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Imperial cult

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Statue of Octavian Augustus, the first emperor. Pay attention to a soulful attitude; bare feet – a reference to the divine nature of Augustus; and cupid – a reference to the divine origin of the Julius family from the goddess Venus.
Creative Commons Attribution License - Share Alike 3.0.

A specific form of worship developed in the Roman Empire, which was the cult of the ruler. Such a cult already existed in an unadvanced form in the Assyro-Babylonian states, the Egypt of the pharaohs, and the Hellenistic Monarchies, but it was only in Rome that it could fully develop and experience its most glorious period. The cult of the rulers in the Roman Empire developed during the reign of Octavian Augustus, although the conditions for its introduction are already provided earlier. According to Stephan Weistock, Caesar was already striving for open deification during his lifetime, which also happened shortly after his death, when a comet appeared in the sky, recognized by superstitious Roman plebs as the soul of Caesar. The deification was approved by the Senate, which recognized Caesar’s transition from the human world to the world of gods, calling him “divine Julius”. After his death, on August 18, 29 BCE, the Temple of the Divine Caesar (Templum Divi Iulii) at the Forum Romanum was consecrated.

The rulers themselves made many efforts to add splendour to their image of a god residing on earth. This tendency prevailed quite universally and determined the face of that era. Marcus Antony, Octavian’s political opponent, probably showed the most fantasies in this regard. He considered himself the embodiment of the god of wine, Bacchus. Bacchus was a deity exceptionally cheerful and eager to use. It was his custom to travel the world surrounded by a rather bizarre and perpetually drunk retinue of centaurs and silenes. This custom was also taken over by Antony, surrounding himself with zitherists, actors and circus performers and devoting himself to all kinds of fun.

Soon, Octavian Augustus contributed to a significant development of the cult, minting coins with his image and the title “son of the divine Julius”. As divi filius (“divine son”), he set about building a temple dedicated to divio Julio, or “divine father”. He also emphasized his relationship with the “father” by changing the name of the month sextilis to augustus (previously the name of the month was changed by Caesar). In 27 BCE he assumed the title of Augustus, which the senators considered more honourable than the also proposed Romulus – the first deified Roman. Since then, in Rome, the cult of Augustus is developing, numen and genius are worshipped, that is, the divine elements that are its constituent parts. At the beginning of his reign, Augustus, also strongly propagated the cult of Romulus and Aeneas, the ancestor of the Julius family. Every 4 years, games for the health of the emperor were organized, supervised by priestly colleges or consuls; legends of his future reign also began to appear. In the provinces, the earliest cult develops in the east, where temples are created with their own priests and priestesses, dedicated to the ruler. Nevertheless, the emperor, even in Greece, was usually between man and gods, never being recognized as a “full-fledged” god. The ruler was obviously associated with the gods, but not identified with them.
act of consecration, which, most often performed after the ruler’s death, officially introduced him from the world of people to the world of gods. Only emperors living “at peace” with the Senate could have access to it.

One has to wonder why the cult of the ruler began to take shape in the early Roman Empire. There were several reasons for this. The first and most important was the increase in the prestige of the central authority throughout the empire and the sanctioning of power by newly conquered dynasties such as Flavius or Severus. It was of great importance especially at the beginning of the empire, when the republican traditions were still very strong and it was not necessary for the people to return to them. You can try to get rid of the “emperor”, but attacking divus (“god”) is almost sacrilege. Hence the extensive efforts of August in the development of his cult, changing the name of the months, the development of provincial cult, etc. Emperor Tiberius felt so confident that he did not pay much attention to him, even treated him with contempt and dislike. In turn, Vespasian was forced to return to it, and with all his might, to emphasize his relationship with the “divine” Augustus and sanction the power he took over, let us recall, during the turmoil of 69 CE, when Rome was torn by civil war (the so-called year of the four emperors). It must be admitted that he fully succeeded, the cult during his lifetime developed as never before, therefore he could express these famous words on his deathbed with a clear conscience. the words: “Woe to me, I think that I already become God!”. We can be sure that he was not too far from the truth in them.

Deified (as divus)

  • Octavian Augustus
  • Lucius Domitius Aurelian
  • Caracalla
  • Karus
  • Constantius I Chlorus
  • Claudius
  • Commodus
  • Constantine the Great
  • Decius
  • Diocletian
  • Herennius Decius
  • Galerius
  • Geta
  • Gordian I
  • Galien
  • Gordian II
  • Gordian III
  • Claudius II Gocki
  • Gratian
  • Hadrian
  • Julian the Apostate
  • Marcus Aurelius
  • Maximian
  • Nerva
  • Numerian
  • Pertinax
  • Philip the Arab
  • Antoninus Pius
  • Probus
  • Saloninus
  • Alexander Severus
  • Septimius Severus
  • Titus
  • Trajan
  • Victorinus
  • Valerian I
  • Valerian II
  • Lucius Verus
  • Vespasian
  • Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (usurper)

During the Antonine dynasty (reigning from 96-192 CE) the cult grew successfully and confidently like never before. The policy of the further development of the cult was undoubtedly one of the conditions for their success on every level of the political life of the empire (Rome experienced its greatest boom in this period). In turn, the Severus who took power as a result of a coup d’etat, as in the case of the Flavius, were forced to intensify the cult even more and “adapt” to the previous, almost already holy Antonine dynasty, as their rightful successors. The cult was therefore primarily political and could last as long as internal conditions allowed it. Of course, there were emperors who used it for their more private purposes, satisfying their own passions, self-esteem, or for other reasons. It is enough to mention Caligula, Nero, Commodus or Heliogabalus. However, these were exceptions which, due to their exaggeration, did not manage to weaken the general tendency, which was the constant strengthening of the cult and its evolution.

Octavian Augustus depicted in Egyptian style, on the Kalabsha temple in Egyptian Nubia.
Creative Commons Attribution License - Share Alike 3.0.

It should be noted that although most emperors were well aware of the importance of the cult, some of them approached it with obvious contempt and disregard. This is particularly evident in the example of two rulers: Tiberius and Caligula, who treated worship as a necessary evil had a radically different approach to it. Tiberius – the old, mischievous tetrician treated him with irony, half a smile, then a clear reluctance. He tried to suppress all manifestations of worship and cut off from it, responding to the idolatrous letters of the Senate with great eloquence and wit, which showed, however, a clear weariness and contempt for this, let’s call it bluntly – the circus.

With the beginning of the 4th century CE, the cult of the ruler finally faded away, and the ancient Roman state began to enter a new era, laying the foundations for the development of the early Middle Ages. The decline of the cult of the ruler and the introduction of Christianity completely changed the mentality of the people of the Empire, and rightly some consider this period as a turning point separating antiquity from the middle ages. The cult of the ruler was an eminently ancient trait and with its end, it disappeared from the arena of history once and for all, although it reappeared again and again in a very degenerate form.

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