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Emperor who was chosen by gods

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Scipio Africanus the Elder
Scipio Africanus the Elder

During the Second Punic War, a new kind of religious belief began to develop among the Romans. One of the types of these beliefs became the cult of living heroes, which were undoubtedly the great Roman commanders. This type of belief was different from the cult of legendary ancestors such as Aeneas or Romulus.

For the Romans, in order to be able to exalt a hero, had to recognize him as a god after his death. But in the case of this new cult, we were talking about heroes still alive. Thus, there was no question of formal deification or heroization of people, but there was a conviction that great leaders in a difficult era marked by many oppressions were chosen by the gods.

The first commander worthy of this name was Publius Cornelius Scipio for the Romans. In the defeat of the Romans’ battle of Cannae, Scipio was one of the few surviving military tribunes, who along with Appius Claudius fell in command in such a situation. Thanks to his prowess and innate leadership character, Scipio managed to rally the surviving Roman soldiers, putting an end to the resignation and thoughts of flight and desertion of one of the groups. When he was 25 years old, the comitia centuriata entrusted him with the supreme command in the war in Spain, where he defeated the Carthaginians. In this area, he met the traditions of Barkid theology, the pillar of which was the cult of Heracles-Melcart. Scipio had a personal fondness for Heracles (Hercules) and showed great interest in him, as did many famous Romans. During the commander’s stay in Spain, one could feel the specific atmosphere of religious mysticism and the conviction of the army and the people that Scipio was the chosen one of the gods, a person supported by them.

In 209 BCE Scipio conquered New Carthage – the capital of Punic Spain, in a fairly simple way, despite the fact that it was considered a fortress difficult to conquer. The victory was to be achieved thanks to the help of Neptune. The commander took advantage of the tide of the sea, which made it possible to pass through the swampy lagoon that was then exposed, and attacked Carthage from the unguarded, northern side, which surprised the opponent and managed to win. In fact, the Roman commander learned about the properties of the lagoon simply from the local fishermen, but in order to raise the morale of his army and strengthen the aura of “chosen of the gods” around himself, Scipio, as Polybius says, told the soldiers that such a plan had been indicated to him by Neptune- Poseidon. It was an effective move on his part. The myth of the help given by Neptune brought him great glory and surrounded him with legend. Since then, coins minted in Carthage bore the image of the victorious commander in place of the Barkids. In this way, Scipio Africanus was the first of the Romans to seize for himself an exclusively royal privilege.

In 208 BCE in the battle of Baecula, the Roman army led by Scipio defeated the Carthaginian army led by Hasdrubal Barca, younger brother of Hannibal. After the victorious battle, the Iberian tribes pledged obedience to Rome and offered Scipio the royal title. Although the Roman commander as a representative of the Roman people could not accept the dignity of the king, he himself felt and believed that he was worthy of receiving such an honor. According to Polybius, he spoke to the Iberian people that he wanted to be said to be royal, but he did not want to be called king. Instead, they were to call him Emperor. However, the sources do not specify exactly when Scipio was proclaimed emperor by the soldiers. This may have been after the capture of Carthage (209 BCE) or after the Baecula (208 BCE).

Scipio Africanus was the first of the Roman generals to receive the title of emperor. Such a title strengthened the leader’s prestige towards the army, and in the eyes of the people put him under the direct protection of Jupiter, whom the Romans worshiped under the name of Jupiter Imperator. It should be added that Scipio, from the beginning of his political career, particularly emphasized his personal ties with this supreme god of the Roman pantheon. From the account of Titus Livius, we can learn that from his youth, Scipio, when thinking about a given private or public matter, always went to the Capitol to the temple of Jupiter and thought about a given problem there, and more than once he spent time there alone to meet the above-mentioned god. Frequent visits to the holy shrine by the Romans contributed to the creation of various legends on this subject. The Capitoline guards said that when Scipio approached the temple, the guard dogs were not disturbed and did not bark at all.

Stories of the hero’s divine origin soon began to spread. This legend was modeled on the stories about the birth of Alexander the Great and said that Scipio was the son of Jupiter, who was to appear to his mother in the form of a great serpent. The commander emphasized that he would not have achieved his great military successes without the special care and concern of Jupiter.

In 205 BCE during his consulship, he organized a solemn feast in honor of Jupiter and offered him a hundred oxen on the Capitol, which he had vowed during the fights in Spain. Scipio’s victory in Spain was perceived as fulfilling the will of the highest of the gods. Thanks to the presence of unusual dreams in the Roman people, in which Jupiter gave advice to Scipio, the belief arose that the great commander was his son or his chosen one. Publius Cornelius Scipio, thanks to his legend of the “chosen of the gods”, won extraordinary positions in his career, became the first emperor, and won many great victories, indisputably going down in history as one of the greatest, and perhaps the greatest leader in the history of Ancient Rome.

It is to him that Rome owes the final defeat of its terrible enemy Hannibal Barca and the destruction of the power of the Carthaginian state in the battle of Zama in 202 BCE. Sometimes, for practical reasons, the Roman commander made himself the chosen one of the gods, as during the conquest of New Carthage, but his political and military career and personal attachment to religion proved that he was a person with special support from the highest forces, needed to accomplish great things.

Author: Piotr Pietrych (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Maria Jaczynowska, Religie świata rzymskiego
  • Titus Livius, History of Rome from the founding of the city
  • Polybius, History of Rome

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