In the Roman Empire, a specific form of worship developed which was imperial cult. 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.
Julius Caesar was the first to be deified
The cult of 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 plebeians 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 the 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 splendor 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 believed himself to be 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 cyrids, actors and circus performers and devoting himself to all kinds of fun.
Soon, Octavian Augustus contributed to the 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 Caesar changed the name of the month). 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, the cult of Augustus is developing in Rome, numen and genius are worshiped, that is, the divine elements that are its constituent parts. At the beginning of his reign, Augustus, also strongly promoted 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 announcing 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, of course, was associated with the gods, but not equated with them.
A very important ceremony was the famous act of consecration, which, most often performed after the death of the ruler, officially introduced him from the world of people to the world of gods. Only emperors living “at peace” with the Senate could get it.
One should consider 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 power throughout the empire and the sanctioning of power by newly conquered dynasties such as Flavian or Syrian. It was of great importance especially at the beginning of the empire, when the republican traditions were still very strong and it took little for the people to return to them. You can try to get rid of “emperor”, but attacking divus (“god”) is almost sacrilege. Hence the extensive efforts of Augustus 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 aversion. In turn, Vespasian was forced to return to it, with all his might, to emphasize his relationship with the “divine” Augustus and sanction the power he took over during the turmoil CE 69 CE, when Rome was torn by civil war (the so-called year of the four emperors). I must admit that he was successful in it, the cult during his lifetime developed as never before, so with a clear conscience he could say the famous words on his deathbed: “Woe to me, I think that I am already becoming God!”.
It should be noted that the emperors of the early principate did not have the status of a god and did not have the same position. The citizens of the Empire were expected to make sacrifices to the traditional gods “in the name of” or “for the sake of” the living emperor and his family. “Thus, the true gods and their emissary, the emperor, were separated.
Deified (as divus)
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, Septimius Severus who took power as a result of a coup d’etat, as in the case of the Flavian dynasty, was 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.
It should be noted that although most emperors were well aware of the importance of the cult, some of them approached it with clear contempt and disregard. It is especially visible in the example of two rulers: Tiberius and Caligula, who, treating worship as a necessary evil, had a radically different approach to it. Tiberius – an old, mischievous tetrician – treated him with irony, half a smile, and 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.
Caligula, in turn, took a completely different path. Realizing that he could not eliminate the cult, he led it to absurdity, trying to exaggerate it to monstrous dimensions at every turn, which became in itself grotesque. These purposes were served by demolishing the heads of statues and putting on them their own, parading around the palace in Jupiter’s costume, building temples for his deceased sister, etc. But how could the imperial cult survive in Rome for over 300 years; what made it universally accepted/tolerated? It seems that it comes from the tradition of Roman culture, the feature of which is the adoption of many foreign deities, e.g. Carthaginian or Eastern deities, whose cults in various periods from the times of the republic developed in the Roman Empire. Hence, the next cult, which was the cult of the emperor, was nothing surprising or new. The feature of the Roman was to pray to many deities, even hostile ones during the war. Thus, the widespread dissemination of the cult of the ruler was relatively easy. Only with the development of Christianity. which by its very essence excludes polytheism, the cult began to lose its importance as the mentality of the inhabitants of the empire changed, as they could not accept the cult of a living person, as it would be considered blasphemy.
End of imperial cult
At 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 disappearance 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 in a very degenerated form.