. T. I. Historia i architektura (Poznań), 193–200/ (Gocheva, Z. (2013) “Postament s dva nadpisa: na latinski i gratski ezik ot sector X v Nove,” Birnacki, A. B., Czerner, R.  (eds) Biskupstwo w Novae (Moesia Secunda) IV–VI w. Historia – architektura – życie codzienne. T. I. Historia i architektura (Poznań), 193–200).

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Лунгарова, П. (2012) Римските култове в провинция Долна Мизия (Велико Търново)/ (Lungarova, P. (2012) Rimskite kultove v provincia Dolna Mizia (Veliko Tarnovo).

Шопова, И. (2017). Култът на Дионис в Долна Мизия и Тракия по епиграфски данни (IIII век) (Пловдив)/ (Shopova, I. (2017) Kultat na Dionis v Dolna Mizia i Trakia po epigrafski danni (IIII vek) (Plovdiv). 

Bresson, A., Drew-Bear, T. et al. (1995) Bresson, A., Drew-Bear, T., Zuckerman, C. “Une dédicace de primipilaires a Novae pour la Victoire impériale,” Antiquité Tardive 3, 139–146.

Łajtar, A. (2013) “A newly discovered Greek inscription at Novae (Moesia Inferior) associated with pastus militum,” Tyche 28, 97–111.

               (2015) “Another Greek Inscription from Novae (Lower Moesia) Associated with pastus militum,” Tomas, A. (ed.) Ad fines imperii Romani. Studia Thaddaeo Sarnowski septuagenario ab amicis, collegis discipulisque dedicate (Warszawa), 277–288.

               (2021) “Two Greek Dedications by primipilarii Recently Discovered in Novae,” Mitthof, F., Cenati, C., Zerbini, L. (eds) Ad ripam Fluminis Danuvii. Papers of the 3rd International Conference on the Roman Danubian Provinces Vienna, 11th-14th November 2015 (Tyche, Suppl. 11) (Wien), 121–129.

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