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Augustus and beginnings of imperial cult

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Octavian Augustus as Jupiter
Octavian Augustus as Jupiter

Political situationImperium Romanum in the 1st century BCE it was conducive to increasing the power of prominent Roman politicians. People like Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gnaeus Pompey Magnus, and Gaius Julius Caesar achieved an extraordinary position in Roman society. They tried to exalt themselves as much as possible, for example by celebrating triumphs, civil wars or organizing games.

However, such actions, which were inconsistent with the long-standing political tradition, inflamed relations with the Senate. This was clearly felt by Julius Caesar, who March 15, 44 BCE was murdered by a group of senators. It then became clear that any changes made to exalt individuals had to be implemented with extreme caution. Especially when it came to issues related to worship. Only the heir of Julius Caesar, the later emperor Augustus, was able to systematically and carefully prepare his cult during his lifetime.

August (then still known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus) inherited from Julius Caesar not only wealth but also huge political capital. As a young man, he coped remarkably well with its use. One of the first steps in Augustus’ divine exaltation was the deification of his adoptive father. No doubt it was a stroke of luck that helped him. In July 44 BCE, during the Games in honour of Venus, a comet appeared in the sky, which was interpreted as the soul of Julius Caesar ascending into the heavens. The official deification of Caesar took place in 42 BCE, thus the construction of a temple dedicated to the divine Julius (divo Iulio) began, statues were erected in Rome itself and coins were dedicated.

Denarius depicting the head of the divine Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus. Legend: DIVOS IVLIVS DIVI F.

From that moment, Augustus could bear a new title, i.e. divi filius (son of the divine). This was also reflected in coins and inscriptions. Another element of emphasizing Caesar’s role, and thus his own, was to change the name of one of the months from Sextilis to Augustus, it was the month that follows Iulius. It was extremely important to adopt a new nickname, Augustus. He emphasized that the princeps had special ties with the gods.

Initially, the forms of the imperial cult in Rome had a rather subtle form. Augustus himself, in Monumentum Ancyranum, gives the ceremonies that were instituted to honour him. And so, every four years, with the intention of the emperor’s health, games (Salus Augusti) were organized, which were supervised by priests and consuls. In 19 BCE when Augustus returned from the East, on the day called Augustalia, Vestals and Pontiffs made sacrifices for the health of the princeps.

A kind of divine envelope was also created by all kinds of prophecies (omnia) about his divine origin and future power. One of them was that Augustus was conceived by Apollo in the form of a serpent, and was chosen to rule the country by Jupiter himself. What is very important, Augustus was against showing him divine worship in a direct way, but at the same time, he did not deny these stories.

The situation was different in some provincial centres. There, Augustus linked his cult to the goddess Roma. Here, too, he did not decide to break tradition, i.e. open deification, but he allowed himself bold moves than in Rome and Italy. Thanks to the cult of the Hellenistic rulers, in the eastern provinces of the Empire, the traditions of deification during life were much more developed. The fact that some eastern centres had a tradition of worshipping the goddess Roma, dating back to the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, turned out to be helpful. Also, the cities themselves came up with the initiative to establish a provincial cult of Augustus. Already in 29 BCE, the temple of Roma and Augustus was built in Pergamum, which became the centre of the imperial cult throughout the province. Joint celebrations in honour of Roma and Augustus were celebrated once a year, at the same time the so-called koinon gathered. Thanks to the organization of the cult of the princeps, Pergamon became not only the religious but also the political centre of the province. Later, during the reign of Tiberius, many cities envied Pergamon and stubbornly tried to obtain permission from the emperor to build more temples. Ultimately, such cities as Smyrna, Ephesus, Sardis and Miletus succeeded. Interestingly, the temples of Roma and Augustus were intended only for the local population. Other temples were also built in this area, including Ephesus and Nikaia, intended primarily for the Romans, they were dedicated to the cult of Roma and the Divine Julius. Once again, we can see August’s prudence and policy of small steps. Even in the provinces, he avoided imposing his cult on the Romans.

In the western provinces, the situation of the imperial cult was different. Here there was no tradition that would prepare such forms of worship of the ruler. However, it is very possible that during the lifetime of Augustus, centres of the emperor’s cult were established in Italy, for example in Pola and Terracina. The scale of this phenomenon was undoubtedly much smaller than in the east. It is possible that the cult in Italy took other forms. For example, associations referred to as seviri Augustales or Augustales were extremely popular. However, it is difficult to clearly indicate to what extent they were related to the imperial cult.

The cult of Augustus in Gaul is a separate issue. In this part of the Empire, the first centre was established at Lugdunum. This was done by August’s stepson Drusus, right after the suppression of the uprising in Gaul. After this event, the rules of worship were established and the so-called concilium, i.e. a kind of provincial assembly, was established. At the confluence of the Rhône and Saône, an altar dedicated to Augustus was also built. By assumption, the altar was to be the main centre of worship for the three Gallic provinces, and Lugidunum itself was to be the religious capital of Gaul.

In the early years of the imperial cult, there were various forms and degrees of their development, depending on the region. In the eastern provinces, the cult of Augustus was much more direct, but not equal to divine worship. Princeps was somewhere between man and god, and even in the East he was not considered a divine being. It should be remembered that there were various forms of making offerings to the emperor, they could be made by the ruler himself or with his intention. The latter was much more popular and safe for Augustus himself. The situation was different in Rome and much of Italy. Here, his images (imago) or statues of accompanying deities were worshipped. In Rome itself, sacrifices to Augustus were all the more avoided. It was believed that the ruler had some divine element in him, which was to reflect, among other things, the nickname he adopted (Augustus). However, he was hardly credited with divine powers or prayed to. The emperor had no influence, for example, on weather phenomena, these skills were attributed only to the proper gods. In other respects, Augustus favoured a policy of small steps in his worship. The official apotheosis could only take place after his death.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Gradel I., Emperor Worship and Roman Religion, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002
  • Jaczynowska M., Religie świata rzymskiego, Warszawa 1987

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