A magnificent relief depicting a classic mythological scene from the cult of Dionysus, this stele exemplifies the Roman adaptation of Greek mythological themes and subjects. Its artistry embodies the pinnacle of Roman expression of the late second century A.D. Carved with Dionysus and Ariadne riding to the right in a lion-drawn chariot, Ariadne is seated on the god’s lap with her right arm around his shoulders, holding a thyrsos in her right hand, wearing a mantle draped over her lower body, and having a dolphin head emerging from behind her knee. The elaborately decorated chariot is led by a putto and accompanied by Pan holding a thyrsos and billowing drapery, a flute player with long hair bound in a fillet, and a striding nude youth looking back and carrying a staff. The sculpture is mounted in a 19th century Scandinavian wood frame.
The scene itself illustrates the wedding procession of Ariadne and Dionysus. According to myth, after Ariadne was abandoned by her former lover, Theseus, on the island of Naxos, Dionysus was overcome by her beauty and rescued her from her woe. He appeared there riding in a chariot drawn by a team of lions or panthers, and took her back to Olympus with him to be married.
The cult of Dionysus was not easily accepted into the Roman religious system at first, creating much consternation during the Bacchanalian scandal of 186 B.C., and matching its legendary initial negative reception among the Greeks, as told in Euripides’ Bacchae. Evidently, the wild and antinomian rites practiced by the devotees of Dionysus concerned the more conservative members of both Greek and Roman society when the god’s cult first was introduced. The Romans called Dionysus by his alternate name, Bacchus, and would ultimately give his cult a place of honor in the Roman pantheon just as the Greeks did. His cult celebrated the god’s role in the creation of wine and theater for humankind, as well as his connection to fertility themes, as witnessed by his association with the god Pan, and his cult may have existed in Greece as far back as the Archaic period. The mythological characters depicted here are probably intended to exemplify the archetypal roles of such initiates, or Bacchants, in their religious processions, and the thyrsos staff, carried by several figures in this scene, was a symbol of the cult of Dionysus and was carried by initiates of his mysteries during their cultic processions.
This scene invokes the joy of having found one’s true love, so natural to the experience of humankind, and connects it to the realm of the divine. It reminds us of what many of us feel on our wedding day, and what so many others wish to feel when that day arrives.