Imperial cult (ancient Rome)

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The imperial cult in ancient Rome was the worship of the Roman Emperor as a god. This practice became a very prominent element of religion in the Roman Empire during the Principate. The cult soon spread over the whole extent of the Empire. It was only abandoned in the Dominate, after the emperor Constantine I started supporting Christianity.


[edit] From Julius Caesar to Hadrian

Julius Cæsar allowed a statue of himself with the inscription, Deo Invicto (Latin "to the unconquered god") in 44 BC. In the same year, Cæsar declared himself dictator for life. Julius Cæsar's nephew and adopted son, Augustus Cæsar caused a temple to be built in Rome to Divus Julius, the "divine", or "deified" Julius. As the (adopted) son of the deified Julius, Augustus was already titled divi filius - son of a god.

Between 29 and 19 BC Virgil, befriended to Augustus, wrote the Aeneid. The first book of that poem contains a passage where Jove is portrayed to unfold his decisions to Venus, containing these words:

Nascetur pulchra Troianus origine Caesar,
imperium oceano, famam qui terminet astris,--
Iulius, a magno demissum nomen Iulo.
Hunc tu olim caelo, spoliis Orientis onustum,
accipies secura; vocabitur hic quoque votis.[1]


Of Trojan stock illustriously sprung,
lo, Caesar comes! whose power the ocean bounds,
whose fame, the skies. He shall receive the name
Iulus nobly bore, great Julius, he.
Him to the skies, in Orient trophies dress,
thou shalt with smiles receive; and he, like us,
shall hear at his own shrines the suppliant vow.[2]

In other words: through the poetry of his friend, as through other channels, Augustus sanctions the cult of his adopted father - and so also prepares his own. Note that in these 1st century BC mythological developments, that tied the gens Julia to Iulus, Julius Caesar was portrayed as descending from several gods, amongst which were Venus[3] and Jupiter[4].

Tacitus describes (Ann. IV, 37-38 and 55-56) that Augustus and Tiberius had each allowed a single temple to be erected in their honor during their respective lifetimes: such a temple would, however, not only contain a statue of the ruling emperor, that could be venerated in a god-like fashion, but the temples were also dedicated to the Roman people (the "City of Rome" in Augustus' case; the "senate" in Tiberius' case). Both temples were situated in the Asian part of the Roman empire:

  • Augustus' temple was situated in Pergamon;
  • Pressed from several sides, Tiberius would not allow any other temple or statue in his honor, than a single one in Asia, following his predecessor's example. Tiberius declared before the senate he'd rather be remembered for his acts than by stone, but consented in 26 that the senate chose Zmyrna out of eleven candidate-cities for erecting "his" temple.

The several temples and statues dedicated to Caligula (on his own instigation) were all destroyed immediately after this emperor's death. Claudius appears to have allowed a single temple in his honor, following Augustus' and Tiberius' example again, this time in Britain, after his successful conquest there.

Generally Roman emperors avoided claiming the status of a deity in their own lives, even if some critiques insisted they should, and not doing so would be considered a sign of weakness. Other Romans would ridicule the notion that a Roman emperor was to be considered a living god, or would even make fun of the deification of an emperor after his death: Seneca the Younger's only known satirical writing, the Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii, shows bitter sarcasm regarding Claudius' foreseeable deification, which, according to Tacitus, however was already effectuated at the Emperor's funeral in 54 (Ann. XII, 69).

Most often, deceased emperors were the subject of worship during this period — at least, the ones who did not become so unpopular with their subjects that the populace considered their assassination a relief. Most emperors benefited from a speedy deification of their predecessor: if that predecessor was a close relative (even if only by adoption), that meant that the new emperor could count on a "near to deified" status of being a divi filius, without needing to be too presumptuous regarding his own godhead status. A famous deathbed remark, allegedly by Vespasian, claims that his last words were puto deus fio — "I think I'm turning into a god."

For females of the Imperial dynasties, acquiring the title of Augusta, only exceptionally granted, was generally regarded as the essential stepstone to the status of divinity.

[edit] Civil religion until abolishment by Constantine

After Hadrian, the power of the emperors had become so absolute and consolidated that the later emperors could claim divinity during their own lives. During the persecution of Christians that took place in the Roman empire, the imperial cult became an important aspect of that persecution. To the extent that participation in the imperial cult became a loyalty test, the imperial cult was a particularly aggressive sort of civil religion.

Loyal citizens of the Empire were expected to make a periodic offering of incense to the genius, or tutelary spirit, of the Emperor, and upon doing so they received a certificate that they had in fact demonstrated their loyalty by sacrificing. Christians, of course, refused to worship the Emperor, considering the cult to be idolatry. The sacrifice was used as a law enforcement tool to ferret them out.

The imperial cult was abandoned when Constantine I - who had adopted the christian religion - became Emperor. From then on high religious claims by Roman and Byzantine emperors, no longer stated in terms of godhead of the Emperors, but in terms of challenging the religious authority of the highest non-secular leaders of the Church, would be indicated as Caesaropapism.

[edit] Notes

  1.   Vergilius, Aeneis I, 286-290, Perseus Project (Latin, ed. J. B. Greenough)
  2.   Ibid., Perseus Project, translation by Theodore C. Williams
  3.   Venus/Aphrodite was the mother of Aeneas, who was the father of Iulus/Ascanius;
  4.   Jupiter/Zeus was an ancestor of Aeneas' father Anchises (Homer, Iliad, XX)

[edit] External links

Roman religion series
Augur | Flamen | Haruspex | Pontifex Maximus | Rex Nemorensis | Sacred king | Vestal Virgin
Beliefs and practices
Apotheosis | Festivals | Funerals | Imperial cult | Mythology | Persecution | Sibylline Books | Temple
da:Kejserkulten i Romerriget


Imperial cult (ancient Rome)

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