Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2015

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors



First Advisor

Prof. Laurialan Reitzammer, Department of Classics

Second Advisor

Prof. Sarah James, Department of Classics

Third Advisor

Prof. Myles Osborne, Department of History


Scholars have frequently observed that Dionysus is a god who breaks down barriers (of gender, class, social norms, et cetera). This is true in Euripides’s Bacchae to a certain extent, and the play’s breakdown of the divide between male/female and Greek/foreign has been well examined in scholarship. However, the limitations of this questioning of boundaries are much less discussed. For instance, while Dionysus frees the women of Thebes from their homes, he does not free slaves during the Bacchae. In a play that places considerable emphasis on liberation and freedom, this is a curious omission. The few slave characters in the Bacchae, like most slaves in tragedy, support their masters and the status quo. However, the worshipers of Dionysus are also equated with slaves: Pentheus wishes to enslave them, and both the Theban bacchants and the chorus of Lydian devotees represent a kind of slavery to the god. Far from any Dionysiac destruction of social norms, the identification of the Theban women with slaves actually reveals the limits of the Bacchae’s other explorations as well. The women seem doomed by both femaleness and foreignness (the chorus is inherently foreign, the Thebans foreign by association with Dionysus) to be slaves either to Dionysus or to Pentheus. I argue that this is symptomatic of the limitations of Dionysus’s breakdown of identities. His questioning of barriers tends to be metaphorical rather than literal, and although he breaks down social identities in the Bacchae, he leaves social hierarchies securely in place.