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Genesis of deification in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Monetary portrait of Gaius Julius Caesar
Monetary portrait of Gaius Julius Caesar

In the times of the republic, the Romans were famous for their extraordinary religiosity. This opinion was already expressed by a Greek Polybius and Cicero, writing that: piety and we are religious above all peoples and nations. The early Roman religion, however, was very reluctant to exalt and worship outstanding individuals. It was related to the political and social system in Rome. In this way, the possibility of the return of the monarchical system so hated by the Romans was avoided. However, despite this, as the Empire grew, eminent leaders began to play an increasing role in Roman politics and religion. Over time, they began to be assigned unique features, which were to be due to the protection of the gods. Ultimately, this process led to the divine exaltation of individuals or so-called deification.

The beginnings of the cult of great leaders were part of the religious change taking place in the context of the Second Punic War. However, unlike many of the changes that took place during this period, those concerning the cult of individuals were getting out of the control of the state. Theoretically, the Romans, unlike the Greeks, were very poorly prepared to accept this form of worship. In the Roman religious mentality, there was no intermediate state between the deity and the man. If they wanted to exalt a figure, they had to admit that it only became a god after death. This was how Romulus and Remus were treated.

There is no doubt that the first living elect of the gods was the famous chieftain, Scipio Africanus. The career of this politician was extremely fast and happy. At just 25, he was placed in command of the war against the Carthaginians in Spain, whom he eventually defeated there. Already during his stay on the Iberian Peninsula, Scipio was surrounded by a unique atmosphere of religious mysticism, convincing the local population and the army of his unique bond with the gods. In 208 BCE the Iberian tribes even offered him a royal title, which for obvious reasons he could not accept, but he certainly felt worthy of this honour. He announced that he should be called emperor. He was probably bestowed with such a title in 209 or 208 BCE. Scipio received this title as the first of the Roman leaders. In this way, he primarily emphasized his religious prestige, demonstrating that he was under the personal care of Jupiter, because from 380 BCE. The Romans also worshipped this god with the nickname Emperor. Moreover, African Scipio was the first to have so-called supplicationes of thanksgiving rather than a propitiatory character.

The next stage in the development of the deification of individuals was the military reform carried out by Marius. It secured a unique position for the leaders while threatening the senate and other republican institutions. Interestingly, the sources do not confirm that Marius had the title of emperor. This outstanding commander, however, received many other awards from society, intended mainly for gods. Among other things, he was devoted to the so-called libationes, that is, domestic offerings consisting of the first few drops of the liquid to be drunk. After winning the war against the Cimbrians and Teutons his trophies were placed on the Capitoline Hill and recognized as the third founder of Rome. So they were almost divine honours.

A milestone in the development of the cult of outstanding leaders was the activity of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. He was proclaimed emperor twice. He considered himself the chosen one of Fortune, Apollo and Venus. Sulla endeavoured to emphasize his unique bond with the gods by holding successive priesthood offices in 82 BCE he became, among other things, an augur. After the final victory in the civil war over the troops of young Marius, he adopted the religiously marked nickname Felix, which became an official part of his name. It was supposed to refer to the protection of the goddess Venus, in particular in the context of military victories.

The great followers of Sulla’s activities were Gnaeus Pompey Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar. The first of the politicians after victorious expeditions to the East was creating himself as the new Alexander the Great. He has never avoided the great honours bestowed on him, but he has always made efforts to ensure that they are granted voluntarily. In the east, he was actually considered a demigod. However, after returning to Italy, the situation was quite different. The Senate finally awarded him three triumphs and supplicationes, but nothing more. Pompey understood that Roman society and the Senate were reluctant to exalt the individual. In terms of religious propaganda, he acted cautiously and subtly, quite differently from the other of the aforementioned chiefs.

Caesar turned out to be a revolutionist in virtually every area of ​​public life in Rome. It has become commonplace to see him as a cynical politician and religious doubter, treating Roman rituals as a political tool. Nothing could be more wrong, no one in ancient times accused him of atheism. There is no doubt, however, that he can be called a quite rationalist man when it comes to religious matters. He often disregarded bad signs and superstitions and interpreted them to his advantage. Caesar liked to emphasize the genealogy of the family he came from, i.e. the Julius family. It was supposed to come from the goddess Venus herself, it was also this goddess Caesar considered his protector. He even decided to build a new temple to the goddess, in this case, worshipped as Genetrix. Like his predecessors, he also strove to hold the most important religious offices in the state, the crowning achievement of these activities was taking the position of pontifex maximus. It is worth noting that it was a lifetime office, so Caesar retained a great influence on religious matters in Rome until the end of his life.

Summarizing the above considerations, we can ask ourselves a fundamental question. Did Gaius Julius Caesar pursue deification while he was alive? It is extremely difficult to answer this question. Information on this topic is very sparse and ambiguous. The greatest accumulation of divine honours falls on the last months of Julius Caesar’s reign. He could wear the triumphant costume constantly, the month of Quinctilis was called Iulius, and his golden wreath and curule chair were carried to the theatre and to the games as symbols of the gods. His image appeared on coins, it was important because he was the first living person whose portrait was on the obverse of Roman coins. The statues of the dictator were placed in all temples of the Eternal City. According to the ancient historian Cassius Dio, the most important thing was to explicitly recognize Caesar as a god as Iupiter Iulius. The friend of Caesar Marcus Antony was appointed priest of his worship. This relationship seems to be confirmed by Cicero, who is one of the Philippicae who accused Mark Antony of neglecting the cult of the divine Julius. This account confirms the establishment of a new cult, however, named Divus Iulius and not Iupiter Iulius. The deification of Caesar during his lifetime seems quite possible, but not all historians are in favour of this version of events. On the other hand, Caesar certainly meticulously prepared his posthumous cult. He was worshipped as a divine being in the exact same place where his body was burned. The official cult of Caesar as a state deity was established in 42 BCE. For the cult of the great leader, a new temple was built and priests were appointed. These activities initiated the tradition of the posthumous deification of the ruler, which lasted until the 4th century CE.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Jaczynowska M., Religie Świata Rzymskiego, Warszawa 1987
  • Morawiecki L., Władza Charyzmatyczna w Rzymie u schyłku Republiki (lata 44–27 p.n.e.), Poznań-Gniezno 2014

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