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Quintessence of apotheosis of Roman emperors – most significant visualization of power of Roman Empire right next to triumph

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman work of art made of sardonyx, showing the apotheosis of Emperor Claudius. Dated to the 1st century CE
Roman work of art made of sardonyx, showing the apotheosis of Emperor Claudius. Dated to the 1st century CE

Paul Zanker in his book “Apoteoza cesarzy rzymskich. Rytuał i przestrzeń miejska” accurately describes the ritual of apotheosis, also known as consecratio. At the same time, he comes to interesting general conclusions, comparing the apotheosis with contemporary mass events, such as the Oktoberfest. He explains that since the dawn of time, man has preferred to be in a community with certain rules and unique values. A Roman watching the solemn “Ascension” of the Emperor felt proud, a Pole who participated in the Independence March celebrations was proud.

Leaving aside these interesting conclusions, let us focus on the ritual of apotheosis itself. As mentioned in the title, it was the greatest visualization of the power and glory of Rome in its entirety. At the same time, making the deceased emperor a god legitimized the power and gave it continuity, because the heir of the deceased was the successor of the god himself. Hence the widespread use by some of the living emperors of the title Divi Fillius – Son of God (August, Tiberius, Nero, Domitian ).

The apotheosis allowed the Roman people to experience firsthand the power of the emperor, and thus the entire Empire of which they were elements. The ritual procession went through the whole city, which lived by her and only by her during the ceremony.

The very structure of the apotheosis largely corresponded to the public funeral rite (funus) of great aristocratic families and referred to state funerals of the late Republic (funus publicum). Such a solemn funeral was held, for example, over Sulla. In his case, only the corpse was cremated, while in the apotheosis the glorious and powerful “ascension” envelope was added. The sacralisation of the deceased ruler was a new element that, since the funeral of Julius Caesar, has become a permanent part of the funeral ceremonies of the best of the emperors. Descriptions of Augustus’ apotheosis are known, Pertinaxia and Septimius Severus. On their basis, it is well visible how the autocracy and prestige of individual, influential people were developing in Rome. Here the fire for August’s funeral pyre was set by an ordinary centurion, while Pertinax was already done by consuls, and Severus was incinerated by his own sons, Caracalla and Geta. At the same time, it shows how, with time, the apotheosis became even more important, as its main element was performed by more and more distinguished Romans.

The first act of the ritual was the so-called Agony in the imperial palace, but only mentioned by Herodian, hence this element is sometimes questioned. The program of the ceremony seems to have varied, but on the basis of the apotheosis of Pertinax and Septimius Severus, we are able to determine some of its constant elements.

  1. Unveiling of a painting or an effigy informing about the state of health of the emperor in his palace on the Palatine.
  2. Procession to the Forum Romanum.
  3. Driving through the most important points in the city (e.g. Circus Maximus ) towards Field of Mars where the stack was set on fire.

The preparation of the entire ritual was time-consuming, therefore it was impossible to burn the real corpse of the emperor on the Field of Mars. This was done much earlier and the remains were placed in the mausoleum. The aforementioned realistic puppet was burned in a pile. Thus, it was pretended that the emperor was still alive. He had the “right” to leave only when the successor took power, thus there was a legitimation of power similar to the later Middle Ages, according to the principle “The king is dead, long live the king!”.

The agony mentioned by Herodian in the imperial palace is described on the example of Septimius Severus. The emperor’s knuckle was placed on the rich boulevard at the entrance to the palace, where it could be “looked after”. Sometimes the theatre of death performances lasted for weeks – doctors checked the condition of the emperor, who was dying in the palace, and when his health deteriorated, they painted a paler face. It was then that the senators and their wives began to put on mourning robes, black and white, respectively. Over time, they wailed and cried for the late emperor in a theatrical way (as is done in North Korea) to express not sadness, but loyalty and loyalty to state authority.

After the death of the emperor, his effigy was dressed in the garments of the triumphant, then re-placed on the marches, which were then carried by selected equites and senators along the Holy Way (Via Sacra) to the Forum Romanum. The entire imperial court and senators and their wives followed the mara. Various musicians played sad songs in the background, accompanied by a choir.

This ritual act corresponded essentially to the death of the father of the family (pater familias ) of the great family (gens), except that the emperor was “something more”, pater patriae, father of the fatherland, head of all Roman families. Thus, the private ritual was transformed into a state ritual, enriched with new aspects related to sacralization.

The next stage of apotheosis can be divided into 3 parts:

  • submitting marches at the Forum Romanum
  • ceremonial parade in front of the deceased emperor (puppet); it was attended by all participants of the procession, and the heir and the most important government officials were present
  • the new emperor delivering the solemn funeral speech (laudatio)

Then the procession headed towards the Field of Mars, delighting on the way with its splendor and the importance of all onlookers. At the destination there was already a huge funeral pyre, hundreds of meters high, which grew larger as the years passed. It was filled with flammable brushwood and pounds (!) Of fragrances, incense and perfume – you can imagine how amazing and beautiful the fragrance must have hovered throughout Rome, even for many days after the ceremony. A puppet of the emperor was put inside the pile. Then, praetorian war dances and a display of the riding skills of a dozen Roman warriors were performed around it, and finally they set fire to the stake, from the top of which at the last moment a white eagle, hidden there earlier, flew out…

It was a symbol of the emperor’s soul that joined the heavenly pantheon.

Author: Juliusz Rakowski (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Paul Zanker, Apoteoza cesarzy rzymskich. Rytuał i przestrzeń miejska, tłum. Lechosław Orzechowski, Wydawnictwo Contact, 2005

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