What was the Roman Emperor’s Imperial Cult?

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The dominant figure in the Roman Empire was the reigning Emperor around whom a “cult”, or what historians have called the “imperial cult”, developed. The material dimension of the cult was one of broad expression; according to Jonathan Reed,

The various efforts designed by locals to honor him [the emperor] included sacrifices at altars, the placement of his statues in temples, the establishment of priesthoods devoted to him, and the distribution of gifts, sponsoring of games, or sharing of communal meals in his name. Consequently, the surface of the erstwhile Roman Empire remains littered to this day with faces of dead emperors on coin, and the ruined cities are filled with their heads in statue and their names inscribed on stone. Artifacts ranging from small coins to large temples to whole cities give a clear picture of Caesar’s centrality to the empire’s inhabitants” (1).

In this entry, we look at just a few of the many material examples of the imperial cult that evidences the dominance and divinity of the Caesars during the days of the Roman Empire.

Coins

Beginning with the role of coins, a great legend found its way on to them in a story of a young Octavian who, soon to become emperor Augustus and the first Roman emperor, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Caesar was assassinated in the Senate on the Ides in 44 BCE, an event that led Octavian to pursue vengeance on his father’s assassins. But also at this time, Octavian was developing a powerful mythology that would come to assist him to later rule Rome. According to this story, when a comet appeared just after Caesar’s assassination, Octavian promoted it as being his father’s divine spirit ascending to take its place among the heavenly gods. The people accepted this apotheosis of Caesar and it greatly helped Octavian to consolidate his power. The mythology was then widely expressed in material form such as on ring gemstones, clay seal impressions, and glass beads. It was also minted on coins presenting the idea that if Octavian’s father was now divine, then his adopted son must be the “Son of a Divine One” or the “Son of God.” Roman sacred law officially deified Julius Caesar in 42 BCE and Octavian was renamed Augustus by the Senate. The name “Augustus” has various meanings including “the holy one”, “one who causes to grow”, or “the revered one.” The name helped him be perceived as the first in a series of new gods and divine status was inherited by subsequent emperors. This deification was abbreviated on coins as “DIFI” symbolized in solar rays emanating from the emperor’s head. According to Reed, “Coinage was one of the earliest means of mass propaganda, and the message of the emperor as God was thus placed, literally, into the hands of all Caesar’s subjects” (2).

Inscriptions

There is evidence of the Imperial cult etched across various inscriptions (3). From the city of Priene, located just south of Ephesus on the western coast of modern-day Turkey, there was a two-part Greek inscription that was copied and distributed across Asia Minor containing the earliest instance of the term “Gospel” or “good tidings” used to proclaim Caesar’s Roman imperial theology. Part one speaks of the “divine Caesar” and records how Paulus Fabius Maximus, the Roman governor of Asia, proposed changing the calendar of Asian cities so that Augustus’s birthday would be New Year’s Day. It reads in part,

“[It is a question whether] the birthday of the most divine Caesar is more pleasant or more advantageous, the day which we might justly set on a par with the beginning of everything, in practical terms at least, in that he restored order when everything was disintegrating and falling into chaos and gave a new look to the whole world, a world which would have met destruction with the utmost pleasure if Caesar had not been born as a common blessing to all. For that reason one might justly take this to be the beginning of life and living, the end of regret at one’s birth… It is my view that all the communities should have one and the same New Year’s Day, the birthday of the most divine Caesar, and that on that day, 23rd September, all should enter their term of office” (4).

The second part of the inscription presents a response and decree by local magistrates that established the calendrical change and inaugurated a series of public celebrations across the cities of Asia Minor. It reads,

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings (euaggelia), not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings (euaggelia) residing in him… For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should be-gin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the pro-consul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus” (5).

The infamous emperor Caligula (r. 37–41 CE) was also honoured with an oath of loyalty preserved in an inscription from the city of Assos (northeastern Turkey) prior to being killed by the Legions. The inscription is full of cosmic and messianic imagery,

“Since the announcement of the coronation of Gaius Caesar Germanicus Augustus [Caligula], which all mankind had hoped and prayed for, the world has found no measure for its joy, but every city and people has eagerly hastened to view the god as if the happiest age for mankind had now arrived: It seemed good to the council and to the Roman businessmen here among us, and to the people of Assos, to appoint a delegation made up of the noblest and most eminent of the Romans and also of the Greeks, to visit him and offer their best wishes and to implore him to remember the city and take care of it, even as he promised our city upon his first visit to the province in the company of his father Germanicus” (6).

Statues and Sculptures

Statues and sculptures of Caesar that took their form through the hard work of many masons and craftsmen rendered whichever emperor was in power the most recognizable figure in the world (7). It has been estimated that there was anywhere between twenty-five and fifty thousand sculptures of Augustus across the Empire alone, with the numbers of his successors being higher. Statues were seen in many places, particularly in temples where they were placed alongside local gods in a move that seemed to fuse Roman power with local religion (see Roman religion). The inscriptions accompanying these statues also presented a cosmology and theology. For example, in the city of Aphrodisias there was a large plaza, called the Sebasteion, flanked on both sides by three-story-high galleries with sculptural panels. At the end of the plaza was a temple dedicated to the worship of the emperors while an inscription also informs readers that the complex was built for the god Aphrodite, the Theoi Sebastoi (“divine revered ones” or the divine family of the Julio-Claudian rulers), and the people. There were additional panels with reliefs of the Greek gods Zeus, Poseidon, Asclepius, and Aphrodite, and various statues personifying peoples conquered by Rome. One panel depicts a near-naked Augustus with a spear in his right hand, an eagle at his right foot, a barbarian with his hands tied behind his back at his left, and a winged female figure holding out a crown. Another panel is of Claudius who is also naked but striding forward while a female figure to his left gives him control over Earth’s fertility as a female sea figure on his right gives him an oar rudder symbolizing control over the ocean. These symbols are certainly important, especially the panels’ depicting the Ceasars as being naked, which, in ancient Greek and Hellenistic iconography, were indications of divinity.

Furthermore, in what has been termed a “wave” in ancient Rome’s archaeological sophistication, imperial monuments and temples were constructed in the center of cities and had various roads funnel travelers to them. In the city center was the emperor’s statue or temple located and there Romans would make sacrifices to Caesar to honour him. Various festivals and games were sponsored by wealthy citizens to honour Caesar. In Caesarea, King Herod built a city and a large harbour. According to sources, Herod named the city Caesarea and the harbour Sebaste to honour Augustus, and he also had placed in the city center a temple dedicated to Augustus and the goddess Roma. The temple was constructed in such a way that ships entering would have to turn inland and face the building.

References

1. Reed, Jonathan. “Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels.” In The Historical Jesus in Context Book, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison, and John Dominic Crossan, 40-54. Princeton University Press. p. 41.

2. Reed, Jonathan. Ibid. p. 42.

3. Reed, Jonathan. Ibid. p. 42.

4. Supplementum Epi-graphicum Graecum 4.490

5. Supplementum Epi-graphicum Graecum 4.490

6. Sylloge Inscripionum Graecarum 3.797

7. Reed, Jonathan. Ibid. p. 44.

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