Bacchus, or Dionysus, the Greek and Roman god of wine. The Greeks referred to him by both names, but the Romans called him only Bacchus. He was the son of Zeus (Jupiter) and Semele, daughter of Cadmus. Semele unwisely asked to see Zeus in his full divine glory. The sight, too much for her mortal eyes, killed her. Zeus then sheltered prematurely born Bacchus in his thigh until he was large enough to be tended by nymphs on Mount Nysa.

When Bacchus was grown to manhood, he traveled as far east as India. In each country he passed through he taught grape-growing and wine-making. After his return to Greece, he found Ariadne on the island of Naxos and made her his wife.

Bacchae, a play by Euripides, tells how Bacchus brought about the destruction of King Pentheus of Thebes. Thebes was the birthplace of Bacchus, and he had a large following there. When Pentheus forbade worship of Bacchus, the vengeful god caused him to be torn to pieces by a mob of women worshipers called bacchantes. They were led by Pentheus' own mother, who mistook her son for a wild beast.

Greek drama had its origin in ceremonies honoring Bacchus. These festivals, called Bacchanalia or Dionysia, became so notorious in Rome for drunkenness and other misbehavior that the Senate banned them in 186 B.C. The word bacchanalia for an orgy or drunken revel has survived into modern times.

Bacchus in early likenesses was a bearded man, but later he was pictured as a youth. He usually has a wreath of grape leaves on his head. Sometimes a fawn or leopard skin is draped across his chest. He frequently is represented as driving a chariot drawn by tigers.