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Origins and development of victory theology in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco from Pompeii depicting the goddess Victoria
Fresco from Pompeii depicting the goddess Victoria

War is one of the most radical actions that a human society can take. Among ancient societies, this type of behaviour was most often perceived in a religious and magical context. Humans appeased the gods before the conflict began, and subsequent victories or defeats were attributed to their direct intervention. Ancient Greek and Roman societies functioned no differently.

The Greeks, along with the development of philosophy, began to wonder about the criteria the gods use when choosing their chosen ones. Initially, this was seen as a kind of heavenly whim, but over time, as Athenian imperialism escalated, such an answer was no longer sufficient. The Athenians sought justification or justification for their aggressive policy and dominance over other Hellenes. So they began to propagate the ideology according to which, thanks to the extraordinary virtues of the spirit, it was their gods who chose them as hegemons of the Greek world.

In the near future, the nature of the relationship between men and gods was to take on a new meaning, and Alexander the Great was responsible for it. The conquest of the Persian Empire was an unprecedented event for the people of that time, and the superhuman successes of the Macedonian ruler required a divine explanation. Alexander himself also emphasized his extraordinary ties with the gods, seeing them, among others, in oracle prophecies and omens that indicated his future victories. The protection of the gods began to be linked directly with an outstanding, charismatic individual, which was of great importance for the general perception of the sources and forms of power in the ancient world. With the adoption of Eastern influences by the Greeks, they began to look more favourably at the monarchical system. After the death of Alexander, the diadochi, whose rule did not focus on legitimist power, and above all on military strength, referred to the motive of a charismatic ruler and the grace of the gods, to which they owed their military victories.

A similar situation occurred in ancient Rome. At the beginning of their expansion, the Romans emphasized victories and divine anointing above all in the context of the entire civitas. The cult Dea Victoria probably referred to some aspects of Greek influence. As in the Hellenistic monarchies, one of the elements of the Roman ideology of victory was to justify rapid and aggressive expansion.

Contemporary researchers use the term victory theology to define the relationship between people and gods in the context of Roman Victoria. It is a modern term, which causes some difficulties in interpretation. There is no consensus among historians as to the scope of the issues covered by this definition.

Deities in the Roman world can be defined as supernatural forces that brought specific benefits to the community of believers. God revealed his presence through a specific act, most often of a supernatural nature. The Roman community recognized this divine “power” and established a cult that made the relationship between people and divinity proper. Roman deities were thus to a large extent the personification of abstract ideas.

The most important religious ceremonies in ancient Rome were certainly those that were to ensure victory in numerous wars. For example, the temple of Victoria Virgo, built on Cato’s orders, was built in the context of a successful campaign in Spain. Octavian’s victory at Mutina provided an opportunity to create another specific cult of Victoria, the Victoria Augusta. Each of these cults referred to a different divine being, however, referring to the same causative force.

In Rome, as in the Greek states, under the influence of internal conflicts, the importance of Victoria began to change. One of the first people to accelerate this process was Scipio the Elder, known as the African. Like Alexander, he became famous for his outstanding military achievements. Scipio tried to emphasize his extraordinary bonds with the gods; these were to favour him because of his extraordinary virtues. More importantly, however, the Roman commander emphasized his personal virtues, and not the entire civitas, as was the custom earlier.

Another important event that changed the perception of the relationship between gods and people in ancient Rome was internal conflicts. Wars waged against one’s own citizens, not an external enemy, must have come as a shock to the people of the Empire. It was no longer possible to attribute the extraordinary favour of the gods to all civitas as citizens fought on both sides of the conflict. In this situation, eminent military men and politicians began to play a greater role.

An example of such people can be Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, although there are clear differences in the behaviour of both politicians. Both were famous for their achievements in both the military and political fields, but Gaius Marius continued to uphold the tradition of the republican system. The proof of this can be coins on which the victories of the Romans are presented as the success of all citizens.

Propaganda and ideology shaped by Cornelius Sulla had a completely different character. He broke the law and had to legitimize his power in a different way than his rival. In the propaganda, he presented himself as a victorious emperor, but, importantly, he also clearly emphasized the position of augur he held. Various military motifs appear on his coins, such as the triumphal chariot; the goddess Victoria herself is also shown on individual issues. Victoria Sullana was to be achieved primarily thanks to the extraordinary virtus, or felicitas Sulla.

Coin of Sulla minted in 83 BCE

The civil war destroyed the political and social order prevailing in the Roman Republic. It was an impulse to create propaganda and ideology in Rome based on the concept of a charismatic leader chosen by the gods. His victories were supposed to be the best proof of that.

Of course, both sides of the conflict of the first civil war proclaimed slogans that it was their gods who sought special favours. The theology of victory thus became another element of the internal conflict, which was to lead to the fall of the republic and the creation of a new political system.

A real revolution in the perception of the theology of victory came with the actions of Augustus. The above-mentioned features of charismatic power were reflected in the system of the Augustan principate, the peculiarity of which was that the power of the princeps did not result only from formal offices, but also from other sources. It was also based on the emperor’s auctoritas, which consisted of his virtutes. Thanks to these qualities, the emperor was also endowed with the unique flavour of the gods. The cult of Victoria Augusta became a very important manifestation of the imperial system – it created a political myth according to which the legitimacy of imperial power is also based on the causative power of the deity.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Fears J.R., The Cult of Virtues and Roman Imperial Ideology, ANRW II 17, 2, 1981, s. 827–948.
  • Jaczynowska M., Kult wodzów rzymskich w okresie republiki III-I wiek przed Chr., BPAS 1984, t. 3, s. 157–165.

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